Self-presentation is the centerpiece of Facebook. By design, on all social media sites, the user is the central node of her social graph; everything in her network refers back to her self-impression online. Social media researchers refer to this as the “egocentric” nature of sites like Facebook. Whether posted by the user or by her friends who as her proxies add layers to her network identity, online social networking sites are about the Individual. Skeptics of the communal value of these sites warn that social media’s emphasis on the individual is simply 21st century narcissism that is unlikely to foster the collaborative, cooperative relationships that democratic communities demand. The geography of online social media sites appears too individualistic for democratic aim; they appear undemocratic and ironically unsocial.
This view is that it misses the hybridity that is so unique to social media spaces. On Facebook, for example, real and virtual relations interact and intersect. The overwhelming majority of users knows their Facebook friends from school or is related to them in some way. Among college-aged users, Facebook friends are very likely to be real-life friends who attend the same institution, or high school friends who go to another college. Though college aged students do broaden their networks to include people they have never met in real life (celebrity or not), their online social graph is one built chiefly on real life relationships, interactions, associations, group membership and familial connection. In this way, Facebook is very much a social, communal space.
The geography of sites like Facebook, then, will largely reproduce our demographic circumstances, our histories (note Facebook’s “Timeline” feature), and our social and cultural contexts. And we see this in networks of college students. Like all Facebook users, their proximal connections are people they already know, who by virtue of the geography—racial, ethnic and class geography—of the United States, are likely to be racially, ethnically and economically the same as them. Thus, that narcissistic and egocentric presentation on Facebook necessarily reflects all that composes the user. Or not.
Part of the hybridity of online social network spaces is that authenticity is meant to be played with, sometimes even challenged. Misrepresentation through playfulness, irony, and outright deception is part of the fun. The “authentic self” on Facebook—at least for college aged users—is illusory.
But the very real-life geographies of race, ethnicity and gender are landmarks on students’ Facebook pages. Race, ethnicity, gender and even social class are real-life markers that serve as social and cultural indicators. Self-presentation and self-impression for our Asian, African American, Latino and Native students on Facebook has to reflect the racism that shaped them, the ethnocentric discrimination that they endure, and the identities framed by hegemonic whiteness and inequity. In my ethnographic research with college students of color, this was certainly the case; so much so that students of color often “presented” on Facebook (they managed their self-presentation) in ways to prevent being seen by white students and white faculty as unworthy of their status as college students. Unfortunately, this is misrepresentation that is not all that playful.
Can we develop community through online social networks without authenticity? Is authenticity among college students even possible on Facebook? Or is it even necessary? Isn’t the point of social networking really about being free to make in-roads into associations and develop friendships?
Democratic community building requires that individuals be free to be themselves and to circulate freely among different groups and associations. If the geography of Facebook is shaped by the “real-world”, how much can the virtual world of Facebook really free individuals from their contexts? Can it liberate them enough to associate more freely among a variety of different groups? Can it free them enough to build Dewey’s “Great Community” because they can more freely “enter into the activities of others” and take part in “conjoint and cooperative doings”? Will self-presentation be nothing more online than what it is in the real-world? Can the virtual trump the restrictions of real?