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Part I When considering the nature of the undergraduate experience, one immediately realizes that college life is not simply defined by the education a college student seeks to obtain. Social experiences help to define a life at college. Popular culture tells us this, as it often idealizes the notion of college with depictions of parties and youthful abandon. But such romanticized retellings of the undergraduate experience omit the subtler and cosmetically less interesting aspects of the college social experience. An undergraduate student engages in daily, repetitive interactions, mostly with fellow students but also with professors, librarians, registrar, dean, people who serve the students their food, tutors, campus security, and any other group of people who help comprise that particular college. Over time, these interactions help shape ones social identity in relation to the college culture and locate where one fits into the social fabric of their particular educational institution. At Swarthmore, as with many colleges, the social experience is partially shaped by factors unique to the school itself. The school’s history and tradition play a role in the construction of Swarthmore’s social environment. Swarthmore’s strong
Quaker roots help contribute to a campus culture that’s widely known for its tolerance and activism. Rituals such as the “Yule Ball” and the “Pterodactyl Hunt” help ingrain in campus culture what is often called the “quirky” aspect of Swarthmore’s social environment. Though the individual Swarthmore student takes part in or is exposed to these general aspects of campus culture, a much greater part of a student’s social experience at college is determined by the previously mentioned regular and repetitive interactions that occur out of mundane necessity or chance. Interactions with ones roommate, hallmates, and classmates allow for the expression and communication of ones social identity. After a while, the social identity of individual students solidifies and the regular interactions of individual students that were brought on by random stimuli (a queue at Sharples, similar academic interests, etc.) allows for a piecing together of the social fabric as students grow comfortable accustomed with their lifestyles and the impressions they display. This process starts and is conducted with the most intensity during the beginning of college because it is those students who are new on campus that have the most to learn. Thus, it is the freshmen on campus for whom this process is most significant. During the first few months of college, the interactions freshman have with each other and other members of the community allows the students to perceive others while simultaneously being perceived, helping to create a social structure out of the formlessness that existed amongst the freshman on the first day of school.
When considering how freshman develop and assert their social identity during the first half of the school year, one takes for granted the fact that these instances of self-assertion in the presence of others exists on a physical plane. For students to have an idea of who another individual student is, the individual student must cultivate this image with his daily activities and practices. Or at least, that’s how it has been until recent years. Facebook, the universally accessible and interactive identity registry of the world, allows individuals a different mechanism for self-presentation and social interaction so as to facilitate the assertion of self in any given social environment. A community would of course have to be able to adequately accommodate this alternative mechanism and Swarthmore—with its Wi-Fi outfitted campus and its laptop-addicted populace—has allowed Facebook to supplement and perhaps undermine traditional avenues of self-presentation. This ethnography speaks to this hypothesis by detailing the online behavior and practices of a sample group of freshman students at Swarthmore.
Part II I have and maintain a Facebook profile. This means that I entered into a contract with the company of Facebook. In exchange for the right to display the advertisements of other companies on my computer screen, I was granted with an online template to fill with my personal information, photos, and preferences so that I may have a profile. Facebook places my profile in a network of profiles of people with whom by mutual agreement, we have agreed to view, interact, and
communicate with each other’s online personas. This basic structure served as a framework for the online self-presentation and social interaction that I set out to observe among the Swarthmore freshmen. My sample of freshman students numbered at 72. These were the freshmen that I had met at Swarthmore, and over the course of my time at here, they had allowed me to view and interact with their online persona and vice versa. In order to better observe their behavior I organized all 72 profiles into one folder on my Facebook account. This allowed me to monitor the actions made on these profiles and the interactions between the specific profiles as they happened. This live updating helped to highlight different styles of self-presentation and interaction and hint at their level of social effectiveness. In the weeks between November 1st and November 20th, my sample of 72 Swarthmore freshmen posted 4,191 times on Facebook. These 4,191 posts cover a wide variety of content. This number includes a great deal of individual content, meaning personally photographed images and written messages, but also external content ranging from online articles to music videos. All of this content was either directed towards a specific individual, or it was published to the whole of that students’ online social network. The distinctions that exist within all of that content and the intended audience for a specific morsel of information give us clues as to how someone wants to be seen and by whom want to be viewed. The first two students actually possessed interesting similarities in their approach to self-presentation on Facebook. Both were males and both seemed to be liberal-minded political junkies. This was evident because both students would put
up “statuses”—posts that addressed ones entire online network—linking the reader to articles on topics ranging from gaffes made by Republican politicians, to corruption exposés, to populist protests in American cities, and a good deal more. Despite the similarity in the content disseminated by these two freshman, one student consistently received many ‘”likes” (an indication that an individual enjoyed or enjoyed of something that someone else posted) and comments of approval from other Swarthmore students on his links while the other student often received little to no feedback. The reason for this discrepancy parallels the deeper differences that exist between the online presences of these two freshmen. The first freshman maintains a varied online persona, directly interacting with other Swarthmore Facebook users while continuing to post politically minded links to a general audience. He also introduces these links with a certain level of informality, often using a kind of dumbed-down irony or sarcasm to introduce the article, making it easy and fun for commenters to join in his self-righteous disgust at whatever injustice he tries to call attention to with his link. In this vein, he often posts what can be called “soft news”—photos or video clips that entertainingly present a real world problem—which again, are easy to appreciate and rally around in you are of a like mind. The other freshman’s politically minded statuses always include his own longwinded, highly-opinionated analyses of the articles he posts, serving to alienate most people who might know a little about whatever the issue is, but don’t want to be publicly hassled if their comment of interest or support contains anything less than factual.
The patterns of self-presentation and social interaction seen in the online personas of these two Swarthmore freshmen are emblematic of all the attempts made by the other Swarthmore freshmen in the sample. Its clear that by the effort exerted by these students to interact with each other on the Internet that this virtual society that Facebook provides isn’t secondary to the society outside of our computers. It supplements our reality, allowing us to emphasize if not entirely fabricate, aspects of ourselves that we feel would reflect well in society. The online habits of these freshmen indicate that they were simply utilizing an alternate path towards securing social success at college.
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