LinkedIn, Facebook and Social Identity Theory

LinkedIn recently went public. Its success makes it, with Twitter and Facebook, one of the three most popular social networking platforms. 

A particular strand of Social Identity Theory, and particularly the work performed on this subject by thinkers such as Marcel Mauss and Max Weber seem to provide an interesting way to analyse the emergence and evolution of these tools. The point of departure of this reflection on what constitutes the ‘self’ could be found in Mauss’ essay “A Category of the Human Mind: the notion of person; the notion of self” (1938). In this essay, Mauss argues that what we call the ‘subject’, or the ‘self’, far from being a stable, essential deus ex machina core of our identity is actually the historical product of the interplay of cultural institutions. 

Mauss therefore introduces a crucial distinction between the notions of individual, person, and subject. In this context, what Mauss calls the individual could be defined as the biological and psychological substrate which forms the ‘raw’ human being on which persons relies. In Mauss’ terms, persons are thus defined as delimited sets of statutes and attributes which provide individuals with means of conducting their relations to others. It is interesting to note that in this framework, throughout history and cultures, different forms of personhood have emerged and died, and that the ratio between persons and individuals have varied. An illustration of this could be found for example in the western legal system with the notion of ‘moral person’, attributed to companies.

According to Mauss, the notion of self is therefore a historically contingent type of person which has evolved in the particular context of western societies. Weber and interprets of his thought such as David Saunders have further illustrated how the emergence of particular types of personhood can be traced back to the historical and cultural context within which they appear. Indeed, Weber put forward the idea that the various ‘life orders’ within which we evolve entail the formation of the different persons we assume (this concept could be seen as close to the Bourdieusian notions of field and habitus). But what does this has to do with social media applications such as LinkedIn or Facebook? 

The first step in joining a social network platform is creating an account. If we imagine that, in effect, creating an account is in a sense starting to ‘represent’ one of our ‘persons’ within the system, how can we analyse the difference between a Facebook account and a LinkedIn one? First, we can start by looking at how these two networks are defined by their creators. While LinkedIn is the “world’s largest professional network”, Facebook describes itself (in its “description” metatag) as “a social utility that connects people with friends and others who work, study and live around them”. Thus, although Facebook seem to be larger-encompassing than LinkedIn, the core meanings of the relationships it represents can be thought of as being on a “personal” or “familiar” level as opposed to professional. The same contrast appears with the type of attributes or metadata that are attached to an account in each system. So what does this all mean?

The various life orders (or fields) in which we evolve make us assume a certain number of personas. We create an avatar for our professional persona on LinkedIn, and one on Facebook for our social (for lack of a better word) persona. Companies create social personas on Facebook to interact with other social agents, and Facebooks apps are created to give new meanings to relationships, which might be relevant to a particular life order. Thus, it appears that concepts first introduced by Mauss and Weber seem to provide us with a tool for understanding the evolution of “social networking” applications as systems allowing users to represent personas and relationships which are meaningful within the framework of a relatively well delimited life order. It also suggests that it might be difficult or even impossible to create a ‘one size fits all’ social networking application, as certain life orders each obey different rules which can sometimes be incompatible: some people say it can be a very bad idea to have your boss as a friend on Facebook!