Presider: Jenny Davis

The panel: “Arts of Existence: Self and Subjectivity Online” promises to be both exciting and thought provoking. The papers in this panel explore the complex negotiations of publicity, privacy, inclusion, exclusion, and the meanings that these issues hold for the self. Jessica Vitak’s paper, a theoretical piece, examines the costs and benefits of open versus selective interaction via social media. She juxtaposes her theoretical musings against earlier CMC theories of the self (i.e. SIP and the hyperpersonal model) arguing that interrelated temporal, technological, and cultural shifts require us to think about mediated interaction in new ways. Mark Matienzo, through a case study, explores (everlasting) life and death in a mediated world. Using Zygmunt Bauman, Matienzo examines two opposing strategies for negotiating the potential permanence of the self in the contemporary era of pervasive technology. Finally, Aimée Morrison, through a study of mommy bloggers, explores the complex negotiations of candid-intimacy and open access. Morrison’s work looks at the ways in which bloggers simultaneously present their experiences to an open public, while carving out an intimate community. All of these papers illustrate how our digital selves and physical selves are deeply intertwined, and examine how negotiations of self and community necessarily span multiple spaces, places, and audiences.


Jessica Vitak (@jvitak), “Theorizing the Future of Computer-Mediated Communication: The Changing Role of Self-Presentation, Audience, and Interaction”

Fifteen years ago, self-presentation online was, in many ways, a simple affair. Individuals navigated chat rooms, created personal websites, and posted in discussion forums, typically while retaining some semblance of anonymity or pseudonymity. Many of the interactions occurring through mediated channels involved relationship formation with strangers, and the theories that developed to explain computer-mediated communication (CMC) reflected this focus. For example, Social Information Processing theory (SIP; Walther, 1992), challenged the cues-filtered-out perspective by arguing that interpersonal relationships can and do form via text-based online interactions, albeit at a slower pace than comparable face-to-face interactions. The hyperpersonal model (Walther, 1996) expanded on SIP, suggesting that CMC’s unique affordances—namely the reduced-cues (i.e., text-only) environment and asynchronous nature of most communication channels—allowed for the development of more socially desirable relationships than could occur through face-to-face interaction. As noted by Walther (2007), message features—including the ability to edit messages before sending, minimize cue leakage, and reallocate cognitive resources—allow individuals to more thoroughly engage in selective self-presentation, which in turn leads receivers of these messages to create idealized impressions of and affinity toward their interaction partner.

Engaging in selective self-presentation is not new to CMC. Goffman’s (1959) seminal research on self-presentation describes interactions between an individual and his audience as a performance in which some traits are accentuated while others are concealed; he refers to “front stage” and “backstage” performances to differentiate between various audiences. Schlenker (1985) suggests that context, audience, and environment are key factors driving a specific self-presentation. Leary (1995) posits that individuals self-present in ways that conform to their audience’s values or evoke a desired response. For each of these researchers, audience composition is the foremost factor in selecting a self-presentation strategy.

When considering how individuals self-present and interact through mediated channels in present day, it is clear that much has changed since the 1990s, with some of the most notable changes found in social network sites (SNSs). The key difference between interactions occurring on a SNS such as Facebook and interactions occurring in a chat room or discussion forum is that the vast majority of users have an  established offline connection prior to connecting online (Ellison, Steinfield, & Lampe, 2007). Furthermore, SNSs typically flatten multiple audiences into one unified group (i.e., the user’s “Friends”) in a process known as context collapse. As noted by boyd (2008), managing distinct self-presentations to multiple audiences on SNSs is complicated due to the searchability, replicability, and persistence of any action performed on the site. Therefore, users may adopt a variety of strategies through which to maintain consistent (but varied) presentations of the self to multiple audiences, including creating multiple accounts, employing advanced privacy settings, or following a lowest common denominator approach, as suggested by Hogan (2011).

Theories of CMC have yet to consider the impact of technological changes on relationship maintenance strategies, and the most commonly applied theories—SIP and the hyperpersonal model—cannot explain many of the current uses of social media. In order to begin developing theories to explain these behaviors, we should first turn to existing communication theories and consider how they may inform similar behaviors occurring online. For example, social exchange theory (Thibault & Kelley, 1952) posits that individuals try to maximize rewards and minimize costs associated with interpersonal relationships. But can this theory account for communication features unique to CMC? SNSs lower costs associated with interaction, but those interactions may also be viewed as less meaningful when compared with richer channels such as face-to-face, especially within strong-tie relationships. Likewise, SNSs lower the costs associated with establishing a virtual connection, but increasing one’s network beyond a reasonable size may decrease perceived attractiveness (Tong, Van Der Heide, Langwell, & Walther, 2008). On the other hand, higher-cost behaviors within the site, such as creating Friend Lists and using targeted rather than network-wide message distribution, may decrease concerns related to privacy and audiences, but require a greater commitment of time and knowledge than users may be willing (or able) to provide.

Based on these observations, it is important to determine how users balance costs associated with making disclosures in a semi-public space and the benefits derived from maintaining relationships with a large and diverse set of connections.  Therefore, a new theory of CMC should be able to ascertain the conditions under which the costs of engaging in interaction through the site become greater than perceived benefits.


Mark Matienzo (@anarchivist), “Everyone Is Here In The Future: Digital Preservation, Digital Suicide, and Other Archival Strategies of Networked Im/mortality”

The reality of social media is that it is ultimately powered by people even more so than it is by technology. As such, death, both figurative and literal, must be considered a major factor in understanding our relationship to social media, as well as digital information of all kinds. Rhetoric within the digital preservation community has shifted from describing a monolithic, final “resting place” for digital information to a continually managed “life cycle” for both content and systems that manage that content (Abrams, Cruse, and Kunze 2008; Higgins 2008). Nonetheless, as a networked society, we have only begun to grapple with mortality in relation to the longevity of our user-created content (Darrow and Ferrera 2006; Odom et al. 2010; Walker 2011).

This paper will use Zygmunt Bauman’s (1992) analysis of mortality and modernity to examine two divergent strategies for negotiating the permanence of the self in Web-based contexts. The first strategy involves planned immortality using online memorials and digital preservation services aimed at individuals. Services such as Chronicle of Life (2011) provide individuals a means to “ensure” their “preservation” — or at least that of their memories — through time. The second strategy is the act of “digital suicide” or self-negation of online presence as a conscious act by individuals that are still alive “in the real world.” The paper will investigate the case of “why the lucky stiff” (Wikipedia contributors 2011) a high-profile member of the community for the Ruby programming language, and his choice to remove nearly every trace of himself online. We will also analyze the response of the Ruby community to why’s choice to commit digital suicide.


Aimée Morrison (@digiwonk), “Hiding in the Crowd”

In The Female Complaint, her survey of twentieth century women’s culture and its “intimate publics,” Lauren Berlant notes of her own methodology that “all sorts of narratives are read as autobiographies of collective experience. The personal is the general. Publics presume intimacy.” Personal mommy blogging, this paper argues, forcefully enacts this productive tension linking the story of the self to broader public discourses, and the yoking of the private to the public in the collective online autobiography produced in this genre.

For the most part, in narrating the whys, whats, and hows of their own practices, mommy bloggers seem to understand their texts as at once public and private, in ways that are for the most part enabling rather than paralysing or paradoxical. Mommy blogs are public in the sense that these texts are searchable on the broader public Internet and often draw an audience of regular readers who are strangers to the blogger at the outset. However, mommy blogs are also private, in that they are often aimed at a regular and circumscribed readership of members of a limited and bounded mommy-blogging community. In order to learn more about these less public writers and the intimate publics their texts construct, in later 2008 I undertook an anonymous online survey of mommy bloggers, querying them directly about their practices as related to publicity and privacy. More than 200 personal mommy bloggers revealed what they choose not to write about as well as what they do, for what kind of audience, and why. By disclosing and witholding information by turns, courting some readers and discouraging others, these writers collectively labour to turn an individual set of private experiences into a public discourse that can nevertheless retain the intimacy of private speech among close confidants.

This essay will begin by describing the survey’s content and how the survey was conducted. Next, it will outline the fundamentals of the surveyed writers’ blogging practices: who is writing, and why they write. We then turn to questions of audience. Ultimately, the notion of an idealized (either positively or negatively) or actual readership is a strong check on blog content, and developing, catering to, and maintaining relationships with a desired audience, and repelling or minimizing unwanted audiences, is a fundamental part of personal blogging. Personal mommy bloggers, I conclude, do indeed deliberately court and manage ‘intimate publics’ among whom they attempt to achieve a functional, pragmatic balance between the freedom of full self-disclosure and the necessary constraints of social life in public. As Berlant writes, “an intimate public is an achievement” that is won by dint of both pragmatic and affective labour. The intimate public thus created “provides material that foments enduring, resisting, overcoming, and enjoying being an x”, with ‘x’ in this case being ‘mother.’ And so the surveyed writers articulate how and why they breach normative standards of privacy to create a supportive forum for candid self-expression that nurtures a community of shared practice around the emotional, physical, and intellectual labour of parenting, and the identity work involved in shifting into and growing in the multiple roles of woman, mother, worker, wife, daughter, and friend.