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Blurring the self: performing identity online during COVID-19

How has your digital persona changed during 2020? 

Our social media profiles have always been a performance. Presences are highly curated, showing only a fraction of our personality. 

But in times of hardship, the digital sphere takes on a new significance. For some of us, the World Wide Web has become a place where we can process our emotions and find solidarity in other people’s experiences. 

So how has 2020, a distressing year for many, affected the way we perform our identities online? 

A hopeful counterpoint

This year, the dominant mood across social media has been a rollercoaster. 

In the early stages of lockdown, the novelty of working and studying from home was still fresh. Professor David Marshall – Chair in New Media, Communication and Cultural Studies at Deakin University – says that many of our interactions around this time were focused on humour and positivity.

“Self-isolation led people to connect via social media in an open way. We talked about how we were coping with the pandemic, and influencers played into this same lightness. 

“It was a counterpoint to the ominous state of the world.” 

Now that we’ve spent months physically separated from our friends and families, the tone has shifted once again.

Although we’re still making space to talk about our mental health – and to create pandemic-related memes – feelings of community and we’re-all-in-this-together have been replaced by anger and exhaustion. 

Perennial productivity 

This evolving mood on social media is linked to the way we perform our identities online. 

Many of us coped with the first round of lockdowns by keeping busy, leading us to perform acts of productivity on the internet. 

Professor Marshall says he’s noticed an increase in ‘how to’ material popping up on the web, encouraging us to make productive use of our time at home. 

“This tonal transformation is a wider sentiment of a changed present and future world, which demands all of us to renegotiate our way of dealing with that world.”

The home was no longer a place for rest and relaxation – even though, as Professor Marshall points out, it has always been an environment of home duties. Instead, it became a workplace.

With this mindset, we reimagined the kind of work we wanted to complete. With daily commutes out of the way, we had more time to learn new skills and start projects we’ve always wanted to try. 

Social media became the natural place to share the results of our hard work – like that scarf you just finished knitting, or that new phrase you learned on Duolingo – as well as the know-how behind it.

Blending the selves 

Since our homes have become a place of perpetual work, it can be difficult to switch out of our professional personas and into our private ones – and vice versa.

After all, many of us have been living in tracksuits, our office wear pushed to the back of the wardrobe, no matter how many video conferences we have lined up for the day. 

“There is a massive amount of dress differences now,” Professor Marshall says. “In effect, we’re all dressing like university students who wouldn’t worry about the casualness of their look when they went to classes. 

“Sometimes we want people to see how we’re negotiating our personal and professional identities.”

Usually, we like to keep these different segments of our lives separated: the ‘work’ self is different to the ‘home’ self. But now, these different personas are blending together, which naturally translates itself to the digital realm.

Because of our prolific use of social media, Professor Marshall argues that we’re learning to perform our social media personas with greater flair. For instance, some of us have gotten very creative with our Zoom backgrounds. 

“We’re collectively getting better at curating ourselves and how we reveal this to others, although we’re still making mistakes as we learn what is acceptable and unacceptable in different settings.”

Keen to hear more from Professor Marshall? Head on over to Academia to hear his thoughts on communicating interculturally during COVID-19

Professor David Marshall is Chair in New Media, Communication and Cultural Studies at Deakin University. 

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