My online self: performance or projection?

Light Bulb

Just a question of display, by Gisela Giardino (CC BY-SA 2.0)

It’s a common assumption that we use social media as a tool to project our already formed, static identities to the world (Cover 2014, p.55).
However, contemporary theorists argue that rather than being like a light that radiates from a core ‘self’, identity is formed and shaped by the actions and interactions we have with the world (Catenaccio & Garzone 2009, p.10).

It’s not so much a thing, as a process.

Have a listen to this Prezi if you’re still not sure:


Building on the idea that our identity is something wrapped up in, and made up of, our actions and behaviour, rather than just a static image of a core self, we can see that using social media is also a process of creating an identity.

The way I use social media has gradually changed since my first forays in the late 1990s.
But has it all been performing Kathlene, or have I uncovered and projected a Kathlene that was there all along?

Let’s dive in.

Kathlene IsCool

I like to consider myself a failed early adopter of social media.
My first experiences of social digital media use are from early high school. The details are vague in my memory, but basically I discovered a blog-like site where you could add contributors and I was really, really excited.
I imagined a page where my friends and I could leave each other messages. A secret clubhouse that only we could access.
I set up the page, posted some trivia facts (my favourite) as a starting point, sent the link to a few friends, and waited eagerly for them to contribute.
They didn’t.
Unlike me, they were not excited at all, and nothing happened.
Years later I dabbled in Myspace, and when Facebook took off my friends finally caught on to this online-communication thing.


Screenshot of my Facebook, 2009
I have no idea what this was about.

I originally used Facebook the same way I had used email and then MySpace: for keeping in contact with friends. The content of my posts might have been different to a phone call or text, but the motive was the same: direct communication.

At the time, anonymity was very important to me. I set my name on Facebook to Kathlene IsCool, and it didn’t matter because all of my friends knew who I was. My conversations were in-jokes with my uni friends which wouldn’t have made the slightest sense to anyone outside my circle (and don’t make the slightest bit of sense to me today).

In short – this profile, or ‘self’ was for a private audience, and I didn’t think too hard before I hit post.

Kathlene is cool?

Time went on and Facebook grew in popularity. It became OK to add not just friends but acquaintances in a way I’d never done on MySpace. Some people started asking me about my name, so, despite some privacy concerns, I changed it to my real one.

When I look back at those early Facebook posts, I cringe a little.
Dr. Syed Murtaza Alfarid Hussain (2015, p.3) compares Facebook to Erving Goffman’s concept of ‘front stage’ – a space where we as actors try to convince others that the character we are performing is real. It’s clear to present-me that past-me was trying to perform a certain character, without being really aware of it.


Screenshot of my Facebook, 2011

My posts frequently discuss uni assignments with friends, but just as frequently are broadcasts of my persona, where I was trying to be funny, interesting or quirky. Food came up quite a lot (some things never change), as did song lyrics from bands that I thought everybody should love. I’m embarrassed to admit that some of my posts were probably cryptic on purpose – perhaps I was trying to get some attention.


Screenshot of my Facebook, 2009

Facebook’s affordances encouraged me to use the site in certain ways: To share what I was doing ‘right now’, and to write on friends walls. In a quest to prove to the world and to myself that I had friends, and that we did interesting things, I was more than willing to comply.

Since those days, so much has changed.



Photo: Kathlene Murphy October 2016 (Snapchat)

One major change is that I hardly ever use Facebook now.

That’s not to say I’ve stopped using social media, but today my main platform today is Twitter.

Twitter became a part of my life in 2015 when a lecturer made it a required part of unit participation, pointing out its professional potential. I fell in love with it when I realised I could follow complete strangers and it wouldn’t be weird.

On Twitter, I think carefully about how tweets will reflect my knowledge, my actions, my interests and my opinions. For the first time I am deliberately curating my online identity.

So that makes my online persona less authentic, right?

I think not.



Twitter – Kathlene Murphy  (@kathlenelmurphy)
July 5, 2016


Twitter- Kathlene Murphy
October 27, 2016


If my identity is a process and not a thing, then the curation of my online self is also a part of my self. And by re-creating my identity online; by following museums and galleries, posting pictures of random walks around the city and re-tweeting passionate pleas for educational funding; I am not projecting an identity that exists, but constantly re-constructing and re-emphasising it.

That is, I am creating it by projecting it (Cover, 2014).

When I look at my social media profiles now, they seem more ‘me’ than ever before. Maybe it’s because as David Marshall (2015) notes:

Monitoring one’s persona has become an essential experience of contemporary life where a constant ritual of editing, writing, connecting and publicising a public persona defines the sense of self.

Marshall 2015, p. 116.

Twitter – Kathlene Murphy (@kathlenelmurphy)  September 2, 2016

My online persona changed when I stopped chasing likes on Facebook and started looking for connections on Twitter. I stopped trying to persuade the world that I was cool, and took more notice of other people I admired.

As Toija Cinque (2015, p.77) notes, the online self develops within the context of the real world. In the real world, my situation changed – I matured – and my social media profile reflects this.

Chicken and Egg

Chicken and Egg by Interestedbystandr (CC BY 2.0)  
Is my online activity changing my identity, or is my identity changing my online persona?

The future for my online identity is not entirely clear. But as I put more effort into creating media, writing blog posts, making videos or recording podcasts, I can’t help but be reminded of the teenage me that unconsciously decided it would be fun to create a website to share interesting facts with friends.

Perhaps that me has been here the whole time.




Alfarid Hussain, SM 2015, ‘PRESENTATION OF SELF AMONG SOCIAL MEDIA USERS IN ASSAM: APPROPRIATING GOFFMAN TO FACEBOOK USERS’ ENGAGEMENT WITH ONLINE COMMUNITIES’, Global Media Journal: Indian Edition, 6, 1&2, pp. 1-14, Communication & Mass Media Complete, EBSCOhost, viewed 5 December 2016.

Catenaccio, P, & Garzone, G 2009, Identities Across Media and Modes : Discursive Perspectives, Peter Lang AG, Bern.

Cinque, Toija 2015, Changing media landscapes: visual networking, Oxford University Press, South Melbourne, Vic.

Cover, Rob 2014, ‘Becoming and belonging: Performativity, subjectivity and the cultural purposes of social networking’ in A Poletti & J Rak (eds), Identity Technologies: Constructing the self online, University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, US, pp.55 -69

Marshall, P. David 2015, Monitoring persona: mediatized identity and the edited public self, Frame: journal of literary studies, vol. 28, no. 1, pp. 115-133.



Word count: 1060
Excluding captions and reference list

My broader online activity:
Participated in multiple Twitter conversations, wrote and shared five blog entries, a podcast and a video.


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