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Sunday, September 28 • 10:21 - 10:40
"When Friendship Gets Fuzzy: Tie Formation and Role Performance among Teddy Bears Online"

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Background: Homophily, the tendency for people to disproportionately form ties with similar others, is consistently observed in offline social communities (McPherson et al, 2001).  The question remains unsettled whether homophily results from active choices made in an environment of alternatives or from the tendency of people to form ties in groups that are already homogeneous.  Meanwhile, according to the dramaturgical tradition in sociology (Goffman, 1959) we play out our scenes according to assigned or assumed roles emerging from the beliefs, values and conventions of the groups surrounding us.  How are role-play and social distinction accomplished in an online environment where the physical body is no longer visible (Boyd and Heer, 2006; Code and Zaparyniuk, 2009)?

Objective: The paper asks whether homophily and dramaturgical role-play appear online when the constraints and cues of the offline world are removed.  At a distinctive social media website called The Bear Club (thebearclub.co.uk), participants refrain from sharing their human names, ages, demographic characteristics or appearance, instead depicting themselves as teddy bears by name, in blog posts and comments, in photographs, and in choosing “bear buddies.”  Member bears each join one of 8 clans, and each clan is described as having a distinct personality (“shy,” “good listener,” “socialable and funny,” and so on).  However, bears from all clans have equal access to information about the activity of bears in all other clans, erasing structural barriers to interclan-interaction.  In the absence of both offline cues and online barriers, are these clan markers still associated with distinctive modes of expression and tie formation?

Methods: Observation of the complete population of 1,925 user accounts at The Bear Club included collection of content and network data regarding 5,213 selections of “bear buddies” and 17,140 comments on blog posts.  Network analysis and content analysis were used to assess the salience of social distinctions in tie formation and clan identity.

Results: Observation of the clans in action and interaction show adherence to clan cues in some aspects but not others.  For instance, members of 7 out of 8 clans were more likely than chance to form ties with fellow clan members, indicating the emergence of clan as a mark of social distinction.  Content analysis revealed that clan members were disproportionately likely to use vocabulary associated with introductory descriptions of clan character on the website.  However, these overall trends were countered by a number of specific examples to the contrary. Despite descriptions of various clans as more or less inclined to be friendly, these descriptions do not appear to be associated with the number of “bear buddies” chosen or blog comments posted by clan members.

Conclusions: In an online social media environment where offline cues for social distinction are removed and it becomes possible to escape even the limits of the physical body, new cues for interaction applied to new roles are introduced and heeded. Even fictional bears are recognizably human in the social worlds they create. 

Boyd, D., & Heer, J. (2006). Profiles as conversation: Networked identity performance on Friendster. In System Sciences, 2006. HICSS'06. Proceedings of the 39th Annual Hawaii International Conference on (Vol. 3, pp. 59c-59c). IEEE.

Code, J. R., & Zaparyniuk, N. E. (2009). Social identities, group formation, and the analysis of online Communities. Handbook of Research on Social Software and Developing Community Ontologies, 86-101.

Goffman, E. (1959). The presentation of self in everyday life. New York: Doubleday.

McPherson, M., Smith-Lovin, L., & Cook, J. M. (2001). Birds of a feather: Homophily in social networks. Annual review of sociology, 415-444.


avatar for James Cook

James Cook

Assistant Professor of Social Science, University of Maine at Augusta
B.A. Oberlin College, Sociology, 1993 Ph.D. University of Arizona, Sociology, 2000 My research program is centered around the confluence of social media, identity and legislative politics. Particular research projects include tracking the structure of social media networks... Read More →

Sunday September 28, 2014 10:21 - 10:40
TRS 1-003 Ted Rogers School of Management

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