First Monday

All the World Wide Web’s a stage: The performance of identity in online social networks by Erika Pearson

This paper discusses how ideas of performance can be used to conceptualize the play of identity formation on social networking sites (SNS). Linking Goffman’s theories of social performance with Granovetter’s notion of the social tie, this paper will argue that identities on SNS are deliberately constructed performances that straddle the frontstage and the backstage, the public and the private, and in doing so both support and rely upon webs of social connections which engage with fluid or playful identity constructions.


Performing identity and performance
The glass bedroom and other metaphors
Performance and social ties
Performance as discourse
Conclusion: Discursive performance and identity management




Online, users can claim to be whoever they wish. Like actors playing a role, they can deliberately choose to put forth identity cues or claims of self that can closely resemble or wildly differ from reality. With the rise of Web 2.0 and the growth of social networking sites, the virtual spaces for these portrayals of alternate identities seems near endless. But with these new sites and channels rise questions and disagreements over what constitutes public and private conversation and interaction, and the links between these manufactured and mediated identities.

This paper outlines the idea of performance relative to online social and information exchanges. More specifically, by drawing on ideas of both Goffman on identity performance and Granovetter on social ties, notions of performance will be used to discuss social interaction on SNS as a discursive activity that straddles public and private spheres so as to simultaneously maintain individual online identities.



Performing identity and performance

That individuals perform their identity is not a radical concept. Developed by Goffman (1959), identity–as–performance is seen as part of the flow of social interaction as individuals construct identity performances fitting their milieu. With a heightened self–consciousness (Chan, 2000), online environments take this construction of performance to another level (boyd and Heer, 2006). SNS platforms provide areas which are disembodied, mediated and controllable, and through which alternate performances can be displayed to others (boyd, 2006).

For Goffman, performance is a theatrical metaphor that can be used to articulate the shifting calculus of interpersonal relations that occur as we engage with others as well as exchange information — both factual and social. Assessing performance requires accounting for a number of often nebulous or inexact factors, such as hierarchical relationships or social values held by participants in the exchange. As such, some aspects of a performance may undermine or even contradict more direct or overt exchanges, such as in the ways body language can belie what a person is saying.

There are a number of interesting aspects to this issue of identity–as–performance. This paper examines one of the most fundamental aspects, that of the front–stage and back–stage of performances. As can be extrapolated from the theatrical model, the front–stage is the observable space, the setting in which explicit performances are constructed and displayed, where individuals ‘play their parts.’ There are cues and patterns to the exchange, and an awareness that the performer is in the spotlight. Less articulated, but of no less interest here, the back–stage is a more private area, where intimacy and familiarity see a relaxing of the strictures of performance (boyd, 2006).

In much of the literature on performance, the emphasis is on the embodied self moving physically between regions, with physical barriers separating the two spaces — a wall, a door, a lock. Online, however, the audience and the performer are disembodied and electronically re–embodied through signs they choose to represent themselves. This means that there are no eyes tracking a performer, no physical trace of communicators. These “unknown audiences” (boyd and Heer, 2006) are represented by the language of their avatars, shaped by the architectures of their chosen online platforms.

Internet–based performances are mediated and codified — they exist as pixels on a screen. These performances exist within the imagination of users who then use tools and technologies to project, renegotiate, and continuously revise their consensual social hallucination. Users manipulate these communicative codes, with varying degrees of skill and dexterity, to create not only online selves, but also to create the staging and setting in which these selves exist. As these SNS become more sophisticated (and as users are more acclimatized) these codified exchanges have evolved from scrolling words on a screen to avatars moving like puppets through constructed environments.

Online, these mediated environments mean that there is a blurring between front–stage and back–stage: what feels like an intimate space can be under the watchful electronic gaze of a large unknown audience; what is being acted out as a front–stage performance could have no witnesses.

In terms of online exchanges, it can be argued that the performance is suspended between the private and the public, and contains within it a mixture of attributes from both (boyd and Heer, 2006; Lee, 2006). It is a front–stage space entered into from private spaces, and contains personal, sometimes intimate, relationships. Yet it is also open to ‘outsiders’, demanding skills with codes of communication and exchange in order to convey information and ideas to others.

The use of the term ‘performative’ also emphasizes the juxtaposition between the private and the public within this space. Just as Goffman argued in relation to face–to–face interpersonal contact, users in online spaces ‘perform’ their roles using codes and signs developed through ongoing online enculturation to construct an identity that crosses the SNS stage. In doing so, these actors are (to a greater or lesser degree) aware of both other users as well as the ‘audience’ of lurkers, virtual passers–by, and wider social networks. The mediated nature of these spaces means that most information about the virtual self and its place in the network is given through deliberate construction of signs, linking back to this sense of online self–consciousness.



The glass bedroom and other metaphors

The glass bedroom is a metaphoric construct that has been informally suggested by users situated in some SNS which may be helpful in clarifying some of the tensions inherent within this idea of online performance.

The metaphor can take a number of forms, but at its core it describes a bedroom with walls made of glass. Inside the bedroom, private conversations and intimate exchanges occur, each with varying awareness of distant friends and strangers moving past transparent walls that separate groups from more deliberate and constructed ‘outside’ displays. The glass bedroom itself is not an entirely private space, nor a true backstage space as Goffman articulated, though it takes on elements of both over the course of its use. It is a bridge that is partially private and public, constructed online through signs and language.

Such codified constructions of self and setting take on different performative frames. Some exchanges are constructed with an awareness of the users beyond the glass walls and play to them, exchanging information and ideas using common signs and symbols. Users outside the bedroom may engage or not; they may move on, or they may find themselves invited into the bedroom to continue a given conversation. Other exchanges are more closely guarded, with users huddled together, ignoring those outside, and expecting those outsiders not to stand and watch, though these outsiders may choose to do so (Nardi, et al., 2004). Examples of this latter dichotomy can be found in various SNS platforms, as users exchange personal information which other users. Indeed, the original performers may express outrage, surprise, or dismay that some information becomes ‘public’ — that is, what they perceive to be an intimate exchange was observed by an ‘outsider’, an event which could be understood as a miscommunication, or even a disruption of the social expectations of the various online players involved.

A recent example of this can be found in the way journalists covering the Spitzer scandal (where Eliot Spitzer, then New York governor, was discovered to be buying services of prostitutes) found information one of the prostitutes via her MySpace profile (Hermida, 2008). Personal information, intended for perceived intimates, was subjected to public scrutiny — a disruption between a private and a public performance.

This disruption of a clear split between back–stage and front–stage, private and public, has ramifications for network formation and interpersonal relationships online. However, in order to understand these impacts, it is first necessary to consider social ties in relation to performative behaviour more generally.



Performance and social ties

Why are online performances important? If such acts served no real purpose, it would be expected that there would be a wider separation between online staging areas — that is, between public displays in designated public online spaces and private exchanges hidden behind security, passwords, or private networks, electronic equivalents of walls, doors and locks. Yet performative displays in SNS persist despite miscommunications, so it is to be assumed that they fulfill some role.

One way to explore this further is to consider SNS and performative acts within the context of strong and weak ties. First articulated by Granovetter (1973; 1983), ties have been used in a number of different contexts to help explain how information, ideas, and social energy or capital circulate between individuals, and within and between networks, particularly in mediated networks (Haythornwaite, 2002; Genoni, et al., 2005).

Strong and weak ties are distinguished by a “combination of the amount of time, the emotional intensity, the intimacy (mutual confiding), and the reciprocal services which characterize the tie.” [1] Strong ties feature high levels of emotional engagement, intimacy, and strong bonds of reciprocity — ties such as those associated with family and close friends. Weak ties describe those that link us to more distant friends and associates. The emotional engagement and intimacy required to maintain these sorts of ties are lower. Weak ties link us to the furthest nodes in a network (Granovetter, 1983) and are vital for broad heterogeneous network cohesion.

There is also a third level of tie, called the latent tie, which is used to label bonds that are technically possible within existing network structures, but which have yet to be activated. Whilst latent ties are of interest in discussions of performances of identity, it is arguable that the act of engaging, either passively (watching) or actively (bilateral communication or reciprocal performance), turns a latent tie into a weak — and perhaps even, over time, a strong — tie. Therefore, this paper will primarily be concerned with active ties.

Do active ties help explain online performance spaces that have traits akin to both public and private behaviour (Kendall, 2007)? Weak and strong ties provide a possible explanation to the persistence of performances straddling front– and back–stage, public and private space online. Therefore, it may be useful to consider strong and weak ties separately within the performance first, and ask what they contribute to both the social network and the individual’s construction of a networked (mediated) identity.

Between those who share strong ties, the performance of identity on the mediated performative platform fulfills functions which overlap with strong ties. This is not surprising, as strong ties, with their deep emotional involvement and high levels of intimacy are time– and resource–intensive, and as such may require several parallel modes or channels of interaction in order to maintain them. In virtual spaces, and particularly in these virtual performative platforms, it can be argued that strong ties utilize performative behaviours in three ways.

Firstly, performative spaces facilitated by these mediated platforms create a kind of ‘accessible privacy.’ The amount of disclosure is managed by the performer, and through this structuralist agency, the performer may wish to open the door to private or intimate aspects of their constructed identity. This sharing may take the form of reciprocal performances across platforms, or to continue the earlier metaphor, linking performers through glass walls of the metaphoric bedroom. Or it may take the form of more exhibitionist performances, which, because they are mediated through language, contain connotative displays and nuances of meaning that are only decipherable to those with a history of strong ties.

Similarly, precisely because this performance space is mediated through signs — traditionally, written text, but now increasingly graphics and audio — a space is created for mediated intimacy. It also facilitates more mundane aspects of social ties, such as the maintenance of a bond — ‘just wanted to say hi’ — or an exchange of information, both social and factual — such as ‘are you going to the party on Friday?’ or ‘did you hear about Joe?’ This aspect of performance in a mediated environment is relevant to weak ties and will be discussed later in this paper.

Thirdly, and particularly in relation to developing strong ties, performances that blur public and private allow individuals to ‘try out’ emotional engagement and intimacy before fully dedicating massive social and personal resources to strong ties. Individuals can almost experiment without risk.

This middle ground between public and private is also useful for weak ties. Just as in developing strong ties, online performances provide a useful way to maintain more diverse networks of weak ties. In particular, the structure of the performative spaces and settings means that each individual identity develops as part of its own node within a network. Each identity can be simultaneous performer and audience of other performances. This also implies that users choose the depth of their engagement on a performance–by–performance basis. Users can ‘look’ or ‘not look’ at a performance, they can choose to incorporate signs and tropes of other performances into their own as they see fit, they can perform or retreat as they choose, they can enter into the ‘glass bedroom’ of others, or stay outside, looking in. As noted earlier, these choices may lead to weak ties becoming strong as intimacy and disclosure increase over time with repetition of performance and engagement.

But even at the level of weak ties, such actively chosen engagements create low cost ways to engage in interpersonal exchanges that facilitate network maintenance. Weak ties are characterized by less intimate, more casual exchanges — passing acknowledgements of low–level bonds with individuals distant but still within our extended social networks. These online performative spaces, linked to both public and private, provide an open platform from which to acknowledge these ties, whilst at the same time demanding little expenditure of capital, time, emotional involvement. The most distant weak ties can be maintained easily. Interpersonal distance is collapsed; performative spaces allows users to develop a sense of cybernetic immediacy that fosters weak tie bonds.

This lower expenditure is also facilitated by the almost voyeuristic nature of the performative sphere online. To stretch the glass bedroom metaphor, the audience outside the walls can be as engaged or invisible as they choose to be.



Performance as discourse

Performance in mediated spaces, such as those found in Web 2.0 and SNS, is an interlocution (Burnett, 2000). As such, it requires willing and engaged participation in mediated exchanges. Whilst it is true that users can lurk, even watching a performance constitutes a form of engagement. Users who refuse to watch, refuse to perform themselves, as a result see their own bonds atrophy. Perhaps one of the reasons individuals invest in online performances is to maintain ties between disparate individuals in a mannerism that is neither wholly public in its concerns nor wholly private in its levels of intimacy and emotional engagement.

Unlike e–mail, which is a private dialogue, SNS performances are more generally accessible. These performances are coded with an open symbology — a code commonly read and understood across the network — or closed — a code that is meaningful only to a selected audience, such as those in the immediate, strong tie network. That being said, it must also be acknowledged that the ‘readers’ of the performance are themselves active, engaged, and bring with them their own interpretative frameworks with which they decode and deconstruct the performative behaviours of others.



Conclusion: Discursive performance and identity management

In essence, online performative space is a deliberately playful space. The fluidity and self–conscious platforms of performance allow individuals and networks of users to play with aspects of their presentations of self, and the relationship of those online selves to others without inadvertently risking privacy.

As Goffman originally argued, individuals construct their identities in reaction to their cohorts. To use the language of Web 2.0, individuals construct identities relative to their networks. Individuals first focus on strong ties as articulated by Granovetter — close, intimate, high–trust, long–term relations. And whilst these ties certainly affect how individuals see themselves, looking at only strong ties diminishes the importance of online performance within a wider framework of network cohesion.

Weak ties require less investment, in terms of emotion, information capital, or time. They can exist along single channels, thus diminishing the ‘noise’ of overlapping identities. This lower investment also makes playfulness a less threatening strategy — if a new identity or strategy fails, it costs relatively little to cut the tie linked to that particular performance. This isolation of playfulness is also facilitated by, and perhaps even requires, the fully mediated and self–conscious construction of online identities.

This mediated and extended performative space is playful, but one in which users are also simultaneously engaging in discursive events, conversations, and informational exchanges, as well as emotional bond maintenance. The multilayered nature of these performances not only facilitates playfulness, but also demands a kind of ‘accessible privacy’. To exchange information and maintain network cohesion, individuals need to develop a sense of intimacy, of engagement with weak tie bonds, whilst also maintaining privacy at some level.

The performative sphere creates an aura of intimacy whilst maintaining a safe distance. It facilitates the flow of information and allows users to maintain their social bonds across a distributed, mediated network. It is discursive, and the symbols of performative exchange can be replicated across networks.

Therefore, the risks of inadvertent disclosure through disrupted performance exchanges are outweighed by the potential to manage networks, ties and social bonds more effectively, and by the possibility that these mediated performances present to play with identity. The benefits outweigh the costs as online performers shift between public, private, and intermediate stagings and settings to best adapt to the fluid, multivariate and always shifting position of the user in relation to their social network. End of article


About the author

Erika Pearson is a lecturer in communications at the Department of Film, Media and Communications, University of Otago, New Zealand, focusing on digital and visual culture, new media, and social interaction online.
E–mail: erika [dot] pearson [at] otago [dot] ac [dot] nz



1. Granovetter, 1973, p. 1361.



An earlier version of this paper was presented at the CSIS Seminar, University of Otago, New Zealand. The author would like to thank Holger Regenbrecht and Andrew Long for their comments on that version of this paper.



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Editorial history

Paper received 10 April 2008; revised paper received 27 October 2008; accepted 2 February 2009.

This work is dedicated to the public domain.

All the World Wide Web’s a stage: The performance of identity in online social networks
by Erika Pearson
First Monday, Volume 14, Number 3 - 2 March 2009