Forbes: Performing Identity Online


The following is the fourth in a series of excerpts from Dr Marcia Forbes’ new book, STREAMING: Volume 1; #Social Media, Mobile Lifestyles.

By Marcia Forbes, PhD

Look at Meeee!!

It has been said that we write ourselves into existence online. While this is true, it may be more apt to say that we perform ourselves into existence. After all, language is a type of performance, as are pictures, photographs and other visuals. As the politically opinionated, raucous and wildly humorous @bigblackbarry exited Twitter on December 29, 2010, he declared via a tweet replete with word play, “6 days before I restore this profile. And a new gentler, politically correct, humane, non-partisan asshole shall arise in this space.”

His declaration concurs with Annette Markham’s observation that “in cyberspace the self has a high degree of perceived control.”[i] Disembodied and “living as bits and bytes in cyberspace,”[ii] here was @bigblackbarry exerting his agency to reinvent himself and return as a different online character. Via DM (remember this means direct message), he told me he would be more “corporate.”

I’m not happy. He had given me endless laughter with his concoctions of Jamaican expletives coupled with a sarcastically wicked wit, especially pertaining to political affairs in the island. I am going to miss the online performances of @bigblackbarry who, when I met him in person at the launch of Music, Media & Adolescent Sexuality in Jamaica, was anything but big or black, in the racial use of that word by Jamaicans.

Neither was his name, “Barry.” The person who introduced himself to me at the launch, small and soft-spoken, was entirely the opposite of how I had envisaged @bigblackbarry to look and sound.

His performance on Twitter had captivated my attention and fooled me entirely, raising issues of trust online and of my own judgment. If, as a grown woman, seasoned communications practitioner and high in “Internet self-efficacy”[iii] I could have got it so wrong, what about impressionable teenagers?  How easy would it be to beguile them?

Whether texting, tweeting, messaging, facebooking or posting to YouTube, it is performance that takes centre stage. This is especially so considering the hugely popular YouTube with its reported 48 hours of videos loaded per minute[iv].  danah boyd (yes, she uses lower case for her name), new media scholar and author extraordinaire, represents herself as @zehpora on Twitter. In a May 10, 2011 tweet she succinctly captures the importance of performance to life today, “In 80s, Barbara Kruger: “I shop therefore I am.” Today: I am watched, therefore I am.” Identity formation is now entirely tied up in performances. Some argue that this is nothing new; that we have always performed who we are. The Bard knew this.

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts.

This book, the first of a two part series, is available in hard copy as well as various eBook formats. Download your Kindle copy here. STREAMING is also available here.

Or, click the picture:

[i] Markham, Life Online, p. 20, 1998.

[ii] Bell in Gelder (ed.), The Subcultures Reader, p. 555, 2005.

[iii] Whitty and Joinson, Truth, Lies and Trust on the Internet, pp3, 2009.



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