The following essay will be included with my research portfolio in order to provide an introduction to my idea, my research methods and my findings:

How has MySpace created new opportunities for self-representation?

In this research portfolio I aim to explore the issues surrounding tools for social networking and their impact on society, particularly the way in which they allow youths to experiment and express their identity in the digital realm. Focusing primarily on the site MySpace I conducted a wide range of research looking in-depth at the way MySpace users portray themselves via their online profiles, looking in particular at the way in which they use, and attribute meaning to, their profile pictures.

In the context of the Web 2.0 environment, social networking is a key component, embodying all the features that have come to be representative of Web 2.0. In Bryan Alexander’s article “Web 2.0: A New Wave of Innovation for Teaching and Learning?”(2006) he discusses the idea that while the concept of social networking and sharing information online is not a new phenomenon and the fusion of multiple features such as tagging, micro content and the increase in collaboration and openness, has led to a gradual change over time in the way we use, as well as the popularity, of social networking software. MySpace.com (www.myspace.com), created in 2003, embodies many of the features referred to by Alexander. The individual, customisable profiles are connected in a large network of possible ‘friends’ with profiles being searchable via hyperlinks and tags. The popularity of this site, especially, amongst the young, is unprecedented and it is currently the fifth most popular site in the world (www.alexa.com). As with any large-scale social phenomenon, much research has been conducted into both the usage and implications of social networking sites such as MySpace, providing an excellent framework for my own research.

I began by looking at the most prominent of social networking researchers and theorists, Danah Boyd. Much of her work focuses on how youth use MySpace and I used her work “Identity Production in a Networked Culture: Why Youth  MySpace”(2006) as a basis for my own research and it provided me with many ideas. Prior to finding such works, the majority of my research had focused on the collecting of facts and data surrounding the usage of MySpace, yet I soon became aware that this route was not conducive to an engaging research portfolio and the amount I could achieve with such data was limited. The social aspects Boyd explores in her work provided me with more scope for investigation and her ideas on representation and identity production within MySpace also helped me to focus my area of research. As mentioned previously “Why Youths  MySpace” (2006) deals with issues of identity and how youths are using MySpace to experiment with identity production. She states that “the dynamics of identity production play out visibly on MySpace” with members receiving the vital validation and feedback from peers which is required in offline, real-world identity production. She also goes on to discuss the popularity of MySpace citing the “lack of mobility and access to youth space” in the real world, as a reason. In the digital realm sites such as MySpace allow youths to remain virtually free of adult control and are able to act and socialize as they please. As is evident in my weblog, my research began to develop after reading the work of Danah Boyd and her personal blog, Apophenia (www.zephoria.org) provided me with many links to research in similar areas.

An essay by academic Jill Walker titled “Mirrors and Shadows: The Digital Aestheticisation of Oneself” helped to direct my research towards the use of digital photography as a vehicle for self-representation within a MySpace profile. When visiting an online profile, the picture we upload for the world to see is one of the primary clues to our identity, leading to a rise in the popularity of the self-portrait. As Walker suggests, the development of digital technology encourages us to capture images that we would previously overlook, and in particular, images of the self. She refers within her essay to The Mirror Project (www.mirrorproject.com), an online collaborative project consisting of self-portraits taken in shiny, reflective surfaces. The coordinator of the project Heather Champ suggests that the self-portrait is a “genre of necessity” and we are simply documenting our lives when there are not others available to help us. She also raises the question of truth in photography and suggests that self-portraits encourage us to shed the “mask” we wear in everyday life therefore providing an honest depiction of the self. This idea raises many questions that I aimed to explore in my own research, looking in particular at the staged image versus the snap shot.

Alongside researching the work of others, I thought it necessary to conduct my own research utilising the social networking tools available to me. As a member of MySpace I was able to circulate posts and bulletins to my personal network asking for a selection of self-portraits and the owners personal thoughts on identity and how their specific pictures demonstrated their personality within an online community. I received a total of seven portraits, including my own, and the majority of accompanying text was insightful and helped to shape my conclusions, which I while discuss later as part of my conclusion.

With the popularity of MySpace, I began to research topical news articles and found several which commented upon the digital self-portrait in relation to MySpace and other such social networking sites. One such article taken from the New York Times suggests that digital self-portraiture is “folk art for the digital age”. The ideas raised in such articles, such the effort and attention given to their creation, but also their disposable nature will be discussed later in my conclusion.

As mentioned previously the aim of my research was to explore the way in which sites such as MySpace provide opportunities for self-representation and I have done so by focusing on the use of self-portraits within online profiles. The photographs encountered within MySpace are often of a similar composition, often referred to as a “MySpace pose”, the term referring to the position of the subject usually taken at arms length, often highly staged with a range of expressions from dark and brooding to more whimsical shots.

In terms of the “mask” raised by Heather Champ and the idea of self-portraits providing a truthful image is a contentious idea. She suggests that we “are less likely to put on a happy face” and while this may be true, looking at the images I received and drawing quotes and theory from my research, the self-portraits being created for online environments tend to be highly staged and constructed and her theory disregards the use of Photoshop and editing software. When collecting portraits I was keen to find out how honest the subjects felt their self portraits were. The majority felt that the images represented certain aspects of their personality and some admitted to the use of editing techniques to remove blemishes or improve lighting. In terms of the “mask”, I received conflicting accounts. In one portrait the subject depicted herself free from make-up and this, in Champs view could indicate a removal of the “mask”, however in another, more staged picture, the subject claimed be purposely wearing a mask of confidence to disguise her real-life shyness. With all the images, taking into account their staged and posed nature, it could be said that there will never be an image that is 100% truthful or accurate. In the same sense, the idea of representation and the individual meaning we extract from an image is highly subjective meaning ultimately that however we try to represent ourselves, others will always form their own opinions.

As Danah Boyd suggests, MySpace and social networking sites provide the perfect space for identity production and therefore the images they choose within their profiles are perfect ways for youths to experiment with their identity. The digital technology available facilitates such experimentation, with endless images being captured and easily discarded allowing for extensive rehearsal of expressions and styles to take place. As my research suggests, these images are regarded as highly disposable and easily changed as the individual’s identity develops and changes. Social networking sites encourage youths to represent themselves and allow for freedom of expression and experimentation that is vital to identity production.

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