Every day, you probably wake up thinking, “How can I become famous on the Internet?” You may not be thinking “How do my Web interactions provide a window into my soul?” Although most of us are Web natives for whom posting a Facebook status is second nature, what we put on teh interwebz reveals something about our needs and desires as humans.
“It’s almost like [devices have] ceased being technologies,” says Maria Mastronardi, an associate professor of communication. Mastronardi, who studies online interaction, helped us decipher some of the different ways we present our identities on the Web.
Your Facebook “About Me” reads a lot like your LinkedIn profile.
Young people manage their online reputations more than any other demographic. According to data from the Pew Research Center, 49 percent of people between the ages of 18 and 29 who have social profiles untag themselves from photos, and 56 percent delete other people’s comments from their profiles.
“You have to raise an assumption that whatever people decide to put on a Facebook site, they do it consciously and they do it with some intention, like they’re trying to accomplish something,” Mastronardi says. In other words, with every status update, you’re saying something about how you want to be perceived. In many ways, having an active online presence is like living with Big Brother. Despite your best attempts, it’s nearly impossible to control your online identity. Even if you’re a serial untagger, anyone can post a photo of you from last weekend on Facebook. “In some ways there’s a little bit of a backlash trying to hoard all of this in,” Mastronardi says.
Your favorite part of The Sims was the vibrating bed.
Technology doesn’t create needs for people as much as people use it to help gratify existing desires. But even with that it’s not easy to explain why we do the things we do.
Mastronardi teaches a course using Second Life, the less popular younger brother of The Sims. Second Life is a unit of her New Media as Popular Culture class, but students also explore other online identities. In the game, you can use “Linden Dollars” to give characters the ability to have sex. “[What] Second Life has turned into today is really ... a place where people now go to engage in kind of what we consider illicit kind of online encounters,” she says. But why buy the cow when you could get milk in real life?
“[In her research, my student] asked Second Life participants, ‘Well, why do you have ten mistresses in Second Life? Why do you operate in a different gender in Second Life?’” she says. “Researchers cannot always be certain how deeply their research participants understand their own motivations for the things they do online.”
You loved College ACB.
The original online gossip mill may be gone, but it hasn’t been forgotten (a new version, Collegiate ACB, appeared this fall). Mastronardi says it provided an unfiltered look into a side students usually hide from faculty and one another. When the site shut down, Mastronardi was working on comparing message board conversations from various types of colleges.
Mastronardi says there’s a sociological model that differentiates between a “front stage” and “back stage,” the way you act when you have an audience versus when no one’s watching. In anonymous online commentary, you can shine on the back stage.
“If you can think about [College ACB] as the ‘back stage,’ this is where you see all of the kind of anger and frustration and competitiveness kind of come out,” she says. “The discourse at Northwestern seemed much angrier and more aggressive, suggesting perhaps higher levels of anxiety here ... In some ways a traditional college environment, it’s always about finding your place in the pecking order.”