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Managing Data on the Social Network

I’m currently analyzing my dissertation data, investigating literate activity on social networking sites, and I’ve learned a great deal from my research participants that has been completely unexpected. I followed seven graduate and undergraduate students over the course of a year, and they use social networking sites ALL of the time.  (Of course, this is why I chose these participants…)  One finding that I didn’t expect was the way that these individuals using social networking sites as a way to record aspects of their lives for themselves. Of course they used these sites to connect with others as well, but a good deal of the activities that they completed on the sites were for themselves alone.

An undergraduate mathematics major makes sure that every song he listens to is “scrobbled” (i.e., recorded) in his last.fm site, which he checks frequently to gain a picture of his evolving profile based on his changing musical preferences. He’s now played over 24,750 tracks since November, 2009, and he’s played 6191 minutes of music by his “Top Artist” on the site.  Another research participant belongs to a social network for knitters called Ravelry. In a section on the site called your “stash,” she lists every skein of yarn she currently owns, and she browses through the site to find her next inspiration instead of rummaging through her closet. Other participants share books online using Goodreads, and many of my participants used an app on facebook at the end of the year to reflect on their top status updates of 2010. I learned that I often post facebook updates about new recipes I try.

This points to a larger trend discussed by Gary Wolf in the New York Times Magazine in an article that appeared this past spring called, “A Data-Driven Life,” where he details the countless ways that individuals have taken account of the mundane aspects of daily life. Checking into a location using Foursquare or recording steps using a pedometer are rather common examples. Recording your own REM cycles, not so common… So why do we do these kinds of things?  Why are we compelled to record and count small activities we participate in? Do we do this for others, or for ourselves? The interesting thing about most of these archival strategies is that rather than keeping track of some of our daily habits and/or collections privately, we’re doing this through the same tools we use to connect to others online.  As I’m trying to integrate this observation with my dissertation data, I’m wondering what to call these practices, (personal archiving practices, maybe?) and whether they have been studied in depth by other scholars.  There are two questions I’m trying to work through for my dissertation: What kind of view of one’s identity do we get from these data snapshots? How are these activities part of one's digital literacy practices?

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