April 26, 2018.
The Truth of The Digital Persona
The idea of 'ego' and the determination of self-identity is a reflexive process. The world and our experiences exert its influence upon us just as we seek to influence it. Traditionally, social identity is considered to be a wholly deterministic concept, entrenched in the realm of the physical. This approach has, however, been challenged by the rise of neo-liberal thought where individual choices have attained greater significance in the determination of the self.
The onset of digital communication enabled the individual, for the first time, to exist outside the constraints of his physical self, free to explore and experiment with his/her identity. This sociological revolution is best illustrated in the words of Arthur Ashe who remarks that his potential ‘is more that can be expressed within the bounds of my race or ethnic identity’. The anonymity of the internet offered the individual refuge from societal judgement and expectations. The virtual world provided the user a platform where he/she could exist as an imagined ideal being. Social media, provided the world the means to communicate with individuals over vast distances instantly. It is thus not unreasonable to state that such a social change has made a significant impact upon traditional concepts of identity formation.
The purpose of this essay is to examine the validity of the statement ‘As we have full creative and editorial control of our social media profiles’, these represent the truest version of the self with regard to Goffman theoretical framework and consider the impact of digital communications on human interactionism.
In his aptly titled work, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, sociologist Erving Goffman analyses human identity construction and interactionism through the generous use of dramaturgical metaphors [Goffman, The Presentation of Self]. Published in 1959, just before the sociological revolution of the 1960's, Goffman's analysis of human behaviour nonetheless remains relevant in the digital age. The cornerstone of Goffman's study of human behaviour is the idea of the 'performance'. Goffman postulates that individual interactions are performances; carefully designed to 'project' a specific image to the second party, hoping to establish a favourable impression. Goffman opines that all human interactions are merely performances or acts - made by actors and delivered to an audience. The sociologist's illustrations of human behaviour contrast two distinct forms of interaction; termed as front stage and back stage behaviour. An actor, while in 'front stage', is acutely conscious of being observed by an audience and is mindful of the social conventions and norms which might impact the reception of his performance [Goffman, The Presentation of Self]. The actor realises that the failure of his act would result in a loss of face [Goffman, On face-work] and is, therefore, hyper-aware of his actions. The contrast between 'front stage' and 'backstage' behaviour is taken to its logical extremes as Goffman presents the latter as the ideal private 'safe space' behaviour where no performance is required of the actor. Brown [Brown, The self, pp. 162] is convinced that the performance is an act of 'self-presentation'; considering that it provides the actor with the choice of donning a persona. The actor is often enamoured with the idea of playing a character that is devoid of the faults of his original self and becomes convinced of the validity of the alternate persona. Goffman believes that the individual, during an interaction, 'gives' and 'gives off' certain expressions [Goffman, The Presentation of Self]. In the case of the former, impressions that the actor purposely intends to produce are communicated while in the latter scenario, ideas which were not deliberately crafted into the performance are received by the audience.
Goffman also brings into consideration the more establishes metaphors of dramaturgy such as the 'mask' as a means to illustrate the role of deception in face-to-face interaction [Goffman, The Presentation of Self, pp. 57]. The idea of the mask does not hide the actor's original self in its entirety. It merely enhances certain aspects of the initial personality whilst marginalising others. Sociologist Park [Park, Race and Culture] proposes that the mask does not create a separate entity; they are facets of the same being. Goffman illustrates the same by citing communities in Shetland and the soldier .
Goffman's interaction order is often challenged considering his approach to non-physical methods of communication. In the pre-computer mediated communications era, Goffman's disdain of the telephone is particularly striking. He opines that telephone conversions are essential 'departures from the norm'[Goffman, The neglected situation]; theorising that such was a 'marginal' form of interaction [Goffman, Relations in public, pp. 70]; implying that the telephone and other subsequent means of communication provided an inferior substitute to the 'primordial real thing'[Goffman, The interaction order] since they lack the distinctly visible cues of physical interaction. Arundale [Arundale, Face as emergent in interpersonal communication] argues that Goffman's work holds no validity considering the vast improvements in communications technology and opines that the latter's work should be remodelled to incorporate the presence of the same. Miller, on the hand, explains that electronic interaction is a natural extension of Goffman's postulates [Miller, The presentation of self in electronic life]. It is important to note that modern-day technology has alleviated Goffman's main criticism of non-physical interaction through the incorporation of video and multimedia in communications technology. Jenkins notes that while physical interaction remains 'the real thing', the fact that virtual world avatars have become 'one of the most elaborate examples of impression management' cannot be denied [Jenkins, The 21st century interaction order]. Jenkins claims that the gulf between physical and digital interaction as identified by Miller [Miller, The presentation of self in electronic life], has been bridged, owing to the rapid improvements in communication technology. Laughey proposes that Goffman's theories on social interaction can be applied to the digital platform [Laughey, Key themes in media theory] - a belief which is firmly supported by sociologist Jacobsen [Jacobsen, Goffman through the looking glass] who argues that Goffman's postulates remain relevant given the versatility of his ideas. It may be argued that offline interactions function as 'back stage' preparation for performances occurring online. The idea of 'giving' and 'giving off' impressions can also be transposed into the digital world, considering the presence of blogs and other forms of social media.
It is important to note the 'ease' of performing an online platform, given the vast distance between the actor and the audience which makes it subsequently more manageable for the former to conceal and embellish certain aspects of the self. Goffman's idea of the 'splitting character of the self during interaction'[Goffman, Relations in public, pp.117] is particularly relevant in this scenario. The theory that the donning of personae merely represents a division of the ego is supported by other thinkers such as Baptista who believes that the division of the self 'can be found in everyday' physical interaction [Baptista, Framing and cognition, pp.212]. The online self can be thus thought of as part of a broader identity which behaves semi-independently from its origin and seeks to emphasise certain underappreciated traits or conceal the less desirable ones online to present a version of itself which is devoid of the perceived faults of the original personality.
Sociologists such as Vaast [Vaast, Playing with Masks] and Whitworth [Whitworth, Information Obesity] champion the belief that the online identity expediates the donning of an alternate persona. The term 'real world' itself is hotly contested by thinkers such as Waggoner [Waggoner, Identity in role-playing games, pp. 1] who is of the opinion that the phrase itself should be replaced by 'non-virtual', explaining his reasoning by asserting that "virtual identities, created and maintained by user's non-virtual identities, maybe just as 'real' to users as their non-virtual identities."
Baker [Baker, Identity in the Information Society] proposes the concept of a 'blended reality', where the individual assumes aspects of both the online and offline personality in an interaction. This may be illustrated in terms of Goffman's idea of 'face', whereby an individual 'maintains face' by staying true to the initial impression that they have imparted upon the audience and is expected to 'live up to it'[Goffman, On face-work]. Goffman likens this construction of 'face' to the act of wearing a mask [Goffman, Interaction Ritual]. An examination of the concept of the 'blended reality' within the framework of Goffman's theories on social interaction reveals that the ego itself is a 'mask' an actor opts for in a situation. The idea of 'keeping face' is particularly evident in cases where an actor physically interacts with an audience met online. A mask is donned, and the audience remains ignorant of an alternate personality existing beneath the facade.
The practice of online identity exploration gathered momentum with the launch of 'virtual worlds' such as 'Second Life' where the creation and customisation of virtual avatars gained popularity as a means of exploring one's identity, although in a rather limited, one-sided manner [Ducheneaut, Body and Mind]. The avatar thus functions as a mask- representing, enhancing, or repressing certain aspects of an individual's personality; demonstrating the role or interests of its user [Donath, Cognitive Technology].
Blogs are another popular means of virtual interaction. The blogger may choose to maintain several blogs and subsequently create different personae tailored to suit each one, effectively dividing the self and establishing different impressions upon separate audiences. Alternate personae are often used to distance the original 'non-virtual' self from content which may be inappropriate or niche. This is facilitated by portraying a character who is often strikingly different from the original ego. George Miller, a famous blogger and musician, for instance, chooses to distance his 'non-virtual' identity from the character Filthy Frank who is controversial and interacts with a very selective audience. The separation of identity is so extreme that Miller changes his voice and physical appearance to suit the character to avoid 'losing face'. Although Goffman is primarily concerned with the subtleties of everyday interaction rather that extreme situations such as the use of an alternate ego, it is nonetheless evident that alter egos are manifestations of Goffman's theory that the individual assumes multiple roles and identities in everyday life [Goffman, The Presentation of Self].
The internet is commonly used as a means of anonymous interaction. Anonymous imageboards such as Reddit, Omegle, 4chan, etc, offer the user the choice of genuinely anonymous communication. Cases such as this have given rise to virtual phenomena such as identity tourism [Nakamura, Cybertypes] and catfishing. While both instances deal with the adoption of a persona portraying a different gender or race, the latter is particularly malicious. Identity tourism is prevalent in virtual world scenarios where avatars are chosen and tailored in conformance with the Western ideal. Welles notes that Social Life 'is the whitest environment I've ever experienced'[Welles, The Register] and theorises that users of different racial descent may have chosen to use white avatars to increase the probability of gaining acceptance into the group. Nakamura speculates that 'there are social advantages to being white in-game'[Nakamura, Neoliberal space and race] while Goffman might argue that such cases are examples of 'cynical performers', 'whose audiences will not allow them to be sincere'[Goffman, The Presentation of Self, pp. 29]. Sociologist Andy Oram comments, ' Goffman's approach certainly applies online, because our postings - even our instant messages - are more deliberate acts than our informal behaviours in real life' [Andy Oram; p. 1-2].
In conclusion, it may be determined that online personae are mere facets of the whole. They represent an ideal self which the individual wishes to establish. Is the personality one crafts based upon his/her ideal any less valid than his ‘non-virtual’ identity? I would like to assert that both personalities are of equal significance. Just as one cannot deny the impact of one’s experiences on self-identity, individual choices too, are of tremendous significance. The statement itself is a subjective one. The aspect of the personality that one considers ‘true’ is wholly dependent upon the individual. It is imperative to note that while virtual interaction may be deceptive, physical interaction, too, is based upon a performance. The persona is interlinked with the origin. Just as one may detect elements of the original personality within the online persona, certain aspects of the online self establishes itself in the physical world, as evidenced by the increasing use of internet slangs such as ‘lol’, ’swag’,’ ‘yolo’, etc in everyday physical interaction. The self that was once divided eventually seeks to be whole and as such, the physical and virtual personalities tend to ‘blend’ into an entirely new persona containing elements of its constituent personae. Ultimately, the idea of the ‘self’ is in constant flux. What one considers oneself to be at a given point of time might not be what the individual would want to identify as at another point in time. I would like to point out the redundancy of the given statement and firmly maintain that all facets of the self are equal in their relevance.
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