Date of Award

Summer 8-22-2019

Level of Access

Open-Access Thesis

Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)

Department

Communication

Advisor

Judith Rosenbaum

Second Committee Member

Laura Rickard

Third Committee Member

Holly Schreiber

Abstract

Every day individuals interact with others, create relationships, and shape the way they make sense of who they are. In recent years, these interactions are increasingly taking place through technology; people rely on the Internet in general and social media in particular to interact with others. As a result, the formation and performance of one’s identity takes place in an online environment more frequently. While a great deal is known about how people create and maintain their identities in face to face situations, there is much to still be understood about technologically contextualized interactions, and how those shape an individual’s sense of identity. Social media has become an integral part of people’s lives (DeMers, 2017), as they are seen as a way of creating and maintain our ‘personal brand’ (Kerpen, 2016). A total of 71% of the American population ages 18-24 are active on Instagram as well as 35% of the U.S. adult population, which has risen 7% since 2016, making it the most notable rising social media trend of 2018 (Smith & Anderson, 2018). This master’s thesis aims to add to existent knowledge by elaborating on and exploring existing theories of identity formation through the case study of the #vanlife movement on Instagram. #Vanlife is an increasingly popular ‘way of life’ that is made up of individuals who leave behind a life of stability and responsibilities to travel across the county in a van that has been converted to meet almost all of their living needs (Branman, 2018). The #vanlife movement exists primarily on the social media site Instagram. With the hashtag function of Instagram creating a place for #vanlife members to connect, create a sense of community, and collaboratively make meaning (Marwick & boyd, 2011; Mead, 1934) about the #vanlife movement, this hashtag serves as an ideal case study for the exploration of online identity performance. Identity, as will be explored in great detail below, is a socially situated process. This project assessed the #vanlife movement through a content analysis of #vanlife images, as well as semi-structured interviews with members of the #vanlife movement. Using grounded theory, the data was analyzed to gain insight into how identity was constructed. Results reinforced the performative nature of identity in the context of #vanlife experiences. Additionally, findings underlined the importance of the role of the perceived audience within the process of identity performance. Instagram also introduces unique difficulties in accounting for the perceived audience. Additionally, the #vanlife movement is commonly perceived as subversive in the way members live their lives. This thesis found that there are portions of the #vanlife movement that can be considered subcultural and subversive, but not to the extent that the #vanlife movement is initially perceived to be. The platform of Instagram is central to the understanding of the #vanlife movement and its ability to exist and grow. The affordances provided from Instagram play a central role in the definition of #vanlife, Moreover, the changing nature of these affordances shows the need to continually revisit theories and assumptions made about identity. With each new social media site that is introduced, updated, or altered, the process of identity creation and maintenance changes. As such, this thesis provides a starting point for ongoing research into creating a better understanding of the nature of online identity performance.

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