MSc thesis: Facebook as a decontextualized environment

UPDATE – Key findings from my research have now been published and can be located here:

Duguay, S. (2014). ‘He has a way gayer Facebook than I do’: Investigating sexual identity disclosure and context collapse on a social networking site. New Media & Society. Published online before print: September 4, 2014, doi:10.1177/1461444814549930

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What is it?

My Master’s thesis project aimed to understand people’s experiences on Facebook in light of whether or not they choose to identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer (LGBTQ) or another diverse gender or sexual orientation. Some people decide to disclose their LGBTQ identity (‘come out’) online to all their Facebook friends while some decide to come out only to certain friends, and others decide not to indicate their LGBTQ identity on Facebook at all. I compared the experiences of young people ages 18-25 who made these decisions and talked to them about their past Facebook use as well as their everyday Facebook activity.

Why is it interesting?

Mainstream media has depicted coming out on Facebook as a simple, easy, one-time experience. In reality, the fact that people’s Facebook friends often include family, close friends, acquaintances, co-workers, etc., can make it complicated to display the identity intended for these people. Gaining a deeper understanding of this might help LGBTQ organizations know how to better set up their Facebook pages and events. It might also help in understanding how people’s identities and privacy can better be protected on Facebook and similar sites.

What did I find?

After interviewing 27 LGBTQ post-secondary students from a diversity of universities in the UK and asking them to walk me through their Facebook accounts, I had A LOT of findings. You will be able to read more about these in future blog posts – especially as they shape my upcoming Ph.D. work! For the time being, here is the abstract from my thesis, which I submitted for the completion of my MSc. in Social Science of the Internet at the Oxford Internet Institute:

Facebook as a decontextualized environment: Young people’s experiences of navigating LGBTQ identities on a social networking site

This study extends previous research identifying social networking sites (SNSs) as environments that reduce spatial, temporal, and social boundaries. The resulting context collapse, which creates overlapping audiences for untailored performances, was examined through an application of impression management and identity-related theories to the experiences of 27 LGBTQ people ages 18-25. Semi-structured interviews were used to investigate their everyday SNS activity and to gather biographical stories relating to the disclosure of information about sexual identity on Facebook, a SNS of personal networks containing diverse audiences. Interviews also included video-recorded walkthroughs of Facebook accounts. Participants’ experiences of context collapse in relation to unintended disclosures of sexual identity increased their awareness of Facebook audiences, giving rise to the application of two categories of prevention strategies: coded identity performances and audience separation. Findings resulted in a new model of impression management for decontextualized environments that builds on existing research to situate context collapse within a range of social interactions on SNSs. The application of an impression management framework to participants’ experiences also revealed the role of identity performance in context collapse. Such a model paves the way for future studies of identity expression on various types of SNSs and research relating to impression management across mediated and unmediated environments.

Key words: context collapse, impression management, social networking sites, Facebook, LGBTQ, networked publics, stigma, identity, self-presentation

Tl;dr: Experiencing context collapse makes people better at impression management as they put in place strategies to prevent certain people from seeing aspects of their identity that don’t jive with how those people already know them.

My primary theoretical lens was symbolic interactionism, specifically Goffman’s impression management framework, with some queer theory mixed in (definitely some Eve Sedgwick, thanks to Professor Katie Kent’s workshops). Here’s a neat diagram summing up my findings in combination with theory and background literature:

ContextCollapse_Full_Sept12

(Made with Lucidchart)

I find that as I speak with others about this research, it helps to develop these findings into tangible, coherent ways of looking at the impact of social networking sites on everyday life. So feel free to give me a shout if you would like to read more of my thesis or discuss anything related to it. I’ll keep this page updated with links to subsequent blog posts about the findings.

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