Academic journal article Asian Social Science

Identity in Online Personal Ads: A Multimodal Investigation

Academic journal article Asian Social Science

Identity in Online Personal Ads: A Multimodal Investigation

Article excerpt


A personal advertisement constitutes a distinct form related to the small ad family of genres. While small ads traditionally offer an object or a service, the personal ad offers but, most essentially, seeks a romantic partner. To date, studies of personal ads have mainly focused on patterns of represented traits in relation to identity, gender, age and sexuality in the verbal text. Given the self-promotional nature of the genre, image is also a powerful tool used as one of the resources for representing identity and engaging with others. Using social semiotic perspective and the framework of systemic functional linguistics, this study focuses on how identity is verbally and visually realised in online personal ads. This paper has two aims: the first is to show how resources from verbal and visual systems combine and complement one another to construe a variety of personal and social traits, clustering into different identity types. The second is to indicate the usefulness of these descriptions in facilitating a multimodal approach to the analysis of identity. The results revealed a convergence of verbal and visual resources in identity performances, construing the slim and attractive woman and the funny but sensitive guy, both aimed at invoking interest from potential partners. Identities emerged through the use of nominal groups and processes and the categorizations associated with these resources. Images that are displayed on the profile pages contain features that correspond to the tendered traits in the verbal description creating a holistic performance of online identities.

Keywords: multimodality, systemic functional linguistics, personal ads, identity, gender

1. Introduction

1.1 Personal Advertisement

The increasing popularity of personal advertisement (henceforth personal ad) among relationship-seeking adults has triggered studies in fields ranging from social sciences to humanities to computer sciences (e.g. Coupland, 1996; Baker, 2003; Elison et al., 2006). Findings have developed insights into various issues pertaining to social and cultural practices, ranging from language to gender to power relations in society. Social science researchers have for example been using personal ads to study what people are willing to disclose about themselves and what they are seeking in others for over thirty years. Some of the earliest findings of these studies (e.g. Cameron et al., 1977) have showed that people tend to make requests that are congruent with their sex-role stereotypes. For instance, women are more likely to express interest in financial security, sensitivity, and sense of humour of a prospective partner, while men are more likely to seek an attractive partner with whom they can have a sexual relationship. In cases where personal ads are used to measure the supposed desirability of certain attributes, findings have generally revealed that physical characteristics are generally more important than personality characteristics for men than women (e.g. Hogben & Coupland, 2000; Miller et al., 2000; Bartholome et al., 2007).

A personal advertisement constitutes a distinct generic form, which is related to the small ad family of genres. While small ads traditionally offer a thing (e.g. a car) or a service (e.g. plumbing), the personal ad 'offers but, most essentially, seeks' (Shalom, 1997) a romantic partner. Accordingly, a personal ad is used for the purpose of 'selling' oneself and of 'seeking' a desired other for short and long term relationships (Shalom, 1997; Marley, 2000; Gibbs et al., 2006). Each construed identity in a personal ad is an offer that is intended to be exchanged for what is sought by others in the dating scene. The self becomes a commodified entity and advertisers compete for the time and effort of other members to read and respond to their profiles. With these aims in mind, advertisers are pushed into crafting a description that will positively highlight their identity in ways that they believe will help them achieve these objectives. …

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