Identity in Social Computing

In Social Networking Sites, identity is a key feature that users establish immediately.  Whether it’s an avatar, a list of books, or even a whole Myspace layout, users want to differentiate themselves from others, including their friends.  It really is no surprise that first time visitors to some of the larger SNSs spend a lot of time on their profile.  It needs to be just right and unique, as it is a display of your personal life.  A big reason why I don’t use Myspace is that I hate what some users do to their profile pages.  Text is sometimes unreadable and the music players often have me looking for the stop button.

The site I will be looking at for this session will be BrightKite, a social network designed for connecting nearby users through the use of geographic location.  I use BrightKite from time to time to check in when I’m out in public areas such as the gym or the mall.  BrightKite doesn’t seem to have anywhere near the number of users as Twitter or Facebook, but there is still an active community here in Honolulu.  The online identity for a BrightKite user is fairly similar to Twitter.  You have your user image, name, a short description, tags (i.e. programmer, student), and other basic information (sex, age, etc).  However, while BrightKite can be used on its own as a social network, it also plugs in to various other social networks.  These social networks are also listed in your profile.  For example, mine lists Facebook, Flickr, Myspace, LinkedIn, and Twitter.  This is one way of displaying “fashion” as Donath called it.  Showing off how networked you are can indicate to other users that you are aware of the latest trends.  Well, if they actually look at my profiles on Flickr or LinkedIn, I’m not quite the social butterfly I appear to be.

Scenario 1:

Keoki heads out to the gym because he needs to lose some weight.  When he gets to the gym, he checks into BrightKite along with a note about his workout plan today.  After doing that, he sees that Kaleo checked in not too long ago before doing some running on the treadmill.  Keoki has never met Kaleo before, but after looking at Kaleo’s update stream, he notices that Kaleo frequents the gym almost as much as he does.  Keoki looks at Kaleo’s profile to see what they might have in common.  While Keoki does not share the same love of mountain biking that Kaleo has, the fact that they work out in the same gym is common enough.  Keoki then decides to friend Kaleo in order to be notified of his updates whenever Kaleo checks in.

Scenario 2:

Kapua had a long week and is glad that it is finally Friday.  She goes home to take a shower and decides to head out to Waikiki with her friend Kamaka.  They had no plans in particular; they just wanted to get out after a long week.  When they get there, Kapua checks in to BrightKite on her phone.  After the check-in, she looks at what’s going on in the area.  She notices that a lot of other BrightKite users checked in at Kawika’s Bar, which is a short walk from their parking spot.  Looking at the posts about Kawika’s Bar, Kapua sees that the band “Kauai Kids” is playing there.  Users have posted pictures of the band as well as comments about the drink specials going on.  Kapua and Kamaka decide to head there and check out the scene.

From these two user scenarios, we can see that identity in BrightKite extends past the user’s profile.  There’s definitely potential for subcultures within BrightKite, similar to the goths and LiveJournal in Hodkinson’s article .  Possible subcultures could be the people who frequent a particular gym or the people who like a particular local band.  A user in BrightKite can be identified by the places that user visits.  When viewing your own profile or your friend’s, there is a tab that lists the places the user has checked into and the number of times.  Keoki checks into the gym 5 times a week, so he might be a fitness buff.  Kapua checks into nightclubs on Fridays, so you know she likes to party.  These locations that users check into add geographic information on top of the basic information that is already presented in BrightKite, like your friends or your profile.

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7 Responses to “Identity in Social Computing”


  1. 1 Linnea April 7, 2009 at 11:19 pm

    What an intriguing site! Our physical activities and locations definitely help define our identities, and this site seems to bring those activities into the online identity more than sites like Facebook or MySpace. Certainly, people post about their activities and locations on Facebook and MySpace, but it isnt always as central as it appears to be in BrightKite.
    Some considerations:
    Are there ways to manipulate your checkins to make it appear that you were more interested in something than you are (say working out at the gym, for example), thus creating false identity markers?
    What kind of privacy filters are there? Can you hide information from certain users? Can fellow users view your connections with other users and get a better idea of your online identity?

    Regardless, fascinating subject!

  2. 2 karhai April 9, 2009 at 2:44 pm

    Live geographic data as a part of one’s identity is an intriguing idea. It seems like an extension from apps like Twitter, where you could say what you’re doing and where you are, but this is a whole new world. It almost makes your online identity more “real,” knowing that you actually exist somewhere outside of cyberspace. To me, having a profile picture is the first step to connecting the online and offline worlds, and GPS is just another factor. What’s next? Live video feed? Will our online and offline identities merge at that point?

    I wonder how much having other SNS’s that you belong to affect your identity. It’s easy to say that one person with 10 accounts to SNS’s is more socially connected than another person with 1, but who knows what kind of activity they have. Like you say, just because MySpace is listed on your profile doesn’t mean you frequent the site.

    Linnea asks a good question though. Where one could choose their best picture, fudge their height and weight, or flat out lie about things in their profile, it seems less likely to happen when connected to real GPS information. It makes me ask the same question.. will our two identities begin to merge?

  3. 3 thechickenbus April 9, 2009 at 9:44 pm

    Very cool! I’ve never heard of this before. I wonder if stalking has ever been a problem, or if people choose to check in to be able to meet people. I signed up just now to check things out. I think there are two options for listing location. You can either manually list where you are, or you can have the computer/phone guess for you. I successfully checked in at Honolulu (though I’m not really in Honolulu), then six minutes later, checked in at Fukuoka, Japan. Wish I could do that in real life! I ended up clicking on a profile of someone in Fukuoka who posted nice pictures, and followed his posts as he traveled throughout Japan. That person had some artistic friends as well, and I ended up spending quite a lot of time just going through their posts. Then I checked out Seattle, Portland, and San Francisco after that (did not check in, though). Totally enjoying the lurking rather than the posting.

  4. 4 keokilee April 11, 2009 at 1:15 pm

    You can definitely manipulate your check ins by going to location listings on your computer and checking in to various locations. I don’t know that you’d do that, mostly because I think it’s about meeting people at these locations. Stalking could be an issue, but the process is opt-in, so you are asking for it by checking in from a location.

    There are privacy settings for your profile. You can adjust the accuracy of your postings for your public feed and your friends. For example, you can share your exact location with friends but only share the city on your public feed. There’s also a category called “trusted friends” who you might want to share your exact location with (instead of your other friends).

  5. 5 as_ics691 April 12, 2009 at 12:58 am

    Nice job. Thanks for the insightful post on BrighteKite. For many users, one of the perks of social networking perhaps is that it allows them to stay in touch with family, friends, and relatives who live miles away. As for BrightKite, it is designed to connect people in the same area, as you described. It seems that an ethnographic study of user behavior on a site like BrightKite is a way to go if you are interested in exploring the interplay of virtual and real worlds because you can literally trace footsteps of a user from online to offline, as you illustrated in your user scenarios.

  6. 6 David K. April 12, 2009 at 1:54 am

    Sounds like brightkite has a good mobile interface to facilitate updates quickly on a mobile phone? Is it a pure web interface, or does it have an installable option? As Karhai mentions it’s a very interesting way to tie one’s online identity with real life, but as thechickenbus mentions it could be open to certain privacy issues.

    It sounds like a more involved version (and earlier product?) of Google Latitude (which I just learned about through a friend about a month ago). I believe when it was first announced there were articles about the potential privacy issues, despite having similar of privacy controls you mentioned (who can see your location, etc.). I guess more people might be more concerned when a data-mining giant like Google can keep track of where you are (if you use gmail they can mine that, they know your google searches, other google tools you use, etc.) vs. a smaller site with greater separation between services (in that you can choose to link it to other SNSs or not) so as to minimize involuntary disclosure of information. Does their privacy statement say anything about retaining your locations/movements for future data mining?

    Fortunately(!?!), Verizon has decided to cripple the built in GPS unit on my phone, so that outside applications cannot use it to determine my location. It does allow manual entry of my location, so for most of the last month I’ve supposedly been in Hackensack, NJ.

    I understand and agree with your assessment that this tool is more for people looking to meet other people, so the desire to input inaccurate data location is minimized (at least by those who are using as intended), but I wonder if there will come some point where someone will try to us it as an alibi (i.e. they were in a different location than they actually were). I doubt it would hold up in court (as any competent prosecutor should be able to ferret out that the location can be faked), but it would certainly be interesting to hear about.

  7. 7 song April 12, 2009 at 11:48 pm

    Wow, what an interesting site! I had never heard of it but it sounds really fun to join. Yes, like you and other said, providing physical location is very helpful to identify users. By the way, does BrightKite verify whether users provide location info is true or not? I am sick and tired of Facebook users who use fake profiles or not to provide personal information send me invitation.


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