If you have spent any amount of time online (and given that you’re reading this article, there’s a pretty decent chance that you have), you have most likely also considered your identity, specifically, your online identity. You’ve probably considered how you present yourself in your online realm: what to put in your bio…which photo to use as your profile picture du jour…how your comments, likes, retweets, and other virtual reactions come across to the people in your orbit.
Sociologist Erving Goffman called this our presentation of self, and while Goffman published most of his work in the 1960s and 70s, it is not outlandish to see, as many contemporary sociologists have, that his theories are widely applicable to our online social interactions today. During any form of social interaction, whether consciously or subconsciously, we are always evaluating and editing the us that we want other people to see, but when that presentation happens in an online world, we face a more complex task of presenting a disembodied self.
While technological advancements have allowed us to present a digitized body (e.g. with photos and video chats), we still lack what is called corporeal copresence in online interaction (i.e. our bodies aren’t occupying the same physical space as our interaction partners’ bodies).
Who am I? Who are you?
But who we are isn’t just what we let others see. It isn’t something static that exists underneath our skin waiting to be revealed. While the concept of identity is still debated within the field of sociology (and even more so in other fields), I belong to the camp that argues that identity formation is a life-long process. Throughout our entire life course, we are constantly presenting and constructing our identities.
Sociologist Charles H. Cooley established the groundwork for understanding the ways that our sense of self is developed during social interaction. In his theory on the looking glass self (‘looking glass’ is just a poetic word for ‘mirror’), Cooley argued that we develop a sense of self based on our interpretations of how others see us.
For example, I consider myself to be a relatively funny person. I like to make people laugh, and I always feel accomplished when I can land a well-placed and well-timed joke. But how did I come to this conclusion? I certainly don’t stand in front of the mirror telling jokes for my own amusement. I don’t have some rubric that I use to evaluate the objective quality of my jokes (I promise, I don’t). Instead, I use the feedback that I receive from people during social interaction. Step 1: tell a joke. Step 2: people respond to my joke. Step 3: I interpret that response (this is a crucial step!). Step 4: my interpretations influence my sense of self.
Why is Step 3 so important? Let’s say I tell a joke to someone I just met, and they laugh boisterously for two glorious minutes. Is that proof that I’m a funny person? Hell no. Maybe they are laughing out of pity (is nobody else laughing…?). Maybe they’re trying to suck up to me. Maybe they are laughing at me. Sure, I can use context clues to figure out which one it is, but ultimately, I have to interpret their response, and my interpretation will have consequences.
Here’s the kicker: what happens to our ability to develop a sense of self when, in online interaction, our interaction partners are also disembodied and, occasionally, anonymous? How do we gauge their responses to our presentations of self? How do we get that feedback when we can’t actually see and/or experience the interaction in a shared physical space? In a 2005 article from Symbolic Interaction, sociologist Shanyang Zhao asks us to consider how having a looking glass that is made up of telecopresent others (i.e. interaction partners that are only “present” through telecommunications) has made our online selves different from our offline selves.
The Looking Glass Emoji
In a previous contribution to the Science & Tech segment, Emily Menges connected Orwell’s Newspeak in 1984 to the minimization of language down to emojis. While she hypothesized about the effect this limited language has on brain development, we can also extend this line of inquiry to our understanding of how a sense of self is developed online. So, how do we get feedback in telecopresence? Emojis, of course! (Also see: likes, retweets, upvotes, reactions, etc.).
Language evolves. So does interaction. There’s no doubt that online interaction is here to stay. What I find so remarkable is how we have adopted communication techniques to mimic the nuances of offline interaction in our online spaces. Where we were once limited by text-speak in online interaction, we now supplement that interaction with all of the features mentioned above.
As a sociologist, I am trained to pay attention to meaning beyond words. Language is more than just the words we use. It is also how we use those words, including what we choose to say or not say, and the nonverbal gestures and behaviors that go along with that communication. As we continue to develop our sense of self online, how are we making use of non-textual language to communicate meaning? How are we using emojis, likes, retweets, upvotes, and reactions to provide feedback to the presentation of other people?
Why does any of this matter? I’m not here to convince you of the merits of offline vs. online interaction (or vice versa). That’s for you to judge for yourself. But I do challenge you with this: take time to be cognizant of how online interaction is affecting your sense of self and the sense of self of the people with whom you are communicating.
What if we could change online interaction, maybe even for the better, simply by being more intentional with our communication? When was the last time you considered how your choice of emoji, or whether to retweet or not, has impacted someone else’s sense of self? To clarify, I am not suggesting that we are responsible for other people’s identity, but I am challenging all of us to take responsibility for the ways that our online decisions, especially the way we use language, can impact those around us.
One of the most important lessons that I have learned from literature, especially novels like 1984, is that language, in every form, is powerful. A common theme throughout all great dystopian stories is how those in positions of authority use language as a method of control. This race to control language should be a testament to its power.
Sameness and Precision of Language
In an attempt to keep myself somewhat sane during this pandemic, I’m trying this thing where I go back and re-read some of the books that were influential during my pre-adult days. Right now, that includes the poems of Shel Silverstein (I recently found my copy of Where the Sidewalk Ends!), most of the books that I was supposed to read in high school, and relevant to our current discussion, The Giver by Lois Lowry. I actually hadn’t realized until this most recent reread how rightly The Giver had set me on a path towards a deep love of dystopian fiction.
For those unfamiliar with the novel, it follows 12-year-old Jonas as he becomes the Receiver of Memories in a (seemingly) utopian society that has eliminated pain and suffering through the act of “Sameness.” As the memories of times past are passed down to him from the Giver, Jonas begins to learn that with the elimination of pain also comes the loss of everything that makes us truly human, such as creativity, individuality, and love.
Similar to 1984, Lois Lowry warns us to be skeptical when people in positions of power try to control language. The members of the society in The Giver stress the importance of precision of language. Language is to be succinct and efficient. There is no room for hyperbole, metaphor, or flourish. After Jonas receives a memory from the Giver about love, he returns to his family and asks his parents if they love him. The question creates an awkward moment where his parents explain that he has used a “very generalized word, so meaningless that it’s become almost obsolete...” Instead, his parents encourage him to ask if they enjoy him or take pride in his accomplishments, to which they respond “yes”.
For Jonas, who has now experienced a memory of love, the word ‘love’ is not meaningless. In fact, it is in that moment that Jonas begins to realize the true importance of language.
Technologies of Surveillance
So, how does The Giver relate back to this idea of identity formation online? While the genre is certainly evolving, the dystopian fiction that I grew up reading predates the widespread use of social media, texting, and emojis. Rarely, if ever, did these early works address disembodied interaction in the way that we experience it in the 21st century.
In addition to the challenges posed by writing scenes of digital interaction, many classical dystopian authors weren’t yet able to conceive of a world where so much of our interaction is disembodied (I’m sure Orwell would be shocked to learn that I spend 15-20 hours a week in Zoom meetings…). However, where classical (and even contemporary) dystopian fiction does excel is in warning us of the dangers of surveillance technology.
In The Giver, society’s members are under constant surveillance from cameras, wall speakers, and patrols. It is through this surveillance (and also with a special pill taken daily) that the committee of Elders is able to maintain Sameness and order. Essentially, every member not only knows that they are being surveilled, they also accept it as necessary for maintaining an orderly society. (French philosopher Michel Foucault also wrote extensively on the ways that surveillance encourages people to police their own behavior.) Jonas experienced this directly after he intentionally took an apple home from school one day:
“Everyone had known, he remembered with humiliation, that the announcement ATTENTION. THIS IS A REMINDER TO MALE ELEVENS THAT OBJECTS ARE NOT TO BE REMOVED FROM THE RECREATION AREA AND THAT SNACKS ARE TO BE EATEN, NOT HOARDED had been specifically directed at him, the day last month that he had taken an apple home. No one had mentioned it, not even his parents, because the public announcement had been sufficient to produce the appropriate remorse. He had, of course, disposed of the apple and made his apology to the Recreation Director the next morning, before school. Jonas thought again about the incident. He was still bewildered by it. Not by the announcement or the necessary apology; those were standard procedures, and he had deserved them--but by the incident itself.” Lowry, The Giver
Surveillance as Social Interaction
Now what if we were to look at surveillance, especially the kind that Jonas experiences with the apple (where he is notified of his infraction via disembodied voice) as social interaction? In fact, it closely resembles the kind of telecopresent interaction that I outlined above. While Jonas is embodied during this interaction, his interaction partner (the voice coming out of the speaker) is disembodied. He cannot see the person behind the speaker; however, the feedback that Jonas receives (in the form of a vague reminder), and his interpretation of the feedback help him develop his sense of self in that moment, a self that was committed to maintaining the order of his society.
In the same way that the feedback that Jonas receives is made public, so is much of our interaction online. While we certainly still have private digital conversations, we also lay out many of our interactions for everyone to see. When you post a picture on Instagram, not only can you see how many “likes” and comments it receives, so can everyone else that has access to your profile. The feedback is observable, and it is therefore subject to judgment from others, which in many ways makes it even more influential to our sense of self.
(Such a scenario is not unique to the online world. We experience a similar form of public feedback when speaking or performing in front of an audience. However, there is certainly something intriguing about online feedback in that it is archived and available for public consumption over and over again.)
Along this line of thinking, isn’t most of our online interaction, particularly with social media, just mutual social surveillance? You present yourself, for example in an Instagram post; your followers view that post and offer feedback in the form of likes, reposts, and comments; you then interpret their feedback (which you know is also being interpreted by your other followers); finally, you adjust your sense of self based on those interpretations. And then we do it all over again…
So, we’ve come full circle. There is so much that we still don’t understand about how social media influences our sense of self. But I urge you again to carefully consider the decisions that you make during online interaction, particularly with interaction that is also on public display. Social media can so easily devolve into a destructive wasteland, but I do believe that we have the ability, and the responsibility, to push back.
While it’s mostly unrelated, I’d like to leave you with my favorite quote from The Giver:
“Jonas nodded. ‘I liked the feeling of love,’ he confessed. He glanced nervously at the speaker on the wall, reassuring himself that no one was listening. ‘I wish we still had that,’ he whispered. ‘Of course,’ he added quickly, ‘I do understand that it wouldn’t work very well. And that it’s much better to be organized the way we are now. I can see that it was a dangerous way to live.’”
Maybe life isn’t meant to work well all the time. Maybe sometimes we’re meant to live dangerously.
References and Further Reading
Foucault, Michel. 1977. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Pantheon Books.
Goffman, Erving. 1959. The Presentation of Self In Everyday Life. Garden City, NY: Anchor Books.
Lowry, Lois. 1993. The Giver. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company.
Zhao, Shanyang. 2005. “The Digital Self: Through the Looking Glass of Telecopresent Others.” Symbolic Interaction 28(3):387-405.
- JL Snyder
Other Contributed Work by JL Snyder: