The aim of the article is to analyze and contribute to the understanding of how young equestrians in a sports school context perceive, construct, negotiate, and manage identities on social media. Our study shows that the educational environment is not the only factor in students’ identity construction, but that social media is also a part of young athletes’ constructions of identity. The article explores how a specific group of young athletes (equestrians) uses social network sites such as Facebook and Instagram in relation to their everyday lives as students attending upper secondary schools with an equestrian sports profile. Using a multifaceted theoretical framework, including Erving Goffman’s dramaturgical perspective, we explore how young equestrians perceive the content on social media platforms and analyze how they act and create content in relation to existing norms and cultures.
Increasing awareness about what transpires on social media, and thereby understanding how different cultures have developed online, is key to creating space for youth to act, interact, and develop through social media. In recent years, social media has become a forum for debate about questions of horse keeping and welfare. The perspectives of researchers as well as elite and leisure riders are voiced online, and different ideas about horse keeping meet, clash, and are discussed. The traditional stable culture is now challenged by several competing notions of what stable culture should entail. Internet forums are important arenas for narratives about the relationship between horses and humans and for creating standards for horse keeping (Dashper, 2017). According to Goodyear et al. (2019), it is imperative that involved adults (teachers, parents, guardians) know when young people are in control of social media and when social media instead controls them. In order to contribute to such awareness, teachers must support and train students to think critically about their use of social network sites. It is, however, equally important to respect students’ use of those sites (Goodyear et al., 2019).
Through focus group interviews with 25 students, we show that the situation is complex and contradictory. The results indicate that young riders have identified an online stable culture where high performance equestrianism is the norm. The concepts ‘super girl’ and ‘super boy’ are idealized figures who are striving for social acceptance by acting and looking in accordance with existing norms (cf. Persson, 2012; Zlotnik, 1999). Fearing the consequences of publishing imperfect pictures, the respondents feel compelled to act in accordance with existing norms. Young riders believe that a changed online culture would improve the psychosocial environment of equestrian sports. Significantly, horse wellbeing and rider competence are important aspects of this culture; if these parameters are not met, the person posting on social media platforms is criticized. In other words, a certain way of riding and caring for the horse is important within the stable culture — and norms around this may collide online. We argue that caretaking and competence, in addition to perfectionism, are part of the traits young riders are expected to communicate through social networks, and that acting impressively (i.e., using a form of impression management) entails demonstrating competence and caretaking skills.
Although the students clearly wish to see a more ‘authentic’ version of everyday life with horses expressed through social media, they also underline the importance of appearing ‘professional’. The notion of being ‘professional’ is used instead of the term ‘employable’, and is seemingly contrasted with authenticity in the respondents’ answers. In other words, the respondents do not use the term to imply specific knowledge, education, or licensing (in the sense of professions such as medical doctor, nurse, or lawyer). In the sports context, the term ‘professional’ has been used to reference someone who is paid to perform their sport, as opposed to the ‘amateur’ – and it is probable that the young riders (and their teachers) are more familiar with this meaning (Hedenborg, 2006). ‘Professionalism’ is likely to be further pronounced in equestrian sports schools as the equine sector is notorious for its reliance on undeclared labour (Hedenborg, 2008). During their education, the young riders are repeatedly told that they should not accept anything but formal employment in the sector. Being professional/employable requires a certain kind of impression management on social media, where the backstage setting should not be exposed. In the young riders’ education, professionalism is connected to certain norms and employability.
This study indicates that the equestrian schools are characterized by a norm that is seen as inauthentic by the students, who are seemingly already aware and source critical of how their sport is communicated on social media platforms. However, a few of the young equestrians experience a sense of inadequacy when comparing themselves to other equestrians’ online representations, feeling that they do not live up to the image of ‘the super equestrian’. This appears to affect their construction of identity/ies in different ways. Some students feel inspired, developing a strong equestrian identity, while others experience performance anxiety and question their future within the sport.