An extract from Social Media for Academics by Mark Carrigan
As a teenager I was captivated by Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. I’d enjoyed fiction prior to this but there was a certain quality to the story that left it lodged in my mind long after I read it. Looking back on this much later, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what that quality was, though I think one of the features that resonated so strongly with me was the intensely memorable character of Atticus Finch (see below). One particular line that stuck in my mind for years has been Miss Maudie’s praise for Atticus Finch as being ‘the same in his house as he is on the public streets’. The plausibility of the politics underlying this seems less obvious to me in hindsight, but I can easily see how this characterisation captured the attention of my impressionable teenage self. It’s such a clear account of what’s taken to be a virtuous character trait, treating all people the same in all circumstances, and presenting a consistent identity to the world under all conditions. My ageing copy proclaims over 30 million sales, a number which has presumably only grown since I bought it as a high school student. Coupled with the fact that it was required reading in UK high schools, as well as I imagine in the United States, it seems likely there were many others similarly taken with this portrayal of integrity as a matter of being ‘the same in the house as on the public streets’. But was Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook founder and CEO, among them? After all he famously claimed that ‘[h]aving two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity’ when defending Facebook’s restriction of users to their real identities. Leaving aside the evidence that neither Facebook, nor Zuckerberg himself, live up to these lofty standards of integrity, it’s worth contemplating this particular view of identity which has been proving so influential within the digital sphere, to the extent that it is built into many of the platforms themselves.
If ‘having two identities’ constitutes a ‘lack of integrity’, it must be important to act in ways which ensure consistency between your behaviour ‘in your house’ and ‘on the public street’. But in practice this takes work. As the ethnographer Alice Marwick points out in her Status Update, the practical requirement of ‘being authentic’ is emotional labour and a lot of it. As she goes on to write, ‘authenticity is judged over time, in that people’s authenticity is determined by comparing their current actions against their past for consistency’. This already begins to sound rather tiring, not least of all because there are particular qualities of social media (the persistence, visibility and searchability of online content) that make it much easier for people to compare past actions and present behaviour to evaluate your integrity than would have been the case for Atticus Finch. Imagine the same dynamic playing out in the present day and Miss Maudie’s dismay upon, say, discovering that Atticus Finch has an additional existence as a prolific troll on YouTube comments threads.
When considered in personal and political terms, the desirability of Zuckerberg’s ideal soon appears questionable. As the sociologist Nathan Jurgenson observes, ‘we know that anonymity is also used by the most vulnerable and least powerful’. It is easy for people to have integrity in Zuckerberg’s sense when they’re in a position of power and their ‘real’ identity enjoys widespread social acceptance. Particularly when we consider how authoritarian governments around the world are coming to use social media, the peculiarly self-righteous way in which this policy of real identities is enforced begins to look rather unseemly. Even within a more liberal climate, this policy causes profound problems for anyone who needs to keep part of their life from those around them, leading PJ Rey to ask if social media have led us to build a society without closets? As someone who has studied the sociology of sexuality, the implications for queer youth are the most obvious to me, but it’s not hard to think of other groups for whom the need to maintain two identities can be a necessity of getting by as opposed to what Zuckerberg sees as a lack of integrity.
But what about in the professional sphere? Marwick’s wonderful ethnography, Status Update, of the tech scene in Silicon Valley shone a spotlight on the exhausting labour necessary to ensure the appearance of ‘integrity’ in such a media-dominated world. Entire careers and vast libraries have been built to cater to the anxieties created by this demand, with the LinkedIn founder Reed Hoffman’s The Start-Up of You representing one of the most prominent expressions of this trend. It’s a fascinating and strange book, which I began to read out of a sense of morbid curiosity but was unable to persist with, providing a jarring insight into the developing norms of the professional world within which it has been studied intensively. Unfortunately what was once limited to Silicon Valley has long since spread beyond it – something which Marwick attributes in part to the capacity of social media to facilitate such branding because it simply wasn’t possible in any meaningful sense until there was widespread access to the communicative possibilities it affords. As Marwick writes, ‘[b]efore the internet, a prospective self-brander was limited to putting up fliers at grocery stores, knocking on neighbours’ doors, buying advertisements in the local paper, or attending potentially inaccessible industry-only events’ (pg 185: 185). The other part of the story is the growing armies of freelancers, contractors and consultants for whom this self-promotional activity is a necessary step for winning clients. While some have seen this in an optimistic light, heralding the dawn of a ‘Free Agent Nation’, the reality is considerably more ambivalent. This self-branding activity can involve vast amounts of unpaid work likely motivated by the desire to escape economic redundancy, current or potential.
Categories: Social Media for Academics