As a performing artist, the concept of performative selves is something I have already experienced. Every time I’ve sat at a piano, or stepped up to the microphone, I have easily donned and doffed the relevant personae required. In other life areas, I have also experienced fulfilling several roles, wearing multiple hats. In theory, then, concepts of performative selves online should logically follow. Yet, I have wrestled with ongoing questions of authentic self-performance in varied online spheres.

Reading Smith and Watson’s analysis of authenticity as a tool in constructing online identity, I struggled with the implication that a central ‘true self’ is a debated, outmoded concept (2014:71, 75-76). Although the validity of their position is clear, and I found many other concepts in their toolbox straightforward to apply, this one continued to nag me.  Ironically, though, the concept of automediality sparked further thoughts, as I researched bricolage – constructed, curated, multimodal selves (2014:78).

Little bits of this and that?
Mosaic by AwayWeGo210 (CC-BY 2.0)
Even messy reconstructs have beauty…
Winchester Cathedral Stained Glass 1 by Tony Hisgett (CC-BY 2.0)

So, am I an assemblage of fragments, a kaleidoscope of Louises? Or parodying the immortal W.S Gilbert, “A wandering minstrel, I; a thing of tweets and Canva’s“? If so, how do I reconcile these ideas with my desire for authenticity? Perhaps it is partly my personal faith and belief system, partly my personality (INFJ, Enneagram 4, who’s a special snowflake?!), but something in me rebels at dismissing a singular, central, authentic self.

According to Rob Cover, I am not alone in this craving for online coherence. (2014:59-61).

All these performative selves are ‘me’ – that is true.
But not ALL of me?

Photograph by Louise Mathieson, 4 December 2021.

I was challenged in class to create an image encapsulating my online identities. This exercise helped me tremendously by discovering a more helpful metaphor, replacing assembled selves with layered selves:

BabushkaLou by Louise Mathieson, 29 November 2021.

I enjoyed the paradox of labelling the smallest babushka doll as the briefest format, yet my Twitter profile as most public performative self could equally align with the surface layer.

Similarly, the outer doll, this highly personalised blog, is really a deeper part; a detailed, revelatory self-construct that is moving beyond the “public private self” (Marshall 2010:45) I have maintained on Facebook for several years.

Meditating further on layered selves helped reconcile being both unique entity and multiple personae. Each layered performative self is genuinely ‘Louise’; yet no single one is entirely, exclusively ‘Louise’; yet a commonality of ‘Louise’ moves through all of them. Somehow this is all true! Multiple Me(s) indeed:

Performative Self 2.0 by Louise Mathieson,
created with imgflip meme generator, 7 December 2021

But what is the commonality that creates an authenticity? Rob Cover’s analysis of social media performativity highlights the necessity of repetition and continuity, and how the ongoing processes of naming, selecting, updating, and sharing serve to ‘re-think the self’ (2014:64).

Therefore, my online identity, comprising all self-representations, exists as a collective in progress. While Cover’s context specifically references Facebook, the principle applies to any platform where I continually build self-shaped layers to present and re-present myself. In fact, I build these just as I do in offline spaces, with a differently sized or detailed babushka-Louise for family, friendship groups, work, and social communities. However, each conveys common threads of who I am – repeatedly expressing an ‘identity coherence’ (2014:67).

Authenticity exists across my collective selves when I continually choose coherence in performing them, maintaining them, and interconnecting them. In offline life, self-performative interactions carry and deposit my unique DNA. Similarly, my online selves may also be marked by unique personhood, through those acts of coherence I constantly make – dare I say depositing my digital DNA? Certainly, I can identify my ‘fingerprints’ across my online presence, through the artefacts I share, make, and co-make in these spaces – as Gauntlett describes in Ruskin’s appreciation for gargoyles (2015:47).

It appears I am indeed a multiplicity of Louises. Perhaps then, a better word for that central element I crave is integrity – interconnected selves simultaneously discrete and unified. This harks back to the subtle differences between assembled and layered selves – and maybe also between built and grown selves.

Digital Dendochronology by Louise Mathieson,
12 December 2021.

Perhaps, then, the best metaphor of all for the becoming of my online self is a tree. From roots to core to bark, it is intrinsically itself. The tiniest slice can be identified as part of a holistic entity. It produces multiple limbs, each differently shaped but flowing seamlessly from trunk or other branches. It regenerates torn or lopped members, lets dead ones naturally fall, and develops protective elements as required. And it continues to grow from inside out, layer by layer, even as it reseeds itself.

Like a tree then, as I perform my online identities, I seek to flourish. I look forward to continued growth and opportunities to nurture many saplings of integrated self across varied spheres and spaces.


References:

Brown A (11 March 2016) Multiple Me(s): Thinking Through My Online Identity, Digital Zones, accessed 1 November 2021

Cover R (2014) ‘Becoming and Belonging: Performativity, Subjectivity, and the Cultural Purposes of Social Networking’ in Poletti A and Rak J (eds.), Identity Technologies: Constructing the Self Online, The University of Wisconsin Press, Madison: 55-69

Drenth A J (2009) Enneagram Type 4 (4w5 & 4w3): Insights for INFJ & INFP Types,
Personality Junkie, accessed 10 December 2021

Gauntlett D (2015) Making Media Studies: The Creativity Turn in Media and Communication Studies, Peter Lang, New York 

Gilbert W S and Sullivan A S (1885) ‘A Wandering Minstrel I’, The Mikado, Public Domain. Lyrics referenced from Wikisource, The Mikado/Act I Part II, accessed 10 December 2021

Marshall P D (2010) ‘The promotion and presentation of the self: celebrity as marker of presentational media’, Celebrity Studies, 1:1, 35-48, DOI: 10.1080/19392390903519057

Smith S and Watson J (2014) ‘Virtually Me: A Toolbox about Online Self-Presentation’, in Poletti A and Rak J (eds.), Identity Technologies: Constructing the Self Online, The University of Wisconsin Press, Madison: 70-95

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