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October 8, 2003
contextualizing a social network website
Recently, i've heard people moan about having to maintain multiple profiles and social networks on the myriad of YASNS. I totally understand the hassle. In real life, i seem to do fine with one faceted social network and i only have on identity, right?
Unfortunately, the problem is that the sites actually play a significant role in shaping what we present. The clearest separation is between Friendster and LinkedIn. When people have accounts on both, they tend to put forward their goofy side on Friendster and their professional side on LinkedIn. Plus, while you may be able to recommend your party buddy as a date, could you properly recommend her in a work context? The sites provide the context so as to encourage a fracturing of the social network and identity presentation.
This is not identical to our offline behavior. In RL, we own
our identity; we live it; it is who we are, not some articulated presentation of self maintained by a third party. Thus, the context shifts as our interaction shifts. But online we turn Goffman on his head. The context is stable; each site has a clear look, feel and purpose. Thus, we articulate and give up ownership of a constructed snapshot of our identity to each given site. We choose the contexts based on where our identity fits.
By restructuring the context-driven identity presentation model, we create new dilemmas. Do we really want to collapse the different networks? To do so would mean a collapse of contexts. Isn't this fundamentally the concern? Each site is trying to make its niche by targeting a specific population with specific contextualized needs.
Of course, in my ideal world, we want to restructure these social networks to more closely resemble the offline behavior. Personal ownership of one's social network with properly faceted social networks and presentations of self. (Note to FOAF folks: build in faceting, please.)
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