Theory and Literature Review

                This study is based upon sociological analysis pertaining to social capital, social informatics (technologies), and a social work based model of social change.  An auspicious consideration of the pertinent literature and theory sets up for the eventual research questions.

Growing up Along Side The Internet

                Current generations of students are growing up with the internet as an integral, central and normalized part of their lifestyle.  Many college students have had access to personal computers in their homes long before coming to college, and some even owned their own PC before departing for school.  In coming of age concurrently with the internet and in confluence with the economic boom of the nineties the student group that now dominates the majority of Facebook commands both a native and latent understanding of these technologies.  As with the case of television, the telephone and other vastly influencing technologies “research has been preoccupied with the search for evidence of negative effects; and much of it has been based on implicitly behaviorist assumptions” (Mcmillian and Morrison 2006, quoting Buckingham 2002).  Growing up hand in hand with the internet has impacted youth perceptions and factors of socialization in regards to self, family, real communities, and virtual communities.  New forms of media enact as a conduit to understanding, an altered form of language, and a robust platform for both personal and cultural development.

Facebook as an Integral Part of the College Experience

                With Facebook’s Debut in 2004 now every college student attending college was around for its inception.  It’s become a veritable rite of passage into the cool adult world (boyd 2007) and up until just recently Facebook was seen as a college-centric SNS.  Indeed, during the summer some of the most active groups are those comprised of high schoolers who’ve just received their university ID and consequently access to a school network1 (Jones and Soltren 2005).  Students are meeting one another online even before they pack up and ship off to school.  Some page up future roommates to see who they’ll be meeting come fall, others try to meet potential love interests, and still others joins sports clubs and activities even before setting foot on campus.  Beyond additional waves of privacy concerns and droves of irrational fears, a phenomena attributable to the American Culture of Fear2, college conduct on Facebook remains mostly unchanged (Ginger 2008).  Students are very aware of their identity online and they want to sculpt a digital representation of themselves.  Facebook is comparable to a sort of comedy or drama, reminiscent of our over the top TV shows that plague mass media today (Mathias 2007).  Participant understandings of public and private space in the digital realm are simply different then they used to be.  The Facebook environment is increasingly used as a theatrical extension of college life, perhaps just as much as it is as a platform for communication or networking.

Implications of Hyper-personal Communication and Anonymity

                Other studies have unearthed implications for psychological well-being and the internet and show that “individuals’ preference for online, rather that face-to-face, social interaction plays an important role in the development of negative consequences associated with problematic internet use” (Caplan 2003).  If Facebook is becoming a stronger and increasingly pervasive extension of personality into the online world then it stands to amplify this effect – indeed many users prefer Facebook interaction over interactions in person much like they prefer instant messaging to face to face conversation.  Even relatively secure and confident introvert individuals can find loop holes in social norms on Facebook – it’s like all of those things you want to know but without having to deal with asking.  Virtually everyone with moderate levels of technical competence feel safer, more efficacious, confident and comfortable with the benefits of hyper personal communication (Caplan 2003).  Benefits include increased editing abilities and opportunities for reconsideration of statements, temporal boons such as selective and strategic control over timing of messages, and in general an environment that facilitates for the formation of an idealized impression and more intimate circumstances.  In other words, most people feel like they can think more about what they wish to say, have less obligation or pressure to say it perfectly (the “AIM” effect), and can call upon the internet and all its connections to enhance what they do say.
                Though Facebook allows users to be identified by their profiles there is a sort of anonymity to the system as well as any user can message any other user on another network, or post in large network or global groups.  Anonymity in CMC tends to minimize status differences, reduce fear of retribution, and create an environment where people are generally less fearful (Rains 2007). These aspects apply almost perfectly to interactions between groups and individuals on Facebook and also help to explain the high levels of trust in the system.  Attribution becomes central to source credibility, however, which is where the analogy to Facebook can also easily be dismantled – someone shouting posts on a message board can be easily dismissed once you look at their profile and see they’re a member of the ‘College has taught me absolutely nothing’ group3.  Even so, with evidence showing “anonymity provided by electronic meeting systems may undermine source credibility and influence” (Rains 2007), this paper argues perceived reduction in authority, threat of retribution, and fear (at least among racial majorities) is enough to condition the context of the Facebook environment.

Student Interpretations of the Web: From Self to Community

                Findings indicate a tendency among students to identity dualities within their perceptions of self, family, real communities, and virtual communities.  Sally Mcmillan and Margaret Morrison explore the impacts and implications of this in their piece Coming of Age with the Internet: A qualitative exploration of how the internet has become an integral part of young people’s lives (2006).  Many students found the internet parallels their active and passive development of self as they determined their identities growing up.  Most participants felt the internet was an active place of participation where they could solidify their offline identities and utilized an instrumental more than hedonic approach in their exploration (Mcmillan and Morrison 2006).  Students acquired skills more so on their own then from the aid of educators, parents, or other outside forces because they found motivation as a result of relevance of the internet to their everyday lives.  Mcmillan and Morrison’s study, in agreement with numerous others, found that most of the time youth were not concerned with radically altering their personality online and felt their identities on and offline were not substantially different.  Though concerns about sexual predators and masquerading criminals run rampant, the actual negative outcomes for even the most vulnerable of participants, high schoolers, are almost non-existent and in fact educators ought to pay more attention to the extension of more common face to face world problems on Facebook, such as student behavioral disorders and misconduct (National School Boards Association 2007).  It would seem that even Lisa Nakamura’s identity tourism (2002) fades away in the face of Facebook’s non-fantasy based and typically thoroughly evaluative identity representation system.  This trend is further enforced by Facebook’s policy to remove false profiles and the recent influx of older members. 
                In regards to older internet participants, Mcmillan and Morrison’s study found the family was partitioned into two halves – the young and the old.  Siblings and other younger family members were perceived as insiders embedded in the social webbing of the net and as catalysts for the learning and usage of technology, whereas parents and the elderly were classified as hesitant and disabled users who were seen as lacking confidence and sometimes even ‘being afraid’ of the internet (Mcmillian and Morrison 2006).  In contrast, the youngest generations were viewed in positive terms as they were fated to grow up even more so immersed in new media.  Much like Haythornthwaite and Wellman’s earlier findings (1998) evidence suggests an acceptance of new media in both the worlds of work and play.  Lastly mentioned in the Mcmillian Morrison study was that though the internet was fundamental in sustaining and enhancing real communities, the medium spurred profound impacts in student conceptions of community – enabling them to connect to global and virtual social groups in ways previously unknown.  Some respondents in Mcmillan and Morrison’s study even expressed definitions of community or society determined by technology; their grandparents and parents generations were defined by telephones and the television, and their generation was hallmarked by the internet.  This kind of outlook sounds almost reminiscent of technological determinism, suggesting that the sheer gravity of perceived influences of the internet is a significant factor of socialization.  Most respondent portrayals of the internet found themselves housed in the utopian/dystopian dichotomy, either hating or loving the impacts and wonders of virtual and global communities.  Inherent to every level of analysis was a certain level of dependency on the internet – respondents typified a life built and fueled largely upon access and usage of the web.  Details aside, the on-going theme was the emphasis and notability of the internet and its integration into daily-life.  Facebook’s success is contingent on this generational conception of virtual community and self-identity development.  Regularity is just one piece of the puzzle – dependence on and benefits from the web are yet another indicator of student inclinations towards Facebook.  An effective measure of this is social capital.

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[1] This was also observed on the UIllinois Facebook network during the summer of 2007.

[2] See Jeff Ginger’s MA paper for the full explanation:

[3] That’s right, I just made this up, typed in it, and low and behold there was a group by the very name: