"Pathfinding" Discourses of Self in Social Network Sites

"Pathfinding" Discourses of Self in Social Network Sites

Mariza Georgalou (Lancaster University, United Kingdom)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-61520-773-2.ch003
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It has been argued that social network sites (SNSs) constitute a cultural arena which gives rise to the processes of self-presentation, impression management and friendship performance (boyd & Ellison, 2007). Based on the tenets of discourse-centered online ethnography, this study investigates how identity can be discursively generated, reproduced and co-constructed within the genre of SNSs, taking as a case in point Pathfinder, a Greek portal which incorporates social networking features. The tendencies suggested by interviewing a Pathfinder web developer as well as by a pilot survey on social networking are traced in a popular Pathfinder networker’s profile. Adopting Zhao et al.’s (2008) sociological model of implicit and explicit identity claims on SNSs and leaning on critical discourse analytical tools (Fairclough, 2003; Reisigl & Wodak, 2001), the chapter explores how the online self can be cemented and disseminated in narrative, enumerative and visual terms via an armory of linguistic and multimodal strategies. In this fashion, SNSs should not be approached as a sheer technological artefact, but as a “space for growth” (Turkle, 1997) that encourages users to have agency shaping collaboratively their own linguistic, social and psychological development.
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During summer 2007, when I started crafting my profile in MySpace, it had not even occurred to me that social network sites1 (SNSs) could ever receive such sustained interdisciplinary attention. Several months later, an unusual experience entered my subconscious only to bring to my notice the omnipotence of Web 2.02 practices in everyday life and their high potential to monopolize the academia henceforth. I dreamt of one of MySpace “friends” with whom we just share similar music interests and occasionally exchange comments. Still, I am totally unaware of her bodily presence; on no account have I met her face-to-face before and, in all probability, I am never going to. According to the dream scenario, we were supposed to attend an algebra course and she was overwhelmed by anxiety and hesitance because she had not prepared her homework. At the end of the lecture, she fetched an enormous king cake as a special treat to everyone present. When I informed my “friend” via MySpace personal message facility about the content of the dream, I received the following startling answer: “You saw aspects of myself; I am generally a shy, reluctant while generous person”.

Yet, identities in SNSs do not exist in a vacuum, let alone in abstract dreams. Conversely, they are fleshed out because one “type[s] oneself into being” (Sundén, 2003, p. 3), that is by virtue of language. Being trained as a linguist, with a background in discourse analysis and stylistics, I decided to explore the online discursive performance of self in SNSs. The choice to work on this topic was fueled—apart from the dream—by two overarching reasons. First and foremost, as Crystal (2001, p. 237) and Thorne (2008, p. 307) have pointed out, the Internet does not simply constitute a technological artefact; it is primarily a social fact which has textual language use at its very heart. Secondly, public discourse, and therefore Internet discourse, is reckoned to be inherently constitutive of identity (Scollon, 1997, p. 39). Web 2.0 modes of interaction in general and SNSs in particular were conceded an ideal context to look at as they mirror, support and change usual practices, especially with reference to how people reveal aspects of themselves and connect with others (boyd & Ellison, 2007, p. 224).

The launch of SNSs entailed a new organizational framework for online communities, and with it an appreciable, vibrant fresh research agenda (boyd & Ellison, 2007). In concurrence with Beer (2008), “we are at a crucial moment in the development of this field of study” (p. 516), in view of the fact that its parameters and scope are still nascent and more work needs to be conducted so as to comprehend this online phenomenon in its entirety. Turning now to previous scholarship on social networking platforms, the lion’s share almost exclusively belongs to the disciplines of media and cultural studies, information science, sociology and psychology. With respect to eminent documented language-focused studies on SNSs, Herring et al. (2007) and Das (2007, 2008; see also this volume) are more sociolinguistically-oriented in their research exploring the robustness of non-English languages in the topologies of LiveJournal and Orkut respectively. Larsen (2007), on the other hand, examines identity construction in Arto, a Danish SNS, adopting Scollon’s (2001) mediated discourse analytical framework, which pays attention to social actions in lieu of sticking to written text or language per se. Informed by corpus linguistics approaches, Thelwall (2008a, 2008b) has published two ground-breaking studies: the first analyzes swearing among British and American users of MySpace while the other compares word frequency statistics of English Live Spaces to the British National Corpus and UK university websites. What is more, he has tackled with the language of MySpace comments addressing spelling variants and “typographic slang” (see Thelwall, 2009).

Key Terms in this Chapter

Discourse-centered online ethnography: The term discourse-centered online ethnography refers to the use of ethnographic insights as a backdrop to the choice and interpretation of log data, with a view to illuminating relations between digital texts and their production and reception practices.

Strategy: Strategy is referred to a more or less accurate and more or less intentional plan of practices (including discursive ones) adopted to attain a specific social, political, psychological or linguistic aim. Discursive strategies are systematic ways of using language.

Modality: Modality refers to those features in a text that express the speaker’s and writer’s attitudes towards themselves, their interlocutors and the topic at hand, that is to say what they commit themselves to in terms of truth or necessity. Modality is distinguished into epistemic modality (modality of probabilities) and deontic modality (modality of necessity and obligation). Both modalities can have high, median or low levels of commitment.

Multimodality: Having social semiotic theory as a point of departure, multimodality considers that—like speech and writing—all modes (i.e. images, gestures, 3-dimensional forms, animation) consist of semiotic resources upon which people draw for the meaningful representation of events and relations. Adopting a multimodal approach at linguistic analysis entails looking at how language is embedded within a broader social semiotic rather than a decision to “side-line” language (Jewitt, 2008).

Discourse: Discourse refers to language use in speech and writing. Critical Discourse Analysis considers that there is a dialectical relationship between a particular discursive event and the situation which frames it: the discursive event is not only shaped by the situation, but it also shapes the situation.

Critical discourse analysis: Critical discourse analysis (CDA) is a critical, interdisciplinary approach to discourse according to which language is a form of social practice. It essentially deals with analyzing opaque as well as transparent structural relationships as manifested in language. The three cornerstones of CDA are: the concept of power, the concept of history, and the concept of ideology. Its origin resides in classical rhetoric, text linguistics, sociolinguistics, applied linguistics and pragmatics.

New Media: New media refers to any interactive digital media production which is distributed via the Internet or the World Wide Web. Examples include portals, news sites, newsgroups, weblogs, wikis, email, threaded discussion forums, bulletin boards, chat rooms, instant messaging, MUDs (Multi-User Dimensions / Domains / Dungeons), MOOs (MUD Object Oriented or Multi-User Object Oriented), chatbots, text messaging via mobile phones, social network sites, audioboards, and desktop videoconferencing.

Identity: Identity is defined as a process, as a condition of being or becoming, that is constantly renewed, confirmed or transformed at the individual as well as at the collective level. There are two distinct aspects of one’s identity, namely social identity and personality (or personal identity). Social identity refers to the social circumstances into which one is born while personal identity is acquired later in life. The relationship between individual and collective identity is mutual. Individual identity is socially constructed through social interaction. Simultaneously, collective identities are negotiated through the individuals who identify with a particular group.

Social Network Sites: Social network sites are mediated public topologies which allow users to create online profiles and develop online communities with common interests and activities.

Computer-Mediated Communication: Computer-mediated communication (CMC) is that kind of communication which occurs via the instrumentality of computers. It can either be synchronous (when the message is read immediately) or asynchronous (when the message is read at a later point). The language of CMC constitutes a fusion of writing with spoken conversation. However, it exhibits unique features of its own such as smileys, acronyms, abbreviations and special lexis varying according to the available technologies.

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