[OPR] Kersten/Lotze: Creating a Self-Image

On this page you can download the discussion paper that was submitted for publication in the Journal for Media Linguistics. The blogstract summarises the submission in a comprehensible manner. You can comment on the discussion paper and the blogstract below this post. Please use your real name for this purpose. For detailed comments on the discussion paper please refer to the line numbering of the PDF.

This submission is a contribution to the special issue „Public, private, and anonymous mobile media practices“.

Discussion Paper (PDF)

Blogstract zu

Creating a Self-Image. Face-Work and Identity Construction Online

von Saskia Kersten & Netaya Lotze

When self-representation online is discussed, the focus is often on the strife for perfection and that presenting (only) the best version of oneself may be harmful by negatively impacting others. The linguistic dimension, however, is something that has only just now become the focus of academic attention. Drawing on a wide range of sources as well as our own analysis of 500 usernames from Twitter, Flick’r and different newspaper platforms, we specifically look at what choices users make when deciding how to create their self-image online.

Usernames are unusual in that they are a rare instance of self-naming instead of having a name bestowed upon by others, e.g. family or friends (Nübling et al. 2015). The deliberate choices users make when creating a username is one important aspect of identity construction and involves decisions regarding how much to reveal or conceal one’s ‘real’ (i. e. offline) identity and group membership(s). There are also potential constraints that have to be considered, for example the maximum mono-referentiality prescribed by social media platforms.

Our study illustrates that the face-work strategies employed by users on social media are influenced by a desire to connect with other users and an increasing need to preserve privacy. Usernames are thus an important part of this projected self-image, because they identify and signal identity to others, but may also be subject to restrictions imposed by the respective platform. According to our analyses, users consciously or unconsciously decide on their usernames along three continua, their anchors being Authenticity vs Anonymity, Individualisation vs Group Convergence, and Phonic vs Graphic Aesthetics.

Fig.: Decision continuum between anonymity and authenticity when choosing usernames

We argue that identity construction online can be viewed as a form of face-work in Goffman’s (1955) sense and manifests in a wide-ranging set of practices, e.g. the choice of username, form and content of online profiles and status messages, which contribute to the linguistic positioning of users. Usernames can be seen to be part of the ‘mask’ that users choose to present to others online. Which mask they don is influenced by both the desire to preserve anonymity and disclose information.

We understand online self-naming as a key concept in the debate on face-work on social media platforms, because names and naming strategies can be studied more readily than broader and more complex aspects, such as stylistic variation or text-image interdependence.

We propose an interpretation scheme for online self-naming as a complex and dynamic socio-linguistic practice, in which we develop the four principles of online naming, i.e. mono-referentiality, self-representation, authentication and positioning to a group.

Goffman, Erving (1955): On Face-Work. In: Lemert, Charles (Eds.) (2010): Social Theory. The Multicultural and Classic Readings. Philadelphia: Westview Press, 338–343.
Nübling, Damaris/Fahlbusch, Fabian/Heuser, Rita (2015): Namen: Eine Einführung in die Onomastik. Tübingen: Narr.

5 Replies to “[OPR] Kersten/Lotze: Creating a Self-Image”

  1. Simon Meier-VierackerNovember 20, 2019 at 15:28Reply

    The article presents a mixture of a structured research overview of research on nicknames in digital media, theoretical considerations and findings from own empirical studies. The overarching thesis is that self-naming practices can be described as a form of face-work and identity construction. However, the practices must be adapted to the specific technical conditions of communication, which must be considered in linguistic analysis, too.

    The article thus derives its subject from the more general topic of face-work on social media platforms, which according to the authors has not yet been sufficiently systematically investigated from a linguistic perspective. As one possible apporach, the authors identify forms of stylistic variation (L24) as they appear in self-naming practices. According to the authors, factors typical of social media, such as the need for connectedness, authenticity, privacy and anonymity, can be well examined using the example of nicknames.

    There is no doubt about the relevance of the subject, but perhaps a different perspective and derivation of the topic would be appropriate: Instead of picking out the nicknames from the overall subject of face work online, it could be argued that the discussion about nicknames can be well systematized and theoretically framed by describing them as (instances o fand results from) face-work. From the reader’s point of view, the very general framing raises expectations, especially regarding the interactional aspects associated with the concept of face-work. However, these are only addressed as desiderata at the very end of the essay. Moreover, much of the linguistic research that has been done one on online identities (e.g. on the staging of gender) is not mentioned. This could be remedied by focussing more  directly on the subject of nicknames.

    It should therefore be expressly stated in the introduction that the essay primarily examines and systematizes existing research on the subject of nicknames in order to present some general principles. The empirical findings presented in Section 3.2 are interesting, but only the extended discussion in Section 3.3, where other studies are also presented, makes the reference to the topic completely clear. This is not a flaw as such, it should only be made clear that the main purpose of the paper is the (extremely helpful) meta-discussion of existing studies and theoretical approaches. It may also be possible to consider revising the structure, since the essay in its present form alternates between theory and empiricism. I sometimes felt kind of lost while reading the paper not knowing the overall „route map“.

    Some minor remarks:
    – Goffman is sometimes quoted in the original version of 1955, sometimes in the 1967 edition, that would have to be unified.
    – In Bedijs, Held & Maaß (2014: 10) I can’t find remarks that could be related to the thesis of a polished self-image (L8).
    – Section 1.1 not only presents public discourse as suggested by the headline, but also research literature on authenticity etc.
    – L114: Why are nicknames an example for becoming style icons?
    – The conondrum of authenticity and anonymity is mentioned again and again, at the latest in L464 it becomes a little redundant.
    – With regard tot he empirical study presented in section 3.2, it would be helpful to give more information on the composition of the data, especially in 3.2.2. Arguably, twitter users act differently from, say, users of a tech forum.
    – If possible, the questionaire or at least parts of it should be published.
    – L704: I am not sure if „euphonic sounding words“ give good evidence for „conceptual orality“, given the fact that e.g. written poems are asthetically shaped, too.
    – Section 4 outlines some most interesting considerations on interactional aspects of nicknames als naming practices. However, this subject should not be placed in a section called „conclusion“, which should not introduce a rather new topic. This section could be placed somewhere at the beginnning of the paper, also to clarify that the paper will not deal with interactional aspects in the proper sense.

    Empehlung: Überarbeitung erforderlich

  2. RedaktionDecember 9, 2019 at 16:52Reply

    Review by Katarzyna Aleksiejuk:

    Recommendation: Revisions Required

    The article discusses what linguistic strategies of self-presentation, and why, people use online, especially when they choose their usernames. Usernames are presented as playing an active role in the process of identity construction and co-construction. This process has been framed as ‘face-work’, in reference to the Goffman’s concept of ‘face’. Username selection is therefore an important aspect of ‘face work’ and, additionally, may constitute a type of data that is more convenient to gather and examine than other aspects of ‘face work’.

    The authors have taken on board a current and relevant topic. They offer a useful overview of literature, including their own studies, and conclude that there is insufficient focus on an interactive character of this aspect of ‘face-work’ that involves username selection. The authors also propose that Goffman’s concept of ‘face’ is a suitable analytical frame to approach this topic in future research.

    The article is interesting and can be published once the recommended corrections are implemented. In particular, I can see room for improvement within the area of ‘plausibility and stringency of the argumentation’. First, the key terminology should be defined clearly to prevent inconsistencies in using it, for example:

    ‘Authentic’ and ‘authenticity’. Lines 44-51 read that usernames that derive from common nouns might be used to authenticate group membership, which suggests that they display ‘authenticity’. Lines 640-672 read that authenticity of usernames is assessed by how many and what kind of components of the users’ real names they contain, which suggests that usernames that derive from common nouns (thus, including those authenticating group membership) are not considered as displaying ‘authenticity’. It would help if it was specified whether authenticity is strictly about displaying personal details or about other identity aspects as well, such as personality traits, hobbies and appearance.

    ‘Real names’. It is unclear, whether they must be actual official names, or they may also include those that resemble conventional names, but whose actual status is unknown. It is also unclear why sometimes inverted commas are used for the word ‘real’, and sometimes are not.

    ‘Identity’. Lines 336-366 state that identity is inaccessible by empirical methods, while later it is conceptualised as interactionally constructed – therefore, obviously, readily observable.

    ‘Self-naming’. It is unclear if it refers to all usernames, including users’ official names and nicknames (when the user was named by somebody else and then decided to use this name as a username), or just those usernames that users invented themselves.

    It would generally help if more attention were paid to clarity and consistency of terminology. For example, I would not call usernames ‘pseudonyms’ (lines 863 and 869) – ‘pseudonyms’ is a different category of names; it is better to say ‘pseudonymous username’ if a username differs from the official name of the user. There are also several claims and statements that seem vague or unsupported and could do with rephrasing, clarifying or rethinking. For example:

    Lines 5-9: I have to disagree with this statement especially that the provided references do not evidence it: Bedijs, Held & Maaß (2014: 10) do not mention ‘detrimental effects’, ‘distorted reality’ or that the selves presented online are necessarily ‘polished and positive’, while Turkle (2012) is not a peer-reviewed article.

    Lines 201-204: So can asynchronous communication?

    Lines 209-210: It is unclear what type of ‘texting’ is being referred to: while instant messaging can, to some extent, be considered synchronous, text messaging is an asynchronous communication.

    Lines 249-253: I would probably avoid these kinds of blanket statements unless I had evidence to support them. One could argue that people may engage with others for many reasons – and while it is true that any encounter is social – still, social connection may not be their primary goal (they may look for information, services, jobs and do many other things). I am also not entirely sure in what way, and what kinds of authenticity and identifiability it necessarily implies – I suspect that people may present completely different identities online than they do offline and still socialise successfully and develop relationships. What is more, they may feel, or actually be, freer to express their ‘authentic’ selves online (for example, due to social norms and legal regulations that may restrict expression of certain identities offline). Moreover, I do not think that all internet users try to protect their privacy – some of them in fact seem to aim at revealing as much as possible (within, of course, more or less generally acceptable boundaries). For example, there are various ‘lifestyle’ YouTube channels where people show their houses, food, pets, children and more. Again, it all depends on the definition of authenticity and identifiability.

    Lines 341-350: I infer that the authors may have meant ‘constructionist’. Some more recent references than Mead (1978) should be provided as well, especially that his Symbolic Interactionism is not exactly the same as either constructionism or constructivism.

    Lines 351-357: I suspect it may not be the most accurate description of the post-modern concept of identity, and references should be provided as well. From an onomastic viewpoint, the idea that various names (surnames, nicknames, patronyms, teknonyms, pseudonyms and other) are linked to various aspects of one’s identity is not related to post-modern theory – it is just how names have always worked.

    Lines 358-363: Goffman’s concept of ‘face’ does not imply existence of hidden inner identities.

    Lines 428-436: Please, specify which works of Kant and Locke are being referred to.

    Lines 484-485: There is a clear distinction between online and offline communication – the former is conducted using internet connection, the latter – without it.

    Lines 509-510: Some references should be provided as examples who said that usernames were ad hoc creations.

    Lines 557-561: It is unclear what is meant by ‘as in anthroponyms’. All names used for persons are anthroponyms – whether they derive from appellatives, other names (anthroponyms, toponyms or any other), or are made up altogether. As usernames are names used to name persons – they are all anthroponyms, too.

    Line 737: It is unclear what is meant by an ‘authentic’ anthroponym? Are there any ‘inauthentic’ anthroponyms, then, and what are they?

    Lines 778-779: It depends on the name and context. In the context of a family, one could argue, a surname should ‘ideally’ refer to all members of this family.

    Line 869 – Pseudonymous usernames are not necessarily ‘non-transparent’ and the cited works do not say they are. In general, username transparency has nothing to do with how it relates to one’s own name.

    Lines 942-949: References should be provided to illustrate who in onomastics said that naming was static. It is true that some onomasticians maintain that names have no meaning formally, but, of course, names are very dynamic socio-cultural phenomena. They are connected with individual identities in many ways as well, may carry sentimental value, invoke various associations and reactions from others, and so on.

    Lines 963-965 – I believe that perhaps not enough literature has been included in this article to assert with certainty that such works do not exist.

    This article would also benefit from some improvement to its structure. It should clearly state its objectives and remain focused on them. I would suggest that more attention could be paid to maintaining the relevance of argumentation and coherence of reasoning. The section titles should reflect their contents, and conclusions summarise the inquiry at hand accurately. In-text citations should include page numbers.

    Finally, the article most certainly requires proofreading to correct mistakes and eliminate awkward grammar and syntax, which will smoothen the flow of the narrative and improve its readability.

    I also would like to recommend the following literature:

    Bays, H. (1998). Framing and face in Internet exchanges: A socio-cognitive approach. (https://bop.unibe.ch/linguistik-online/article/view/1080/1769)

    Herring, S. C. (2018). ‘The co-evolution of computer-mediated communication and computer-mediated discourse analysis.’ In P. Bou-Franch & P. Garcés-Conejos Blitvich (Eds.), Analysing digital discourse: New insights and future directions (pp. 25-67). London: Palgrave Macmillan (https://ella.sice.indiana.edu/~herring/adda.pdf)

    Herring, S. C. (2010). ‘Web content analysis: Expanding the paradigm.’ In J. Hunsinger, M. Allen, & L. Klastrup (Eds.), The International Handbook of Internet Research (pp. 233-249). Berlin: Springer Verlag (http://ella.slis.indiana.edu/~herring/webca.preprint.pdf)

    Herring, S. C. (2004). ‘Computer-mediated discourse analysis: An approach to researching online behavior.’ In S. A. Barab, R. Kling, & J. H. Gray (Eds.), Designing for Virtual Communities in the Service of Learning (pp. 338-376). New York: Cambridge University Press (http://ella.slis.indiana.edu/~herring/cmda.pdf)

    Nicolaisen, W. F. (1999). An Onomastic Autobiography, or, In the Beginning Was the Name. Names, 179-190.

    Van Langendonck, W. (2007). Theory and Typology of Proper Names. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

  3. Netaya Lotze & Saskia KerstenApril 7, 2020 at 12:03Reply

    Thank you to the two reviewers for your in-depth feedback and valuable suggestions. We have revised the article taking their feedback on board, resulting in a much improved and hopefully more informative and readable contribution We would in particular like to thank you for the constructive criticism regarding the overall line of argumentation and pointing out issues with terminology that were in part due to the particular definition of pseudonyms adopted for the project whose results we utilise here to exemplify our thoughts on the topic. We have added explanatory footnotes of this where appropriate and consistently used the term username throughout to improve clarity.
    We have also considered moving the discussion originally placed in the conclusion to a place earlier in the article. but felt that, since this final section is more about where the research can go from here, to leave it at the end and change the heading, since it is indeed not really a conclusion.
    We would also like to thank the editors of the special issue for their feedback and help with the process. It was a very enjoyable and rewarding experience.

  4. RedaktionMay 6, 2020 at 12:11Reply

    Liebe Autorinnen,

    die Redaktion hatte aufgrund des Umfangs der von den Gutachter*innen geforderten Überarbeitungen, obigen ersten Gutachter um eine Prüfung der Überarbeitungen gebeten. Obzwar dieser letztlich für eine Publikation plädierte, merkte er in seiner Rückmeldung doch kritisch an, dass den Einwänden nur wenig entsprochen wurde. Aufgrund dieser Einschätzung hielten wir es für geboten, die Herausgeberinnen des Special Issues selbst um ihre Einschätzung zu bitten. Diese pflichteten der ersten Einschätzung bei und regten nach einer eigenen Prüfung an, den Artikel eingehender mit Blick auf die angesprochenen Punkte zu überarbeiten oder in einer ausführlicheren Antwort an die Gutachter*innen zu begründen, warum welchen Einwänden nicht entsprochen wird.

    Die Redaktion schließt sich diesem Vorschlag an und bittet darum, einer der beiden Möglichkeiten zu entsprechen. Über die Publikation des Artikels kann erst im Anschluss abschließend entschieden werden.

    Beste Grüße,
    Die Herausgeber*innen des jfml

  5. Netaya Lotze & Saskia KerstenMay 15, 2020 at 14:58Reply

    Dear reviewers and editors,
    following the request from the reviewers for further work on the structure of our discussion paper and a subsequent discussion with the editors of the Special Issue on how best to address this request, we would like to clarify the aims and structure of the submitted article by giving some context of the genesis of the present article as well as an outline where it sits among our other publications on the topic, something we evidently did not articulate in enough detail in the first and subsequent draft of the discussion paper. We hope that providing the context will address the valid requests for a more detailed discussion of the theoretical underpinnings, methodology and empirical data used as the foundation of the present article and which illustrative examples are taken from.
    The aim of this article is to discuss how username onomastics can contribute to the study of usernames as a means of self-expression and self-authentication drawing on research on community-specific online styles (i.e. variational linguistic perspective). Throughout, we refer back to our study on English usernames that was part of a large-scale project on username choice across 14 languages conducted by us and colleagues under the helm of Schlobinski and Siever (2018). The empirical data of our study as well as those of our colleagues who worked on the project Nicknamen international have already been published an edited volume (Schlobinski & Siever 2018, in German only) and the discussion focusses predominantly on structural and functional aspects of usernames (i.e. structural and functional perspective). A more detailed discussion of the onomastics of self-naming and identity construction can be found in Lotze & Kersten (2020). In this German-language article, doing identity is discussed in detail and includes definitions of terms in relation to self-naming and identity construction, drawing on philosophical, sociological and psychological approaches of identity and self (i.e. onomastic and philosophical perspective). A further output focussing on the methodological aspects and challenges of online onomastics is currently under review (Lotze & Kersten under review) (i.e. methodological perspective). Since the present paper is intended to be an extension of our work, to show how our thinking has moved forward and only draws on the results of our original study of English usernames for illustrative purposes, it does not follow the traditional Introduction, Methodology, Results, Analysis, Discussion structure, but is instead content- and theory-driven.
    We have furthermore addressed the terminological issues raised (which partly arose from the use of the term Klarname ‘real names’ in the original German-language publication) by changing this to either birth or legal name or names that form part of the onymic inventory of the [language].
    The reviewers rightly took issue with the definition of the term pseudonym; the definition mentioned when summarising some illustrative results from the Nicknamen international study is the working definition used in the overarching project. We have added an explanatory note on this to our revised version to highlight this issue and we acknowledge that the definition of pseudonym deviates from the one commonly used in onomastics (see e.g. Aleksiejuk 2016 on pseudonyms in the Oxford Handbook of Names and Naming), something we also raised and discussed as part of the work on the project.
    The second terminological issue raised concerns the term euphonic sounding words; this is not our definition of conceptual orality, rather it is a statement from a user that we elicited as part of the questionnaire on username choice and used by them to explain their choice of username and which we report to illustrate out point that the sound dimension does play a role in usernames, even if they are normally perceived in writing only (for another example of how the wandering of consonant articulation spots within the oral cavity can influence the trustworthiness ratings of usernames, see Silva & Topolinsky 2018).
    One reviewer also ask for more information on the tag set used to analyse the usernames in the original study. A detailed discussion of this can be found in the Introduction to Schlobinski & Siever (2018), a screenshot of the interface used to analyse all languages that formed part of this project can be found here: https://www.mediensprache.net/de/websprache/pubs/7/ (see Zusatzmaterial: farbige Grafiken des Einleitungskapitels).
    Netaya Lotze & Saskia Kersten

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