Skip to main content
SearchLoginLogin or Signup

Introduction: Performance and Authenticity

Published onJul 15, 2021
Introduction: Performance and Authenticity

All the world is not, of course, a stage, but the crucial ways in which it isn’t are not easy to specify.—Erving Goffman1

ONE PREMISE OF this course reader is that the self on social media is suspended between authenticity and performance. The dilemma, which may be an opportunity too, is that the authentic self must be performed—enacted, with forethought and even calculation. To stage manage oneself, then, is to violate a tenet of authenticity: that expression should be spontaneous and unrehearsed. The crux of the dilemma is the ability to curate impressions that most social media apps grant. The services, by way of time-delayed self-editing, give users lots of performative control. In practice this means that the demand to present an authentic self can be met with deliberate care. Other users—the audience for these iterative performances—know this about social media: They too tailor their posts and plandids to come off as #unfiltered. The result is mutual awareness of calculation, a presumption that the seemingly authentic is instead an artifact of strategy. This leaves everyone, from the casual user to the self-employed influencer, caught in a bind.

This collection’s second premise de-stabilizes the first. The implicit contrast to engineered spontaneity on Instagram is the so-called real world: The space of face-to-face talk, allegedly free of premeditated impression management. But a moment’s reflection complicates the apparent contrast. We were, long before Mark Zuckerberg dreamed up Facebook in a dorm, already performing. We manage the way we come off to others in the offline world too. The classic statement of this truth—that all the world’s a stage—is Erving Goffman’s 1959 book, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. According to the Canadian sociologist, we are our own handlers, keen to give off good impressions to others—even in pre-internet conditions of real-time co-presence. Goffman’s “dramaturgical” framework is rich with the vocabulary of the theater: actors, roles, props, and the backstage.

Goffman, of course, did not anticipate Snapchat or TikTok. His attention was on the face-to-face encounter, bounded in place and time. This was a world of segregated audiences, in which performance could be adapted to the occasion: “Many a youth who is demure enough before his parents and teachers, swears and swaggers like a pirate among his ‘tough’ young friends,” in the memorable words of the nineteenth-century psychologist William James, quoted by Goffman.2 On social media, in contrast, our different social worlds collide, and the stuff we post sticks around. Audiences can still be segregated, through Finstas and other creative means, but the online self has choppier waters to navigate. It’s a partial compensation, perhaps, that most platforms grant more performative command than real-time speech—but this is just to ramp up the impression-management stakes. One likely effect is heightened self-consciousness—awareness that a performance is a performance, presented to an audience whose shape can only be guessed at.

So there are real differences between the new theater-in-the-round and the bounded stage of offline life, even if the latter is no performance-free zone. Coming off as genuine—to circle back to the theme of authenticity—is probably harder on Instagram and the other apps. This takes us to the course reader’s third and final premise: that the injunction to be yourself, so loudly trumpeted in twenty-first century America, is itself relatively new. The very ideal of authenticity—that each of us has inner depths to discover and express—would strike our eighteenth-century forebears as baffling. It was only with the rise of Romanticism in nineteenth century art and literature that the ideal won a cultural beachhead. First among elites, and then more broadly, the summons to find and express one’s true self came to seem compelling, even urgent. As Americans poured into cities and took up work in factories, the desire to stand out from the crowd—to be somebody—was fed by the experience of urban anonymity and fanned by the then-new medium of film. By the 1920s, a full-fledged consumer economy was catering to, and also stimulating, the popular demand for individual self-expression.

There was something paradoxical about all this. The consumers’ republic of interwar America cast authenticity in a showy, storebought light. The cultural expectation was to be a black sheep, to stand out. But self-discovery was paired to, and sometimes subsumed by, the aim to attract the rapt attention of others. The historian Warren Susman summed up the contradiction: “One is to be unique, be distinctive, follow one’s feelings, make oneself stand out from the crowd, and at the same time appeal—by fascination, magnetism, attractiveness—to it.”3 Americans were asked—indeed, implored by advertisers—to cultivate a charming originality, on the promise that friends would be won and people influenced. The message was: Be true to yourself; it is to your strategic advantage.

If this sounds familiar—if this twentieth-century story of authenticity and performance reads like a foreword to our own—that’s because we also blend self-promotion with expressive distinction. We too are enjoined to master the arts of impression management, to come off as appealingly authentic. Writing in the 1940s, the psychoanalyst Erich Fromm observed that Americans are called on to sell themselves on the “personality market”—to develop those features which “can best be sold.” Fromm’s personality market is our self-brand, and the message we receive, 75 years later, is the same: The best way to get ahead is to consciously cultivate an authentic persona. In the process we experience ourselves, to quote Fromm again, as both “the seller and the commodity to be sold.”4

So we are, in 2021, back in the ’20s. We have inherited the dilemma, still struggling with the puzzle of how to stage authenticity. The task, if anything, is now more onerous, with our fingers hovering, and hesitating, over the post button.

How to Use This Reader

Social Media & the Self was created with undergraduate students in mind, on the expectation that a professor might use the collection in a course. The readings, all of them previously published, were selected to address key themes in accessible prose, presented as a deliberate (if not rigid) order. In a nod to the theatrical context, the collection is divided into “acts,” five of them, followed by a handful of “encore” readings that speculate on the shareable future.

You’ll notice that the course reader is entirely online; there’s no used copy to rush order from Amazon. Social Media & the Self is, as the subtitle has it, “An Open Reader.” What this means is that every article, chapter, or excerpt is free to access. Some of the selections are in the public domain, unburdened of copyright; others carry “open access” licenses that allow, and even encourage re-publication. The remainder are outbound links to articles that are copyrighted, but otherwise free to read. In some cases, it’s true, “free to read” deserves an asterisk—as when the host publication, like Wired or The New Yorker, furnishes a small monthly quota of free articles that, once expended, brings down a paywall. To prevent such lockouts, Social Media & the Self is designed so that no publication’s monthly meter is maxed out, assuming the typical pacing of a semester-length course.

The collection is free on principle. Social Media & the Self is part of a growing movement to make course textbooks and other materials free to read. The community has settled on an inelegant name for such works, calling them open educational resources (OERs). The movement’s aim is to counter the usurious pricing of the big commercial publishers. Higher education in the U.S. is already too expensive, with textbook costs compounding the insult. OERs like Social Media & the Self are meant to relieve some of that burden.5

The social media landscape is ludicrously unstable. Over the course of a single semester, the whole scene—the mix of popular apps, the corporate rivalries, the latest features—may change. That shape-shifting character is a challenge for a course reader like this. The plodding pace of scholarly publication, indeed, is one reason Social Media & the Self includes so much long-form journalism. The work of smart journalists stands in for scholars whose research may not see print for years. Another strategy to address the topical churn is regular revision: Social Media & the Self will be updated with new material at least twice a year, in concert with the typical North American academic calendar.


In a sense, this collection was conceived in 2009, when I spent a semester at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication. I taught a course, The Consuming Self: From Flappers to Facebook, whose themes are echoed in Social Media & the Self. I also gave a talk on “The Facebook Self,” which turned into a book chapter on calculated authenticity.6 My four Annenberg doctoral students—Brooke Duffy, Heidi Khaled, Brett Bumgarner, and Joel Penney—helped me think through the ideas in the published talk. They were joined by a decade’s worth of undergraduate enrollees in a successor course at Muhlenberg College called, fittingly, Social Media and the Self. It is to all of them that I dedicate this collection.

No comments here
Why not start the discussion?