Or, defining the rules by which we define ourselves
Forms and fields are nothing new. We’ve always had to fill out employment applications and census forms by reducing our lives to just the words that could fit in the blanks or the choices for the check boxes provided. But they were one off forms, which were then buried in drawers, not published for the world to see.
Social networking is changing that. Now, we’re filling out forms about ourselves every day and making the information public to our friends, family, and the internet at large. (And they’re public not in the sense of public records, but in the sense of “Hey, you guys!”) Facebook, LinkedIn, etc. have made the rules of our personal brands. They’ve told us you need a picture, you need a job title, you need an education history. Without these and other fields filled in, your profile (really your personal brand) is suspect.
My life fits most of the social media profile fields pretty well. I’ve got a job I’m proud of, a family I like, and a college that I’m happy to recommend. I’m not actually photogenic, but every once in a while, I take a good enough picture that I’m okay with using it in my profiles. (That happens all of about twice a year.) But some people have lives that don’t fit the paradigms that were used to develop the profile fields. Maybe they don’t have a job or a family. Maybe their job just can’t be defined in 120 characters or less.
Our identity and personal brands are largely defined based of how we fill in the fields that Facebook, LinkedIn, etc. give us to work with. (Yes, some of us have blogs or personal websites where we can get a little more creative, but we’re a distinct minority.) Generally, your social media presence is your personal brand, at least as far as the internet is concerned. You’ve gotta work within the fields that are provided to you, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t be creative with them. For lack of a better term, I’m interested in how people whose lives don’t easily fit the defined fields are “hacking” them to make them work.
Facebook and Stay at Home Moms
I’m getting to an age when many of my friends are getting married and having children. And I get to watch this whole process unfold over Facebook. Many of them are choosing to return to work after having their children, but others are staying home to raise their kids. It’s the ones that are staying home that interest me, particularly how their defining their new lives in their social media profiles.
Facebook was built for college kids. It was built for people who could easily say “I spent my days studying x and y institution”, and Facebook had profile fields for academic major and college. Soon all of the original Facebook kids graduated and it was very easy to adjust that type of identity to “I spend my days doing x at y company” – job and work place fields were added. But, these fields were buried in your info page and nobody really paid all that much attention to them. They took a few clicks to find; you had to be actively Facebook stalking someone to learn where they worked.
One of the recent Facebook redesigns brought education and work info to the top of your profile. No longer buried in you info, they show up prevalently on your wall and anything else about you. So what do people who aren’t in school or the labor force do with those fields? The obvious choice would be to leave them blank. But, as I said, they’re prominent fields. Leaving them blank seems to imply “I don’t do anything” – which isn’t fair or true. So, understandably, many people choose not to leave them blank.
Instead, I’ve seen people filling in “Queen” at “Full time Wife and Mommy”. You can click on “Full time Wife and Mommy” as you would any other employer and see that over 7,000 women have listed their work that way. Since there’s no unified way that people are listing it, there’s no way of finding how many women are using some other version of “mother”, “home maker”, “stay at home mom”, etc. to populate those fields.
Playing amateur sociologist (with absolutely no qualifications), it seems like women who were in their 30s or 40s when they joined Facebook tend to leave those fields blank, whereas women who joined in their teens and twenties tend to fill them. I’ll leave the guessing as to why that is for all of you, but I suspect that it has something to do with defined vs. developing identity. (Another thing about moms and Facebook profiles: a large number of women use a pictures of their children rather than pictures of themselves for their profile pictures. Maybe this is just because babies are cute, but I suspect that there’s something a lot bigger going on. However, that’s a whole post in itself…)
We are our profiles
Facebook and other social networking sites are very good at defining the rules by which we must define ourselves. On Twitter you can say anything you want – in 140 characters or less. You can write your bio and define yourself however you like – in 160 characters or less, and you best be thankful for those extra twenty characters. I see a lot of people define themselves as a list of things on Twitter. Instead of having to choose, they can be bloggers, mothers, consultants, and journalists all at the same time, just like they are in real life. (Yes, yes, clearly men can have identities that are difficult to define in limited social media profile fields as well.)
Social media’s defining how we define ourselves. Our profiles are some of the first things that come up when people search for us online. As we live more and more of our lives online, through the front of our profiles, they’ll become even bigger parts of our identity. To other people, we are our profiles.
Questions of the day: Does your life fit your profile fields? What do you do if it doesn’t?
MaggieCakes is a blog about social media, marketing, culture, and what’s new on the internet written by me, Maggie O’Toole. Every day (okay, I try for every day) I comb blogs and news outlets for the news about internet culture and social media to bring them to you (with my commentary, of course) here on MaggieCakes. Find anything interesting in the worlds of culture or social media that you’d like to see a post on? Leave a comment or send me an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.