Monday, November 09, 2009

Shaping identity before birth

When I applied for admission to the ATEC/EMAC program a few years ago, one of my primary interests was in studying online social networking and how individuals use the Internet to shape their identity both on and offline. This continues to remain my focus today, so boyd's argument that it's not only what we post about ourselves - but also what others post about us - that shapes our identity falls exactly into my field of interest.

Like many people, I have personal experience with loved ones posting information that we may not feel is quite ready for prime time. In my case, it was my dear, sweet husband. In his defense, he was understandably thrilled to find out that we really were going to have a second child and that he was going to be a daddy for the third time. I was thrilled - and still am - thrilled, but at the time was not yet ready to declare it to the world through FB. So, when I saw his status update and consequently picked my jaw up off the floor, I scrambled to get in touch with any of our "joint" friends who might have seen the update. Luckily, many of my friends hadn't seen the post and those that had chose to remain discreet, offering little more than "Congratulations" when they went to my page and found that I hadn't posted the announcement -yet. Also luckily, my boss - whom I hadn't planned to tell for another 6-7 weeks - has extremely limited access to my profile thanks to the block feature and had no idea that my husband had outed my secret to a few hundred friends, relatives, colleagues, grade school acquaintances... (I am lucky to have a great relationship with my boss, but I do try to maintain some work/home divide.) Needless to say, I spent the better part of a day trying to head off any pandemonium about why I didn't tell someone first or in person by calling everyone I could get a hold of before they saw the news. This included my parents, grandparents and best friends, none of whom knew we might be expecting another child. And, when it was time to determine whether we wanted to find out the baby's sex, my husband asked whether it was ok if he posted the news on FB. We did find out the sex, but after a long discussion opted against posting it on FB in order to deliver the news personally to close family/friends who had expressed interest.

I mention this anecdote because it is a perfect reflection of how our off-line identities can and are influenced not only by what we post online about ourselves but what others post about ourselves. The funny thing is that this is an entirely new phenomenon.

As Boyd states, this is the first time in history that young people must publicly define themselves by writing themselves "into being as a precondition of social participation" (p.120). Pre-Internet, I wouldn't have had to worry whether my parents found out that they were going to have another grandchild by logging into their e-mail or FB accounts. Since this is not something that people generally plaster on billboards or mass-produced fliers, the only way they could have found out would have been if a friend or relative who had heard the news accidentally spilled the beans either in a letter or phone call. Since the chances are slim that I would have told anyone before my mother, it would have been virtually impossible for them to hear the news. Now, on the other hand, our baby's identity is being shaped before she even officially enters the world through my and others' use of online media to share news about her growth, antics inside the womb, etc. We haven't posted any sonogram pictures because of skepticism about how others' may use them, but many parents-to-be freely do so, shaping their child's identity even more. Personally, I would love to do a survey 15 to 20 years from now of children whose parents posted their sonogram pictures online - particularly those whose parents posted the "What sex is the baby?" images. Discovering images of what makes you male/female online - and the comments thereafter - has to have at least some impact on a person's ego.

It'll also be interesting to see what my children consider private as they come of age in this new world order where many young people use "'security through obscurity' to achieve privacy." As boyd states, "To exist in mediated contexts, people must engage in explicit acts to write themselves into being. On social network sites, this means creating a profile and fleshing out the fields as an act of self-presentation." So, will my children consider the information I post about them TMI? Or will they mock my privacy settings and openly post even more details about themselves and their own children? Only time will tell, but the fact remains that what someone chooses to reveal about themselves online is not always nearly as telling as what others reveal about them or what they choose to remain hidden from view.

6 comments:

800word said...

Nice story. Hey, you need to reserve name for your baby on FB and domain name via ICAAN :)

James said...

Security and identity have very different roles online and offline. I completely understand the Facebook issues; each time someone from work adds me I get a little more cautious about what I post. Wonder if this will make the next generation more open with their opinions and ideas since it's so easy to display them online.

Segosher said...

I think your kids will take it in stride that they are on FB because they won't have a benchmark of what it was like before FB. As I said on Amy's blog I think we're in a pendulum swing that has reached the end and will start moving back to the middle where parents are less restrictive about their kids online behavior. As with your kids, it will be the norm and I think younger and younger generations will start having FB accounts. My grandson is a FB baby too, so I loved your story!

Chelsea said...

I have to agree with Segosher. In 20 years facebook might even not be prominent anymore, there could be something else. I know a couple who have already created a facebook profile for their 5 month old daughter. It's mostly for their families to see pictures and videos of her, and only family and close friends can be her friend. Still I wonder what she will think when she gets a little older and when they will give her access to her own profile.

Aline McKenzie said...

Some of my relatives are posting old family photos, which makes me a little nervous. So far, I don't object to any of the ones of me they've posted (except to groan at my old "Tootsie" glasses). But I've started to keep a pretty close eye on what pictures I'm being tagged in.

Ditto for friends who post pictures of me in various activities. Although I do like the one of me in my nun headdress, looking angelic.

kristalbrook said...

I don't think we can ever get away from having an online identity, but I wonder if there will be a backlash to so much being public and more exclusive, networks will be created.