Our Digital Selves: Mapping the Mosaic

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:

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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.