Sunday, September 15 • 11:11am - 11:30am
“Facebook as a decontextualized environment: Young people’s experiences of navigating LGBTQ identity on a social networking site”

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Having grown up with Facebook, today’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) youth use this social media platform when making life-changing decisions, such as whether or not to come out, and when engaging in everyday identity-shaping activities (Cooper & Dzara, 2010). This study, which will be completed in early summer, investigates online identity performance over time through twenty biographical interviews with young people ages 16-18 and analysis of their Facebook profiles. Having used social network analysis to identify the most connected LGBTQ youth organisations in the UK that also use social media in their outreach, participants were recruited in collaboration with these organisations in order to provide young people with a voice regarding their experiences. Their accounts include the benefits, challenges, strategies, and risks involved in using social networking sites (SNSs) to establish and express a LGBTQ identity. 

Focusing on this subset of the population for whom impression management is often intensified creates a lens through which previous studies of affordances of SNSs (Hogan, 2010; Marwick & Boyd, 2011) can be extended. Certain features of SNSs lead to the convergence of social, temporal, and spatial contexts (boyd, 2011). The resulting context collapse, where unintended audiences are privy to untailored performances, complicates identity display as family, friends, co-workers, and acquaintances all receive the same performance. This lack of boundaries presents a new kind of social environment necessitating a transformation of Goffman’s (1959) dramaturgy as it is applied in understanding social interactions on SNSs. Preliminary work indicates that individual agency in identity-shaping practices is complicated by Facebook’s structure in combination with the actions of one’s online network. Despite individuals’ efforts to wipe their profile of identifying information, contacts draw conclusions from the myriad of information available, only some of which can be controlled, and even form inferences from missing information, such as a blank interested in section. Even individuals who have disclosed their LGBTQ identity to all contacts still have difficulty tailoring performances of ‘being out’ and experience misinterpretation of their identity. Although context collapse appears to occur most severely for those who have differentially disclosed their gender or sexual orientation across online audiences, it affects many individuals with different approaches to identity display. 

These challenges, when contrasted with opportunities SNSs present for developing and communicating identity, provide a deeper understanding of the experience of navigating the social landscape of Facebook than that of mainstream media discourses, which portray coming out online as easy, simple, and instantaneous. Instead, individuals’ unique social networks combine with the structure of SNSs and the complexities of impression management to create an on-going process of applying strategies and techniques to express a desired self. This research intersects with broader issues including online privacy, bullying, and youth outreach strategies employing SNSs. The findings also have implications for all Facebook users, as the site’s decontextualized environment becomes part of their biography and life-defining moments while posing on-going challenges for everyday impression management. 


boyd, d. (2011). Social network sites as networked publics: Affordances, dynamics, and implications. In Z. Papacharissi (Ed.), A Networked Self: Identity, Community, and Culture on Social Network Sites (pp. 39–58). New York and London: Routledge. 

Cooper, M., & Dzara, K. (2010). The Facebook revolution: LGBT identity and activism. In C. Pullen & M. Cooper (Eds.), LGBT Identity and Online New Media (pp. 100–112). New York: Routledge. 

Goffman, E. (1959). The presentation of self in everyday life. Garden City, AT: Doubleday. 

Hogan, B. (2010). The presentation of self in the age of social media: Distinguishing performances and exhibitions online. Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society, 30(6), 377–386. doi:10.1177/0270467610385893

Marwick, A., & boyd, d. (2011). I tweet honestly, I tweet passionately: Twitter users, context collapse, and the imagined audience. New Media & Society, 13(1), 114–133. 

avatar for Stefanie Duguay

Stefanie Duguay

PhD Candidate, Queensland University of Technology
Stefanie is a PhD candidate in Digital Media Studies at the Queensland University of Technology (QUT). She holds an MSc in Social Science of the Internet from the Oxford Internet Institute at the University of Oxford and a BASc in sociology and psychology from the University of Lethbridge... Read More →

Sunday September 15, 2013 11:11am - 11:30am EDT
ROWE 1009

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