I immediately start to sweat as that haunting, red notification flag pops up in the corner of my Facebook. This can only mean one thing. My uncle has just seen the photo of me from that party I went to last night.
After commenting that I’m “too young for this behavior,” he proceeds to attack the boy in the picture with me- warning him to “watch his hands” and “treat [his] niece with respect.”
This is standard behavior for my uncle, who feels it’s his “duty” to protect me (even online), and to speak his mind about every news article, photo, or status on my page- usually offering a harsh and unwavering opinion about the subject at hand.
Ladies and gentlemen, meet my nightmare reader.
Alice E. Marwick and danah boyd define these “nightmare readers” within their work, “I Tweet Honestly, I Tweet Passionately: Twitter Users, Context Collapse, and the Imagined Audience.” Nightmare readers are those members of our online audience who are the “most sensitive,” whether that is a parent, boss, or partner (12). These individuals are the most likely to be offended by our posts and fall victim to context collapse: misinterpreting the message/context within which the original producer intended their work to be received.
The party that I went to was not “wild” by any means, and the boy in that photo was just a friend. But my uncle completely misread the information on his computer screen. And now, after countless similar incidents, I have been forced to tightly control what I, and others, post on my profile.
Leticia Barr examines this uncomfortable issue of censorship within her piece, “Your Social Media Self: Raw and Unedited or a PG-13 Version?” Barr examines her own social media behavior, admitting to posting only the most interesting content on her Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram:
Sure, I post the most interesting content in these forums- such as press trip photos from exclusive media events, Facebook updates that engage and inform, and images that help me convey myself as a professional- but what those who claim to know me through social media don’t see is my reality (1).
Barr completely owns up to her carefully-curated profile, but claims she does so for “personal protection,” due to the various audiences she has on her social media sites. Drawing on this theory of context collapse, Barr warns:
Even though we can control what we share, we can’t control how it’s perceived by others (1).
She mentions other examples of this kind of behavior, pulling quotes from fellow bloggers who admit to posting the “PG-13 version” of themselves after finding out that their parents and bosses were viewing their Twitter and Facebook accounts-proving that self-censorship is a popular form of self-representation on social media sites (1).
After reading this piece, Marwick and boyd’s arguments immediately came to mind: Barr is dealing with the potential threat of context collapse by appealing to the “lowest common denominator”: posting neutral information that none of her various audiences will find offensive (“I Tweet…” 9). In this way, she can avoid any trace of the “nightmare reader” that some unlucky users (like myself) suffer from.
However, I’m skeptical of Barr’s argument that she avoids controversy while posting such impressive information about herself. If she really is appealing to this “lowest common denominator,” shouldn’t she post general information that everyone can agree on? Couldn’t someone misinterpret her posts as excessive bragging, leading to the context collapse Barr is trying to avoid in the first place?
In this sense, Hugo Liu’s piece entitled “Social Network Profiles as Taste Performances” seems fitting. In my opinion, it appears that Barr is posting information that can earn her “prestige” within a particular subgroup (258). In this case, she appears to be appealing to the professional technology world by highlighting the perks of her career (“… exclusive media events… updates that engage and inform… images that help me convey myself as a professional…”). She is carefully crafting her online image to manipulate how people see her. And in order to achieve such prestige, Liu discusses how we may not communicate aspects of our offline selves to our online personas. He notes the intriguing example of the tendency of MySpace users to report their moonlighting jobs and dream jobs on their profiles, as opposed to their actual day jobs (265). Similarly, Barr admits to perpetuating this pattern of omitting certain information:
Only those that I talk to on a regular basis in person and through Skype really know me. They’re the ones that know the constant work I’m doing in between those updates and images, the crazy pre-trip preparation, and the scramble to make my way down my work to-do list before I leave- and how I always feel behind when I come home (1).
Clearly, Barr believes her social-media self is an inaccurate portrayal of who she truly is. And while she claims this is due to her multi-opinionated audience, I believe Barr has another goal in mind: to impress and earn prestige from those within her professional field.
One of the main reasons why I chose to analyze this piece was the fluidity of its format: clear, concise, and autobiographical. However, I would have liked to see more variety in terms of perspective. For example, in class, we have extensively discussed Nancy Baym’s argument that online communication is not a reduced form of face-to-face communication in her piece Personal Connections in the Digital Age (70). Barr, meanwhile, seems to suggest the opposite in her claim that those she interacts with “in person” and “through Skype” are the only ones who truly know her. Elaborating on the example of a colleague who does experience authentic communication online would have enhanced her post and allowed it to come through as an opinion piece, rather than as a collection of definitive statements.
I do wish Barr the best of luck in her mission to avoid the dreaded nightmare reader. On that note, here comes another notification…