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Do social networks shape us, or do we shape them? Social networks mean business.

Social Media Avatars

Social networking in the form of websites such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and now Google’s Buzz are becoming an increasingly unavoidable factor of everyday life for many individuals, businesses and organisations. So with this social networking prevalence and its increasing accessibility in the form of apps for mobile devices, what does this mean for the way we shape our identities and how we present ourselves to others? Do we shape our identities online or do social information systems shape us? Do we pay a price for our self expression?

Social networking systems such as Facebook provide users with many ways to customise their self image, as well as providing numerable ways for users to customise the information they share and distribute amongst their connections in the form of apps or plug-ins. Users are able to customise many things within their social networking profiles that often say a lot about them, or at least demonstrate how they would like their identity to be perceived by others. In a sense it’s like choosing our clothes, or our furniture. These decisions can reveal a lot about our self perceived identity, taste and opinions in a physical and tangible context; social networking simply extends this expression into a new realm.

Take user “avatars” or profile photos as an example; virtually all social systems provide this basic convention that allows users to distinguish themselves and their profiles from other users. In a personal context this is often perceived as very important, since it is often the first point of contact for a user’s connections with their identity online. In a narcissistic sense this is extremely important to many users in projecting a certain image of themselves. This context is not dissimilar for business’s, the way in which companies present their brand to consumers in a social networking sense is just as important as the way they express these brand values via their own websites. So it would seem apparent that users are able to shape their self image or brand within social systems to a certain extent, but how far does this ability to customise go?

I would argue that although social media allows users to customise their on-line presence to a certain extent, that the very structure of social information systems such as Facebook and Twitter are often designed to be consistent from one person to the next, regardless of user’s content changes. Compare Facebook and MySpace for example, while MySpace has allowed the customisation of page layout and appearance, in contrast Facebook restricts this level of customisation and in turn creates a more consistent and usable experience for users. This is in part due to the fact that users become familiar with the page positioning and presentation conventions of certain page elements.

How does the use of conventions across user profiles affect our ability to shape self identity? Is customisation or usability more important to users? If we contrast Facebook and MySpace again we can learn insightful lessons based on their relative user groups and success over one another. While MySpace has traditionally allowed users more customisation options in terms of page layout, backgrounds, colour and other page elements, it has experienced decreasing market share to Facebook, which restricts user’s ability to make such structural changes, in favour of allowing users to amend page elements and add additional applications but preserves much of their positioning and physical attributes such as size.

In terms of effective communication and ease of networking it would seem apparent that Facebook’s more usable system has won the battle with the individual user. However MySpace’s ability to allow further customisation has found a niche in the music industry and with bands. Brands such as this relish the ability to shape identity and brand image far more than is perhaps wanted or needed by individual users. Facebook’s ability to make communication between users comparatively easy and to essentially create a system that requires no knowledge of coding languages makes it a breeze for users to customise, coupled with its ability to integrate 3rd party applications with ease, Facebook seems to have added to our profiles numerous other ways to easily shape identities and create niche groups or places of security within a overwhelmingly large system. Facebook has in essence created a fully cohesive communications network, or could be thought of as an operating system of sorts, benefiting from its interoperability with 3rd party applications and ability to easily interconnect user’s and their information. MySpace in contrast remains a collection of user websites that while allowing further scope for self expression hinders the ease of which users are able to communicate with one another and spread information between networks.

So what price do users pay for the usability they experience within social media information systems such as Facebook? I would argue that while communication and limited self expression are becoming increasingly accessible to users, that in effect, the way in which one user presents themselves within systems such as Facebook is not dissimilar to the next. New profile photos, new interests, new links, all however presented in a similar fashion to one another. As usability increases within such systems, in part due to developing conventions, users pay the price for this in terms of their ability to distinguish the way in which they present their content to others. There is perhaps a key reason for the emphasis on usability within such systems. The more usable a product the more users it attracts, the more users it attracts the faster it spreads, the faster it spreads the more efficiently it collates and compares our information as we become increasingly interconnected. Our collated information is the key to effective targeted advertising and hence the holy grail in terms of monetising social media products. In this respect social media is not really free; we pay for our ability to create identity and express ourselves. Google got this model right years ago by monitoring search queries, social media is simply the transcendence of this business model into a social context.


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Rustylink said...

One of the difficulties individuals will experience as a consequence of an enhanced ability of individuals and organisations to communicate directly in Social Media is that misinformation, deliberate and unintended, will only be restrained by an informed public capable of rejecting falsehood and illusion. The danger is that stand alone individuals are incapable of resisting the pressures of conformity, fashion, and received views.

Social networks offer great potential for connecting individuals with common interests. But it is not clear that they will contribute to the quality of the information communicated. Twitter has already been accused of facilitating the exchange of vast quantities of trivial non-consequential messages. The profiles shown on social networks may be, or become, similarly loaded with illusions and trivia. And the popularity of one network over another may not in itself be an indication of quality.

The majority is rarely a good guide to media quality or veracity. The speedy spread of false rumours, calimony and propaganda go hand in hand with the rejection of science based knowledge, the propagation of fanaticism, and religious bigotry. The risk is that the expression of these weaknesses in human nature will overtake the virtues in the absence of editorial boards and trained experts reviewing the quality of the information posted. Yet the importance of a social networks for circumventing illegitimate authority can also be considered, in the right circumstances, as its greatest strength, as for example in Iran or when used by socially valuable whistle blowers.

There is, however, a need to recognise that social networks and the games environments combined with the use of avatars increasingly permit individuals to create a virtual identity and experience a virtual reality that has little to do with their real personalities, their work, or their real life. Social websites provide another and possibly more intense way for individuals to avoid facing up to the social and economic consequences of their own choices.

One thing is certain; henceforth we operate in a structurally different social environment. Communication across the planet, open access to vast quantities of information, much of it hopelessly useless, uninformed, and manipulative are changing the nature of the world we see and experience. Our perceptions of the world are changed by the nature of the media available, and we are confronting a juggernaut of exposure to self-described individuals. Self-serving individual or brand descriptions may or may not improve the human being and/or his society. That is, in itself an interesting question.

Unless individuals can be induced to be sufficiently informed, sceptical, and cynical, their views, tastes, and the expression of their personalities will be unduly influenced by self proclaimed prophets and those who seek not to inform but to manipulate.

Unfortunately individuals, advertisers, and propagandists have one thing in common. They seek the means and information that Social Networks offer to enhance their ability to influence others. They are rarely interested in propagating the whole truth, rather they seek to manipulate. And Social Networks may well, on balance, strengthen the hand of the ill-informed and manipulative rather than the considered expert or honest. Nor is it clear that Social Media favour rational argument over emotive prejudice. Social Media are shaping our experience and perception of self and our perceived environment, whether for good or ill remains to be seen. Our only protection against the effects of Social Media is an enquiring mind backed by scientific scepticism. Fortunately the rise of Social Media has also led to the diminished influence of some of the worst sources of misinformation, just as it has also strengthened others. Let us be optimistic. The struggle with and within Social Media is a prolongation of the age old struggle between good and evil, education and ignorance, rationality and prejudice.


Jo Porritt said...

Hi Simon

Very thorough post on this subject. I think there will continue to be a see-saw effect of users having more ability to customisation vs operability/usability. Purely because the social space and these platforms are literally evolving before our very eyes, and there is no sign of this slowing for the near future.

The interconnectedness you speak of will only continue to expand due to high demand from users, and with that comes the two sides of the coin you blog about. I think what will always be important though, is to have the ability to personalise your social media profile (whichever platform that may be) as this is what differentiates these websites from traditional online marketing i.e. the addition of the “human element” whether that be for a multinational brand or individual consultant offering services – social media demands engagement, community and a sense of “personal”.

Whilst the customisation allows images or logos supporting this, I still think your content will be how you truly convey your individual approach and get across the message of your personality. The human element is not only sought through how you are perceived visually, but if you can connect emotionally too.

Keep up the brilliant writing :)