We all love a little performance – particularly when it comes down to how we present ourselves, and in turn our ‘self’ identity, online. Overall constructions of online identity continue to evolve, as do the platforms available online for creating these identities. The rise of what literature commonly refers to as ‘Media 2.0’, has brought about a ‘broadcast era’ in media – with a strong focus and reliance on user generated content (Merrin 2009). This era of media, and the plethora of publicly available social and other online platforms, gives the average user a toolbox for creating and constructing identity(s) online (Cover 2014, p. 58-59). I will be using elements of my own online presence throughout this post to help showcase and evaluate this notion of a constructed and evolving online identity. In particular, focusing on the interdependence of offline and online identity.
User generated content is arguably one of the largest differences in a ‘Media 2.0’ vs ‘traditional’ media world – where individuals not only can but are actively encouraged to create content online (Merrin 2009, p. 24). This ‘broadcast era’ of content has shifted the dial on how we view audience in relation to media. While audience has always been a critical consideration in media creation – it now embraces a shifting complexity with users not only being able to consume media, but also creating their own (Merrin 2009, p. 24). This brings the idea of audience beyond traditional media companies (a media 1.0 world) to a level of personal consideration, as users have easy access to a variety of online ‘tools’ to help construct their own online identity through the creation of their own media (Smith & Watson 2014). Smith & Watson (2014, p. 70-71) flag the importance of noting that this online identity is not mutually exclusive or necessarily separate from an offline existence, but is a blurred and continuing expression of our ‘self’ and therefore simply another tool of self expression. Cover (2014, p. 55) reiterates this beautifully when describing online identity as being an “…ongoing and reflexive performance and articulation of selfhood that utilizes the full range of tools available…”.
But what does this increased volume of user generated content and easily accessible platforms, such as Instagram and Facebook actually mean for online identity?
Looking further into the idea of “…relationship and selfhood as one where users have pre-existing identities” Cover forces us to consider that a users offline identity doesn’t simply stop when faced with the opportunity for the construction of an online identity (Cover 2014, p. 59). Decoded: when we sit down at a computer or other device, we still carry with us an identity that influences our decisions online and therefore, ultimately our ‘online identity’. The constant evaluation, evolution, construction and tweaking of our ‘self’ identity online is in many ways quite similar to our offline world (Cover 2014, p. 59). Social media platforms in particular give the public easy access to so many of the tools for “performative coherence” with our self expression (Cover 2014, p. 59). Through my own use of social media and as a creator of digital content – I actively participate in this concept through the use of platforms such as Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and more. Contributing to these platforms can be argued to be a performative and conscious act of creating my ‘self’ online. Within these online tools users such as myself, tend to cherry pick what is and, sometimes more importantly, isn’t publicly shown, much like in the restraints of our offline lives (Cover 2014, p. 60-62; Smith & Watson 2014, p. 70). The nature of both online and offline identities, as discussed by Smith & Watson (2014, p. 70) is that they are both interactive (drawing in the many different networks in our lives), evolving and are unable to exist in separation from one another.
Using some of the elements of my own online identity, such as the above collection of my current social media profiles, we can see in action elements of Cover’s (2014, p. 59) theory of pre-existing (i.e.offline) identities being brought into our online identity. As a ‘real life user’ of the online and offline world, the interactivity of my professional and personal networks – is shown throughout my social media. I simultaneously use social media to help promote my freelance illustration work, as an online resume for my marketing position and as a ‘personal’ social networking platform. In a world that typically requires an online identity for work as well as our personal lives, I find the the balancing act of the various aspects of my private/personal life, corporate work requirements and illustration work an interesting challenge.
The infographic below, starts to breakdown some of these elements of my online identity – by looking at some of the facets of what makes up ‘Natasha’ including the:
- Fashion graduate
- Marketing & Communications professional
- Crazy dog lady
- Coffee addict
This breakdown simplifies my online identity to some core elements by intended audience and purpose. These categories are all core fundamentals of my ‘self’ identity – but the content created for each element and associated platform often has very different audiences and therefore very different considerations.
Smith & Watson (2014, p. 70-71) outline that the various parts of a person’s identity come together as a whole and are a reflexive expression of self – whether on or offline. With the archival nature of online platforms, the ability to retrospectively view the evolution of content, and in reality the identity it conveys, is something that I find particularly interesting. I find this ability to ‘look through the archives’ a uniquely different aspect to my online identity. As a visual person, I find this highly useful when looking at posts created via my Instagram accounts – through my core personal account/identity (@tashthepixie) and my illustration work (@natashadeardenthelabel). Looking back over a period of time on these two accounts it reinforces for me the constantly evolving nature of identity.
The conscious choice of what audience and ultimately purpose each online platform has, is not something that I have always considered – but is an area that I hope to improve on. The ability to easily switch between multiple accounts on platforms such as Instagram helps me to give these various parts of my identity a unique “home” while still allowing these different aspects of myself to link to one another, where relevant. For example – the linking from my personal Instagram account to my illustration work as shown below.
I find one of the greatest challenges with online identity to be the increasing “blurring” of once more drastically separate professional and personal worlds online, as discussed by Smith & Watson (2014, p71). The balancing act of revealing “appropriate” aspects of identity across platforms such as Instagram, which host both personal and professional content for myself, is always top of mind in this era of broadcast media.
The evolving construction of our online identities in this ‘media 2.0’ world – driven by user generated content, for myself and many others continues to be a performative act (Cover 2014, p. 66). Much like my “offline” self, I believe that my online identity will continue to evolve – hopefully acting as an important tool in the overall construction of my ‘self’ in the world. Through analysis of the audience and purpose of the key platforms I use online it’s clear that the use of online tools is a critical element to the performance that is the ongoing construction of identity. Here’s to the next act!
Cover, R 2014, ‘Becoming and belonging: performity, subjectivity, and the cultural purposes of social networking’’, in Poletti, A and Rak, J, Identity Technologies: Constructing the Self Online, The University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, pp. 55-69
Merrin, W 2009, ‘Media Studies: 2.0: Upgrading and open source the discipline’, Interactions: studies in Communication and Culture, vol. 1, no. 1, pp. 17-34
Smith, S and Watson, J 2014, ‘Virtually Me: A Toolbox about Online Self-Presentation’, in Poletti, A and Rak, J, Identity Technologies: Constructing the Self Online, The University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, pp. 70-95