Social media is a popular platform for individuals to share their lives with others. In the age of digital influencers, users are participating in disclosing details about their lives through video blogs on YouTube, Snapchat, Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. Relationship status is a large part of this online disclosure including making new relationships “Facebook official” and posting engagement proposals. There is research that finds users may make a public disclosure of their relationship once they are confident and committed to the relationship offline (Lane, Peircy and Carr, 2016). However, there is a gap in research that seeks to understand how these relational signs change after a relationship has ended. This article seeks to compare how semiotic theory and decoding of socially constructed realities can be used to find the symbols women use in recreating their identities online after a break-up and it’s perceived effectiveness on the online target audience.
Social media users create signs to symbolize how well they are doing based on the content they post. This content is represented by daily status postings, photos and style of photos taken and engagement with other online users. Relationship status is a large part of this online disclosure including new relationships, proposals and break-ups. Language is a pathway to communicating personal identity to others (Chandler, 2002). The meanings of language varies depending on the context it is given. Social codes such as fashion behavior, body language and verbal language provide meaning to these signs by matching them with other signs (2002). The meanings created also vary among different cultures. Researchers can use content analysis to evaluate themes in the signs used by women who have recently disclosed a break up online by analyzing social posts. This article focuses on the group of women who use social media to illustrate their beauty and a new self image. For this group being studied, signs can look like a change in hair and fashion, style of photos taken and posted and language used for daily statuses and photo captions.
When comparing semiotic theory and the idea of socially constructed realities, there is a bridge that connects how individuals use particular signs to communicate what is real to them. However, the way individuals decode the meaning of these signs must take a dominant role in how these codes should be channeled. A woman who posts a photo after a break-up of her newly shaved head that is photographed like a beauty portrait style with the caption, “ready to take over the world, again” is going to have a different effect than not having a caption, or being captured with a shaved head by someone else, let’s say paparazzi, in the way Britney Spears was caught attacking another paparazzi after her husband left her in 2007 (Marcus, 2017). Women cut their hair as an act of defiance of beauty standards and self-expression. It’s become a known stance of power and gaining control of one’s life disregarding society’s expectations of true feminine beauty of long hair. Yet, still, there seems to be a particular way for a woman who just shaved her hair off after a break-up to illustrate that she is back in control of her life and strong and powerful and is not going down a depressive spiral. This is an example that may work as a topic of research in one culture but may not translate well into another culture. Various considerations for study may include associated religions, regions, sexuality, age, race and ethnicity and use and access to technology.
Researchers found that conflict due to social media arrives in relationships due to two factors: partners become jealous of the other partner who shares excessive photos of themselves online and individuals who take flattering photos of themselve create an idealized persona that diverges from who they are in reality (Halpern, Katz, Carril, 2017). These factors contribute to conflict within relationships and work outside of newly broken relationships as a tactic to make the other partner jealous and a way to create a new self-image for the individual sharing the photos. These women are working to reconstruct their realities and attempting to both reorient themselves into their everyday life (Berger & Luckmann, 1966) after a break up by deleting photos of the two partners together. The digital world is part of the temporal structure of this everyday life and shapes the way they act and the way they reform their identity. The world they portray online becomes real when it is shaped by their thoughts and actions (Berger & Luckmann, 1966). At a point in time, this merging of realities happen. By portraying an online reality of happiness, beauty, and self-care, others may also begin to view this individual as being more healthy than before and more beautiful after the break-up. This works in particular after or during times of lose. There is an expected reality that this individual should be sad and alone. However, this expectation is broken by the photos and status posts.
In terms of understanding how reality is constructed, consider social media influencers. There may be some that you know personally and some that you don’t. What are those two different identities like? The person they portray online and the person they are during face-to-face interaction. Did those two personalities merge at a certain point in time? Are they completely different? Perhaps, these influencers are reconstructing new online identities for themselves as being wealthy, attractive, and in healthy relationships otherwise known as #relationshipgoals. Yet, when you see them on the street, maybe they aren’t as put together as they portray. We might say that social media influencers are being inauthentic or that these people have changed over time due to their popularity on social media. We might agree that all social media influencers are acting out a role and that it is not their job to be their completely authentic self. But when we meet one of them in person, we see this blurred lines effect where they are both who they portray online and something more. So, what is real here? Are these people actually happy? Is this woman who just broke up with her partner actually doing better or is she just trying to act that way in hopes other people will buy into it? Or is it both?
Instead of doing an in depth content analysis of how this individual is trying to code her message. Decoding looks at how well her perceived audience understands and believes in the story she is trying to tell. An interpretive analysis could help us understand if there is a dominant interpretation or a negotiated one. In this case, the questions become, what signs does the audience need to be convinced? What is the temporal structure of everyday life that helps viewers believe that this is not an act but a true reality?
By examining the signs women use after a break- up, there are opportunities for further research in the implications of these signs in attracting new romantic relationships and in building a set of digital practices for women healing from recent break-ups and wanting to redefine themselves. It can also be useful to understand how these methods are harmful to young girls who look to social media during vulnerable times for reassurance and may instead be met with bullying, predators and constructing provocative images of themselves online to compensate for their feelings. Women have been combating negative self-images in mass media for a long time. Social media has shown to be a place where women can thrive as business owners and influencers but there needs to be continuous research on the psychological implications of identity construction in online spaces. As technology becomes more weaved into our everyday life, it becomes a part of our temporal structure of why we behave the way we do, the decisions we make and the people we become for better or for worse.
Berger, P., Luckmann, T. (1966). The Social Construction of Reality. Anchor Books. 13–61.New York.
Chandler, D. (2002) Semiotics: The basics. London; Routledge.
Halpern, D., Katz, J., & Carril, C. (2017). The online ideal persona vs. the jealousy effect: Two explanations of why selfies are associated with lower-quality romantic relationships. Telematics and Informatics, 34(1), 114–123. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tele.2016.04.014
Marcus, S. (2017) 10 years later, Britney Spears’ head-shaving moment is still unforgettable. HuffPost. Retrieved from: https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/britney-spears-shaved-her-head-ten-years-ago_us58a5cff6e4b07602ad525d50
Lane, B., Piercy, C., & Carr, C. (2016). Making it Facebook official: The warranting value of online relationship status disclosures on relational characteristics. Computers in Human Behavior, 56(C), 1–8. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chb.2015.11.016