When I tell people I’m writing my Master’s thesis on Facebook I’m often given a funny look. Of course the topic I’m exploring is much more complex and eloquently written in the pages of my research proposal, but for the sake of the average person—just asking out of politeness during small talk—this has come to be my go-to response. I’m sure many people must think it’s a bit of a joke—the commonly held ideal of grad students conducting important and skilled research in the ivory towers of academia seems at odds with something as pedestrian as Facebook. After all, for most students Facebook is the hole where their productivity goes to die—an escape from school rather than a subject of legitimate study. However, isn’t the fact that Facebook has become so deeply enmeshed in our daily lives reason enough to want to better understand the impact it has on us?
Social networking sites, such as Facebook, provide a platform through which a complex mesh of performances can be played out and provides a space for selective self-presentation and identity construction that has never before been possible.
However, I’ve heard it argued, countless times over, that identity formation on social media is inauthentic because people project their “hoped for” self—a version of themselves that is not quite true to their “real” (offline) self because users can chose which aspects of themselves to reveal and which to keep hidden away. So is communication and identity formation on Facebook inauthentic? Gone are the days of anonymously hiding behind your computer, with users transforming themselves into some kind of ideal alter ego with every keystroke. Now, with the proliferation of smartphones social networking happens on the go and up to the minute. This is not to say that identity performance and manipulation are not present and flourishing on Facebook, but rather that it is high time we stop considering identity formation on social networking sites to be inauthentic and phony and start to understand this kind of identity formation as an extension of our offline identity formation and vice versa. After all, we are guilty of the same kinds of performances and posturing in the offline world. In our age of the networked society and web 2.0 “true” or “authentic” identity should no longer be seen as something that exists exclusively offline, as Facebook and other social media sites have become enmeshed in our daily lives.
The objective of my research is to understand the role a social media platform, in this case Facebook, plays in the identity formation of young women. Through an analysis grounded in social and post-structuralist theory the aim of the research is to provide a unique vantage point from which to consider how sexuality, identity and online and offline relationships play important roles in the construction of young womens’ lives and identities.
My guiding research question is: How do Canadian young women use Facebook to interact with and relate to peers in ways that both transcend and play into our culture’s dominant gender norms? In order to answer the guiding research question, I propose to answer two sub-questions: what are the cultural narratives and representations used by women on Facebook? How does this online practice contribute to the construction of gender identity in young women?
The images of women in the media are often rather unrealistic portrayals of gender that can make such performances difficult or unhealthy. With the advent of social media it would seem like the perfect cultural moment for women to say what they like online to each other and to the world and break away from culturally imposed version of femininity, however, these old gender stereotypes have become so deeply ingrained in our society that they can be hard to shake. Despite the opportunity Facebook provides to resist these stereotypical constructions many women lapse into dominant gender norms, especially when they are communicating with or are aware that they are on display to members of the opposite sex. Facebook provides ample opportunities for women to put their “womanliness” and sexuality on display. The “selfie” being a prime example—a phenomenon where someone takes a picture of themselves with the sole intention of posting it on Facebook, usually featuring a kissy-face expression known as “duckface” and taken from an above perspective to enhance cleavage. Aside from the “selfie” Facebook provides many other opportunities for women to perform their femininity by posting pictures, links, messages and status updates. Interestingly, while women may highlight their desirable feminine traits to their general Facebook public many women also break the mold of “niceness” with other women. These days, on social networks, we see fights and cattiness between women that escalates for no apparent reason except that there is no physical presence to exert a modulating force.
So here’s where I stand on the infamous “Facebook thesis”. The groundwork has been laid and I’m excited to start the research and see where it takes me. As Virginia Woolf once said, “I cannot […] hand you a nugget of truth to wrap up between the pages of your notebook”, at least not yet, but my hope is that through my research I will be able to shed some light on how gender roles continue to manifest themselves in our daily communication practices. So what can we expect to find? Identity play? Multiple presentations of self? Gender roles and cultural narratives? Evolution of use over time? And, most importantly, what does it mean for us? So now I open the floor to you. What do you think I can expect to find? And don’t forget to throw in a selfie or two for good measure! It’s almost Halloween and we know that’s everyone’s favorite #selfie holiday!