So I Shall be Written, So I Shall be Performed

Mike is a 2013 blogging resident visiting us from his home blog Omniorthogonal.

I want to take it as a starting point the idea that there is a certain fictional quality to our selves. The elusive nature of the self has been a perennial issue for psychologists and philosophers; there are nihilistic and mystical and mechanistic and pluralistic theories of what we mean when we talk about the self, the thing inside of us that defines who we are. But I find that the most useful theories of the self come from literature and drama, and take as their central point the idea that selves are to some extent roles we make up and perform in the dramatic improvisations of daily life. It’s perhaps a trite observation given its presence in one of Shakespeare’s most famous lines; Goffmann turned it into sociology; for now I just want to use it as a jumping off point to talk about Facebook and the way selves are now in the Internet era.

Self Construction

Whatever the true nature of selves are, it is part of their nature that they are constructed through a process that is both social and based in narrative. Anybody who has noticed that they present themselves differently in different contexts, or that they are occasionally called upon to cobble together stories that justify their current state and actions, should have no problem with this conceptual framework. A self is no more and no less than a character in our life-story that we are also constructing in the middle of living it. And we shape each other’s characters as we shape our own, in the give-and-take of interaction.

The notion of “social construction” scares some people off, but it is important to realize that to say that something is socially constructed doesn’t mean it can be anything at all, it just means that it is not hard and fast and given. Like the fictional characters in novels, selves need to obey certain structural rules in order to be comprehensible to themselves and others. For instance, they need to be maintain some stable characteristics over time; they have desires; their actions need to relate to their motives and emotions. But even more fundamentally, they need to be able to account for themselves; that is, to be able to present plausible narratives that explain their actions.

Technologies of the Word

Most of our self-construction happens through linguistic interaction with other people, But language does not exist on its own, it is always embodied in some medium, such as speech, writing, print, or the various forms language takes on the Internet. And these varied technologies of language have quite different properties that shape our usage and hence the way we construct ourselves.

Walter Ong was a literary theorist best known for explicating the differences between oral and written communication, or more generally the impact of technology on language. Given when he was writing, “technology” mostly meant writing and print, although electronic communication media (telephone and radio, and the beginnings of the Internet) make their appearance in his work. One of the key lessons one learns from studying Ong is just how strange the literate self is relative to the original conditions of human language and culture:

Fully literate persons can only with great difficulty imagine what a primary oral culture is like, that is, a culture with no knowledge whatsoever of writing or even the possibility of writing. Try to imagine a culture where no one has ever ‘looked up’ anything….Without writing, words as such have no visual presence, even when the objects they represent are visual. They are sounds. You might ‘call’ them back — ‘recall’ them. But there is nowhere to ‘look’ for them. They have no focus and no trace…They are occurrences, events… – Orality and Literacy, p30

The most obvious difference between oral cultures and our own is the vastly more important role of memorization and repetition in maintaining knowledge. Nothing is set in stone, or even papyrus, so long-term knowledge can only exist if it is endlessly repeated. This has a great many non-obvious consequences:

Many, if not all, oral or residually oral cultures strike literates as extraordinarily agonistic in their verbal performance and indeed in their lifestyle. Writing fosters abstractions that disengage knowledge from the arena where human beings struggle with one another. It separate the knower from the known. By keeping knowledge embedded in the human lifeworld, orality situates knowledge within a context of struggle. Proverbs and riddles are not used simply to store knowledge but to engage others in verbal and intellectual combat… – O&L p43

Reading Ong can provide an interesting perspective that is in some respects meta to ordinary language use, enabling one to perceive the artificial situated paralinguistic mechanisms that create meaning. Writing, being a more recent invention than speech, has more obvious artifices. X particularly significant work of Ong’s is “The Writer’s Audience is Always a Fiction”, which delineates some of the methods writers use to frame their words:

Except for a small corps of highly trained writers, most persons could get into written form few if any of the complicated and nuanced meanings they regularly convey orally…One reason is evident: the spoken word…has its meaning established by the total situation in which it comes into being. Context for the spoken word is…centered in the person speaking and the one or ones to whom he addresses himself and to whom he is related existentially in terms of the circumambient actuality.

But the meaning in writing comes provided with no such present circumambient actuality…the person to whom the writer addresses himself normally is not present at all. Moreover… he must not be present. I am writing a book which will be read by thousands…so please, get out of the room. I want to be alone. Writing normally calls for some kind of withdrawal.

How does the writer give body to the audience for whom he writes? The orator has before him an audience which is a true audience, a collectivity . “Audience” is a collective noun. There is no such collective non for readers… “Readers” is a plural. Readers do not form a collectivity, acting here and now on one another and on the speaker as members of an audience do. We can devise a singularized concept for them, it is true, such as “readership”…But “readership” is not a collective noun. It is an abstraction in a way “audience” is not.

One of the more striking parts of Ong’s essay is how he teases out the linguistic tricks used by modern writers for shaping their readers, and creating a (fictional) intimacy between writer and reader, for existence Hemingway’s opening of A Farewell to Arms:

In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains.

The definite articles “the” and “that” do the subtle work of uniting the reader’s imaginary world with the writers, or as Ong puts it:

“The late summer of that year,” the reader begins. What year? The reader gathers that there is no need to say. “Across the river.” What river? The reader is apparently supposed to know… “To the mountains.” What mountains? Do I have to tell you? Of course not. The mountains — those mountains we know. We have somehow been there together. Who? You, my reader, and I.

Ong’s larger point is that writers necessarily create their audiences, both in the sense that they have to imagine them in order to do the writing, and in the sense that the eventual readers are gently or not-so-gently cast into certain cognitive tasks and roles by the demands of the text. The techniques used to do this vary across cultures and across different media technologies.

Self-presentation in social media

Hemingway may have been a unique genius at creating a sense of imaginary intimacy between writer and reader, but now everyone using Facebook has a somewhat similar task. Facebook blends elements of orality and literacy in ways that are uniquely new to our time. Obviously the content of social media is largely alphabetic renditions of words, not oral speech. Yet the context is often closer to an oral presentation than a typical piece of writing in the print medium. For one thing, there is a certain immediacy about the interaction of writer and reader. There is at least the potential for this immediacy to be realized in bidirectional communication, something not readily supported by traditional writing (letters to the editor notwithstanding). The audience is not the faceless fictional reader of print, but a selected set of “friends” or “followers”. These all contribute to an oral feeling in digital communication, and the digital world has been evolving in directions that support those kind of uses over communication forms that are more closely based on writing (such as email).

Yet Facebook postings have qualities of print as well – most notably their permanence and ability to exist as things in the world, independent of their creators. The confusion between the permanence and contexuality of oral communication and the permanence of Facebook is the most common complaint about its effects on people’s lives, as youthful drunken indiscretions become part of one’s permanent record. We live in exciting times in which the rules for linguistic interaction in new media are not yet solidified, there is ample room for experimentation, and new variants of communication and the underlying technology platforms are invented every day.

One doesn’t have to be Hemingway to create intimacy on Facebook, because it is at least somewhat rooted in face-to-face life. But controlling and manipulating intimacy, figuring out the rules for what is communicated, who will be seeing it, how much of the private self to reveal, how much public role performance is required…that takes whole new skill sets. Some are quite adept at it, but most of us are not. Many people (including me) have noted and lamented the tendency of social media to collapse social space, to effectively trash the contexts we use to play out our varying social fictions. Mark Zuckerberg is on record as blithely informing humanity that the days of being able to present yourself differently in different contexts is coming to an end. Fortunately he’s probably wrong; I don’t believe such a basic part of human nature is going to be reconfigured by Facebook. If it does, people just won’t use it, or will use it in only carefully controlled ways while they leave their other selves for other media.

But like it or not we are all in the business of creating and promulgating public roles for ourselves. Facebook and Twitter performances are about the creation of public or semi-public personae, but so are the face-to-face performances of old-fashioned social interaction. Who is the audience for our online performances? Given they go out to an increasingly broad set of people, they take on aspects of Ong’s writer’s fictional reader. They feel somewhat in-between the sort of think I’d say to small gathering of friends and things i’d say when speaking in a public forum, and where exactly on that continuum is both uncertain and changing over time. So when I compose a tweet or Facebook post, my imagination must gather itself up and create roles for both me and the eventual recipients, without knowing exactly who they are. I feel like I am inventing rules for the medium as I use it, which is both exciting and unsettling.

Language is in itself is a technology of self-creation, and the media technologies that underpin it put radically new spins on how this everyday miracle is accomplished. The invention of writing opened up new spaces for thought and consciousness and being; print and radio further altered the landscape; and we are in the middle of another such revolution. The day-to-day dust-ups about Facebook’s privacy policy or the latest sock-puppetry scandal are very small issues obscuring the larger changes and more significant ongoing changes that can barely be discerned. The new selves that we forge as we inhabit the new media landscape will be different from what existed before. Yet not entirely alien – we are very different from the inhabitants of oral cultures, but there is a recognizably common human core. Despite the vast changes swirling around us, there is something stable that permits us to communicate and be present to each other.

About Mike Travers

Mike Travers is a software engineer based in the Bay Area. His ribbonfarm posts explore the nature of consciousness, community, and varied other themes. Follow him on Twitter.


  1. I just remembered a line about how bloggers “write themselves into existence” online.

    This is particularly true of what Greg Rader calls “perspective bloggers.” For “doer” bloggers, the raw material often comes from another source, a sort of parallel main stage, with the blog serving as a sort of remote big-screen.

    There’s also a fishbowl angle here somewhere, the change in behavior that comes from awareness of observation.

  2. Is writing itself necessarily indicative of “the” self? Literary critics have argued over this stuff for years. How much of what someone expresses in writing in someway biopic or “indicative” of the person who wrote it?

    Venkat made an interesting comment in this vein in the comments of his post on A Beginners Guide to Immortality.

    I think we’re chasing down very different ideas that happen to share a vocabulary.

    The gist between the lines is that Hemmingway wasn’t his characters, and that most writing on social media, in general, isn’t meant to be fictional. I’m skeptical that semi-public utterances on Facebook are any different from public utterances at any other social outing (like say a movie or at a Starbucks etc…)

    The self-selection of the audience doesn’t fundamentally alter the “self” that does the selecting. (You could also say you are “self-selecting” the audience when you chose what social place to patronize). I take issue at the classification of anything on the internet as “semi” public given all the evidence that in the end such distinction is meaningless given the viral angle and additional attention from Anonymous and the hacker community pointing to the inability for anything to be fully protected and also connected.

    To a degree I think Venkat is going after something different when he mentions the fishbowl angle since he is indeed identifying “behavior” rather then the “actual” self. I don’t see “self” and “social behavior” as the same.

    Social behavior is a collective sort of agreement with written and unwritten rules and the performative self, especially in America, is treated as something altogether different and that “performative” (not actual) self in any circumstance exists in the moment of that performance whether it is synchronous or asynchronous.

    The confusion exists because the asynchronous performances are generally lacking in context. Is it real or is it fictional? Perhaps we should ask the Mythbusters….

  3. Can I buy you a coffee, and get to know more?

  4. Andrew B. Martin says:

    If I could figure out how to compellingly express myself through wall posts and tweets, I’d try to make a fortune writing ebooks with titles like ‘Fix Your Profile; Fix Your Life’, ‘How to get Retweeted’, and ‘The 49 Laws of (Facebook) Power’.

    “I am inventing rules for the medium as I use it, which is both exciting and unsettling.”

    Social Media Help Ebook Strategy:
    Invent Some Rules => Show they Work => Write a Book => $$$