When it comes to my social media presence, specifically on Facebook, I definitely control my activity and my profile to display myself in a specific way. I also always make sure to establish a consistency between my offline and online identities and to express myself as an open, adventurous, and interesting person.
I’ve always thought that my Facebook friends were aware of this, and for the most part, approve of and support it (by liking and commenting on my pictures, photo albums, etc.). I was pretty sure that this virtual support would continue… up until the day I decided to change my relationship status to “in a relationship” with my female suite mate.
Now, before my suitemate and I decided to do this social media experiment, we were completely freaking out over whether or not we’d care if people actually thought we were gay and in a relationship and how this would effect our social lives and self esteem. Zizi Papacharissi, in her article, “Without You, I’m Nothing: Performances of the Self on Twitter”, talks about the importance of displaying a consistent and authentic narrative online througha self-reflexive process when convincing others that what you do online really represents who you are offline. Because we are both straight women, we thought that the moment we’d show an inauthentic performance of ourselves on Facebook, that this would influence what other people thought of us and it would break the consistency between our offline and online identities. This might also have an important affect not only on our online identity but also on our offline emotions. Julian Dibbell, in his essay, “A Rape in Cyberspace”, brings up the discussion about whether or not the virtual world can have an significant effect on people offline concludes that this is very much the case. Whether or not our Facebook friends would react and if so, how they’d react, would have a huge influence on how my suitemate and I would feel about ourselves and our relationships with our Facebook friends.
I was also concerned about the credibility of the relationship status in order for it to have a stronger effect on our Facebook audience. To do this, I asked my sisters to comment on the relationship status in approval of it, yet still vague enough to leave a little mystery. I know that many of my Facebook friends know that I have sisters and thought that their comments would be a little more convincing, instead of having everyone think we were making a playful joke with each other as was the custom in middle school when all the BFF’s would marry each other on Facebook (those were the good days). This is all part of the backstage actions Erving Goffman, in his book, Presentation of Self in Everyday Life defines as what the user does in order to influence how their offline identity is displayed, of course meant to be hidden from the audience and display the content as completely “authentic”.
Now on to the reaction. My suitemate and I were both surprised and disappointed by the reaction, or lack there-of to our surprise announcement to the world. First of all, it took about an hour before anyone reacted to the relationship status (with a “like”), followed by ONLY 15 others! She and I, with profile pictures with about 70 likes each, expected more of our Facebook community and their discovery of our supposed relationship! Now before I started to panic and decide that no one cares about me anymore, I looked into who these 16 people were. I used the categories that are introduced to us in Nicole Ellison‘s article, “Cultivating Social Resources on Social Network Sites”, when explaining several levels of online relationships: strong ties, those that we are close to and who know us well, and weak ties, anyone you have some amount of contact with but who you are not so familiar with other than the fact that you are Facebook friends and have mutual friends. Out of the 16 people who liked our relationship status, about half were strong ties and the other half were weak ties. The interesting thing is that 12 of them were mutual friends (the rest were strong ties either of mine of my suitemate’s).
A possible explanation for this is that because this relationship status is something that involved two people, those who did not know either my suitemate or me but not both did not feel either welcome or interested in reacting to the relationship status, at least not publicly. Because the only non-mutual friends that liked the post are strong ties, this might mean that being a close to one of the two people involved gives them more social access to participating in the announcement of the “relationship”.
So what do we make of everyone else who saw our relationship status yet said nothing? The lurkers, a term coined by Nancy Baym in her book Personal Connections in the Digital Age, are those who observe online activity and choose not to participate in it. Baym suggests the following possible reasons for this decision as either because they feel they have nothing to say, are contributing to the discussion in a positive way by not participating, don’t feel that they know enough about the group, or are having technical difficulties. I suggested to Baym a couple of weeks ago that another possible reason for lurking is because one is not close enough to those involved in order to feel comfortable participating, and doing so would only be awkward, random, and out of place.
I also observed the system-level data, from Nicole Ellison and Danah Boyd’s article, “Sociality Through Social Network Sites”, of my Facebook page to see if there were any changes in ads and recommended pages after I used my user-level data to display myself as a lesbian. Although I didn’t notice any drastic changes in the ads, I did notice that the suggested pages section on the side was recommending me to like pages that my suitemate also liked.
Did you believe us or not??
As disappointed we were about the lack of reaction we had on our relationship status (the attention whores that we are), we were also upset by the fact that we have no idea if the people who “liked” the status, the only people who showed any reaction to our relationship status (online AND offline actually believed that we were in a relationship status or thought that it was only for fun. The lack of response from our Facebook audience due to those lurkers who showed no interest in giving us their feedback have left us to die with this mystery unsolved. Thanks a lot Facebook.