“Prosumption” is a bit of a buzzword here at Cyborgology. It refers to the melding of production and consumption. Although prosumption is not unique to the contemporary connected era, it flourishes within it. One slice of prosumption theorizing focuses specifically on identity. I first coined identity prosumption in an American Behavioral Scientist article (un-paywalled on my academia.edu page). Since then, references to identity prosumption have appeared periodically on the blog. For example, Nathan Jurgenson (@nathanjurgenson) applied identity prosumption to the asexual identity movement, Dave Paul Strohecker (@dpsFTW) mused about the role of identity in Star Wars fan fic., and I pondered the liberatory versus categorically constraining role of identity prosumption.
Identity prosumption refers to the identity meanings associated with prosumed content. What we create reflects and constructs who we are, just as who we are reflects and constructs what we create. Identity prosumption is a merging of prosumed objects and prosuming subjects. It applies: (a) when that which is prosumed can be connected to the prosumer in a defining way and (b) when the process of prosumption incorporates social interaction.
Today, I want to add a bit more nuance to the identity prosumption model. Specifically, I want to demonstrate that sites of identity prosumption (both online and offline) affect the identity prosumption process in non-uniform ways. I focus here on two key variations: collective vs. individualist orientation, and degree of control over identity meanings. I explore these variations through a comparison of two identity prosumption sites: Facebook and FetLife. The former is the preeminent social network platform, the latter an (ironically) mainstream social network site for people who like BDSM. To employ a twist on the Hipster trope, “FetLife: you’ve probably heard of it.”
These are good sites for comparison because they maintain quite similar formats (FetLife is crafted quite noticeably in the format of Facebook, including profiled content, “love” buttons, friend requests, and a ticker style newsfeed), but with different foci that hold key identity implications.
Collective vs. Individualist Orientation
Identity is complex and multilayered. From a social psychological perspective, identity refers to the internalized set of meanings that an actor attaches to hirself as a person (nice, mean, hard working, creative, lazy), as an occupant of a role (mother, father, writer, student, worker, athlete, spouse), and as a member of a group (woman, man, person of color, democrat, republican). These dimensions of identity range from individualist to collective respectively. Importantly, however, each actor, enacting every identity, maintains all dimensions of identity. What varies, with the enactment of each identity, is the salience of one dimension over the others. For example, as I write this post, I am a passionate (person identity) female (group identity) blogger (role identity). Although “blogger” may be the most salient dimension, I am inescapably a woman and certainly passionate[i]. Identities are inseparable from social structure, and different identities, as well as different dimensions of each identity, are called out in each situation. In this vein, Sites of identity prosumption structurally and architecturally promote particular dimensions of identity over others.
Those which promote group identity have a more collective orientation, as those which promote role and/or person identity have a more individualist orientation. In the case of our two comparative sites, Facebook is more individualist, while FetLife makes group identity more salient.
Facebook emphasizes person and role identities through its broad identity platform. Facebook is a space in which to collapse network boundaries, share photographs and anecdotes from work, family time, friendly outings, and solitary moments. The architecture asks about an array of biographical and social information, such as religion, politics, family structure, musical preferences, consumptive practices, racial identification, professional affiliation, and geographic connections. FetLife, on the other hand, makes group identity salient. The site itself is centered around one aspect of the self: deviant sexuality. To join the site is to join the BDSM community. To be sure, person and role identity are important here, as members define themselves as subs, doms, slaves, and masters; desired, desiring, adventurous, and selective. The person and role identity, however, exist in relation to the group identity: a member of the BDSM community. The space calls out the actor’s sexuality, and it is through this space, that a specific, highly intimate, aspect of hirself is collectively and individually prosumed through participation and interaction.
Control over Identity Meanings
A second way in which sites of identity prosumption vary is in their degree of control over identity meanings. Some spaces are more open, others more closed. The former gives greater interactive freedom in identity prosumption, the latter offers more explicit guidance.
Continuing with our comparison, Facebook is relatively more open than FetLife. The biggest difference is the proportion of open ended responses prompted by the Facebook architecture, versus the abundance of dropdown menus on FetLife. For example, on Fetlife, one can select to define themselves through any number of variations of dom, sub, or switch, with numerous activity preferences, but these variations and preferences come from pre-set menus.
This is perhaps surprising, that a space dedicated to personal desire, sexual expression, and freedom from societal controls over the body would delimit the identity meanings of its inhabitants. It is less surprising, however, when we think about what identity prosumption does. Identity prosumption is a process by which identities are both produced and consumed through the production and consumption of content. At the collective level, identities can be prosumed into being. This is of particular import when thinking about deviant identities—those for which fewer meaning templates exist. One may have the tacit knowledge to perform womanhood, race, academic, employee, or boss, but lack the language and/or know-how for performing sexual deviance as defined by a particular label. FetLife, through its templated categories, prominently posted norms, and dropdown menus, guides prosuming subjects through the process of BDSM identity prosumption. The site itself teaches the subject how to prosume content that creates a BDSM identity—both individually and collectively.
Here, I delineated two ways in which sites of identity prosumption vary, affecting the identity prosumption process in nuanced ways. In future posts, I hope to continue to explore differentiations, further refining practices, processes, and structures of identity prosumption.
Jenny is a Sociologist at Texas A&M University and a weekly contributor to Cyborgology. Follow Jenny on Twitter @Jup83
[i] This is of course a simplification. The self is made up of multiple identities, varying in overall salience and salience within each situation. As such, I am simultaneously a blogger, a student, a teacher, a daughter; passionate, high strung, grumpy, kind; female, white, liberal, feminist