"Overall scholars tend to agree that through images, video, status updates, profiles, friend lists, visible conversations, tastes and interests, and comments that appear within their profile, social media participants present a highly curated version of themselves" (Schwartz & Halegoua, 2014).
How we manage our multiple identities in the age of social media is a fascinating topic, and it is emerging as a common theme across some of the research I’m currently working on. Last year my colleagues and I published a paper about the potential consequences - both good and bad - of making students’ university assignments visible on the social web. What happens when students are asked to keep a weekly blog for a university assignment, to collaborate on a wiki that is to become a resource for other students, or to use a foreign social networking site to practice their language skills?
Our paper examined lecturers’ experiences of implementing and managing assignments like these. While lecturers believed there were clear learning benefits from using social technologies in education, they also hinted at potential dangers of asking students to present their work - and, by association, themselves - online.
We felt this was an area worthy of further investigation and we are now examining students’ perspectives on the topic. Some people might believe that students would be nonchalant, or even enthusiastic, about using social web technologies at university. After all, they post everything about themselves online anyway, don’t they? What we are finding, however, is that students are more sophisticated and cautious about social media than we might initially suspect. They don’t always want to mix their personal online selves with their student selves. And this does not just refer to using sites like Facebook - they also have reservations about sharing blog posts with classmates.
Social technologies encourage a particularly personal and informal style of communication. People can feel, then, that they are sharing something of themselves, and not just their work, when using social technologies to support learning or work practices. We often hear how pervasive technologies are making our work lives encroach on our personal lives. But what about the reverse? When social technologies are used in formal settings - like higher education or the workplace - does it become more difficult to maintain boundaries between personal and professional selves?
This certainly appeared to be the case in the field study my colleagues and I report on in our CHI 2014 paper. In that paper we discuss how aged care managers used a new social technology to communicate with their clients. The social technology - a photo-sharing application used on an iPad - provided opportunities to strengthen the relationship between care managers and their clients by supplementing their normal communications. However, it also introduced new challenges, particularly with regards to separating personal and professional identities. Photo-sharing is an evocative visual form of communication. By sending photos to clients that documented their everyday lives, care managers were providing clients with a window into their world that would not normally be available to the predominately housebound older people they worked with. Introducing a social technology into this professional context meant care managers had to take extra care to keep their personal and professional lives separate.
We used the term "boundary work" to describe the deliberate strategies care managers employed in order to effectively use the photo-sharing tool without communicating too much of their personal lives to clients. The term comes from a book by Christena Nippert-Eng, "Home and Work: Negotiating Boundaries Through Everyday Life," published in 1996. It seems timely to revisit the findings reported in this book in light of the blurring of boundaries that occur now that social technologies have become pervasive in both personal and professional worlds.
Dr Jenny Waycott, Lecturer, School of Computing & Information Systems, The University of Melbourne
Contact: jwaycott @ unimelb.edu.au