Multiple E-Identity Narratives in Social Networks

Ananda Mitra


Technological advances specifically 1) in the availability of powerful digital machines and 2) the wide-spread penetration of high-speed data connections have allowed for the popularity of numerous social networking sites (SNS) that are leading to significant changes in the way in which people interact with each other and produce their e-identities in the virtual realm. Numerous SNS came (and disappeared) in the latter 1990s and the early 2000s, each providing different kinds of functionality and attracting different levels of following among users. For instance, MySpace was an open site that was popular among a large cross-section of users since it provided unrestricted access to the SNS. On the other hand, the early version of Facebook was restricted to young people in academic institutions and most of the users of Facebook had a priori connections with each other and the SNS was an extension of the real life connection. Other SNS were restricted to specific parts of the World as in the case of Bebo which had a large following in Europe but not in the rest of the World, and Orkut that had an initial following in Brazil, and later in India. The development of SNS was relatively uneven in the early days, but by 2009, the participation in SNS has become commonplace and a large number of people Worldwide have experienced digitally mediated social networking. For example, there was a181% growth of people in the 25 to 34 age range and a 98% growth for people over 35 years old in Facebook membership once it became available to everyone. These numbers demonstrate the growth in a single social networking Web site, but do not shed light on another simultaneous phenomenon where the number of social networking sites is expanding as well. Although there is a dearth of precise counts of the number of social networking Web sites, it is estimated that there are several hundred such Web sites and more are constantly added (Sonnie, 2007). It is inevitable that with such growth, many individuals would be members of multiple social networking groups.

This essay focuses on the way in which individuals produce multiple identities through a discursive process of building a digital presence in SNS. Scholars such as Stuart Hall have suggested that identity is produced via specific narrative and discursive processes where the “identity narratives” become central to the way in which a person can create sense of the self. It is thus possible to create focused identity narratives that offer a specific component of a person’s identity through a specific SNS, reserving other components for other Web sites. As a result the process of identity production becomes problematic when multiple virtual faces are constructed by the same individual operating within the “public” sphere of different social networking Web sites. This offers the opportunity for the production of numerous identity narratives where Goffman’s notion of face becomes elaborated into several layers as the virtual presence distributed across many different SNS.

The fact that millions of people have subscribed to multiple SNS offers the opportunity to examine the ways in which the digital system is altering the way in which identity is produced, maintained and negotiated on and through the digital systems. Understanding this becomes especially important as more people, with fewer former connections, are populating the networks. Simultaneously, a single individual is a member of multiple networks which are all visible to anyone interested in learning about a person. This transparency offers a much more elaborate opportunity of learning about the identity of a person. And those who are curious about a person and those who are creating their identities are both aware of this opportunity and can manipulate the narratives appropriately to manage the composite narrative produced across multiple digital social networks.

The key question thus is: What are the strategies used by people to create multiple narratives across different SNS Web sites? The question is approached using methods of textual analysis as suggested by critical scholars like John Fiske where selected discourses of individuals is analyzed to see specific representational strategies used by the individuals to create multiple identity narratives.

The preliminary findings show that people who have multiple identities deliberately produce specific narrative bits or “narbs” that are tailored for the specific SNS. Most of the digital social networking systems also allow the members to constantly change the narbs. These changes could be in the form of updating personal information, adding new information, or reporting on the status of a person at any time. The outcome of the process of creating dynamic narbs is the slippage from a stable identity narrative. It is difficult to find the seminal narrative about another person if the person is deliberately changing the narbs that become the building block of the narrative. These dynamic narbs all eventually become virtual references to a single real person. Yet the identity narratives of an individual created by different sets of narbs selected from different places in cyberspace could be remarkably different from each other, further complicating the way in which identities are produced and maintained by digital social network systems. The paper discusses some of the possible implications of the process of creating multiple shifting narbs.