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Chris James Carter
Horizon Doctoral Training Centre University of Nottingham Jubilee Campus NG7 2GA
Though a consistently popular topic of investigation, social media research studies have not yet sufficiently addressed the question of how employees throughout the Digital Economy engage with identity work. The current paper outlines the increasing professionalisation of social media and the associated opportunities and challenges that this presents for individuals using it to express aspects of their identity. Emphasis is placed on the importance of understanding the defining features of social media, as well as how organisational context may influence the process of identity work. A multi-method pilot study is outlined, using a combination of document analysis and semi-structured interviews with academic and professional staff across managerial and non-managerial roles in a single UK-based Higher Education institution. The core aims of the study are to critically evaluate the relevance of existing theories of identity as applied to social media studies, and to explore what intra- and inter-personal adjustments individuals must make as they express the various aspects of their identity via social media.
2. CONCEPTUAL ANALYSIS 2.1 Identity
2.1.1 Identity in Organisational Research
Identity research has been and continues to be a popular domain for academic exploration, and particularly so within an organisational context where the concept can be applied to a range of work-based issues, whether at the analytical level of the individual, group or organisation [2, 3]. As a heavily theorised academic concept  underpinned by the essential questions of „Who am I?‟ and „How should I act?‟ [e.g. 5], interpretations have varied in terms of their relative emphasis on adopting either a personal or social level of analysis, whether the construct is relatively fixed or context-specific, and whether integrated or fragmented in nature [2, 4]. Though universal consensus around a single conceptual definition remains elusive amongst identity researchers, theories developed within social psychology represent some of the most influential approaches to studying identity in organisations [6, 7]; most notably social identity theory  and the related, selfcategorization theory . In both cases, the emphasis rests on an interpretation of one‟s identity in terms of belongingness and the embodiment of characteristics perceived as being representative of desirable social group categories, and distinctive from less desirable categories [6, 7]. A broad definition within social psychology therefore conceptualises identity as “an ensemble of psychological experiences (thoughts, feelings, motives, etc.) that both reflect and influence a person‟s understanding and enactment of his or her place in the social world” . However, such an approach has been criticized for underplaying the role of dynamic individual processes, such as creation, adaptation and maintenance. These constitute the notion of ‘identity work‟, emphasising a temporal perspective on identity, whereby self-narratives constructed and sustained by an individual could be viewed either as continuous, ongoing „projects‟ [cf. 10], or the result of more discrete incidents that are salient in activating particular aspects of identity, whether sporadic or frequent in nature . From a more exogenous perspective, the increasing trend of organisations to produce formal guidelines on „appropriate‟ social media usage [eg. 11] might warrant further consideration of the notion that the ways in which we present ourselves, and perhaps even think about ourselves, are unlikely to be completely free from external influence and as such, a perspective of control and hegemony may be important with regards to studying identity [cf. 12].
Management, Measurement, Theory.
Identity Work, Social Media, Employees, Higher Education. Organisational Behaviour,
The increasing pervasiveness of social media technologies in contemporary society presents Digital Economy researchers with a fascinatingly novel platform from which to build and adapt theories of identity. As the current paper will outline, the previous decade has seen social media transform from platforms that were largely the domains of chat room enthusiasts, passionate hobbyists and disconnected school friends [eg. 1] into places where one might now reasonably expect to collaborate with work colleagues, talk directly with customers and publicly tend to one‟s professional reputation over the span of an entire career. The study introduced in the current paper explores the implications of this behavioural shift in the use of social media, particularly in terms of how we think about and express facets of identity. Though personal and professional aspects of identity have seemingly become increasingly interwoven through our engagement with social media, we still have relatively little understanding of how this impacts on the way in which we are able to express ourselves digitally, without sacrificing authenticity, reputation or livelihood. Before outlining some of the consequences to emerge from the increasing „professionalisation‟ of social media, the current paper will address the concept of identity as presented in organisational and social media studies research to date.
2.1.2 Identity in Social Media Research
Sociological theory has also been at the forefront of studying life within a society saturated with digital technologies . In particular, the domain of social network studies (SNS) would
Though McLuhan‟s  concerns that mediated consciousness would have damaging consequences for identity preceded the advent of social media by almost four decades. in an attempt to explain how and why people act the way they do via social media technologies. All Grown Up By March 2011. that as a society we engage with media as an extension of our very being. he  meant that the focus of study should be placed not on content but upon the medium through which it is communicated. how governments reach out to citizens.’ The following section addresses whether this prophecy may have come to fruition and if so. how marketers sell products. have all attracted significant corporate attention as comparatively large user bases have transformed into potential customer bases. Perhaps even more troubling for humanistic expression of identity is the seemingly increasing „professionalisation‟ of media through which such a substantial population within society now conduct their everyday lives. more than 70 percent of organisations operating across the world now actively engage with social media to some extent .1 Social Media. updating a blog with reflections on the day‟s news or noticing that a client is now following one‟s Twitter account. would seem to have sustained relevance for the digital era and indeed would appear to be actively encouraged through the design of social media. such as the distinction between „hot‟ and „cold‟ media. For instance. a figure that equates to nearly 1 in every 5 minutes spent engaging with the Internet . Carr  argues that the Internet. Twitter. his core argument. Such a perspective would seem to raise an important point with regards to the enactment of identity: the role of the medium itself should not be dismissed. Indeed. Indeed. for McLuhan. 16] drawing heavily upon sociological concepts such as social capital [17.g. contemporary critics of Web 2. 3. content sharing (e. 14] and Sherry Turkle [15. However. address complaints or conduct what might otherwise be considered low-cost. the number of estimated Internet users was placed at 2. Whether it is Twitter. he argues. Indeed. YouTube). the potential consequences for the individual at work are not well understood. it is important to note that there are subtle similarities and differences in the affordances and constraints that social media such as Facebook. the content of any medium is always another medium. with influential proponents such as danah boyd [1. but the competitive power of personhood for the purpose of marketing has not escaped the attention of corporations. according to one survey. monitor discourse relating to their brand and deploy customer service representatives to answer queries. we don’t really have any rights left. social media offer organisations unprecedented opportunity to communicate directly with customers. an observation that is reflected in the finding that workers tend to maintain different types of relationships over different sites . Facebook or almost any other form of social media.’ 3. LinkedIn and Tumblr place upon the individual as they engage in identity work . Whilst business technology professionals report moderate usage of internal social networking systems  for purposes such as knowledge sharing and collaborative working [eg. BUSINESS GONE SOCIAL 3.2 Best Foot Forward Whilst the siren call of social media may prove irresistible for many organisations within the Digital Economy. Lanier  criticises social networking sites on the basis of their standardised formatting and design. Pinterest. Whilst an extensive review of how each sub-category of social media enables the individual to enact their identities is beyond the scope of the current paper. Goffman‟s notion of identity as performance. 22-25]. many organisations reacted swiftly in an effort to „go social‟. By this. seem relatively inadequate in explaining the complexity of the highly engaging yet potentially social isolating effects associated with using social media [eg. Wordpress) and microblogging (e. it is the external use of these technologies for marketing that has arguably generated the greatest level of interest throughout businesses. 2. it runs into some difficulties if one is unable to accept that the actor-audience relationship of the offline world is representative of its digital counterpart. „social media‟ encapsulates the online activities of social networking (e.g.3 Understanding Social Media This point was articulated most succinctly by Marshall McLuhan  in his widely-cited phrase: „the medium is the message‟. weak social ties  and impression management and presentation of the self .g. and the way in which it mediates how we interact with information and each other.g. has achieved a great deal of attention throughout much of the Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) literature on social media and identity [e. 18]. not only do we relinquish a degree of control over the data that constitute our digital personas to the servers and commercial interests of third party organisations. 16]. distinguishing between „back‟ and „front‟ stage areas. whereby „the message of any medium or technology is the scale or pace or pattern that it introduces into human affairs‟ [27: 8] Although elements of McLuhan‟s perspective. what it might mean for identity work upon social media. This may not come without a cost to how able people are to express their identity upon social media in the future. Specifically. What exactly is social media though? Kaplan and Haenlein  propose that as an umbrella term.g. LinkedIn and more recently. Twitter) sites. Twitter. is fundamentally changing human cognition for the worse. Goffman‟s  dramaturgical perspective of impression management is arguably the most influential. Social media has „grown up‟. informal. have contributed to individuals becoming „lcoked in‟ to „multiplechoice identities‟ that ultimately result in personal and social reductionism.95 billion  with social media accounting for around 19 percent of all time spent online. 21. Hogan  argues that due to the potential co-presence of different audiences and the largely asynchronous nature of social media interactions.0 demonstrate their continued relevance. LinkedIn). which. engagement with social media is rapidly blurring the boundaries that would have once existed between the professional and personal aspects of one‟s . Facebook. Similarly.1. Whether befriending a work colleague on Facebook. Facebook. Of all the aforementioned sociological frameworks. blogging (e. as our increasing dependency on technology leaves us with only a superficial understanding of the surrounding world. Eager to capitalize on this sizable market. microlevel market research. even how companies operate […] This is no longer just a plaything for college students. As Kirkpatrick [37: 15] emphasises: ‘[Social Media] changes how people communicate and interact. enacting one‟s identity online is more like curating an exhibition than a dramaturgical performance. 36].appear to have provided fertile ground for sociological analysis. As McLuhan [27: 68] warned: ‘Once we have surrendered our senses and nervous systems to the private manipulation of those who would try to benefit by taking a lease on our eyes and ears and nerves.
g. The burgeoning area of research focusing on the relationship between human memory and the relatively permanent nature of personal data on the Internet [30. curated exhibitions [cf. Assuming that memory plays a role in such a fundamental human process as identity work [e. 48]. such as the case of the former Royal Bank of Scotland employee who revealed the figure of her redundancy package in a Facebook status update and was subsequently dismissed without pay for „gross misconduct‟ . for instance. Different roles and levels of seniority require engagement with different types of social groups and even within the same organisation may embody quite distinct sets of responsibilities and expectations. So. they cannot be sure whether they are making inferences about an individual‟s identity based on information that is any longer relevant to that person. not least the indiscretions that can cause both workers and their employers such widespread and lasting reputational damage. whilst simultaneously excelling at remembering the finest of details.or at least. What it fails to provide. is that the Internet is very poor at supporting the crucial process of forgetting. such a perspective implies that even with a complete understanding of social media. It is no longer unusual for us to communicate online in spaces where best friends are co-located with bosses. as MayerSchönberger  points out. it is at the intersection of human fallibility and technological design that the next section will address the role that 4. whether within the same organisation or to another institution. To many.3 Dangerous Liaisons Whilst advocates of personal branding [e.1 Tiptoeing Across Digital Cement A pressing concern for the worker on the web. Individual instances of dismissals and details of employment tribunals also emerge on a daily basis. may create unique opportunities and challenges for the individual . However. but also the temporal dimension of permanency. and thus avoiding the kinds of issues outlined previously becomes vital. and posting „unsavoury‟ photos and videos online. an employer uses social media to investigate the backgrounds of prospective applicants. Recalling McLuhan‟s  central argument. individuals and organisations will be able to successfully grasp the opportunities and navigate the pitfalls that it presents them with. at the present time of writing faces disciplinary action from his institution for racially abusing other individuals via his Twitter account. regardless of how closely it might resemble the Real Professional Me. We put our best foot forward . it is perhaps with bittersweet irony then that the very same media seem equally adept at restricting one‟s career. 20]. the question of how employees can successfully switch between personal and professional roles [e. 7]. however.g. Numerous examples throughout the wider media demonstrate that this may not always be the case. negligent or even illegal – and as such. though incidents such as those outlined above would appear to suggest that the extent to which organisational members adhere to them is variable. in this context what is „common sense‟ and from where might it be derived? Most organisations now have some form of social media policy or set of guidelines [cf. 41] provides a useful basis for re-examining the concept of identity at the level of the individual and in the context of organisational research. This kind of scenario also hints at the importance of considering job role as a potential factor. 44] might argue that social media present the individual with unfettered opportunity to market their most redeeming qualities and offer ultimate control over their careers. As a logical extension of the argument made by Mayer-Schönberger . 26] or social interactions with others. Subsequently.g. „de-tag‟. 6. such behaviour might seem at best misguided – at worst. Therefore. at least two officers had been dismissed from duty. a recent review into UK-based police corruption for Her Majesty‟s Inspectorate of Constabulary  indicated that in the last four years. 42. or the student who. memory may play in the process of identity work. seven resigned and 150 had faced disciplinary action for engaging in „inappropriate behaviour‟ on Facebook. any change in role. upon which he clearly identified his University of scholarship . social media presents us with the opportunity to observe perfectly preserved expressions of identity. 4. 39] when interacting online.identity . for example. and how this relates to the defining features of social media. We evaluate. 49] or modes [e. may restrict the activation of this. THEREFORE I AM 4. edit and delete in the hope of presenting to others what might be considered to be the Ideal Professional Me. Seemingly. facets [e. if indeed such a distinction can be made. Thus. Interacting within this social milieu of potentially conflicting „life modes‟  or „social spheres‟  would seem to pose significant challenges for how we engage with people from traditionally distinct social groups or parts of our life without creating conflict. the probability that an aspect of identity is activated may not necessarily equate to the likelihood that it will actually be enacted.g.2 Stuck In a Role You Can’t Get Out Of One potential consequence of enacting identity via social media is that difficulty in forgetting previous interactions and selfpresentation performances may have an impact on how presentday incidents influence the saliency and activation of the aspects of one‟s current identity. an employee noticing that one‟s manager is now „following‟ them on Twitter may influence an increase in perceived saliency of the more „professional‟ aspects of their identity.g. As outlined by Identity Theory [e. it would seem that understanding the media upon which we enact facets of our identity may be key in protecting individuals and the organisations that they represent from reputational damage. This is brought to the fore in anecdotal form as millions of Facebook users find potentially years-worth of social interactions laid bare upon their personal profiles as a result of the recent implementation of the „Timeline‟ design . siblings with subordinates and college classmates with customers. As just one instance of many. individuals such as these deserve little sympathy for failing to execute what could be considered to be a „common sense‟ approach in engaging with social media. We imagine our most disapproving audience and we aim to avoid engaging in discourse that could damage our reputation. ranging from befriending victims to harassing co-workers. as represented by perhaps hundreds of previous „tweets‟. 11] that clarify expectations of appropriate and inappropriate online behaviour for employees or affiliated members. 12]. 43. most of us make efforts to censor ourselves. but their commitment to expressing more personal aspects of their identity. it is not only the spatial dimension of potential audience reach and diversity that can escalate „incidents‟ such as those illustrated in the cases of the HMIC or Royal Bank of Scotland. whether through selfpresentation performances [cf. is „real world‟ context and indicators of change over time so that when.g. most of us attempt to. as argued by Mayer-Schönberger . I REMEMBER. However. 3.
” The Academy of Management Review. Ellison. from professional-based administrative and managerial positions to academic and research-based roles. REFERENCES  d. data collection will close once novel themes cease to emerge from the data. 8. “Social Network Sites: Definition. "Self and Social Identity. Burke. Furthermore.         . “Social identity and selfcategorization processes in organizational contexts. 1989. Regardless of role. J. it is hoped that the study proposed in the following and final section will prove to be timely. HIGHER EDUCATION INSTITUTIONS: A CASE STUDY Modern day Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) are complex organisations. 1. pp. motivations. 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