Our Digital Selves: An Honest Appraisal


Not all topics of conversation are created equally, at least through the lens of social media, according to a recent survey on digital identity. People readily share their thoughts on their race/ethnic background, traditions/rituals, community and pop culture but tend to steer clear of taboo topics, including politics, economics and religion. For most social media platforms, at least 70% of people indicated that they are  mostly “very honest” or “somewhat honest” in what they express online, rarely “not very honest” and never “dishonest.”

But one consideration here is the concept of honesty vs. forthcoming-ness. Someone who does not mark “very honest” for, say, “economic situation,” may feel that way because they choose not to disclose that information. They’re not being dishonest — they just prefer to stay mum on certain topics.  On reflection, a  further distinction between these concepts of honesty vs. disclosure in the survey would have been beneficial.

Here’s more of the nitty-gritty:

Survey Question/Prompt: To what extent on [insert social media type] are you honest of your views on [insert topic]:

The number in parentheses denotes the range in the number of respondents for the various topics. For the topic “Economic situation”, for example, 55 people marked an answer, whereas 78 marked an answer for “Traditions/rituals” and 101 for “Family.”

Facebook (55-101):

honesty fb topics

Not only do people indicate they’re not very honest about politics, economics and religion, they don’t even like to talk about it. These areas received the least amount of attention with the lowest participation rates, mostly across all forms of social media. “Work situation” was another taboo topic people avoided.

Instagram (13-39):

honesty insta topics

Twitter (11-18):

honesty twitter topics

“Religion” above is the only data set that received a 100% “very honest” response, although it had Twitter’s lowest number of respondents, with only 11.

LinkedIn (7-42):

honesty LI topics

YouTube (8-17):

honesty YT topics


On the topic of honesty in social media, what about language expression? Do people express what they want to say the way they’d normally say it in person?

Survey Question/Prompt: How often do you express your language (specifically your word choice, not your language type such as Japanese, English, Spanish, etc.) on Facebook, for example, as you would in-person? A person who always writes “y’all” and “howdy” on Facebook posts because that’s how they speak in person would select the option “I always express my language the same way as I do in-person.”


language expression

Here’s some of the feedback from respondents:

“I am more formal on Facebook because it is public, I would never talk normally like this one-on-one.”

”I always try to clean up my language on social media honestly. In Louisiana we don’t talk the same way we type.”

“I use LinkedIn purely for professional reasons. My language is therefore less casual and less like the typical language I would use in person.”

Dr. Russell Belk, of York University in Toronto, wrote an excellent piece titled “Extended Self in a Digital World.” I spoke to him recently on this topic, and he pointed out the notion of the “disinhibition effect:”

“People can say things online because of a sort of ‘disinhibition effect,’ that they might not say certain things face-to-face, so I think we get maybe better feedback or at least offhand feedback than what people might get than if they’re face-to-face…looking someone in the eye, it’s more difficult to tell them something that’s slightly derogatory…”

Survey feedback corroborates this:

“On FB, I don’t care who gets offended but in “real life” face to face, I worry that I will hurt someone’s feelings.”

At this point, we can already see that a filter exists when it comes to how culture and identity is expressed. It varies for people on what areas those are, but generally people are comfortable sharing information regarding their race/ethnic background, traditions/rituals, pop culture, science/technology issues and hobbies. They tend to be more reserved when it comes to politics, economics and religion. When we’re engaging with others, either in a casual, friendly manner or in a more formal way (say, we use social media as a tool to explore cultural representation), the limitations of our online identities become more evident; so too should our interpretations.

To read the first post on this survey, visit:

#1 Our Digital Selves: Mapping the Mosaic: This covers survey demographics, frequency of usage and how people use various forms of social media.

Our Digital Selves: Mapping the Mosaic


Our lives, the mosaic made of the fractured parts that paint the portrait whole, no doubt include the digital spaces within which we increasingly inhabit. Consider for a moment anthropologist Clifford Geertz:

“Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun…I take culture to be those webs, and the analysis of it to be therefore not an experimental science in search of law but an interpretative one in search of meaning.”

The Interpretation of Cultures, 1973

“Webs of significance” is a phrase that has continued to resonate with me ever since I conducted a survey on “Identity in an Age of Social Media” this past summer. As people on Facebook announce the births of their babies, political views and transitions in their lives (among many other things), I can’t help but think the social media forum has become one’s own spun web of significance.

Geertz, in his own words, “takes culture to be those webs”: our carefully-constructed identities (perhaps even those online) represent some degree of our culture.

In addition, he says an analysis of those webs is “an interpretative one in search of meaning.” In the case of the digital identity survey, the exploration of social media personas is subject to a filter — my own filter. As I share results of the survey, beginning with this post, I will try to be mindful not make sweeping generalizations because firstly, I admit to an inherent bias and secondly, because the study is very small, and not necessarily representative of a larger sample. The results were extensive enough to warrant multiple posts (and thank you to all of you that took the survey!).

As part of the survey (circulated between August and September), I asked people how honest they were online about their views of particular topics such as politics, family, traditions, etc. I asked how accurate they believed their social media personas to be when it came to expressing who they were in person. And I asked them to report to what extent their language expression and behaviors reflected that of their in-person identities.

In total, 163 people took the survey; 108 answered all questions (the number of questions varied, depending on which forms of social media they indicated they used); the remaining 55 respondents did not hit the final “submit” button but completed some or most of the questions (the answers of which were recorded).

Sample survey questions:

  • Which social media sites do you use? (Respondents could choose from Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube, Reddit and Tumblr)
  • How often do you use them?
  • How do you use each social media site?
  • To what extent are you honest about your views of various topics?
  • How often do you express your language the same as you would in-person per social media site?
  • Which statement best describes the extent to which your behavior on any particular social media site reflects thoughts, beliefs, values in-person?
  • To what extent is your presence on any social media site an accurate representation of who you are in-person?
  • Think of your “friends” or connections on social media. Is their online identity who you know them to be in-person?
  • How well do the following items express your in-person identity (photos/videos you post; posts/comments you make; your profile page; group/individuals you ‘like’ or ‘follow’)?
  • Have you ever changed your attitudes toward or relationships with an individual you personally know based on their social media presence?

Demographics of survey participants:


As noted above, most respondents were between 26-45 years of age (60%), female (78%), native English speakers (91%) and not religious (59%). The total sample did not represent a diverse pool (about 90% indicated they were White/Caucasian).

For this survey, the number of people using various forms of social media:

Social Media Platform Usage

This translated to, more specifically:

Facebook: 158
Instagram: 74
Twitter: 40
LinkedIn: 86
YouTube: 83
Reddit: 11
Tumblr: 20

Keep in mind participants could choose any or all of the seven types of social media. Facebook usage towers over the rest, keeping in line with statistics that say it is the most popular form of social media.

Frequency of usage per each form of social media: On average, how often do you use “x” (social media type)? Participants were asked this question for each type selected.


SM frequency

Same information below in table format:

Choice Facebook Instagram Twitter LinkedIn YouTube Reddit Tumblr
Less than once a month 1.71% 12.50% 12.50% 32.14% 12.07% 50.00% 26.67%
Approximately once a month 0.85% 8.33% 8.33% 19.64% 10.34% 0.00% 6.67%
More than once a month but less than once a week 0.00% 8.33% 4.17% 17.86% 6.90% 0.00% 0.00%
Once a week 2.56% 8.33% 12.50% 10.71% 12.07% 0.00% 20.00%
2-3 times a week 5.98% 16.67% 25.00% 12.50% 25.86% 16.67% 0.00%
Once per day 17.95% 10.42% 12.50% 3.57% 8.62% 0.00% 13.33%
Multiple times per day 70.94% 35.42% 25.00% 3.57% 24.14% 33.33% 33.33%


Social Media Usage: “How do you use each form of social media?”
Note: Number in parentheses indicate number of respondents. Due to an extremely small participant pool for Reddit and Tumblr, those results are excluded below.


Choice Facebook(158) Instagram(74) Twitter(40) LinkedIn(86) YouTube(83)
To stay connected to personal family, friends, and work colleagues 97.44% 72.92% 34.78% 42.86% 1.72%
To connect with others I share similar interests with, but otherwise, would not necessarily be friends with in person 35.90% 45.83% 56.52% 25.00% 12.07%
To voice my thoughts, opinions and concerns 47.86% 8.33% 39.13% 3.57% 3.45%
To gain perspectives of people from different backgrounds, cultures and experiences 43.59% 31.25% 56.52% 14.29% 34.48%
To seek work/professional development opportunities 9.40% 12.50% 13.04% 80.36% 5.17%
To learn new things 38.46% 27.08% 43.48% 19.64% 58.62%
To keep up with the news 52.14% 14.58% 56.52% 8.93% 22.41%
For entertainment and/or artistic purposes only 30.77% 64.58% 47.83% 0.00% 74.14%
To promote a cause or business 21.37% 10.42% 13.04% 17.86% 3.45%
Other 3.42% 0.00% 13.04% 8.93% 12.07%

Across all forms of social media, most people engage in social media (in this order) to maintain contact with existing networks, for entertainment or artistic purposes only, to learn new things and/or to gain perspectives of people from different backgrounds, cultures or experiences (this was derived from totaling the hard count across all platforms). The highest percentage on Facebook and Instagram use those forms of social media to “stay connected to personal family, friends and work colleagues”; on Twitter “To connect with others I share similar interests with, but otherwise, would not necessarily be friends with in person,” “To gain perspectives of people from different backgrounds, cultures and experiences” and “To keep up with the news”; on LinkedIn to “To seek work/professional development opportunities” (no surprise); and on YouTube for “For entertainment and/or artistic purposes only.” I only had a handful of responses for Reddit and Tumblr and thus excluded those results here and moving forward.

What I notice here and what’s relevant for the topic of online identity is the give-and-take relationship people have with social media. People avail of themselves their experiences and opinions, presumably to “connect” with others, and in return, seek feedback and perspectives from others. In this way, social media is a form of neo-communication and co-constructs their identity and that of others.

Now that we see who was using social media in this survey, how often and why, let’s dig a little deeper into the concept of authenticity. How honest are people on social media when they talk of certain topics? That’s up next.

Survey: Is a Digital Identity our ‘Real’ Identity?

Digital Identity

This past spring, I taught a graduate class titled “Exploring Intercultural Identity: An Ethnographic Approach.” The class was full of bright and ambitious minds, gearing up to change the world, and starting first with tools to better understand difference — across borders and groups. The ethnographic piece required that they conduct fieldwork — participant observation and interviewing, chiefly, over a five-week span and then regroup over a weekend to analyze findings.

During our discussions, one theme that kept coming up was this idea of a digital identity, and how that form of identity was separate from their real identity, or in-person identity. Social media affords us the opportunity to construct a representation of what we want people to see, so if they turned to social media as a sort of ‘data set’ of their participants, was that really authentic?

In my world of exploring identity and culture, we study markers that typically define identity — language, behavior, relationships, communications styles, etc. — to better understand diverse worldviews and values. But with the advent of social media, a whole new platform of expressing identity exists, and thus possible data sets to learn from.

All of this is background to explain why I’ve decided to circulate a survey on identity in the age of social media. In it, I’m asking questions that address: To what extent is our digital identity like our real one? Is it a fairly good representation of who we are, or is it more of a facade? Given this, can social media help us better understand difference — cultural or otherwise?

If you’re interested in these sorts of questions, or you’d simply like to contribute to my project, please take the survey. I will be releasing the results later this fall. Many thanks!

UPDATE: 11/1/15: Survey now closed. Results coming soon!

USC studies “selfies” to study culture

“Selfies have become the cultural artifacts of our time, the digital mosaic that reveals how society views gender, race, class and sexuality in the 21st century,” says the news team of the University of Southern California in a recent article.

In “Studying selfies: USC’s #SelfieClass examines what online photos say about us,” writers Tanya Abrams, Raul Alcantar and Andrew Good spotlight one course at the university that is studying social media, specifically “selfies,” as a portal into cultural exploration:

“When we look at selfies, we’re also looking at the beginning of the 21st century. The cultural moment of the selfies will pass and become something that’s iconic of our age, the same way that photographic self-portraits or painting self-portraits or religious journals were the selfies of their moment.” — Mark Marino,  Associate Professor at the University of Southern California Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences

To get a sense of what USC students are talking about in Marino’s class, check out their video:

With new platforms of engagement in our digital age, one must wonder: is the “selfie” a discredited act of narcissism, or contemporary cultural artifact?




In the Spirit of MLK Day, Finding Small Ways to Serve Others

Compassion need not take the form of extreme measure. Kindness does not require deep pockets, or a lifetime of time—sometimes the smallest gestures impart the greatest impact. For us, it’s letting complete strangers pick sumptuous tangerines from our fruit tree in our front yard. Wait—should they have asked for permission? Let’s not be silly—they’re tangerines, and they bring so much joy to others. In honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Day, consider these words:


In the spirit of this message, here’s a video that will warm your heart, and impress upon you the power of the little things we do when we casually, sometimes quietly, serve others:


Photo Credit: MLK image: OhTopTen

In Praise of Storytelling, and its Illuminating Vignettes


Tell me a story—a tale spun with intriguing events and characters, the actions of which are unpredictable, human, unique and unexpected—and I will listen, intently, mind and heart open to the deeper meaning lying beneath. Rattle off facts and numbers— diluted experiences seized by barcodes, cookies and analytics—and I will wonder about the stories and faces hiding behind the veil of quantification.

In the sea of data in which we swim, and the reportage that comes with it, it is no surprise that we yearn for narratives, or as Apple’s recent campaign asked, “What Will Your Verse Be?”

The ad is appealing, not solely because it’s poetic, and visually stunning, but because it nudges each and every one of us to imagine what our individual purpose is, what our personal contributions might be, in a world interconnected. Stories are seductive because they’re each unique, like a fingerprint (and thus intriguing) yet not so unique that they’re not familiar, and lessons for our own lives. A story about a woman grieving the death of her parent lost to a rare form of cancer may entice us to read more on the little-known illness but more importantly, we hold on to the narrative because of what it tells us about survival, in the midst of tragedy. Stories are both private and shared expressions.

A doctor, in defending benefits of storytelling, recently shared his observations of this form in the medical field. In “Why Doctors Need Stories,” Dr. Peter Kramer says:

“In the past 20 years, clinical vignettes have lost their standing. For a variety of reasons, including a heightened awareness of medical error and a focus on cost cutting, we have entered an era in which a narrow, demanding version of evidence-based medicine prevails.”

But he swims against the tide, and is an advocate for the anecdote. Stories, he found, when included in his own book, engendered sympathy from readers:

“… readers wrote to say that they’d recognized themselves. Seeing that they were not alone gave them hope. Encouragement is another benefit of case description, familiar to us in this age of memoir…vignettes can do more than illustrate and reassure. They convey what doctors see and hear, and those reports can set a research agenda.”

Dr. Kramer continues:

“Beyond its roles as illustration, affirmation, hypothesis-builder and low-level guidance for practice, storytelling can act as a modest counterbalance to a straitened understanding of evidence.”

With the rise of data collection, monitoring and evaluation, our culture has become quite good at standardizing, organizing and distilling information. Sweeping studies across vast e-scapes of data may paint the big picture, but in doing so, do we lose sight of its smaller and significant parts? Storytelling, singular narratives buried in the mine of information, connects us to other human beings. It is one of the challenges of our time—to usher in an age defined by large-scale data collection, and keep alive this form—the human voice of experience.

Photo credit: Ninha Morandini via photopin cc