MAS 961  ·  Techno-Identity  ·  Spring 2006

02.16 Social Identity

When we meet someone, we see only a few glimpses of them - if in person, what they look like, how they speak, what they said, where they are. Online, we see even less. Yet our impression is much richer and more detailed than our actual observations; we bring a wealth of past experience and knowledge to bear on it. This week, we will look social identity and the process by which we form impressions of other people.


Judith Donath    notes on social identity more to come
Georg Simmel    How is society possible?
Dorothy Holland and Debra Skinner   Prestige and intimacy
Erving Goffman   Introduction to the Presentation of Self in Everyday Life
David Jacobson   Impression formation in cyberspace: Online expectations and offline experiences in text-based virtual communities (1999). Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 5, no. 1.


  • Read the papers.
    The Simmel paper provides a historical foundation for this topic. Simmel is one of the founders of the field of sociology. In this essay, he lays out many of the questions we are still thinking about today: how do we make sense of other people? how do we mesh our individual concepts with those of others? how much is our understanding of other people constrained by our experiences and beliefs?
    Holland and Skinner describe how shared concepts of types of people are created and spread. They also look at the notion of people-categories as having the function of helping us predict how someone is going to act and how we should act toward them.
    Goffman uses the metaphor of theater to describe social behavior. In his view, people are actors, and social identity is a role they perform, with varying degrees of skill.
    Jacobson applies prototype theory to observing how people form impressions online.
  • Answer these questions:
    1. In "Prestige and intimacy", what are the costs to the women of incorrectly interpreting the men's signals? Of believing deceptive signals? What are the benefits to the women of signaling deceptively? The costs?
    2. It is easy to conclude that all signals online are purely conventional - but is this too simple an interpretation? Examine some of the examples in Jacobson's article - are the signals purely conventional or are there assessment aspects to them also? What are they?
  • Working with one or two other people in the class,
    1. go to a place (a cafe, etc) where you can observe people easily. Pick one person to observe and then *individually* write up your impression of them. What are the observable cues to their identity? What is your impression of them - how did you interpret these cues? Using Goffman's distinction between impression given and impression given off, do you think the public persona the person projected was the intended one? Think about what concepts and prototypes you are bringing to this interpretation. Now compare your impressions. How were they similar? How did they diverge? Did you observe different cues? Is the code you bring to the interpretation different than your classmates'?
    2. Do the same exercise with a person you observer online (in a newsgroup, on a homepage, on a dating site, etc)

Please link your essays by midday on Tuesday.