Nacho Space (Notes on a study of teen psychosocial identity on social networks)

Posted on 06 Nov 2006

Editor’s Note: What follows are a number of blog posts that I wrote during the Summer and Fall of 2006. I recently uncovered these while cleaning up my hard drive and figured they were worth surfacing to the world again as I go through a number of topics that are of interest to me, from FidoNet to identity formation. In 2006, I conducted research on teen identity with a focus on social networking sites, specifically Myspace, which was at its peak around that time (although two year old Facebook was waiting in the wings). I saved the actual results of this research separately, and would really love to publish that as well, but until I do, you’ll have to do with the teasing hints of that that I give in the posts below.

Nacho Space

2006-07-21 12:35:28

My professor has asked me to present a piece of research at the Mid-Atlantic Popular/American Culture Association (MAPACA) conference this October [2006]. I mulled over a number of research topics that I would find not only interesting, but feasible. I decided that my study would focus on identity formation in the internet age, as it was a discussion topic I had recently had that I thought was rather interesting. While there has been some very interesting research on internet usage, I think that the full effects of new technologies on our ideas of self have not fully been realized.

So, now I had a realm of inquiry from which to draw, but I still had to formulate a more specific topic of research. I found a few good papers regarding internet use among teens that I thought were heading in the direction that I was looking to go. The one that was to influence my abstract the most was a study by Huffaker and Calvert about teenage blogs. Now, I say it influenced my abstract because my abstract was due for submission before the bulk of my prior research had been assembled. To be honest, it’s still being assembled. I am still using it as the basis of my research, but I’m still ironing out the details!

One of my major concerns for running a study that involved human participants was that the bulk of my research would have to take place over the summer. While a college campus is usually overrun with participants, the summer semester limits the pool and thus wouldn’t be the easiest method of getting respondents to a survey. Instead I had to think of an alternative pool. Rather than following Huffaker’s lead and searching out student blogs, I thought I would take a current hot topic in the media - MySpace.

MySpace is one of the fastest growing, most popular websites on the net right now. If you’ve never heard of it before, I don’t know how you ended up here or what rock you’ve been hiding under. It started as a small site for fans of indie rock music to meet other fans and socialize. It quickly blossomed into a behemoth that outshadowed the, until then, reigning social networking site, Friendster. If you have any doubt as to the veracity of this, take note of the fact that MySpace was recently bought by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. for $580 million dollars. That’s million, with an ‘m’. Not bad for some indie music geeks with some coding skills, eh?

Personally, my history with online socializing goes back to the early nineties. The internet existed then, but it was far from what we know as the internet today. Most people didn’t have access to that internet, and html was still a project used mostly by academics to share information. The place to be at that point, as it had been for years, was on Bulletin Board Systems or BBSs (for a whole pile of BBS related stuff check out BBS Textfiles. BBSs were mostly small hobby sites set up by local enthusiasts. By the time I was on the scene, some had grown to large (30+ users at a time) sites. Each site had it’s own features, such as games, file downloads, live chat, email, and access to message servers like FidoNet. This was also the birthplace of the personal profile. Part personal bio, part personal ad, the profile was how users on the system came to define you. Your profile was how you chose to define yourself in the online world.

And then, in came the internet. My first ISP came through the BBSs. They started offering access to IRC and internet email, and then direct internet access through special dialup numbers. But soon, direct internet access was the de facto connection standard, and small servers were sucked into the void. All was not lost, though. While BBSs had mostly died out, they were reborn on the web, albeit in different form. Today’s popular format of web forum is an example of this, essentially a web-based BBS, complete with profiles, chat boards, and internal messaging.

So, MySpace is essentially a modern reincarnation of those 80’s BBS’s, only a vastly larger scale. While my local BBS might contain a couple hundred people from my local area, MySpace now has a critical mass of over 95 million members (31.75% of the US population). This is a prime place for research participants…

There are, however, some caveats to finding them, at least in a case such as this. I am looking to study teen use of the internet because it is during the teenage years when identity exploration is at its peak, and thus technologies such as these can have their largest effect. I mentioned earlier that MySpace is a current hot topic in the media, and the attention is mostly focussed on child predators. About 10% of children are molested by strangers and it has been the locus of attention in both the media and recent internet legislation. In reaction to this, MySpace has put certain limits on the access to accounts for members under the age of 16.

Now, I’m not going to complain about the fact that they are taking steps to protect children from online predators. I feel this is a good thing. Their methods may not be effective (what’s to prevent me from lying about my age in order to talk to kids?), but I think the ultimate responsibility lies with the parents and not online services. That said, it presents a few unique problems for my own survey methods that need to be worked around.

MySpace limits the access to profiles of teens aged 13-15, and recently made a rule that anyone over 18 can only add a younger person’s profile if they know their full name or email address. Because of this, I had to limit my study range to 16-18 year olds. I wanted to have randomly chosen respondents to my survey, so these are the only profiles that I have random access to.
It’s still not a very straightforward process though. While MySpace allows you to search profiles across the site, the lowest search age is 18. There is a backdoor to this, however!

In the profile creation/edit page you can add schools that you have gone to by looking them up in a database. If you click on the link for that school, you are taken to a version of the search page that only shows people who have also listed that school.
From this search page you are allowed to search for current students back to the age of 16. I have access to the complete zip code list for the U.S., and wrote a script that would randomly choose a few hundred zip codes from that list. From that list, I used the Public School Review to search for High Schools within those zip codes. With a high school for each zip in hand, I then add that high school to my MySpace profile and search for students (aged 16-18) who are students of those schools. I then used a random number generator to randomly choose profiles from within those search results. The URLs are recorded so that I can send a survey to each person, and parse their profile for relevant demographic/language use information.

The survey I’m creating is a story for another day. It’s not yet completed, but I’m currently assembling a couple of different measures that will help me to get at the information I’m after. My ambition is to have it up and running in the next two weeks, so that I can have at least a month to gather data and then at least a few weeks to actually interpret it and write up a paper on it. Of course, school starts again at the end of next month, so I am going to have plenty of juggling to do. This project is taking up a major portion of my brain space right now, so I’ll be posting a lot more on it as this story develops…

I’ll most likely be launching an offshoot of this site strictly for information regarding this project, including the results and finished paper whenever it is done. Until this, please let me know if you’re at all interested. Comments and suggestions are welcome.

‘Who…Are…You?’ said the Caterpillar.

2006-07-24 15:55:47

Continuing my research into social networking, I have been reading a few papers on psychosocial identity exploration and formation. This work follows in the footsteps, and expands upon, the work of Erik Erikson. His theories still hold ground in current thought, but have been expanded upon to include more subtleties and modified to allow for easier empirical research. I have yet to get a copy of Marcia’s thesis, but it appears to be the first operationalized version of Erikson’s theories. He interviewed teens/students about various aspects of identity, and following research even through today quotes him as a premier authority on the subject.

Probably the most interesting thing I have run across so far is the so-called “emerging adulthood” theory of identity. According to this view, in the past affluent adolescents were more often given the opportunity to explore various aspects of identity before committing to one. That is, they were allowed to flounder a bit before becoming full-fledged “adults” and expected to assume the responsibility of being one. Emerging adulthood says that in many modern post-industrial cultures this effect has diffused into the general population. It is no longer only the affluent who are afforded the luxury of identity exploration. It is not exactly the same, though, as this state between adolescence and adulthood has changed in its diffusion.

Support structures that were once available to adolescents may no longer be available and these “tweeners” may not have made the transition to a place where they can get more “adult” support. For instance, as a recent high school graduate, the counselors that I once relied upon for support may no longer be available, and being at the bottom rung of the career ladder may preclude me from health insurance that includes some kind of counseling or similar support. As such, this period can be a very vulnerable one, as those in it try to work out identity issues on their own and try to define both their personal identity and where they fit within society.

What I like most about this theory is that it recognizes the changing face of identity exploration in the modern world and differentiates between different styles of individualization. There are those who will follow prescripted rules set down by parents or other authority figures when designing their own identity, and then there are those who will create their own identity through exploration. Even those who are more explorative will either follow the “popular” route of their peers, or truly forge a new path to form an identity. We are always like other people, being social creatures, and yet have idiosyncratic differences that differentiate us, and any theory of identity has to take this into account.

What I need to figure out now is exactly how to measure these ideas. There are a few different measures that I’ve found that might be a good fit, but I haven’t been able to get my hands on a few of them. The problem is, identity is such a nebulous subject area that it’s hard to pin down which aspects of it to measure and how well those measurements will match up against the other data I’m collecting. This would all probably be easier if I had more time to put all of this together, then I could read more papers before coming to any decisions, but unfortunately I’m put to the task of assembling my research and writing conclusions at the same time.

My goal is to have my user survey completed by next weekend. Of course, next weekend is also my GRE exams, so I have to juggle studying for a very important test with writing a very important paper… along with my job and family. I think once I’ve really gotten a good idea of what I want to measure and ironed out what data I want that isn’t already covered, the survey will pretty much write itself. At this point, I’m not afraid of too much information, but too little. If I forget to ask some important question it will hurt a whole lot more than trying to find a needle in a haystack. In fact, if I can squeeze this survey into a small enough size, I may tack on some extra questions just to have the data. Even if it isn’t used in my current study, it will certainly be good for future use. Somewhere in the back of my head I’m already writing a followup study to this one, but I’m trying my best to muster those forces to concentrate on the study at hand.

To spam or not to spam. That is the question

2006-09-08 21:27:49

Probably the biggest ethical issue I have with the research I’ve been doing to date is that I am sending unsolicited messages to people I don’t know in hopes that they will participate in my survey. I’ve tried to think of alternative ways of gathering the data or finding people willing to participate, but I can think of nothing better in the time frame I am currently under. It wouldn’t do me any good to try to capture a zeitgeist of an ever evolving culture over a course of years anyway, unless I had a steadily large pool of data to pull from. but anyway…

my dilemma now is this. my survey has been running for about a month now. I had a pretty good response rate, but it has started to decline lately. It’s a numbers game, really. The more invites I can get out, the more responses I can get. I feel that the work I am doing is honest, ethical, and important. I’m asking questions that I haven’t found answers for elsewhere, at least in this particular context. So, I have no problems with the subject matter, but the methods I need now take are the problem. They are exactly the methods used by junk emailers. I know how to copy the methods of spammers, and I’m going to use them to send out invites, hunting for the participants I need to pull of this project.

In my mind, it feels right to use these methods, as my goals are ethical. I’m not trying to sell anything or scam anybody, and I don’t have any other method of gaining participants. Personally, though, I hate unsolicited emails, so it makes me wary. Now, the caveat here is that I don’t really ever get this kind of unsolicited mail. I’ve been randomly invited to take a psych survey maybe once or twice in my time on the internet, but most unsolicited mail is advertising of one sort or another.

MySpace is now starting to become overrun with spam. Even though I have hardly any friends on my research account, I randomly get invites from skinny chicks in skimpy bathing suits telling me how they get paid to take surveys or where I can meet horny, young housewives. And then there are all of the semi-legit bands just looking for fans. I’ll add the odd one here and there, but I’m not really into that anymore. It’s just too much for me to keep up with. I’m growing too old to listen to every band who thinks they’re the next best thing and wants me to add them on MySpace (except for atomic tom, of course…)

I’m going to go forward with this mass mailing campaign. I’m kind of nervous that if I push it too hard, I’ll end up getting TOSsed from MySpace, but I’m running out of options, and time. I don’t think it’s quite as bad as the junk mail I’ve received, but I still have this slight trepidation about it. I hereby declare my official apology to all of those kids out there who receive a message from me on MySpace and were in any way put off by it. Sorry, man.
It was my best way out, and it’s all in the name of science…

Now just take the damn survey!

data redux

2006-10-04 16:41:45

i’ve been getting my feet wet with SPSS, which used to stand for “statistical package for social sciences” before they figured out that they could market it to others for big bucks. how big? The base package of the current version costs $1600! An educational student discount would bring it down to a measly $200, but I’m not sure what the differences in packages are. Not my concern at the moment, though…

I’m nearing the end of my data collection phase, and while I have begun writing my report, I still haven’t ironed out the details of what i’m going to report on. I apologize to everyone who took my survey. Sifting through the data I now realize just how much was in it. I am very thankful to those that actually saw it through to the end, though. This was a good learning experience for me. I didn’t want my survey to be too long, but in the end it was a bit too long. This is an exploratory study, however, so I tried to throw as many questions out there as I could, not knowing exactly what I’d get back. In the end, I will probably end up throwing out bits of data here and there where I did not get reliable results, but the bulk of it will stay.

At the moment, I’m still collecting results for the survey, and these will be added to the data for my report, but I’m nearing my original goal of 50 responses, so I’ll probably be cutting off the responses pretty soon. I’m going to leave the survey up, in case some more responses trickle in, but I will not be sending out new invitations once I reach my “quota”. Here’s a quick peak at some of the demographics of my sample so far (I don’t expect these to change too much, as only a few more responses will be counted):

n=44 (26 female/18 male)

Age = 17.32 years

Ethnicity - Percentages in parentheses are from national census data.

Asian 2.3% (3.6%)
Black 4.6% (12.3%)
Hispanic 18.2% (12.5%)
Hawaiian/Pac Islander 2.3% (0.1%)
White 72.7% (75.1%)

Education Level - 11.3 years completed

Marital Status - 68.2% Single

We ran a factor analysis for the IDEA scale with the data that I have. It’s really neat to examine the way it factors it out. At least one or two of the factors were dead on matches for the data that they got in the original study, although there are some differences. It gives me some hope that my data is actually valid :) I don’t know how much verification I’ll be able to do with that scale within the scope of this study, but I’ll hopefully be able to go back and do some more work to validate the scale with this sample.

My age group is pretty small, so I don’t know if there will be much of a difference in scores for the identity scales across age, although I will be looking for such a difference. Ideally, there should be an increase in identity exploration and other factors as age increases, although other factors (such as employment, marital status and living situation complicate it a bit). The ethnicity data, while somewhat matching overall census data, may also be invalid in a group of this size. I can’t really count 2 “Black” responses as representative, even if the percentages fit. This data will most likely just be for demographic interest.

One of the data points that I’m really hoping to get something interesting out if is the number of friends, which is taken directly from MySpace profiles. I’m not quite sure yet how well this will correlate with anything, but I’m very interested to find out. I think it will help to answer a number of questions concerning social networking when correlated with other data.
Who scored higher on the loneliness scale? Those with many friends or only a few? Do the number of friends correlate well with how many of those friends you have met? I think it’s an important piece of data because the friend list is really the crux of social networking sites.

Anywho, I’ve still got a ways to go from here. The pieces are starting to come together, though, so I should be able to start posting some final data to the site soon and writing a draft of the report. The report itself will not be all-inclusive of those data, as there is just way too much to write about. Seeing as the presentation I’m doing is only 20 minutes, I’m going to have to do some editing of this report, nevermind one that includes all of the results I’ve gotten. I’m hoping to keep going with this and produce more results as I dig deeper into the functions of SPSS, learning and producing at the same time.


2006-11-06 13:04:07

I’ve taken a bit of a hiatus from my research over the past week. I went to the MAPACA conference and gave my presentation, but have yet to put it together into a written paper. At the outset, I thought I would have the paper before going off to the conference, but a few things prevented that from being the case. My personal life has played intereference with my professional goals over the past few weeks, and I’m still pretty much trying to get them back in order. I have, however, been asked to submit the paper to the journal for MAPACA, so I will be putting it together into a more formal format sometime very soon. For now I’m just trying to catch up with the school work I’ve missed in getting this together and figuring out how to go about applying to graduate schools… This is always the worst part of the semester. I’m stuck between anxiously awaiting the end and hoping wishing for just a few more weeks to get my act together. Stay tuned, I’ll have something pretty published shortly. I’m probably going to post the powerpoint slides from my presentation.


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