Last month dana boyd and Nicole Ellison were guest editors for the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication in a special theme issue on social network sites. One of my favorite papers was by Hugo Liu at the MIT Media Lab who investigated how social network profiles act as taste performances.
Liu surveyed over 100,000 random myspace profiles, paying particular attention to the stated lists of interest (music, books, movies, TV shows, heroes and general interests). And the winners are…
Favorite Book: The Da Vinci Code
Favorite Music: Radiohead
Favorite Movie: Fight Club
Favorite TV Show: Family Guy
Favorite Hero: Mom
Favorite Other Interest: Music
See the whole list below, by category (click to read):
Aside from idle curiosity, Liu notes that these interests also constitute “taste statements” for the profile owners:
The materials of social identity have changed. Up through the 19th century in European society, identity was largely determined by a handful of circumstances such as profession, social class, and church membership. With the rise of consumer culture in the late 20th century, possessions and consumptive choices were also brought into the fold of identity. One is what one eats; or rather, one is what one consumes—books, music, movies, and a plenitude of other cultural materials.
New emphasis on taste and cultural consumption frees identity from some of its traditional socioeconomic limitations. The milieu of cultural interests one creates for oneself can even be transformational, because cultural consumption not only “echoes” but also actively “reinforces” who one can be. In the pseudonymous and text-heavy online world, there is even greater room for identity experimentation, as one does not fully exist online until one writes oneself into being through “textual performances”.
One of the newest stages for online textual performance of self is the Social Network Profile (SNP). The virtual materials of this performance are cultural signs—a user’s self-described favorite books, music, movies, television interests, and so forth—composed together into a taste statement that is “performed” through the profile. By utilizing the medium of social network sites for taste performance, users can display their status and distinction to an audience comprised of friends, co-workers, potential love interests, and the Web public. Although social network sites are relatively new, SNP taste performance can be seen as an instance of what sociologist Erving Goffman termed everyday performance. Successful performers are “aware of the impression they foster.” Thus, taste statements need to be crafted so as to stand up to the scrutiny of an audience that is able to “glean unofficially by close observation”.
Essentially, on a social network profile, saying what you like defines who you are, not just to yourself, but to others. Liu’s primary findings were that:
1. Taste is not random, but rather is guided by aesthetic preferences across interpretable axes. For example, the two dimensions: (i)utopian-vs-dystopian and (ii)sincere-vs-satirical, explain over one quarter of all the variation of taste in books. The two dimensions; (i) sexy-vs.-funny and episodic-vs.-saga structure, explain over one quarter of all the variation of taste in TV. If these axes are indeed opposable, it raises the question; is it possible to be both sexy AND humorous in MySpace?
2. Many MySpace users craft their interest list with a view towards “looking good” to a particular audience (Liu calls this “prestige”). He found that “coherence” among stated interests was much higher for both those with extremely popular interests, and those with extremely rare interests, than for average users. This suggests that people in both cases are deliberately constructing a clear message that they belonged to either the popular culture, or a particular sub-culture, and self censored other interests that might obscure their message.
3. Some MySpace users craft their interest list to differentiate themselves from their peers. Users’ interests tended to be more dissimilar from their “Top 8” friends’ interests than would be expected to happen by chance. While it is possible that users tend to friend those who complementary tastes, it is more likely that they craft their profiles with an awareness of their firends’ profiles so as to be unique.
4. Musical interests play a dominant role in taste and identity. There was far more variability in music interests than in the other categories. Indeed, it seems as though specificity in music interest is far more valued than genre or any other factor.
While these conclusions may not be surprising, it is helpful to have empirical evidence, rather than simply asserting them to be true, which the typical blogger pundit is wont to do.