Iowa Alumni Magazine | October 2009 | Features

Changing Face on Myspace

By Shelbi Thomas

To Facebook's 250 million users, checking this kind of news feed is a familiar—even essential—part of their daily routine. For those people who have never logged onto Facebook, MySpace, or other social networking websites, chances are they will soon.

Facebook is more populated than all but three countries in the world. About half of its customers return daily to chat, share photos, celebrate birthdays, take quizzes, and befriend complete strangers. With its fastest growing group of users aged 35 and over, Facebook is no longer just for college students. Everyone from high school classmates to great-grandmothers inhabits the site, where users create profiles to share their interests and communicate with friends across the globe.

How does this burgeoning virtual world affect the real one? In associate rhetoric professor Takis Poulakos' "MySpace: Crafting Electronic Identities" course, some 20 UI undergraduates learn how websites such as Facebook and MySpace (for social networking), LinkedIn (for career networking), and eHarmony (a dating service) have revolutionized both the way we view ourselves and how others see us.

Also known as "Issues in Rhetoric and Culture," the "MySpace" course uses the widespread popularity of these sites as a launching pad for teaching the principles of rhetoric. As in other rhetoric courses, undergraduates learn to research, write, and make several persuasive presentations to their classmates—but they also gain a new perspective on experiences they take for granted. "Social networking has become an important part of everyday life [for students], so why not teach them from what they consider important?" says Poulakos. "You can't take them to the possibilities without starting from where they're at."

With this approach, Poulakos attracts undergraduates from a variety of majors, particularly English, communication studies, and cinema and comparative literature. His efforts to engage students earned him the UI's 2007-08 Collegiate Teaching Award, the university's highest teaching honor. "[Professor Poulakos] creates an informal setting for learning that makes people eager to participate," says Jen Bell, a communication studies, social work, and entrepreneurial senior from Davenport.

To explore issues of identity, Poulakos requires students to develop MySpace profiles and then explain why they chose to represent themselves in a certain way online. Bell created a profile that examined her decision to pursue a career in social work. "Watching my grandmother progressively become unable to walk, talk, eat, and remember due to Alzheimer's disease," she wrote, "I have found a new passion in life." She also posted a picture of herself with her parents to further communicate the importance of family in her life.

In face-to-face interactions, Bell and her classmates can learn much about each other—not just from their words, but also from their clothing, tone of voice, and body language. Such visual cues are missing on social networking sites. Instead, language and culture become much more important in constructing a person's online identity. With feedback from Poulakos and their classmates, students learn how their word and image choices—combined with other people's own background and experiences—influence perceptions.

Ebaa Elmelik, a marketing and international studies senior from Sudan, posted on her MySpace page that she grew up in Qatar and loves her independence at Iowa. She was stunned when some of her classmates assumed she was comparing her freedoms in America to those in the Middle East. Actually, she was referring to the same liberation from parental control that most college students experience.

Poulakos used the moment to emphasize the importance of clarity in verbal and written interactions—not only online, but in other parts of life. Says Elmelik, "You think everyone understands what you're saying, but people have their own interpretations."

The language and structure of social networking sites further complicates selfexpression. Facebook asks users to define themselves more by what they consume— such as movies, music, and books—than by their personality, character, and values. Because these sites are more conducive to pop culture discussions, other ways of seeing the world tend to be drowned out. "[These Web sites] magnify the popular discourse, so that the only thing that circulates is the dominant form of culture," says Poulakos. "If you speak from another view, you're looked at as an oddity."

As they share their identities with the world, students feel the tension between their desires to show off their individuality and to fit in with social norms. After reading Erving Goffman's The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, an influential sociology book from 1959 (some 30 years before the Internet exploded into popular culture), they realize their online profiles resemble actors on a stage. Identity becomes a performance, where students play out their lives before an audience of fellow networking site users. In turn, they also watch their audience, revising the way they project themselves online—much like an actor who changes the enunciation of a line that didn't go down well in the previous night's show.

In everyday life, of course, people often adapt different personas, acting more professionally around their employers and more candidly with friends. In a similar way, social networking site users emphasize different messages about themselves, depending on their audience. As people try to present themselves in the best light, they sometimes downplay or exaggerate certain personal traits. In the words of country star Brad Paisley's hit song "Online": "I grow another foot and I lose a bunch of weight/ Every time I log in." Many of eHarmony's 20 million registered users can probably relate to that sentiment.

While some people manipulate their online and real-life identities to please their audience, others seek to defy society's expectations. In one class assignment, students examined the way Latina gang members in California express their identity. Twisting the usual notions of how girls should look and act, gang members used makeup to paint themselves as aggressive and unfeminine. Even while rebelling against society, though, the girls still needed to conform and find belonging through their gang.

With the anonymity of the Internet, teenagers in particular can try on identities like clothes, exploring aspects of their personalities without facing many real-life repercussions. Online actions can and do have lasting effects, though. High school athletes have been suspended for photos they've posted online of themselves drinking alcohol at parties, while in a headline-making case that exposed the pitfalls of online identities, a Missouri girl committed suicide after a classmate's mother taunted her through a fake MySpace profile.

The World Wide Web represents a whole new world that fosters different kinds of behavior and expectations—not all of them good. Bombarded with the wealth of information available online, people tend to seek out others who share similar beliefs or interests. Muslims, diabetics, scrapbookers, and jocks all can find a special place to congregate on the Web. Though Poulakos recognizes the value of these connections, he worries that our culture will become increasingly fragmented and less creative as people only visit sites that reinforce their own worldviews.

The professor also observes many differences between his generation and students raised in the computer age. The Internet enables students to interact with people from all over the world—and they do. In fact, Elmelik plans to use what she learned in the "MySpace" class to jumpstart a blog to raise awareness of the sociopolitical situation in her home country. Her online diary—open for all to read—is a far cry from the private journals that members of earlier generations typically kept to record their hopes and fears.

Even as the Internet encourages socialization and contact, Poulakos and other observers wonder about the loss of deep, meaningful relationships. While older people typically cultivate a handful of close, trusted friends, today's students can rack up hundreds or even thousands of virtual buddies—although they've probably never met and know very little about these people. Instead of relying on phone calls or letters to keep friendships strong, students typically prefer to communicate from a distance, logging onto Facebook or chatting via brief text messages in a new, abbreviated form of language. Notes Poulakos, "It's ironic that they can be more themselves in their absence than when they are present."

Indeed, as Elmelik explains, "In our generation, it's almost like if you don't have Facebook, you don't exist."