February 11, 2012

The Role of Performance in Online Life

In Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together, the author writes:

Brad says, only half jokingly, that he worries about getting "confused" between what he "composes" for his online life and who he "really" is. Not yet confirmed in his identity, it makes him anxious to post things about himself that he doesn't really know are true. It burdens him that the things he says online affect how people treat him in the real. People already relate to him based on things he has said on Facebook. Brad struggles to be more "himself" there, but this is hard. He says that even when he tries to be "honest" on Facebook, he cannot resist the temptation to use the site "to make the right impression." On Facebook, he says, "I write for effect. I sit down and ask, 'If I say this, will it make me sound like I'm too uptight? But if I say this, will it make me sound like I don't care about anything? He makes an effort to be "more spontaneous on Facebook . . . to actively say, 'This is who I am, this is what I like, this is what I don't like, but he feels that Facebook "perverts" his efforts because self-revelation should be to "another person who cares." For Brad, it loses meaning when it is broadcast as a profile.

I’m not a teenager like Brad, but I share a lot of his concerns. Turkle uses the word performance frequently when describing public and semi-public life on places like Facebook and Twitter, and it’s an apt description.

Perhaps it comes from the reaction many have when they’re sent a mass email, but I’ve always felt that the meaning of a message changes as the number of people receiving it increases. Most of my electronic communication tends to revolve around email and instant messaging with close friends; the few online communities I’ve truly felt a part of have all been gated and largely inaccessible to the general public. Communications within these realms is bounded, and context is well-defined; it’s easy to figure out what my message will mean to its recipients, whether it will be interpreted as spam, vulgarity, hilarity, or saving face. Yet beyond the mechanics of conversation lies a basic belief that the fewer people receive my message, the more it will mean to each of them.

Consequently, however, places like Facebook, Twitter, and public forums mean little to me, at least when it comes to creating and maintaining authentic connections with others. These may be places for carefully crafted banter, rational discourse, or using humanity as a lazyweb—but they are not places that feel like home.

© Atul Varma 2020