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Self-spectacle online: The construction and representation of identity in contemporary digital culture


Given the ubiquity and pervasiveness of digital technologies within contemporary society, scholarly exploration about how life is lived in this digital era is critical in order to understand the impact upon our lives, as well as upon society. One aspect of living a digitally oriented life involves how and why one represents oneself in virtual environments, and how one interacts with others within the digital ecosystem. As individuals spend more time online, their interactions, perceptions, and behaviors -- even their sense of self -- are shaped by new technologies as well as by the social contexts within which these manifest. Understanding this is particularly relevant for educators, as they engage with students who are increasingly conversant with technologies, and whose life experiences may best be appreciated, by educators, if grounded within a broader sensibility about digital life.

This study focuses on how and more critically why the self is constructed and presented as it is within online environments. In order to assess this, particularly from the perspective of those emplaced within this mode of living, this inquiry is situated at the intersection of three scholarly disciplines. Thus, this study draws from the following theoretical frameworks: a constructivist developmental approach emanating from social psychology, wherein symbolic interactionism and performativity are invoked; a communication studies approach that considers how technologies mediate identity representation and interaction; and a critical cultural studies perspective that examines media culture, with a particular emphasis on the role of spectacle within society. This study presents the results of qualitative research that examines the online self-representations of 12 students at a large urban university in Los Angeles. This study also employs a longitudinal approach, as five of these 12 participants have been observed for a period of nearly two years, and comparative assessments of their activities as well as their own interpretations of the same have occurred over this time period. Since the primary focus of this study is to enable understanding regarding the motivations, meanings, and value associated with self representation online, it is necessary to derive these insights directly from participants themselves. As such, interviews have been conducted with all participants, and in some cases, more than once.

The findings of this research reveal four broad patterns that address how and why participants construct their online identity representations. They do so 1) to enhance their employment prospects; 2) to position themselves in a particular light to formulate a self-brand; 3) to engage socially with others; and 4) to engender feelings of self-worth from which they derive feelings of self-satisfaction, among other positive emotional benefits. In consideration of these self-representation, this study further proposes a new theorization with which to frame these findings. It proposes that what is occurring might be viewed as a form of self-spectacle, one that derives its foundation from previous iterations of societal spectacle, inclusive of some of the tenets of broader spectacle, yet is distinct, given its singular focus on the individual. It is suggested that this micro-level spectacle instantiates in the myriad shapes online self-representation assumes today and, if the rapid adoption of self-facing technologies is any indication, is likely to continue unabated. As such, this study contributes to the emerging scholarship regarding life lived online, and offers a perspective that attempts to contextualize what is occurring during this contemporary moment.

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