Thursday 8 March 2018

Missing social information and disidentifiers in digital self-presentation

Written for multimodal researchers interested in young peoples' self-presentation strategies and curation of digital personas.

I submitted 'Inequality in Digital Personas- e-portfolio curricula, cultural repertoires and social media' in mid-February. Some of my thesis' findings and recommendations were removed to meet the 80,000 word restriction. This redacted writing may still have some value to researchers, so I'm sharing them as blog posts. Here's the first (all will be labelled 'PhD' for ease-of-finding):

Missing social information and disidentifiers

Research background and three key contributions
Moving image media have become central to the learning and everyday life experiences of young children (Buckingham, 2003, 2013). However, such media are largely ignored in multimodal research, despite its acknowledgement of the importance of computer games, film and television (Kress, 2010). My research made a novel contribution by focusing on visual arts e-portfolio styles. This benefits research into the broad range of texts in the classroom that have resulted from the impact of digital media in the last decade (Bazalgette and Buckingham, 2013).

 My action research project (2009-13) enabled students at two sites, an independent and a government school, to be taught the creative appropriation of online portfolio software, Carbonmade, for curating their electronic learning portfolios (e-portfolios). The two very different sites were chosen for the following reasons: first, I wanted to explore a wide range of students' choices that economic, cultural and social differences might contribute to; secondly, the bandwidth costs of online publication are significant in under-resourced settings (Donner and Walton, 2013), and thirdly, there are massive differentials in South Africans' general levels of access to, and familiarity with, online media (Goldstuck, 2010, 2017).

Aside from assisting students with developing new media literacies as digital curators, my investigation also made valuable contributions through two other methodological innovations. Its longitudinal nature is unusual amongst multimodal studies in spanning three years (2010-12) at an independent school and two years (2012-2013) at a state one. Diachronic changes in students’ digital designs were examined through the novel methodological contribution of a screenshot analysis. My third contribution is an original description of how young people’s access to digital infrastructures influenced their development of a digital hexis for e-portfolio curation and the modal density of their e-portfolio styles.

Although multimodal content analysis proved highly useful, my thesis did not focus on contributing to social semiotics. Nevertheless, interesting findings emerged that contribute to multimodal theory: Researchers have described the dangers of stigma (Trottier, 2013) and oversharing (Agger, 2012) in peoples' digital self-presentations, but little has been written on the absence of social information as missing identifiers (Goffman, 1963) or concerning disidentifiers.

1. Understanding missing identifiers
Signs may be called symbols where signs are available to convey social information that is frequently and steadily available and routinely sought and received (Goffman, 1963). In e-portfolio curation, students might be unable to add information to particular identifying categories. This could result in their online identities missing identifying information that audiences would typically expect in a showcase digital portfolio.

There is a research gap concerning audience expectations of teenagers' online disciplinary identities. However, research into professional branding (van der Land & Mutinga, 2014. Van der Land, Willemsen & Unkel, 2015. van der Land, Willemsen & Wilton, 2016) is suggestive of how profile creators might increase their credibility by making particular choices in the information they provide. For example, human resource departments might expect to see prospective employees' self-portraits on LinkedIn (Sharone, 2017) and users who post theirs are perceived to be more socially attractive and competent than ones who don't (Edwards, Stoll, Faculak & Carman, 2015). In such portraits, smiling and eye-contact (looking in the camera) appear to increase perceptions of credibility (van der Land, Willemsen & Wilton, 2016).

Digital self-presentation as an online exhibition 
Impression management is the term used to describe how a performer tweaks his or her performance to consciously give details or unintentionally give off details that leak off without any intention (Goffman, 1963). Notions of impression management have proved a useful theoretical foil for understanding online behavior (boyd, 2007. Marwick & boyd, 2011. Mendelson & Papacharissi, 2010. Lewis, Kaufman & Christakis, 2008. Quan-Haase & Collins, 2008. Schroeder, 2002. Tufekci, 2008). Goffman's dramaturgical metaphor situates impression management within a specific bounded place, drawing on the concept of a behaviour setting (Barker, 1968) in which behaviour is driven by the norms and goals of specific settings. This delimited place is distilled into a dichotomy between front- and back regions, colloquially front stage and back stage. In the front stage, the actor tries to present an idealised version of the self that accords to a specific role. In my research, pupils were assessed on their front stage self-presentation as visual arts students. Students' curations of digitally disciplined personas drew on varied repertoires from a backstage, where the real work necessary to keep up appearances is done.

Goffman's dramaturgical metaphor is focused on synchronous performance in a situation where the performer is co-present with a live audience and can adjust his or her behaviours in response to their feedback. However, many social media sites provide communicative situations that are dissimilar to face-to-face ones. These situations do not depend on being bounded in space and time, nor supporting co-present, real-time observation between individuals (Miller, 1995). Consequently, it is more appropriate to use an exhibition metaphor than a stage play (Hogan, 2010), for social media artefacts. E-portfolios, for example, are presented asynchronously in space for many possible audiences:

Hogan defines an exhibition site as a site (typically online) where people submit reproduced artifacts (read: data). These artifacts are held in storehouses (databases). Curators (algorithms designed by the site's maintainers) selectively bring artifacts out of storage for particular audiences. Audience in these spaces includes those who have used the artefact or make use of it. There are two components of an exhibition space; in the first, information signifying an individual is delivered to the audience on demand by a third party. In the second, the reproducibility of the content and the database curator's role in distributing it means that the submitter does not continually monitor the data as the audience receives it. Nor may the contributor fully know his or her invisible audience(s).

The exhibition metaphor is highly appropriate for describing visual arts showcase e-portfolios, since these are exhibitions that are doubly curated; being self-curated by students, who organise digital content, that is redistributed via the virtual curatorship of an online portfolio service's database(s). The context of this exhibition space can stand in for the dramaturgical context of a specific setting (Schroeder, 2002). In contrast to the latter situation, the artist and his exhibit's viewers are not co-present in space in real-time, but may still monitor and react to each other. Furthermore, while the artist may order artefacts with a particular audience in mind, those who view and react to the content may be different from those for whom it was intended. This exhibition approach expands, but does not replace, the dramaturgical approach since each artist may adjust his or her self-presentation on an ongoing basis in response to audience feedback. An advantage of this expanded approach is that it can support a clearer articulation of the potential and perils of self-presentation in an age of digital reproduction (Hogan, 2010).

The expanded approach is also helpful for addressing the major difference between an embodied actor with a pre-existing physical presence, versus the disembodied e-portfolio exhibition space. Its creators must enter, select and upload information to create their digital presences. In e-portfolio production, students should have greater opportunity to exercise impression management and make strategic choices in what information they might provide through different modes. These modes provide different resources that students can use to control their information and affect not just what young people are able to reveal, but also what they are able to conceal (Jones, 2005).

Linking missing information to marginalised students' limited infrastructural access
Software both enables and constrains users' communications (van Leeuwen & Djonov, 2013) through posing particular kinds of representational and communicational choices.  The degree of design and customisation afforded by Carbonmade, as well as what software does not offer users (van Leeuwen, 2008), shaped students' e-portfolio styles. For example, free Carbonmade users had very limited options for customising portfolio layout. Unlike paid users they cannot upload a custom logo or feature big images.

In curating online personas, few keen students would set out to produce digitally disciplined identities that were incomplete showcases, since this might potentially compromise their credibility. Nevertheless, for first-timers, the task of e-portfolio design work can be overwhelming (Yancey, 2004) as it may involve many unfamiliar tasks. These can include: identity work; remediation of creative productions and their arrangement for diverse online audiences; and being ‘web sensible’ in exploiting the affordances of the digital space (such as hyperlinks). While the on-going maintenance of e-portfolios may involve seemingly simple processes, their quantum contributes to it being a complicated medium for novices to manage. They often needed to do several updates for achieving currency and coherence.

Such a requirement placed marginalised students at the greatest disadvantage in being under-resourced in not having home computer and internet access. They had to make choices during e-portfolio lessons, where they were hampered by their inexperience with computers and the internet. Highly constrained access to digital information infrastructure limited these teens' development of a digital hexis for e-portfolio production. The concept of a digital hexis was proposed by Fanny Georges (2007) to designate a scheme of user self-representations. These self-representations are transformed like a body that is shaped by habit or by repetitive practice. Thus, the notion of hexis bears analogy with the shaping of meaning and body. The extent to which digital identities are produced is drawn from repetitive interactions and continuous perception of self-representations on the screen (Georges, 2009, p.1). Participants as e-portfolio curators, thus evidenced a digital hexis in their e-portfolio's self-description, imagery and level of organisation. These young people's accomplishments in evidencing digital hexeis via e-portfolio styles were thus closely linked to opportunities for regularly accessing and using digital information infrastructures.

In analysing all research participants' e-portfolio styles, different patterns between the two sites suggested that young people's material circumstances were reflected in the extent of their digital self-descriptions and portfolio organisation. In particular, inequalities in histories of digital infrastructure's access and use (for example "free" internet Wi-Fi) led to large differences in the levels of modal density (Norris, 2009) of e-portfolios at either site. Students’ multimodal texts can be dense in meaning, given that each mode adds its particular layer of complexity. According to a Multimodal (inter)action analysis approach (Norris, 2004, 2014), each students’ e-portfolio had a particular level of modal complexity. The more intricately intertwined a webpage’s multiple disembodied modes (such as image, text and layout), the higher the density. Differences in the densities of e-portfolios were linked to the digital hexis for e-portfolio curation that teens could exercise. Thus, class and digital divides were evident in the extent to which digital personas and imagery was curated.

Youth’s development of a digital hexis for e-portfolio curation benefitted from digital infrastructures available outside class: No independent school student lacked extra-mural internet access, but a few government school pupils did. Without such privilege, these students had to do e-portfolio work in class. Their inexperience with desktop computers and internet browser use often resulted in slower progress and needing to play ‘catch up’ in class with peers. Overall, students with the least internet access created e-portfolio styles that featured fewer roles and had a lower modal density than those of their peers. Such self-presentations and portfolios seemed to be hampered by absent information that reflected its curators not having the resources or time required for providing all the details that the e-portfolio curriculum requested. Consequently, marginalised students' e-portfolios seemed disorganised and less polished than affluent peers who benefitted from additional production periods outside class.

Better-off teens exercised their advantages in digital information infrastructure to curate e-portfolios with extensive information about multiple personas. These students typically enjoyed pre-exposure to publishing their artworks to social networks via mobile phones and/or home internet. These students could readily use mobile-centric and/or home internet access (Rideout and Katz, 2016) in developing a digital hexis for e-portfolio curation. Although students who had mobile phones were advantaged in being able to circumvent slow internet speeds in class, this was undermined when their airtime ran-out or the incompatible ecologies between contemporary phones and old computers slowed or prevented them from downloading artworks and self-imagery.

High ad-hoc broadband rates serve as gatekeepers to data intensive practices by mobile-centric users, such as e-portfolio curation. In South Africa, pay-as-you-go mobile phone contracts prioritize use of voice and SMS services. For affluent consumers, able to afford big data bundles, data can be amongst the cheapest in the world, at eight cents per megabyte upfront (Goldstuck, 2016). By contrast, the punitive ceiling rate of up to R2 per megabyte for “out of bundle” mobile data can be subtracted from ad-hoc users’ airtime, putting it amongst the highest rates in the world. Data bundles are not perceived as an essential purchase by the poor and so are rarely bought. They consider bundles as cheap as R25 to be unaffordable, despite these enabling major savings in the cost of ad hoc data (Goldstuck, 2016).

Under-resourced students had to be highly resourceful to participate in e-portfolio production, given such costs and their difficulties in accessing digital cultural capital (Selwyn, 2004; Seale, 2012). Such marginalised youths reported not being able to produce e-portfolios to their satisfaction. By contrast, privileged students at both schools expressed dissatisfaction with the limitations of the 'visual arts showcase' e-portfolio as a school genre. Students who had “free” home internet could do e-portfolio work at their leisure, which tended to result in these teens sharing not only extensive information about their classroom roles, but their informal ones, using better production values and modally denser styles. Such teens pushed Carbonmade’s free online portfolio storage to the limit and some took advantage of their out-of-class infrastructural advantages for creating extra-mural portfolios that overcome storage limitations and provided a forum to circumvent the e-portfolio guidelines. A few students linked such "unofficial" portfolios from their e-portfolios.

2. Describing disidentifiers
In addition to students' e-portfolio styles missing social information, they also evidenced disidentifiers (Goffman, 1963), whereby signs broke-up the coherence between self-presentation and portfolios that students had tried to create. Teens' feedback suggested that they did not deliberately select signs that resulted in misrepresentation on their webpages. The presence of disidentifiers suggested novel self-presentation and content production problems when young people's multimodal choices become remediated online: 

The use of default software values created disidentifiers that inexperienced teenagers missed editing: some choices were not specified by them and their display simply reflected default settings. For example, in organising their portfolio folders, the navigation styles could vary between those they specifically chose and those that were the initial defaults. Such discrepancies were not deliberate and would create an odd navigational experience for portfolio viewers.

Teens could make choices that were later forgotten and their meanings no longer intended. For example, while "Kyle" was interested in graffiti in grade 10, by matric he described this as just a 'phase'. Nevertheless, graffiti remained listed as one of his skills, but there were no examples of such work under his portfolio.

A common example across students' work were copyright statements that featured the year they were written (i.e. 2010 /11). These could become disidentifiers when not updated to the current year they are viewed at (i.e. 2012 and later). By contrast, the author's intention would always be to assert their copyright for the current year as the most accurate form of legal statement.

Missing identifiers and disidentifiers point to the constraints that young digital curators face in infrastructure and practicing ongoing e-portfolio curation. In highly-constrained material and technological contexts, the concept of a signmaker expressing his or her interest is worthy of critique.
Just as Potter highlighted about children's' video-making (2012, p. 33), not every video, 'ends up as the coherent, fully designed, literate and realised use of meaning-making resources envisaged by some semiotic theorists'. My research likewise highlights the constraints of teenagers as multimodal designers. In particular, it is important to understand the (often hidden) role of digital infrastructure as an influence on their design process. Inequalities in the access and use to such infrastructures may enable certain styles of self-presentation or act as a gatekeeper, especially for marginalised teens. Non-internet connected students described being unable to publish the social information or artwork showcases they wanted to. In the absence of information on digital infrastructure in their e-portfolios, it was difficult for viewers to appreciate how differing contexts shaped the quantum and styles of visual and social information that users provided. For example, it is hard to spot that under-resourced students had put a lot of effort in making workarounds to overcome slow and unreliable ICT infrastructures. Another concern lay in students not deliberately choosing multimodal ensembles: default software values created disidentifiers that inexpert teenagers missed editing or forget to change, which resulted in misrepresentation of teens' interests.

Scholars who celebrate accounts of teaching contemporary digital media production with new media literacies (Jenkins, 2006. Burn and Durran, 2007. Lankshear and Knobel, 2009. Ito et al, 2010. Jenkins, Ito & Boyd, 2015) would tend to promote the integration of such like arts e-portfolios at schools. Likewise, teachers believed that publishing the prescribed style would be beneficial for all. By contrast, the content analysis and case studies of a range of students' e-portfolio styles revealed the exclusionary impact of infrastructural inequality. My content analysis and case studies for twelve teens revealed how highly constrained access to digital information infrastructure limited marginalised teens’ development of a digital hexis for e-portfolio production.

When analysing digital curators' productions, semiotic theorists should not assume that incoherence, outdated information and the low modal density that results from missing social information solely reflects unmotivated students’ disinterest. Rather, it is important to consider how low production values might also result from keen youths who face infrastructural constraints that prevent online content curation and digital remediation.

Future research into missing social information and disidentifiers
Describing the infrastructural constraints that students experienced is consequential as it shows educators and other decision makers that youths’ differential resourcing must be accommodated in curricular design. For example, lessons should aim to prioritise infrastructure use by under-connected students. Teens’ mobile infrastructures must be better accommodated and students should be encouraged to describe infrastructural enablers and constraints in their e-portfolios. Future researchers should look at the outcomes of specific changes in class and whether they help promote greater equity, or not?

The absence of expected signs in an e-portfolio are missing identifiers that may reduce its value when viewers interpret a prospective apprentice or student's digital portfolio to be incomplete and not a 'proper showcase'. The prestige of the symbolic capital that students may develop via digital curations is linked both to the quality of the artworks they remediate and their organisation. Where students choose to be online, but produce partial, disorganised portfolios that do not reflect their best works, such curations may be judged to be inadequate and discredited by assessors or prospective employers. Audience research needs to be done concerning the reception of young people's e-portfolios. For example, how do assessors grade for missing identifiers and disidentifiers when evaluating digital arts portfolios for university access.

My research took place in two relatively well-resourced English secondary schools that could provide the visual arts subject, but future research could be done into the choices that young people make in the less well-resourced environments that are more common in South Africa. For example, how do non-dominant teens negotiate their cultural exclusion at school in creating digital personas that remediate their mother tongues and other repertoires?

More research also needs to be done concerning young adults' development of varied digital portfolios as they enter tertiary education, the workforce and other spaces. For example, how do young peoples' online portfolio styles change as youth become professionals or hobbyists?

People use multiple profiles to support job searches that may involve switching from one profession to a new one. There is an opportunity to research how young adults manage multiple profiles with limited internet access. Researchers must also explore how other constraints influence young adults' design of digital personas. For example, while online spheres are increasingly considered public, they are a source of tension for prospective employees. Older people voiced fears about being screened out of potential work interviews if they post self-image photos on LinkedIn (Sharone, 2017). The ease with which HR recruiters can search young adults' "Google resumes" and their attendant fears of evaluation is likely to inhibit certain expressions online. Researchers could examine the extent to which young adults remain silent about their political and social justice views to 'fit in' with prospective employers.

Cite this page
Noakes, T. (2018). Missing social information and disidentifiers in digital self-presentation. Retrieved from

This blog post was updated on the 13th of March with additional insights from my 8ICOM talk and presentation (12 December, 2016).

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