While there are clear limitations to what social media can tell us about public opinion in general (see blogs by de Wilde and Magin), social media platforms can be rich fields for studying processes of identity formation and communication of the kind that do eventually shape individual and public opinions.

A person’s political views are shaped, among other things, by their identity. A person may hold a number of identities. Some of these are complementary (woman, scientist, mother), while others may be contradictory (environmentalist, globetrotter). We draw on different identities depending on the particular context we find ourselves in. These identities have more or less direct bearing on our political views, and negotiating between them is part of the process of deciding upon one’s politics in a given case.

Identity through storytelling

On social media, we express our identities through text, visual material, likes, shares, and links to other sites. We use these platforms to tell small stories of ourselves, sometimes with specific audiences in mind, sometimes without a conscious target. Thus we engage in a process humans have been carrying out for millennia: storytelling. When we tell stories of who we are and how we have become who we are, we situate ourselves in the world. We draw on existing storylines that inform how we may make sense of our own experience, and how we might translate the multiple expressions of daily life into recognizable stories to be shared with our peers.

When people tell their life stories in offline contexts, to friends and family or in the written form of a memoir, they do so in a dialogue with culturally circulated stories. For groups as for individuals, stories are crucial to identity formation: nations share stories of their origins, political parties promote stories of what they have done and what they will do to improve society, groups may tell stories that demarcate who are members of the group and who do not belong. These kinds of collective narratives are taken up by individuals who tell their own life stories. People may adopt or adapt existing narratives, they may use their own story to corroborate or counter a commonly shared storyline. In doing so, they provide clues about their self-identification.

This kind of positioning is a central way of signalling to an audience how one would like to be perceived. Say a person dislikes the way being Norwegian has been equated with being white, Protestant and ethnically Norwegian. To challenge that narrative, the person might insist that people of other backgrounds can also be Norwegian. This is a political act that tells the audience about the speaker’s self-image and about how the speaker wishes to be viewed by others. A small story like that serves as an identity marker for oneself and others. It also reveals how the speaker feels about those who promote a more exclusive narrative.

Studying identity online

Psychologists, sociologists and literary scholars have studied this process in the offline contexts of conversation and writing. Similar processes operate online on social media. Facebook in particular is an interesting venue for research on how we communicate identities online. The platform is inherently focused on individual identities (hence the ‘face’ in Facebook) and offers its users rich opportunities for expressing their preferred self-image in short or lengthy text as well as through a number of audio/visual means. At the same time, as a ‘social’ medium, the platform also provides readily available storylines that users can draw on. Not only can users refer to and paraphrase existing narratives, as we all can in everyday interaction, they can also directly engage with other people’s messages by sharing them or replying to them.

How do users employ these tools for identity communication and in what ways does the process differ from its offline counterparts? This is an interesting venue for future research. Furthermore, it will be useful to study how people use the activity of signalling individual identity politically to engage with political messages. How do users respond to, reproduce, revise or reject the political narratives of their time, and how do other users in turn respond to these interventions? There are a number of ethical and technical challenges in terms of how to gather the data to be studied in this context. However, given how big a part in people’s lives social media play today, and how central of an arena social media have become in the political life, it seems necessary to overcome these obstacles in order to investigate these fascinating and important questions.


Astrid Rasch
Associate Professor at Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU)

Astrid Rasch is an Associate Professor of Anglophone Cultural Studies at the Department of Language and Literature at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU).