Co-authoring Identities on Social Media

Over at Sapiens, Sophie Goodman has a short little piece on the socially fraught instances when someone tags you on Facebook, attaching your name – and profile – to something you hadn’t intended. The lede notes that “best friends and acquaintances alike contribute to your identity.” This is a fact on many aspects of social media, and one that people are increasingly aware of (perhaps nervously so).

While I remain focused on conflict and development, I’ve had a little side project on social media that recently took shape as a paper on Instagram that I’m tweaking a bit for future use. A central part of my work, though, is looking at this aspect of social media that includes different people co-authoring each other’s identities, and how people either try to police such behavior or revel in it.

Ilana Gershon has written about the former, in an article [gated, PoLAR] on how college students try to “sell” themselves on social media in order to get a job. To get a job in today’s employment market, Gershon says (emphasis added):

many in the United States are now expected to transform themselves into a brand so as to be (and remain) hirable as flexible agents in pursuit of other jobs. To brand oneself as a corporate person these days entails new media practices—orchestrating a single self-presentation across a personal website, Facebook profile, Twitter feed, blog, and so on—which ideally demonstrates that one is a recognizable, consistent, and employable self. To be employable these days is to appear coherent across media platforms, efforts that in practice are undercut for two reasons. First, in one’s daily life one might use different platforms for divergent social purposes. People often have to change their regular media practices when they start looking for a job (and will frequently revert back to earlier practices once they have found a job). Second, on many of these social media sites, the person putatively in control of the profile is not the only one who can contribute content to the profile, requiring the person supposedly in charge to monitor the account and delete potentially inappropriate statements and photos.1

Meanwhile, in Gershon’s other work – on break-up narratives – co-authorship occurs in different ways. If you’re trying to look for a job, you need to make sure you don’t get tagged in party pictures or crass jokes don’t get commented on your page. If you’re trying to break up with your boyfriend, however, you might need help on how to word things or advice on whether text or Facebook Messenger is a better place to start that conversation. Rather than shunned, co-authorship gets sought out. Gershon quotes one college student whose boyfriend broke up with her via MySpace:

So I start messaging him. And my friends come in and ask what is going on. So I say I am sending him a message, he broke up with me on MySpace. And they say, “oooh, let us help!” So it was like a conjoined big breakup letter that everyone was helping me with. Everyone on my floor was helping me with this breakup letter.2

Gershon (and Paul Manning, in the second article) cites Teri Silvio’s animation theory [gated]3, a useful analytic from which to analyze this type of activity. In my own work on Instagram, the “animation” of people’s images, captions, and even decisions to post came up constantly. Here’s a snippet of my work-in-progress on how college students4 use Instagram.

First, Sarah outlines the level of co-authorship in consulting whether she should even post things for others to see:

When I’m not sure if something will get a good amount of likes, I’ll ask a friend – or three – what they think. If they say go for it, I do… Conversations with my friends are more based around the question, ‘Do you think I should Instagram this?’ which is basically asking whether the picture is worthy of being posted. I think both the questions of whether the picture has likes potential, and if it’s generally just a good picture, are implied in that one question. If they say no, then I probably won’t post it.

Second, here’s Emily, who tends to take and edit photos on her own, but captions are another story:

I have two friends who are really funny and witty. I’m not, like… well, I think I’m funny but like nobody else does [laughs]… so a lot of times I’ll think of something and I’ll be like, ‘hey, Linda! Is this dumb? Like, is this funny? Because I think it’s funny.’

And here’s a paragraph straight from my paper, highlighting co-authorship:

The “self” being curated on a primary Instagram account is made up of posts, but also comments, tagged photos, and even the photos one likes appear in a list on her profile. One friend told me that he never posts photos to Instagram, but the section of his profile where it lists “photos of you” gets updated frequently because his friends and sisters tag him often. But the co-authorship of Instagram goes beyond merely contributing to each other’s profiles. Numerous Instagram users noted asking friends for advice on their posts at least on occasion. Lauren sometimes shows photos to friends near her to help select filters, but she knew people who would text photos to each other for advice before posting. She even admitted – “as lame as it is” – that she sometimes brainstorms captions with friends before even taking a photo for Instagram. “We like to plan out our Instagrams, like at night, so, like, if we’re going somewhere where I know I’m going to Instagram, we’re like actually crazy, but we’ll be like, ‘okay, we have to get us doing this,’ like ‘this will get a caption,’ and we’ll make sure that we do it.” Photos posted to Instagram, like other animated characters, are “the creatures of collectives, rather than auteurs” (Silvio 2010:428). And once the photo is posted, the very same friends may go on to like or comment on these pictures, further contributing to the social lives of these photographs.

Co-authorship is definitely a big part of social media – good and bad. While others have shown instances where it’s a place of worry or concern, there are other ways that it is sought out in mediating what ends up online. Here friends (online or off – some people sent photos to each other for approval before posting) don’t run the risk of posting something about you that won’t go over well with others – they’re there to stop you from posting something that won’t go over well.


1. Gershon, Ilana. 2014. “Selling Your Self in the United States.” PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review 27 (2), 282. Emphasis added. 

2. Manning, Paul and Ilana Gershon. 2013. “Animating Interaction.” HauL Journal of Ethnographic Theory 3 (3), 125. 

3. Silvio, Teri. 2010. “Animation: The New Performance?Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 20 (2), 422-438.  

4. I changed the names of my interviewees. 

 

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