Performance of the Self in the Digital Age

Performance of the Self in the Digital Age

Once archived, identity becomes a commodity; a good to be sold and bought.  The pre-set digital architecture of user interfaces creates binaries, which forcibly guide the actions of the user. While the page view is set up in a uniform and predetermined fashion, it can also be specified on an individual basis, customizing the advertising and suggested pages based on the previous searches of each person. In shifting the value assigned to information instead of solid goods, merely presenting identity on an online platform can become an occupation. The emergence of the lifestyle blog, “what’s in my purse?” videos, and Vogue’s 73 questions demonstrate the explosion of celebrity culture, allowing anybody to commodify their identity and become a professional celebrity. Meanwhile, the internet allows individuals the opportunity for anonymity, and loss of identity. The importance of presenting a polished and uniform identity to a future employer is usually dealt with in a resume.  The multiple expressions and manifestations of identity that are exhibited on these platforms are possibly harmful. Examining the various nuances of archiving identity on social media will allow us to see the shifting values of our North American society with the “digital revolution”, from a culture where money and goods were power, to one today where information rules. In this space, we run the risk of losing our bodies in the attempt at capturing ourselves in the virtual archive.

The Facebook profile is theoretically open to depth and variability, but in practice holds us in a grip of superficiality and uniformity. My Facebook profile is carefully groomed, with only photos, likes, information, and videos that I have curated to present to my “friends”. On the internet, my identity loses it’s fluidity and ephemerality, as I am glued to the choices I make in my online profile. The performance of my identity, similar to theatre, usually requires presence. I perform myself to my friend, my boss, my professor, or my family. There is a live connectivity in sharing the same space, breathing in each others air and viewing by the same light. As someone scrolls through my Facebook profile, the critical distance between us requires neither presence nor cognition of the shared reception of each others performance. It loses its crucial bodily presence with the transition to the digital archive.

The online profile, whether it be on Instagram or Facebook, consists of the pieces of information strung together by its perceivers. It is a persona. A digital identity must be performed by someone, and the pieces that make it up curated by someone. However, this person is not necessarily the same as their audience-created persona. Following the logic of this argument, it is easy to fall into the logo-centric trap of asserting a “real” or “true” core identity. Identity is a chameleon, changing and re-appropriating each moment to fit its environment and surroundings. The realization of this essential fact opens the turnkey on a cage disguised as the open horizon. Stepping into the vast possibilities, however, is terrifying. We hold so tightly onto our concepts of self as one constant in our ever changing world. The release is simultaneously exalting and terrifying.

The internet has made available vast stores of information previously inaccessible. Simultaneously, contribution to this database can be easily made. Wikipedia is a prime example of quick, simple and accessible information, which can also be composed by anyone and everyone with access to internet. However, it is important to note this still excludes major parts of the world’s population, who do not have such access. In addition, this wider access has created the frenzy that is celebrity culture, and propagated it to make celebrity itself a profession. The solid, tangible, and quintessential identity we so seek can be found in the presentation of the commodity that is identity on social media platforms.

The emergence of American celebrity culture in the 50’s, with Marilyn Monroe and Jackie and John Kennedy has grown and spread into not just an obsession with their images, but the with the mere idea that we can possess a clear cut identity. An individual can become famous just for making their identity accessible to the masses. A prime example of this is the lifestyle blog, adapted by many famous actors, but also used as a means to gain that stardom by those originally lacking. It archives the activities, diet, attire, exercise regiment, etc… of the blogger, and is often donned the title of their name. Gwenyth Paltrow famously started one of such style titled Goop. It is organized into “make, go, get, do, be, see”, guiding us through the actions required to become Gwenyth, or at least “understand” her. It perfectly packages up the complicated interweaving performances that make up an identity, and ties a bow on top, allowing us grasp it in if not our hands, our minds.

Identity is now an item that can be bought and sold. Displaying a carefully constructed and perfectly glossed self-image has become a profession in itself. Personal style bloggers like Emily Schumman of Cupcakes and Cashmere have made a profession of their archived identity.  The blog is sustained on the corporate desire to advertise in the digital world. In order to participate in social media, we must sign a contract to accept the intake of advertisements. The funding for websites, rooted in these advertisements, makes individuals become pawns to the corporate system. While bloggers sell their images to the public for consumption, they are simultaneously selling us brands, and products, which become inextricably tied to their identity. We associate a person with a series of brands and products, and not character traits. The performance of identity is thereby commodified and the person becomes an item, composed of various brands and labels. In a recent interview, Shia Labeouf described our entire culture as “a product to be sold, and anyone in a tabloid is a product – an object”.

The average internet user has become immersed in a digital consumer culture, which makes the performance of identity a profession fueled through corporate advertising. The resultant advertisements are specific to each user, based on a history of internet usage. In this way, the user interface is deceptively uniform in its aesthetic and structural construction, while the content is constantly changing. Other forms of media, like newspapers and magazines have naturalized the consistency among all iterations of their print. Digital media’s capability to personalize the user interface is therefore relatively new, and not yet consciously recognized by most users.  It affects our interaction in, and movement through, digital spaces. For example, my Facebook page is inundated with advertisements from Stubhub, surfing companies, and Montreal Blog, while my friends’ page contains ads from Travelogue, and tutoring services. This reinforces the concept of a continuous and cohesive identity, as it assumes our past interests and queries will be those of the future as well. It does not account for the ever-changing, and messy nature of identity. It forces our ideas of ourselves into a tightly packaged profile, and makes it difficult to break the mould and perform the inconsistencies that lie within us. The advertisements on social media platforms also indicate the use of identity as a currency today, as it is bought by corporations in order to streamline the placement of promotions. So, identity moves from being a performance, requiring presence, to the archive, allowing distance, and finally is manifested as a commercial item. The traces of my identity performed on social media are picked up by corporations and used as tools for targeting me with a specific stream of information.

As much as website content shifts based on our interaction, it also maintains a structural consistency, which creates binaries that dictate our usage. The basic setup of Facebook is a prime example, as it constricts users to a certain framework of action and performance. The sign up process requires an input of information, including gender, age, film and literature preferences, among others. In addition, compliance with the system would necessitate uploading a profile picture, which acts as an “embodiment of a spatially absent person in an online environment that represents the user in computer mediated interactions.” The photo itself is guided in its style, with the suggested profile photo, as opposed to landscape or even a full body shot. While these rules can be broken, they are guides, and underscore all actions in a digital sphere. In choosing my gender, my likes and dislikes, and my representative photo, the performance of my identity is separated into binaries. There is no room for grey areas, as much as updates to the choices, like the “its complicated” relationship status, attempt at widening the scope. We are still forced to operate under a set of actions that pinhole our identities into a set of neatly organized parts.

Is it possible to navigate digital spaces and perform one’s identity, without falling into the logocentric trap of distilling oneself into a set of neatly organized facts? To perform oneself on a daily basis, never mind digitally, is a challenge. I often find myself under the spell of consumer society, constituting my self based on brands, titles, and an online profile. At this point, the identity I perform is informed by my social media profile, instead of my self informing and defining my profile. This is a transformation of the basis of understanding oneself. I cannot say it is wholly negative, yet it most definitely simplifies and pinholes the citational practice of identity performance. The human identity is truly a pastiche, but with the digital age, consumer and celebrity culture, and the changing currency from money to information, individual performance of Identity has changed significantly, leaving us in danger of losing the body in an act of disappearance into the virtual world.