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Instant Identity: Adolescent Girls and the World of Instant Messaging

Author: Shayla Thiel Stern
Publisher: New York: Peter Lang, 2007
Review Published: October 2009

 REVIEW 1: Andrea J. Baker
 AUTHOR RESPONSE: Shayla Thiel Stern

This book is an inside look at chat records of teen-age girls that uses their words to tell us about the online development of adolescent identity. Shayla Thiel Stern delves into aspects of teen communication to illuminate the areas of privacy from parents and issues of sexual behavior and gender roles. She looks at how the U.S. market sells images to girls and how strongly these affect their identities.

Her methodology is excellent in the sense that she has managed to obtain the original instant messages of teen girls. These are not necessarily complete transcripts of all their chat during a specific time period, since she left open which records the girls would include or how much they would send her. To clear the IRB to study people who are not adults is a hurdle many researchers do not bother to do. The added research requirements make studies of minors in the U. S. relatively rare. Stern has met the challenge, to contribute to our knowledge of young women online.

Moreover, she has attained the actual real-time words of the participants, along with email interviews with them to expand on the format and content of the chats. I have found in my own work on online relationships that such records are invaluable in gaining a participant-observer's insight into the emotional underpinnings of the communication content (see Baker, 2007). A shortcoming is the small size of the final sample (n=12) and Stern is upfront in writing about that. The size is balanced by the diversity of the group -- in age, race, and social class. A few of the girls are friends, which gives the analysis the benefit of interchanged remarks and multi-source feedback about chat comments to heighten understanding of chat relationships as well as individual attitudes and behaviors.

Chapter One grounds the study in theory from socialization, gender, and media literature, and characterizes the internet as a site for "identity play." It describes the methodology, including how the author contacted the participants who became part of the research, and provides an introduction to the topics of the book.

Chapter Two shows the reader how teenaged girls develop aspects of their identity through discussing issues from their everyday life experience with friends in chat. It documents how crucial instant messaging is to maintaining ties within the girls' social circle. Instant messaging is used to both increase personal status and to gossip about others, potentially lowering esteem within the group.

Chapter Three details how and why the girls keep chat private from intruding others, mainly parents. They avoid authoritarian gaze upon details of their intimate interactions with peers, also hiding how they write profanity that is missing from their talk offline. The appeal of a space unsupervised by others is great for girls moving from adolescence into adulthood. The one-to-one talk allows them to show different sides of themselves to friends they know from various settings, for example, school vs. church. This area of Stern's research is perhaps of most interest to those who follow online communication patterns. It tells how adolescent girls preserve separate spaces for talking to boys and girls, and even females from different friendship networks.

Chapter Four describes the interesting process of girls defining themselves in relation to boys or young men, detailing how they present themselves as sexual beings. In some cases they present themselves differently to their female friends than to potential boyfriends. They may even break from a passive gender role by initiating suggestions of physical contact with boys. On the other hand, the girls show traditional "mothering," a supportive role, when communicating with boys, not with girls.

Chapter Five brings the commercial marketplace into chat to show how ads may directly affect the girls and possibly influence them to follow traditional norms of femininity. The question here is whether or not the girls have literally bought into the commercial underpinnings of the standardized female role.

Chapter Six concludes the book with ideas about the importance of instant messaging for giving girls a mechanism to think out and build their gender identities in their teen years. The author highlights both the fighting among girls in IM (contained between two girls in particular) and how they "perform gender" (Butler, 1990) in a more conforming feminine manner.

The fascinating intersections between femininity and sexuality, and between passivity and assertiveness in dating are explored through quoting the girls' conversations. What Stern accomplishes is to show the process of identity construction in situ among the girls she studies.

A minor criticism is that although the book is short (131 pages, without notes and references), it has neither a subject nor an author index. That said, Instant Identity provides a first-hand glimpse of the twin pressures for young females to conform to the "nice girl" role and also to seem modern, adventurous, or sexually knowledgeable. This book on how young women use instant messaging to cope with these contradictions makes a worthwhile contribution to both gender research and internet studies.

Butler, J. (1990). Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. London: Routledge.

Baker A. (2007). Expressing emotion in text: Email communication among online couples. In Whitty, M., T., Baker, A. J., and Inman, J. A., (Eds.). Online Matchmaking. Basingstoke: Palgrave McMillan, 97-111.

Andrea J. Baker:
Andrea Baker teaches sociology for Ohio University and researches online relationships (see Double Click, Hampton Press 2005), virtual communities and online communication. Her current project is a study of online rock fans.  <bakera@ohiou.edu>

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