Speaking Online

Dr. Amber Buck
Dr. Amber Buck

How old are you in online years? In 2019, social media use has become a facet of everyday life for many, but how do years of use impact how we collectively conduct our personal and professional identities online?

Dr. Amber Buck of the Department of English specializes in rhetoric and composition studies, which consists of analyzing how people write in different contexts and how people utilize technology to communicate. Given today’s digital landscape, this has lead Buck to over five years of digital literacy-related research focusing on social media, privacy, and online identity.

“I first got really interested in identity representation online,” Buck said. “During my research I interviewed people about how they conceptualize identity on different social media platforms, how they think about audience, and how they think about different audiences on various social media platforms. People make a lot of rhetorical decisions when they present themselves on different social media platforms.”

For many social media users today, it is second nature to portray an image of oneself on Instagram or Snapchat that is much different than their image on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn. After years of observation and interviews, Buck’s research for her upcoming book seeks to illuminate why these behaviors vary across social media platforms, and highlight the longitudinal changes in our relationship to social media. After conducting initial research with her case study participants in 2011, Buck followed up in 2016 with participants regarding their online rhetoric across platforms.

“Between 2011 and 2016 a lot has changed, and the book I’m finishing is essentially about that change, and creating a trajectory,” Buck said. “Social media has been around for long enough that we can start to have retrospectives and think about periods of time that represent trends of interfaces, policies, and of how we use social media and what is considered acceptable to post on certain platforms.”

A key detail to consider is that in 2011 most of Buck’s participants did not yet carry smartphones. At the start of the research, the three graduate students and five undergraduate students participating in the project primarily used desktop computers to access all social media platforms. As our access to social media and digital information evolved from nightly visits on a home desktop computer to inescapable momentary updates in our pockets, the conversation about sharing our lives online has come to the forefront of social media use.

“I think I approached this topic initially with more of a technological determinist lens and asking what these platforms make people do, but what I found in my study—and what I’m most interested in—is how people work with these constraints of sharing personal information and how they subvert that information.”

As an example, Buck points to a student who chose to withhold personal information on his Facebook profile in 2011 while the conversation of privacy on social media was still in its infancy. Instead of sharing his university and employer, he opted for faux-details like enrollment at “Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.” While this comedic choice preceded Facebook’s eventual privacy scandal, it speaks to the rhetorical implications of Buck’s research.

“He was irritated by the ways people would take the information about others online at face value, so he did that to both prevent the platform from collecting his information and to send a message to his friends that you don’t necessarily always want to trust internet platforms with personal information,” Buck said.

While it may be difficult at first to remember what a 2011 Facebook interface looked like compared to today’s, it is no secret that our society has evolved in our use of social media in tandem with the rise of new platforms on which to share our lives.