Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Social Media Week NYC 2011: Blurring the Digital Line

Social Media Week 2011 is underway in New York City—as well as eight other global locations. The calendar of events is a diverse, informative mix highlighting both a willingness to share and to learn on the part of several large agencies and organizations headquartered in New York City. This is my third year as a participant, and I’m utterly blown away by how large and truly social this annual event has become. It has taken on a life of its own, which is a fitting development given the nature of its focus.

SapientNitro asked a diverse group of (social) scientists and technologists to consider the impact of the blurring distinction between our real lives and our digital lives, and the ways in which behaviors and the web are adapting to each other. "'Things' have changed (us)," said SapientNitro Director of Marketing Strategy Melissa Read in her opening remarks:
  • The local has become global—everything we do locally can be broadcast to the world.
  • Global has also become local—everywhere is here. There is a wealth of information and services available to us with an immediacy and locality that we didn't have before. As a result, the real world has taken on virtual elements (e.g., shop online if the store is closed) and the virtual has crossed over into the real world (e.g., Farmville credits).
  • We're increasingly comfortable with this crossover though. Life is interactive from the time we are born—kids are using tablets at earlier ages.
  • Privacy is being renegotiated as we come to terms with sharing personal information with our many connections.
All of these elements combine to give us a great deal of power. Read joked that we are now media sapiens, and while this particular buzzword is a bit done, it does describe our sensitivity to technology. To this point, we're no longer a captive audience; we're constantly engaged in media multitasking: we choose the objects of our interest instead of choosing from what is available. But what is the effect of this constant engagement—and has it really changed us?

Shayla Thiel-Stern, associate professor at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Minnesota, discussed the ways in which teen girls are testing identities within the safety of their network to determine what is socially acceptable. They use popular media, such as song lyrics and quotations, and specially chosen photos to craft specific images of themseves. Now, this isn't necessarily different from the ways identity formation occurs within American high schools as teens overall experiment with fashions and navigate social groups. But online there appears to be a bit more flexibility in terms of allowing different experiences given the general sizes of networks. But as Stern pointed out, adults are increasingly using the online space in a similar way, which to me suggests that we're more aware of the fluidity within our networks.

But something is changing. In terms of representation, the online self has potential to vary and diverge from the real world identity in ways that were not previously possible.

"I am super," says the hero, even though the factors that make him super are not accurate representations of his real world counterpart. I'm reminded of the fairly recent South Park episode in which Stan is consumed by his digital self because it literally takes on a life of its own, which happens to be larger than Stan's real world life. The anthropological view of the person is crafted around the place the individual occupies in the social order. Personhood entails all the rights and responsibilities tied to the various roles we as individuals occupy and is defined by the ways in which we interact with the social order at large. For example, I am a writer, an anthropologist, a baseball fan, a bibliophile, an aunt, a wife, a former student ... and I'm sure there are some I'm omitting. All these positions work together to create my identity, and in fulfilling the responsibilities associated with these roles, I claim a place in society. What appears to be happening online is that we're more prominently displaying these other roles, and we're active in all of these other identities at once. Because we can choose whom to respond to online, we're juggling many sorts of responses at once. The problem is that these displays of multiple elements may project a sense of in-authenticity.

Duncan Watts, senior research scientist at Yahoo, sees these changes in interaction and identity formation as superficial. Even though people are more connected, the rule of six-degrees (or actually seven-degrees) still applies. Watts asserts that while we're tempted to think that the world is fundamentally different because of social technologies, it's not. Networks still function in the same way—and presumably so does the individual. Though we are connected to hundreds, and sometimes thousands of people, our interactions are tiered so that we're connecting with the people who are actually engaging with us. 

Though we may have moved our identity negotiation online, and can now continue to explore our sense of self well into adulthood, I think the assumption that the size of our networks doesn't impact our behavior is misleading. It may be true that the six or seven degree rule is still in effect, but the thing to bear in mind is that now there are many paths to the six or seven degrees whereas before there were few. Therefore information could be getting to the seventh person from a number of different sources, all of whom may present that information differently.

Watts' suggestion that we're connecting with those who are actively engaging with us (e.g., via a Facebook comment) relies on a narrow definition of engagement that does not reflect the nature of the social digital space. The posturing that occurs online indicates this. We know that people are aware of our activities, even if only three of them have something to say about it. The individual and the network may not be functioning in fundamentally different ways, but the online environment suggests that we believe this space should allow for different displays.

To review additional thoughts on this panel, search for the following hashtags: #smwsapient2 and #sapientnitro.

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