Abstract: The purpose of this paper is to understand how young women create their identities in relation to others in online environments. I will argue that young women shape their identities in regard to the sociological influences created by others, peers and audiences alike, through the performing of their identity and the impression that they control and monitor of these displays of identity. I will discuss this using Goffman’s work on performance identity and impression management in relation to social networking sites like Instagram to show how young women are affected and influenced by others perceptions and impressions of how they display their self and their identity towards others online.
There are many ways in which young women use the internet to create, expand and learn about their identity online. Young women use social networking sites such as Instagram as a place to perform and create their identities among their peers and for an audience. I will be discussing how these young women use social media sites, and in particular Instagram, to shape and construct their online identities and use this to create a sense of belonging and connection to others to either solidify or reject an identity with the use of performance as identity and the use of impression management.
The idea of identity as performance is discussed as the way in which individuals create and construct their identities and is also the case for young women on social media sites such as Instagram. Goffman (1959 as cited in Pearson, 2009) suggests that individuals use the idea of identity as a performance for others to view online. Users of social networking sites project a certain identity that they believe their peers will find appealing in some way based on their social environment and what they perceive of their audience. Boyd and Heer (2006 as cited in Pearson, 2009) also suggests that within online environments, the individual is more aware of their sense of self and this leads to an increased sense of performance for their peers. Due to this idea of adolescents being more self-aware online confirms the idea of identity as performance as their interactions through social media sites like Instagram, by liking and sharing photos to their followers allows these individuals to perform their identity for their perceived audience. Goffman (1959, as cited in Pearson, 2009) argues that performance can be used to understand and explore the ways in which people interact and engage with each other. This can, in turn, be used to understand how individuals and in particular young women interact and engage with each other within social networking sites such as Instagram. To understand identity as a performance, it must be analysed regarding the interactions between individuals and how they engage. Within social networking sites, this must be done by viewing the ‘front-stage’ which is what can be seen of the person’s performance which is created and then displayed, and the ‘back-stage’ is what is not generally seen, where the individual tends to let their guard down, when they aren’t performing for an audience but may be closer to their true authentic selves (Pearson, 2009). This idea of performance online, however, is separate from a traditional performance as the performer in this case cannot see the eyes of their audience, they are unaware of exactly who their audience is at all times, whether or not they are people that they have personal relationships with or if they are outsiders looking in. Pearson (2009) states that young women develop a sense of identity through the online culture surrounding their peers and what is considered the norm online. They learn through following others sense of identity such as celebrities and people that they follow through sites like Instagram and then they may adapt or change their online performance from their interactions with others and the reactions they receive from showcasing their identities through social networking sites. Pearson (2009) argues that identity is something that the individual can create, consciously manipulate and direct towards a particular audience or group of people to interact with this intended audience while performing a new aspect of their identity to try out to ascertain a desired response. These online performances to create identity are significant to the development of character of the individual as they develop strong and weak ties with their audience through time, emotion, intimacy and reciprocation between them which allows the audience to feel a deeper connection with the artist or individual and makes them appear more authentic and trustworthy. Hodkinson (2015) states that users need to remain constant in their interactions and updates of their online identity to remain relevant which is instrumental in building their identity in the fast-paced lives of social media users. Geurin-Eagleman and Burch (2016) state that it is common for young women to use a mixture of front stage and backstage performances on social media suggesting a mixture between a performed identity that is controlled and intended to leave a particular impression and performances that are more authentic and show more details about the lives of the artist away from the camera to relate to their audience through communicating, interacting and engaging.
Impression management is used within social networking sites such as Instagram as a way for young women to identify with their peers, create a positive identity online and use this as a way to control or self-manage what identity is being put forward to users. Goffman (1959, as cited in Newman & O’Brien, 2008, p.120) suggests that there are two ways in which impression management is received by others: the actions that they give and then what message this action then gives off to other individuals and how they interpret it. Sylvester (2019) discusses the ways in which the performance of the self, and impression management is used online in social media sites like Instagram through the use of young women using their bodies creatively to construct their identity and what part Instagram plays within this transformation of emotional growth. Sylvester (2019) states that for an artist to be successful online, they must create a persona through which they tell their narrative and must appear credible and authentic to their audience. Goffman (1959, as cited in Newman & O’Brien, 2008) states that the way in which individuals can create a persona that controls the impression that is given off to another person is through the individuals appearance and manner. Iser (as cited in Sylvester 2019, p.65), states that reality and fiction are not opposites anymore, they are in fact, part of a group containing the real, fictive and the imaginary which Sylvester (2019) states relates to the ways in which users interact across multiple social media sites and helps to create the narrative of the persona that is interconnected and authentic. Goffman (1959, as cited in Sylvester, 2019, p.95) states that individuals should be thought of as actors who create and re-create their identity or represent their self. The increasing loss of boundaries between what is classed as the front and back stage within social media sites allows users portraying their identity to monitor and view how people react to their projected self and can adapt this to show a preferred sense of their authentic self (Sylvester, 2019). This then raises questions about how identity is presented online and how this changes how users interact socially online. It is also impacted by how an individual believes they are being perceived by their audience and how this relates to young women controlling what they share to Instagram and what lasting impression they want to leave on their audience. Caldeira (2016) suggests that Instagram helps to restore the original meaning of photography as a way of recording an event or memory while also discussing how the idea of authenticity is undecided when it comes to how truthful a person can be when taking portraits as they hold the power to change aspects about what to share with the potential audience and what to hide, therefore sharing a constructed self as to manage the impression that they send out to their audience. When deciding what aspects of themselves to share online, young women consider the opinions of other users, how they will react to what is shared, what they will perceive or what impression they will take about their identity and because of this it could be posed that the creation of self and identity is in part controlled by the audience and what reactions the individual wants the audience to take away from their performance. Sylvester (2019) argues that the perceived self of the artist or user online is not real as it is constructed by the audience and the author. Sylvester (2019) also states that the audience makes preconceptions due to stereotypes and what they currently understand about consumer culture and that it greatly affects what we decide in an online environment and therefore what we perceive as real or authentic about an artist’s identity online. Sylvester (2019) states that the “photographs, video films, the work they produce and social media interaction infuse the meaning of their identity” (p. 102). Another aspect that is also reiterated throughout is the idea of performativity is an ongoing development for the artist and is seen as a number of stories that are repeatedly enforced to construct identity and a constant stage of development and learning to continually achieve this (Butler 1999, as cited in Sylvester, 2019, p. 103).
Performed identities are either confirmed or rejected based on how they are received or resisted within social networking sites like Instagram. Buckingham (2008) and Corsaro & Eder, 1990, as cited in Mascheroni et al. 2015, p.1) states that “identities are constituted through interactions with others, by means of both identification and differentiation from the peer group” with identities considered as a social process amongst peers. Mascheroni et al (2015) also agree with the idea of impression management within social situations to determine the aspects of an individual’s identity that work in social contexts amongst their peers to learn what is appropriate online behaviour regarding rules of online interactions, and what to disclose to others. Although there is a learning curve for both genders online at a young age, there can be a distinct disadvantage and double standard when it comes to how young women are perceived of and represented online. Due to the social pressures within our culture about how we look, many young women feel these pressures online to appear and conform to a certain appearance because they want the impression that they make on others to be accepted by their audience and their peers (Mascheroni et al., 2015). Mascheroni et al. (2015) argues that “conformity to beauty standards and peer conventions is rewarded with peer validation and social legitimation as expressed by the number of likes, which are then equated to a marker of one’s popularity.” Although young women must navigate cultural norms and what is considered appropriate in social networks amongst peers to find the ways that they want to project their identity and what impression they want to make towards others, they do have the ability to reject or accept these identities.
Another instance where young women or adolescents use social networking sites to showcase their identity is when they do so in a way that rejects stereotypes or identities that have been projected onto them by taking the power of posting into their hands and pushing back against these ideals to cement their own identity. Murray (2015) argues that discussions of selfies being posted on social networking sites tend to view women as narcissistic or lonely for this behaviour while some young women think of it as empowering and a means to take back control of their lives and bodies from the primarily male-focused media. Murray (2015) also states that taken on their own, these images might not seem like much but considered as a whole it is “like a radical colonization of the visual realm and an aggressive reclaiming of the female body.” Murray (2015) suggests that what these women are aiming for is to receive acknowledgement and be noticed for how they have created their identity and for showing uniqueness and representations of people that often remain unseen. While there may be many young women that conform to the ideas of perpetuating the norms of appearance online and acting a certain way to gain attention or ‘likes’, there are also many young women who choose to reject this idea of identity (Mascheroni et al., 2015). Sylvester (2019) suggests that the way in which young female artists on social media such as Instagram, use the narrative of their identity as a way to question the way in which we perceive others and reject dominant ideologies and use Instagram and other social networking sites to test these identities. There are multiple case studies of women establishing their own gaze and taking back control of how others view their content and their identity within Murray’s work. One individual, Francesca Romeo, creates a firm and empowered female gaze within her portraits, it is forceful in the way that it establishes a female viewing experience and exploits the traditional male gaze which she takes for herself. Vivian Fu, who is also mentioned within Murray (2015) takes selfie-style photographs that challenges ethnic stereotypes and helps to show her strength regarding the ways in which she chooses to perceive of her own identity and the way she wants others to view her compared to what she considers as an overshadow of the person she actually is, largely due to stereotypes and chooses to regard her photographs as her own type of personal rebellion. Lastly, a third photographer named Matties produces portraits relating to health issues, relationships, fashion and body modification. Throughout her photos, there is the ever-present ideal to be accepted regardless of her race (half-Pakistani and half-white) and focuses greatly on beauty and her struggle with eating disorders. Matties wants to capture the effects of when an individual is faced with having to accept their body and wanted to share it from her point of view which she believed was not shown in the media. These examples illustrate the ways in which young women can solidify or reject an identity with the use of their performance and the way they control the impression that their photos make on other users. Murray (2015) states that “the range of physical and ethnic types speaks to the devaluing of women who all-to-often fall outside of the normative beauty standards promoted by Hollywood and the fashion industry.” Women choosing to redirect and reject these conforming beauty standards, in turn help to provide a safe space for women of all different types to feel comfortable within their identities and help them to create a more healthy and positive relationship with their identities online.
Through the use of performance as identity and impression management to direct the ideas that are being expressed online, young women can create and shape their identities amongst their peers and for an audience. This can be achieved through many social media sites including Instagram by considering cultural norms online for constructing identity and whether or not these individuals choose to reject or solidify their identity through these ideas of identity.