Being online: Group identities and social network identities

So may a thousand actions, once afoot,
End in one purpose, and be all well borne
Without defeat.

(This is the seventh post in a series called
“Being online: identity, anonymity, and all things in between.”)

Despite all the variations played on the theme of personal identities
in the previous sections, remember that identity is a group construct,
not an individual one. If we never took part in groups, our personal
identities would scarcely matter.

We’re all members of certain groups without our choice: the particular
race, social class, or gender that other people assign us to. When a
woman posts a seductive picture online, she is helping to shape the
way men and other women view womanhood in general. The same goes when
she posts a demonstration of herself expertly fixing a computer or
operating a super-collider. And the image every member of a racial
minority puts up of himself or his cohorts, like it or not, determines
the way all members of that race are judged.

It seems an invariant of human culture to exploit the image of an
individual in order to leave an impression about the entire group to
which he or she belongs. It has been done by the arts and mass media
ever since they were invented, but the Internet gives millions of
ordinary people the chance to inflect the process. This diffusion of
influence was recognized by Time Magazine in 2006 when it

designated “you” as its Person of the Year

Going by Goffman’s extremely broad definition of “framing”–any
assumption or shared knowledge that lies behind a visible act is part
of the frame–identity might be the most important frame of all, and
the locus around which other frames revolve. Thus, my identity as an
English-speaker and US native frames the starting point of this
series from the perspective of a world technological and cultural

Others, though, may come to the Internet with an identity impaired by
its very use. For instance, they may have to sacrifice their
languages, or at least the character sets they traditionally use, in
order to communicate online in a cost-effective way.

As Lisa Nakamura points out in her book Digitizing Race: Visual
Cultures of the Internet
(University of Minnesota Press, 2008),
individuals can expand or criticize conventional images of women,
Asians, Muslims, and others by reusing images and mashing them up in
challenging ways. Nakamura even suggests that the typical slicing and
recombination of digital images reflects the way people create their
identities from fragments of older traditions, which in turn have been
shattered by the economics and culture of modern global change.

Technology also groups us. Are we the first to jump on a new medium
such as Voice over IP or Google Wave? Just as–to cite Giddens–we
express identity through lifestyle choices such as vegetarianism or
living in a downtown apartment instead of a house in the suburbs, we
express identity through the devices we buy and the Internet services
we use. And other people make assumptions about our identity based on
these things.

Let’s turn now to groups at a more intimate level. Every online forum
has the potential to be a small community–and even a small
government, with rules backed up by unique punishments–where people
train each other to carry out their identities in various ways.

Groups must be explicit and conscious of group identity. Online media
rarely provide chances for the equivalent of sitting at a bar with
grizzled veterans and hearing their stories. That is why groups often
post rules (check out Wikipedia’s, which are complicated enough to
call for an entire wiki of their own) to deal with churn and the lack
of opportunities to pass on norms informally.

This article began with the hope of understanding the current state of
the art in online group formation: social networking. The reason
social networking sites hold promise is that they augment the
individual, an echo of Douglas Engelbart’s goal to augment personal
achievement through the invention of the mouse and multimedia
networking in the 1960s. In a 2004 article
anthropologist danah michele boyd made the observation–or perhaps just
reported a subject’s observation–that these networks try to represent
each person’s identity as the set of connections he or she has. At
Friendster, at least (where people look up each others’ friends for
potential dates), the networks of friends become the main show. The
same criticism could be made of LinkedIn, where the chief goal is
career-building rather than dating.

Perhaps adding relationships to our definition of identity can
humanize the concept, as suggested by
Cynthia Kurtz.
I explained the importance of sharing information with “friends of
friends” in a comment added to an

earlier section of this article
But when viewed in the worst light, Friendster and LinkedIn cheapen
your identity to the connections you can offer other people.

Just as rudimentary digital cameras–especially when embedded in
mobile devices–have confirmed the old notion that a picture is worth
a thousand words, the connecting power of social networks will be
multiplied a thousandfold if facial recognition improves to the point
where it can automatically disseminate information about where we were
and whom we met. If automated crawling tools could identify faces in
millions of photos taken at parties, conferences, banquets, and even
public places, and then combine the information to determine who knows
whom, the amount of information that would become publicly available
about our habits and associations would be staggering.

For instance, imagine if the recently announced service for photo
recognition, Google
, evolves to the point where it can match faces against
faces in other photos. And then imagine that Google provides Goggles
as an API for use with social networks where people tag photos with
names. A single tag by a cousin on your photo at a party could lead to
your being associated with everybody else in all other photos of you
posted online. These developments, while not imminent, are plausible
in the light of past advances in the technologies.

Social networks create a new personal information economy. We
already have such an economy in real-life’s customer reward cards: we
give up valuable information about our long-term purchasing habits in
exchange for discounts. Some business experts suggest a similar
explicit arrangement for the Internet. Regulations would prohibit the
retention of information unrelated to a sale, but allow retailers to
offer discounts in exchange for the right to retain certain types of
information. This would make privacy a class issue, because the
affluent would be most likely to forgo the bribe and withhold their
information. And because the affluent are the biggest spenders,
businesses are unlikely to find it worth their while to support this

Everyone on social networks is engaging in the new personal
information economy. We choose to post our favorite movies in order to
meet fans and learn about new movies we’d like. And we reveal the
colleges we attended so we can meet potential business partners from
those institutions. We even post jokes and casual observations to earn
people’s admiration. While we’re all having fun, every nugget we
release is subjected first, consciously or unconsciously, to a key
question: will we get some benefit from the social network
commensurate with the value of the information we are about to give
our contacts?

This view of social network as economy provides a partial answer to
the questions posed at the very start of this series:

Should we post our age and marital status? Should we make our profile
private or public? Should we reveal that we’re gay?…

The answer is that each of us is responsible for assessing the value
of posting at every moment, taking into consideration the tone of the
network, how many people are watching our postings, what they can
offer us, and more.

The economy extends to sending nude photographs of yourself to current
or would-be lovers. A recent

report from the Pew Research Center

says no less:

“Sexually suggestive images sent to the privacy of the phone have
become a form of relationship currency.”

Exhibitionists don’t seem to realize that their photos are likely to
travel far beyond the person to whom they’re entrusted–a bitter
truth that, once admitted, would certainly alter the senders’ economic

While filtering our contributions to the network, we also filter those
who are entitled to receive them–and here the economy is out of
balance. Rampant are the complaints about receiving connection
requests you don’t want from old boyfriends or the guys who smoked dope
with you in high school. Social networking urgently needs to establish
a culture in which it’s OK to say that you’re filtering your
connections. (A couple years ago I rejected a connection and got a
death threat in return. Looking at the person’s profile, I determined
that it was a joke–but I still think twice about visiting the city
where he lives.)

Although connections on social networks are definitive, no one asks
about the identity of the social network itself (except shareholders
hoping to increase its popularity and critics trying to change its
policies). But some online communities head in a very different
direction. Law professor Beth Simone Noveck, in an essay titled

A democracy of groups
points out that self-organized groups can mold their own unique identities
in order to effect collective action.

Noveck’s optimism regarding self-organizing groups led to the current
experiments with online democracy pursued by the Obama administration,
where Noveck was appointed to both the transitional team and a Deputy
CTO position to start implementation of the Open Government initiative
that Obama

released on his first day in office

In Noveck’s theory, a group’s effectiveness depends on each member’s
success is gelling his or her individual identity. “Through visual and
graphical representation, this new technology enables people to see
themselves and others and to perceive the role they have
assumed. Appearing as a defined person–whether by name or in an
embodied avatar–makes it easier to sense oneself as part of a group
and, arguably, will facilitate the inculcation of the social norms at
the heart of a group’s culture.”

These are intriguing claims, but it’s odd that Noveck does not
consider the ability to import external markers of identity into the
group space, or to check members’ assertions of identity against these
external markers. For instance, what if visitors to Second Life could
receive a token from her law school (through the OAuth protocol, say)
that validates her as a professor?

One way to tie individuals more tightly together in online groups, as
explained in her article, is to make online forums feel more like
real-world places so that people can develop “forms of attachment” to
the forums in ways that they feel emotionally attached to their town
square, college, or other local “great good place” (to borrow the name
of a popular book by Ray Oldenburg). As Noveck writes, “The new
generation of technology is reintroducing the concept of space and
place online.” As an example she cites Second Life, which was growing
rapidly in popularity at the time. Effectively, she is granting groups
identities, just like individuals, and recommending that a group
foment stronger ties among its members by creating a stronger group

No one in the Obama administration has picked up the most aggressive
suggestion in A democracy of groups, that the law recognize
groups as entities–“new forms of collective legal personhood”–in a
similar manner to how it now recognizes corporations. But Vermont has
taken a step in that direction by changing its laws to allow virtual
corporations, and ultimately we may be dealing with group identity
online as much as with individual identity.

The posts in “Being online: identity, anonymity, and all things in between” are:

  1. Introduction
  2. Being online: Your identity in real life–what people know
  3. Your identity online: getting down to basics
  4. Your identity to advertisers: it’s not all about you
  5. What you say about yourself, or selves
  6. Forged identities and non-identities
  7. Group identities and social network identities (this post)

  8. Conclusion: identity narratives

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  • Kyle Maxwell

    A good post, but I’d quibble with the statement: And the image every member of a racial minority puts up of himself or his cohorts, like it or not, determines the way all members of that race are judged.

    This applies just as well to those in a majority, of course. People generalize from the individual to the group, whatever that group may be.

    Otherwise, what do you think about carrying group identities with us? For example, you might have belonged to a close-knit online community that no longer exists for various reasons at one time. That community membership is no longer accessible, so I’d like to see a way to display that membership in some other venue. That would allow you to then re-establish connections with other members of the defunct community when you run into each other in other contexts.

  • Kevin Marshall

    I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of groups as well lately…my focus has been more in the social realm because of the release of things like Twitter lists (I even built as a tool to play with some of these group’ing ideas I’ve been thinking about)…but I think your in-depth thought flow here is very on-point and def. gives me some more things to think about, look into, and play with…so thanks!

  • Lindsay Jordan

    Andy – this is a thought-provoking post and I enjoyed reading it immensely. Like Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene, it does come across that you assume self-interest in all these sharing actions in what you term the ‘knowledge economy’ – and the use of the economics metaphor itself augments this impression.

    You write ” we even post jokes and casual observations to earn people’s admiration… every nugget we release is subjected first, consciously or unconsciously, to a key question: will we get some benefit from the social network commensurate with the value of the information we are about to give our contacts?”

    Is it possible that, when we share jokes and observations what will make people smile, that we are not doing this out of self-interest but because we want to spread a bit of joy and humour – the altruism instinct rather than the selfish one – or even just oiling the wheels of the community for the common good.

    If you see something that makes you laugh, you share it with the people you are close to, because you want them to experience it too; not to make them like you… don’t you? :-)

    I found your ideas about group identities very interesting – they are very relevant to current debates about tensions between personal and educational/professional identities in online communities.

  • Andy Oram

    Thanks for all the ideas posted so far and to Kevin for his pointer to
    a very relevant experiment that tries to maximize the potential of
    person-to-person connections.

    Lindsay, you’re right that communal benefits motivate people to go
    online, and they didn’t show up in the article. I guess I found them
    to hard to measure and discuss (we need someone with the analytical
    power of a Goffman or Giddens. But I think we all need to be a bit
    selfish too and remember that what you post reflects ultimately on
    you. That’s the most relevant issue for a series like this one about

    But thinking back on why I invested hours in writing this article, I
    realize I didn’t do it for myself. It wouldn’t be worth all that
    reading and word-smithing (although it was all fun too). I wrote the
    article partly for the publisher, which I suppose redounds ultimately
    to my benefit. I didn’t write it for altruistic reasons, but there’s I
    know I had personal growth in mind. I wanted to do the reading for my
    own benefit, and I wanted to get thoughtful comments like the ones
    posted here. So from one perspective, the goal of educating myself,
    this article paid off.

    I saved one of the most interesting topics for last: Kyle’s proposal
    to make group identities portable. Kyle, it’s a great goal, but first
    we need to have a lot of work to make individual identities portable.
    Without that, I don’t see how groups can move.

    I can see how a group might form (for instance) on Yahoo! and then
    decide to move to Facebook because that’s currently a cooler place to
    be, then move back to Yahoo! because it has some feature Facebook
    lacks, etc. But to do that, every individual would have to be able to
    easily port his or her identity to the new forum.

  • Paul Hays

    Very interesting post and comments. I just want to add two points.

    First, when I tell a joke, it is often a pun. I do want to reduce the level of seriousness in a situation, but I also want to make people stop and rethink their assumptions. I think that is what a pun is. The humor comes from mixing the signals to challenge assumptions. And it is good to keep things a bit off balance in a group, as it keeps people on their toes. It may be an attempt to influence a group or situation, but it is more subtle than mere self-interest. A good reference here is the article on Trolls Nat mentioned on 12/29 .

    Second, as an academic, I list my group memberships in my CV. Maybe what we need is a kind of historical, electronic CV that we can share. Then, if we connect with someone and compare digital CV’s and find a match, we reconnect, which is what Kyle was thinking of.

  • relative musings

    Here’s some additional insights into identity and other consequences of social networking sites;

  • Andy Oram

    Thanks to relative musings for some really interesting use of sociological theory to critique my article. I admit that when I talk about thinking of what you post online from an economic point of view, it’s what I hope people will do–but probably not what they actually do.

    But why do you have to talk of “violence”? Follow-the-leader is the way society pulls together, starting with babies from the age of one or even less. In every time and place, people imitate what tickles their fancy, whether it’s something as trivial as growing hair long in the 1960s or something as serious as becoming a militant jihadist. I see that this tendency can be used to promote social hierarchies, but it’s also a source of social cohesion–and social progress.

    By the way, I also liked your first article in the series, which seems to build on what I say in my articles.

  • Daniel H. Kahn

    Fascinating series of articles, but I would like to add one thought here:

    These are intriguing claims, but it’s odd that Noveck does not consider the ability to import external markers of identity into the group space, or to check members’ assertions of identity against these external markers. For instance, what if visitors to Second Life could receive a token from her law school (through the OAuth protocol, say) that validates her as a professor?

    I agree that Noveck could have written about establishing more robust cross-connecting identity, but I don’t think the ties necessarily have to be to markers of “offline” identity. Some people might want to establish their “true” identities on Second Life, especially people like Noveck, who have high-status credentials. However, Noveck writes about the value of exploring alternative or fanciful self-identities online. Users also employ OAuth and other tools to establish a link between their fanciful Second Life identities and the same pseudonymous identities they have used on other sites. This would make online fora more like the real world in the sense that people could provide more robust markers of identity, but it would still give people freedom to explore new selves.

  • Dave Reed

    Reader might also be interested in reading this news edit ‘Facebook, Macrumours, MSN and alternative social identities’