Modeling cultural acquisition in online social networks



This research proposes to study the relationship between audience, context and disclosure in online social network sites. Studying a population of college students, the researchers will use a survey to explore how social maturity, perceived friend network size, and long-term goals affect the identity presented in online social networks. This goal of this analysis is to document a process of identity formation in online social networks. In the model, individuals choose strategies of identity presentation based on notions of in-group awareness, future-selves and social context. This model will be tested with survey methods.


Online social network sites1 play an important social and functional role in the lives of millions of individuals. On these sites, individuals construct a digital identity through the creation of a profile, they articulate their personal social networks, and they engage in relational formation and maintenance. Individuals write themselves into being (boyd, 2006) through a dialectical identity disclosure process (Donath, 1999).

Studies of campus social network use describe both high market penetration (Acquisti and Gross 2006, Stutzman 2006) and exceptional measures of use (Lampe et. al., 2007). Facebook, in particular, serves as somewhat of a digital nexus on the modern academic campus, illustrating the important role played by the online social network.

Research to-date has explored the social network as a place of signaling, disclosure, impression formation; studies have also show that online social networks are vectors for social capital (Boyd and Ellison, 2007). Uniting these research strands is the user and their state in the network; this paper will explore how the user's social state and maturity influence processes of identity disclosure, formation and discourse. How does the user's habitus interact with and affect practices of disclosure and identity-shaping in online social networks?


This research is situated on the college campus, exploring undergraduate online social network identity formation processes. Students use online social networks for a variety of purposes: The sites address social and informational needs, as well as providing a space for amusement and time-wasting. This dual purpose is informed by the unique social-informational situation of the college student, characterized as a state of social flux. In a state of transition, a real-world social network is a space of support and encouragement for students. The online social network provides a space of mediation and access to these support networks, offering new opportunities for connection and interaction between emergent and extant friend networks.

Relational formation is an important factor in successful student adaptation at university (Boute et. al., 2006). On the college campus, friendships are initially sparked offline, with the online social network providing a digital space for continued interaction. Studies by Lampe et. al (2006) revealed that the directional nature of Facebook friendship on the college campus is offline-to-online. This indicates relational interplay between offline social space, where users interact physically as classmates and neighbors, and the online place of social network sites where create (or recreate) social structures in virtual space.

Model of Cultural Acquisition

In the context of this study, we theorize identity as an iterative process, in which the self is continually being recomposed, represented and reimagined in response to changing circumstances. Vygotsky's (1978) notions of identity as a continuous dialectical process inform our conceptualization. In Vygotsky's theorization, the self emerges in response to and with terms and limits imposed by the social environment.

This environment, according to Goffman (1959), consists of scenes one performs in tandem with others. In the context of a social network site, the scene is a mutli-faceted; one performs identity with differing groups of peers or contacts. As one develops a more static sense of self and peer group, the performance of identity is reshaped and refigured for the context.

Figure 1 presents the model of disclosure based on contextual awareness. In this model, we explore the shaping of performative identity based on environmental and cultural awareness. For individuals, the process of identity presentation and formation is shaped over time by a self-conception of audience and goals. This conception is mediated by one's friend network or audience size, and one's awareness of the presentation context. For the research population (undergraduate students), one can imagine that presentation choices are influenced by social state and contextual awareness. If one is currently expanding their real-world social networks, sharing of identity information is shaped by social goals, and is mediated by the awareness of one's identity between the real and virtual worlds. For example, a freshman may feel more freeness with online presentation, as opposed to a jobmarket senior class member.

Figure 1.

Disclosure and Contextual Awareness. This model presents identity performance as function of contextual awareness. Over time, individuals shape their presentation based on audience and goals. This is mediated by audience size and contextual awareness.


This study of identity in online social networks will shed light on larger process of online cultural formation on the college campus. Will be conduct this research using survey methods. Using a random sample, we will solicit online questionnaire responses from 2,500 UNC undergraduate students. We predict a rate of participation of 20%, producing an analytic sample of 500 individuals. Those who decide to participate will follow a link to a web-based survey.

We have piloted this survey with a convenience sample to test internal consistency and ease of use. Out paper will employ a regression model to develop a predictive path analysis of audience perception development.

Future Directions

We believe that this study fills a critical gap in the online social networks literature, examining the extent to which audience, goals and contextual awareness affect in-group disclosure processes. While this study is situated in Facebook, we hope that it can provide a model for examining in greater depth the well-developed patterns of use of long-time online social network users in different networks.

The authors acknowledge that this research is only a part of the overall picture of online social network use and cultural processes, but it stands to explore critical dimensions of the space.

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