Individual and Collective Identity on Social Networks

I’ve recently become fascinated with the concept of identity and the use of online social-networks to express ourselves. Social networks allows a certain range of interactions to occur, while at the same time, it constrains other interactions. Various social networks do things differently and thus communication leads to different results. Instagram for examples functions mainly through expressing yourself through filtered photos. Writing a blog post as a caption is possible, but the design of it, means it constrains it. The presentation of it is bad, you can’t fit a lot of text in, etc. Twitter focuses on sharing snippets of text, so once again, it out right limits long form content through its design. So as you can see, the design of social networks enables and promotes certain interactions and constrains and limits others.

The set of interactions primes behaviour. The behaviour then connotes identity. To use an example, Facebook doesn’t have a dislike button. To enact ‘likes’, someone must post something worthy of a ‘like’. We then sculpt our online identity that gives in to the feedback mechanisms. As Rian mentioned in one of blog posts: Facebook doesn’t allow for negativity or ‘bad’ emotions. It constrains them. And it might be for the worse, as we are only human. When we are down, we seek connection and emotional support. Using Facebook in this case won’t work as well, because its design doesn’t promote that kind of communication well.

Individual ‘identity sculpting’ also gives rise to collective identity, especially when parts of the social network faces to the public (which is most these days). No matter how neutral the design interactions can be, runaway network effects can change the identity of a social network. This is why Orkut was for a long time the biggest social network in Brazil. If you asked people why there weren’t on Orkut, they’d respond with: “We’ll isn’t that the Brazilian social network?” An extreme that recently surfaced is Snapchat. It’s an IM where you chat with images/videos that disappear forever after a max of 10 seconds. There is no feed. There is no ‘baggage’ that exists on other social networks. The chances for ‘priming’ is very small. And yet, by nature of its design, it’s collective identity has already got the stigma of being a sexting app for teens and college students. Although individual interactions within the system allows a wide range of possible interactions without any connotation to expected behaviour, it is inevitably primed due to a connection to what the ‘brand’/'collective identity’ conveys.

This isn’t entirely new. In the real world, connections to spaces and expected discourse primes discussion although individual interaction isn’t. Face-to-face, I can talk about anything to a person, but by being at a party, discussion is constrained usually to certain topics. I’m rarely going to start a discussion on what’s the best message broker to use with celery on AWS while at a party. You can. But it’s rarer.

This individual and collective identity in relation to online social-networks makes me think there won’t ever be a winner takes all. Facebook might be massive now, but it won’t be forever. “Companies that are social on the way up, are social on the way down.”

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  1. 1
    rafiq on Saturday 09 March, 23:44 PM #

    Companies will always be social as long as they include humans. Being social is human. All Companies will not always need humans in the future but the algorithms will emulate nature more than they do today. Aren’t social companies a misnomer?

    • 2
      Simon de la Rouviere on Sunday 10 March, 09:57 AM #

      Thanks for the comment Rafiq.

      When referring to social, I refer to companies where most of its success are due to network effects. It’s biggest value lies in the graph it’s managed to capture. While I do agree that most companies are social, in the sense that they have to deal with humans, some companies are more ‘social’. A company that sells hardware, ie Apple, also benefits from network effects, but unravelling network effects (such as what happened to MySpace) won’t destroy the company as much.

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