Tonight’s Performance: Your Profile. Understanding Performativity and the Construction of Online Identity.

As performers we are merchants of morality. Our day is given over to intimate contact with the goods we display and our minds are filled with intimate understandings of them; but it may well be that the more attention we give to these goods, then the more distant we feel from them and from those who are believing enough to buy them. To use different imagery, the very obligation and profitability of appearing always in a steady moral light, of being a socialized character, forces one to be the sort of person who is practiced in the ways of the stage.

– Goffman, Erving. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. 1959.

The comparison has long been made, by academics in the field, between Goffman’s theory of everyday performativity and the construction of one’s Online Identity. A list of some notable work is helpfully outlined by Hogan (2010):

• Donath (1998) employed Goffman as a starting point for signaling theory.
• Schroeder (2002) uses Goffman’s dramaturgy quite literally in his analysis of virtual worlds.
• boyd (2004, 2006, 2007) used Goffman to ground SNS activity as networked identity performance.
• Hewitt and Forte (2006) use Goffman to explain identity production on Facebook and conflict because of the use of multiple fronts.
• Robinson (2007) argues for the effectiveness of Goffman’s approach over postmodern perspectives found in Turkle (1997).
• Lewis, Kaufman, and Christakis (2008) draw on Goffman’s front stage/back stage distinction for deriving research questions about privacy.
• Tufekci (2008) builds her research on Facebook presentation around Goffman alongside Dunbar’s social brain hypothesis.
• Quan-Haase and Collins (2008) use impression management to discuss the art of creating status messages that signal availability.
• Menchik and Tian (2008) use Goffman and symbolic interactionism more broadly to interpret “facesaving” on e-mail mailing lists.
• Mendelson and Papacharissi (2010) demonstrate that pictures on social network sites conform to traditional notions of impression management.

— Hogan, Bernie. The Presentation of Self in the Age of Social Media: Distinguishing Performances and Exhibitions Online, 2010.

In summary, the concept refers to the presentation of a ‘self’ to the observer(s), and the attempted management of the impression received by them (flagged: ‘impression management’). Goffman’s theory uses a dramaturgical metaphor as a means to explain the construction of one’s real-world identity, via costuming (what we wear), dialogue (what we say and how we say it), staging (setting/where we are), hair and makeup, and so on.

The construction of an online profile is not dissimilar. Users choose what visuals to display, what status updates to write, what language to use, what information about themselves to share, etc. They perform a version of their life that have varying degrees of likeness to reality.

These methods of presenting the self are no different to those originally documented by Goffman’s notion of humans being actors on the stage of life… The stage in this instance is merely whichever website one is presenting the self upon. The staging may differ, as may the way in which the act is carried out, but the intention of presenting oneself remains the same. That is not to say that this intention is always pre-meditated, or indeed even consciously considered, but rarely do people present self-information without some goal in mind (1959).

— Attrill, Alison. The Manipulation of Online Self-Presentation: Create, Edit, Re-edit and Present, 2015.

The parallels are clear. It should be noted, however, that the metaphor of a stage has been contested and, as Hogan states, the construction of Online Identity may be more accurately likened to an exhibition. In this analogy, the user acts as the artist submitting artefacts and the SNS as curator. (Hogan, 2010, pp. 381 – 382) Regardless, it is clear that users create a ‘Front’ (see: Goffman, 1959, pp. 22, pp. 112) online, via acts of ‘impression management’. It is how the monetisation of these ‘Fronts’ (see: Big Data/Data Mining) deals with these performances, that is of interest to this post and our further discussion. If, for example, advertisers are learning about users by utilising the information they put online and these users are submitting a constructed ‘performance ‘of themselves, how accurate is the data being collected?

Liebowitz touches on this when examining the business analytics of Big Data. He writes that “profile data is useful when multiple pieces of data are filled in” (2013, pp. 81), but, that “behavourial data seems to be four to six times as valuable as profile data” (2013, pp. 83). Shwarz and Ungar note that “Online users, of course, also attempt some self-presentation, trying to make themselves attractive in different ways” (2015, pp. 90).  I would suggest that here, we can see how not only a ‘performance’, ‘character’ or ‘exhibition’ is created by the user but how, simultaneously, one is created for the user by external data analysts.

With this in mind, I would pose a further question: how does an industry whose lifeblood is the gathering of data and the creation of a ‘self’, that a consumer may not even be able, or willing to identify, operate ethically whilst simultaneously maximising profits?

Take, for example, a hypothetical. What if a consumer had an addiction, let’s say, to gambling. The consumer in question has not yet acknowledged their own addiction and are unable to admit it to themselves or those around them. Data mining agencies (or an algorithm somewhere), however, know. Based on the consumer’s browsing patterns and online behaviour, it is clear that an addiction is in play. Is it ethical, then, for them to feed this information to advertising agencies, that will continue to push betting sites and online poker? That will deliberately target timeframes that are likely to trigger relapses and/or reactions? That will use location services to know when the user is nearby a licensed venue, and prompt them to play as they walk by? Legal academics have begun dicussions around the ethics of the storage, collection, sale and control of personal data by these corporate entities, such as a consumer being ‘Free of Deception’, ie. not being deceived into forfeiting their personal information (Nill and Aalberts, 2014). However, the ethics of delivery is yet to be determined and is something that I will endeavour to include in the discussion of future posts.

What do you think?

Works Cited

Aalberts, A. & Alexander Nill. (2014). Legal and Ethical Challenges of Online Behavioral Targeting in Advertising. Journal of Current Issues & Research in Advertising , 126 – 146.

Attrill, A. (2015). The Manipulation of Online SelfPresentation: Create, Edit, Re-edit and Present. Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan.

boyd, d. (2004). Friendster and publicly articulated social networking. In CHI ’04: Proceedings of the twenty-second annual SIGCHI conference on Human factors in computing systems (pp. 1279-1282). New York, NY: ACM Press.

boyd, d. (2006, December). Friends, Friendster and MySpace Top 8: Writing Community Into Being on Social Network Sites. First Monday, 11. Retrieved from http://firstmonday.org/issues/ issue11_12/boyd/index.html

boyd, d. (2007). Why Youth (heart) Social Network Sites: The Role of Networked Publics in Teenage Social Life. In D. Buckingham (Ed.), Youth, Identity, and Digital Media (pp. 119-142). Cambridge: MIT Press.

boyd. d., & N. Ellison. (2007) Social Network Sites: Definition, History, and Scholarship. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication. 13(1) Retrieved from: http://jcmc.indiana.edu/ vol13/issue1/boyd.ellison.html

Donath, J. (1998). Identity and Deception in the Virtual Community. In M. Smith & P. Kollack (Eds.), Communities in Cyberspace (pp. 29-59). London, England: Routledge.

Goffman, E. (n.d.). The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Woodstock, New York: The Overlook Press.

Hewitt, A., & Forte, A. (2006). Crossing boundaries: Identity management and student/faculty relationships on the Facebook. Poster session presented at CSCW, Banff, Alberta, Canada

Hogan, B. (2010). The Presentation of Self in the Age of Social Media: Distinguishing Performances and Exhibitions Online. Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society, 30(6), 377–386.

Lewis, K., Kaufman, J., & Christakis, N. (2008). The taste for privacy: An analysis of college student privacy settings in an online social network. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 14, 79-100.

Liebowitz, J. (2013). Big Data and Business Analytics. Boca Raton: CRC Press, Tayl & Francis Group.

Menchik, D. A., & Tian, X. (2008). Putting social context into text: The semiotics of email interaction. American Journal of Sociology, 114, 332-370.

Mendelson, A., & Papacharissi, Z. (2010). Look at us: Collective narcissism in college student Facebook photo galleries. In Z. Papacharissi (Ed.), The networked self: Identity, community and culture on social network sites (pp. 251-273). London, England: Routledge

Quan-Haase, A., & Collins, J. L. (2008). I’m there, but I might not want to talk to you. Information, Communication & Society, 11, 526-543.

Robinson, L. (2007). The cyberself: The self-ing project goes online, symbolic interaction in the digital age. New Media & Society, 9, 93-110.

Schwarz, H. A. & Lyle H. Ungar (2015). Data-Driven Content Analysis of Social Media: A Systematic Overview of Automated Methods. The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 78 – 94.

Tufekci, Z. (2008). Grooming, gossip, Facebook and MySpace. Information, Communication and Society, 11, 544-564.


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