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Young People's Visual Identities in Social Networking Sites

The last ANZCA 2009 session for today begins with a paper by Fiona Martin (and my laptop seems to be dying, so I'm not sure whether I'll capture all three papers successfully...). She notes the role which identity definition plays especially for teenagers, and is part of a Prix Jeunesse research project investigating how young people are using research tools to represent themselves visually, how this can be understood in terms of diversity, and how this can be related to educational television.

This has been prompted to some extent by TV producers' interest in social media, partly because they are concerned that social media will steal their audiences (even though there is no clear evidence for this). TV producers also need more information on what users are doing in social media in order to develop effective cross-media strategies, especially for educational television.

There is also a wider question about how teenagers are representing themselves for wider consumption - not least in the context of common public concerns and moral panics around social media use (cyberbullying, paedophilia, etc.), which have led in some cases to a wholesale blocking of access rather than the teaching of safe and productive social media literacies. Any connection between increased online participation and increased cultural participation also needs to be researched.

There is little work being done on younger teens (12-15 years of age), partly because of ethical or practical concerns - but they are significant users of social media and are (along with pre-teens) agressively targetted as social media consumers. Also, they are at high school and are being influenced by their older peers, so how do older teens' behaviours transfer to this younger age group? Are these teens also part of the collaborative, remix generation, or does such behaviour kick in only at later stages? How are technical skills transferred to these younger generations? What are their visual skills, what are their meanings and methods, what are their self-imaging practices?

There are various opportunities for visual self-expression across a wide variety of youth oriented social media (from online 3D role-playing games to messaging and social networking). Fiona focusses here especially on profiles in social networking - ubiquitous, and usually the richest identifying factor which can be found for individual users. It stands in for identity, it is what others know us by - and it requires only a minimum of digital imaging knowledge. Fiona's project will conduct a content analysis of such images in Facebook and MySpace. There is a need to use this to establish a baseline for a visual grammar of digital identity.

Following on from this, a smaller sample of younger teens will be examined in the same way, comparing their practices to that baseline. Some of these users will also be invited to create new avatars with the researchers, in order to observe the unconscious decisions they make during that process. How do they use and circulate existing cultural products, how do they engage in cultural production, and how do they express cultural diversity?

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