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A Framework for Engagement on Facebook

December 9th, 2007

I argue that (1) there is a hierarchy of identity, and (2) that engagement increases as you move up this hierarchy. Furthermore, (3) your identity has two distinct but interactive components: social and personal. These three claims suggest a framework that we can use to map activities, both from web 2.0 and the real world. The framework can also be used to put facebook in historical context.

There is a hierarchy of identity: formation, expression and irrelevance. Identity formation (and change) is the highest level. In formation, you define who you are, what makes you different from others and what makes you similar to others. Hierarchy of IdentityFor example, a teen may explore extreme expressions of identity like coloring his hair or attending radical political meetings at school as he figures out whom he really is. Most people form their identity as young adults, although some people change significant aspects of their identities later in life especially around life stages like marriage, having children or retiring.

Expression is the middle level. Although not as intense as formation, you care a lot about projecting your preferences and other aspects of your identity. For example, you can express yourself by distributing a business card or through your car and mobile phone purchases. Expression can also be private, in the sense of gratifying your desires. For example, collecting things or taking care of a pet can be expression. Expression reinforces an identity that you have already formed.

Irrelevance is at the lowest level. Much of what you do has little impact on your identity. For example, you take hundreds of small actions like turning a key clockwise to open a door are completed, often thoughtlessly, without any change to your sense of self. Even typically engaging activities, e.g., politics, may elicit no response from people reject it as irrelevant to their lives.

Engagement tends to increase as you move up the hierarchy of identity. When you are forming your identity or involved in identity-formation activities, you must become more engaged. You date more, you have more late night bull sessions—you are more open to new ideas and people. You can be passionate about expressing your identity, but it is distinctly less engaging than identity formation. You likely prefer to promote your ideas than to be challenged on them and you are more likely to seek like-minded friends to achieve your goals rather than waste time redefining the goals or convincing them to join your side. Finally, irrelevancy breeds apathy not engagement. If you find politics irrelevant, you may not be engaged enough even to bother to vote.

Personal and social identities are distinct but interactive. Personal identity is what distinguishes me from others, whereas social identity is what I have in common with others. For example, your personal identity includes your music preferences, sexual orientation, your profession, etc. Your social identity includes political, university, social and other group affiliations (whether formal or informal.) Your personal identity may include some of your social identity, and vice versa. In fact, personal and social identities powerfully interact to contribute to your overall, integrated identity.

You can map activities on these two hierarchies, both from web 2.0 and the real world activities. Some real-world activities, like writing a personal diary, are about forming your personal identity but are largely irrelevant as part of your social identity. Other activities, like a rave, are highly social but completely anonymous.

Engagement Landscape

Similarly, you can place web 2.0 sites . Since MySpace allows you to have many anonymous or fake profiles, it is likely that you’ll be less invested in the profile than one on facebook. Even still, a MySpace profile isn’t much fun if you don’t use it to create and join social groups. Plaxo is somewhat social, since your email contacts in aggregate help define your social groups. But there is little incentive to invest anything personal in a Plaxo account. LinkedIn is similar to Plaxo, but it has more opportunities like recommendations to invest personally into the platform.
To be engaging, advertisers and creators of persuasive technology should focus on helping people create or at least express their identity, socially, personally or better yet, both at the same time. For example, Pepsi has sponsored “Starring You” Christmas cards on JibJab.com that invite you to upload pictures of your friends and family as characters in short animated skits.
This framework yields some possible insights into how and why facebook has been such a success. College has always been a time and place for personal identity formation, so it is a natural place for an engaging social network to develop. It is a time when people discover who they are and start joining and feeling attached to social groups.

But every generation has had to struggle with these issues – what makes facebook different? As traditional social groups from political parties to bowling leagues erode, facebook provides a new way for the “echo boom” to redefine social institutions. Facebook is not just a better way to form your personal and social identities; the facebook generation has a privileged place in our society due to its size. If facebook wants to transform social institutions as it has interpersonal relationships, it needs to build more features to support organizations like single sign on, ‘Pages’ and ‘Groups.’

And I speculate: I believe facebook’s brand of personal and social engagement is here for generations. Facebook transforms the college experience much as the ‘60s transformed the college experience when baby boomers were in school. But without lasting social change, the facebook site itself risks being another fad like friendster.

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  1. December 9th, 2007 at 23:32 | #1

    A very interesting framework, but I think it paints Plaxo with the wrong brush. Since the company launched Pulse in August, the value proposition has evolved dramatically from “networked address book that stays in the background” to “a website that keeps you richly connected to the people you really know, including not only friends, but also family and business network.” And by being more open than Facebook, Pulse is able to be your dashboard for the emerging social web, letting you see what the people you know are doing across more than 30 sites. It’s in many ways a “Facebook for post-college folks,” with the sort of granular privacy controls that would make you comfortable sharing photos of your kids with your family and friends (knowing that they aren’t being shared with your “social network friends”.

  2. December 10th, 2007 at 09:42 | #2

    Hi John,

    Thanks for the perspective from Plaxo. You are right that I have a backwards-looking view of Plaxo, since I positioned Plaxo based on my past experience with it. So far with Pulse, my experience has been that it is a helpful aggregator of my streams of my web life. However, I had not yet experienced Plaxo as a location for my community *yet*.

    I certainly do hope that you can execute your vision, because it would be great to include my friends and family with some of the lightweight connectivity features that facebook has without having them join facebook itself.

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