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How The Internet is Changing Us

Updated on August 23, 2014
Erving Goffman, author of The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life
Erving Goffman, author of The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life | Source
Teenagers often perform in very overt ways
Teenagers often perform in very overt ways | Source

Everyday performances

We live in a theatre of sorts; a theatre of identities.[1] There are performances happening around us every minute of every day. These performances can be as simple as how you walks down the street, or hail a taxi, or greet an old friend. A teenage boy may perform these tasks with the intention of appearing grown-up and masculine, an elderly woman with the intention of appearing young, fit and sprightly. We each of us undertake every action with a certain intention in mind. We are aware that the world is watching us and that we in turn are watching the world.

The sociologist Erving Goffman wrote about such performances in his work The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life[2]. He put forward the theory that there are two types of performances, the cynical and the sincere[3]. The sincere performer is one who is ‘fully taken in by his own act; he can be sincerely convinced that the impression of reality which he stages is the real reality.’ In contrast to this, the cynical performer is one who ‘may not be taken in at all by his own routine’[4].

Let us go back to the example of a teenage boy walking down the street. He is generally not aware that he is performing and projecting a certain image of himself to those around him. For him, he is simply walking to get from A to B; he is a sincere performer. Now let’s say he notices an old girlfriend coming towards him and suddenly he becomes aware of his performance. He does not want to appear lost or sad in front of this person and so his walk takes on a jaunty step and he greets her with an air of relaxed nonchalance; this is a cynical performance in which the individual does not fully believe in their own act.

SecondLife Avatars
SecondLife Avatars | Source
Second Life can offer a tempting retreat from the real world.
Second Life can offer a tempting retreat from the real world. | Source

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Performing in cyberspace

For many of us, our daily performances are sincere. We are not generally aware of and actively controlling each gesture and facial expression in our relations with others; we simply present a reality that we believe to be true. However, once we enter the digital sphere our intrinsic ways of interacting and expressing ourselves need to be made conscious and translated throughout cyberspace. This consciousness is changing us and forcing many of us to think about the impression we’re creating, and can lead to more cynical performances as we attempt to perfect the identity we present.

There is less room for ‘sincere performances’[5] in digital worlds and virtual realities such as Facebook and Second Life . The acquiring of an online profile or avatar can lead to a desire to escape our real life performances and present a personality that is perhaps wittier, more confident, and more intelligent than what we believe our real life selves to be. Even if our performances are not entirely cynical, they are often more self-aware than in real life. E-mail and Instant Messaging brings with it the necessity to communicate aspects of personality through typed words and carefully chosen emoticons. It also allows users to edit their responses before sending them. This censoring of the self creates a self-awareness that can lead to less sincere performances than those encountered in real life.

With this increased emphasis on performance, individuals are being forced to consider their own identity in ways they may never have done before. The internet gives us the opportunity to change and re-invent ourselves through these alternate performances, and has given rise to a proliferation of what have been termed online e-personalities[6]. These personalities are connected to us and yet do things that are very unlike us. Such personalities could be described as characters.[7]Because these personalities, or characters, are somewhat separate from us, individuals can use them as a canvas on which to project and play with their identities.

Drag Queen Performer
Drag Queen Performer | Source
Pakistani Hijra
Pakistani Hijra | Source

Interview with a Pakistani Hijra

Gender performance

Gender-performances often come to the fore in virtual reality. In real life, our performances often appear intrinsic and instinctual. Most people do not think of themselves as acting either feminine or masculine. However, in virtual reality people are forced to think about how one moves or talks as a member of a particular gender. It is when one begins to think about these things that one often starts to question the sense of such categories in both the real and the virtual worlds. Gender-roles in real life have begun to be redefined in the past one hundred years or so as thinkers like Simone de Beauvoir and Judith Butler question our ideas about gender and reveal them to be mere societal constructs.[8]

We are making progress in redefining gender-boundaries and exploring the complex relationships that exists between gender-identity and gender-expression, and this progress is in turn changing how we conceive of human sexuality. Some countries are embracing these changes to a large extent. For example, in India and Pakistan eunuchs and transgender people have been granted the right to be identified as a distinct gender[9].

However, research is showing that although things are slowly changing at an official level, cultural gender-codes are still operating as strictly as ever. In M.J. Higdon’s report on Bullying and gender non-conformity in U.S. schools[10], he describes the pressure that young people come under to conform to masculine and feminine ideals and argues that this pressure does not come from peers alone, but from adults, teachers and society in general. The report highlights the difficulty young people have with expressing and experimenting with their gender-identity in the real world.

The door is open

The world of the virtual has opened a number of doorways through which safe identity-expression and sexual experimentation is possible. The cynical nature of virtual reality performances is forcing individuals to think about the ways in which they express themselves, and the relative anonymity of the internet makes it a safer space for performance and self-play than real life currently is.

It is also interesting to note the reflexive aspects of the internet, and the ways in which identities constructed online can have an effect on real life identities. The performances inform one another, and so there is a lot we can learn from our virtual selves. With the advent of the digital age, our performances have become an exploration of the self, and a search for as yet undiscovered ways of interacting with, and understanding one another.


[1] Lisa Nakamura, ‘Head-hunting on the Internet’, David Bell ed., Cybercultures: critical concepts in media and cultural studies, (New York: Routledge, 2006) p. 54

[2] Irving Goffman, The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life, (London: Penguin, 1969)

[3] ibid, p. 56-57

[4] ibid

[5] ibid

[6] Elias Aboujaoude, Virtually You: the dangerous powers of the e-personality, (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2011)

[7]Julian Dibbell describes them as such throughout his auto-biographical account of life in a web-community called LambdaMOO ; Julian Dibbell, My Tiny Life, (London: Fourth Estate, 1998)

[8] Simon de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, H.M Pashley trans., (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1984); Judith Butler, ‘Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: an Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory’,Theatre Journal, 40.4, (1988) 519-31

[9] BBC News Online, Pakistani Eunuchs to have Distinct Gender,, accessed October 30th 2011.

[10] Michael J. Higdon, ‘To Lynch a Child: Bullying and Non-conformity in our Nation’s Schools’,Indiana Law Journal, Vol 86, (2011) p. 827-878

© 2012 Emer Kelly


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    • annerivendell profile image

      annerivendell 5 years ago from Dublin, Ireland

      This is another amazing article. I've always been an admirer to Erving Goffman, but you have taken his ideas to another level by relating them to CMC. Well written and well thought out. Voted Up by me