Making Sense of Social Networks: An Interview with Zizi Papacharissi

Stefanie PankeBy Stefanie Panke
Editor, Social Software in Education

Dr. Zizi Papacharissi, who received her PhD from the University of Texas in Austin, is one of the leading scholars of social media and online communication. Her work focuses on the social and political consequences of online media. She heads the Communication Department at the University of Illinois in Chicago. Zizi is presently completing an edited volume on online social networks, titled A Networked Self: Identity, Community, and Culture on Social Network Sites. In the interview, she talks about self-presentation, social capital and the prospects of social networking communities for academic learning, teaching and research.

SP: Dr. Papacharissi, please describe your interest in social networking communities. What makes these Web sites a fascinating subject for communication researchers?

ZP: Identity and community have always presented focal points of interest for new media researchers. Early interest on the social uses of the web revolved around its ability to sustain communities and to enable identity play. It is interesting to see how the relevance of these two concepts, identity and community, is now morphing on online platforms like social network sites (SNSs). Research is indicating that SNSs are particularly useful at sustaining connections, but not necessarily communities. Similarly, while a great measure of identity expression and play is afforded by SNSs, the majority of uses revolve around expression in general. So it is the expressive and connective affordances of these platforms that make them so appealing to users, but also interesting to academics and researchers.

SNSs are particularly useful at sustaining connections, but not necessarily communities.

SP: One of your recent projects deals with self-presentation and social networking Web sites. The topic of presenting oneself on the Web, for instance through personal homepages or weblogs, has been an ongoing interest of yours. What new features does online social networking add to the mix of our virtual creation of selves?

ZP: I would steer away from the term “virtual” because I have always argued that it imposes a false dichotomy on our research and also on how we view the internet in our everyday lives. SNSs and similar platforms present social spaces where we present ourselves and connect with others. In this sense, they are no more or less real/virtual than other public or private spaces where we socialize, including the office, a stadium, a train station, or a bar. But they are also different. We adjust our behavior to fit the architectural character of all these places – so we present ourselves and converse differently in the office than we would at a bar, than we might on the train. Space informs our behavior in that it tends to make some behaviors easy and others more complex. For instance, we would find it difficult to discuss a private matter in a noisy bar. But we would dance or flirt in a bar in manner that we might not in an office.

I would steer away from the term “virtual” because I have always argued that it imposes a false dichotomy on our research and also on how we view the internet in our everyday lives.

Every place can be social, but all spaces possess a unique character. As such, online platforms present a variety of locales that afford particular modes of self-presentation and sociability. These shape our behaviors, but we also have the ability to shape these online spaces so as to make them more compatible with our personalities. Unlike other spaces, one attribute of SNSs that confuses users the most is the convergence of public and private boundaries. It is not impossible to be private online, and it is certainly very easy to be public. What is challenging is that these boundaries are flexible and never fixed. So users reflexively adjust these boundaries, depending on what the platform affords and what their needs are. This grants us both great autonomy in our self-presentation, which, by the way, becomes even more of a performance, but also great responsibility to edit or redact our self-performance so that it makes sense to multiple audiences without compromising our sense of who we are.

Unlike other spaces, one attribute of SNSs that confuses users the most is the convergence of public and private boundaries.

SP: You have investigated online social networking within the uses and gratifications paradigm, combining it with elements of the social network approach. Is social capital the central gratification generated in social media use? Can this explain the fascination of social networking communities? Why are we dependent on social capital?

ZP: Uses and gratifications (U&G) presents a rather organized way for us to understand and categorize motives for employing particular technologies and associating them with specific benefits. Researchers have always had trouble distinguishing uses from gratifications conceptually: What is a use, and how is it different from a gratification? Thus, the outcome variable of U&G has always been problematic. I thought that one way to address this might be by studying social capital as an outcome variable, especially for technologies that possess a pronounced social character. So that worked, and we obtained some results that reflected some connections between why individuals use Facebook and how particular motives and personality characteristics connect to forms of social capital accumulated.

However, U&G distinguishes between different needs served by each medium. In the age of convergence, it will be impossible to continue to do so. It has always been hard enough. But with convergent media, we are noticing a great deal of social multi-tasking: people getting news while staying in touch with friends via Facebook, while relaxing at home, watching TV and talking on the phone. This kind of multi-tasking eludes the conventional design of U&G, and also eludes the conventional design of several theoretical paradigms that have worked for us in the past. So it does make sense to work with a concept like social capital, and I would recommend greater theoretical explication of the concept of ties or connections, which is prominent in networks research.

. . . with convergent media, we are noticing a great deal of social multi-tasking: people getting news while staying in touch with friends via Facebook, while relaxing at home, watching TV and talking on the phone.

SP: Campus life is to a great and increasing degree mediated through social networking platforms. Platforms such as MySpace and Facebook are likely to attract more student attention than the university’s learning management system. From your point of view, are there “educational gratifications” of social networking Web sites? Should teachers approach these emerging technologies with caution?

ZP: Teachers should educate themselves about these technologies and embrace them. I suggest approaching them boldly rather than tepidly. Educators are frequently concerned that the presence of computers in the classroom, the ability to use Facebook or browse the net, will distract students’ attention. I say that if a student wants to be distracted, s/he will find a way to get distracted. Computers set aside, what’s to stop a student from daydreaming? It is to our advantage, as educators, to find a way to integrate this technology with our teaching philosophy in a way that allows us to engage rather than restrict the intellect of our students.

Educators are frequently concerned that the presence of computers in the classroom, the ability to use Facebook or browse the net, will distract students’ attention. I say that if a student wants to be distracted, s/he will find a way to get distracted.

SP: There is a growing number of social networks with an academic focus, such as ResearchGATE, Mendeley, or academia.edu, offering features that are tailored to the target group of researchers and students. Do you think that academic scholars use social media in a particular way? Which social networking Web sites do you yourself use frequently? What does this kind of self-presentation say about you?

ZP: There is a variety of social network platforms online. They cater to different needs and publics, and it is almost a full-time job sustaining a profile on all of these! I like academia.edu. I find it is a lot like Twitter, but with research papers: It allows you to follow what colleagues whose work you are interested in are up to. There are aspects of one’s performance of the self that take precedence on these sites, depending again on the architectural affordances of the site at hand. Some allow us to highlight our professional identity, while others allow us to focus on personal connections or combine personal and professional connections.

[Closing comment by SP added on 5.6.10]
Dr. Papacharissi provides a conceptual perspective that helps us to more clearly define and understand Social Networking Websites. I was particularly interested in the way she connected the uses and gratifications approach with ideas of strengthening social ties. Personally, I am still trying to understand the impact of social networking – or, more generic, social software – on academic discourse. Hence, I kindly invite my ETC colleagues and interested readers to comment on their use of emerging social media for learning, teaching and research!

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