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Sunday, 10 October 2010

The Presentation of Self in Facebook Life

Almost exactly a year ago I wrote about how the posters you put up in your bedroom carry symbolic meaning, making each choice a message. If you were to put up one poster, that one poster can be considered a singular representation of self - a cultural message specifically selected in order to communicate a message.

The same can be said of Profile Pictures on Facebook; to further allude to Goffman's work 'The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life', the profile pic can be considered as part of the personal front and any individual social actor (Facebook user) must choose an image through which they are initially represented. True, users have many pictures but that one picture is the one chosen above all the rest as the representamen of the self.

I will be looking through the odd smorgasbord that is my own contact list to see what sociological trophies I can unearth.

1 - Smiling
It seems too common sense to really question it, but when people want to represent themselves to a potential new acquaintance, such as over Facebook, on a first date or at a job interview, it is in their best interests to be smiling. This smile need not communicate anything essential about one's mental state or one's actual happiness - rather, it is a signal of intent; specifically, the intent to communicate amicably. Whether the individual is alone or with others in the image, they are likely to be smiling. From my contact list, the only time people have images of themselves not smiling as their profile are when the mouth is obscured by alcohol bottles or in art-style photographic pouts.

2 - Coupling

Those facebook users who are 'In a relationship' tend often to be in the profile picture with the other half of their partnership. This is a show of unity and a public declaraton of the relationship status. And if there is not a relationship between the individuals in a photo, it remains a show of solidarity. The image capturing the two together, when made into a public profile image, is a publicisation of the friendship.

3 - Political
As a Labourite, I have a number of political types among my facebook friends and the display picture becomes a billboard for cyberspace activism. Through the display picture, political messages can be broadcast - at present, among my friends, a number have replaced an image of themselves with the words of a given cause; protesting against the government cuts, 'Keep Calm and Carry On' and so on. Also, with Ed Miliband having been elected, a number of friends have display pictures showing themselves alongside the new party leader - the message this carries is two-fold, at least: both that the individual is in support of Ed and that one has been in his company. This, in itself, carries the message of social competence and the dalliance with the power ranks.

4 - Actions

Some of the profile pictures are not 'posed' photographs which might well have been taken specifically with Facebook in mind, but are action pictures showing the user 'doing something'. This could be wielding a baby from a disadvantaged country, thus indicating that he or she has been to Africa/India and that he or she does charitable things like that. A similar psychology underlies images interacting with the camera in front of notable landmarks or sites of beauty - the message shows what the user has been doing in their free time and thus they become subject to the touristic gaze which reduces geographical space into tiny, boiled down adjectives. An image beside the Eiffel Tower conveys the emotions of Frenchness - the romance, the accordion etc. Sat cross legged outside the Taj Mahal - inner peace, the ruminating voyager etc. The activities people show themselves doing illustrate how they wish, first and foremost to be seen. Scanning through I see instances of powerlifting tournaments, motorbiking, riding a horse, having sponges thrown towards oneself by disadvantaged children, powerboating, kissing a seal post-taxidermy, being interviewed on TV... each instance the individual conveys something of themselves through their chosen image.

5 - Children
This one is more of a post-scriptum, but it is particularly interesting to see the facebook self-presentation of children and teenagers, whose identities are, theoretically at least, in greater flux than those of adults. I only have a few kids on Facebook and those that are do seem to follow some or all of the above - certainly the smiling. In case you need reminding, my dissertation is on expressions of young masculinity and my Facebook friend requests unearthed an interesting thining point. An 11 year old boy from a primary school I have worked in has added me - I can't accept as I'll be going back to the school, of course - but his profile picture is a testimony to boy's inevitably fruitless pursuit of an adult masculinity. He stands before the camera, in a photo I presume he took of himself, with his shirt off, flexing his muscles with a fierce look on his face. And it is farcical, quite funny but also tragic - boys strive for the raw masculinity they see in action films (I know that seems overly reductionist, but among most boys I've worked with, the brawny physically dominating body is the one they aspire to). But an 11 year old boy will never achieve that; hence, the boys will contort their scrawny bodies into the caricature of what they think 'masculinity' is. And, of course, this fierce powerful masculinity, as their display pic, becomes the image of themselves they wish to project to all.

1 comment:

  1. Fascinating post. My profile picture, which I haven't changed in three years, is a photograph of a clementine, alluding to my first name. I think I don't want to change it because I want it to be as neutral as possible. No profile picture is entirely neutral, as you've shown, but I think mine is as close to neutral as I've managed to get.

    I'd also be interested to know why so many people put photos of themselves as children. Obviously it's 'cute', but why would you want to do that? It's not 'you'. In fact, it's very very far from who you are now. It's an interesting facebook meme.