Identity and the Internet:

A symbolic interactionist perspective on computer-mediated social networks

Abstract
Introduction
Part 1 - Symbolic Interaction
Part 2 - Identity
Part 3 - Social Networks
Part 4 - Connections and Research Directions

Endnotes
Bibliography

Winner of the 2002 Carl J. Couch Internet Research Award, presented at the Association of Internet Researchers 3rd annual conference, Maastricht, The Netherlands, October 2002.

Kurt Reymers
March 2002


Abstract

In this exploratory paper, a symbolic interactionist perspective is taken in discussing the concept of identity as it pertains to the recent formation of new computer-mediated communication (CMC) styles, typically available through a connection to the Internet (e-mail, internet chat, instant messaging, etc.). The idea of identity salience is employed and the relationship between identity and social support is assessed. Social network analysis also plays a part in the connection between the socially constructed self, social support and CMC. An integration of these perspectives informs certain research strategies to be used for discovering the changes in the construction of identity and the possible effects on psychological well-being inherent in this new media.


Introduction

 

Cyberspace is a word that has come into common usage in a very short number of years -- before 1985 it was barely spoken outside of the circles of science fiction buffs and computer aficionados.

 

What is this thing called cyberspace? Perhaps the broadest possible way in which to conceptualize cyberspace is to think of it simply as a communication medium. Of course, it is much more. But for the purposes of a social psychological investigation of cyberspace, the communicative impulse is perhaps the most important feature of this new "space" which we inhabit.

 

In what capacity can cyberspace be called a "space?" Space, in this context, should not be confused simply with a physical, geographical area. In so far as all "spaces" are intrinsically related to society, space is a social construct, and a space can be understood only through the lens of those meanings that have been assigned. Social relations invariably take on geographical expressions (Wolch & Dear, 1989) and within those expressions can be found the shared meanings which tend to construct the empirical world.

 

A clear definition is still, however, lacking. As Jones points out,

"Is it even possible to pin down space to any particular definition? As Benedikt correctly observes, ‘Space, for most of us, hovers between ordinary, physical existence and something other.’ Where we find it hovering is, as Soja notes, in ‘socially produced space, where spatiality can be distinguished from the physical space of material nature and the mental space of cognition and representation, each of which is used and incorporated into the construction of spatiality but cannot be conceptualized as its equivalent’ " (1995:16-17).

In the case of cyberspace, the connection between space and meaning is even more pronounced. First, it is pronounced by the fact that the geographical area of cyberspace is spread around the world, accessible through monitors located in homes, businesses, schools and many other institutions (that have been previously constructed with respect to their own specific societal meanings). With the additions of cyberspace into these milieu, the meanings which these institutions have traditionally held are bound to be inextricably altered. Second, cyberspace (like society) exists outside of (or perhaps inside of - traditional spatial analogies fail me here) the boundaries of the tiny geographical units which facilitate its entrance into the mind and consciousness of the individual. It is an information network of astounding proportions (Google reported that by December 2002 it had indexed almost 2.5 billion individual web pages), and it is this character of communal information which is meant not to stand as isolated elements in this place, but to be shared and communicated to a potential audience of billions. Cyberspace is used by people as a place of congregation and it is in this sense that cyberspace is most closely aligned with definitions of community. The implications of such an analogy follow the arguments that have been waged regarding definitions of community structures.

 

The definition of community itself, as a concept, is hardly agreed upon. A singular conception of what a community is has never been satisfactorily accommodated. Stemming from this confusion, great intellectual battles have been fought in the past century regarding the state of community in the modern era. Opponents in this debate are often characterized as arguing for "community lost" or "community saved" (Fischer 1977; Wellman 1978).

 

The community lost argument has a strong presence in the social thinkers of the nineteenth century (those who helped to establish sociology as a discipline- Durkheim, Simmel, Tonnies, Marx, and others). They (particularly Simmel) in turn influenced the development of early-mid 20th century American sociology in the ideas of Robert Park and Louis Wirth (among others) of the Chicago School. The Park-Wirth formulation of the community lost argument is well summarized in Fischer: "The key proposition is that limitation on the number of potential social relations available to individuals leads to more communal social relations. Communal refers to relations of intimacy and moral commitment, the sort of relations sociologists generally assume to be important for psychological well-being" (1977:7; original emphasis). Additionally, there is a historical argument that regards "modernization" as the root cause of the expansion of potential social relations and the consequent decline of community. The technological character of cyberspace as a communications medium is clearly linked to this modernization argument.

 

However, equally as compelling is the idea that community has not been lost, but simply has been reformed or "saved" from the "social pathological" effects of modernization. This argument relies heavily upon empirical analyses of neighborhoods (e.g., Whyte 1955; Liebow 1967), which demonstrate that densely knit, bounded communities act as a "structural salve" for the stresses of industrial bureaucratic society (Wellman 1978). "We now know," says Wellman (1988), "that community has stood up well to the large-scale social transformations of urbanization, industrialization, bureaucratization, technological change, capitalism and socialism." Contrary to the decline of community argument, it has been theorized that cyberspace may act as a "salve" where no opportunity for the development of densely knit communities exist.1

 

It seems likely that both of these conditions in fact exist and that the bi-polar hypotheses regarding community reflect ideological stances that are based upon different empirical realities. For example, citing authors such as Ellul (1964), Marcuse (1964), and Mumford (1970) on the "con" side and Kidder (1982), Turkle (1984) and Zuboff (1988) on the "pro", Neustader (1991) demonstrates how conceptions have changed just in the past few decades regarding intellectuals’ ideas of the impact of technology upon community. "Whereas in previous decades [intellectuals] opposed technology, in the recent era many intellectuals are embracing a kinder gentler machine" (1991: 176).2 Indeed, taking the perspective that the state of community does not exist as an either/or problem,3 but rather has multiple dimensions, may serve an empirical investigation into the community’s character and qualities. One of these dimensions is the communicative quality of cyberspace. Computer-mediated communication (CMC) brings us a form of efficient social contact and this, says Jones (1995: 16) "speaks to the issue of community formation in a postmodern world. [CMC is] more than the context within which social relations occur (although it is that, too) for it is commented on and imaginatively constructed by symbolic processes initiated and maintained by individuals and groups."

 

Because the idea of cyberspace can so adequately accommodate the notions of community, and since community can be best understood by examining the communicative interactions taking place between people, it would seem logical to use a sociological theory of interaction that is attuned to this level of analysis in order to study cyberspace.

 


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