August 15, 2011

Life Narratives in Social Media

Category: Digital Citizenship
girl peeking over laptop only showing her eyes

The stories we tell about ourselves are immensely powerful. In a digital age, how do we use social media to construct and tell these stories? How we explain who we are, where we have come from, and where we are going constitute important narratives that drive decisions we make about our futures and our ways of being in the world. These narratives are also crucially bound up with what we learn and how we learn it. According to Ivor Goodson, learning that ‘sticks’ is learning that has meaning in the context of our life narratives; it is learning that we can make use of in the project of constructing our life stories.

Narrative Capital

Our life narratives have value in the wider world: our ‘narrative capital’. By telling stories about who we are in the way we want to tell them, we can control the meanings and values ascribed to our lives. Narrative capital can be a way of asserting agency over our own lives in resistance to other dominating narratives, and so the question of what kinds of stories we tell and how we tell them are questions of social justice. And, as significant chapters of our life stories are articulated through our online interactions, social media plays an increasingly important role in this process.

But there is another, less empowering side to narrative capital: the imperative to cultivate the ‘right’ sort of life story. The kind of story that grants access to networks of power and influence, the kind that presents the constantly upbeat version of ourselves that everyone wants to be friends with or the professional version that is sought after as an employee or expert. The importance of presenting the right kind of story is illustrated by the rise of businesses that promise to help manage, or “sanitize” their clients’ digital footprints. It also lies behind the well-founded advice given to young people to consider potential future audiences such as employers when uploading information about themselves and their friends.

But how easy or possible is it to control all of your online personal information? Babies born today can have a digital footprint within hours of coming into the world as their parents proudly post photos of their new child online. Banks and retailers track our spending habits, governments search for patterns indicating possible terrorist activity and our so-called friends post embarrassing photos of us. The truth is we do not own or have control over all our online data. The picture of our life story as articulated online is further complicated by the multiple contexts in which we share information about ourselves. We may present one narrative when, for example, engaging in interest-driven interactions on Twitter, but quite a different story may unfold through friendship-driven interaction on Facebook. And both these stories may be quite different from those we tell to our family or to our potential employers.

Digital Identity Management

Put this all together and our digital life histories reveal a complex, partial and often misleading picture that we are not able to fully control. An interesting project from MIT illustrates this nicely: MIT Personas mines data associated with your name, analyzing and categorizing the information it finds according to its internal algorithms to create a visual display of your digital identity. This visualization is often surprising – it may not be accurate or represent us as we want to be seen. We, the subject of analysis, cannot see how decisions about us are being made by the program, just as we can’t see the ways in which employers, government departments and credit agencies use data mining to make judgments about us. MIT Personas “exposes this black box process as controlled voodoo.” As the use of similar data mining techniques by employers, credit and security agencies becomes increasingly mainstream, digital identity management businesses are likely to develop services similar to those of search engine optimization consultants, advising clients how to ‘game’ the algorithms to tell the right kinds of stories.

For those who consider themselves ‘knowledge workers’, much of whose internet activity is about cultivating a professional work-related identity, sharing any personal details online may seem unwise. As one commentator puts it, “I could use Twitter and blogs to talk about how cute the baby is […] but how would that contribute to my brand?” But too tightly controlled digital profiles can appear corporate and inauthentic. In order to have meaningful interactions, we must bring our personal context of “hopes, aspirations, goals, ambitions and so on” to our digital identities, according to Abhay Adhikari. Our digital narratives need the ring of truth afforded by personal details; our ‘brand’ needs to be humanized to engage with an audience at a personal level.

Capitalizing on Our Stories

Considering the different identities we might present in different contexts, there is a significant amount of work to do to construct digital identities that present the ‘right’ kind of narratives. This labor of constant posting, commenting and uploading in order to cultivate a digital identity is termed “communicative capitalism” by Jodi Dean. In return for free use of social media sites, we provide our digital stories and online content to media companies; these companies then use this data to sell space to advertisers who then target us with personalized advertisements. In a parallel of a market economy, we find ourselves in an attention economy, tailoring our digital stories to maximize the numbers of friends, followers or replies, deploying our digital narratives in competition with other users for a share of the audience’s limited attention. Rather than engage in conversations, we can find ourselves attempting to cultivate audiences.

Presenting particular aspects of your experience in order to successfully fit in to different contexts is described by James Gee as a characteristic of what he terms ‘shape-shifting portfolio people’, young people who are adept at building and using their wide-ranging portfolio of experience to present themselves in the best possible light. But some can only shape-shift so far: adapting your self-narrative to suit all occasions is not possible, or desirable, for everyone. For example, excising details of particular ethnic, class or gender identities to create the right kind of story is not a choice that many would want to make. Far from having a ‘second self’ completely distinct from an offline life, online identities and interactions are influenced by ethnicity, gender and class in much the same way as in ‘the real world’.

As educators, we know that we need to help young people understand how their digital stories might be interpreted and appropriated, and support them to maintain their privacy. But can we also find ways to help them tell their stories in ways that are not just about presenting idealized versions of themselves to a corporate world, but allow them to critique these narratives and gain agency over their own stories?

Banner image credit: artofdreaming