Our social identities.

# Now that the social web is an established force does it still have an impact on our identity, and consequently our behaviour, or do we impose our own constraints with self defined roles?

FingerprintThe more I write, the more I find myself referring back to posts and ideas from two, three, or even, four years ago and find myself asking "what's changed?"

In many ways we are still asking the same questions but are they the right ones and should we all be asking them?

For early adopters and tech pundits, as social commentators, we sometimes cannot separate the technical from the usable; we are looking at problems and solutions rather than the experience and need to take a step back and realise that we are not the average user and do not view things in the same way.

A long journey

Social media has come a long way in such a short space of time; the market is maturing but is still in its infancy. It is no longer the sole domain of the geek and early adopter but more ubiquitous and pervasive in today's society.

As the reach of social expands so we are more comfortable being open on the web, sharing more and revealing far more about ourselves. We are far less likely to hide behind pseudonyms as social is interwoven into our daily lives, although this may be partly because of real name policies.

The type of user we are will impact our behaviour. Previously, the challenges associated with social were confined to a small, focused group but with mainstream use attitudes vary based on who we are and why we use social.

Business or pleasure?

There are those who use social in connection with their professional lives (marketers, company representatives, journalists, bloggers etc.) and the "Facebook Generation" purely using social to be, well, social. The latter are now very much the target of mainstream social web services.

The expectations placed upon us are largely consistent with "who we are" online rather than who we may be in real life but do we, then, let this dictate who we become?

Four years ago I wrote:

I can’t help wondering if our normal behaviour is influenced by the online communities we join. Do we participate for ourselves or for others? Do we share things we like or things we think our followers will appreciate?

The answer to this question is now very different for diverse groups within users of the social web.

Is wrestling with our social identity a problem faced by all or only a specific subset of users, those who have a specific reason for using social: sales, communication, promotion, social mavens?

Does the Facebook Generation treat social purely as an extension of offline life? From the number of instances of embarrassing photos causing real-world problems then maybe so. For these people there is no role to play other than being themselves - an enviable position.

For others, the paradox of the implied "social contract" means that we open ourselves to social in order to expand our connections and interactions but are then restrained by the expectations placed upon us.

As content creators we are constantly told to write for our audience and not for ourselves. As curators we find a niche and are then expected to share content around the topic of choice in order to maintain our audience and influence.

Regardless of who we are, we do, however, want people to see the best of us. We want to appear interesting but are a mixed bag of contradictions. The oft complained about banality of early social, the what I had for lunch posts, for example, have largely gone only to be replaced by food porn photography in the name of art.

MemeMeme culture

Is the line between "normal user" and geek now being eroded due to basic internet culture and emphasis on memes? As the web becomes more visual and tools simpler to use memes are a common bond between us, whether geeks or not.

As social animals, we still like to be associated with groups which is why we align ourselves with this or that platform, almost religiously. There is safety in numbers and we normally like to not be the one standing alone, the outcast; it is easier to fit a "social group" than risk alienation or, even, persecution for being an individual or outsider.

This is not a phenomenon specific to social media but a recognition of the fact that as we tend to gravitate towards others with similar interests so the effects of group mentality can be amplified because we are already part of a "herd". We want to feel part of something larger than ourselves and this has nothing to do with social networks or hiding behind pseudonyms.


Not only is the social web as a whole more mainstream and developed but individual networks will, over time, mature as the feature set stabilises and users become more familiar with the environment.

Posts will become less meta as users stop talking about the service itself and just use it to communicate. Part of this is early adopters feeling happier with how a network is developing but it is also due to the "early majority" (the next stage in the social adoption life-cycle) signing up and just using the service to communicate. As Google+ grows so its content is becoming more Facebook-like.

Now that we live in "social times" the adoption life-cycle is being condensed as the early majority are quicker to adopt new services than before, thus further reducing the differences between the early adopter and mainstream users.

Who are we?

Our perception of the social web and our role in it is changing; social media is just becoming another avenue of "media". Business use is increasing and its role in news reporting and consumption is unprecedented for such a young movement; society's adoption as a whole, rather than individual adoption, is incredible.

For most, there is no need to be anything other than themselves. They may have their entrances and exits and, indeed, may play many parts (we all have a multitude of facets to our interests and personalities) but the true ideal of being social online is to act as an extension of our offline selves.

By assigning ourselves a role other than "us" we are imposing our own limits and setting our own constraints on our behaviour.

Images by mushon and Multiple fragments of tissue

  1. ryan says: #
    Colin - always insightful. I was intrigued by your thoughts on "Meme Culture". Your opening question of "what's changed?" can be answered with one word: Content. The social web has become a place for everyone to try to establish themselves as the "class clown" or "kid in the back of the class." When we filter our posts/updates and test them out on friends before posting, just to make sure they are funny, then we lose all sense of authenticity. People do "herd" as you say, but the herd IQ is only as strong as its weakest link. Thus, the memers post memes, the rockers post band videos, and the Christians want you to "Like" their picture of a rainbow or else you're going to hell. Furthermore, we find ourselves embroiled in the midst of the American election season where quotes, pictures, and sound bites are torn out of context and meme-ified with Impact font to prove why my guy is better than yours. I can only speak from my own experience, but 5 years it seemed like we were running headlong into a space where people could be more real. They could share their thoughts/feelings/opinions without fear of dissenting opinions and "grammar nazis". No one worried about making the Failbook home page. No we can only hope to make our friends laugh and like us a little more. Welcome to High School 2.0. Sorry if this is off topic, obviously you hit a nerve.
  2. Colin says: #
    Ryan, Thanks for the comment and it's not off-topic at all. Yes, we have hopes that the social web is going to be a way for people to express their opinions in an eloquent fashion but, as I say above, the "Facebook generation" are just using social to propagate their personality online. If someone is the class clown in real life and they are just being themselves then they are not letting the medium (social) dictate their behaviour. You can't stop an idiot from being an idiot, or a salesman from being a salesman, or a photographer from posting photos. This is exactly the difference between those who approach social with "a purpose" and are, therefore, defined by that purpose and those who don't.
  3. ryan says: #
    Colin, I think that my bigger concern is that old Art imitates Life imitates Art conundrum. I've been seeing more and more of how this internet culture and Facebook generation mode of communications filters into our real life experiences - and I hate it. As someone who craves real, intimate friendships, it is revolting to me that group conversations devolve into movie quote/meme reference one-upsmanship battles. When we spend more of our time online rather than face-to-face, this culture can't help but leak over. Beyond just the friendship implications, it easily moves into the bedroom and the board room ("That's what she said"). I think that - at this point - we all have an ethical responsibility to approach our interaction (as you say) "with purpose." Our entire culture is riding on it. I wonder how this differs based on physical location? Are you experiencing the same thing?
  4. Colin says: #
    To a small degree with a select few but I've always felt that the UK is "behind" in that regards. There's a saying over here that says look at the US to see what we'll be doing in 5 years. The web, and social in particular, is bringing that timescale down but I don't think it's as bad over here. I completely understand where you're coming from, though.
  5. ryan says: #
    So, funny. 2 weeks ago, I heard that the UK was 10 years AHEAD of us in that regard - social relationships I mean. It's an endless cycle.

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