Identity in the age of digital media

The 12 year old who showed me this picture gave me a lot to think about. As part of her Bat Mitzvah (coming of age celebration) preparation she had to write a speech to give to the community. I asked her to make a collage about herself  and she was given the following prompt questions:

  • Who is important to you?
  • What do you care about most?
  • How would your friends describe you?
  • How would you describe yourself?
  • What are you most proud of?
  • What do you like to do do in your spare time?

Her reason for including the picture was that she felt like the answer to “how would your friends describe you” came increasingly from the self she projected online and less so from who she felt she ‘really’ was.

There’s nothing particularly unusual about that statement, the internet is awash with writing about what it means to be ‘real’ online and what the things we say (and don’t say) do to the way people around us understand us. I don’t think this, at least on the surface, a youthful anxiety. What I do think might be different is the simultaneous performance and formation of identity.

Goffman’s theory of audience and backstage (quick guide here) holds up well against the test of time, finding relevance in a time quite far removed from the one in which it was written. Where I think it runs into problems with the question of identity online is with regards to where the ‘essential’ self lies. The suggestion in Goffman’s work is that the backstage is where some greater degree of reality or trueness of self exists. Thinking about whether this is true in the context of online identity provokes the following reactions for me:

  • If the ‘self’ that you experience of others is that which is performed (for instance if a large volume of social interaction takes place online in semi-public spheres), what might that do to someone’s notion of their backstage? Could this mean that the modern self is a performed self?
  • One of the oft-touted values of online community is that anonymity and the variety of spaces available enable people to be someone online in a way that they feel they cannot be offline. In this case the internet becomes a venue for their backstage, and their offline lives are perhaps more of a performance.
  • Young people are increasingly discerning about what they see online and its reality (see recent online storm around Kylie Jenner’s lips…) yet simultaneously participate in creating this modified culture. Filters, photo editing apps, untagging photos etc are all examples of acts of performance in online social spaces that people simultaneously do and complain about.  What is it about the nature of the medium and the interactions it facilitates that might be behind this?