An electronic space for meeting new people, staying connected with friends and sharing ideas: Virtual reality or social reality in the age of narcissism?
A study of hi5 network as an online community; its connection to offline relationships and motivations and expectations of people that become members.
The internet has changed the lives of many individuals and, with millions of people online it arguably represents the single most influential technological advancement of the Twenty First century (Aitchison, J. and Lewis, D. (2003) 1) (Crews, C. and Thierer, A. (2003) 3). Therefore the world of the internet is one which becomes more and more relevant in the lives of individuals across the world (Aitchison, J. and Lewis, D. (2003) 1) (Gauntlett, D., Gottlieb, N. and Mclelland, M. (2003) 19). The internet has touched the lives of most people within the 20-25 age groups, and this it perhaps even more relevant within Greek society, where internet dating and socialising has proven exceptionally popular. It is therefore not surprising that the internet is used effectively as a medium for the formation of relationships.
The internet has given us electronic mail; internet blogs; pop-up message advertising; video messaging; ‘smiley faces’; on-line dating and friendship services; instant messages and internet threads and all of these have changed the way that individuals communicate with one another (Aitchison, J. and Lewis, D. (2003) 1) (Jordan, T. (1999) Ch.1). These more contemporary methods of communicating have impacted society at many levels (Crews, C. and Thierer, A. (2003) 3) (Gauntlett, D., Gottlieb, N. and Mclelland, M. (2003) 19) and this may be seen through an analysis of contemporary communication discourses and methods of socialisation. Specifically, the website www.hi5.com has provided a nexus where all of these technological and communication techniques have recognition and importance. Hi5 is an online community where communication is uniquely confined to electronic means and discourses.
This thesis will explore the relevance of the internet to the formation of key social relationships within the 20-25 age group of Greek society. The fact that the formation of relationships online influences and shapes the nature of relationships offline is an interesting one to approach and it will be focused on throughout the thesis. The nature of the internet and specifically websites such as Hi5 as an electronic space which facilities human interaction and the maintenance of relationships will be considered. The dichotomy between social and virtual reality will be broached within this context and the writer will attempt to comment on which description of the internet is most appropriate. The question of whether the internet is a social reality in an age of narcissism or a virtual reality will also be addressed within the research.
The subject matter of the thesis will also involve a consideration of the ways that the internet has indirectly and directly affected offline relationships and the motivations and expectations of people that become members. This is an important perspective; however it is one that could easily be neglected. Therefore one of the most important points which the thesis will seek to express is the pervasiveness of the internet, and specifically the pervasiveness of the online community which engages Greeks in the 20-25 age group, and its ability to influence their offline as well as online lives, self representations, motivations and expectations.
The thesis will attempt to argue that the internet is an important mechanism of social interaction, which should not be pigeon-holed to simply make what is anyway a facile critique of the internet (i.e. that the internet simply promotes narcissism), more convenient to articulate. This chapter will provide the skeleton framework through which this argument will be made. The chapter will provide definitions of the internet, communication, language, computer mediated discourse, and semiotics and these definitions will be used as a springboard to discuss how the internet has changed the lives of Greeks within the 20-25 year age category.
Wider issues such as globalisation, self representation, creativity and technological advancement (Smith, M. and Kollock, P. (1998) 4) will also be considered in this chapter since these are intrinsic to the ultimate argument of the thesis that internet friendship databases such as Hi5 are crucially important and representative of developments in human socialisation patterns. The effects of these processes will be extrapolated within the context of the research question and they will assist the writer to achieve a more in depth understanding of the significance of the internet within the social circles of Greeks within the 20-25 age group.
The models of analysis that will be used will be discourse analysis and semiotic analysis of text and images. The profiles of Greek members of Hi5 will be widely consulted and primary research in the form of interviews and a questionnaire-based study will be consulted and evaluated qualitatively in the analysis of all of the above mentioned issues. Therefore there will be a lexicographical and semiotic extrapolation of both text and imagery to assist the writer in answering the question of whether the internet as a social medium/social hub is a positive development and to comment upon the question title.
Computer mediated electronic discourse is the label given to describe electronic discourses (Holt, R. (2004) 129) and the effects which they produce at the level of social interaction between humans. Lexicographical sequences, syntax, the length and structure of sentences, the use of colloquial words and phrases and elaborate uses for punctuation devices may all be considered to be a part of this newly developing discourse which specifically facilitates communication over the internet (Holt, R. (2004) 129-130). These aspects of language and how language is represented have changed to reflect and to facilitate online communication and the development of new relationships through the medium of the internet (Holt, R. (2004) 129-132).
Images and self-representations will be looked at in minute detail; these images and representations will be deconstructed and looked at in their most basic terms. It is hoped that this focus will allow the writer to consider the research question in a comprehensive and minutely detailed manner. It is anticipated that such a focus will impart an original and innovative insight into the subject of computer mediated discourses and the increasing importance of the internet in the lives of young people (20-25) in Greece and Greeks abroad in the Twenty First century.
Research Question and Theory
The Hi5 Website: What is it?
This website is an internet community where friendships and romantic attachments are solicited by members. The site enables members to represent themselves and to enable others to view what they have to say about themselves, remotely through the internet. The site itself involves the use of a database of individuals all over the world who have added internet pages describing themselves; their characteristics and interests. These descriptions are referred to as profiles and are added to the database which may be searched by prospective members and member of the Hi5 website alike. Members generally add photographs of themselves, and their friends and sometimes the members can add links and descriptions of the music that they like to listen to. Primarily the website is aimed at individuals from all ethnicities who are in their twenties, and who would like to make friends, stay in touch with friends or form romantic attachments to new people over the internet.
The site allows companies and other advertisers to advertise their services on the website, which allows the website to disseminate products and services which may be of interest to young people within the 20-25 age group. The website is also different from online dating services as the romantic connections which may be formed through the internet are not the principal selling point of the website. The ideas of friendship, self representation and companionship are instead emphasised. Certainly, the idea of romantic attachments is something which the website may facilitate, but its capacity to do so is understated and not focused upon. Therefore the website describes and sells itself as primarily designed to enable people to form platonic relationships through using its facilities.
What is Communication?
Communication, at its most basic level may be understood as a way to convey messages and emotions between human beings (Duranti, A. (1997) 23-25) (Jennings, B. and Heath, R. (2000) 91). This is done mainly (although not exclusively as we will see explained below) through the use of language (Kaplan, R. (2002) Ch. 1), which is a complex collection of symbols which have specific meanings and when used collectively may be understood to represent codifications of human emotions and messages.
The system of symbols which may be understood as the building blocks of a language do not have meaning in themselves; rather they represent meaning when they are arranged within certain patterns which are objectively recognisable by others who wish to interpret them. Therefore the signals which are relied upon in the context of language are constructed; they are not generic or pre-existing. This complex system of symbols allows humans to make others understand messages which have a generic codified meaning, which may be understood objectively, and cognitively. It is important to understand communication in these terms within the context of this thesis enquiry as it is an understanding of this particular property of communication which will allow the writer to comment upon the language used on Hi5 in an abstracted and theoretical manner. This will facilitate the methodology of discourse analysis and semiotics which underpins the thesis.
Communication is therefore a cognitive process (Ellis, D. (1999) 1) (Giora, R. (2003) 13). It is essentially a manipulation of the senses of humans through systematic representations of meaning and images (Ellis, D. (1999) 1). Communication does not just involve language; one can communicate at many levels (Ellis, D. (1999) 1-3) (Giora, R. (2003) 13) (Turkle, S. (1997) Ch.1). Facial expressions; sign language; body language; intonation; voice pitch and just a few mechanisms which may be used to communicate without the use of language.
Language may employ these techniques in an integrated manner, as communication rarely adopts a singular mode. Therefore the clothes we wear (their colours and texture); the facial and bodily expressions we adopt; the mannerisms we adopt; various postures and the signals which we give out are all complex and systematic methods of communicating (Duranti, A. (1997) 23-25). The underlying system (culture) is what allows one to describe these processes as both communicative and connected with language (Duranti, A. (1997) 23-25) (Fairclough, N. (2003) 124).
Language may be described through the idea of a discourse (Fairclough, N. (2003) 124) (Chimombo, M. and Roseberry, R. (1998) 5). Discourses are particular amalgams of how language has come to be used within particular spheres for specific purposes (Chimombo, M. and Roseberry, R. (1998) 5). These purposes may be political, sociological and even ideological in nature (Duranti, A. (1997) 23-25) (Fairclough, N. (2003) 124). What makes a discourse a discourse is the style in which the language and communication techniques are manifested. These may be identified objectively and regarded as belonging within one given discourse. It is often the case that a discourse will be uniquely identifiable.
Discourse may be understood at the level of lexicographical constructions and syntax (Fairclough, N. (2003) 123-124) (Chimombo, M. and Roseberry, R. (1998) 6). In this sense the discourse which is understood is viewed in a more mechanical and objective manner. Discourses of this modality will mainly occupy the methodological framework of the thesis, since this type of discourse analysis allows one to approach the understanding of the subject of electronic communication and socialisation techniques in an effective and simple way.
Language also becomes a communication discourse when it is used as a system of communication within a particular community or culture (Fairclough, N. (2003) 124). This was Bourdieu’s viewpoint (Danaher, G., Fensham, R., Schirato, T., Threadgold, T. and Webb , J. (2002) 1). Pierre Bourdieu (1990) was one of the most influential communication theorists (Danaher, G., Fensham, R., Schirato, T., Threadgold, T. and Webb , J. (2002) 1). Pierre Bourdieu (1990) has attempted to deconstruct the idea of communication (Danaher, G., Fensham, R., Schirato, T., Threadgold, T. and Webb , J. (2002) 1) and to assist him he used the analogy of a map and a journey (Schirato and Yell (2000) p1). He argued that communication involved rules, conventions which map a language and that actual acts of communication were akin to the taking of journeys(Schirato and Yell (2000) p1). This broadly fits the writer’s earlier definition of communication which has been explained above as it explains how language symbols takes on a level of significance when they are arranged within a given structure or amalgam.
Communication may also be understood through the idea of signs and meanings (Giora, R. (2003) 13). Semiotics is perhaps a more abstract and theoretical way to understand the way that language is used to engender meaning. Saussure (1989) argued that the meaning of language is a subjective exercise whereby individuals read meanings into what he referred to as ‘signs’, which do not have any intrinsic meaning of themselves, but have meaning imputed into them by virtue of the meaning which is attached to them by people (Schirato and Yell (2000) p19). Therefore, for Saussure, language was not as important as what he regarded as its most basic constituent part; the sign. The sign is what is represented in relational terms and not in substantive terms through the medium of language and images (Schirato and Yell (2000) p19).
Saussure split the idea of communication and meaning into three parts; the sign, the signifier and the signified, with the signifier meaning the actual physical manifestation or form of the sign (an example being a road sign or the written form of a word), and the signified meaning being what this physical form evokes and the sign itself being a combination of both the signified and the signifier (Schirato and Yell (2000) p20). Saussure believed that a sign was a link between a concept and a pattern of sound (Schirato and Yell (2000) p20), and that these linkages came together to comprise a semiotic system which disseminated meaning.
What is Culture?
Culture may be described in the following functional terms: ‘In any society, culture, in its most general sense, is concerned with individuals in a group. It has four main functions: It determines the various ways open to the individual within the group to develop the self, and hence the group as well. It specifies means for self-preservation. It determines the individual’s place within the group. And, it determines the individual’s and the group’s perception of the world. (Chimombo, M. and Roseberry, R. (1998) 6)’. Culture also constrains the perceptions which an individual may be exposed to and given that this exposure is generally delivered through discourses, it is important to understand the connections between culture and individual perceptions. Chimombo and Roseberry (1998) give us an account of this connection: ‘The specific culture of the group restricts each of these cultural attributes to a range of values or possibilities deemed acceptable to the members of that culture. Thus, the ways in which an individual can achieve self-fulfilment or perceive the world within a given society are limited by that society’s cultural norms and practices (Chimombo, M. and Roseberry, R. (1998) 6)’.
What is the Internet?
The internet is a complex network of technological communication mechanisms (Crystal, D. (2001) 24) (Gattiker, U. (2001) 56). These enable people to communicate through the use of computers (Gattiker, U. (2001) 56). The internet itself is both a communication mechanism and a source of information (Gattiker, U. (2001) 56) as it also allows the user to search vast databases of information using key word searches (Crystal, D. (2001) 24). It has changed the way that business, politics, government, education, communication and commercial affairs are conducted (Gauntlett, D., Gottlieb, N. and Mclelland, M. (2003) 19) (Gattiker, U. (2001) 56), and has enabled individuals both to access and to disseminate information more quickly and effectively (Crystal, D. (2001) 24) (Gattiker, U. (2001) 56). In this sense therefore the internet represents a mode of communication which is electronic in nature (Gattiker, U. (2001) 56), and the world is connected through this mode. This electronic characteristic of the internet means that various modes of media may be enabled through the internet and these media connect people on another level (Gattiker, U. (2001) 56).
How has the Internet Changed the Lives of Greek 20-25 Year Olds?
Greek individuals in the 20-25 categories have been particularly susceptible to the changes which the internet has both precipitated and facilitated. It is often the case that a primary concern of those belonging to this age category will be romantically unattached and seeking to form relationships, both in the form of friendships and sexual partnerships. Therefore, it is important for one to understand that the internet is integrated within the lives of Greeks between 20-25, given the role it plays in allowing for relationships to be instigated and explored. The internet is a forum for these relationships to be instigated and played out (Kendall, L. (2002) 139-141).
In the globalised world where technological advancement features strongly in the lives of most individuals this is not a surprising that the internet would be integrated in this way into such a fundamental sphere of the lives of these individuals (Gauntlett, D., Gottlieb, N. and Mclelland, M. (2003) 19) (Crews, C. and Thierer, A. (2003) 3). It is impossible to integrate the internet to this extent within a person’s life, without the integration producing noticeable effects in both the offline and online settings. It is possible to infer from this, that offline relationships as well as the motivations and expectations of people that become members will be moulded and shaped through this process of integration. This rationalisation will be borne out in the next section.
The offline relationships of individuals who also have access to online channels of communication will be affected in a number of ways. For example, it is often the case that the internet simply removes the inhibitions which are often experienced at the outset of a relationship (friendship or sexual). In a sense, the approach which may be employed between two people who are ‘interested’ in one another is made easier and the fact that the feelings of rejection which may be experienced by a person after a ‘spurned’ advance can be compensated for by that person, through withdrawing communication effectively and efficiently. The person in question can make their profile invisible and can also choose to which members their profiles can be made visible to.
In a sense therefore traditional methods of engaging the opposite sex (or the same sex in the case of non heterosexual encounters) in conversation have been redefined through electronic discourse. Crews and Thierer (2003) give us a springboard upon which to elaborate on this point by explaining the system of rules and conventions which underpin the use of the internet: ‘There are rules. Some of them are mechanical in the sense that the architecture of the Internet and the protocols that define its function determine the way in which it operates and the way in which applications like e-mail are or can be supported. Others are a consequence of policies set in a variety of venues and jurisdictions and informed or motivated by a variety of constituencies. (Crews, C. and Thierer, A. (2003) vii)’. Electronic discourse have facilitated the adoption of these rules and protocols to allow for easier and more relaxed connections to be established through the use of friendship databases such as Hi5. This point will be backed up more thoroughly using primary research in the next section, in which syntax and the formations of language will be deconstructed and extrapolated to show how the language itself is a vehicle for these particular functionalities. For the moment it is enough to point out that these electronic discourses are driven by individual preferences of internet users. Crews and Thierer (2003) reinforce the point: ‘Some rules may even be said to be set by the personal preferences and behaviours of Internet users, almost independent of outside forces. The ensemble of rule sets does not form a consistent or even coherent whole and there are notable conflicts, especially as local jurisdictions seek to enforce local rules on a system that is patently global (Crews, C. and Thierer, A. (2003) vii)’.
Another point to be made about how useful the internet has proven in the lives of young Greeks is that fact that in purely logistical terms, traditional forums which are used to meet members of the opposite sex are not very effectual for the person who seeks to meet new people. Nightclubs for example could be a classic example. These venues are often very noisy and crowded. Interaction in such environments may be stressful and cumbersome. Therefore people tend to stick within the groups of people that they are familiar with and it is often difficult, for individuals to penetrate these niches, and thus strike up relationships with ‘new’ people. The internet, and in particular websites such as Hi5 remove this logistical difficulty. It provides a safe and comfortable venue where relationships may be initiated on neutral terms, and the conventions which have evolved allow for interaction to flow smoothly within this environment.
In terms of online and offline relationships, the sphere of socialisation which websites such as Hi5 provides often brings these two settings together, and it is perhaps unusual for a person within the age group to led an online life which is entirely separate from their offline lives. It is perhaps true that there are rules and conventions which govern the behaviour of actors within the two spheres in different ways; however this does not mean that in practical, physical terms the two spheres are separated. In actuality the two spheres have become more integrated than ever, as the internet grows in influence and importance.
The impact of globalisation, also has made the internet very important in the lives of people within the age category 20-25 (Aitchison, J. and Lewis, D. (2003) 1)
(Johnson, D. and Turner, C. (2003) Ch.1). The world is more technologically interconnected and cultures and foreign countries are more accessible than ever before (Crews, C. and Thierer, A. (2003) 3), making them more relevant in the lives of Greeks within this age group. This globalisation of culture is of particular relevance in this context, for Greeks within the 20-25 age groups. Given that Greece has become part of the European Union, free movement between European countries has heightened the changes that have taken place on a cultural level to an even greater extent, and this has allowed for greater integration between cultures online. This has changed socialisation processes.
In this sense the internet may be understood as a virtual space in which people can meet and exchange ideas. However, the ways in which these outcomes are achieved may not be understood without looking more closely as the way that human relationships are formed through the internet, through electronic means and how this spills over into conventional human interplays. To identify ‘the age of narcissism’ in the question title is arguably a meaningless endeavour. It is facile to tie narcissism just with contemporary society. The reality is that this is a universal concept which has many applications within both the traditional and the contemporary. We find narcissism everywhere; it is not just a generic feature of the internet, or generically manifested through internet discourses. Therefore the proposition in the thesis title that puts forward the view that the internet represents social reality in an age of narcissism is an over simplification of a process (narcissism) which pervades society at many levels; not just specifically through the internet.
Certainly one cannot deny that the internet and the Hi5 site can be a vehicle for narcissism in terms of individual modalities of self-representations. The images of the body, images of self which are communicated through text and image convey narcissistic tendencies. Indeed, this however is perhaps not just a cultural construct, but a more basic survival mechanism. The title proposition which insinuates that narcissism is a purely self indulgent process therefore fails to understand the various applications which narcissism may have within the context of human development (which must be set apart from mere social reality). Let us look for example at human reproduction. This is a natural instinct within most humans, and narcissism assists the human in attracting a mate; the presentation of self within particular terms is therefore not self indulgent, per se (it may be this of course, but the point here is that this is not the only function of narcissism); it is also a tool which is used by humans to present and project themselves as attractive potential mates. Therefore narcissism facilitates human socialisation at the most basic of levels. It is not a superfluous mechanism in which social reality is defined as the title implies. It has a base function which assists humans to find and attract partners through the internet and electronic discourses.
However, since the title proposition that the Hi5 website is social reality in an age of narcissism has been critiqued here, let us turn to the alternative proposition which is presented in the question title; is the site just virtual reality? This too is far too narrow a definition of what the site may be to be a credible description of the site. The fact is that the site cannot be simply virtual reality, given its function within both online and offline relationships. This has been argued above. The internet site involves a degree of integration between online and offline expectations and motivations which prove that it is therefore not just virtual; it can’t be simply this. It is a complex interconnected network which cannot be pigeonholed into either the category of ‘virtual reality’ or ‘social reality in an age of narcissism’. Both of these representations misunderstand the use and importance of the internet site to society. They force the concept of the internet site into a narrow bolthole which cannot accommodate the complexities of a mechanism such as the Hi5. To present this question as if a choice must be made between the two implies that one of the other is an accurate representation of what the internet site is. The argument of this thesis is that this is a false premise to begin from. The internet site and the mode of its dissemination, the internet has become so integrated; so important and so pervasive that to define it in such narrow terms is both to do it a disservice and to misunderstand its function, and use.
The next chapter will turn to the methodology of the thesis enquiry. It will discuss the different paradigms of research and it will explain how the research methodology of this thesis has been chosen and the reasons why. An argument will be made that qualitative research is more compatible with the overall aim of the thesis enquiry and therefore it has been the most appropriate means through which the research is the be carried out.
This chapter will firstly ask some questions about the nature, structure and applicability of certain methodologies within the framework of this research project. It will then go on to outline which methodology will be used as the foundation for the thesis and will explain why. In this way the advantages and disadvantages of each methodological framework will be evaluated and explained and the suitability of particular methodological frameworks will for this linguistic and discourse orientated project will be outlined.
Firstly, what is methodology? Methodology involves two separate paradigms; qualitative (phenomenological) and quantitative (positivist) (Darlington, Y. and Scott, D. (2002) 1-6). The main difference which may be identified between the two paradigms of research is that qualitative method involves a socially constructed matrix of understanding (Darlington, Y. and Scott, D. (2002) 1-6). Conversely the quantitative seeks to understand phenomena through objective observation and hypothesising (Darlington, Y. and Scott, D. (2002) 1-6). Characteristics of qualitative research therefore are that it tends to be specific, confirmatory, scientific and outcome orientated (Jensen, K. (2002) 230). Characteristics of qualitative research involve explanatory aims and the method involved tends to be more situational than outcome oriented (Bauer, M. (2000) 4). The aim of qualitative research is to understand and interpret viewpoints subjectively whereas qualitative research involves more concrete and deductive foundations of research (Darlington, Y. and Scott, D. (2002) 1-6).
The methodology which will be used will primarily be qualitative in nature. There will be interviews conducted with interested parties in the field of friendship databases, there will be a semiotic and discourse analysis of the Hi5 website and there will be a questionnaire; the results of which will be interpreted qualitatively. Therefore the research design will be both constructed and interpreted qualitatively.
The sampling of data will involve random internet searches of the Hi5 website and the writer will use themselves as a device to take in views and imagery which will be presented in the results chapter and assessed through qualitative means. The targets of the writer in terms of samples for the research will take the form of firstly, the Hi5 website itself, and then profiles will be consulted. The writer will try to focus specifically upon an analysis of just Greek profiles, since the website allows one to narrow one’s search on the basis of ethnicity. It must be emphasised that while this does narrow down the pool of profiles, the writer has no control over which profiles are presented, other than to specify that they should be from persons who classify themselves as Greeks. Therefore the integrity of the research in terms of using random data is preserved.
Sampling techniques are very important to preserve the qualitative integrity of the research and therefore its credibility. The writer has been careful to attempt to examine profiles from both genders and to examine representations of both the male and female forms, since the factor which the writer would like to control is ethnicity (therefore just Greek profiles will be focused on primarily). The writer has attempted to guarantee that random material has been generated and has relied upon the mechanism on the Hi5 website itself which allows one to generate random searches. Representativeness too was considered throughout the research. As the topics which were under consideration were imagery, self representation and the concept of the self and body, it was important to have sufficient diversity within the constraints of the research variables which were to be controlled (i.e. age (20-25) and ethnicity Greekne