Constructing Identity Through Social Media Engagement

Nourish Your Reader's Identity - Get a New Customer

Cultural studies’ criticism of social media – and all media forms – is based on the assumption that what we read, watch and listen to has a profound influence on our understanding of the world and ourselves as individuals. Of particular importance for marketers – in the restaurant sector or otherwise – is the fact that Britain is a capitalist society in which spending money and consuming are among the more significant ways we unconsciously seek to develop our own identities.

Consequently, the role of the restaurant marketer is clear – to provide one’s audience with the content through which individuals can identify, affirm and evolve their identities and, eventually, book a table.

 Coffee Lovers adore Kipferl

As straightforward as the marketer’s brief has become, using social media to create meaningful, identity-influencing engagement is far less simple.

A mainstream view maintained by cultural theorists is that meaning is created in the text, or in our case, the social media content. On face value this is an extremely reasonable assumption, given that any decent content will have a message and, provided it is written in a language understood by the reader, this message would likely be understood.

This textualist approach says that we are socialised through the media and are therefore passive – but conscious – victims to its message.

 Consuming Identity Changing Media

To put this in perspective, if a formidable food critic like Jay Rayner were to tweet a positive review for a new restaurant, a texualist would argue that any conscious engagement with this content would result in the reader viewing the restaurant in question as an attractive place to dine. This reader may even book a table and begin a word-of-mouth campaign that continues Rayner’s praise.

While I do not have the readership figures, it is clear that someone like Rayner wields a lot of power over his audience and that when he – or another restaurant critics – speaks (or tweets), a portion of readers will listen and oblige in one form or another. If this were not at least partially true, traditional restaurant PR would have very little to offer.

And yet, it is clear that many of us can read Rayner’s tweets and have no problem reading them critically – either disagreeing (even if we have no business doing so!) or simply by resisting a message’s logical conclusion of visiting the restaurant for a meal. Therefore, it is not wholly plausible that we are passive, non-critical victims to any media message with which we engage.

 Evolving Identities

The other side of cultural theory suggests that content is not where meaning is created – instead, it is in the recipient of that content – the reader.

This ethnographic approach argues that the words that combine to make one of Rayner’s tweets would offer their reader little – if any – identity-influencing meaning. Instead, it is the reader who superimposes a meaning onto the text, or social media content.

 Semiotics and Marketing

Based on this theory, the reader produces meaning with the text by being the kind of person who pursues interest in restaurant reviews on Twitter. The reader may even identify with Rayner’s no-nonsense, quirky approach to restaurant criticism, or even aspire to become like the man himself.

Perhaps controversially, the ethnographic approach would argue that the reader does not have to ever do anything but intend to engage with Rayner’s criticism for impactful meaning to be produced. That’s right, the reason the tweets cannot produce meaning is because either the reader never actually reads Rayner’s social media content and/or because any reading is done in such a disinterested fashion that the content’s meaning cannot be properly absorbed.

The conclusion of this general theory is that merely by identifying as the kind of person who likes and listens to Jay Rayner allows one to project an idealised identity as a foodie and savant of the London restaurant scene.

 How to construct an "Outdoors-y" identity. Show the world you getting back to Nature with your iPhone.

How to construct an "Outdoors-y" identity. Show the world you getting back to Nature with your iPhone.

This is a compelling theory that definitely helps to explain how we use social media content to consolidate our own identities, and yet, it has a serious flaw – this approach completely fails to account for our subconscious minds or deep-seated ideological configurations that the media – including a Rayner tweet – can tap into to impact the identity of consumers.

To understand properly how to create quality social media marketing content that helps one’s audience establish and develop individual identities, we require a prism that accepts that the text does transmit meaning to its reader, though perhaps not always consciously and not always the intended message. Equally, we need to account for what is it about content that allows us to make a bold statement about our identity without engaging with it critically or even at all.

 Idealised identities on social media

The theory that we will use to make sense of this – which informs much of the work we do at Epicure Digital Marketing – is called semiotics. Through semiotics, we will see how social media marketing makes use of a range of cultural objects that act as words in a greater language. Not only do we speak this language fluently, we can make a great deal of sense from it without even thinking.

Epicure Digital Marketing’s analysis of semiotics, identity and social media marketing… Coming soon!