Papacharissi’s A Networked Self was a riveting read. At the outset of the paper, an American psychologist by the name of Csikszentmihalyi is quoted, who I am a reading a lot about lately in a book titled Reality is broken: why games make us better and how they can change the world by Jane McGonigal (2011). McGonigal also documents Csikszentmihalyi’s scientific study titled Beyond Boredom and Anxiety, in which he analyses a specific kind of happiness he names “flow”, which is “the satisfying, exhilarating feeling of creative accomplishment and heightened functioning” (as cited in McGonigal, 2011). It seems appropriate that Papacharissi quotes Csikszentmihalyi, as the entire paper left me with the question, “Are we happy with the individual identities we create and promote online?”
The philosopher in me questioned many parts of this paper, starting with the pondering of Goffman’s “faces” (1959), which we develop for a variety of contexts and the identities we create to perform in each situation. Goffman’s theatre analogy of this phenomenon uses “front” and “backstage” to describe the difference between our public online identities and our authentic private identities (Papacharissi, 2010, p. 307). I immediately identified with this, as I have always recognised the web as a space where one could present any persona one chose. How authentic or theatrical one wanted to be was and is completely at one’s discretion. Although, this is becoming harder to do as time progresses.
Further to this, Papacharissi argues that the “process of self-presentation is complicated in the context of SNSs” (2010, p. 307), especially when one can potentially face a number of spectators who have different vantage points. This can force us to present a variety of selves in order to cater to the audiences of each of those vantage points. Even though we do this to some degree in our real worlds, online we may become confused between public and private boundaries as we change our behaviours to suit each of these. This is confirmed by Meyrowitz (as cited in Papacharissi, 2010), as we can lose our “sense of place” as the public and private parameters are shifted. More confusion ensues as SNS relationships can be multiplied, creating the need for additional “performances of the self occurring on a variety of different stages” leading to a fragmented sense of sociality (2010, p. 308).
Of particular impact, was the assertion that individuals are products and networked workers. We unintentionally create a loop in networked society. We create the big data favoured and sought by conglomerates and companies to base their marketing schemes on, and then our product is sold back to us via our social networks later on down the track – capitalism at its finest. This is further complicated by the fact that we give permission for this to occur as we buy in to these networks so that we are not ostracised from modern, online society. We have become, or are becoming, complacent about who we provide information to and what ‘Terms of Service’ we agree to. I can’t help but think of the Ancien Regime in France, which ultimately caused the French Revolution. The labourers were taken advantage of by the aristocracy and the revolution ensued as people became tired of being treated differently and working for peanuts. But, in the current digital world we live in, is there a chance for a digital revolution? I question if we will be able to reclaim the same freedoms and rights when we are surrounded by laws that we unknowingly agreed to abide by in the first place. I have said it before and I will reiterate it again, it’s an Orwellian nightmare.
I was particularly interested in Papacharissi’s references to Andrejevic’s writings (even though he was not mentioned in her list of references), as he “suggested that SNSs need not follow the commercial model of social labor exploitation” (2010, p. 312). I don’t think the ‘power of the people’ can easily win in this instance. Papacharissi agrees, stating that “The structured affordances of a capitalist economy… do tend to limit non-commercially sensitive deployments of socially networked platforms” (2010, p. 312). Furthermore, I concur with Andrejevic and Parks (as cited in Papacharissi, 2010), as larger sections of society are becoming more insular and self-absorbed. Our online ‘communities’ are more individualised and defined by our own bias and desires. The individual is King, if this is indeed the case.
By contrast, it is argued by Ellison et al. (as cited in Papacharissi, 2010) that the “strong and weak ties” we develop provides us with “the ability to render ephemeral connections persistent” (p. 313). This is quite possible, as Papacharissi argues that higher levels of participation in SNSs provides us with an imperative method of questioning and understanding our position in the stratagem of the media we use and our individual behaviours online (2010, p.313).
It was also fascinating, yet not too surprising, to read of institutional and organisational employment of SNSs in the workplace. Most organisations now recognise the need for such networks in order to ensure collaboration amongst employees and, hopefully, greater output. The fact that the initiation of these changes in company policies was a ‘grass roots’ one, come to no surprise. In my workplace, we make use of SNSs such as Yammer and an organisational wiki for internal purposes. This, in my opinion, fosters creativity and a degree of autonomy, as is evident in these spheres – new ideas are put forth more willingly and are debated freely away from the public so as to avoid any potential damage of the organisation’s reputation. But, as Papacharissi mentions, an employee’s professional identity in these corporate SNSs are of high import, as they “must reconcile and navigate personal and professional aspects of their identity in order to sustain communication that does not compromise either their professional or their personal project (and performed) profile” (p. 313).
The other use of SNSs, which I identify with, is for the purposes of political activism. I have experienced growing frustration and cynicism as a result of information and news being relayed so fast and receiving updates via my SNSs at lightning speed, so I identified with the points made by Papacharissi (p.314). However, I was surprised to learn that people were less likely to vote if they watched YouTube. I know that this assertion is focused on an American demographic, but paused for thought when it stated that Social Networkers (like myself) “enjoyed comparing political ideas and attitudes with those of like-minded individuals within their networks, whereas Blogophiles were motivated to use blogs for non-mainstream political information for depth and analysis” (p. 314). I would like to argue at this point, that I would be more of a Blogophile than a Social Networker if life didn’t get in the way. My time is sacrosanct – it’s hard to work full-time and study part-time, whilst teaching asylum-seekers and going to political party meetings. I wish I had more time to dedicate to such noble pursuits and join the Blogophile community. Regardless of which avenue one pursues in these two instances, aren’t we all, in some way, preaching to the converted? I can’t imagine too many people of a different political persuasion following my Twitter account or a blog I might have created emphasising my political opinions. I do agree that further, more targeted, research in this area is needed, as Papacharissi suggests (p. 314).
Reading further, I was gripped by the issues surrounding Copyright laws and Fair Use. Our created, mediated, online identities (which sometimes violate Copyright laws as well) are fair game for misuse within the online marketplace, as Papacharissi asserts (p. 315). The conundrum we face here is whether or not we can protect our creative remixes from such misappropriation. Of further concern, which Papacharissi also raises (p. 316), is that our individual online identities can easily be misjudged when viewed online in the wrong context, or accepted as the sole picture of who a person is and what they’re all about. This can be unfair, and ultimately, dangerous behaviour, as we all become labelled by some action we stupidly posted somewhere for a laugh when we were teenagers and didn’t consider the ramifications of such actions in the future, as teens are generally prone to do. We are not all the same, and we mature with age – such labelling is a form of discrimination and totally inappropriate to such circumstances in society.
I was further intrigued by the use of intelligent software agents by companies such as Facebook. Papacharissi documents the use of Sarah, the Facebot, of artificial intelligence, generated by Facebook’s environment, who has the ability to post to her Timeline and make comments, etc. This reminded me of a book I read some years ago, titled Underground : Tales of Hacking, Madness and Obsession on the Electronic Frontier, by Suelette Dreyfus and researched by Julian Assange (1997). This book documented a similar artificially intelligent Bot, who roamed the virtual chat halls in Usenet (from memory) and tried enticing chatters to divulge information about their personal lives. It’s interesting to note that Facebook has decided to utilise the same AI to find out more about their users – a fact I was not aware of before reading Papacharissi’s paper.
On a final note, it was evident to me that our individual autonomy is decreasing at a steady rate. We seem to be producing an artificially generated sense of self and place. Our networked selves are acting out our identities online. Papacharissi concurs as she emphatically states in the final paragraph that “Adept navigation of the social landscapes of SNSs implies that identity is performed, but is also edited across multiplied and converged audiences” (p. 317). Again, I will refer to George Orwell’s 1984 at this point. I’m sure that such an environment is in our imminent future, where we will be edited and reviewed until we fit into the mould of what is expected by society. The only hope is that it is not a society that is as pernicious as Orwell predicted.
Dreyfus, S. (1997). Underground: Tales of Hacking, Madness and Obsession on the Electronic Frontier. Melbourne, Australia: Mandarin a part of Reed Books Australia.
McGonigal, J. (2011). Reality is broken: why games make us better and how they can change the world. New York, USA: The Penguin Press.
Papacharissi, Z. (2011). Conclusion: A Networked Self. In Z. Papacharissi (Ed.), A Networked Self: Identity, Community, and Culture on Social Network Sites (pp. 304-318). Routledge. [Via Curtin Library eReserve]