Performance as Identity

On the internet nobody knows you’re a dog

Our digitally mediated lives can lure us into a performance. There are implications for this as we consider what increasingly virtual forms of working bring to our workplace, a realm in which performance and impressions already had an outsized role.

Nobody Knows You’re A Dog

Back in 1993, the New Yorker published a cartoon that used the punchline ‘On the internet nobody knows you’re a dog, That cartoon became a meme about anonymity on the internet. Anonymity is still an issue for this domain but now we must also consider another implication of this cartoon – our social web as a realm of performance as identity. Because nobody knows you are a dog, who you portray can be carefully shaped and is often difficult for your digital colleagues to assess.

Erving Goffman led the way in helping people think of identity and impression management as a form of performance. We can consciously or unconsciously shape other’s impressions by how we act. In our new digital lives these impressions surround us:

  • influencers who win followers for perfectly curated Instagram lives of sponsored fiction
  • thought leaders who win influence for carefully curated performances of platitudes and other easily digestible advice
  • conspiracy theorists, key board warriors and trolls who act out their rage at a changing world from the safety of their comfortable lives
  • our own carefully chosen, filtered and cropped selfies
  • personal branding advice with all its contradictions – ‘you should act this way so that you appear authentic’

We could confine these actions to the psychological challenges of a few but humans in society are creatures of social validation & social norms. The more performative identity we see, the more it influences our thinking of what is ideal or at least a norm. Personal branding is a topic of discussion because personal branding is something people do and some times it helps people to change perceptions and achieve their goals. Whether better, wider or greater communication is actually what did the work is often lost in the social proof.

Performance as the Work

One theory as to why our virtual meetings are proving so exhausting is that the Brady bunch format means all the faces are on the screen at the same time. We are by nature inclined to study human faces and to worry about the appearance of our own. We are tired in part by the drama of all the performance. Moving out of gallery view can restore some of the intimacy of the discussion and reduce the performative load.

There is also a greater load in managing often diverse social norms in a rapid fire series of meetings. Context switching brings a social burden as we tailor our performance to different audiences. Even with a greater casualisation of work attire in this era, we still recognise the different expectations of a board meeting, a sales pitch, a team meeting and video drinks.

What can we do to help people with the challenges of performance?

  • Reduce the uncertainty: make social norms an explicit part of the group discussion. This reduces the value of performance, sets clear benchmarks and makes clearer the rules of the game.
  • Widen the context: Your new colleague who was hired into remote work is wondering what people think of them and working hard to make a good impression. Take time to share a wider context of people’s lives, work and challenges. Working out loud can help with this.
  • Prioritise substance: There are many people who feel deeply uncomfortable with work as a performance due to their temperament, inclination to introversion, power dynamics or other circumstances. Working asynchronously in preparation for meetings can enable people to make their contributions to the team through the substance of their work over style or identity issues.
  • Focus on inclusion: People are afraid of public speaking because of fear of embarrassment or ridicule. Demanding a performance can exclude people. Make sure everyone in the team has an option to contribute in their own way and be valued for that contribution.
  • Have fun: If we are going to perform at work, let’s have some fun doing it. Fun and humour can break down barriers and enable people to share more easily.

We may never quite know the real identity of our digital colleagues. They may struggle to express it themselves. However, if our digital world of work is going to carry the burden of social performance then we can do more to make it easier, fun and rewarding. We are ultimately social creatures and that includes our work lives.

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