Identity on Facebook: even who you are is defined and controlled by Facebook

While Michelle Oosthuyzen asked herself last week ‘what kind of social are we creating on Facebook?’ I would like to change this question into ‘what kind of identity are we creating on Facebook?’ But before I answer this question, I would like to examine to what extend Facebook’s software mechanisms are influencing the construction of identity on Facebook. Media researcher Lev Manovich rightfully claims: ‘if we don’t address software itself, we are in danger of always dealing only with its effects rather than the causes: the output that appears on a computer screen rather than the programs and social cultures that produce these outputs’ (Manovich, 2008: p. 4-5).

Interestingly, the creation of identity on Facebook is not solely done by users themselves; Facebook has significant influence in construction of information and identity too. Not only by content moderation as explained last Thursday, also through software, algorithms, interface and a predefined set of options. What users view on the site and even who they can be is consciously controlled by the social network site.

How exactly does this influence on Facebook identity work? First of all, users have to stick to the interface created by the software of Facebook, in contrast to platforms like MySpace where you can edit HTML code yourself. This means that Facebook users are limited to expressions with words, pictures, the like button and friends, rather than interface, colors and design which can be very personal too.Besides, users have to stick to the tools provided. An example is the Like button. Users can only ‘like’ something; a ‘hate’ tool does not exist. Users have three options if they do not like content: write a comment about the negative feelings, completely delete the content from their Wall or News Feed (if possible), or mark the post as spam or abusive. In other words, disliking something on Facebook is harder and has more radical consequences than liking something.

Second, profile information is limited by the amount of options Facebook offers; e.g. you can either be a male or female. This can be problematic for countries like Thailand where you can legally be a ‘Kathoey’ (third gender). Hence the ability to create a unique online identity is limited. The reason why is unclear. I foresee a commercial reason: it is easier to sell private information when it is simplified.

Third, algorithms have significant influence on user’s Facebook identity too. For example, the friendship suggestion algorithm is influencing the choice of friends and the newsfeed algorithm has great influence on what information of who appears. There are ways to circumvent this, but this takes some effort for the user; if users want to create their own newsfeed in order of importance, they have to rank every friend they have.

As a result, identity on Facebook is not a reflection of ones actual being: it is an outcome of both decisions made by users and Facebook’s software. If the preferences, information and interface on Facebook cannot be fully the choice of the user, can the identity shown on Facebook be? No, it can’t. There is a discrepancy between the intentional identity on Facebook by users and the final Facebook identity that appears on the site. Unfortunately, Facebook users do not really have a choice but to stick to predefined way Facebook operates, or to stop using it at all. Which to many isn’t even considered an option because of the fear of being excluded.