Update (22.03.2023): The Open Peer Review for this submission has been completed. Based on the Open Peer Review, the article has been approved for publication in the Journal for Media Linguistics and is available at: https://doi.org/10.21248/jfml.2019.20.
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This submission is a contribution to the special issue „Public, private, and anonymous mobile media practices“.
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.
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.