Identity Performance

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In everyday interactions, the body serves as a critical site of identity performance. In conveying who we are to other people, we use our bodies to project information about ourselves.[1] This is done through movement, clothes, speech, and facial expressions. What we put forward is our best effort at what we want to say about who we are. Yet while we intend to convey one impression, our performance is not always interpreted as we might expect. Through learning to make sense of others’ responses to our behavior, we can assess how well we have conveyed what we intended. We can then alter our performance accordingly. This process of performance, interpretation, and adjustment is what Erving Goffman calls impression management.[2] Impression management is a part of a larger process where people seek to define a situation[3] through their behavior. People seek to define social situations by using contextual cues from the environment around them. Social norms emerge from situational definitions, as people learn to read cues from the environment and the people present to understand what is appropriate behavior.

Learning how to manage impressions is a critical social skill that is honed through experience. Over time, we learn how to make meaning out of a situation, others’ reactions, and what we are projecting of ourselves. As children, we learn that actions on our part prompt reactions by adults; as we grow older, we learn to interpret these reactions and adjust our behavior. Diverse social environments help people develop these skills because they force individuals to re-evaluate the signals they take for granted.[4]

The process of learning to read social cues and react accordingly is core to being socialized into a society. While the process itself begins at home for young children, it is critical for young people to engage in broader social settings to develop these skills. Of course, how children are taught about situations and impression management varies greatly by culture,[5] but these processes are regularly seen as part of coming of age. While no one is ever a true master of impression management, the teenage years are ripe with experiences to develop these skills.

In mediated environments, bodies are not immediately visible and the skills people need to interpret situations and manage impressions are different. As Jenny Sundén argues, people must learn to write themselves into being.[6] Doing so makes visible how much we take the body for granted. While text, images, audio, and video all provide valuable means for developing a virtual presence, the act of articulation differs from how we convey meaningful information through our bodies. This process also makes explicit the self-reflexivity that Giddens argues is necessary for identity formation, but the choices individuals make in crafting a digital body highlight the self-monitoring that Foucault so sinisterly notes.[7]

In some sense, people have more control online – they are able to carefully choose what information to put forward, thereby eliminating visceral reactions that might have seeped out in everyday communication. At the same time, these digital bodies are fundamentally coarser, making it far easier to misinterpret what someone is expressing. Furthermore, as Amy Bruckman shows, key information about a person’s body is often present online, even when that person is trying to act deceptively; for example, people are relatively good at detecting when someone is a man even when they profess to be a woman online.[8] Yet because mediated environments present reveal different signals, the mechanisms of deception differ.[9]


  1. ^ Davis, Fred. 1992. Fashion, Culture and Identity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  2. ^ Goffman, Erving. 1956. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh.
  3. ^ Goffman, Erving. 1963. Behavior in Public Places. New York: The Free Press.
  4. ^ Boyd, Danah. 2008 “Why Youth (Heart) Social Network Sites: The Role of Networked Publics in Teenage Social Life.” MacArthur Foundation Series on Digital Learning, Identity Volume (ed. David Buckingham).
  5. ^ Briggs, Jean. 1999. Inuit Morality Play: The Emotional Education of a Three-Year-Old. New Haven: Yale University Press.
  6. ^ Sundén, Jenny. 2003. Material Virtualities. New York: Peter Lang Publishing.
  7. ^ See David Buckingham’s introduction to this volume for a greater discussion of this.
  8. ^ Berman, Joshua and Amy Bruckman. 2001. "The Turing Game: Exploring Identity in an Online Environment." Convergence, 7(3), 83-102.
  9. ^ Donath, Judith. 1999. “Identity and deception in the virtual community.” Communities in Cyberspace (Marc Smith & Peter Kollock, eds). London: Routledge.