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Social media has become more popular and its usage more widespread in the past years (Digital Market Ramblings, 2014). Social media (or social networking sites- SNSs) are digital platforms that enable communication and interaction in a manner that is not limited by time or place by allowing internet-connected users to virtually share content and express their opinions. Through these social media, users can establish contact and communicate with other users who are known or unknown to them, share content and information with them, get information from others, help or receive help from other users, respond to or receive responses to their questions from other users (Cheung and Lee, 2010), and so on. In order to do this (take part in SNSs), however, people have to create profiles- self-presentations- of themselves online. These identities (online profiles or representations of themselves) that people create online offer insights into who they are and how they would like to be perceived. As a result of this, people are able to create new identities for themselves online that are completely devoid of the limitations of the real world. While people’s interactions online and the feedback they receive from their identities on SNSs may influence the development of their real world identities and presentations, it has been concluded from previous research works that people may behave differently online from how they would behave in the actual world. This has made marketers more interested in the various ways consumers use to express their identities (Ahuvia, 2005).
Although previous studies have investigated social media in relation to marketing matters like new product development or market research, this study will research on how social media affects and has been used by people as a tool for identity construction, and how it influences their understanding of self. Social media platforms including Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube have provided consumers, and other people, spaces through which they, create profiles (Cheung and Lee, 2010), interact and share opinions with people whose interests are similar to theirs, thereby augmenting their identities (Chernev et al. 2011). Social media affect and influence individuals’ abilities to construct identities and their understanding of self due to their interactions on the SNSs, due to the information they share and the feedback they receive. Many researchers including Zackariasson et al., (2010) have concluded that consumers’ activities are important in developing and maintaining an identity or self-concept, since their associations with certain things or places make these identities more concrete. This has been facilitated by social media through their profile and status updates that include issues, people, or locations, hence facilitating the construction of a representation of an online identity. Social media, like other online platforms, consist of a research context that allows individuals investigate the procedure for self-presentation, impression management and friendship formation, thereby the ability to create a representation of themselves online. Social media also enables the construction of identity by allowing people to change and manipulate their online profiles or images that are visible to other people, thus giving other SNSs users a certain impression of them.
To understand how online interactions affect individuals’ understanding of self, this study will rely on the theoretical framework put forward by Goffman (1959) in relation to one on one interactions between people. A review of the literature of Goffman’s work presents the idea of impression management by people in their interactions and social networking sites as grounds in which people test their identities. In this concept, he puts forth the idea of people guiding others and creating images and impressions of self to enable others to get to know who they are. This is very similar to interactions on SNSs, through what can be termed as selective (or preferred) online postings. Other online users interpret these posts, rather than simply reacting to them. Online postings make a user a role player who is capable of presenting himself in a way he would like other online users to perceive him, and which he finds desirable and acceptable to them. To guide other users into understanding whom they are, online users may post pictures of them, activities they are undertaking, books they have read, their locations or places they have visited, or movies they have watched. Just like for personal interactions, online users also play the role of actor and audience simultaneously. When online, users they are able to react to other online users’ posts and they are also being guided by the other online users into creating certain views or perceptions of them. Just as the teams or people who work together to create a routine that Goffman (1959) discussed, the other people an online user interacts with frequently on the various SNSs make up this team in the context of social media. Therefore, it is argued that one’s understanding of another online user is dependent on the level to which that user represents themselves online. However, it has been found that an online user’s behavior online and in reality may differ sharply. This concurs with Goffman’s front and back stage concept in in-person interactions. This is what forms the basis of this research. When online (front stage), a user will be seen to be performing and trying to create an image they would like others to have of them, while when they are offline (back stage) they stop performing and revert to their actual self. It has been suggested by previous researches, however, that based on the positive feedback they receive from their online identities, users may take aspects of this feedback and incorporate it in their actual self during their interactions with people familiar to them, and who may already have an informed view about them, in the physical world. This results into the creation of a new identity as well as an individual’s understanding of self.
Enli and Thumim (2012) go on to distinguish self-representation from formation of self while emphasizing that to fully understand social media would require self-representation (creation of an online identity) and interacting with others. This is because participating in SNSs requires one to socialize, and to socialize one must create an online representation of them, making it hard for people to run away from self-representation. They state that, as a result of the choice that SNSs give, users choose what aspects and how to represent those aspects in ways that complement their self-performance and presentation. The influence of SNSs on an individual’s self-representation, and therefore identity, also manifests in their ability to create groups of those who can see and react to their postings and those who cannot. This brings to the fore the question of private versus public and popularity among various users. To become popular, which most online users deem as a status, users will create identities (representations) and come up with techniques of representations such as posting the best pictures and information that will enable them achieve this status (Enli and Thumim 2012). Achieving this online status, however, may cause a user to integrate the feedback they get from their online identities into their actual self (offline or physical world identities).
People use social media as a buffer for long distance relationships and as a social substitute to create offline relationships (Tosun, 2012), contributing to more socializing online. Users will create identities that they will use to create these relationships with others, and will be preforming the selective posting, and therefore identity formation, as discussed earlier. When these relationships are taken offline, a user will still take up the role of the identity they had portrayed online, and which the other person had come to know and accept. Skues, Williams and Wise (2012) found that an individual’s personality also influenced the type of identity and their self-representation on SNSs, and argue that a user will decide to change what they present to others based on their personality and that lonelier people tended to spend more time online in order to make up for their lack of physical relationships. Therefore, a user who feels the need to present to others an idea of themselves will adopt that behavior to guide the people’s perception of them, while a user without the need to create a certain idea-identity- for others will portray less identity, making others pick this as an understanding of the user’s identity.
Developments in social media and SNSs have greatly influence contemporary marketing and marketing research (Patino, 2012), with power now being seen to have moved from the firms to consumers as a result of increased social networking. Increased social media usage and the fact that more and more people are spending their time online, causing their interactions with others in the physical world to decrease (Pew Research Internet Project, 2013) have made social media of increased interest to researchers and marketing professionals.
Marketers are now more interested in the various ways consumers use to express their identities and how these identities affect consumer culture (Ahuvia, 2005). The interest that marketers have developed in social media and the social networks of consumers and their identities has made them shift from the firm-centred approach to strategies and techniques that greatly focus on consumers, making marketing more customer-cenric (Barwise and Meehan, 2010). Marketers have, as a result, attempted to use this concept of socially created identities to use SNSs to develop their identity (marketing) projects as a way to improve marketing practice.
Identity projects are schemas that people hold in their minds about themselves in relation to their physical world. People can create and recreate their ideas at will at whatever stage of their lives, and they can determine how similar or different the new identities and the old ones are. Identity projects can be carried out in social and personal contexts. Marketers can use the information on consumer identities to create identity projects for themselves based on their values and the characteristics of the products or services they are selling (Luedicke et al., 2010). Therefore, marketers can use his concept to represent themselves or a positive side of them (or their products/services) in a manner that is likely to be accepted by consumers. Marketers can use the public nature of their associations on social networks to give others information about them or guide how they would like to be perceived/ understood. Because online users activities are guided by who they think will see them, marketers should understand social identity as very fluid and contingent on the situation- the perceived audience- and must make sense of what they put together as their self-identity (Robards and Bennett, 2011). Marketers must therefore develop a coherent and strong sense of self in order to effectively impact on their consumers. They must also improve the value of their connections, which are an integral part of their self-representation or identity, as a wide range of connections may validate or increase believability of the information they share or the image they are trying to portray to their customers (Van Dijck, 2012).
Social media have been found, by previous researches, to facilitate and ease communication between consumers and marketers, and this dialogue/ communication can help to potentially build loyalty, trust and therefore long-term business relationships between marketers and various consumer groups (Solomon et al., 2010). Marketers can use these increased online communications to their advantage by constructing and presenting to their audience the kind of image that would promote their audience’s understanding of their identity in way that benefits them. Marketers can use this social identity project in their new product development process. Marketers’ can use their SNSs identities to establish communication with online users during various stages of their transactions and to communicate new products to them (Strategic Direction, 2012). This engagement with consumers (Sashi, 2012) will give them an insight on their needs and will enable them to determine how best to meet those needs. When they understand their consumers’ needs (Eckert et al., 2010), they can create a potentially good image that the engaged customers would like, and the customers could somehow be their brand ambassadors by recommending their products on their social media profiles, groups or blogs.
Marketers can also use the information they gather on the identities of online users, for example the identities they create on SNSs or in multiplayer games, to determine how the users would like to be perceived (Zackariasson et al. 2010). Through consumers’ increased use of social media, marketers are able to more quickly gain access to rich and unlimited consumer insights (Barwise and Meehan, 2010), besides using the SNSs to create awareness and for new product development. Understanding and appreciating the influence of social networking on consumers’ decisions, and that the behaviors of consumers can change as a result of their online interactions with others and the feedback they receive (Heinrichs, et al, 2011), will make marketers strive to develop and maintain identities consistent with the expectations of the consumers. This is because although people may find many different characteristics and symbols attractive, and hold them as part of their standards, they all eventually contribute to their understanding of self (Zackariasson et al. 2010). Marketers should, thus, adopt social media as an effective tool for sharing information that will guide how consumers perceive them and to observe the behavior cues of consumers since social media has enabled people whose interests and needs align to now interact with each other and join different online groups that promote those interests (Heinrichs, et al, 2011). In these virtual communities (online groups), people share information, opinions and their experiences on their interests (Majewski et al., 2011). Marketers can therefore join these virtual communities to reach several and diverse groups, and as a way of tracking the opinions and behaviors regarding their products and adjusting their self-representation to give the users an understanding of them that the consumers would want.
Through SNSs, marketers can get to understand the factors that online users, and to an extension consumers, look for in a relationship, for example, trust, commitment, value addition, and integrity (Chernev, Ryan and David, 2011). Marketers will therefore use SNSs to develop marketing strategies that are more targeted at their consumers and present them as more trustworthy and committed than their competitors in the eyes of their audience and consumers (Sashi, 2012).
Since identity projects allow construction and reconstruction of identities (Petriglieri, 2011), marketers can use it as a chance to create a more stable self before their consumers. They can do this by changing, temporarily dropping or entirely dropping an identity or identities that they find not to be serving their objectives. They can form probable new selves they would like the consumers to understand as their identity (based on their objectives, characteristics, values as well as how people are likely to react to them), and weigh the likely outcomes of taking up those new identities. If the identity play they subject these possible new identities to point to attainability of the desired objective and acceptance by consumers, they will be compelled to actualize those identities (Petriglieri, 2011). However, if the proposed identities may not prove useful, they will be inclined to discard them altogether and repeat the process all over again.
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