Social Media as Social Transition Machinery

How people use social media sites to separate their identities and networks during times of major life transition

This blog post summarizes a research paper about people’s experiences with life transitions and social media that will be presented at the ACM Conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work and Social Computing 2018 on November 6.

It’s often difficult to know how to present your identity on social media when you’re going through a major life change. Particularly on a site like Facebook, where people’s connections often include friends, family, and co-workers they know in everyday life, deciding how to present and talk about a changing identity is particularly challenging. To understand how people use social media sites during times of life transition, gender transition in particular, I analyzed 240 Tumblr transition blogs (a genre of blog in which people document their gender transition) and 20 interviews with bloggers. I found that people often go to separate social media communities of similar others, away from their existing networks of everyday connections, to do transition work. People presented multiple identities simultaneously on different sites, and kept identities and networks separate. During gender transition, participants in my study used Tumblr for intense identity concentration (such as expressive, therapeutic writing, self-documentation, and identity exploration), and then later used Facebook to disclose their trans identity to their broader network.

Based on these findings I developed a new concept called social transition machinery, which describes the ways that, for people facing life transitions, multiple social media sites remain separate and serve different purposes, yet work together for people facing life transitions. This conception of online identity during times of personal change is very different from previous researchers’ descriptions of identity during life transitions, which generally characterized people in transitional stages as neutral or identity-less. Instead, the social transition machinery lens states that:

1. During life transitions, social media enable people to embody multiple identities simultaneously rather than being neutral.

2. People fragment online sociality between several social media networks, rather than fully removing themselves from their existing networks during life transitions.

3. People use different social media sites as separate social transition machinery that work together to facilitate life transitions.

4. Social transition machinery are a way for those in transition to reconstruct their online identity as a rite of passage.

These points are important to consider when designing social technologies. Instead of a primary social media site that expects an unchanging identity and a lifelong network, people need a series of separate social media sites that can work together during life transitions. Increased connection in online spaces is not always better — context matters. Attempts to connect people across sites, such as “people you may know” prompts, are useful in some contexts, such as if a person wishes to leverage personal connections to grow their professional network on LinkedIn. Yet an attempt to suggest connections to add to one’s Tumblr network based on one’s Facebook network would be deeply problematic, given the intentional separation that participants in this study described. Similarly, using Facebook or Google to log in to other sites across the Internet or mobile apps may inadvertently link sensitive or stigmatized parts of a person’s identity to their Facebook or Google profile and network. Connectivity can be powerful, and has been a revolutionary benefit of the Internet. Yet separation can also be powerful in helping people to make life changes and discuss stigmatized identity facets. Social technology designers should consider the implications of connectivity, and the particular contexts in which technologies are used, when deciding whether and how sites and apps should connect with people’s existing online social networks.


citation: Oliver L. Haimson. Social Media as Social Transition Machinery. Proceedings of the ACM Human Computer Interaction (PACM), Vol. 2, No. CSCW, Article 63 (November 2018), 26 pages.