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Being Social Online: extracting and critiquing the arguments
around identity and its impact on social relations, based on
experiences of blogging


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Being Social Online: extracting and critiquing the a rguments around identity and its
impact on social relations based on experiences of blogging

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Blogging reminds me of Wim Wenders͛ film ͞Wings of Desire͟ (1987), particularly the
intriguing moments in the library. Unseen, silent angels in overcoats wander around
bearing witness to people͛s thoughts and feelings with benevolent, empathetic,
anonymous engagement. We
hear the discursive thoughts of
the readers, producing a
synchronous hum of rambling
meditations. It struck me that
the library could be an
embryonic, visual
representation of cyberspace, its occupants busy bloggers, its roving Angels the blurkers
who occasionally interact but with one -way melancholic resignation. Where the analogy
must end is to appreciate the inherent   in the scene. Although both are in  
co-present pursuit of knowledge and understanding, the re is no    
 between the
Angels and the consumers of texts.

From late 80͛s cinema to contemporary ͞ ͛late͛ modernity͟ (Giddens: 1991:3), the
affordances of Web 2.0 technologies have enabled widespread dynamic social
   
 and the multimodal   
 and   
 of texts. These relatively new
trajectories in the digitally mediated environment ha ve significant implications for
social relations, for identity play and performance. Through the lens of personal
blogging I present an examination of the changing nature of social interactions; I will
explore the socio-historic context of blogging and motivations to blog, followed by
theories on identity, the presentation of self and the potential impact on social
relations.

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The internet offers new ways of being and as such is accompanied by polarised
rhetoric in relation to what might be gained and lost. There are euphoric claims as to
the liberating, creative and empowering characteristics of participatory social media,
such as that espoused by Gauntlett (2010) and his advocation of Media Studies 2.0 in
contrast with ͞moral panics͟ (Buckingham 2007: 8) and negative discourses around
the internet, the converging of traditional media and, worryingly for some, the
merging of the private and public spheres. Recalling Leavisite scepticism, Habermas
bemoans the loss of ͞critically filtered issues͟ ( Rettberg, 2008: 1) and the demise o f
the intellectual, who:

͞[is] suffocating from the excess of this vitalising element, as if they


were overdosing. The blessing seems to have become a curse.͟ (ibid).

These perspectives are framed by complex socio-economic conditions ͞[contributing]


to a sense of fragmentation and uncertainty͟ (Buckingham, 2008: 1). Buckingham,
drawing on Bauman͛s insight, argues that destabilising, external factors, such as
globalisation, migration, family breakdown, and ͞increasing social mobility͟ (ibid)
pose a   to established more stable means of identity formation and recognition:
gender, race, class, ethnic origin and sexuality. Consequently, as Merchant has
identified, it is rather through our   choices that our identities are now
negotiated; always bearing in mind that new technologies are by no means uniformly
accessible to all and that ͞technological innovation is not homogenous in its uptake or
effects͟ (Merchant, 2006: 240). In fact, there are now claims that identity is a
conscious act: ͞something we
, rather than simply something we  ͟ (Buckingham,
2008:8). Likewise, Giddens has developed ͞an anti-essentialist, discursive notion of
identities as enacted, performed, and in consequence, as plural and contextually
contingent͟ (Livingstone, 2009: 92). The proposed fluidity of identity chimes with my
own experiences abroad: being conversant in the languages, I flirtedwith French,
Italian, Spanish and Brazilian personas, but on returning would revert to what felt like
a core English identity;  measures of: white, educated, middle-class, female of
Christian origin (with social class being the most variable identity indicator whilst
abroad).

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If identity is infinitely malleable then blogging fits well into this new paradigm as a
genre/medium with no discernible end view. As we ͞write [ourselves] into being͟
(boyd, 2008:129) we can re-write our self-representation at will (as can
 
unknown to us) depending on who we anticipate as our audience. Online
communication is synonymous with quick editing and transformation, the mixing and
repurposing of user-generated multimodal content so central to ͞convergence
culture͟ (Jenkins, 2006) . At the same time, binary perspectives surface associated
with risk and opportunity: the enabled, 


 blogger, free from the
hegemonic publishing structures of print as opposed to the     blogger, open
to widespread misrepresentation, the ambiguities inherent in the workings of
͞networked publics͟ (boyd, 2008:120 ) and the exigencies of the 
 
framework within which the blogger operates.

Ê

͞a successful blog must be tended as a garden ͙ Well-tended blogs are not at


all like the writings of which Plato complains, ͞if you ask them a question they
preserve a solemn silence.͟ (Jill Rettberg, 2008: 6)

Plato extolled the virtues of the oral tradition and it does seem that blogging is
contributing to a resurgence of oralcy, dialogue and exchange. This is also evident in
the wider context of mediated communication, from the popularity of reality TV to
the mechanics of Wikipedia, SMS, Twitter and social networking sites. Blogging is an
open-ended hybrid genre which, in a sense, satisfies a primal urge to self-express
offering the dual satisfaction of personal, reflective, introspective reading and writing
as well as an outward-looking mass media platform from which to ͚orate͛ and
endlessly be heard, if only potentially: ͞ Blogging is evidence of the possibil ity of a
form of literacy that is not solipsistic ʹ or rather, that is both interior and social at the
same time.͟ (Jill Rettberg, 2008: 6)

Rettberg͛s gardening analogy is pertinent here in terms of my own motivations to


blog, in the sense that I see it a s a dynamic public extension of myself with its own
particular style and design that warrants  so that it mightcross-seed and
flourish. Whereas a comment might be as welcome as a bloom, there͛s always the

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risk of having to negotiate the unexpected arrival of migrant seedlings or unwelcome
weeds. Indeed, the    is an interesting area for debate. My blog started
off as a photographic display of images taken 20 years ago in Rio de Janeiro; I felt it
would be worthwhile to scan and display the photos in a blog rather th an on a site
such as Flickr; the former being a more  
 genre (demonstrated by a more
prevalent use of the preposition  rather than
 a blog). One of the attractive
attributes of blogging is the perceived measure of control one has over its style and
content, if not so much over the form and structure. When Shaku posted a comment
disagreeing with one of my posts in relation to the interrogation of a photo, although
initially I may have taken it as criticism, her comment had more of a fertilizing impact.
As referenced earlier, identity only becomes an issue when perceived as under threat
and there was an interesting shift in the nature of the ͚garden͛ and therefore the
nature of my identity as portrayed in this blog.

I meant the blog to be both a  


 and   meditation on a photographic
journey and this ͚rude awakening͛ offered some insight into whether indeed this was
a feasible objective. Does    reflection, a site where one imagines one has
exclusive editorial control as with a diary, sit well alongside   academic debate? I
started to question my motivations for writing this particular blog - was it for any or
all of the following reasons: to reveal my inner intellectual? to display some nice
photos? to revel in nostalgia? to test my aptitude in a new creative genre? to offer
insight into Brazilian culture? to examine my instinct to document events
photographically? or simply to compete for the attention and recognition of co-
bloggers and course-leaders? Despite its linear simplistic shortcomings, perhaps the
final two stages of Bartlett-Bragg͛s (2003) ͞5-stage Blogging Process͟, ͞Reflective
Dialogue͟ and ͞Knowledge Artefact͟, may have been reached during this episode,
illustrating that: ͞creative interaction with one͛s own development helps to ensure
that new knowledge is incorporated in, and integrated with existing knowledge͟
(Walker, 1985:65).

è     

For reasons of social cohesion and harmonious face-to-face interaction a consistent

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sense of offline self is a socially desirable personal characteristic, however,
consistency can also imply permanence and authenticity. Livingstone observes that
this is not always the case with online communication, which is:

͙͞ neither deliberately deceitful nor scrupulously honest. It is, rather, carefully


judged to reveal something but not too much, to   
 
 without
losing face, to open the way for a deeper engagement while providing a safety
route if misunderstood͟ (Livingstone, 2009: 97, my italics)

Blogging problematises the assumption of an essential self and some of that may
have to do with the fact that: ͞the respondent is noticeably a bsent͟ (Merchant,
2006:237). It would seem to make sense that there is a correlation between confident
identity performance and knowing one͛s audience, such that uncertainties in this
regard, not least whether one has an audience at all, can lead to identity being played
out as a precarious, impermanent, experimental balancing act of the nature described
above. If identity͛s fluid content is unreliable, what gains in significance is the need for
it to keep flowing. In short: ͞our capacity to keep a particular narrative going͟
(Giddens, 1991:54) , whether with ourselves or others, is paramount to a stable sense
of self. Livingstone, inspired by Drotner, also adheres to this argument:

͞Online conversations are largely phatic, meaningful more for sustaining


contact than communicating content͟ (Livingstone, 2009: 94)

and judging from the surfeit of unacknowledged, abandoned and ͚overgrown


gardens͛ in cyberspace, it may well be that, like Wenders͛ Angels, it is contact,
intimacy and recognition that most of us crave, rather than public-spirited knowledge
dissemination or self-promotion.

Giddens͛ concept of the compulsion to consistently explain oneself to oneself may


explain why some bloggers define posting as a chore, an addiction or a deep-seated
need to build their biography and ͞integrate events͟ into their ͞ongoing ͚story͛͟
(Giddens, 1991:54). Merchant , however, argues that biography is constituted by an
overlapping interaction between ͞ancho red͟ and ͞transient͟ identities; respectively,
those which are ͞least likely to change͟ (Merchant 2006: 239) ʹ gender, religion, age,

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social class, sexuality, ethnicity ʹ and those more fleeting, associated with inevitable
changes over time ʹ ͞influenced by maturation, changing cultural conditions and peer
group affiliations͟ (ibid). I see this reflected in my own blog posts with respect to
critiquing my past behaviour as a bold, 20-year old, female   and how I might
behave now in a similar situation. My Ridley Road Market movies are inextricably
linked with insecurities regarding issues of ͚anchored͛ social class and ethnicity and
the ͚transient͛ ambiguous image of myself as an unconventional creative. I also notice
how readily I reveal and define my  values and identities in contrast with almost a
reluctance to examine shifting and elusive   ones. The weaving of Merchant͛s
two faces of identity ʹ the shared ͚anchored͛ and the individual ͚transient͛ ʹ are seen
as ͞poles on a continuum ʹ a continuum from which instances of identity
performance are drawn͟ (ibid). Merchant͛s emphasis on constant movement defuses
essentialist arguments which tend to ignore the extent to which contingency and the
chosen medium of self-presentation can influence the outcome and its reception.

The personal control and creativity associated with Goffman͛s ͞impression


management͟ to which Buckingham refers (2008: 6) is perhaps less autonomous than
the semantics imply. Indeed, with a broader perspective, Hall reminds us that:

͞because identities are constructed within, not outside, discourse, we need to


understand them as produced in specific historical and institutional sites ͙
within the play of specific modalities of power͟ (Hall, 1996:4)

The likelihood is that Foucault would have been similarly persuaded and less
celebratory than Goffman in terms of the freedom the latter associates with identity
construction and the potency of individual agency:

͞solitary player[s] involved in a harried concern for [their] production . Behind


many masks ͙ each performer tends to wear a single look, a naked
unsocialised look͟ (Goffman, 1959:235).

In the context of ͞technologically mediated sociability͟ (Livingstone, 2009: 97),


Goffman might envisage enabling latitude for reflexivity and personal choice (albeit
painful), but Foucault - an oppressive process of self-monitoring in an environment

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constructed by the dominant group. Buckingham explains Foucault͛s position:

͙͞who we perceive ourselves to be ͙ is the product of powerful and subtle


forms of ͞governmentality͟ that are characteristic of modern liberal
democracies͟ (Buckingham, 2008:10)

Buckingham goes on to construe from this the 



 nature of social relations ʹ
as evidenced offline in the expansive self-help industry, more popularly in 

  

 and online in diary -like blogs ʹ as a consequence of individuals


being encouraged to ͞speak the truth͟ (ibid) about their identities and essentially to
micromanage a process of ͞self-surveillance͟. I can see how this plays out in blog
entries, as I found myself posting photos with the somewhat enigmatic comment: 
 

 
 
    as if the photos encapsulated a
hidden truth ʹ societal or personal - and if I thought deeply it would be revealed and
expressed. As we have seen, blogging champions such as Bartlett-Bragg, would herald
personal soul-searching as a successful learning milestone. Merchant also observes
the fact of having to ͞work harder to produce ourselves in this new communicative
medium͟ (2006: 237), while Foucault͛s assessment reduces identity to the
manifestation of ͞power ͙ diffused through social relationships͟ (Buckingham,
2008:10) so that subjects police themselves and conform to acceptable norms.

It could be argued that Western societies have been ͞doing͟ their ͞transient͟
identities for decades, appropriating aspects of popular and consumer culture in the
manner of the ͞bricoleur͟ (Lévi-Strauss, 1974:21). However, Web 2.0 technologies
have enabled more active individuals to become both consumers  producers of
meaning, their texts imbued with a sense of urgent DIY deliberation. Indeed one
might even claim that online identities makes the ͞transient͟  ͞anchored͟, by
their very digital permanence and projection on a screen as: ͙͞ direct light [is]
constantly asking for attention͟ (Powers quotes James L. McQuivey, 2007:59). If true,
such an assertion will almost certainly have implications for maturing identity
performances as the pseudo-anchored crumbles under the weight of time and
changing circumstance.

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Liberating as Web 2.0 opportunities are in many instances, we must also be mindful
of the 
  of internet services. We make and view content under the aegis
of private transnational conglomerates, such as Google and Facebook, who routinely
regulate and track the ways our online identities are expressed. They ͚peddle͛ our
recorded enthusiasms and personal display data to the highest bidder in the name of
freedom-loving, egalitarian counter-culture and the unshackled advancement of the
interconnected world . It could be said that 
can know  about 
 is the
new global currency construct and while it endures, ͞the new Barons of capitalism ͙
become infinitely rich and powerful͟ (Andrew Keen: ͞The Virtual Revolution͟, BBC 4
@ 4mins 30 seconds)



I have shown that the blogging environment can challenge personal and public
identity assumptions and lead to tensions in social relations amongst peers and
academics and more broadly in relation to the expanding and contracting privacy
rights of the individual. Moreover, marginalised and less salubrious groups such as
pro-anorexia groups and those with socially-exclusive motivations are given the
freedom to self-publish and flourish. New media technology isn͛t necessarily the great
democratic leveller, nor does it usher in the demise of the intellectual or traditional
values, it is put to use in a socially constructed arena which is in a state of continuous
tension. In many respects, as regards its concurrent freedoms and constraints,
blogging neatly illustrates Gramsci͛s ͞compromise equilibrium͟ (1971:161) theory so
central to the hegemonic process in wider society.

Barthes reflected on the dynamics of a couple living together and their mutually
negotiated ͞ethic of distance͟ (Livingstone, 2009: 97), rather like the movement of a
͞school of fish͟ (ibid); the same ethos can be applied to the blogosphere whose
inhabitants:

͙͞ find their own rhythms and cadences, their own flows of contact and
distance ͙ ͚absence and co-presence͛ ͙ ͚lack of attention and absorption, ͙
safety and interactional vulnerability͛͟ (Livingstone, 2009: 97)

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Finally, as Wenders acknowledges, children in literature are often depicted as wise
know-ers and see-ers and as much western youth enthusiastically embrace online
networking as a means of organising and articulating their identities, we should be
refining and extending boyd͛s examination of their online practices (2008). Blogging in
particular has given rise to sophisticated negotiation of levels of intimacy as well as
nuanced, reflexive, internal and explicit dialogue. For all its asynchronicity, perhaps its
͞lean͟ and lowly position on the ͞Continuum of Media Richness͟ should be revised
upwards. (Herring 2003:3 from Daft and Lengel 1984).
_____________________________________________________________________

  

Bartlett-Bragg , A (2003) 

 

boyd, d(2008) Why Youth È Social Network Sites: The Role of Networked Publics in
Teenage Social Life in D. Buckingham (ed) M
       
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Buckingham, D (2007) $ 


   
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       (Prepared for ͚The Byron Review
on Children and New Technology ͛ commissioned by the Department for Children,
Schools and Families) 

Buckingham, D (2008)Introducing Identity in M


       
' !  "
  
# (

Gauntlett, D (January 2010) Making is Creating:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nF4OBfVQmCI (accessed 19 July 2010)

Gauntlett, D (March 2007 ) Media Studies 2.0:


http://www.theory.org.uk/mediastudies2.htm (accessed 4 August 2010)

Giddens, A (1991)
   #   ) 
   
  

Goffman, E (1959) $&   

#*  

Gramsci, A (1971) # 

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, (edited by
Hoare and Smith)

Hall, S & P, du Gay (1996) Introduction: Who Needs Identity? in -  


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Herring, S et al (2003) .   /0 )#  1 


2 .
 (School of Library and Information Science, Indiana University,
Bloomington) c

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Jenkins, H (2006) %
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Lévi-Strauss (1974) $# 

Livingstone, S (2009) %      

Merchant, G (2006)    #


+ 
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 (E-Learning,
Vol 3, No. 2)

Powers, W (2007) 3   ).& *   (Joan Shorenstein Centre
on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, Discussion Paper Series). Also posted in my
blog (posted May 13 2010; both sites accessed 16 July 2010)

Rettberg J.W (2008) 


    %

&   &  (Leonardo
Electronic Almanac Vol 16 Issue 2 ʹ 3)

Walker, D (1985) Writing and Reflection in $ *4 


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5
56
75. ( 

Wim Wenders: Wings of Desire: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wi8sYY0pCdE


(accessed 19 July 2010)

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