[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.

One Reply 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

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