I was about to start this blog post with the words ‘Every time I look at myself online…’, but that phrasing is somewhat misleading. When I do look, the ‘me’ who’s looking is evolving just as much as – if not more than – the ever-changing persona(s) on the screen. There is no clear-cut online/offline separation in a world where digital media is ‘invisible, everywhere and always on’ (Martin 2009, p. 160). While popular understandings of digital identities continue to problematically rely on stable notions of the (true) ‘self’, postmodern themes of multiplicity and incoherence are far more useful in forming a self-impression of my online activity. The postmodernist emphasis on human identity being underpinned by a ‘fragmented, disjointed, and discontinuous mode of experience’ (Kellner 1995, p. 233) gestures to the radical shifts between, to take one example, sending formal emails as a university lecturer at one moment and self-reflexively creating conversational (and often very ‘personal’) video clips the next.
Several Twitter profiles allow me to make this kind of self-presentational shift even more rapidly, clicking between different accounts on my smartphone in a matter of seconds. I can move from (1) producing a tweet that is primarily aimed at promoting myself professionally to (2) a more informal tweet that meshes personal hobby with research interest, to (3) a very relaxed tweet that appears to reveal more of my ‘private’ side, as in the respective examples below:
In terms of Kim Barbour and David Marshall’s (2012) categorisation of different kinds of academic personae, my online behaviour places me further from the ‘formal’ and fixed broadcast-style self and more in the ‘comprehensive self’ category, which blurs the professional and the private across a number of platforms. This discontinuity allows a high degree of flexibility, providing a means of navigating and contributing to diverse online communities for the purposes of my disparate teaching and research areas, which span digital media innovation, gaming cultures, and nonhuman animal ethics. The use of multiple Twitter accounts – and particularly the semi-conglomeration of these into one main profile – to connect with very different publics minimises the possibility of sharing irrelevant and annoying tweets, but does require a consistent effort to stay active across several personas and find the right balance. Of course, Twitter also serves as an immensely useful way to share content on other media platforms.
The below Easel.ly infographic I made for students in 2013 still symbolically captures some of the connections I make between my online identity(s):
This visual representation makes clear the distinction between those sites or programs that generally compel (through their design and conventions of use) the production of a more ‘serious’ and ‘professional’ persona, such as Academia.edu and LinkedIn, and those on which I construct a more ‘impersonal’ self, such as YouTube. However, looking again at this compilation several years after its creation, it seems very outdated now – both in terms of aesthetic quality (I think students could do much better – hint hint!) and in terms of how since then, more personas have arisen, some have split apart, and others have converged more closely together.
It’s important for all social media users to bear in mind the primary reason for engaging in online forums: connectivity – or what C. Waite (2013, p. 16) identifies as an individual’s dependency on ‘virtual copresence’. Thinking critically, creatively, and carefully about how one is situated within virtual communities is crucial to establishing an effective online presence. In a sense, my digital endeavours attempt to build what might be termed a ‘coherent incoherent’ identity. Reflecting the postmodern conception of the self outlined above, recent research has pointed to frequently updated profile pictures ‘becom[ing] a short hand for changing, up-to-the-minute performances of self’ (Hills 2010, p. 118). However, I don’t tend to change my primary profile picture all that often, but rather use a consistent ‘formal’ image of myself across most platforms to enhance recognisability and searchability. Metaphorically, my profile picture might (as suggested in the infographic above) be viewed as an anchor around which I construct a multiplicity of often contradictory, if not at times ‘incoherent’, online selves.
By appearing – or ‘performing’ – as a serious professional in my main profile picture, this will hopefully counter-balance any negative impression garnered by my more fluid, often self-deprecating, self-depictions in other forms. For instance, I consciously and reflexively think through my presentation of self as if playing a series of characters, no matter what platform I’m using. My construction of a multiplicity of selves can be found in my fragmented appearances in my teaching videos (as in the image below), in which I intend to disrupt the still widely commonplace notion of a ‘true self’ with performances that are at once compellingly authentic and entirely ‘artificial’.
Addressing the notion of the ‘intercommunicative self’, Marshall writes of the ‘necessity of linking one’s own identities into some sort of pattern’ (2010, p. 42). This underlines the importance of ensuring one’s various profiles are consistent and linked when and where useful. My About.Me profile, for example, serves as a useful ‘hub’ for these connections; the ‘cross-pollination’ element of such sites is pervasive and highly valuable – if used effectively. Yet no matter how careful one is in depicting oneself online, it is crucial to acknowledge that the self is as much ‘an effect of representation’ as it is something that is ‘expressed through online practices’ (Poletti and Rak 2014, p. 4).
Returning to the theme with which I began, just as I influence other people’s perceptions of me through my online behaviour, so too do my virtual personae impact on my own understanding of who I am. An awareness of this issue is particularly important at a time when images of oneself can be uploaded to any number of sites with impunity, highlighting that one ultimately lacks control over one’s self in significant ways. For example, in one of my seminars in 2014, I sat awkwardly under a table in an attempt to highlight the need to break down traditional power relations between students and teacher. One student in the room took a photograph of me and tweeted it (which I only discovered once the seminar had concluded). This great example serves to highlight the point I was making in the seminar perfectly: the rise of digital media and the surveillance society that comes with it has already provided the means to disrupt conventional power relations, whether we like it or not…
(1,076 words, not including citations and captions)
Barbour, K and Marshall, D 2012, ‘The academic online: constructing persona through the World Wide Web’, First Monday: Peer-reviewed Journal of the Internet, vol. 17, no. 9, 3 September, retrieved 18 July 2013, http://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/3969/3292#p3.
Hills, M 2009, ‘Case study: social networking and self-identity’, in Creeber, G and Martin, R (eds.), Digital Cultures: Understanding New Media, Open University Press, Maidenhead, pp. 117-21.
Kellner, D 1995, Media Culture: Cultural Studies, Identity, and Politics Between the Modern and the Postmodern, Routledge, London and New York.
Marshall, P D 2010, ‘The promotion and presentation of the self: celebrity as marker of presentational media’, Celebrity Studies, vol. 1, no. 1, pp. 35-48.
Martin, R 2009, ‘After New Media: everywhere always on’, in Creeber, G and Martin, R (eds.), Digital Cultures: Understanding New Media, Open University Press, Maidenhead, pp. 157-63.
Poletti, A and Rak, J 2014, ‘Introduction: digital dialogues’, in Poletti, A and Rak, J, Identity Technologies: Constructing the Self Online, The University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, pp. 3-11.
Waite, C 2013, The Digital Evolution of an American Identity, Routledge, New York.