I have added the notes used in my presentation. I feel they summarise my ideas and research in a logical fashion. Click here to download the Powerpoint presentation that accompanies the notes. Power Point presentation slideshow

MySpace: A Place for Identity Construction

The area of Web 2.0 I have chosen to conduct research into is social networking software, particularly focusing on MySpace.com.

Started in 2003 MySpace is now thought to be the 5th most popular website in the world (Alexa Internet source). In August 2006 they celebrated the 1 millionth account being created and the site it thought to attract 230,000 new registrations everyday day. In 2005, MySpace was sold to Rupert Murdoch for $580 million dollars. MySpace, while not unique or complex in design, offers a range of services:

• Firstly users can create Personalised Profiles that can be edited and customise with a limited knowledge of HTML, expressing their likes, dislike, thoughts and feelings to the world.
• Next, users can network, find and add “friends”, creating an Extended Network through interlinking profiles.
• The site offers Instant Messaging facilities as well as comments, e-mail, bulletins and blog services.
• Music and Videos can easily be uploaded and embedded into individual profiles. You Tube rose to popularity via its links with MySpace.
• Lastly MySpace Mobile allows users to access their accounts via their phones from anywhere in the world.

MySpace and it’s impact on our culture is a vast and interesting topic in it’s own right, but I have chosen to look more specifically at the ideas around Identity and Representation and the way in which we present ourselves online for the world to see. When I started looking into social networking I found a great deal of people who were researching social software and in particular, MySpace. Much of this research focused on how people were using such sites and for what purposes and as you can see in my blog I had initially intended to follow a similar line of thought.

I then came across the work of Danah Boyd, an American academic who has carried out extensive research into social networking, looking at sites such as MySpace and Friendster. One of her key areas of research is looking into how ‘youths’ use MySpace and how they use it to create and experiment with ideas of identity. In her essay “Why Youth Heart MySpace” she talks about the reasons behind the popularity of MySpace amongst the young. She primarily puts it down to the need for private space in an adult controlled world. With the ‘digital public’ of MySpace, youths have the perfect platform for uncontrolled expression. She also talks about the idea of MySpace profiles allowing youths the chance to experiment with their identity. In the offline ‘real’ world, young people look to peers, elders and the media in order to help form they’re identity, getting cues and feedback on what and what it’s acceptable. MySpace acts as a perfect substitute whereby youths can view peers sites and receive feedback (comments).

I was interested by her ideas and began looking for similar research ideas. After talking to a photography student in the year above who carried out a MySpace based project looking at the links between MySpace users who refer to themselves as depressed and the pictures they use to represent themselves I decided to focus on the ideas of online representation and identity constructing, looking in detail at the way we use our images to tell the world about ourselves.

A key starting point for this area of study was the essay “Mirrors and Shadows” by Jill Walker. In this essay Walker talks about the way we represent ourselves online, especially using the self-portrait, and the way digital technology has changed our attitudes towards photography of the self. Portraiture, according to Hubert Burda in his essay “How people see themselves”, has a “claim to power and status” and portraits were traditionally taken of the rich and powerful. Today, as Walker suggests, with the advent of cheap and available digital technology, a self-portrait can easily be achieved by anyone wishing to express him or herself.

Jill Walker offers a link to an interesting site called The Mirror Project. Co-ordinated by Heather Champ, this site encourages people to send in their images of themselves reflected in shiny surfaces. Champ believes that self-portraiture has the ability to unmask an individual and states that we are less likely to “put on a happy face” when taking our own picture, so revealing a more honest truthful representation of ourselves. These images, unlike photographs taken by others, offer us the chance at having complete control over an image, easily deleting and taking another until we are happy. This idea of honesty doesn’t seem to take into account the editing and ‘photoshopping’ that can occur in photos, but I will talk about that later with regard to the self-portrait.

After reading Champs thoughts, out of interest I posted a bulletin, using my own MySpace, asking for peoples own self portraits they use on their profile, asking them to tell me how they thought the particular image represented them and spoke about their identity. I’ll show you some of the images and comments I received later on. While looking for further research into the rise in popularity of the digital self-portrait I came across several newspaper articles that offered interesting insights into the way the young, in particular are expressing themselves.

One article taken from the New York Times refers to the self-portrait as a “kind of folk art for the digital age”, with people spending vast amounts of time and effort in order to achieve the perfect image. While the staged, dramatic images we are used to seeing on MySpace profiles could be seen as a narcissistic, it is suggested that our generation, who are used to the idea of self exposure and promoting, are simply using the tools available to them. One quote says “It’s communication. It’s all an extension of cell phones, texting and email”. Youths are simple taking advantage of digital technology and repurposing it for their own uses. As you can see the quote taken from the teenage subjects show how important the portraits are to them and their identity, but also how they see the technology and resulting images as disposable, the images changing as their identity changes.

A contentious issue of MySpace and all online identity is the issue of honesty. With traditional chat room avatars, for example, the user was able to hide behind a stylised version of them and complete honesty was not always needed. With MySpace, the profile encourages an honest representation of the users identity, and I think the inclusion of self-portraits reflects this. By filling in personal details, uploading images, customising the page and displaying your “top 8 friends”, sometimes a direct link to our ‘offline’ identity or community, we are more likely to display a truthful account of our lives. Obviously there will always be false accounts used to send out spam and viruses, but I would suggest that the majority of accounts are an accurate expression of the users personalities. As Danah Boyd suggests, these spaces are the perfect way for youths to experiment with ideas of identity, and digital portraits, with their disposable qualities allow them to experiment further with self-expression and representation.

As I mentioned earlier, I asked people, via MySpace to send me their images as well as some comments that covered the following areas such as why they chose certain pictures, how they thought it represented them and what, if any, editing had taken place.

ADAM

With this one we can clearly tell that music is part of his identity and he chooses to represent himself using the styles of a particular band. The true understanding and reference of the image would be lost on those who are unaware of this music and so he deliberately chooses to marginalise and exclude others, or maybe himself. The only editing is purely stylistic and reminiscent of the style adopted by the Horrors. With the comment about it being pure MySpace I think he’s trying to prove he’s not being pretentious and excluding people and that it’s more tongue in cheek.

EMILY

Emily is a fine art student so is more critical and analytical of her images, but at the same time doesn’t deny choosing them on the basis of who might be looking at them. She admits to editing to improve her skin, and uses lighting and Photoshop techniques too not only improve the artistic quality of the picture but also her own image.

EMILY 2

In this 2nd picture she rebels against the idea of looking good for the camera. As she says, she feels this is more honest and genuine and sometimes doesn’t care what others think. In this sense, this is one of the most genuine pictures and as Heather Champ would say, the ‘mask’ has been removed and the true feelings and identity are revealed.

LAUREN

In this picture we see a combination of ideas. Firstly Lauren isn’t completely confident with the way she looks, but she is still keen to show glamorous photographs and so reaches a compromise. Portraits could be seen to bring out all aspects of our personalities whether they are the shy parts of the confident parts. This picture, when we understand the thoughts behind it could be seen as quite a false image, as she is obviously not confident, but she has put on a ‘mask’ of confidence so know one can tell.

ME

Lastly a self-portrait of me. As it say, I don’t like self-portraits and find the idea of people looking and making judgements about me embarrassing. On my actual profile the majority of my pictures are taken with friends as I feel the smiles are genuine as I am happy and smiley. As with the last image, I’m not overly confident so choose to crop most of face from the picture. In one way it is because I’m shy, but in another it’s because I think it adds an air of mystery. The black and white edit of the picture is a way of adding some sort of artistic merit or credibility, which as an art student I feel I should have.

Based on the images I collected and the theorists I looked at I have come up with some final thoughts. Self portraits can bring out and combine a range of qualities, for example we can be shy or unhappy with the way we look, but we can wear a mask of confidence so people don’t know. Judging by the rate at which we change our profile pictures, we form no strong attachment to our images, and as our image changes so do the pictures. This could show the morphing nature of identity and how it can never be defined as one thing. Lastly, while the images aim to represent the truth can any photo, if edited or even staged, be seen as 100% accurate? And in the same sense representation could be said to be subjective and people can see and interpret images in a range of different ways.

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