Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Social Media, Performance and Self Identity

It is both hilarious and depressing how fervently facebook plugs dating sites to me

While perusing the interweb I came across this fascinating article on The Atlantic looking at personal identity asperformance. The article discusses the work of social psychologist Sam Gosling who looks at the ways in which people fill their spaces with personal possessions and tries to determine what insights these items can give into people’s personalities.

Gosling has determined that some items act as ‘conscious identity claims’ – things we actively choose based on how we want other people to perceive us (artwork or books we display, the clothes we wear). Some items are ‘feeling regulators’ – sentimental items or souvenirs that meet a personal emotional need (photos of loved ones, holiday souvenirs). Finally, some items are ‘unconscious behavioural residue’ – hints we leave behind inadvertently (an obsessively organised bookshelf might hint at compulsive behaviour). These conscious and unconscious cues, when observed as a whole, reveal something about the person who left them.

This reminds me of Goffman’s seminalsociology text, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, which argues that all social interactions are essentially performances. These performances are made of two aspects: the expressions that we give (symbols, verbal or otherwise, that admittedly convey information), and the expressions that we give off (unconscious actions that others can treat as symptomatic of the actor).
Goffman’s book was published in 1959, which limits it predominantly to face-to-face interaction (how quaint!), but Gosling’s research also covers the online world. We use cues to infer things about a person on social media in exactly the same way as we do in person. For example, Gosling found in his research that those who scored highly on the extroversion scale via personality tests had more facebook friends. So if you encounter someone on facebook with thousands of friends, it’s probably safe to infer that they are socially competent and confident individuals. Looking at Gosling and Goffman’s work in tandem, we can conclude that our social media presence is also a performance. We carefully curate what photos we post and what amusing buzzfeed links we share to put across a certain persona to anyone who encounters our profile.

But for whom are we performing? Goffman argues that we perform for ourselves just as much as we perform for others. Individuals perform even when there is no audience because it affirms our sense of identity. For example, in some mental hospitals in America, unclaimed deceased patients may be given elaborate funerals. This performance is carried out for the benefit of those partaking in the ceremony, proving to themselves that they are the kinds of people who observe standards of civility. We do not think of this as a performance, we are not purposefully trying to manipulate others or ourselves. As Goffman explains, people “sincerely believe that the definition of the situation they habitually project is the real reality.”

Combining Goffman and Gosling therefore suggests that facebook is as much a performance for ourselves as it is for others. The friend counter on our profiles not only shows other people how cool and popular we are, it is affirmation for ourselves that we have friends. A studyfrom the journal, Media Psychology, has shown that people receive a significant self-esteem boost when looking at their own facebook profile compared to looking at the profile of a stranger. This study supports the idea that facebook is a performance and that we are its intended audience just as much as our friends and internet creepers.

The author of The Atlantic article, Jennifer Oullette, says that, “our profiles have become gigantic identity claims.” But Oullette’s observation doesn’t go far enough. Our facebook profiles may indeed be identity claims but it’s important to remember to whom these identity claims are directed.

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