In Donath and Boyd’s article Public Displays of Connection the pair describes how individuals construct their identities online, validating their profile not only through personal information but connections with friends. The article discusses why and how we navigate our connections with individuals via social network sites, emphasizing the fact that people use their online connections to create a certain image of themselves. While the sites that they study (Friendster Beta, Spoke, Orkut and even LinkedIn) are outdated, the component of social establishment and even social climbing through public display of connections still remains apparent in social media sites today. On Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr and Instagram, we are constantly aware of not only how many connections we have but also who we are connected with and what that says about who we are. How many times have you checked to make sure you have more followers on Instagram than you are following? While it may be somewhat embarrassing to admit, we all are aware of and play into the power of connections over social media.
As Donath and Boyd state, we “keep in touch with an unprecedentedly large number of people via electronic media” (71 Donath and Boyd). However, that large number of people is extremely calculated. In Angus Kidman’s article Cull Your Facebook Friends By Seeking out Distinctive Memories of That Person, Kidmannotes that some people even ‘cull’ friends as competitive sport solely due to the fact that it makes them seem popular. If we have a lot of friends on Facebook, we feel that we will come off as being popular in the ‘real world’ as well. Our social media network of friends is so important to us that The Guardian even devoted an entire article Facebook and Twitter: The Art of Unfriending or Unfollowing People. The article describes that each type of Facebook friend or Twitter follower can contribute something different and unique to your online experience. They describe different categories of twitter followers as those “whom your acquaintance is strictly professional, those you know from school but didn’t necessarily like and those who are your dad.”Each of these twitter followers contributes to your image in the twitter community, and you had a key role in constructing that image, by making the conscious decision to accept them as a follower. As Donath and Boyd point out, our identity is molded and verified through connections. We care about them because it directly reflects who we are and how we are perceived.
While this section of Donath and Boyd’s text remains true today, Donath and Boyd are outdated in the sense that they claim that these connections and relationships over social media are un-nuanced, with “no distinction made between a close relative and a near stranger” (72 Donath and Boyd). In some ways they are correct, as Oliver Burkeman, the word friendship has been flattened. But while the word friendship has been flattened on social network sites to some extent, today with Facebook in particular we can now identify people as family, close friends, boyfriends, husbands, and even partners. As mentioned in Jordan Wyner’s article Facebook Broadens Relationship Options the U.S., United Kingdom, Canada, France and Australia have now even added the option for individuals to be “in a civil union” or “in a domestic partnership.” After the additions we now have a total of 11 options for our relationship status, even including in an open relationship and is divorced.
These relationship statuses on Facebook completely change how we view profiles and interact with our friends. First, for example, someone of the opposite sex is in a relationship we tend to like less of their activity and interact with them less over the social network site in fear of being disrespectful and crossing a boundary. Second, we constantly are updated on the status of relationships as we troll our minifeeds for interesting news. On some occasions we know of a break up before a friend even gets the chance to call and tell us, because we are notified that John Smith went from being ‘in a relationship’ to single on our timeline. This component of relationships added to Facebook has completely transformed how our ‘real life’ relationships transition into the virtual world. I think that Donath and Boyd should return to this study and examine how the new complexity of social network relationships has affected how people are constructing their online identity. Are people cutting back on the number of friends they have as they identify with Facebook labels who is important to them and who is not? Or are they simply creating a hierarchy among their Facebook friends?