This paper analyses Estonian high–school students (N=15) perceptions about the imagined audience on Facebook. Students’ sketches (N=39) and reflections on focus group interviews indicate that the youth are well aware of the plurality of the imagined audience on Facebook. From the total of six prevalent user types and sub–types that emerged, just one user type could be considered representative of an ideal audience on Facebook in the eyes of youth.
Previous research (Lenhart and Madden, 2007; Bruns, 2006) has found that young people are the striving force behind social media, in particular social networking sites (SNS). In fact, young people are so actively engaged in SNS that some consider SNS as “‘their’ space, visible to the peer group more than to adult surveillance” . For example, in 2008 the majority of young users of Facebook perceived it to be a “‘student–only’ site” . The latter assumption might have been induced by the fact that some join Facebook mainly in order to stay in touch with friends and acquaintances (Livingstone and Haddon, 2009; boyd, 2008; Subrahmanyam, et al., 2008). As an average Facebook user has 130 friends (Facebook, 2011), and empirical studies indicate even larger circles of friends for student users of Facebook (Walther, et al., 2008; Vanden Boogart, 2006), the findings seem to suggest that young profile owners of Facebook imagine the ideal audience of the site as ‘the mirror–image of the user’ . The findings of Lampe, et al.  also indicate that young users of Facebook consider their close online connections and peers as the main audience of their Facebook posts. Hence, in many respects, young people perceive Facebook to be a ‘walled garden’, occupied only by a certain group of individuals.
Considering the fact that the majority of studies about Facebook so far have also used student or teen samples (for example, Debatin, et al., 2009; Tufecki, 2008; Walther, et al., 2008) and thus (un)consciously helped to confirm the latter perception, we set out to investigate what kind of individuals the young perceive to be users of Facebook.
The aim of this paper is to analyze the perceptions that Estonian youth have about the imagined audience (Marwick and boyd, 2010) of Facebook. High school students from Estonia were asked to draw sketches of user types that they considered to be prevalent on Facebook. In focus group discussions that followed the drawing task, young people gave verbal explanations of their drawings and described their perceptions about typical Facebook usage practices of emerged user types.
When we examine social media, we are essentially treating mediated publics. In comparison to classical unmediated publics and public places (parks, streets, cafes), social media can be distinguished by four main aspects: persistence of information, searchability, replicability and invisible audiences (boyd, 2007). Although the audience is always imagined in every communicative act , people engaged in social media environments lack information about their audience and thus “it is often difficult to determine how to behave, let alone to make adjustments based on assessing reactions” . Research on social media — e.g., SNS (Siibak, 2009a; 2009b; boyd, 2006) dating sites (Ellison, et al., 2006; Whitty, 2008), blogs (Hodkinson and Lincoln, 2008; Stefanone and Jang, 2007) and micro–blogging sites (Marwick and boyd, 2010) — suggests that users are very attentive to audience and often “take cues from the social environment to imagine the community” . Empirical studies suggest that peers and close friends are most often viewed upon as sources for reference, their preferences and practices are noted when selecting the “markers of cool” (Liu, 2007) worthy to be put in one’s profile. Therefore, rather than constructing an imagined audience of the site as a whole, users are often focused on addressing the members of their own friends’ lists in their posts. In other words, users end up creating an “ideal audience”, (Marwick and boyd, 2010) as viewers and readers of their profiles.
Still, social media environments host a great variety of individuals with different socio–demographic backgrounds, lifestyles, and aims. Hence, the user of SNS, like Facebook for example, needs to “contend with groups of people they do not normally bring together, such as acquaintances, friends, co-workers and family”  not to mention total strangers. Furthermore, besides “context collapse” , the users of Facebook and other platforms need to accept the omnopticon of social media, i.e., the state of continuous mutual surveillance where every user acts both as agent and subject (Linaa Jensen, 2010). The latter phenomena, also known as participatory surveillance (Albrechtslund, 2008), refers to the fact that users of social media have no understanding of who might be looking at their profiles and what might be the viewers’ perception about the norms existing on a particular site. In other words, in the Internet age, everyone is kind of like a celebrity, constantly monitored, and therefore everyone should take into account that public opinion will form about different aspects of their lives (Rosen, 2004).
Having a profile on a SNS has become “integral means of managing one’s identity, lifestyle and social relations”  among young individuals. Recent findings from the EU Kids Online Survey, carried out in 25 EU countries, indicate that 77 percent of 13–16–year–olds in Europe have a profile on a SNS, and 57 percent of 9–16–year–olds use Facebook as their only (or most used) SNS . In other words, Facebook is the most popular SNS used by the young in Europe — it was the most popular SNS in 17 of the 25 countries and second most popular SNS in another five countries .
SNS are used in order to keep in touch with their friends and acquaintances (Livingstone and Haddon, 2009; boyd, 2008; Subrahmanyam, et al., 2008). Hence the number of contacts in SNS dramatically exceeds the number of contacts in traditional social networks. For example, compared to 10–20 people with whom individuals maintain close relationships through traditional social networks (Parks, 2007), the mean number of friends among university student users of Facebook has been reported to be around 246 (Walther, et al., 2008) or even 272 (Vanden Boogart, 2006). Considering that “over one–third of 13–16–year–olds and nearly one–sixth of 9–12–year–old SNS users have 100+ contacts” and around a quarter of these youth have contacts in SNS with whom they have no connection to in their off–line lives , SNS have really become vital virtual socializing arenas for the young.
Although recent studies (boyd and Hargittai, 2010) suggest that young people are starting to manage their privacy settings on SNS more frequently, the neglect of such settings among the young has still been quite widespread (Acquisti and Gross, 2006; Govani and Pashley, 2005; Gross and Acquisti, 2005). However, even when making use of privacy settings and restricting the visibility of profiles to desired audiences, Tufecki  suggests that “the actual audience of concern for students is peers they would like to avoid and direct authority figures, parents, coaches and professors in the present.” In other words, young people are predominantly more concerned about certain user types, the typical “nightmare reader” , from viewing their posts and profiles rather than complete strangers.
The sample of our study consisted of 16–20–year–old high school students (N=15). Most of the participants attended tenth grade (N=11), some of the participants were from the twelfth grade (N=4). Altogether, six girls and nine boys participated in the study.
All of the interviewees have been regular computer and Internet users for approximately 7–13 years. All the participants in this study had previous experiences with using different SNS (e.g., Orkut, MySpace), however, their Facebook usage experience varied from three months to three years. On average the students in our sample had been using Facebook approximately for a year and two months (1.18 years).
This homogenous sample, based on demographic and age specific characteristics, was intentionally selected for this study in order to avoid social pressure and to allow interaction to occur in as “natural” environment as possible (Krueger, 1988).
This study is based on a convenience sample; students were recruited by the first author of this paper, a media studies teacher in the students’ high school. Participation in focus group interviews was voluntary, but all the participating students received one additional grade in media studies for taking part in discussions.
Data collection: Focus group interviews and students’ sketches
The qualitative method used for this study was structured focus group interview. The focus group method was selected as it gives the researcher an opportunity to observe how students gave meaning to different social experiences (Denzin and Lincoln, 1998). In this study, it was hoped that the group dynamics would not only help to stimulate spontaneity and interaction amongst the interviewees but also that the participants would encourage each other to collaborate more openly and hence help gain access to more individual approaches to the subject.
Two focus group interviews took place in the first week of June 2010 and were conducted in school so as to help students settle into discussions more rapidly. Focus group participants were informed about the purpose and approximate duration of the exercise. During the introductory phase, students were reminded that there were no correct or incorrect answers to the interviewers’ questions and that the participants need to be tolerant of each other’s opinions.
In the first phase of the focus groups, the participants were asked more general questions about their overall Internet usage practices and preferences. Then the discussion moved to social media, namely their use of Facebook. For example, the students were asked to describe their friend’s lists and to classify these individuals according to the frequency of their user practices.
While preparing questions for the focus group, different types of exercises were kept in mind. In the next phase of the study, the participants were asked to draw sketches of user types that were considered to be most prominent on Facebook. The aim of deploying creative research methods (Gauntlett, 2007) was to give the students an opportunity to address issues discussed in the previous phase from a different perspective and to allow them to express their thoughts creatively.
White A4 papers and pencils were provided to all of the participants and sketches of prevalent user types were drawn in pairs. As every pair also needed to describe and comment upon their sketches to all of the other participants, a common understanding about the most typical users of Facebook needed to be reached before explaining the work in public. All in all, 39 different sketches were drawn.
In the final phase of the focus group the discussion dealt with problems of netiquette, especially related to sharing private information online. This paper will only deal with the two first aspects discussed in the focus groups.
Interviews from the discussions were recorded on digital voice recorders and transcribed by the first author of this paper using Adobe Audition.
Data analysis: Analysis of interviews
Different horizontal methods were used for analyzing interviews in order to identify recurring themes. Substantive analysis began with the wider selection and grouping of ideas through repeated text analysis. Elements from the cross case analysis, qualitative text analysis and grounded theory (Glaser and Strauss, 1967) were applied.
The transcript was first encoded by hand and with text processing programs. Each new case (part of focus group’s text) was compared to previously coded ones, trying to find a common ground where possible, and if necessary, create a new topic category. Keyword–based text editing followed, where recurring sub–themes and relationships between topics emerged. Subsequent modifications generated a consistent and logical structure.
Sketches were analyzed by combining visual socio–semiotical methods and discourse analysis techniques. The theory of ‘reading images’, introduced by Kress and van Leeuwen (1996) and developed further by Bell (2001), was used for analyzing the sketches. Kress and van Leeuwen’s approach was developed from the social semiotics tradition and is based on the hypothesis that behind every sign or message one may find the interests, motivation and ideology of the creator (Hodge and Kress, 1988). This presumes that each image or layout is culturally coded so that the author of the message selects the semiotic code which also carries communicative potential. According to Kress and van Leeuwen (1996), meaning is encoded in the structures of images: the form of representation; the presentation of people, objects and landscape; the composition; and, its modality and medium. Structures give meaning to patterns of interaction, which are used for interpreting relations between creators of images and viewers . This method allows us to interpret how individuals communicate and create meaning through the positioning of visual elements.
Furthermore, so as not to impose our own, adult interpretations and meanings we asked each pair to comment upon and describe the drawings they had made to all the others (see Gauntlett, 2007). Hence, in the group discussions that followed, all of the participants became co–creators of knowledge and interpreters of drawings.
Elements from discourse analysis techniques were incorporated to analyze words and phrases used by students to express their attitude towards the Facebook user types they had drawn as well as to their reactions to the work of others. Analysis also concentrated on issues and topics that were avoided in verbal descriptions of sketches.
It is also important to note that we are fully aware of arguments against image–based research as such, especially the perceived lack of “trustworthiness” of such data (Prosser, 1998). Hence, we decided to use of theories and methods of various authors as we agree with Prosser and Schratz (2006) who argued that the interpretation of images can only be based on a solid theoretical framework. Furthermore, scholars working on the field of visual analysis have claimed that the relative trustworthiness of image–based research is “best achieved via multiple images in conjunction with words” . The latter is also a reason why our analysis of the sketches is built upon a combination of image analysis as well as analysis of data derived from the interpretations the young themselves gave to their drawings.
Students’ overall Facebook usage practices
The focus group interviews indicate that young people are very active users of social media, Facebook in particular. The latter is also either the first or among the first Web pages, that young users in our sample log onto every day. Furthermore, almost all of our respondents claimed to be either constantly logged onto Facebook or logging onto the site several times in a day.
One of the main reasons for making use of Facebook so actively was the need to stay in contact with friends. All students claimed to have more than 100 friends in their contact lists, the minimum number being 144 and the maximum 468. Although the participants stated that they know the majority of their Facebook friends in an off–line context, the students also confessed having “friended” contacts whom they had had no previous contact in the off–line world, i.e., contacts that were total strangers to them. Furthermore, the respondents admitted keeping in touch and communicating actively with less than half of the members of their friends’ list. The remaining contacts, however, were classified as simply numerical indicators with whom the participants did not have any interaction.
As knowledge of privacy settings on Facebook as well as interest in using them was very scarce among our respondents, the majority of these so–called “forgotten contacts” were able to view posts and profile updates of the participants. By doing so, the imagined audience of these profiles was automatically given not only an opportunity to stay informed about the lives of the participants but also to develop opinions about their personalities and tastes based on their profiles. Our following analysis of teen sketches provides a good overview of the perceptions that the participants formed about the users of Facebook.
An analysis of students’ sketches and verbal explanations of their drawings led to the creation of six dominant types, and some sub–types, of users that the participants noted as active on Facebook. We will give a short description of user types that the participants had perceived to be most dominant on Facebook. We will start with a description of the user types that the participants believed that they had nothing in common, and end with the description of a user type the respondents identified with the most.
Most of the students participating in our study depicted in their sketches a user type that we have classified here as Eager Beaver (also referred to as a Wannabe, a Freak, The Entertainer, I–Add–Everyone–As–Friends or — very offensively — The Happy Faggot, by the students).
Our respondents described those belonging to the Eager Beaver user type as having a very communicative nature — they are always commenting other people’s postings, pushing the “like” button and adding new contacts to their friends list. Furthermore, the students perceived that users belonging to the Eager Beaver type always had a huge number of contacts in their friends’ lists. Such users were foremost seen to be oriented towards collecting social capital and fame among the online community which is why the youth believed the friends’ lists of Eager Beaver’s to contain numerous contacts with whom they had no previous contacts in their off–line lives.
M6: they [the members of this user type] want to get many friends
M2: new acquaintances
M2: some sort of a competition, who obtains more friends during a certain time span
M1: yes, and if there are many friends, then it makes one feel proud
This fascination about “collecting friends” — for members of the Eager Beaver user type were said to share according to the students — was also expressed in sketches. The typical representation of the Eager Beaver user type was depicted in the drawings with one’s hands spread almost as they were to grab someone into a hug, or throw in the air with excitement (see Figure 1).
Figure 1: An example of a student sketch illustrating the Eager Beaver user type.
In addition to being enthusiastic about adding new contacts, students considered this particular user type to be especially eager to enjoy a variety of opportunities offered by the service provider — taking tests and playing various games available on Facebook (such as MafiaWars and Farmville), making plans and organizing events to occur off–line as well as expressing one’s thoughts and ideas in the news feed. However, using Facebook very actively, continually posting and commenting, was considered lame and superficial by the students. Harsh criticism of this kind was expressed mainly because the Eager Beaver was thought to be motivated by a need to please everyone, at any cost.
M3: like a weirdo, writes some sick comments. Wants to be great friends with everybody, in one’s mind, but really is not
F1: yeah, let’s say, for example, that you have seen the person once in your life, right? And then they, like, just comment every single picture of you, like “wow, you are so cool”
The students also expressed their superiority towards the above–mentioned commenting style on their sketches where Eager Beavers were always drawn without a mouth as to indicate that the members of the described user type do not really have much to say.
Sub–type: The Geek
Students’ descriptions about the users belonging to the Eager Beaver type revealed a sub–type that the youth referred to as the Geek. Similar to the users belonging to the Eager Beaver user type, Geeks were also considered to be very active users of Facebook. However, in comparison to Eager Beavers who use Facebook mainly for communicative reasons, this sub–type was motivated by a need to demonstrate their high IQ and general knowledge on their profile. Hence, users belonging to the Geek sub–type are perceived to be taking different tests and playing online games on Facebook, rather than communicating with other users, as they are thought not to have many friends.
F3: [the Geeks] are those who just pound away on the computer all day long
F3: he’s like, he is just watching, doesn’t do anything there
M6: he has no friends
Stereotypical beliefs about geeks were also manifested on sketches where the Geek was always depicted with a large head and glasses. In one case, a computer display was included on the drawing with the Geek facing the screen; fingers typing on the keyboard (see Figure 2).
Figure 2: An example of a student sketch representing the sub–type of the Eager Beaver user type, the Geek.
The second most mentioned user type on Facebook was the Show–Off, also labeled as the Poser, Megababe, A Chick and A Pretty Boy by students. Similar to members of the Eager Beaver type, users belonging to this category were also seen as active communicators on the site. The students described the Facebook “wall” of these users as always full of comments, various test results and references to having pressed the “like button”. However, according to the students, the biggest difference between these two very active user types is reflected in their attitude towards uploading photos. The latter activity was perceived to be more popular among the members of the Show–Off type who were perceived to take loads of photos each day to upload on Facebook.
M6: this is a user type who takes pictures of themselves
M5: they go home and constantly photograph themselves and upload at least three new pictures daily
M5: yeah, at least ten
M7: all the time
M6: mostly the pictures are taken in front of a mirror
The supposedly favorite activity of the user type was also depicted in students’ sketches. For instance, one sketch depicted a female user taking her own picture via a mirror reflection (see Figure 3). In fact, the Show–Off was prevailingly depicted as a female, always smiling invitingly in the sketches. Furthermore, in two instances the physical appearance of the user — with large breasts, long high–heeled legs and a sexy mini skirt — were emphasized in the sketches.
Figure 3: An example of a student sketch representing the Show–Off user type. The sketch is labeled as “Poser”.
Sub–type: Via iPhone Dude
Nevertheless, active image taking and uploading was not only considered to be “a female thing”. Students noted similar posting tendencies in the profiles of men. In fact, students’ descriptions allowed us to distinguish between gender–specific user practices among members of the Show–Off user type, leading to the emergence of a sub–type — via iPhone Dude.
According to students, via iPhone Dude users were largely male users of Facebook, usually those using supposedly “the right kind of technology,” such as the iPhone. Owning an iPhone not only allows members of this user type to upload images on the spot but also to comment and write posts about trivial activities. This behavior was condemned and ridiculed by the participants.
M4: But you know, the iPhone–people are definitely a target group, they ... it’s like some iPhone sickness, everyone who has it, go around and photograph every thing, every action.
M7: iPhone Dudes write stuff that’s in the lines of “took a dump just now” or “just had a meal at grandma’s and I’m full now”
In most of the cases, this sub–type was drawn as a male or unisex figure, holding a smart phone (see Figure 4). On one drawing, the user was depicted as the iPhone with eyes and a nose; however the mouth of the user was again unconsciously or intentionally excluded from the drawing.
Figure 4: An example of a student sketch representing the male sub–type of the Show–Off user type, via iPhone Dude.
The Businessman was a third user type described by students, also labeled as Company PR.
Participants considered Facebook users belonging to this user type as those adults using Facebook for professional and work–related purposes, usually in order to promote a specific company. Thus, in addition to individual users, companies and institutions were also included under this user type, such as a pub as a Facebook user, not as a group or page. It should also be noted that at first politicians and teachers were also enlisted as members of this user type. However, as discussion progressed, the participants decided against it. Our respondents explained their line of reasoning by saying that teachers do not use Facebook for advertising but rather “to keep an eye on their students”.
Sketches of the Businessman always depicted a user in a suit, or wearing creased pants, a hat, a bow tie, with a diplomat suitcase (see Figure 5). The latter is one of the most important keywords used by the respondents in their descriptions about this user type.
M5: they put up pictures of themselves that are like: “Here I am with my suitcase, trading”
Figure 5: An example of a student sketch representing the Businessman user type.
Another user type described with very strong negative connotations was the Perv, also called as the Nerd–Perv, Hairy Foreigner or Eastern Dude.
Members of this user type were considered to use SNS primarily for browsing profiles and images of children but also to contact Estonian women. Hence, the Perv was usually seen as an older male who pretended to be much younger than their real age. Furthermore, users belonging to the Perv user type were often perceived to be foreigners, mainly originating from Turkey, Brazil or the Middle East.
Stereotypical assumptions about users were emphasized on the sketches. The typical sketches of the Perv user type depicted a man with a serious face, long beard and moustache, wearing a tunic and turban (see Figure 6).
Figure 6: An example of a student sketch representing the Perv user type. The sketch is labeled as the Eastern Dude.
Due to the foreign background of the user type, the characteristic communicative style of this user was often regarded as intrusive and aggressive by participants.
M8: “Some Ahmeds or some things try to add you as a friend”
F3: “all those negroes add themselves right away and South Americans immediately to the friend list”.
Although the students agreed that Estonians could be found amongst members of the Perv user type, the communication style of foreign members of the user type were referred to as harassment, in contrast to the Estonians who were perceived as “just smooth talking”. If the former was considered inexcusable, the latter behavior was often justified and forgiven.
Moderator: okay, but what is the difference? Let’s say an Estonian and a Turk are using the exact same words?
M9: Yes, but it’s in another language after all, a Turk will come like:
“Hi, how are you” and then ...
F5: “Do you have a cam?”
Moderator: yeah, but is it normal when Jüri [traditional Estonian male name] approaches and says in Estonian “Hey, you've got a webcam?”
M9: has never happened ...
F5: Yes, it is normal
M9: no, maybe it seems to be more normal
Moderator: yes, the home language ...
F5: but then again, like ... you can chat to an Estonian, get to know them, but with a Turk — immediate block. And a reaction like (pulls sharply away).
It could be hypothesized that such a sharp distinction between communication styles were made because Estonian youth often use the Internet to communicate with the opposite sex, thus such conduct is justified and familiar. In the case of foreign users of Facebook, however, such dominating and abrupt intrusions are perceived as possible threats to privacy and one’s well–being.
Another negative user type, The Meanie, consists of two sub–types — The Hater and The Oldster — which emerged in students’ descriptions.
Both of these sub–types had several common characteristics. First of all, mean and malevolent attitude were said to be common in these user types. For instance, the Hater was described as those Facebook users who “hate your every move, attack and criticize without a reason”.
M3: criticizes everything all the time
M4: for example, when the iPhone Dude uploads something new, then the Hater is there, like, instantly (hits his hand sharply against the table), this second, saying something like “you goddamn asshole, what the F!”
Similar opinions were used to describe users belonging to the Oldster sub–type, also often perceived as mean.
Due to these characteristics, both of these sub–types were depicted with mean–looking faces in sketches. In drawings of the Haters, angry facial expressions were emphasized — wrinkled brows, mouth half open so as to constantly say something mean (see Figure 7). Similar emotions were depicted in sketches of Oldsters. For instance, in one drawing, a mean–looking hunched old lady was depicted threateningly swinging a walking stick (see Figure 8).
Figure 7: An example of a student sketch representing the Hater, a sub–type of the Meanie user type.
Figure 8: An example of a student sketch representing the Oldster, a sub–type of the Meanie user type.
Regardless of the mean–looking sketches, such malevolent attitude was thought to occur rarely on SNS, as politeness and flattery were said to be the prevalent attitudes in social media, according to the participants.
The biggest difference between the two sub–types of the Meanie occurred in the perceived age of the users belonging to each of these user types. At first, the students presumed that only young people (up to 25 years old) were users of Facebook, the participants changed the average age of the Facbook users to 30–40 years old, as discussions progressed. The Oldsters, however, represented users considered to be “extra old” according to participants, approximately 70–80 years old. Oldsters were believed to have joined Facebook to keep in touch with grandchildren. In turn, grandchildren were perceived as a link between Oldsters and the rest of the Facebook community.
M6: An extra–old one added me yesterday, at least from what I could tell by the photo. Hah, weeel ... I really didn’t know who that could be.
Moderator: How old is “extra–old”?
M6: about 70 or 80
F4: those kinds of people know you? And are on Facebook?
M6: I don’t know, maybe through their son’s grandchildren and stuff
The Habitual User
Our respondents gave most positive assessments to the user type with whom the majority of the students in our sample identified with — the Habitual User, also labeled as the Communicator, The Chiller, The Cool Guy, by the students.
Although Habitual Users were characterized by quite active Facebook usage, they were perceived not to stand out amongst other Facebook users. Their practices were viewed as most normal from the whole imagined audience of Facebook. Participants believed that Habitual Users use Facebook only to communicate with their “real” off–line friends, and do not release much personal information on their profiles. Furthermore, according to the students, Habitual Users do not hang around on Facebook constantly, but log on only from time to time. In comparison to the members of the Eager Beaver and Show Off user types who were mocked for their far too active Facebook usage, Habitual Users appeared to have a life outside the Internet.
M4: playing games, and ...
M5: looks around, likes a couple of things and ...
M2: does not really stand out over there
F1: yes, just is, but isn’t really on the background ... and uses Facebook usually like, how to say, from time to time. Not sitting there to fight off boredom
In order to indicate that both male and female users could be found amongst members of the Habitual User type, a smiling androgynous person was often depicted on student sketches (see Figure 9). Sometimes, the sketches represented inanimate objects that had a positive connotation for the participants, e.g., flowers and hearts, but also a cocktail glass with a straw and lemon slice inside.
Figure 9: An example of a student sketch representing the Habitual User type.
The findings of our study suggest that although the participants tend to write their posts and updates for their notions of an “ideal audience” (Marwick and boyd, 2010), they still have quite a good understanding of the variety and complexity of that imagined audience in Facebook. Focus group discussions indicated that students noted six main user types and several sub–types in Facebook.
The analysis of students’ descriptions and sketches of the main Facebook user types suggests that, in the majority of cases, the participants did not identify with these types. This conclusion was most evident in the cases of the two most negative user types — the Perv and the Meanie — both of which were seen as mean–spirited, evil and even possibly harmful to others. Our analysis indicates that the students construct a sense of “otherness” (Kristeva, 1991) on the sketches and verbal descriptions of these two user types. In case of the Perv, this otherness is constructed through cultural background, age, sex, psyche and other aspects that all “converge into a state of foreignness” . In case of the Meanie and especially its sub–type the Oldster, the otherness and “strangeness”  of this user type is created by age. It appears that various social media environments, including Facebook, are still seen as territories for the young with older users greeted with sarcasm and rejection. In other words, our respondents hold onto the impression that only young people are true digital natives (Prensky, 2001); the so–called digital immigrants from older generations are not entirely welcome.
Although the practices of the Meanie and the Perv were thought to endanger users on Facebook, our respondents did not themselves feel threatened or harmed by the otherness of these two user types. Rather, their otherness was seen as possible source of threat to “others”, usually younger users of Facebook. Although it is understandable that teenagers do not want to describe their own fears and mistakes in a group discussion — and by doing so compromise their image in the eyes of their peers — the user types were used to emphasize the vulnerability and ignorance of “other” users of Facebook — but not the participants. Phrases like “I have one friend” or “everybody knows” were used to highlight online privacy errors that some made when meeting users like the Meanie or the Perv. This attitude on the part of the participants could be regarded as pure ignorance that might be explained by the relatively young age and feeling of being invincible. On the other hand, it also serves as an example of the third person effect (Davison, 1983), where individuals think that various factors have a greater impact on others than themselves.
Another explanation why our respondents did not feel personally threatened by these negative user types could be explained by an illusion of anonymity (boyd, 2008). In other words, the participants seemed to anonymously share the perception that “no one knows me, no one cares, and no one is focusing on me” (Abril, 2007). The findings of a recent study by EU Kids Online study, however, suggest that young people are quite attracted to socializing with total strangers in online settings; 54 percent of those surveyed noted that they were communicating with someone online with whom they had never met face–to–face (Livingstone, et al., 2011). Our respondents had perceived that usually a stranger is the initiator. with a request to be a “friend”. As soon as this request is accepted, a given stranger’s existence in a list is quickly forgotten. Hence when a young person sends a message, comments on posts or uploads photos, this invisible and forgotten audience — of strangers — is usually larger than imagined (Tufekci, 2008).
The analysis of the six main user types indicates that there are various reasons for adding strangers to a friends’ list. For example, the descriptions of users belonging to the Eager Beaver user type confirm the findings of Donath and boyd (2004), Acquisti and Gross (2006), and Tong, et al. (2008), or simply “too many apparent friendship connections becomes too much of a good thing” . Students in our study also spoke disapprovingly and mockingly of the users “who gratuitously aggregated superficial friends” , i.e., of users who, in the context of other SNS, have been referred to as “Friendster whores” (Donath and boyd, 2004). Hence, although a large number of friends in a friends’ list can be considered by some as a “marker of status” , it is often thought that the individuals with implausible number of friends “may not have accumulated them as a result of extraversion, but rather by some other characteristic” . For instance, in the case of members belonging to the Eager Beaver user type, far too excessive Facebook usage and a need to please everyone was considered as a negative characteristic.
On the whole, our respondents were critical of being too active on SNS, especially on Facebook. The usage practices of the most active user types like Eager Beaver (as well as its sub–type the Geek) and the Show–off (and its sub–type via iPhone Dude) were seen as distasteful and regarded with contempt. Both user types were famous for posting almost unceasingly on their Facebook wall. Furthermore, in the majority of cases, their news focused either on a daily routine or intimate confessions, both seen as a thirst for attention and hence distasteful.
The Businessman, however, did not stir any ethical or moral debate among the participants. Even though our respondents spoke mockingly of marketing and public relations activities, their overall practices were not condemned by the students. This neutral stance could be explained by the fact that the young might have perceived the practices of the Businessman as a win–win situation, with the Businessman securing publicity and an imagined audience securing deals, discounts and awards by taking part in different consumer games.
The Habitual User was the only user type that the students seemed neutral and even positive. These positive connotations indicated that the Habitual user was considered as a representation of the ideal audience on Facebook (Marwick and boyd, 2010). Therefore, it could be hypothesized that rather than keeping in mind all the other possible user types engaged in Facebook, the participants mainly focused on Habitual Users as their ideal audience. By doing so, however, the participants forgot that Facebook “flattens multiple audiences into one” . These results point at the need for further research to study privacy practices on Facebook and other social media environments where the audience is fragmented.
About the authors
Maria Murumaa MA, is a Ph.D. student in the Institute of Journalism and Communication at the University of Tartu. Her Master’s thesis explored the characteristics of teens’ messages on Facebook and analysed the role of the audience in decoding these messages. Her Ph.D. dissertation is focusing on the transformation of privacy on SNS, based on the perspectives of youngsters.
Andra Siibak, Ph.D., is a Senior Research Fellow in media studies at the Institute of Journalism and Communication at the University of Tartu, Estonia. Her present research interests include audience fragmentation in new media environments, perceptions and constructions of privacy on SNS, and generations and mediation of inter–generational new media use. Her articles have appeared in various journals including the Journal of Computer–Mediated Communication, Young, Cyberpsychology, Journal of Children and Media.
E–mail: andra [dot] siibak [at] ut [dot] ee
The preparation of this article was supported by the research grant no. 8527 financed by Estonian Science Foundation. Andra Siibak is also thankful for the support of the target–financed project SF0180017s07.
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Received 1 August 2011; revised 18 August 2011; accepted 9 January 2012.
Copyright © 2012, First Monday.
Copyright © 2012, Maria Murumaa and Andra Siibak.
The imagined audience on Facebook: Analysis of Estonian teen sketches about typical Facebook users
by Maria Murumaa and Andra Siibak
First Monday, Volume 17, Number 2 - 6 February 2012
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