Declarative relationships, and the promise of social media interactions

Posted on December 2, 2013

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A few months ago, I finally ‘Facebook friended’* someone with whom I’d been friends for some time. Writing on his wall in the days after, I made note of the fact that our friendship was now ‘real’ because it was publicly declared; a kind of symbolic nod to our relationship that was now visible to anyone who chose to look. The connection between us had become declared; an explicit rather than implicit thing. It sort of felt like the relationship counted a little more then, because it could be counted.

Now, I’m being marginally facetious with this notion that a Facebook relationship could matter more than one established outside or beyond social media, but not much. I’ve started to think often about the kind of identity performing that takes place on social media platforms, and how these kinds of declarative identity statements offer opportunities not just to take action or align yourself with an idea, but also to be seen doing so. Or, as Nathan Jurgenson writes, ‘Social media surely change identity performance. For one, it makes the process more explicit.’

In a 2008 paper on identity construction on Facebook, Zhao, Grasmuck, and Martin note that:

The construction of an identity is therefore a public process that involves both the ‘‘identity announcement” made by the individual claiming an identity and the ‘‘identity placement” made by others who endorse the claimed identity, and an identity is established when there is a ‘‘coincidence of placements and announcements” (Stone, 1981, p. 188).

There are so many avenues of communication available to us now, all with different levels of visibility and publicness, that the choice between making an action observable and public (say, openly Tweeting someone), or choosing instead to operate in a less visible backchannel (a DM, an email), is not just about task appropriateness, but often also involves the decision to perform an act of communication in public, or not; to make the discussion open or closed; to declare a relationship, or sentiment, or inclination in a way that can be seen by anyone, or to keep it hidden.

But the decision to make public an act of communication can also play a role in that endorsement or lackthereof of identity, too, because the other party to whom a communication is directed can then publicly respond, or appear to snub. In the third of our (awesome) Museopunks sessions at MCN2013 recently, Beck Tench makes the observation that with the capacity to measure interactions, ‘reputation is quanitifible, in a sense, and it’s also democractic.’ I’m not sure that I agree that reputation has become more democratic, because it is just as easy to visibly snub someone on social media as it is to talk to them in public. But this idea that we can measure or see relationships and identity performance is interesting to me, and does put a new emphasis on the declarative value of social media relationships. Maybe, counterintuitively, they really might be more important than meatspace relationships, for some things at least.

This has, I think, some interesting implications for us working in the museum sector, both as professionals, and in terms of dealing with our publics. The first is in terms of how we act as professionals, and how and where we choose to perform our professional identities using these kinds of public or semi-public platforms for connection; particularly if we consider how interactions with others can help embed or endorse that claimed professional identity, or otherwise. The declaration of being active on social media as a professional, too, now seems to have increasing impact on how one will be viewed professionally, but that definitely complicates notions of professional identity and the boundaries of work and ‘not work’ in a networked world. As danah boyd asked earlier this year, ‘what does labor mean in a digital ecosystem where sociality is monetized and personal and professional identities are blurred?’

But I also wonder about the declarative value of people ‘liking’ a museum on Facebook etc. In a lovely piece on Aeon Magazine recently, Patrick Stokes observed that ‘the online identity that most of us use is, to borrow a phrase from the American philosopher Stanley Cavell, our ‘next self’. Dress your avatar for the life you want, not the life you have.’ Similarly, in the aforementioned paper by Zhao, Grasmuck, and Martin, the academics considered how people act in nonymous, online environments and proposed that they have become a place where people tend to express their ‘hoped-for possible selves.’ In this light, the urge to ‘like’ a museum or any other group or activity on Facebook or a social networking site acts as a kind of ‘identity statement’, through which the individual can “stage a public display of their hoped-for possible selves that were unknown to others offline.” (Zhao et al. 1820)

I sometimes see people disparage the number of people who are actively ‘engaged with’ museum social media groups; that an institution’s page might have huge numbers of likes, but only a tiny proportion of those in interaction. Rob Landry, for instance, recently argued for museum websites as a space for connection, over and above social media, because the large numbers of likers don’t mean much:

With social media it’s easy to be deceived by large numbers that don’t mean a lot.  For example, we spot checked the Facebook page of a major museum and found that they over the last several days they’ve had, on average, 716.4 likes, 184.8 shares and 8.4 comments per post.  Looks pretty good, until you realize that they have nearly a million fans.  In that context, 0.07% of fans liked posts, 0.018 fans shared and an infinitesimal 0.0000823% of fans commented, on average.

Here’s something to think about: would the fans who are engaging be the folks who would be buying tickets anyway even if Facebook had never been invented?  And are you strengthening connections or just giving people who are already avid fans a nice way to interact?

But for me this ignores the value that comes from someone associating their ‘next self’ or the person they want to be (or want to be perceived to be) as someone who is connected to your museum. In the same MCN Museopunks session mentioned above, Nancy Proctor described a study that Silvia Filipini Fantoni did of Tate’s bookmarking system (I think this one), in which people were sent an email record of their visit to the museum to extend the visit, and even though many didn’t actually click on the links, they kept the email in their rainy day files. In this, Nancy saw a kind of promise to themselves that someday they would reconnect with the museum, even if they had not taken that action yet. And it’s here that I see something interesting in the notional promise of social media, and its declarative performance of identity, and museum audiences. Is there a gap between the people who like an institution on social media, and those who actually visit the institution? And if so, what lies between those two impulses; the association of someone’s ‘hoped-for possible self’, and their actual actions? (Has anyone studied this?)

I was thinking about all of this during MCN2013, when I finally emerged from the dark place of PhD-land, where social media contact is minimal, and re-entered the bright world of #musetech discussions online. I’m aware that this isn’t a wash-up report from MCN2013, but there are so many issues that I want to get into from this conference that I thought I’d dive straight into blogging the stuff that’s been on my mind lately. Meanwhile, if you are keen to find out more about the conference, you should check out these reports from my professional spirit animal Jeff Inscho and the ever-great Ed Rodley.

Of course, I’d love to know what you think. How do you decide which platform to communicate an idea, or connect with a person, when there are so many available now? And does the level of publicness or otherwise of those interactions weight into your decision? And do you think your digital version of self is accurate or aspirational?

*I love/am fascinated by this idea that friending is now a verb.

Posted in: Ideas, Social media