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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 an Age of Surveillance, Self-Censorship and Communicating with Metaphors


Technology demonstrates its power in its capacity to capture and share our experiences in forums of interminable reach. Our creations, whether it be photography or a book or a painting, can be broadcast far and wide to anyone with an Internet connection. We also live in a world of heightened security, one characterized by fear and mass surveillance. Could it be that this culture of capturing and examining our experiences hampers our creative freedoms? How might we try to protect ourselves, our expressions from being the subject of undue scrutiny?

Here are some highlights worth reading on the topic, specifically on the over-examination by the government of published work. From a piece titled “Chilling Effects: NSA Surveillance Drives U.S. Writers to Self-Censor” by PEN America:

“In the human rights and free expression communities, it is a widely shared assumption that the explosive growth and proliferating uses of surveillance technologies must be harmful—to intellectual freedom, to creativity, and to social discourse. But how exactly do we know, and how can we demonstrate, that pervasive surveillance is harming freedom of expression and creative freedom?
In October 2013, PEN partnered with independent researchers at the FDR Group to conduct a survey of over 520 American writers to better understand the specific ways in which awareness of far-reaching surveillance programs influences writers’ thinking, research, and writing. The results of this survey—the beginning of a broader investigation into the harms of surveillance—substantiate PEN’s concerns: writers are not only overwhelmingly worried about government surveillance, but are engaging in self-censorship as a result.

PEN produced a full report on this, and perusing it, I, an advocate for better cross-cultural relations, strongly gravitated toward this quote:

“As a person interested in foreign languages (including at least one that’s politically sensitive), I’ve been quite disturbed by the extent of surveillance evident regarding anyone with such interests in the United States. A couple of friends with similar interests have also had troubling surveillance experiences (both here and abroad). This may well prove a great detriment to the study of foreign cultures, especially in this country, with a subsequent loss of international understanding.”

An article in The Millions recently explored the topic, and suggests that not only are writers self-censoring their work for fear of retribution, but usually avoid talking directly about surveillance details and instead resort to utilizing metaphors, or symbolic somethings, to communicate how they understand today’s mass surveillance. The online source pointed to a study by PEN, which analyzed 133 articles by over 100 journalists and bloggers. This is what it found:

“…journalists and bloggers have been extremely creative in attempting to describe government surveillance, for example, by using a variety of metaphors related to the act of collection: sweep, harvest, gather, scoop, glean, pluck, trap. These also include nautical metaphors, such as trawling, tentacles, harbor, net, and inundation. These metaphors seem to fit with data and information flows.”

Are writers employing metaphors as a protective measure, to avoid being tracked by surveillance programs? The article doesn’t state that directly, but that’s the implication.

For all the benefits conferred on us by mass surveillance, what do we sacrifice? Are limits on creative freedoms—refraining from writing or researching about taboo topics, for example—in exchange for a more secure world, worth it? These questions are worth contemplating as the gates of information sharing are wide open, and surveillance, in all its shades, is the prevailing approach to ensuring personal and societal security.

photo credit: ISphoto via photopin cc

Mapping Twitter, Unearthing Patterns of Human Communication and Networks

bluewhite twitterSometimes gaining a better understanding of what makes us tick, and what brings us meaning, comes from perspective. Recently a leading research organization, the Pew Research Center, studied interactions between people on Twitter—similar to the methodology of linguists in their work on how we communicate—and from its birds-eye view, created “structures of Twitter conversation networks” (see infographic below).

Why does the center’s study matter? Pew says:

“Social networking maps of these conversations provide new insights because they combine analysis of the opinions people express on Twitter, the information sources they cite in their tweets, analysis of who is in the networks of the tweeters, and how big those networks are. And to the extent that these online conversations are followed by a broader audience, their impact may reach well beyond the participants themselves.”

Cultural critics may find deeper meaning to the analysis. Emerging patterns highlight in-groups and out-groups, voices powerful (Twitter personalities with many followers) and issues significant (topics heavily addressed and retweeted). And the findings may be found only in the Twitter-sphere, but now our connections with others are forged by conversations not made in community parks but in digital forums.

It is a natural propensity for humans to explore territories uncharted. Social media may seem like an unnatural choice for such exploration (instead of clearing paths up a mountain, we are scrolling through tweets and texts), but it is the preferred place of engagement for the masses. The Pew Center says:

“While the physical world has been mapped in great detail, the social media landscape remains mostly unknown. However, the tools and techniques for social media mapping are improving, allowing more analysts to get social media data, analyze it, and contribute to the collective construction of a more complete map of the social media world. A more complete map and understanding of the social media landscape will help interpret the trends, topics, and implications of these new communication technologies.”

The social media community is the new frontier of human experience, and thus worthy of examination; it should not however, undermine communication and networks created in the more traditional paradigm, one defined by interactions that appealed to senses innate to our humanness—seeing, touching and hearing (others). In other words, forge ahead with exploration (of Twitter and the like) and be, in the most authentic sense of the word, with other people.

From “The Six Types of Twitter Conversations” by the Pew Research Center:


For a summary of Pew’s findings, visit here.

Photo credit: Twitter