Social Media, Performance, Identity and Resistance

Behind the Screens:  A Digital Debacle

As the use of social media continues to rise in present time, individuals possess an active online presence where they are free to engage in “self-expression, communication and self-promotion.” (Dijck, 2013) It is interesting to observe the role and power of identity construction in this context. Users continue to “perform” online in order to maintain a certain presence on social media – one which establishes their online ‘identity’. This notion was touched on by Erving Goffman when he analysed human beings as carriers of “a series of masks”; where they control and “stage” their appearances depending on the reception or their audience. (Goffman, 1956)

Based on this, one can question the authenticity and truthfulness of online identity construction in the digital age. This transpires due to the user’s power to control and communicate information strategically in an attempt to create a certain online presence. With the rise of fashion influencers, travel and food bloggers, fitness models, and an option to follow your favourite celebrities’ lives on Twitter and Instagram; the digital influence created promotes a certain online culture, or sense of expectation, for users.

When users create various online profiles; be it on Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, Twitter or Tinder; they are constantly channelling and exercising their “different modes of self-presentation.” (Ranzini and Lutz, 2016) Factors such as “hooking up/sex, friendship, [….] self-validation, and entertainment [also] affect the forms of self-presentation” and greatly influence users as they choose to reveal or alter information.

While having access and exposure is a great form of breaking geographical boundaries; it is also a matter and question of how subjective/bias the information presented online really is. Interestingly, the contrast between social media platforms and dating websites and apps highlights the various forms of identity construction employed to survive online. Social networking sites (SNS) like Facebook are used for “ ..‘anchored relationships’ which already exist outside of the medium; whereas the latter (dating apps) is to “project an identity that is desirable for persons they do not know yet.” (Ranzini and Lutz, 2016)

The emergence of digital dating platforms, LBRTD (location-based real-time dating), has introduced “flexible boundaries” for users. While former online websites such as OkCupid or allowed users to connect online through the web, now mobile-based apps are eliminating physical and virtual barriers, along with online and offline barriers as well. (Ranzini and Lutz, 2016)

However, with platforms like Tinder now operating on mobile data, users are exposed to a multitude of accounts which allow them to ‘match’ with someone with a single swipe. Schrock’s theory on the benefits of mobile media do fit in with today’s culture, where factors such as portability, availability, multimediality, locatability play a vital role in Tinder’s functioning along with its “aim to foster connections between users, and in how they affect their priorities when it comes to their self-presentation.” (Ranzini and Lutz, 2016). The dynamic of dating sites encourages users to curate their profiles in a manner most appealing to them.  However, one can question how accurate this superficial ‘match’ really is? As the app continues to facilitate connectivity amongst its compatible user-base based on their presented information, demographics, and interests; it still fails to detect whether the information presented is inaccurate or false. Users have the power to alter their names or simply refrain from mentioning anything that they believe might tarnish their self-worth. This form of situational adaptation (Goffman, 1956) does not enable human beings to create an authentic impression, but a rather customized and controlled image of themselves.

Moreover, users have the option to sync their other social media accounts to their dating profiles in order to add more context to their online presence. This “convergenceability decreases the effort for users in that they do not have to invest as much time in creating a profile as with traditional online dating.” However, research has shown that heterosexual users around the globe continue to advocate for LBRTD platforms like Tinder mainly due to its “perceived heteronormative” nature and their comfort in being able to “present themselves in a more authentic fashion compared with homosexual, bisexual, and ‘other’ users.” (Ranzini and Lutz, 2016)

With the “technosexual era, the process of dating has not only been gamified, but also sexualised, by technology.” (Chamorro-Premuzic, 2014) Once again, a certain level of manipulation exists when it comes to identity construction on such platforms based on certain “reduced cues” (Ranzini and Lutz, 2016) When evaluating countries like Pakistan, where many males choose to remain secretive about their sexual orientation, what intrigued me was the huge covert user market for platforms like “Grindr.” Due to cultural and religious constructs of the country, the app serves as a dating platform for the underground community of homosexuals. This culture of covert usage is bolstered on Goffman’s notion of how “They [users], can also assume from past experience that only individuals of a particular kind are likely to be found in a given social setting.” (Goffman, 1956: 1)

The option to customize your information enables them to “express and experiment with their identities” (Ranzini and Lutz, 2016); something not possible in many physical spaces. Therefore, it becomes apparent that users’ social, geographical and cultural backgrounds influence their online identity construction to a certain extent and also play a role in forming identities “central to the self-concept based on meaning and expectations.” (Michikyan, 2015) This theory is further highlighted in the research that reveals that women tend to use photographs for “individual expression” whilst attempting to adhere to “family expectations, religious norms and patriarchal constructions of femininity dominant in offline settings.” (Mishra and Basu, 2014)

With this concept of withholding or manipulating information, it remains unclear whether social constructions of online identities are actually genuine perceptions of one’s self or a mere reflection of social expectations and norms. With users of apps like Tinder and Grindr, “impression management takes an even more important role as it allows users to highlight information that can be desirable to potential partners.” (Ranzini and Lutz, 2016)

Hence, it appears that online identities are created in a way which is not exactly a reflection of users actual “socio-economic status, [his] conception of self, etc.” and is instead a “calculated” (Goffman, 1956: 3) move to evoke a specific reaction depending on each platform. Furthermore, it also brings in the question of audiences perceiving and decoding this information on the other end. The process of decision making involved in creating an online presence, one that is successfully received, is a depiction of the “tension between the portrayals of actual and ideal selves.” (Ranzini and Lutz, 2016)

Therefore, I believe that identity construction online is influenced by external factors and aims to adhere to certain unsaid online expectations which go beyond geographical restraints. Whether it is social media mediums like Twitter or dating sites and apps; an individual’s role in curating content online is backed by their perception of their real-self. Therefore, it seems that Goffman’s theory of individuals actually lacking a sense of “true self” and instead being dominated by their psychological identities plays a role in the way each person customizes and updates their multiple online presences on different platforms. This empowers individuals by equipping them with a space for creative expression and free speech; but creates a digital wall of doubt between those who are publishing content and those interpreting or decoding this content due to factors like choice of platform, type of multimedia, and even the number of likes or followers for accounts and posts. Therefore, the practise of being ‘behind the screens’ is a form of self-advocating for your digitally-approved self in today’s time.

Lastly, I would like to add that with technological advancement, the practise of online identity construction has also proven to be beneficial in certain cases such as gaining access to online criminal activities like child pornography. With robots and algorithms created to enter chatrooms and pose as minors, authorities have attempted to track and encounter numerous online predators. For me, this version of falsified digital identities is a bonus working to eliminate cyber crime today.

Word Count: 1550


Published by Rabiah Ahmad

Finding ways to get through -

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