Friday, February 18, 2011

Under construction: virtual identity, social currency and brand relationships in social networks

A recent "The Social Break-Up" study conducted by Cotweet and ExactTarget aimed to find out reasons for people disliking and disconnecting with brands on social media. The conclusion was that 90 percent of consumers have “broken up” with at least one brand on Facebook, email or Twitter because of irrelevant, too frequent or boring marketing messages. Personal wall becoming too crowded with marketing messages, lack of real value in company's posts and repetitiveness of the content were amongst the main reasons for disconnecting with a brand. Also, according to the study, almost a third (26 percent) of users liking a brand on Facebook have liked it just in order to take advantage of promotions offered for FB fans only, disconnecting after the promotion has ended.

In addition to these rational reasons, the desire and motivation to connect and disconnect, to like and dislike can be understood through the concepts of social currency and virtual identity. A digital analyst, sociologist, and futurist Brian Solis has been talking about the importance of social currency, which is represented by the social objects that we exchange in the social media: what we share, what we say, the smallest of actions from "likes" to Retweets to the simplest of updates form a digital representation of what we are. According to Solis, everything we do and say in social networks equates to "social capital" and the time has come to be mindful of the value we create in networks such as Facebook, Twitter, for ourselves.


The concept of "virtual identity" is today a very different one than it was at the dawn of the Internet boom in late 1990s. In our times, the notion of virtual identity is primarily not associated with something unrealistic or imaginary any more, neither it is seen as a tool just to "escape from reality" with imaginative avatars or nicknames. Although this is still definitely one significant definition of virtual identity, the concept of virtual identity has expanded and came closer to the mundane - closer to our everyday life and who we really are in real life. As Chris Heathcote mentioned in his presentation at Lift11 about invisible communities, people have multiple digital identities and do not necessarily want those identities tied together. The identity we represent to the world via Facebook and LinkedIn, for example, is not imaginary of fictional - it is a manifestation of ourselves, an extension or perhaps even an enhanced version of our true self.  Iin terms of Goffman's "presentation of self in everyday life" theory, social media is a front stage where we, with a clear intention, control and define what to share and with whom. It expresses a "realisation of the interpersonal self that individuals through "impression management" activity generate and present and that others expect".

The key is that virtual identities are always actively constructed and modified by individuals. In terms of social currency, perhaps the most important asset and form of capital in our era, even the simplest and smallest of our actions in social networks are meaningful. Our virtual identity and social capital are not only consisting of what we post or update, but also of who we are connected to and what we like. As Solis has put it, when combined, both our actions and relationships create a foundation for social capital.

A recent Pew Research about reputation management and social media found that in terms of representing one's indentity in social media, many young adults report having made mistakes that they regret. For instance, 56% of social networking users have “unfriended” contacts in their network and 52% have kept some people from seeing certain updates. 

As consumers, we are telling the world who we are via the brands we love, like and engage with. Our values, aspirations and dreams are manifested by what we choose to wear, eat, drive, buy - or just simply "like" on Facebook, as part of building our virtual identity and social currency. We are living in the middle of a rapidly changing brandscape and increasingly see communities dominating brands. In the context of social media, our relationships with brands are also becoming more transparent. Brands come and go, and social media has made this even more public - we can today publicly connect with a brand we just fell in love with and disconnect with another brand that we loved yesterday, telling it not only for the brand but also to our selected network. As a part of our virtual identity, the page listing our "likes" is not just an useful list of shopping places or brands for us, but a representation for our values, preferences, visions and dreams to the rest of the world - a piece of our identity that is always under construction.

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