How theories of ‘the social’ and of ‘constructed identities’ combine to create intimate publics within social media sites

We’re all social…

To be ‘social’ is inherent to all living things. Fish swim in schools, ants make up colonies, and lions rule in prides. From an evolutionary perspective, this sociability could be viewed as being necessary for survival. What complicates this is the ingrained, enforced and repeated social hierarchies in all groups of living things. All species seem to be able to interpret the unwritten rules of their groups, knowing their own place in the social order. A lack of socialisation has been proven to be both physically and cognitively detrimental, regardless of species. When it comes to being social, then, humans are just like any other animal. We are all driven by interactions and relationships, constantly engaging and being driven by all things ‘social’.

What is ‘the social’?

The concept of the ‘social’ is one that is constantly in flux. Mostly, it seems to be a term that evades definition — people know what it means (it is, of course, intrinsic) but would struggle to put it in a  sentence. Thankfully, we have French philosopher and cultural theorist Bruno Latour for that. In his book Reassembling the Social (2005), Latour discuses how talking about ‘the social’ as an object, rather than as an adjective, dismantles the entire definition of the term. By thinking of this theory as something that is definable and containable, we assume that ‘social-ness’ has characteristics in and of itself. Instead, Latour believes that ‘the social’ is a way of assembling a group of things, and is therefore an indefinable process that is forever in action in human (and animal) life.

Bruno Latour: Thinker, Frenchman, Cool-Glasses-Wearer

This is where Social Network Sites (SNS) come into play. As the the ‘interface between people and  social media’ (Hinton & Hjorth, 2013, p. 32), SNS provide a mechanism through which the process of ‘the social’ can operate. Sites such as Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and many more facilitate human interactions, and provide us with the opportunity to create our own social identities. This idea is mimicked by boyd and Ellison (2007), who note that SNS ‘allow individuals to construct a public or semi-public profile’ (in Hinton & Hjorth, 2013, p. 34). Here, particular emphasis should be placed on the word ‘construct’. While we are all in the constant process of creating and recreating our personal identities over our lifetimes, SNS provide us with the opportunity to streamline this construction process by providing far more flexibility and transience in the identities we choose to adopt.

Creating personal identities on Social Network Sites 

‘People build their worlds and identities out of… readily available objects by using different tactics: bricolage, assembly, customization, … and remix.’ (Manovich, 2009)

Like being social, having and creating an identity is intrinsic. As noted by Manovich (above), all individuals participate in the active construction process of identity, achieving their individuality by merging bits and pieces from the fashion they like, the culture the identity with, and the media they consume. While many believe that someone’s identity contains a level of predetermination, Thorsten Veblen believed that, through consumption, people are able to fine-tune the identity they wish to have and, with the help of social media, completely change their identity by consuming different things. Veblen coined this theory as ‘conspicuous consumption’. First written about in 1899, Veblen originally intended this theory to describe how wealthy, upper class people consume certain objects (as well as gift these objects to the people around them) as evidence of their physical wealth, aligning consumption with status. Following this idea, our identity seems to be something that is cosmetic, rather than something that is ingrained. Translating this theory into modern day life is not difficult. What changes, however, is the idea of status – where in 1899 status was firmly connected to class, status today extends beyond this, and incorporates someone’s social capital, an asset that is achieved through consumption. Within the social, then, ‘people’s identities and imaginations are now even more firmly colonized by commercial media’ (Manovich, 2009, p. 321).

We consume things to create our own identities.

Where Veblen’s work differentiates from the identities created through SNS, however, is the speed and ease at which we can now alter or completely redesign ourselves. While the process of conspicuous consumption of physical objects is still relevant, the consumption of virtual objects diversifies how a person is able to create an identity. Many ‘find social media sites provide a place they can call home – their personal, although not private, digital space to express themselves’ (Seo, Houston, Knight, Kennedy, & Inglish, 2013). What these sites also provide is an arena in which an individual can broadcast the things they consume — simply by posting a picture to Instagram, retweeting something from their favourite celebrity on Twitter, or geo-tagging themselves somewhere on Facebook. These actions on SNS create an identity, these actions on SNS change an identity, these actions on SNS challenge an identity — all with the click of a button.

How the social and individual identity combine in ‘intimate publics’

Just like many forms of human interaction, SNS combine theories of the social and of identity creation. In the current social and technological atmosphere, these interactions are becoming increasingly virtual, with everything from colloquial conversations to business deals happening online. Assisted by mobile media, we are all living in a world ‘where being networked to people and information wherever and whenever you need is just assumed.’ (boyd, 2012, p. 71). This shift is often criticised as being alienating and cold. What has been created here, though, is a network of ‘intimate publics’ that have been developed to complement the real-world social communities that exist. Hinton and Hjorth (2013) state that ‘intimate publics’ consist of ‘intimacies that can exist at a social or cultural level’ which ‘can be something that exists between strangers because of the common bond they can share by virtue of the belonging to the same cultural group’ (p. 44).

While SNS can be critiqued for being alienating and devoid of human connection, the intimate publics that are formed within them are definitely not. Within these networks, the theories of ‘the social’ can play out, with Latour’s concept of the process of social-ness reflecting the ways in which interaction is created on these sites. Furthermore, Velben’s ‘conspicuous consumption’ can be mobilised within these intimate publics, with each individual ‘choosing what to share and who to share it with’ (Hinton & Hjorth, 2013, p. 45) equating to the creation and then performance of identity. Community is therefore created within SNS through ‘the performance of personal intimacies and the aggregation and identification of public socio-cultural intimacies’ (Hinton & Hjorth, 2013, p. 45).

‘As a series of cultural practices and artefacts that are both commercial and cultural, SNSs are becoming an integral part of identity, social, and political management.’ (Hinton & Hjorth, 2013, p.32)

Intimate publics in the social media campaign for eight°

Untitled-2.1For my social media campaign, I created the fictional travel magazine ‘eight°’, that aim to publish authentic city guides by sourcing content from locals. By using the hashtag #ShareYourCity, users could submit photos of their favourite spots in their city, thus creating a global library of travel inspiration, tips and conversation. When considering how to make this campaign appealing, I looked to the idea of intimate publics. While those that interact with the SNS run by eight° probably wouldn’t already exist within each others social circles, the platform that this campaign creates to share information would establish an intimate public between users. To complement this, eight° used the social media app Snapchat. Mimicking everyday life where ‘ephemerality is the core of all conversations’ Snapchat creators ‘sought to recreate [this real conversation] in the development of this platform’ (Velez, 2014), and it was this tool for conversation that meant a deeper connection, a truer experience of ‘the social’, and more scope for identity creation could be fostered between users.

By Corinne Parkes



boyd, d. (2012). Participating in the Always-On Lifestyle. In M. Mandiberg, The Social Media Reader (1st ed., pp. 71-76). New York: New York University Press.

Hinton, S. & Hjorth, L. (2013). Social Network Sites. In Understanding Social Media (1st ed., pp. 32-54). London: Sage Publications.

Latour, B. (2005). Reassembling the social. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Manovich, L. (2009). The Practice of Everyday (Media) Life: From Mass Consumption to Mass Cultural Production?. Critical Inquiry, 35(2), 319-331. http://dx.doi.org/10.1086/596645

Seo, H., Houston, J., Knight, L., Kennedy, E., & Inglish, A. (2013). Teens’ social media use and collective action. New Media & Society, 16(6), 883-902. http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/1461444813495162

Veblen, T. (2007). Conspicuous Consumption. In T. Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class (1st ed., pp. 49-70). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Velez, E. (2014). Intimate Publics and Ephemerality, Snapchat: A Case Study. The Second Shift. Retrieved 20 April 2016, from http://www.secondshiftblog.com/2014/09/intimate-publics-and-ephemerality-snapchat-a-case-study/


One thought on “How theories of ‘the social’ and of ‘constructed identities’ combine to create intimate publics within social media sites

  1. Bees make up swarms , ‘being social is inherent’, is probably a very apt way to describe existence of life, society and civilization ‘the way we have known it’. The way you have questioned the hierarchical structure of social hegemony reminds me of Charles Darwin’s theory of ‘Survival of the Fittest’ and it fits in fine. Getting back to the review, I observed that your article has been deeply influenced by the philosophical guidelines of anti-modernism, which interestingly paves the way for the very foundation of ‘intimate publics’. In a way your argument here, is about the transformation that we humans have been putting in a masquerade over our primal cave man instincts. This intrinsic way of identity creation and identifying ourselves to a specific socio, cultural, religious group has been the primary form of our survival for over centuries. Even in the era of social media connection, we are still being driven by the fundamental quench to establish our identity (in a group) as our primal fight for existence and recognition.
    Arguably yours’s is a very well written piece with some seriously intriguing thoughts that lead back to the very ethos of human society. Social media over here is only a medium that augments and propagates the basic social needs for human existence. However, this being a very interesting read, is overtly constructed on the basis of theory and personal reflection. Examples to define this, would have certainly made this article more interesting and fundamentally informative. Another observation that I have made here, is the slight lack of coherence in conjoining your social media campaign with the fundamental philosophy that your article reflects. Though intimate publics is definitely an important aspect of your campaign, it does not answer the ways to achieve it for the campaign.


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