Sunday, January 30, 2011

Are people online really "real"?

As someone who has been involved in online communities for years, this week's readings really hit a nerve with me. At the same time they also taught me an essential fact, something that I had been aware of but never consciously examined before: People on the internet are still people. This may sound trite, but it actually explains a great deal of how online communities compare to and affect real life relationships and connections. Yes, the online environment allows behaviors and personalities to be exaggerated and even transformed, but in the end we all put at least a part of us in our online selves, even if that self may take the form of a talking white rabbit with OCD.

Unfortunately if judged by the readings, many researchers and commentators on the subject of online communities seem to have forgotten or prefer to ignore this very basic fact, and treat online communities as something completely removed real life society, and in some cases even from the people they're made up of. They portray members alternately as driven purely by narcissist desires for status, as lacking in real life bonds and socialization, or as naive and unwitting tools of a corporate money-making machine”. No matter which state of things one believes to be true, it’s hard to trust in the objectivity and validity of research conducted by anyone who calls the possibility of online communities reflecting real life communities "absurd".

The first assessment by Rosen is certainly true in some cases, and some online communities such as MySpace definitely seem to encourage such status-seeking behavior, for example by putting emphasis on the number of friends displayed. Everyone who has spend a certain amount of time in such communities has probably heard of or witnessed examples of some "destructive" behavior, such as the case of a man publicizing the break-up with his fiancé on Facebook by changing his status to "single" for all to see. Yet at the same time, do we judge the value of real life interaction by those who act badly? In the "real" world, do we condemn a whole group by the actions of some of its members? Of course there are some who do, but in general this would not be considered wise or useful, especially using it for research.

Yet this is exactly what happens whenever the community in question is online. Does no one consider how these users who are made examples of may resemble their real life personalities? Would the man who airs his break-up for everyone to see act less callous offline? Again, a platform such as an online community makes it easier to exhibit such behavior, but does it actually cause it? Similarly those who yearn for thousands of friends and some elusive status supposedly conferred by them will probably be the same people who in real life drive a big fancy car or tout their supposed wealth, good looks, of whatever makes them feel above everyone else.

Another aspect that Rosen mentions briefly and Bigge expands on is the alleged naivetĂ© of users who not only don’t realize the need for a certain amount of privacy protection, for example to keep Facebook communications out of employers’ hands, but who are completely unaware of a hidden system or corporate power that ensnares them and turns them into willing tools for surveillance and profit. Yet witnessing how earlier research ignored important factors doesn’t exactly make me confident in the statistics proving this kind of unawareness, and as there may be reasons other than ignorance for users to be very open about certain parts of their online presence.
Albrechtslund definitely has a point when describing the "eternity" of private information on the internet, yet he ignores very common possibilities of dealing with this problem such as filtering, withholding, or even faking privacy data, all of which can easily be observed by browsing through a few Facebook profiles. And while making money certainly is the major motivation for the companies that run online communities, this is not at all a secret to members, who often actively pursue ways of dealing with unwanted ads and other intrusions to their community experience, for example by using AdBlock, restricting privacy settings, or simply ignoring marketing attempts.

In general one of the major concerns about online communities seems to be the question of their value to their users. Can online relationships be equated to those in real life? Can virtual communities offer more to their members than simple connections based on one common interest? Despite Galston’s claims that online interactions are inherently shallow and distant, and can only lead to the formation of weak "voluntary communities", La Rose proves that sufficient experience of the medium can actually lead to a situation in which online communities become a valuable support structure, especially for those cut off from their traditional offline communities. This is a situation that I myself, as someone separated by two oceans and a continent from family and friends, can definitely identify with, and at least my personal experience clearly reflect LaRose’s rather than Galston’s conclusion on the matter.

To me it is this aspect, the ability of an online community offering real closeness, that would prove its equality to real life connections. While users joining in fanclub-like groups in order to enjoy a common passion is of no less value in my eyes, no one expects the bonds of such a community to be very strong, online or in real life. A user’s motivation to be part of such a group is obviously their own enjoyment, but are there other reasons to become part of a social network or group? Is it really all about status, self-interest, or quick shallow connections? Or can an online community really provide the same support and companionship we experience in real life?

It turned out that the best answers did not come through careful selecting of a community that I hadn’t been part of before, or, when that reminded me of a newcomer’s limitations, the creation of a new Livejournal account, and the planned interactions in a newly discovered journal community that pertained to my interests. Instead it was a tragic event, the deadly crash of a passenger train in Germany, which vividly served to illustrate the nature and possibilities of online communities. Without even thinking of this assignment, I posted about the accident on both my Facebook and my Livejournal.

Livejournal screenshots (3 seperate images - click for full size)
(I didn't screencap all the comments but hopefully it's enough to give you a general idea)

Facebook screenshot (click for full size)
(it's in German, sorry)

Within minutes, the first person had commented on my journal, while even until now, almost 24 hours later, the only response on Facebook remains that of a real life friend who lives only a few kilometers away from the crash site. Out of the eight individual users who replied to the Livejournal post, only two are people I know in real life, including that same friend. And every one of those eight I originally met through fandoms, i.e. shared interests, yet as in real life, some acquaintances just happen to develop into a stronger connection, while others never grow beyond the "how’s the weather?" stage, something that Evan’s clearly points out in the article on Social Responsibility (which is another important issue, but this post is already way too long as it is so I better skip that). After all people on the internet are still people.

And just like in real life, people have different motivations. My shock over the crash, which involved a train that I had rode myself many times, may have been too vivid or emotional for many of my Facebook friends to deal with. Some may not even have noticed or cared. This is not to a criticism, it simply shows the different nature and function of this online community. Most people use Facebook for quick connections, to easily keep track of a large number of friends, acquaintances, fellow students, etc. MySpace seems to be the place to be self-centered, and to collect and show off status symbols. And then there are communities out there for people to share interests and maybe even make closer connections. For me that has been Livejournal, but it could be anything. Just as we choose groups or communities that suit our needs in real life, we do so online as well, which also explains why so many people belong to more than one social network.

Just to round this up, I’m also including a link to the journal community post I originally planned to use for this assignment (it’s an open community so the link should work for everyone… if anyone has problems just let me know and I’ll try make some screenshots instead)
I just thought it was interesting because the pattern continues there… in a group where I’m a total newcomer with a brand new profile, people respond to the post and request of a complete stranger by sharing their own experiences. Most of this is probably due to the common interest (in this case foreign languages), and again it just shows how online communication mirrors real life… after all those in search of self-validation, status symbols, or quick connections would probably choose a different kind of community. It's also something that would have been very hard to achieve offline... to in the period of 24 hours find and connect to with over a dozen strangers with a similar interest, and get them to share some very random language related experiences not just with me, but among each other. All this has definitely shown me that blanket statements about people being generally shallower, more self-centered, or unable to form valuable or complex relationships online (and maybe even in real life due to their online activities) are not only obviously uninformed, but pretty shallow in themselves.

Articles referenced:
- Reformulating the Internet Paradox: Social Cognitive Explanations of Internet Use and Depression
- Online Social Networking as Participatory Surveillance
- Social Responsibility and the Web: A Drama Unfolds.
- Virtual Friendship and the New Narcissism
- The Cost of (Anti-) Social Networks: Identity, Agency and Neo-Luddites
- Does the Internet Strengthen Community? (William A. Galston, National Civic Review 89(3))


  1. Ahh the white rabbit.. your "constructed" persona- love it :)

    I have to agree with you when you said, "Yet this is exactly what happens whenever the community in question is online. Does no one consider how these users who are made examples of may resemble their real life personalities? Would the man who airs his break-up for everyone to see act less callous offline? Again, a platform such as an online community makes it easier to exhibit such behavior, but does it actually cause it?"

    I think our online persona is an extension of who we are although perhaps "unfiltered" and "constructed" a little bit more.. people are people online and offline- we say regrettable things in life just as we may also write regrettable things online.. we are emotional and opinionated.. social networking sites just offer users another outlet for their expressions.

    Of course, being smart in our expressions is a wise move as what we say is gone in a moment while what appears online can be duplicated, misconstrued and immortal by living forever online and accessable for years affecting later relationships and job prospects.

  2. Thanks for the comment, I definitely agree with you that we being careful with our words and actions online is a good idea. The best way to avoid something embarrassing or potentially damaging from coming back to us later is probably to be cautious about who we're sharing it to begin with. So knowing how to adjust privacy settings and things like that should be essential. I guess the problem is that when you're a teenager you probably don't even think of these things, and what teenager doesn't post something stupid at some point? Like you said, the difference between posting pictures of you drunk online and showing them around to buddies at the next party is a substantial one... they're both the usual stupid teenage behaviors, but only one will come to haunt you later when your prospective boss finds that old picture.

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  4. Julia, I agree with you and LaRose on the point that online communities can become strong support structures. Online communities have not only allowed me to keep strong my bonds with the friends I've met during my time working and studying in different countries, they've helped me meet new friends. Over the last few years, especially through some online games, I've met people that have eventually became very good friends;some of whom I've since met in real life. Galston's assertion that social networks formed online are "shallow and distant" is completely untrue in my case.

    Reading Galston's take on the future of social networks reminded me of how difficult it is to prognosticate the direction in which technology will go; his views are almost quaint by modern-day standards.

    Great post!

  5. 'Most people use Facebook for quick connections, to easily keep track of a large number of friends, acquaintances, fellow students, etc. MySpace seems to be the place to be self-centered, and to collect and show off status symbols.'
    I had this theory relating to the sentence above back when I was still so-in-to Friendster while Facebook was still in Zuckerberg's computer, and MySpace was the other hot SNS.
    Friendster was 'trending' in Asia, esp. Southeast Asia, not so much in E. Asia due to written language barrier. Meanwhile MySpace was big in the US.
    Friendster was used by my peers and I to keep track and stay updated with friends and reconnect with old ones. It emphasized the 'Friends' element of Friendster.
    MySpace was about personal touting of bio and achievements (incl. income level and job position). It was about 'my space'.
    At the time, I considered MySpace to be a reflection of individual/me-first western culture, and Friendster was reflecting the opposite eastern culture of showing who you are through your friends (still there's ego attached to it but with a different approach).
    Obviously this 'theory' of mine is rather baseless with no scientific research involved, just anecdotal and based on my observations and personal experience. I thought I would share my early analysis (circa 2004) of SNS here.

  6. Good insights - I especially like your first few paragraphs. I had the same feeling about some researchers ignoring the human aspect of SNS, and lumping all users into the shallow, self-centered group. For every user with 1,000+ "friends" I'm sure there is another user with less than 100. In addition to teenagers posting their every thought for the world to see, there are also grandparents who just want to see pictures of their grandchildren growing up. I'm not sure how researchers find their subjects online, but maybe these examples don't show up in the studies simply because they don't have as many connections that lead back to them.
    Like you said, SNSs don't cause narcissism, bullying, or other negative behaviors, but they might enforce certain personalities. Someone who feels compelled to increase their social standing by accepting as many "friends" as possible probably also spends a lot of time worrying about how people view them offline. Mean acts may be more convenient online, but they are going to come from people who chose to do them. Social networking sites aren't a brand new world - they are made of the same people making the same decisions, just in a different context.

  7. Thanks for the comments everyone!

    GabrielW, I totally agree, maybe things just have evolved since Galston wrote that article, or online communities were just too new to have been a place for stronger connections. But it's definitely hard to believe an argument when one's own experience goes so completely against it.

    Erenst your experience with SNSs in Asia vs. the US is really fascinating, and I think you have a great idea there. We tend to just throw the whole world in one big pot when it comes to online behavior, but although online communities make it far easier for people from very different places and background to "meet", it would be really interesting to see how cultural differences affect online behavior, or why certain social networks are very popular in one country but not in another.

    Andrea, you're so right, I think it's very important to closely examine the way research is being done, and especially who the subjects studied are. Just like any other research we need the group studied to be in some way representative of the actual user group in question, so if only users with little internet experience, or teenagers, or any other homogeneous group is chosen, the results probably won't be very useful in making any conclusions about social networking in general.