Communications scholar Marshall Mcluhan curiously uses the myth of Narcissus when pointing out the role of technology in our conceptions of self. The young man who perishes in the pool does not drown because he is selfish or conceited, he argues. Rather, Narcissus is infatuated with the image of himself; how the mechanisms of the medium can either reflect or warp his visage. Internet technologies in the 21st century perform a similar task for us. Online, we craft images of ourselves to form a mediated ‘digital self’, embodied in tweets, images, comments, bios, and other interactions. While these activities may seem mundane, they are not as simple a process as mirroring our offline selves. Rather, they exemplify the act of users taking their identities into their own hands. To this end, we can begin to conceptualize the digital self and social media more broadly as a largely performative, even theatrical, undertaking. Ultimately, social media allows individuals to put on masks in the online world, and this ‘masked’ denizen should be understood as a figure of power, for better or worse.
In the Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, Erving Goffman develops a theatrical theory of identity. He argues that human social interaction can be understood dramatically, with individuals putting on different ‘front stage’ performances of self depending on their context. During a business meeting for example, one might adopt a serious timber to their voice and wear formal clothing. With the advent of social media, these performances can be reciprocated and further complicated online. Digital communications scholars Alice Marwich and Dannah Boyd note that an individual’s ‘imagined audience’ shapes the type and style of content which social media users post. On Twitter they notice distinct differences between the behavior of a ‘normal’ user and a ‘micro-celebrity’ with more followers. While the micro-celebrity may change their content to appeal to a wider audience (e.g using friendlier language, avoiding controversial subject matter), others express versions of themselves which are ‘more authentic’ to their offline selves. These developments demonstrate that users actively control and alter their digital images in the public sphere. Users may reveal, hide, change, or update aspects of their offline selves. Nevertheless, this alone does not suggest any drastic departure from Goffman’s performative model. For this, it helps to examine the notion of the digital mask more closely.
Representations of digital self are not embodied representations but constructed ones. That is to say, they are not attached to our physical presence in space. This fact allows for much more freedom in choices of self presentation online. Rather than being subjected to the pre-established norms associated with the physical body, the user controls the visual and linguistic cues which represent them during online interaction. Case in point, the meme shown below demonstrates a simple analogy of the mask-like quality of social media. While the eleven year old Connor may realistically identify as a single, middle class, caucasian boy, internet technologies allow him to present as whomever he may wish.
To this end, there are a variety of different personas which we adopt online depending on the context and our motivation. Below, I offer a glimpse at some of these different ‘masks’. We may be tempted, for example, to put on ‘the activist’, choosing a channel like Twitter to broadcast our politics. Likewise, we can put on the guise of a ‘professional’, offering a well-groomed Linked-in to potential employers instead of the much rowdier Instagram feed. We may even be feeling devious at some points, stalking through Youtube or Reddit in the guise of a troll, or more gently, as the joker (puns excluded).
These digital masks are constructed through a variety of techniques and mechanics. In the next image, a few of these facets are highlighted and color-coded to demonstrate some basic similarities across platforms. For example, usernames are outlined in orange. I use my own ‘digital masks’ as a way of illustrating the concept.
Usernames, outlined in orange, act as primary points of identification online; they can represent a user directly by displaying their real name, or alternatively be changed to an online alter ego. In either case, they serve as an initial site of contact when communicating online and thus represent a key element in ‘performing’ oneself in the digital space.
User avatars are outlined in red. Avatars embody a visual representation of the user across platforms. They also encompass an important part of the digital self because they shape initial perceptions of the user’s performance. While a smiling, unassuming picture of oneself can be effective for a platform connecting one to friends and family (e.g Facebook), a drawing might be more appropriate for more creative presentations (e.g a Youtube channel).
Similarly, backgrounds (highlighted in pink) can serve to visually contextualize the mask with further information regarding relationships (photographs with family), community icons (symbols, celebrities, branding) and other indicators.
Finally, social media biographies (outlined in blue) can convey an immense amount of information about the intent of the user’s channel. For example, an ironic catchphrase like in the centre and left examples can belay a light-hearted tone. However, it is not uncommon for a user to code identity signifiers into their bios as well, including politics, gender, and sexual orientation. These examples all share a common constructivist thread when approaching the question of online identity. Instead of being inherent to the user, each bio, avatar, and background was a choice. Consequently, this suggests that the ‘mask’ concept goes further than simply performing versions of self, instead constructing them from the ground up.
One counterargument to a performative interpretation of social media relates to the binary structure of internet communications. Considered within the context of any single online platform, conceptions of self and identity can seem quite limited. When examining Twitter, Marwich and Boyd noticed that users are pressured into playing certain roles by the community surveilling them, as the user interfaces of the platform do not allow for dynamic performances. Similarly, feminist scholars like Rena Bivens argue that conceptions of gender binary can be baked into the user interfaces of platforms like Facebook. These points suggest a rigidity to online self-presentation.
Nevertheless, the creation of your digital self is not usually contingent on just one platform. Social media outlets like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram can actually interact with each other and the user to embody a much more complicated experience of self than suggested. Below, two more bios from the writer’s social media are shown, specifically for Deviantart and Tinder.
Both platforms offer separate social contexts and uses for the writer. Notably, while some information is shared between platforms, there are distinct differences in the choices made surrounding self presentation. For example, on Tinder, one may focus on presenting aspects of self which are interesting or attractive (e.g height, hobbies), while a Deviantart page might centre on information which would contextualize their creative growth (e.g art posts, journals, length of time on platform).
While all presentations of self offline are tied to a single person and space, online masks can be worn or removed at any time. In other words, masks are disjointed and do not have to be connected across platforms. Rather, users can take advantage of multiple accounts to experiment with differing aspects of identity, even going so far as to ‘become’ a different persona totally unrelated to other performed selves. Hence, while individual platforms may have a coded rigidity to self presentation, taking advantage of multiple platforms can allow one to perform identity dynamically.
Over the course of this article, we’ve taken the oppurtunity to develop an argument for the extension and even expansion of Goffman’s performance theory in the digital realm. The online arena is an expansive place, one that offers a variety of opportunities to both share and conceal. When it comes to identity performance, these mechanisms and techniques can give us freedom to work outside of the physical and societal constraints placed on our offline selves, or perhaps even hold a mirror to parts of ourselves that we find beautiful or interesting.
Nonetheless, we must remember that McLuhan’s Narcissus was a cautionary tale. Just as the young man was snared by the potential he saw in his mediated image, so too can we slip. A digital mask, like any mask, calls authenticity into question at every juncture. We can use the cover of a mask to perform any number of nefarious deeds. Cyber bullying, open racism and bigotry, and online trolling are all actions which are constantly performed under the cover of anonymity. These are challenges that we must seek out and be vigilant of while acknowledging the benefits of these new identification systems. Becoming aware of these problems is the first step we can take to avoid falling into the pool.
Bivens, R. (2017). The gender binary will not be deprogrammed: Ten years of coding gender on Facebook. New Media & Society, 19(6), 880-898. Available through McMaster’s e-resources.
Goffman, E. (2008). The presentation of self in everyday life. New York: Anchor Books.
Marwick, Alice E. and Danah Boyd. (2010). I Tweet Honestly, I Tweet Passionately: Twitter Users, Context Collapse, and the Imagined Audience. New Media Society.
McLuhan, Marshal. (1964). The Gadget Lover. Understanding media: The Extensions of Man, 41-47. MIT Press.