Behind A Screen

In Kindergarten, making new friends looked something like simply asking a person in close proximity if they wanted to play. With little analysis of this person, you were now friends. As one gets older, much more goes into developing a relationship. Compatibility becomes a factor in being able to engage with someone, which leads to social comparison. Figuring out if someone has shared interests with you would be a factor in deciding wether or not you want to have a relationship with them, or view them positively. Someone might say they like sports, even if they don’t, knowing that you do, in efforts to make themselves seem more desirable. Church and Thambusamy highlight this as personal information deception (PID), which they discuss in relation to the use of online social networks. Their study focused on the demographic of undergraduate college students in the US and their use of Facebook. Why do we feel the need to represent ourselves falsely? This is a question that applies to so many aspects of society, and online social networks (OSN) provide a very prevalent lens to look through in regards to PID.

Marty Nemko Ph.D. discusses the human trend of “status seeking” and highlights the idea of doing something solely for the purpose of being able to tell others you’ve done it. Online social networks provide a platform for an individual to do exactly that, whilst widely opening the door to falsely represent oneself in seeking status. Dining at a restaurant you can’t afford to show off your perceived wealth, is easily replaced by a simple Facebook status along the lines of ‘Lovely dinner at the (insert expensive restaurant here) tonight!’. Garcia et al state that “individuals (“actors”) are propelled by a basic drive—the ‘unidirectional drive upward’—to improve their performance and simultaneously minimize or preempt discrepancies between their and other persons”. The desirability of social status means individuals will pursue it according to the ‘unidirectional drive upward’, whilst holding the desirability of social status above the moral issue of misrepresentation. The ability to publicize your life on the internet presents a completely new way of interacting with each other and engaging with social comparison. Wether online social networks are positive or negative in this regard is a largely discussed topic. I think there are certain ways of framing this that would very directly highlight online social network use as a negative.

The Cambridge English Dictionary defines Propaganda as “information, ideas, opinions, or images, often only giving one part of an argument, that are broadcast, published, or in some other way spread with the intention of influencing people’s opinions”. It is widely acclaimed that propaganda is a negative method of delivering information. Certain governments have power in what information the population will receive, which allows for a falsified or biased version of said information. In regards to online social networks, the individual has complete power over what information they publicize. This allows the user to represent themselves in a possibly falsified or biased manner. A government using propaganda is exercising their power in efforts to maintain their power, which I see as striving for an image. An individual meticulously curating how they represent themselves online is not only striving, but competing for an image, as well as competing for social status. Both of these relationships with communication deal with differing forms of information deception, but information deception nonetheless. Even when an individual presents absolutely true information online, there is still direct relation to the misleading aspects of propaganda. Because online social networks follow a system in which one has to opt in to sharing information, the user is still curating the image they want to present of themselves. A similar argument could be made for any method of communication or self representation, but the difference I see is that being behind a screen and not face to face allows for a separation that promotes dishonesty and a propaganda like culture. I see it necessary to acknowledge the varying degrees of negativity associated with these different perspectives of online social network use and that aspects of it are negativity regarding the individuals actions, and other aspects are negativity regarding the forum itself. I think this begs the question, and opens the discussion of how we relate to the audience we are communicating with.

The Panopticon is a type of prison proposed by social theorist Jeremy Bentham, in which inmates are positioned in a circle around a singular watch tower, meaning they can be constantly surveilled. The idea is that if inmates feel as though they are constantly being surveilled, even if they aren’t, they will act accordingly. I’m not relating online social networks to prison, but to the feeling of constantly being watched. Posting something on the internet provides the possibility that it will be seen by everyone. Individuals using online social networks who post with this in mind, means the acknowledgment that their audience is everybody. How does this impact how we communicate? If an individual is a studious book worm by day, and a wild party animal by night, they may be presented with the dilemma of how they want to represent themselves, and an image curated online would be largely affected by the audience. Church and Thambusamy discuss the appraisal of a situation being how we analyze it and determine how to interact with it. The audience is a large part of the appraisal. I think this provides an interesting perspective on Garcia et al’s social comparison theory, which discusses one’s proximity to an opposing actor as a factor influencing competitiveness. How does the fact that the supposed competitor in the case of online social networks, could be seen as everybody, influence ones willingness to compete?

Trevor Tse highlights differences between his Instagram use, and his mothers. I found it interesting to see the acknowledgement of the differing relationships with their self representation and audience. This opens the exploration of how an individual relates to their specific online presence. To address the question ending the previous paragraph, I think a factor that shouldn’t be forgotten and that I mentioned earlier in a different regard, is that online social networks are an opt in system. In my opinion, as much as this means deciding what you do and don’t post, it also means deciding how you relate to, and perceive the social network. Even with the audience possibly being an unknown variety of people, one is still in control of how they relate to their proximity to the audience. As we’ve discussed in class and in relation to what Bateson speaks about, we rely on interdependence and competition is most definitely not the only outcome. This opens the discussion about ones willingness to compete, which often, and with good reason, doesn’t exist. 

Online social networks provide a platform for self representation that allow for an enhanced form of PID. An individual seeking status is given the opportunity to falsify their information in this effort, or easily represent themselves in a highly curated manner. I think this can be seen through many lenses and forms of communicating misleading information. In making that connection, I see it necessary to acknowledge online social networks as a method of communication done from behind a screen, which provides a significant barrier. Similar to most things in life, the study of online social networks demands the acknowledgment of relativity, which isn’t so heavily represented in this papers study. Everyone interacts with online social networks differently, but no matter the interaction, the forum demands so many questions in regards to social comparison, competition, and communication in general. This is such a vast discussion topic and there are so many perspectives that I didn’t touch on. I look forward to the continued discourse and reading other perspectives on this extremely relevant subject.


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