“Knowing Someone” in Social Spaces is Complicated

danah boyd is on my mind again tonight.  In her newest book It’s Complicated, she argues that teens reveal different parts of their identities to different social groups using different social tools and services.  As an example, she spotlights a teen girl who uses Facebook to connect with friends from school and Twitter to connect with fans of One Direction — a boy-band that she is passionate about.

While there was some mixing in her social circles — friends from school who shared her passion for One Direction interact with her in both Facebook and Twitter and One Direction fans she meets on Twitter sometimes become a part of her network on Facebook — she’s gotten really good at contextualizing her identity from network to network.

As boyd explains:

“This young fan is a typical savvy internet user, comfortable navigating her identity and interests in distinct social contexts based on her understanding of the norms and community practices.  She moves between Facebook and Twitter seamlessly, understanding that they are different social contexts” (boyd, 2014, Kindle Location 705).

Context-specific participation in social spaces, though, doesn’t come without digital hiccups.

While individual users may have a clear sense for their participation patterns in individual social spaces — and while they may have a targeted audience for the content shared in those spaces — controlling audience is almost impossible when content is posted publicly.

It is entirely possible, then, that outside observers might hold flawed assumptions about an individual because they are seeing only one side of the people they’ve discovered online.  Take the high school girl that boyd spotlights:  Find her on Twitter and she might appear shallow and one-dimensional, doing little more than fawning over British pop stars.

What’s important to realize, I think, is that adults are using social spaces in much the same way.  Here on my blog, you see a largely professional side of me.  I’m writing about knotty issues tied to professional compensation, educational policy, fostering collaboration between teachers, and integrating technology into my instruction.  If this is the only space where you follow me, you might think I’m some kind of highfalutin intellectual kingpin.

#nope

On Twitter, you see a slightly more playful version of me.  While I’m still asking professional questions and sharing professional resources, I’m also picking fights with Canadians and losing bets to New England Patriots fans.  If that were the only place where you followed me, you might start to question why anyone takes me seriously at all.

#notsure

And on Instagram, you see a deeply personal side of me because I’m almost exclusively posting pictures of my daughter — who is my world.  Similarly, I’m almost always leaving comments on the pictures of other people’s kids. I see Instagram as my chance to reach out and connect on a human level with the people I learn with in other spaces — but if you only knew me from Instagram, you’d never know that I really DO have a few brain cells to rub together.

#surprisesmywifetoo

That means “knowing someone” in social spaces is a LOT more complicated than it looks.

Because users of social tools — whether they are 19 or 49 — are often contextualizing their participation and showing different sides of themselves in different spaces, you don’t REALLY know someone until you are following them in more than one space.  And when you draw conclusions about someone — positive or negative — before having a sense for what side of themselves they are sharing in the social space where you have found them, you are probably mistaken.

This whole strand of thinking is leaving me with WAY more questions than answers.  

Personally, I’m wondering whether I need to do a better job articulating my individual purposes for the social spaces that I’m participating in — or at the very least, whether I need to make it easier for people to follow me in all of the spaces that I’ve embraced so that everyone can see the unfiltered me.  If I try to control my audiences and limit who can follow me in various spaces that I’ve embraced, am I unintentionally setting myself up to be misunderstood?

I’m also wondering if I need to do a better job following people that I care about in multiple social spaces.  If the power in social spaces is REALLY found in the relationships that we build, isn’t it essential to see multiple sides of the people that we THINK we believe in?

Finally, I’m wondering how many times teens are misunderstood by the old people in their lives who don’t realize that different spaces serve different purposes for different people.  I’m also wondering what we’re doing to help students understand that they don’t control audiences when they are posting content to the web, so misunderstandings are inevitable — especially when they aren’t putting much thought into the permanence of the content that they are sharing.

Any of this make sense?

(Blogger’s Note:  Dean and I have been talking about this over the last few days, too.  Come and join us here.)

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Related Radical Reads:

The Need to Connect Remains the Same

This is Who I Am

3 thoughts on ““Knowing Someone” in Social Spaces is Complicated

  1. Pingback: Social Media Menus and Venues: Home and School | SheilaSpeaking

  2. gfrblxt

    Bill,
    I had a funny experience yesterday. I had my computer plugged into a projector to show my geometry students some cool Wolfram Alpha stuff. At the bottom of the screen is my apps dock.

    One of the kids, sitting way in the back of the room, says: “Mr. Thayer, do you have a twitter account?” Startled, I say yes, and learn that they noticed the Tweetdeck app. About 5 seconds later, they find me, and as the kids say, hilarity ensues.

    Anyway, it really got me thinking about how we show different parts of ourselves on the Internet, as you describe so well above. I suppose if any of my students find my blog via my tweets and read it, that would be great, because ultimately what I write is for them in many ways. I think all of us, young and not-so-young, are learning how to manage our “identities”. Maybe it’s something we can all learn from each other in a meaningful way, independent of age.

    1. Bill Ferriter Post author

      What’s really crazy, Mike, is that in many districts, teachers aren’t allowed to let students follow them in other spaces. We literally take away their ability to see the whole of their teachers.

      Sure — there are teachers who screw this up all the time by posting inappropriate content that kids see — but I gotta believe that there is potential in allowing the kids to have a look at who we are beyond school.

      Bill

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