I spend a lot of time thinking about the way I’m perceived. I’m not embarrassed to admit that, especially considering how many different ways I can be observed.
There’s Instagram, my main highlight reel. Then, there’s Facebook, where you can find a handful of pictures I posted in 2015 and not much else. My Twitter is mostly for professional use and self-promotion. LinkedIn is essentially just a list of different positions I’ve held at The Michigan Daily and primarily used to do covert research on others. My regular Snapchat story is usually empty, though I’ll occasionally post a picture if I’m at dinner with friends or passing something scenic. Last but not least, there’s my private Snapchat story, the only form of social media I consider truly exclusive.
Posting on my other accounts requires forethought — there are filters and opinions from friends brought into play — but posting on my private Snapchat feels much more low-stakes. The story is a collection of embarrassing occurrences, pictures from nights out, funny things my friends do and sometimes just random thoughts that come into my head. Last week I posted a selfie with the caption “It literally blows my mind that babies don’t know how to read.” Once, I forgot where I locked up my bike and documented the three-day search to find it. Another time, I couldn’t find my phone and went outside with my duvet cover wrapped around me to find it. In short: I post anything I don’t think my general audience would care about.
The image I cultivate of myself on my public story is very different than the one I present for my closest friends. That sentiment is both self-explanatory and much more complicated than it may seem. Social psychologist Erving Goffman’s book, entitled “The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life,” pinpoints the concept perfectly.
Goffman believes we are always performing — when we are at the dentist, going to the grocery store, at work or even sitting at home alone. His theory suggests that we alter our behavior, consciously or unconsciously, to fit whatever role we are expected to fill at any given time.
Sometimes, our roles are clear and come with a specific set of rules: As a server, there is a certain way I’m expected to speak to customers. Sometimes we slip into different roles without even noticing it: When I’m with my friends, I don’t feel as if I’m putting on a performance, and yet I talk and behave in a way that’s different than how I would behave in other settings.
If life is a performance, it’s easy to see social media as a stage. In most parts of our lives, being observed is a byproduct of some more concrete action. For example, people come to the restaurant where I work to eat, not to assess my abilities as a server. Social media is one of the only spaces created for the express purpose of being perceived.
In some ways, our online performance is much more enduring as well. The effects of the decisions we make in our offline lives — like what shirt to put on in the morning or how to phrase a particular sentence — are usually short-lived. The way I choose to present myself today has very little bearing on how I choose to present myself tomorrow. On the other hand, social media can be revisited again and again. You can go to my Instagram profile and scroll all the way back to 2015. You can see how I dressed, wore my hair and how I interacted with my friends.
I evaluate other people’s performances on social media not by one decision but by a cumulative timeline of all our decisions. When I decide to post something on Facebook or Instagram, I have to make sure it fits my role in an abstract sense (is this something a college-aged girl would post?) along with the highly specialized role I’ve created for myself (is this something that goes with my feed? My style?).
As social media has grown over the years, so has our invisible audience. What began as a tool for staying in contact with people we know has become a way of making new connections entirely. I follow almost 1,500 people on Instagram, many of whom I’ve never met in real life. When our online community extends beyond our “real life” one, perfecting our digital persona becomes imperative. When a profile is the only image someone has of us, it makes sense that we’d want to make a good impression. But the course of social media history has made one thing evident: we don’t mind putting on the act.
Instagram was released on the Apple App Store in 2010, though I didn’t make an account until spring of 2011. I can still remember my first post, a heavily edited photo of a Phineas and Ferb Pez dispenser. It didn’t take long to get used to the immediate external gratification of likes and comments. Before long the Pez dispenser was deleted, replaced by oversaturated photos of me and my friends that I (rightfully) assumed would get more likes. Even back then, it felt like social media was becoming an arms race with everyone trying to top each other’s follower count. Then Snapchat came along.
In July of 2011, Snapchat was released on the App Store. Ten years ago, the app was pretty simplistic — all you could do was take a picture, add text, choose how many seconds you wanted it to display and send it to someone on your list of friends.
And for a while, it stayed that way. The app slowly began adding additional features, and in October 2013, the Snapchat story was introduced. I was in eighth grade at the time, and I still remember my first reaction when a friend showed me the update one day after school: Why would anyone use that? And I wasn’t alone in my skepticism. Many people who were more well-versed in the internet than I predicted the new update would fail.
The basic premise of Snapchat stories — content projected to all your friends that could be viewed multiple times — felt like it was in direct opposition to the platform’s identity. While the original features of the app promoted interpersonal and impermanent communication, stories brought Snapchat more in line with more traditional social media sites.
Of course, the skeptics were ultimately proven wrong. Snapchat executives said the feature was in response to requests from users for a “Send All” button. It seems that even with Instagram, Facebook and Twitter at our disposal, young internet users still wanted another platform to project things out to the world.
Four years later, Snapchat added the option to create “Custom Stories,” the precursor to today’s Private Stories. Users could pick which of their friends could view the stories and add the option for collaborative stories, meaning you and your friends could all post to the same story that would go out to a list of set viewers. Looking back at media coverage from the time, it doesn’t seem like anyone — even the Snapchat executives themselves — anticipated the direction Custom Stories would go. The emphasis of Snapchat’s promotional material was far more heavily focused on the collaborative aspect of the update rather than the fact that it gave users the ability to create multiple stories with multiple different audiences.
One year later, Instagram announced its addition of a “close friends” list, which essentially mimicked Snapchat’s Private Stories. The year after that, Facebook created a similar feature. If you don’t have a private story yourself, you almost definitely know someone who does.
It makes sense to me that we’d be looking for a middle-ground on the internet, something more intimate than a public profile but more public than texting. Goffman posits that every performer needs a “backstage,” a space to get away from their audience. A backstage is often a natural byproduct of the role itself — I act differently when I hand a customer their food than when I’m dropping their empty plate back in the kitchen — but because of the nature of social media, we’ve had to create a private space of our own.
But are private stories everyone’s backstage, or more like off-Broadway? I’d love to think that the image I put forth on my private story is accurate. The photos on my private story are unfiltered, the stories are unembellished. It’s full of ugly pictures and less-than-flattering moments. It is hardly the most idealized form of myself.
Still, part of me thinks that I’m not being truly authentic so much as playing the part of someone who is. I think back to the morning I laid outside with my duvet. Would I have done that had my roommate not been there? Would I have done that had I not thought it would go straight to someone’s private story?
“A performer may be taken in by his own act, convinced at the moment that the impression of reality which he fosters is the one and only reality,” Goffman wrote. “In such cases we have a sense in which the performer comes to be his own audience; he comes to be the performer and observer of the same show.”
There’s a certain internet trope, perpetuated by TikTok, that women who look put together are secretly a mess. The trend goes like this: it starts with a picture of a girl, smiling and looking nice, then switches to a video of her either drunk or acting weird. It’s almost a parody of our own social media culture: Women have been held to such a high standard of perfection on Instagram that there must be an equal and opposing force. Many of the private stories I look at (including my own) seem to validate this narrative: as if we have to display this “real,” messy side in order to justify the superficiality we demonstrate on other parts of the internet.
Along the same lines is the idea of “making Instagram casual,” the movement pushed by some users encouraging people to post spontaneously and authentically. There’s been a trend on social media over the past several months where people will post a seemingly random assortment of pictures in a “photo dump.” But even being casual takes work. The photos have to be staged in just the right way — the right lighting, the right angle, the right subject — to be just the right type of random. But, to the viewer, it’s all the same. Ultimately, the viewer can’t distinguish between someone’s spontaneity and their desired impression of spontaneity.
Goffman, who published his theory in 1956, thought that roles and performances were almost always defined by the physical space where they occur — it’s the reason we feel so uncomfortable seeing a teacher outside of school.
The challenge with social media is that there are no boundaries to tell you where your performance is supposed to start and end. Anyone can snap a picture at any time. Your invisible audience is always lurking beyond the next corner.
Maybe my private story really is a rare outlet for authenticity on social media. Or maybe it’s just a small stage, somewhere for me to perform a different role. In reality, I’m sure it’s somewhere in between. As my life takes place more and more in a digital space, it’s becoming nearly impossible to separate my actions from my acting and myself from the performer.
Statement correspondent Lane Kizziah can be reached at email@example.com.