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