Sunday, March 15, 2009

Growing (up) on Facebook

In Growing up on Facebook, NYT writer Peggy Orenstein notes the increased use of Facebook by adults, who are posting old photos and connecting with long-lost childhood friends. She wonders about how younger people are using the site and suggests that Facebook's "most profound impact may be to alter, even obliterate, conventional notions of the past, to change the way young people become adults." In general, I think the article is useful in articulating the need for research that explores the impact of these self-presentational opportunities on identity formation, especially among young people who are growing up with, and on, social network sites, although I don't share her concerns.

Orenstein suggests that the connections to one's past resurrected by these sites will hinder, not enhance, identity development. Alternatively, I believe online spaces can be used to forward a vision of self that can serve as a roadmap forward, even with an audience of hundreds. Indeed, this ability to strategically self-present oneself online will be a critical skill (in both professional and personal contexts) for the young people Orenstein writes about. In my work on online self-presentation in online dating profiles, I've written about the ways in which users draw upon their ideal selves when constructing an online representation of self. In one instance, reported in our 2006 JCMC article, a user listed described herself as thinner than she was in "real life" - but then went on to lose weight so as to bring her actual self closer to the self represented in her profile. In these and other examples in the literature, online spaces can serve as a context for experimenting with roles and identities, and thus can enhance the development process. The difference between online dating profiles and Facebook profiles is, of course, the presence of hundreds of "friends" who are presumably acting as a deterrent for blatant mis-representation and, as Orenstein reads it, a tether to one's past life, thus constricting options for growth. I think this concern doesn't acknowledge the ability of younger users to manage their online presence and the extent to which we expect one another to change over time. An alternate perspective could see this expanded social network of people from one's history as a supportive presence that enables individuals to stretch, knowing that they have links to their past should they need them.

A second point: the article focuses on one aspect of these sites, which is to enable self-expression, and only briefly mentions the flip side of the coin: the ability to observe others. It is described in somewhat negative terms (the student who is uncomfortable hearing about the details of a "friend") but as anyone who has spent time with Facebook's series of "Less about this person" options knows, this is an easy problem to solve. The positive side of seeing others is found in the social learning that this enables and the exposure to diverse information and perspectives that it brings. Our JCMC article on Facebook and bridging social capital (which was briefly mentioned in the NYT piece) highlights the potential benefits we receive from being exposed to a larger network of weak ties. For emerging adults, like college students, exposure to different perspectives and new information is likely to be especially beneficial precisely because they are trying on different identities and figuring out whether and how to re-invent themselves. Not all of us have the ability to go away to college, or to move to New York City or San Francisco. For young people without these opportunities, perhaps the exposure to people, ideas, and information that is enabled by these sites can serve an important role in supporting, not hindering, identity development.