We Are What We Post? Self‐Presentation in Personal Web Space
This article examines personal Web sites as a conspicuous form of consumer self‐presentation. Using theories of self‐presentation, possessions, and computer‐mediated environments (CMEs), we investigate the ways in which consumers construct identities by digitally associating themselves with signs, symbols, material objects, and places. Specifically, the issues of interest include why consumers create personal Web sites, what consumers want to communicate, what strategies they devise to achieve their goal of self‐presentation, and how those Web space strategies compare to the self‐presentation strategies of real life (RL). The data reveal insights into the strategies behind constructing a digital self, projecting a digital likeness, digitally associating as a new form of possession, and reorganizing linear narrative structures.
Consumption can be a self‐defining and self‐expressive behavior. People often choose products and brands that are self‐relevant and communicate a given identity: “Consumption serves to produce a desired self through the images and styles conveyed through one’s possessions” (Thompson and Hirschman 1995, p. 151). In this way consumers make their identities tangible, or self‐present, by associating themselves with material objects and places. Although consumer researchers have included symbols and signs in the set of objects and materiality they study (Mick 1986), even these symbols often refer to physical objects or places. With the advent of new technology, computer‐mediated environments (CMEs) have emerged, allowing virtual worlds in which consumers can present themselves using digital rather than physical referents.
The CMEs are virtual digital places that occupy neither space nor time. They are inherently discursive spaces where people actively convene to commune with others (Kozinets 1998, 1999, 2002b). Within these digital environments, people interact to work, shop, learn, entertain, and be entertained (Weiss 2001). Electronic meeting rooms/stores/malls (Alba et al. 1997), teleconferencing, and streaming technology are increasingly supplementing, and in some cases replacing, social and market interactions formerly conducted in real time between individuals in the same location (Armstrong and Hagel 1996; Venkatesh 1998). Through CMEs, consumers have increased access to semiotic tools, cultural artifacts, and modes of expression (Appadurai 1996). Druckery (1996, p. 12) proclaims that CMEs “collapse the border between material and immaterial, the real and the possible,” rendering these distinctions irrelevant. Similarly, Rifkin (2000) asserts that, as these distinctions erode, imagination has greater value than physical capital.
As Mick and Fournier (1998, p. 123) note, “No one eludes technology.” With the expanding reach of the Internet, the broadening of bandwidth, and the development of easy‐to‐use site creation software, an increasing number of consumers are homesteading on the Net by staking claim to these digital environments (Rheingold 1993). The actual number of personal Web sites in existence is unknown because personal Web sites are hosted on many different Internet resources, including commercial, governmental, and educational Internet Service Providers (ISPs). Further complicating matters, individual consumers can post multiple and often interlocking Web sites. No definitive statistic is available for the number of personal Web sites, but Killoran (1999) estimates a total of 70 million American Internet users, 6% of whom posted personal home pages. Thus, more than 4 million Americans posted personal Web sites in 1999. America Online, the nation’s largest online service, estimates that two years later there were 11 million pages within AOL Hometown, and thousands more are created daily (Munro 2001).
Clearly, consumers are authoring and posting personal Web sites and communicating through symbolic, digital stimuli. Personal Web space affords consumers the opportunity to construct digital collages using symbols and signs to represent and express their self‐concepts (see fig. 1 for a sample personal Web site). Consumers who create personal Web sites are engaging in what Arnould and Price (2000, p. 140) call “authenticating acts,” or “self‐referential behaviors actors feel reveal the ‘true’ self” and frequently multiple true selves.
Limited only by their own imaginations and technology access, the participants of digital environments may create multiple identities through digital appropriation and manipulation of text, images, icons, and hyperlinks to other Web sites (Nguyen and Alexander 1996). These digital selves may, but need not, relate to one another or correspond to identities of real life (RL) (Cheung 2000; Turkle 1995; Wynn and Katz 1997). As in the material world, digital self‐presentation often relies on commercial referents. Unhinged from the material constraints of the physical body, ownership, and proximity, these new modes of consumer self‐expression reveal innovative self‐presentation strategies that inform the discourse on self‐presentation and possessions.
The purpose of this research is to extend our knowledge of consumer self‐presentation by examining how and why it occupies personal Web space. If “we are what we have” (Belk 1988, p. 160) and “I link, therefore, I am” (Hafner 1999, p. 1), does it follow that we are what we post? This research uses a sociocultural notion of consumption, focusing on how consumers transform goods into possessions and symbols into personal expressions (Strathern 1994).
This article continues with the conceptual framework, reviewing and drawing upon the literature on self‐presentation, possessions, and CMEs. Following the conceptual framework, the methodology is described, including the nature of the data and analysis protocol. Immediately following the methodology, we present our findings regarding the following research questions: (1) why do consumers create personal Web sites? (2) what do consumers want to communicate through them? and (3) what strategies do consumers devise to achieve self‐presentation objectives in this format? The discussion section answers the additional question, (4) how are strategies used within personal Web space similar or different from self‐presentation strategies that consumers use in RL? Finally, the implications for future research are discussed.
Personal Web sites serve no other purpose than communication with known and unknown others. As such, the literature on self‐presentation suggests answers to the questions of why consumers create Web sites and what they may want to communicate.
The Presentation of Self
Self‐presentation as conceptualized here builds on Goffman’s (1959) theories of identity and social performance. Goffman’s thesis is that self‐presentation is the intentional and tangible component of identity. Social actors engage in complex intraself negotiations to project a desired impression. This impression is maintained through consistently performing coherent and complementary behaviors (Schlenker 1975, 1980; Schneider 1981). Goffman (1959) terms this process impression management. Thus, impression management relies on corporeal display, what Mauss (1973) labels body techniques, to communicate the desired identity, or self. The social actions required for self‐presentation are consumption oriented and depend upon individuals displaying signs, symbols, brands, and practices to communicate the desired impression (Williams and Bendelow 1998). The art of self‐presentation is both a manipulation of signs (Wiley 1994) and an embodied representation and experience (Brewer 1998) to impart identity. Consumers self‐present daily as they select clothes, hairstyles, automobiles, logos, and so forth, to impress others in any given context (a shopping mall, an opera). Goffman (1959) asserts that the presentation of self is contextual, based on a specific setting and facing a definable and anticipated audience. By contrast, personal Web sites allow consumers to self‐present 24/7 beyond a regional setting to the virtual world.
To date, the literature on consumption and identity has yielded significant insights into consumption motives and practices; however, identity per se may not be the subject of these studies. Identities often consist of abstractions left intangible by intention (we are what we choose not to have by voluntary abstention), as a result of few resources (we cannot afford to consume what would flesh out our identities), through denial (we choose not to reveal aspects of identity to obscure their presence), or because the identities are not prone to concrete expression (we cannot locate strategies to express complex facets of our identities). Therefore, previous studies of identity and consumption have addressed self‐presentation, a concrete subset of larger abstract identities. Personal Web space, with its limitless digital symbols, may allow researchers a glimpse of the selves consumers wish they had.
Identity is characterized by the tension between how a person defines herself as an individual and how she connects to others and social groups in affiliative relationships (Kleine, Kleine, and Allen 1995). Individual identity is the self as distinguished from others and unique. Possessions reflect individual identity when they demonstrate a person’s accomplishments, skills, tastes, or unique creative efforts (McCracken 1988a; Schultz, Kleine, and Kernan 1989). Affiliative identity is important for situating the self within the social world and for communicating identity to the intended audience (peer group, government, descendants, etc.). Where individual identity may be said to demonstrate “me,” affiliative identity establishes “we.” Consumers use signs and symbols to express both types of identities. Wearing of vintage clothes that are one‐of‐a‐kind establishes individual identity while an official NFL team sweatshirt reflects a desired affiliative identity. Arnould and Price (2000, p. 140) describe the me/autonomous and we/affiliative phenomena as “two primary drivers of consumer behavior.” It is expected that such drivers will underlie communication efforts in personal Web sites.
Wiley (1994) describes identities as representing two sorts of values: operating or ideal. Operating values are those that are practiced by a given person or social group. These values are manifest in everyday behaviors such as wearing a watch and being prompt for appointments or carrying a cellular phone and phoning ahead to arrange social engagements. Ideal values are those that a given person or social group aspire to have but may not be able to maintain in reality (Goffman 1959). Examples of ideal values include consumers who engage in nostalgia (Davis 1979), consumers who self‐present by immersing themselves in myth (Belk and Costa 1998) or religion (O’Guinn and Belk 1989), and consumers who participate in fantasy‐based consumption communities (Kozinets 1997, 2001). In essence, we may indeed be what we have self‐presented, but we are also a great deal more. Web sites give consumers greater freedom to express their identities through digital association rather than ownership or proximity. Thus, consumers’ ideal values may be revealed more clearly in personal Web space than in RL.
Closely related to the concept of self‐presentation is the degree to which people make themselves vulnerable through the social performance of identity. Self‐disclosure, or the propensity an individual has for revealing personal information to others (Collins and Miller 1994; Derlega 1979), relates to the content of self‐presentation. Strategies of self‐presentation often revolve around repressing personal information or supplanting it with modified or fabricated details more congruent with a desired self (Berg and Derlega 1987; Kelly and McKillop 1996). Researchers like Moon (1998, 2000) suggest that self‐disclosure in CMEs is easier for some people than self‐disclosure to a physically nearby person due to the pressure of social desirability. Thus, CMEs as mediated communication may allow for more open self‐expression. Digital identity construction (Nguyen and Alexander 1996) makes it possible to express latent and nested identities (Herb and Kaplan 1999) or to more fully disclose aspects of the self that are difficult to represent physically. Alternatively, CMEs also enable people to conceal aspects of their selves that they find undesirable. Such attributes as age, gender, and appearance are only revealed in CMEs to the extent the individual chooses to share this information with distant others.
The prominence of objects in RL self‐expression suggests that consumers may also digitally associate with objects in cyberspace. The literature on the use of objects in self‐presentation indicates strategies consumers use to achieve such objectives.
The Use of Possessions and Proximal Objects in Self‐Presentation
Scholars of human social behavior across disciplines have theoretically asserted and empirically demonstrated that people invest meanings in things. Prior research explains why people attach such meaning to things (Richins 1994a, 1994b; Wallendorf and Arnould 1988; Wallendorf, Belk, and Heisley 1988) and suggests methods to calculate a given person’s or society’s propensity to invest such meaning (Ball and Tasaki 1992; Richins and Dawson 1992). The literature also recommends how to measure the level of meaning for a given object or symbol (Hirschman 1980). Echoing Levy’s (1959) “Symbols for Sale” and later Mick’s (1986) “Consumer Research and Semiotics,” Lury (1996, p. 1) states, “One of the most important ways in which people relate to each other socially is through the mediation of things.” Objects provide a medium of nonlinguistic communication (McCracken 1988a) through which people articulate their relationship to materiality and communicate their places within the social world (Ames 1984). In personal Web space, this relationship can be expressed in many more ways than the possession and proximity of RL. The appropriation of digital images and links to other Web sites offer consumers more intricate communication options than have previously been studied.
Consumers acquire and display possessions as tangible symbols of identity (Dittmar and Pepper 1992). In fact, researchers claim that the relationship between a person and object is “never a two‐way (person‐thing), but always three‐way (person‐thing‐person)” (Belk 1988, p. 147). That is to say, human‐object relationships communicate between people. In cyberspace, meaning is communicated far beyond the people in proximity to the communicator; instead, the world is watching. The underlying assumption is that, by studying people’s possession portfolios, others gain access to the possessor’s intangible self. Although this relationship is most often positive, it has been argued to be indirectly oppositional (e.g., I am in part defined by what I refrain from purchasing; Englis and Solomon 1997) or directly oppositional (e.g., I am a Pepsi drinker because I am not a Coca‐Cola consumer; Muniz and Hamer 2001).
The members of a given social group, subculture of consumption (Schouten and McAlexander 1995), or brand community (Muniz and O’Guinn 2001) have a general consensus as to the public meaning of an object or symbol in specific settings (Belk and Costa 1998; Celsi, Rose, and Leigh 1993; Kozinets 2001). These meanings are dynamic, but in each moment they provide a shorthand that any member of the social group can decode with intragroup agreement (Clifford 1985). When using objects to communicate self in personal Web space, the wider context may influence the presenter to consider the objects chosen for display more carefully. Further, the opportunity to receive feedback, both anonymous and not, may influence the Web site creator’s choice of communication tools.
Although current consumer research assumes that the possession is the direct physical translation of abstract identity, Kleine and Kernan (1991, p. 311) state that “the literature provides little insight into how consumers ascribe meaning” to objects or “what the meaning is” (emphasis added). Belk (1988) terms this nebulous meaning “ascription self‐extension,” and we expand it here to digital self‐presentation in personal Web space.
As characterized by the literature, possessions and proximal objects are tools for self‐presentation and their use requires physical presence. Theories of CMEs find that embodiment roughly and incompletely translates into the digital realm. Unlike prior theories in consumer research where the body is extended through material acquisition, or is the center of consumption as a cultural construction (Thompson and Hirschman 1995), the body in CMEs is not the locus of consumption. Instead, initial theories of CMEs focused on the potential of digital environments to free cyber participants from their corporeal selves and the confines of their material worlds, allowing for new designations of gender, physical forms (human, animal, cyborg, hybrids), and unlimited symbolic associations (Haraway 1991, 1997). In essence, social presence need not equal physical presence (Gardner, Martinko, and Van Eck Peluchette 1996). Social presence in the absence of physical presence is known as telepresence (Minsky 1980). The digital is a unique arena in which the semiotic rules. The material is only voluntarily referenced and, in some cases, nearly irrelevant. Other than the access technology, the digital realm exists on a digital, semiotic plane. Because physical presence is not required, self‐presentation strategies are expected to differ from those in RL.
We examine relationships between consumers, consumption objects, and symbols to explore how the Web site venue challenges current theories premised on bodily enactment, material acquisition, and physical proximity. By introducing a digital environment into self‐presentation theories, we reduce the primacy of physical possession and consumers’ dependence on conspicuous physical performance to study a freer form of self‐presentation. Thus, we are able to tap into consumers’ deeper attachments to products, brands, and commercial entities. We assume that within each person exists the potential for multiple, situational selves or what is sometimes known as the postmodern self (Anderson 1997). The expansive arrays of devices available in the digital realm (Appadurai 1996; Marakes and Robey 1996) allow consumers to construct simultaneous and nonlimiting selves that are not required to be consistent with one another or with material reality (Turkle 1995).
Although the location of the phenomena, personal Web sites, is within CMEs, part of this research is conducted in RL to understand how self‐presentation relates to the physical enactment of identity. As such, the data collection and subsequent analysis of this data set are strategically diverse. Three types of data are examined in this inquiry: personal Web space content; face‐to‐face, semi‐structured long interviews with Web site owners; and electronic exchanges with informants. The purpose of the content analysis of Web sites was to identify ways in which consumers use personal Web space to self‐present. The interviews provided an understanding of how and why informants chose digital material to display on their personal Web sites. Electronic exchanges with informants enabled us to clarify questions arising during data analysis. The sum total of the data is analogous to the recent brand community inquiry where online and off‐line data were accumulated, analyzed, and presented to form a cohesive story of consumers’ participation in brand communities (Muniz and O’Guinn 2001).
Personal Web Space Sample.
Three search engines (Yahoo, Infoseek, Excite) were used to generate a sample of personal Web sites. A combination of computer algorithms and researcher judgment filters resulted in a set of 326 sites that were assumed to be owned by local potential informants. Visual analysis of the personal Web space content was done in accordance with the reading of consumer collages (Belk, Ger, and Askegaard 1997) and treated as consumer‐generated texts.
Informant selection began with the Web site set. First, every fifth Web site in the set was called up, and, when possible, the owner’s e‐mail address was located. This process generated 16 informants who agreed to participate in face‐to‐face interviews; a second iteration resulted in seven more informants. The process moved quite slowly. Subsequently, the initial set of identified Web sites was shown to the informants, asking them if they knew any of the owners/creators. A snowballing technique emerged, and eight more informants were included. An additional four informants were not among the original Web site set but were suggested by participating informants. Table 1 describes the informants.
|Identifier||Sex||Age||No. of personal sites||Site description|
|Sam||M||59||2||Zinc recycling technology; genealogy|
|Jose||M||24||2||Computer programming; Harley-Davidson|
|Fred||M||28||2||Academic research; anime hobby|
|Anita||F||26||1||Photography; graphic art|
|Dave||M||32||2||Entertainment promoter; rock `n' roll collector|
|Bob||M||32||2||Web site design general; Tom Petty fan|
|Joyce||F||24||1||Breast cancer awareness|
|Jack||M||38||4||Software engineer; academic; religious; genealogy|
|Kim||F||36||1||Social worker; craft hobbies|
|Tina||F||28||1||Sales/hobbies and interests|
|Daniel||M||48||2||Course material/Aviation hobby|
|Cory||M||25||2||Managerial accomplishments; rock `n' roll fan|
|Rod||M||32||1||Personal training accomplishments; dating|
|Amelia||F||28||1||Computer science accomplishments/interests|
|Franklin||M||23||1||Mechanical accomplishments; life history|
|Steve||M||26||2||Musical accomplishments; life history|
|Ellie||F||29||1||Journalistic accomplishments; life history|
|Larry||M||36||1||Database accomplishments; music fan|
|Phillip||M||25||1||Computer programming accomplishments|
|Angela||F||30||1||Wedding information; family history and pictures|
|Seth||M||37||2||Computer accomplishments; creative writing|
|Ben||M||29||3||Academic research; dating; Buffy the Vampire Slayer|
|Nick||M||23||2||Sales accomplishments; life history; dating|
|Sara||F||28||2||Marketing accomplishments; life history; music fan|
|Don||M||43||2||Xena fan; creative/journalistic accomplishments|
|Linda||F||34||1||Family pictures; life history|
|Peter||M||32||2||Accountant accomplishments; movie criticism|
|Jason||M||27||1||Data analyst accomplishments|
|Greg||M||36||2||Legal accomplishments; dating|
Personal Web Space Content.
When informants were successfully identified and interviews scheduled, we downloaded their personal Web sites, coded the content (text, audio, image, icons, hyperlinks, and animation), and made initial interpretations of these data. The personal Web sites were not chosen for their inclusion of brand‐ or product‐related material. However, using Kotler’s (2000) expanded notion of brands, all but three did contain brand references at the initial interview (1999). The downloading and content coding protocol were repeated annually on the informants’ sites (2000, 2001, and 2002). As of 2002, all informants had at least one explicit reference to a brand on their personal Web sites. The brands referenced range from common software and net application endorsements (usually in reference to the site creation, or listed as favorites) to entertainment/entertainers (fan sites), clothing, financial/governmental/political organizations, and even household goods.
Interviews regarding self‐presentation strategies in personal Web space were conducted in person by the first author. Initial interviews were done in 1999 and early 2000, lasted between 45 min and three hours (with most around 90 min long), and used online resources. Informants were asked questions about the purpose of their Web sites, what the site communicates, their motivations for constructing the sites, how they chose content, and so forth, from a predetermined question set used for all interviews. Follow‐up questions and discussions varied by informant and analysis iterations (McCracken 1988b; Spradley 1979). During the interviews, a computer displayed the informant’s Web site. The Web sites were used as elicitation devices akin to Heisley and Levy’s (1991) notion of auto‐driving. The researcher also offered preliminary interpretations of the Web site content to the informant. Informants were encouraged to correct, augment, or otherwise interact with this interpretation of their personal Web site content (Belk, Sherry, and Wallendorf 1988).
Informants were encouraged to update the researchers on the development of their personal Web sites. Similar in intent and structure to Kozinets’s (2002b) use of Web postings in his study of the Burning Man Festival, our interpretation of the sites was updated and e‐mailed to each informant annually. In most cases, this communication resulted in an exchange between researchers and informants about their personal sites (content modifications to existing sites and new personal Web sites authored by the informants). The electronic messages were added to the data set for interpretation and as member checks. Follow‐up interviews in 2000, 2001, and 2002 were conducted in person when possible or online when not. These informant‐researcher encounters clarified issues remaining from the initial interviews, addressed emergent themes through multiple revision efforts, explored the developing Web sites and self‐presentation strategies over time, and furthered our understanding of individual informants.
Long interviews, consumer‐created documents (personal Web sites and postings), and cocreated documents (electronic exchanges) were analyzed for deep meanings. The goal of the long interview forum is methodological empathy (Singleton, Straits, and Straits 1993), and the unobtrusive observation of personal Web space (Kozinets 1998, 2002a) provides evidence of self‐presentation in situ within CMEs.
The methodology employed was guided by the systematic approach to qualitative research in Glaser and Strauss (1967), elaborated by Strauss and Corbin (1998) as grounded theory. It is perhaps better characterized by consumer researchers as the constant comparative method of analysis (Spiggle 1994). The interviews were coded, and themes were distilled. The initial interview was analyzed separately and then reinterpreted in a comparative manner. Subsequent interviews were analyzed in light of previous interviews and performed in an interactive, iterative style, sometimes labeled the hermeneutic circle of understanding (Schwandt 1997). Triangulation of the different data resources enriches the data set and increases the emic potential of this inquiry. Using personal Web sites as consumer‐created digital collages to augment the interviews allowed informants to influence researcher interpretations. This triangulation brings the researcher a step closer to perceiving the signs consumers offer in the manner in which the consumers themselves do (Grayson 1998). By interacting with and observing informants across online and off‐line situations, we hope to interpret their self‐presentation strategies in personal Web space more fully.
Data analysis reveals motivations for creating personal Web sites that change over time. Consumers use multiple self‐presentation strategies to construct digital collages that represent the self. As one aspect of self is explored (e.g., professional, hobbyist), consumers are often motivated to use the medium to explore and display other selves. Further, as consumers’ technological skills become more advanced and as they are exposed to others’ Web site content and feedback from observers, consumers are motivated to continuously improve their Web site content. Figure 2 represents our findings.
Why Consumers Create Personal Web Sites
There are likely to be as many motivations as there are people who create personal Web sites. However, they all intend to communicate, and some broad patterns of initial impetus appear among our informants.
Unlike other consumer‐oriented experiences, some of which may take place in rather private domains (bathrooms, bedrooms) or are only witnessed by people in the vicinity of the consumer, the construction and posting of a personal Web site is always a communicative, public endeavor. Personal Web sites are personal in that they present the self, but they are public in that they are posted in a broadly accessible domain. Our data reveal that all informants explicitly invite and overtly expect other Web surfers to visit. Some informants target specific audiences (friends, family, potential employers). Others hope anyone with overlapping interests will visit their Web sites. All informants in our study acknowledge the potential for the audience to be unlimited and undefined.
Dave, a 32‐year‐old entertainment promoter, created a personal Web site with a mass audience in mind. He confesses: “I was impressed by the loudspeaker when I was in high school. The principal’s voice was everywhere talking to everyone. Right in everyone’s face. I had dreams of taking over the PA system. Imposing my will on the masses. Maybe that’s why I got involved in my college radio station and then the entertainment biz—so my voice could be everywhere. Well, my site is like that … it’s here and with just a click everywhere. Whoa, I wonder if my old principal has a Web site.”
Dave enjoys the broadcast ability of the Net for its quantity of social influence. Through his Web site, he projects a social presence into the intimate space of the screen and then in everyone’s face. He has achieved an explicit intention to broadcast his telepresence everywhere like his principal’s voice over the loudspeaker.
Similarly, Steve, a 26‐year‐old musician, values the public self‐presentation that personal Web space offers. He actively monitors his site’s reach, keeping track of Web site visitors. He checks on his site’s placement in search engine requests and tracks other consumers’ references to his Web site, or crosslinks. He admits “I can’t be everywhere, but my page can. I post it, I cross link it, check where I am on the search engines. I want to be everywhere. I got to be everywhere ‘cuz you never know where you have to be to catch that break, or when. I can’t miss that.” A public Web site telepresence increases his odds of being in the right place at the right time.
Likewise, Franklin, a 23‐year‐old mechanic, recognizes that the Web site he created for a class assignment is a conspicuous self‐presentation “in front of the class … and I guess the whole Web … and shit, the world.” Ultimately, he decided he wanted to make a publicly posted, personal Web site to locate employment opportunities by electronically circulating his resume. He also hopes his friends think it is “pretty fly” (a slang term with hip‐hop origins that is similar to “cool”).
Although the communicative intent of creating and posting a personal Web site crossed all informants, a few noted the danger that public self‐presentation poses. Linda, a 34‐year‐old IT consultant, posts a site containing pictures and a personal journal of her children’s development to “keep relatives and friends in the loop.” Linda intends and expects the site to be seen by a prescribed set of people, whom she e‐mails when new content is added, but she also worries about the public exposure her site may generate for her children: “I don’t ever link the site to any traceable place [cities, family, employers] or even have their last name listed on the site itself because you never know who is looking on.” She shows that with publicly posted personal Web sites comes responsibility.
Although communication is the universal intent behind the construction and posting of personal Web sites in our data set, the specific initial motivators vary. These motivations coincide with important events in consumers’ lives, such as a change in role or a desire to express a particular viewpoint. Given the inherently self‐presenting nature of personal Web sites, understanding the motives for constructing them provides insight to more general motives for self‐presentation.
Three distinct types of initial motivations emerge for a personal Web site: (1) a triggering event, (2) a desire for personal growth, and (3) advocacy. These categories emerge from the data set without noticeable differences between intrinsic and extrinsic motivations.
A triggering event may be defined as a significant change in personal or professional status (graduation, promotion, engagement, marriage, parenthood), or an external prompt (class assignment, administrative mandate, social prodding). For Angela, a 30‐year‐old Persian accountant, her wedding was the impetus to create a personal Web site. A change in status (e.g., from single to married) is also a change in self. Such a change may be more apparent when it is significant, such as marrying outside one’s culture. In Franklin’s case, creating and posting a personal Web site was brought about by an external prompt. As part of his community college curriculum, Franklin was asked to create a personal Web site.
A desire for personal growth may be an educational endeavor (mastering of a technology, adroit use of software), professional and personal self‐promotion (search for a job, win clients, find a date/mate), an exercise in self‐discovery, or a fulfillment of a fantasy. Jose, a 24‐year‐old computer programmer, decided to create a site to show off his programming skills. His site is dedicated to attracting freelance programming work and promoting his family’s motorcycle restoration business. Mark, a 29‐year‐old architect, utilizes his Web space to locate a potential mate. He claims that the site is “more than a chronic booty call,” it is “a serious dating advertisement.” The site refers textually to his attributes (i.e., hard working, determined, sincere), the characteristics he is most compatible with (i.e., affectionate, energetic, and loyal), and the relationship outcome he terms “the optimal deal” (i.e., monogamy and marriage). Sara, a 28‐year‐old marketing executive, maintains a site that explores her personal experiences and her musical tastes. Sara describes her impetus as “to learn more about myself.” As mentioned earlier, Dave’s site is partly the fulfillment of his fantasy to take over his high school PA system.
Advocacy may lead someone to construct an homage to a favorite artist, artistic work or genre, brand, or social cause. Many Web sites contain elements of fanaticism and make positive associations with various brands, like that of Bob, a 32‐year‐old Web site designer. His personal site is devoted to the musician Tom Petty. Although classified by his Internet provider as personal, it is more a cyber homage to Tom Petty and his band the Heartbreakers and the music that inspired them (e.g., Elvis Presley). Bob posts biographical photos of and information on Petty, his family, his band, and his inspirations with download‐ready music from Petty’s public work, pirated concert footage, and bootleg recordings. Bob’s site provides updated tour information and Tom Petty’s public appearance schedule. He claims the site is “all about Tom and his music” yet is still highly personal. Bob feels the ideals expressed by Tom Petty are extremely self‐relevant: “His music is more me than anything [original] I can post.” There is no disclosure of Bob’s RL identity anywhere on the site other than his e‐mail address and a stylized avatar (a pictorial representation) that loosely refers to his Native American ethnicity. Like Bob, Don, a 43‐year‐old fan of Xena:Warrior Princess posts a site devoted to the television show and cast, specifically Lucy Lawless, the actress who portrayed Xena. Don posts pictures from the show and the Xena conventions that he and/or friends have attended.
Greg, a 36‐year‐old lawyer, maintains a site devoted to a social cause. The site is devoted to Greg’s legal accomplishments that coincide with highly critical content regarding U.S. immigration law and policy. Greg’s personal Web site is a focused argument against the U.S. treatment of immigrants and what Greg feels is an unconstitutional denial of civil liberties to those seeking asylum and citizenship. After September 11, 2001, this site takes on an even stronger resemblance to a hate site in its anger against the current practices of “unlawful detention,” and “systemic abuse” of “innocent people seeking the promise of democracy in the USA” (exerpts from Greg's Web site, 2002). Greg calls his site a “STOP HATE, informational resource.”
Multiple and Evolving Motivations.
Among our informants it was not uncommon to find one initial impetus and additional motivations for continuing to develop the personal Web site. This shifting of motivations and purpose was seen among our informants across the four years we have followed the Web sites and may be analogous to the evolving motivation that Celsi, Rose, and Leigh (1993) found among skydivers. Here, the initial impetus yields to more involving purposes, and the Web site develops into a self‐presentation project far beyond what the informants envisioned at the beginning. For example, initially, Franklin did not “see the point” of creating such a site, but his new‐found interest in computers led him to become very involved in learning HTML and in developing his personal Web site: “The whole idea of making myself from scratch was kinda cool and a bit trippy. Given everything you could say and show, what do I choose? Damn. I had to ask myself ‘Who the hell am I?’… It was hard.” Franklin’s first motivation was a triggering external prompt, the class assignment, but through the construction phase, the motivation became a journey of self‐discovery to answer the question “Who the hell am I?”
Steve, like Franklin, found his motivation extending beyond the initial impetus. Steve began the site for the specific self‐fulfillment of increasing his professional fan base. It was an endeavor to broaden his market and achieve financial success. The site later became much more personal: “To create the site was like therapy with a bigger purpose—who am I? Sure. But, how do I tell them?—the them that only or first see my Web site. To them all I am is what’s on my home page. Talk about pressure. You never get a second chance to make a first impression. I agonize over the Web site because it is my first impression to most people.”
As an artist Steve is conscious of self‐projection, and as a struggling musician he notes the more practical goal of earning a living off his music. He knows he must maintain a satisfied patron group or, in the marketing terms that he wields easily, “Every musician needs a devoted fan base to buy the recordings and take in the live shows.” As a man, the site was a larger self‐discovery project, allowing him to ask “Who am I?”
This theme crossed several informants, including Ellie, a 29‐year‐old journalist working for a prominent regional newspaper. She began her site to showcase her published pieces and tout her success in the hope of bringing more career opportunities. This initial motivation gave way to the highly personal recounting of her life history and, through her digital associations, became a way to work through long‐standing issues with her mother (see the Digital Association section).
In addition to this shift in focus to include other aspects of the self, the data show that informants also created entirely new sites that were sometimes, but not always, linked to the initial site. In these cases, the first motivation held as the guiding principle for the site; however, subsequent sites manifested the motivation to explore other selves. For example, Sam began with a site revolving around his profession as a recycling engineer, but, as self‐discovery took over, he opted to create another site about his genealogy linked to his professional one. The second site became a passionate interest to identify and learn about his ancestors.
This multisite construction and maintenance is also demonstrated by Jack, a 38‐year‐old software engineer and academic, whose initial personal site was designed for professional self‐promotion. He chose to create other personal sites for his self‐discovery journey: one on genealogy; one devoted to his immediate family, with pictures of his child; and another to promote his church and its doctrine. These sites are discrete and are not interlinked. All are personal and demonstrate components of self‐presentation divided by his roles.
Other motivations arise as consumers increase their understanding of technology and the Web’s capabilities. Consumers often want to display their talents by upgrading their sites. By observing other personal Web sites and by receiving feedback on their own sites, consumers are motivated to improve their presentation. Most of the informants admitted that they visited both commercial and personal sites for ideas and digital content to appropriate. Philip, a 25‐year‐old programmer, admitted he was strongly influenced by another informant’s Web site, specifically, Jose’s animated creations: “When I was trying to figure out what to put on my site and how to create a site that got clients’ attention and showed them I can develop killer sites, I checked out the local competition. I landed on Jose’s site several times and it gave me the idea to really push my creative limits. I decided to post my past creations with some endorsements from my past projects and even to program a few animated sequences just for the site. I didn’t actually meet Jose until we worked together in 1999.”
Philip was inspired by Jose’s site to create more than a resume but, rather, an interactive gallery of his work. Larry, a 36‐year‐old database specialist, posts an employment‐oriented site and a site devoted to his favorite rock music. At first the two sites were linked, but Larry soon discovered that it would be in his best interest to separate the sites. He received e‐mail and off‐line feedback about the site that strongly indicated that his music site might negatively affect his job opportunities: “I am a sucker for all those old heavy metal bands. I grew up with them and they rock. Of course, when you make your life being a tech expert, people think you have to be young, you have to be hip, you have to be edgy. Well, a KISS Web site doesn’t cut it. People told me, ‘Dude, your site is so 8‐track, so old hoo‐yaw [a derogatory term for heavy metal music fans].’ I’m not one to cave, but I’m practical enough to know I might want to keep my music preferences away from my work.” Larry disentangled his sites based on the feedback he received. He even changed his screen name on the KISS fan site he posts to so that his identity cannot be discovered easily.
In summary, we find that informants intend to communicate with others and that initial motivations include external prompts, personal growth, and advocacy. We discover that such motivations evolve over time and migrate toward complexity. The next section addresses the subject matter communicated.
What Consumers Want to Communicate
Overwhelmingly, consumers want to convey the self or multiple selves in their personal Web space. As demonstrated in the last section, informants were conscious of creating and displaying themselves online through such sites. Across initial motivations, informants consistently state that their sites enact selves with which they choose to communicate with other Web participants. The content of the sites is diverse (text, audio, image, icons, hyperlinks, and animation) as is the style of communication, but the desire to present a physically absent self to others underlies all personal Web sites in our data set. This self may relate to one or more roles played by an informant (journalist, mother, daughter) or to a latent self (warrior, hero, intellectual), but the desire to construct a self is a common theme in these data.
Fred, a 28‐year‐old sociology doctoral student, maintains a personal site primarily to communicate his academic interests and accomplishments to potential employers and colleagues: “The site is me. It is the me I want to communicate; the me I am most proud of.” His site consists of one self‐picture, his vita, abstracts of his academic articles, and information about his works‐in‐progress. For Fred, the site presents an idealized self, digitally created and enhanced. Fred constructs a telepresence to be virtually present regardless of where he is; the site is “a me to be here wherever I may actually be.”
Similarly Roger, a 31‐year‐old accountant, is eager to justify the time that he spends on the site and compiling its circulation statistics: “People told me, well mostly my girlfriend, that I was wasting too much time on this page. Wasting time? Can you believe that? I’m not wasting time; I’m making me … or at least the me that goes public.” For Roger, the Web site has become the process of self‐creation, and this is no trivial pursuit. The self he makes is career oriented and always looking for a better opportunity. He is meticulous about the keywords he uses, the number of times he uses them, the placement of keywords, and the optimal metatag, in hopes of triggering high‐ranking scores across various search algorithms.
Given all the content our informants could post in public domains, we find it interesting that personal Web sites live up to their name: highly personal presentations of self. Our informants exemplify a common theme of self‐creation and self‐presentation. The Web sites are digital enactments of self, intended for the Web surfing public. Each self is unique, but the concept of communicating self crosses all informants. The following section details strategies used for that communication.
Self‐Presentation Strategies in Personal Web Space
The creation of a self for public consumption is a major task. The data reveal four strategies involved in digital self‐presentation in this personal site format: (1) constructing a digital self, (2) projecting a digital likeness, (3) digitally associating as a new form of possession, and (4) reorganizing linear narrative structures.
Constructing a Digital Self.
Computer‐mediated environments have been shown to be inherently communicative (Kozinets 1998, 2002a), a finding our data support. Consumers construct and post personal Web sites as a form of conspicuous self‐presentation where every element is chosen for its semiotic potential. These sites vary in complexity and approaches, but across informants, we find constructing the digital self as a telepresence to be universal.
Mark’s dating site is replete with obvious marketing tactics. The presentation of self is consciously sales oriented: “I’m selling myself. We all do it. I’m just more open about it.” He believes his “straightforward, no frills” approach “weeds out the undesirables and the lookie‐loos [those who don’t intend to ‘buy’].” Mark admits that his site is “comical” but also “quite serious.” He has created what he believes is his most attractive, datable self‐presentation without physical form.
Unlike Mark, Franklin was anxious about constructing his telepresence and displaying himself to the class, the Web‐surfing public, and even himself. This type of self‐exploration and disclosure did not come easily. Franklin incorporated content of other personal Web sites into his own. Franklin’s sampling strategy was purposive and consisted of trial and error as he evaluated potential site content. This sampling behavior is analogous to the concept Turkle (1995) borrows from Lévi‐Strauss termed “bricolage.” In this way, Franklin consciously drafted a digital self, including what he felt were his best attributes and ignoring or even concealing elements he deemed undesirable. For example, he highlighted his mechanical training and chose not to mention that he opted for the General Educational Development (GED) credential, not a high school diploma: “I figure the GED is my business. It’s what I did afterward that matters to anyone else.”
Using a simple template provided by Angelfire (an ISP that distributes personal Web space), Franklin “played with the content,” manipulating his original and appropriated elements until “it just seemed right” and was “most me.” Each piece was purposefully chosen to match his objectives that are both professional and social. The elements used on his Web site express what he feels are desirable, intangible aspects of his identity. The configuration of the brands and institutions in the form of digital stimuli are uniquely his.
Unlike Franklin’s site, Jose’s highly complex site contains up to four frames per page, feedback forms, pop‐up windows, nearly 100 live hyperlinks, animation, video, and sound bits. The first page consists of a textual biography of his technical expertise, including pictures of him in various stages and culminating in his hypertext resume. During the interview, it was apparent that his vocation is also his passion; Jose’s descriptions of elements on his Web site came replete with wild hand gestures, nonverbal utterances, and obvious excitement (field notes, 1999).
One image on Jose’s site is of a Harley‐Davidson motorcycle in profile with animation on the handlebars that allows the site visitor to rev the engine, activating a sound bit when the handlebar is clicked. The image is technologically complex, and Jose says it is based on “a hog my dad used to have that took just about four years for him to restore. One fine machine.” The sound matches perfectly the motion of the handlebars and the entire motorcycle rocks as the engine is revved. Each time Jose refers to his animated hog, he makes the motions of revving a motorcycle engine with his right hand (field notes, 1999). In the initial interview, Jose claimed that he would soon have some pirated technology that, coupled with a touch screen, would also allow visitors to feel the motion of the bike. With exuberance, Jose described that first incarnation of the handlebar action as “approaching It [a term he uses to connote perfection],” but he assures the first author that the next round will be “perfectly sweet [exactly right].”
It is clear from speaking with Jose that the site is a conspicuous presentation of self with deep meaning. With each incarnation of the animated hog, Jose is more pleased with the effect and its appropriation by other site authors. As of 2002, Jose had the touch screen in sync with the motion, and the sound waves do give the illusion of movement on the fingertips; the effect and his cult fame for creating it grow daily. Jose says, “The hog is me these days. It is me and my dad and my uncles … it is for some people all they know about me and I’m cool with that ‘cuz it sums me up.” Jose knows many of the people who see his site will never meet him face‐to‐face, but he wants them to get an impression similar to his RL presence and his RL family.
Angela has lovingly constructed her digital telepresence so that friends and family who are geographically remote can “really connect with me.” While she explains her Web site, her demeanor is quiet, perhaps even reverent (field notes, 2000). She originally started the project to keep distant relatives apprised of her wedding plans. She says, “We don’t see a lot of our relatives in Persia, and I don’t want to lose contact with them for my children’s sake.” Angela carefully chose the elements on her site from the photos and text to the images she appropriated from other sources. She is sensitive to observers’ reactions to her site content and especially concerned that it will be favorably interpreted by “older generations and people still in the traditional culture”; she does not want to offend them with her site. Angela claims that her self‐presentation is carefully crafted and that every element was painstakingly decoded:
I made an outline of what I wanted to convey on the site and the possible content … the pictures, narrative, and stuff I got from the Web. Then I thought about the connotations associated with each piece. I was meticulous. I’m an accountant, you know. My fear is that I will offend our [her Persian] relatives. I don’t speak the language much, and I would never feel comfortable writing in anything but English, so the images need to say a lot on their own.
Angela scrutinized her array of self‐presentation tools for any imagined impropriety or incongruence with her culture and values. For example, the wedding photographer, who is listed by name, had to be Persian:
I needed a photographer familiar with Persian weddings and customs. The wedding had to be photographed just right so my relatives far away knew I was faithful in our customs. And it helps [that] his [photographer’s] family name is traditional.
Ironically, the groom Angela chose did not meet this constraint; he is an American of German descent. It appears Angela’s self‐presentation strategy vehemently asserts her faithfulness to Persian culture partly because her mate is not Persian: “My husband was not what they [her relatives] expected, so I had to set their minds at ease that I’m the same Persian girl.” Familial approval is extremely important to Angela. She chose digital elements that best matched her identity as a hard‐working traditional young woman, straddling the cultural borders of Iran and the United States, while embarking on married life with a German‐American. America and its media (the Internet) are suspect to her Persian family. Angela confesses:
A lot of my family, the older generations, are suspect of the Internet. They hear all the bad things that are out there and the smut, and they aren’t sure a young woman ought to be in that environment. I want my site to show them the positive potential and the way we can use it to keep the family close. It is important to me. … One of my great aunts visited my site from a friend’s house, and it was the first time she had been on the Net. She called me while she was online and said my mom looked as beautiful as she remembered. I think she saw the potential for being a closer family.
As with Jose’s pride at the popularity of his animated hog, Angela is pleased with her audience’s response. The great aunt’s comment about her mother made Angela confident that she could win support for the Web.
Although strategically different, informants in this sample demonstrate the translation of self into the digital domain. This process is shared by all informants and consists of constructing digital selves by evaluating original and appropriated elements and constructing a collage to stand in for a physically absent self.
Projecting a Digital Likeness.
Projecting a digital likeness is the explicit referencing of a physical body (RL or ideal) in the construction of a digital self. Two differences between constructing a digital self and projecting a digital likeness are (1) the general intent and (2) the relationship of the physical body to the process. Creating a specific telepresence, a digital self, means imparting a social presence whether it relates to the body or the intangible self‐concept. All personal Web sites represent a highly contrived digital self, but not all relate that self to the physical being. Consumers reveal the importance of their bodies in how they reference their physical beings within their communication of self.
One strategy for digitizing a likeness is to reference the RL body directly through pictures and textual descriptions. For example, Franklin decided he needed a self‐picture on his site. He took a recent photograph of himself to Kinko’s to scan, adding that image to his site. He feels the self‐picture most closely represents him, or, as he says, “how most people see me.” It is a snapshot that the researcher notes in her field notes has a very strong likeness to him. He is standing on the boardwalk in Newport Beach, CA; it is closely cropped with very little geographical context left. The photo choice is not arbitrary but, rather, Franklin confides, an image taken on the day he met his wife:
My buddy, Mel, took it last summer. He was so whacked [a slang term for intoxicated], poppin’ these pictures left and right with his new Canon. We were in Newport cruisin’ the boardwalk trying to hook up with these hotties on skates. We were grinnin’ like idiots and fallin’ all over ourselves to impress ‘em. We did, man. Perfect luck. It is the day I got Kelly’s number. That girl is so fine. Mine now. We’ve been kickin’ it ever since. Ain’t that a trip?
Franklin’s digital likeness is carefully contrived to communicate his RL identity. The picture is a significant photographic moment of his physical life that is now digitally recreated as an integral component of his telepresence. It situates him within a geophysical space he calls home and in relationship to a particular brand, Canon, that he believes is “tough enough to keep up with me and my uses … like documenting my life.” The photo depicts his physical likeness, his environment, his hobby (candid photography), and his transitioning social status (from a single guy to a married man). In the CME of personal Web space, where Franklin could be anyone, he voluntarily projects his likeness to construct his digital self.
Like Franklin, Mark is extremely concerned with the self‐portraits he posts on his personal Web site, except that Franklin’s choice of picture reflects a significant moment (meeting his wife), and Mark’s photos are chosen to inspire such a moment (meeting his mate). Mark’s Web site in an online dating community is dedicated to presenting him to potential romantic partners through marketing tactics. Mark values the power he has over his digital likeness. He spends hours perfecting his pitch, choosing personal photographs, and retouching them with software. It is a highly contrived presentation of self. Mark concedes,
I try to be accurate, but still, no one hangs their worst flaws out raw. I highlight my better qualities and downplay the bad things. Who would make a site that says, ‘I’m all jacked up [a term indicating personal failings or pathologies], wanna go out?’
His physical self is digitally airbrushed and polished.
Fred also posts a self‐picture, but it is not significant; it is just one more manipulated element that he uses to self‐present. When asked why that image was chosen, he says:
I don’t know. I guess I had it handy. I only want the picture to augment the other stuff on my site and to make it easier for people who see the site to find me in real life, like at conferences. You know, sort of a business card with a picture so the cocktail party conversation can be a little more relevant.
His digital likeness directly serves his RL goals. For better or worse, he accepts that his physical body is his primary venue.
The site Joyce created is dedicated to her mother whom she lost to breast cancer. It is fact‐filled with links to medical sites on breast cancer, as well as a touching narrative of her mother’s struggles. It contains family photos, diary excerpts from Joyce and her mother, and helpful tips for early diagnosis. Joyce says the site is more than cathartic, “It [constructing the site] was something I had to do. I needed to communicate this story and expose the disease to bright light. It’s my way of fighting back. Exposure is the key to a cure.” In short, the site celebrates physical life and extends her mother’s life into the ether. Joyce appears to be engaged in a one‐woman social marketing campaign. By making the disease personal, she is likely to be more effective than any organizational communication (Rosen 2000).
Another strategy for projecting a digital likeness is to create a nonphotographic likeness. In our sample, even the avatars used on the personal Web sites did not depart from human forms generally and the owner’s specific physical appearance. For example, Mark uses an avatar he created with a photo‐quality head shot on an animated body to follow visitors as they explore his site. Similarly, Bob uses a self‐stylized avatar within the “Tom Petty Zone” (a chat space housed on his Web site) that is a stereotypical, animated Indian boy complete with a feather in his headband. This feature alone expresses his physical self as a man of Native American ancestry. These avatars, like the photos, are depictions that ground the Web sites with physical references.
From self‐photos to stylized animated avatars, many informants in this study digitized their physical selves as part of their self‐presentation in personal Web space. Although the use of these digital elements differed, the practice of choosing images that visually represent their physical bodies is common.
Although projecting a digital likeness refers to Web site creators’ efforts to reference their physical bodies, digital association refers to efforts to reference relationships with objects, places, and so forth. Digital stimuli are appropriated or manipulated to convey meaning. As in real life, where products are used as social stimuli to construct and enact notions of self (Solomon 1983), consumers call upon products and brands within personal Web space. Through digital association, personal Web space offers a new venue for consumers to create and enact consumer‐brand relationships (Fournier 1998). People use such digital stimuli to present themselves to an assumed audience, constructing and managing impressions at whim with no financial or physical constraints. Thus, consumers add depth to their digital selves by using brands and their logos as shorthand for more complex meanings. Interestingly, the site creators also add depth to the brand’s own meaning and identity, perhaps blurring the distinctions between production and consumption at least for brand meaning (Firat and Venkatesh 1995).
For example, Tina, a 28‐year‐old saleswoman, actively invokes the meaning of Victoria’s Secret (that she describes as a feminine, playful, still respectable sexuality) without explicitly claiming any form of possession. Tina’s site contains professionally produced boudoir photographs of herself wearing lingerie that may or may not be Victoria’s Secret and may or may not be borrowed for the sitting rather than owned. A hyperlink to Victoria’s Secret appears on the page near the photographs, although in the interview Tina could not recall the brand of lingerie worn:
So these are pictures of you wearing Victoria’s Secret lingerie?
Oh, I don’t know … not for sure.
Tell me about the Victoria’s Secret link. Why do you include it?
Well, I link to Victoria’s Secret because it’s sexy. It’s sexy and classy and how I want people to see me. Beautiful girls in hot clothes … or almost clothes. You know, what guys want to think you have under your street clothes. Classy—not ghetto ‘ho’ [whore] wear.
She invokes the brand, absent of a claim to ownership, to associate with its perceived meaning. A personal site like Tina’s, with the Victoria’s Secret logo, product image, or links to other related Web space including corporate sites, demonstrates digital association. Tina is adding her own conception of Victoria’s Secret by including her digital association even without an authentic connection between herself and the actual product. To Tina, her association with Victoria’s Secret is genuine regardless of whether she is wearing their lingerie.
Kevin, a 28‐year‐old managing partner in an interior design firm, has a personal site that prominently features the KitchenAid logo and hyperlink to the brand site. The KitchenAid reference is loosely based on his pride in renovating his own kitchen with KitchenAid appliances and on his success in using the brand in clients’ homes. He claims the logo and link “communicate quality—like Toyota does for cars.” It is also “practical, not artistic, or trendy.” Perhaps most important, he uses the link to separate himself from other designers and from more “effeminate aspects of interior design” because he is sensitive to the “assumption that anyone in my line of work is gay.” For Kevin, digitally associating with KitchenAid positions him as less artistic and, in his estimation, heterosexual, while conveying to observers that he is quality oriented.
Don’s Xena site and hyperlink participation in the Xena fan community Web rings (personal sites hypertextually related to refer an interested observer from one topical site to another) exemplify a digital association and demonstrate the care taken to match the brand with the consumer’s identity. In RL he is a mild‐mannered professional, yet, when the situation permits, he enacts his medieval warrior fantasy in relation to Xena and the public meaning of her fan base. Given the controversy in the Xena community on whether Xena:Warrior Princess has a subtext lesbian love story revolving around the main character and her sidekick, the lovely and omni‐perky Gabrielle, Don’s Web site situates himself within the debate. He acknowledges the possible lesbian interpretation but readily cites the overt heterosexual relationships between Xena and male characters and the context of Xena as a single mother estranged from her son due to her warrior life. To Don, those individuals who subscribe to the lesbian subtext are diluting and possibly impairing the public’s impression of Xena, which he believes may affect any site visitor’s interpretation of his digital self. He says,
They [subtext advocates] do damage to the reputation of Xena as a family show with a high child and young adult following. If the subtext interpretation becomes more prominent, I will have some trouble openly sharing my involvement in the Xena community. I mean, people can accept I’m a Xena fan and a renaissance advocate/re‐enactor, but the lesbian angle pushes it over the edge.
Don is a Xena fan who does not want to deny the subtext, but he is genuinely worried about his association with it. His site walks the line between denying the unofficial community‐driven subtext and asserting a more mainstream meaning for Xena.
Similarly, Tim, a 30‐year‐old academic, is concerned about the fit between his identity and observers’ interpretation of the university domain that he shares. Tim believes that there should be some accountability for the personal Web site content hosted on the university resources because it reflects on the Christian university’s reputation. He is particularly disturbed by the content of other personal Web sites whose digital association with the same university could mar his professional reputation:
I’m appalled at the kinds of things students post on the university resources. There are nude pictures, violent texts and images, and considerable profanity. All of this reflects on the university community. Every site influences how we as a community are seen by the outside world. I’m not really advocating censorship … they can put that stuff up elsewhere, just not where it reflects on me and my accomplishments.
Tim is worried that the student Web sites are going to damage the public meaning of the university as a scholarly institution for Christians and, by extension, his own reputation as a Christian.
The expression of Jose’s identity through the animated Harley image of a bike his father has long since sold expresses the meanings he invests in the brand and the lifestyle it promotes:
Sure the bike shows my programming skills, but I could animate anything. … I chose the Harley because it is all about freedom and the open road. It’s all about the idea that anything can happen in America and about power you control. It’s about my family and the way Latinos like me are a part of the American landscape. It’s about putting some color into the Harley image because it’s all there. Go to an event some time. No Wonder Bread scene. It’s about friends so close they feel like family. The Harley style is to keep it real.
The fact that the Harley‐Davidson Jose depicts is digital and represents a machine his dad no longer possesses is not relevant to Jose’s self‐presentation. His digital association to the material machine is not dependent on ownership, possession, or proximity. Nor is it dependent on the corporate image of Harley‐Davidson, whose Web site features only mainstream English language and primarily white men in their photographs. In the authors’ interpretation, Harley‐Davidson supports the Wonder Bread image Jose is actively challenging.
Angela is careful about the potential connotation of the ISP she uses, “I don’t have an AOL e‐mail or Web address. Way too American. I use Earthlink because it sounds so inclusive, and it fits with my goal of linking myself to my traditions and to my life here in the U.S.” She exhibits concern about what her chosen ISP says about her affiliative identity. Angela constructs a digital self consistent with being a traditional, well‐mannered, proper Persian girl and casts Earthlink as an accomplice in de‐Americanizing the Web and her place in it. It is not relevant to her that Earthlink is an American company with similar business practices to AOL.
One brand Ellie includes on her Web site is Tupperware (textual description and hyperlink to corporate Web site) to represent her childhood, her mother, and the differences she sees between her own generation and her mother’s. Here is a textual excerpt from her Web site (2002):
My mom claims she was a working mother and that she understands the pressures and demands of working outside the home, maintaining a marriage, and raising children. She has constant and persistent advice for me in my struggles to balance family and work. The thing is, she was a married Tupperware saleswoman, I am a professional journalist struggling to make a name for myself and raise my daughter alone. Tupperware can wait, anxious editors cannot. Tupperware is a job, not an occupation. It is the manufacturer of domestic tools, which women can peddle without getting their hands dirty. It was a safe company for a woman to be in 30 years ago; a respectable side job for a married woman. I exist in a new millennium professional world where gender and parenthood must be discretely [and perhaps discreetly] handled. My hands are always dirty.
Ellie tells her story with narrative and commercial referents. For Ellie, the choice of Tupperware as content for her site was deliberate and oppositional. Tupperware is a brand that represents her mother, but not Ellie. Tupperware is intimately connected with her past, the generation gap, and relationship issues with her mother today. Ellie’s hands are dirty because she perceives her mother’s disapproval and perhaps her own struggles with nostalgia for values of 30 years ago when motherhood was “a profession in its own right” and “when marriages lasted forever.” For Ellie, Tupperware is nostalgia incarnate, and her complicated oppositional relationship to Tupperware often stands in for relations with her mother. This important symbol for Ellie is woven into her digital telepresence with precision. It is not relevant to her that Tupperware makes no nostalgic claims about traditional male‐dominated, dual‐parent families.
Digital association is a new form of possession not dependent on ownership or proximity. In fact, as we see with Ellie, digital possession can be enacted as oppositional. This oppositional strategy is rare in RL because it is difficult to call attention in the material world to those things you are not using or buying. In RL, only close friends are privy to avoided brands (see Vicki’s story in Fournier ). Digital association demonstrates the interaction between corporately influenced meanings and those meanings consumers derive and perpetuate (Kates 1997). Consumers are actively commingling brands and their images in the service of self‐presentation.
Reorganizing Linear Narrative Structures.
Dismantling hierarchies of linear writing, hyperlinking allows resumes and life stories to be told with detailed elaboration only when the reader clicks the hyperlink. In essence, hyperlinks allow narratives that have no distinct beginning, middle, or end but, rather, many modes of elaboration. This tool significantly empowers the reader and provides digital self‐presentation to an audience with specific interest. The format is also becoming popular as people keep online diaries and Web logs (blogs) and interlink their sites with other sites to thoroughly negate prior assumptions about linear narration.
Franklin, for example, walked the interviewer through the meanings of all the images, text, and hyperlinks on his site. Franklin talks about why he hyperlinks to his mechanics school in Arizona, as opposed to creating a textual description. For him, “It [the school] was where I became a man and knew what I wanted to do with my life.” It represents his first experience away from home and his evolution from an idle child to a career man. He adds, “Besides, it’s a damn good school and somebody looking to hire me should know I was trained there.” The school link has functionality because it allows site visitors to research Franklin’s background and find evidence of his technical training if they are so inclined.
Similarly, Jose’s site includes a hypertext resume. The hyperlinks provide a way to drill down into the digital self he has created, if a site visitor is interested, but it does not force a long narrative upon the visitor. In essence, site visitors can self‐edit content they desire to explore in depth. Jose hyperlinks to his father’s restoration business site, the Harley‐Davidson brand and rally sites, a few ethnic Web sites, all past and present employers’ Web sites, and even other sites he has created. Jose also finds that visitors add his animated hog to their own self‐presentations: “The animated hog has really caught on, people link to it, and some people slap it up on their own sites. Most give me credit, but a few assholes don’t.” Its appropriation as an image or hyperlink indicates Jose’s social influence or, loosely speaking, popularity.
Ellie’s site consists of text with hyperlinks embedded in the narration that lead the site visitor to elaborations regarding details of her life story, or as she terms it, her “unique herstory.” The brands are cultural shorthand to convey complicated meaning and to self‐present. In addition to the story Ellie tells, she hyperlinks to the Tupperware corporate Web site. When asked why she chose to hyperlink she says, “So people can see for themselves. Thirty years later you can still see that Tupperware is not a professional occupation; it’s a job for those who dabble at work.” For Ellie, the hyperlink adds depth to her story and evidence for her site visitors that Ellie’s mother had an entirely different social experience than Ellie lives.
Although not all informants use the hyperlinking technology, the data illustrate increased hyperlinking behavior among our set of informants over the four years we have followed their Web sites. For example, Monica, a 29‐year‐old paralegal, began her site in 1999, mentioning in its text content the firm where she works. In late 2000, she placed a few hyperlinked logos of her employer, firms that are related to her sport passion (surfing), and favorite recording artists. By 2002, Monica has a site that features in‐text hyperlinks, more elaborately detailed self‐created pages, links to corporate sites in text, and a host of hyperlinked logos embedded in the text. She attributes this increased sophistication to her “familiarity with the medium and technology.” As these personal Web site creators continuously improve their sites, they become more technologically savvy and more apt to employ nonlinear structures in their self‐presentations.
The findings address motivations, intentions, and strategies used in constructing personal Web space. We show that the creating and subsequent posting of personal Web sites is a form of conspicuous self‐presentation that assumes external social observation. We find that the initial impetus yields to more enduring and to multiple motivations over time. The data reveal four strategies for achieving intended self‐presentations. Within these strategies, we find that constructing the digital self crosses all informants as a project of personal Web site posting. Because people may construct digital selves referencing only the intangible self (ideas, values), we illustrate that projecting a digital likeness is a common, but nonessential, process of digital self‐presentation. We reveal that, in the most recently reviewed versions of the sampled sites (2002), all contained at least one explicit association with an object, brand, institution, or commercial enterprise, making digital association an extremely popular tool in digital self‐presentation. Finally, we discover that consumers pursue a widespread reorganization of linear structures allowed by hyperlinking technology.
Initial and Evolving Motivations for Personal Web Space Construction
We find that the reasons consumers self‐present in personal Web space are similar to the reasons that they self‐present off‐line in many respects. In both RL and personal Web space, consumers desire to communicate constructed selves (Dittmar and Pepper 1992; Goffman 1959; Wiley 1994). Our findings show that personal Web space, a very conspicuous form of self‐presentation, offers a new venue for consumers to enact brand relationships (Fournier 1998). In RL, a change in role can motivate a consumer to consider consciously the image communicated through associations with products and groups (Arnould and Price 2000). The new graduate looking for a real job suddenly becomes concerned about his or her appearance and what it communicates to potential employers. In the CME world, a role change may prompt a consumer to create a personal Web site; in turn, the act of creating a Web site causes consumers to consider carefully who they are before they post their digital possession portfolio.
Informants’ initial impetus for Web site creation was found to be self‐conscious and intentional. Although consumers may consider image when selecting products to purchase, often these considerations are subsumed under some rationale about the product’s quality or some other attribute. Because digital associations offer no use value to consumers creating personal sites, the brands’ symbolic values are explicitly and consciously considered before consumers communicate with the online world.
Consumers are increasingly seeking the opinions of other consumers beyond their physical social network (Kozinets 1998, 1999, 2002b). They choose products and services, using endorsements and critiques on corporate sites like Amazon or within personal Web space (Weiss 2001). In contrast to established one‐way mass media (television and radio), in CMEs consumers’ individual voices are present. By juxtaposition, framing (Ritson 1996), arrangements of verbal text, and other visuals, their revealed identity can have a more visible impact on the evolution of product and brand meaning. When consumers practice impression management (Goffman 1959), observers interpret such self‐presentations, whether in traditional media or CMEs. However, a key difference in these venues is the variety in the audience. Off‐line, people are limited to interpreting proximal self‐presentation, but online there is the potential for a distant observer set. Anyone from anywhere may be watching and listening and feeling the content of a personal Web site.
What Consumers Communicate
Our data demonstrate that personal Web space is a consumer narrative where multiple selves are made comprehensible (Arnould and Price 2000). Telepresence, or projecting a social presence at a distance, has existed in other forms, through letter writing and telephonic communication, and, arguably, since early man’s cave drawings, but telepresence in CMEs is uniquely rich. It may include visual, textual, audio, animated, and even haptic sensation. Specifically, this ability to present multiple selves simultaneously is almost inimitable in RL. Turkle (1996) shows how the conflation of situational selves can result in multiple selves—when the “me” and the “we” collide or when the “me” is multiple “we.” Similarly, our informants demonstrate the “multiple me's” phenomenon; however, they did not present entirely disjointed selves. The digital selves produced by our informants are relatively coterminous and certainly not inconsistent with their RL self. Our informants thoughtfully considered what personal content to disclose. Consistent with Moon (2000), our findings reveal that this specific CME, personal Web space, is inherently conducive to strategic self‐disclosure at a distance. Furthermore, we find that the RL physical self may not be the site of consumption (Thompson and Hirschman 1995). However, it is a significant portion of the self voluntarily disclosed on personal Web sites.
Cyber theory about behavior on the Web has tended to overrely on specific fantasy CMEs like MUDs or online gaming rooms (Ito 1997; Turkle 1996) that separate Internet experiences from RL (Haraway 1991, 1997; Wilbur 1997). Notions developed in fantasy‐driven spaces do not hold for self‐presentation in personal Web space (Cheung 2000). In this study, consumers do not take on entirely new identities but express aspects of their RL identities, anchored by their RL existence. Our research reveals that consumers consciously utilize Web sites to augment their face‐to‐face social and professional encounters. They employ technology as a prosthetic device to enhance RL or as an extension of the physical self (Belk 1988). Personal Web sites are not a means of transcending the body or “shedding the meat” (Gibson 1984).
Most of our informants are looking for RL employment, RL mates, and solutions to RL problems. Informants want to improve their material conditions, not take on fantasy forms and personalities. Web site informants often include or create a digital likeness in their attempts to self‐present, that is, a picture, physical description, or avatar related to the owner’s physical self. As Thompson and Hirschman (1995) found in examining consumers’ self‐concept, body images and consumption of personal care products, our informants relied on the familiar narratives of the body despite expanded possibilities. Interestingly, although Mick and Fournier (1998) found that prior theories of technology are overly reliant on belief in scientific progress, our findings suggest that theories of CME overrely on postmodern theories of emancipation from our physical selves. Although we did find evidence of postmodern multiple selves, these selves were anchored in the unitary physical body modernists consider central to their theories (Bordo 1993).
As in consumption constellations (Solomon and Englis 1992), digital consumers place themselves in relation to products and services on their Web sites, but there the enactment of consumption is digital, not physical. Because brands are part of the popular imagination and the reality of people’s lives, they convey meaning to Web site visitors. As in RL, site creators use brands as a shorthand for describing to others who they are, as well as who they are not.
Products, services, and brands in general have different types of value (Kotler 2000). In RL a consumer can experience the use value as well as the symbolic value of brand image. In personal Web space, most, if not all, of the truly functional value is absent, save the software and access technology. The overriding value is semiotic. For example, in both venues, consumers can enjoy the symbolism of the BMW brand, but only in RL can a consumer use it for transport. Personal Web site creators link themselves to the symbolic meanings and the public interpretations derived from these symbols. Without direct financial cost, digital consumers can activate a type of cobranding, commingling brand logos, and creating relationships between brands.
In RL, association is limited; consumers often run up against financial, space, or proximal limitations in associating themselves with brands. For example, consumers may feel Gucci expresses their identities but be unable to own Gucci items in RL. In personal Web space, consumers’ brand associations are limited only by their imaginations and computer skills. They can literally associate themselves with any brand by digital appropriation and manipulation of digital symbols. Interestingly, our informants demonstrate a harmonious reliance on self‐presentation strategies that in some way reflect the material realm. Although the digital collages the consumers create are ostensibly infinite, all informants in this study produced Web space content that, to varying degrees, reflects their current material reality. Occasionally, informants recreated past possessions. Jose created a digital Harley‐Davidson motorcycle, replicating a hog his father had owned. Mark included vinyl records on his Web site that he had already sold on eBay. Although consumers may include associations with products no longer owned, their former possession in RL validates including those products on their Web sites. Moreover, as in the consumer‐brand relationships Fournier (1998) discusses, it appears that our informants are not merely associating with brands but are perhaps enacting relationships with brands without the restrictions of possession and proximity.
Unlike self‐extension (Belk 1988), self‐presentation in personal Web space includes negative, oppositional relationships. In other words, extending the self means that the RL self is conspicuously invested in a chosen set of possessions, while digital self‐presentation requires only the manipulation of digital stimuli, including associations oppositionally self‐relevant. What may be implicit in consumers’ choice of brands over other brands not chosen can be made explicit on consumers’ personal Web sites when brands are included as “not me” (Kleine et al. 1995).
Our research demonstrates the importance of recognizing that consumers can use symbols to invoke brand associations and relationships in ways that previous work has not. Through the process of digital association, consumers were found to expand the concept of ownership. The possession state invoked in a digital medium is different from physical possession because it is manipulated, or symbolically reconstituted, not acquired. Unlike the previous consumer research premised on possession and proximity of physical objects (Belk 1988; Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg‐Halton 1981; Douglas and Isherwood 1979; Richins 1994a, 1994a; Fournier 1998; Wallendorf and Arnould 1988), digital association is semiotic and, at times, self‐referential. It is based on signification systems that do not require brand use, only an eventual material referent (Gottdiener 1995). In summary, digital association blurs the distinctions among the material, the immaterial, the real, and the possible. Personal Web space appears to challenge the limitations of RL and the theories that depend on these assumptions (see table 2).
|Consumers intend to communicate with others||Y||Y||=|
|Consumers desire to self‐express||Y||Y||=|
|Self‐presentation is inherently conscious and conspicuous||N||Y||≠|
|Self‐presentation is bounded by geography||Y||N||≠|
|Self‐expression is anchored by physical being||Y||Y||=|
|Consumers actively associate with brands||Y||Y||=|
|Brand may have use value||Y||N||≠|
|Brand has symbolic value||Y||Y||=|
|Consumers commingle brands||Y||Y||=|
|Financial constraints exist with brand association||Y||N||≠|
|Infinite means of self expression are found||N||Y||≠|
|Active oppositional brand associations exist||N||Y||≠|
|Observers interpret symbolic value||Y||Y||=|
|Diverse observers interpret consumption||Sometimes||Y||≠|
Implications for Future Research
Personal Web space as a consumption‐oriented phenomenon is booming. Where having a personal site in 1999 implied an above‐average level of technological prowess, today easy‐to‐use software makes building and posting a personal site novice‐proof. More people with increasingly diverse backgrounds are engaging in creating personal Web sites. This study of those Web sites demonstrates that consumers use digital stimuli and hyperlinking technology to self‐present. The most common corporate external links in this sample are technology and entertainment oriented (music, film/video, sports, and hobbies), but a wide variety of products and brands are also referenced on personal sites (e.g., vehicles, apparel, household goods). Future research should examine what types of digital stimuli are used and how they communicate brand associations and enact consumer‐brand relationships (Fournier 1998). This research should yield insights into consumer relationships with less conspicuously consumed products, enabling researchers to understand consumer relationships with a fuller spectrum of products. Positive associations and negative disassociations should be compared to determine if there are broad strategic differences in their deployment and influence. Based on our research and consistent with the word‐of‐mouth literature (e.g., Herr, Kardes, and Kim 1991), we expect researchers to discover that Web site visitors place greater credence in negative rather than positive associations.
Figure 2 suggests that personal Web sites have observers who may provide feedback to the Web site creator. The interactive nature of the medium enables the creation of online communities (Kozinets 1999; Muniz and O’Guinn 2001). These observers should be the focus of future research to further our understanding of the other half of the dyad. We expect such research to find discrepancies between what Web site creators intend and how observers interpret Web site content. Such research may offer insights into how consumers come to common understandings of brand meaning.
Further, researchers can identify ad hoc brand communities (Muniz and O’Guinn 2001) by using a social‐ties analysis akin to Brown and Reingen’s (1987), substituting word‐of‐mouth for linking behavior. By following the Web of links among personal Web sites, one can ascertain a sense of community participants. This research will yield insights into the role of word‐of‐mouth in diffusion of innovations and will enable researchers to study the influence of reference groups in this process. Research into how and why one consumer borrows from or links to another personal Web site would provide insight into the phenomenon of viral marketing (Rosen 2000); specifically, we would expect it to show that consumers who are more centrally located in online communities exhibit traditional opinion leadership characteristics.
Personal Web space is a consumption‐oriented phenomenon that is evolving with technology and increased diffusion. As such, personal Web sites will continue to offer a rich source of data for consumer researchers. Cyber homesteads are replete with voluntary, overt brand associations as consumers try to communicate with the online world. Their Web sites also serve as an important form of self‐presentation where display of self is overt and there are no financial constraints. To those visitors who land upon them, the sites are surrogates for the individual who produced them. In the world of personal Web space, we are what we post.
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