Ethnographies of Social Networks: How Artists Negotiate Digital Identity | STACEY KOOSEL



The use of the Internet in cultural research has opened up many new dimensions for ethnographic fieldwork. The Internet can be used both as a research tool for gathering data and as a cultural artefact or object of research itself. (Ardevol, 2011) The first ethnographic studies of the Internet in the 1990s demonstrated how new cultural practices and social interactions exist in computer-mediated communication. Digital communication technology has become so pervasive in social relationships that we can easily take them for granted and forget just how much they have altered our personal and collective sense of perception and experience. Unlike previous forms of mass media, the Internet enabled new forms of human communication that reshaped the traditional relationship between the media producers and the media consumers. With this technological shift, the media consumer transformed from being merely a passive audience member to becoming an active media content producer (Gauntlett, 2007). User created Internet content, often referred to as Web 2.0, is shared at present on Internet platforms like social networks such as Facebook, web-logs (blogs) such as Blogspot and forums or comment sections on news or entertainment websites.

The Internet has multiple temporal and spatial orderings, which have more to do with social practices and context creation by the users than the intrinsic effects of the technology itself (Hine, 2000). In the digital environment computer users must navigate the boundaries between self and community, the private and the public and the relationship between the offline and online world. Digital identity is the individual unit of a larger subculture or online microculture that is often referred to as digital culture. The relatively new social phenomenon of digital identity stems from a need to communicate identity in a virtual environment as a disembodied sender. Online, we have no identity information in the form of bodies in the corporeal sense – which obscures identity information (Cubitt, 1998). To be able to exist in mediated contexts, Internet users have to rely on text, visual, audio or video information to communicate identity.

Media studies and ethnography have both been used to analyze and interpret meaning in the production and reception of media texts. When aiming to provide a critical exploration of our relationship with technology and its impact on our lives, we must reject the assumption that there are inherent characteristics of technology that affect us (Grint & Woolgar, 1997). Instead, we can concentrate on different ways of thinking about our relationship with technology, our assumptions, attitudes, perceptions and experiences. For these reasons ethnography can be seen as an ideal methodological tool for exploring the ways identity communication and interpretation is experienced by participants in an online environment.


Experiencing Virtual Reality


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As the popularity of social media exponentially increases, researchers from many different academic disciplines including media studies, sociology, psychology and anthropology continue to attempt to define the relationship between technology and society, culture and the individual. Ethnographic interview-based research offers answers to questions concerning why people engage in community and identity construction on social media platforms. What fuels the need or the cultural pressures of representing oneself in a virtual space online? Social media is such a new phenomena that it is difficult to pin down and describe. Answering the simplest questions about social media, such as: ‘why does it exist?’ ‘why do people use it?’ and perhaps most interesting for the ethnographer, ‘how do people experience it?’ seem to baffle even those who have used it for a long time.

Placing communication technology into historical contexts can help place the current puzzling phenomena into perspective or at the very least, organize the technology in a timeline of events. From the written word to the Guttenberg press, the telegraph, radio and television to the Internet and the World Wide Web, technology has always brought about great cultural changes that have been referred to as: industrial, technological, scientific, information and digital revolutions (Castells, 1996; McLuhan, 1964; Kuhn, 1996). During periods of great technological change, grasping and perceiving what is going on in our own time proves to be challenging.

“The effects of technology do not occur at the level of opinions or concepts, but alter sense ratios or patterns of perception steadily and without any resistance. The serious artist is the only person able to encounter technology with impunity, just because he is an expert aware of the changes in sense perception.” (McLuhan, 1964: 7)

An analogy used to describe social media in previous media forms would be considering the impact if everyone was given their own television channel or newspaper – and they were given unlimited opportunity to present whatever ideas they could think of. However, the way the social network system is engineered is to create a replica of their personal life, starting with their name and personal statistics (where they work, study, places they go, things they like) to creating an audience of everyone they know[1] and then keeping their audience entertained and interested through frequent updates. The platform is merely mediating, the content is the user – without the users willingness to share, perform or connect using the platform, there would be no content.

Social network websites, the most popular in the English speaking world being ‘Facebook’ have essentially given any individual with a computer and Internet connection the opportunity to create a ‘digital identity’[2] online. The experience is subjective, in the fact that every user will interpret the environment, interpret other user's actions, and decide themselves what is safe to post and what is not safe to share, how they choose to present themselves and interpret meaning from the information shared by others.

How to people react to a new environment like this? We have no precedence for such social environments since the software is designed to coerce more user interaction. Facebook constantly suggests friends you may not have ‘friended’ yet and prompts to interact with someone you haven’t interacted with lately, it constantly streams updates of what your friends post, it literally asks you how you are doing and if you could share that information with everyone else. In this kind of environment, the social network user is put in a precarious position, where the urge to share can be overshadowed by the fear of that others reactions will be and the task of performing or enacting different personas for different groups of people ,much like 'real life' social contexts.


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The subject of communicating a ‘true’ self and tensions between the inner self and public or social portrayal of self have always been a subject of investigation and discussion long before digital technology, social media networks and digital identity. Dramaturgical analogies have been used to describe self-presentation and impression management from Plato’s “great stage of human life” to Shakespeare likening human existence to theatrics..

All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts

Sociologist Erving Goffman continues to elaborate on symbolic interactionism with dramaturgical themes in his 1959 work ‘The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life’ which further discussed the ideas of identity as performance and the different stages (contexts) where identity is performed for specific audiences. The private sphere being the backstage, and the public sphere being the front stage and every audience member or situation dictating a symbolic interaction. Intersubjectivity and identity as co-construction through interaction with others was further explored in the field of phenomenology and hermeneutics by scholars such as Paul Ricoeur. Ricoeur theorized that the self is revealed through interaction with others, making contact with others an intersubjective relationship which is further embedded in social customs, groups, communities and cultural traditions.

“It is in this sense that I speak of the hermeneutical arch through which the work of art is a mediation between man and the world, between man and another man, and between man and himself. So it is a mediating stage in a process of communication, man and man; referentiality, or man and the world; but also self-understanding, man and himself.”[3] (Ricoeur, in Reagan, 1998: 108)

Individuality exists within a social sphere and what individuals may conceptualize as their own special personality, is actually a continual co-construction with every interaction and appropriation of other subjective markers such as social, collective and cultural identities. Ricoeur’s post-modern model of identity is tied to the relationship between the self and the other. In the same way, social networks provide individuals with platforms on which they can construct and communicate identities by cultural markers of identity including who they associate or communicate with, as well as community or collective connections. The idea of identity by association has been a recurring theme in my own research, which has used an ethnographic approach to researching how artists, writers, academics and other creative professionals understand self-presentation on Facebook.

My research was conducted in a casual setting, with face-to face (offline) conversations based on a list of questions, of how artists construct and interpret identity on Facebook. The findings were surprising in that the tone ranged from neurosis and paranoia to critical and cynical reactions from my informants. It seemed that being questioned about Facebook is an uncomfortable conversation for many people as there seems to be a social stigma and judgmental reaction that extends to how they present themselves and interpret the actions of others on Facebook. When asked how they present themselves or how they communicate who they are and if they worry about the way other people perceive them, people responded with rather restricted, curt responses or avoided answering the question by talking about something else. When asked how others present themselves the respondents reacted much more openly and responsively with enthusiasm and information, albeit cynical and sarcastic at times.

The following responses are to a question posed in every interview asking: How do people communicate who they are on Facebook? How do they tell others about themselves?

Oh you don’t have to ask anyone, you just check their portfolio and some people write (in sarcastic voice) ‘Oh I’m working in this such organization, Oh I’m working here and blah blah.’ Or some people they don’t write that, so then you start to…
But still you can more or less figure out who this person is from their friends. Then you know what kind of friends he usually has and you can figure out the rest. I think in Facebook is training you to become a detective! You can trace something before you ask!

(Female, 30, Tallinn, Artist)


The first thing I’m checking is if we have common friends, this gives me an idea because Estonia is small. Maybe it’s like this everywhere. Who he knows, this gives me quite a good idea of what kind of person he is. It’s funny you can even know about his sexuality, because if you have a person from lets say the arts scene and they have friends not just in the art scene but the gay scene, then I start asking myself why does he know him, him and him. So probably, ok. (laugh) So that’s one thing I look at, common friends.

(Male, 30, Tallinn, Artist)


They put pictures, good pictures of themselves - you know they’re drinking wine, they’re in nice places like the beach and it shows that they are very successful, if they want to create a successful image. Or they post links to sites that they like, and they’ll say 'it’s so cool' because it’s a site that they like, and this is the way to do it. If they put pictures with their friends or certain people in these pictures then they show what kind of social life they have, you know this kind of stuff. They don’t want to show, 'oh my god I had an ugly outfit' or I was uncool, nobody wants you to show that – you can get in trouble if you put pictures up, they always un-tag themselves because they want to show they are pretty and successful. If people have children, they have to put all the photos of their children up because then you can see how successful he or she is in this area. Nobody puts photos of themselves drunk, wasted, throwing up – we have these kind of pictures but we don’t put them on Facebook, of course not.

(Female, 30, Tallinn, Artist)


Good pictures, good texts – and a good mixture of both. And there are some people of course who go onto Facebook and you wonder why they do, because you don’t even get a picture. I mean what’s the bloody point? I think the pictures and the texts are just a snapshot…that’s what they look like now, that’s what they’re doing now. But I can’t see how you can infer anything of depth from jolly snaps of people’s holidays.

(Female, 64, Tartu, Writer)

Just from fragments of these interviews about self-presentation and how others present themselves on Facebook – we can begin to see the complexity of identity performances on social networks. Users are uncomfortable when their friends (a Facebook term for contacts) over share and divulge too much personal information and they are also angry when their friends do not share enough information. People are accused of posturing or posing to try to make themselves look better, more successful, more important or connected socially than they really are. Although the website itself urges users to share as much information as possible, users still feel that they can read between the lines, or as one respondent referred to it, ‘play detective’ to find out more about who the person behind the profile really is, often by association, who they are friends with, what they like, what affiliations they have and so forth. It has been noted in various studies conducted on social media and youth that expressing an enthusiasms, or liking Facebook is not a ‘cool’ thing to do. Rather, cynicism can pass for sophistication and complaining or making fun of social networks is one way of dealing with the confusion, jealousy, anger, irritation and blows to self-esteem that the website seems to inflict on its own users. However, it is interesting to note that no matter how much anyone complained and found fault with the website – no one had any plans of deleting their account and leaving.

Perception, Discourse Analysis and Virtual Ethnography

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Identity play in virtual environments existed before the emergence of the Internet and the World Wide Web, in the text based world of the ARPANET. Role playing games in Multi-user dungeons (MUDs) gained popularity in the mid-1970s and were used right up until the 1990s; they were the predecessors of virtual worlds and (IRC) instant messaging. Early ethnographic research of emerging computer cultures based on many years of participant observation and both group face-to-face interviews and online correspondence by Sherry Turkle (1984) pioneered the field of investigation into the construction and presentation of self-identity in a virtual environment. By the mid to late 1990s discourse on methodological, ethical and philosophical issues of conducting ethnographies of the Internet were gaining momentum and attention by the academic community (Mason, 1996; Jacobson, 1999; Jones, 1999; Hakken, 1999; Reid, 1995).

The challenge of perceiving and interpreting social media environments involve many different discourses, research approaches and perspectives. The phenomena can be analyzed utilizing many different methodologies, including interdisciplinary approaches as the virtual environment and rapid changes in technology require a certain amount of reflexivity and adaptability. Quantitative studies are predominant in the field, as they are generally favoured by sociological and media researchers, which makes generalizations based on surveys of large samplings of the population. There are many studies done on social media and digital identity with quantitative techniques such as surveys either conducted online or offline, as well as qualitative interviews or observation conducted entirely in the online context of the digital environment. The relationship between the cultural researcher, such as an ethnographer and the online/virtual environment can be summarized into three possible placements of researcher and field, although a mixture of approaches is not uncommon:

  • Online based observation: the ethnographer as part of the online environment or community, observing and describing how others present themselves or interact in that particular community. Possible interacting with or observing others only in the online environment and not offline in the real world.
  • Autoethnography: self-experience used to understand and describe identity play in online environment. Either a more active user or a participant observer or participant lurker.
  • Offline interaction with informants: the ethnographer speaks to informants in a face-to-face, offline setting. Asking the informants how they understand the online environment, how they present themselves and how they interpret how others present themselves.

Using traditional ethnographic devices such as first person, experientially based knowledge to study digital culture helps retain authenticity of mediated perceptions and experiences (Hine, 146). Whether these interactions between researcher and informant take place online or offline depends on how much the researcher plans on interpreting the information. The more qualitative the study, the more a researcher can interpret through face-to-face interviews about online experiences. Visual interpretation can gauge not only what the informant is sharing about their experience, but also how they say it, body language and facial expressions give another layer of meaning to the information being transmitted in face-to-face interviews.

The differentiation between self, other and environment is perhaps one motivating factor for identity creation on social media platforms such as social networks. However the demand for online identity sharing platforms in popular culture and the academic fascination with the topic itself, has led theorists to believe that ‘identity’ becomes an issue when it is threatened or questioned and the need to clearly proclaim and present proof of self signifies loss of identity and attempted retrieval (McLuhan, 1964). Current factors such as globalization, increasing social mobility, and insecurity in personal relationships contribute to feelings of uncertainty and fragmentation (Bauman, 2004). With dissolving traditional roles such as those related to sex, race and social position – is it possible that these changes have led to identity loss and attempted retrieval in a reconstructed sense of self, shared online?

Corporeality in the virtual environment of social networking platforms is characterized by an acute sensitivity or self-consciousness about audience, self-presentation and self-promotion. They are a platform where the users are urged to share as much information as often as possible. However, as all the information shared has the potential of becoming available to the general public, and not just a select audience – the social media user has to constantly negotiate their social and professional reputation with every status update or comment they post. Popular discourse on digital media and digital culture are often presented by simplistic dualisms: whether the Internet and social networks are good or bad for society, individuals or children. Other dualisms debated about digital culture include, what is virtual versus what is real, the unverified and misleading versus the validity or trustworthiness of information found on the Internet, and perhaps the most discussed dualist aspect of digital culture is the debate on privacy versus publicity.

Using an ethnographic approach however, compensates for the dualisms in political, economical and cultural discourse when it comes to Internet interactions, by providing a kind of cultural relativism. “The intention is to sidestep questions of what identities really are and whether reality is really there, by shifting to an empirical focus on how, where and when identities and realities are made available on the Internet” (Hine, 2000: 118). Instead of engaging in the current discourse on identity politics or dualisms on Internet interactions (good or bad, public or private, authentic or fake) the ethnographer can communicate the roles, needs and values of the culture on its own terms.

The Reflexive Self in Virtual Environments

A popular topic that is often brought up when discussing self-presentation in virtual environments, like social networks sites, is the idea of the reflexive self. According to Anthony Giddens self-identity is a reflexive project – a project that is continuously analyzed, formulated and changed. Self-identity is seen as not a set of characteristics or traits, rather an individuals own reflexive beliefs about their own biography (Giddens, 1991). Many Facebook users (from the 2012 Artists, Academics and Facebok study) speak of how they used to present themselves when they were new to the technology, how they shared photos and shared more about themselves and how this sharing made them feel more enthralled with the site because when they shared videos or photos they received feedback from their friends. However, the users began to feel like their social network or audience (friend list) grew too big as they accepted more people than they actually felt comfortable sharing with. In the end they did not share any more photos and in some cases deleted or modified the information they had there to fit with the new more anonymous public whom they did not feel as comfortable with.

In general, the amount of freedom a social network user has to express themselves is hotly contested, as some argue that the construction of identities online is making the self into a commodity to sell, and unlike an object that is being sold, individuals can adapt and ‘keep the magic alive’ (Hillis, 1999). Many artists I spoke to see Facebook as a professional place for networking and developing their career – and not as a place to share personal things they like with their friends and family. Other researchers have voiced concern over the fact that users are encouraged to construct identities in relationship to consumer culture, and that the online environment is becoming increasingly commodified (Willet, 2005) An example on Facebook is how users are able to ‘like’ (which shares this information to their friends as well as the general public) the Facebook pages of companies and businesses. Researchers often express concern at how young people can become the unwitting target of marketing tactics, though users themselves never seem to express any concern or problem with selling themselves as a product or endorsing other products or businesses.

Media productions, such as user created content on the Internet, create identities through the user’s reflexivity of self. This reflexivity of self is present in both the process and the final products of media production. Users who create content on the Internet are forced to perceive themselves through the eyes of others, in order to modify their self-representations. Of course there are many aspects of identification that the user may not be aware of, but through feedback or audience response they will inevitably reshape how they see themselves and how they think they are perceived (Buckingham, 2008). The feedback loop is particularly prominent on Facebook as users can ‘like’ each others updates, photos or comments – the more ‘likes’ a thing gets, the more the user is likely to provide their audience with similar things, arguably changing their own taste in the process. Those who do not share or do share and do not receive positive feedback (in the form of ‘likes’, shares or comments on Facebook) will either become disillusioned with the site and not visit it or abstain from sharing more information in the future and eventually delete their profile or remain passive lurkers.

As digital communication technology has become more and more engrained into all aspects of our lives, be they social, cultural, individual or collective, they have changed the way we experience and perceive places, people and time. Technological change has always brought about cultural reordering as new experiences change the way we see the world around us and ourselves. Of course technology has long been burdened with the technologically determinist idea that it should make our lives better, and that the side effects or negative effects are largely ignored as they are seen as simply fall out of progress. In our technologically minded culture, sometimes even questioning the effects of technology is held in contempt and those who question modern relationships between man and technology are dismissed as luddites or technophobes.

Communication technologies on one hand are products that are sold to us, that have convinced us that we are better off with them than without them. Social media platforms are the newest global social phenomena, that has changed the way people interact with each other. Social media platforms such as Facebook are private companies that profit from advertising to the users of the site, and from selling personal information of the users to advertisers. The website therefor is constantly urging the user to give more information about themselves. Not only personal statistics like where they were born, all the places they studied or worked, a list of their friends and family, businesses or entertainment they ‘like’ but also urges them to share any given moment what they think or feel on their status update.

One of the key findings of this study, which utilized virtual etnographic research methods to discover how artists use Facebook, is the steady pace of identity renegotiation. The interviewed artists, vocalized a significant change in the way they presented themselves and interacted with others over time compared to when they first joined the social network. Posting content that was deemed appropriate and fun to shre in the beginning, became more censored, less personal and, professionally oriented in the end. A parallel story to the artist's experience of Facebook as a place of self-promotion instead of unfetteres self-expression is Facebook's own growth process as a commercial, openly traded company. Facebook's short story began in 2004 as a Harvard University social networking website, which spred to other Ivy League universitites before going international in 2005. In October 2007 Facebook had 50 million active users, by 2008 the company had almost doubled their number of users to 90 million (Smith, 2008). Currently, in 2013 Facebook claims to have 1.11 billion active users. With the exploding popularity of the website, came the expanding os a user's own personal network (number of friends) – which led to a renegotiation of identity communication strategies for some users. Which may explain why a certain amount of self-censoring and holding back will inevitabily exist on social networks and why people who work in creative industries may utilize Facebook as mores of a tool for self-promotion, rather than self-expression and interpresonal communication with others. According to Foucault this is how social relationships replace the traditional structures of power, of telling people how to socially conform and regulate themselves. Foucault believed that the modern world experience a shift in power structures, where once external agencies such as the church or governments exerted control or power over individuals, the power shifted to social relationships and individual having to self-regulate and self-censor in order to be socially accepted and fit into norms (Foucault, 1979). As people write themselves into being (Boyd, 2007) on social networking sites the discourse on self-identity, presentation of self, performance and the reflexive self are all brought into new light as they are acted out on a new medium.



[1] Or in some cases completely public. The public versus private aspects of social network use are very complex, the social network Facebook is constantly adjusting privacy settings and default settings.

[2] The nomenclature of terms used to describe the idea of creating an online profile to communicate identity is vast and includes terms such as: virtual identity, online self, digiSelf, cyberself, avatar, online profile, online persona and many variations there of.

[3] From a 1982 interview with Paul Ricoeur at the time he was writing the first volume of Time and Narrative.


Interviews conducted between May and August 2012. (In the possession of the author.)


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This text has been publshed after Peer-Review.