restricted access (Un)limited: Virtual Performance Spaces and Digital Identity
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(Un)limited
Virtual Performance Spaces and Digital Identity

Many new online performance spaces surround us in the digital age. From social media platforms like Facebook and Snap-chat, to anonymous social media tools like Yik Yak, to graphic social media environments like Second Life, virtual performance gives users the opportunity to create identities that go well beyond what was previously possible. John McCarthy and Peter Wright suggest that when we encounter technology, the space of that interaction changes the concrete, visceral reactions each user experiences as well as the actions and emotions within the space.1 In other words, by entering new virtual spaces of performance, we experience ways of performing that step outside the boundaries of the physical world, giving the illusion that virtual performance is unlimited. For example, Julian Dibbell describes “tripping with compulsive regularity down the well-traveled information lane” where he “checks [his] quotidian identity, steps into the persona and appearance” of another character altogether and, if the mood strikes him, “emerges as a dolphin instead.”2

While researchers like Dibbell have focused on the freedom of identity play in virtual spaces, I am interested in how the virtual performance space itself influences the ways in which users create virtual identities, specifically in social media outlets like Yik Yak and graphic virtual worlds like Second Life. In the physical world, identity grows out of interacting with objects and people, then reflecting on those interactions.3 In virtual spaces, designers have programmed the system that allows users to interact and communicate with objects and people. With the proliferation of virtual spaces, it is important to examine these hidden boundaries to understand who and what shape identity creation. Game users enter virtual spaces of performance unaware of the ways in which the limitations of the program influence their performances and, through reflection on that performance, the identity-creation process. While users adapt to virtual [End Page 113] performance spaces, they often remain unaware of how programs directly and indirectly influence their choices, and in turn influence the creation of online cultural norms.

Users of virtual spaces reshape or completely transform their physical world identities. Commenting on the performance of identity, Erving Goffman asserts that the presentation of self is reliant on the sign system present at the site of the performance.4 Each virtual space relies on a different sign system to present that self. In Julian Dibbell’s case, the space accommodates a performance free from the confines of the physical body, allowing him to present himself as a dolphin. Users of Facebook, on the other hand, craft an online identity through the careful curation of photos and specific status updates, but the identity does not necessarily match the reality of life behind the screen.5 The programming behind each digital platform dictates the sign system, limiting how communication can flow between participants. The Facebook page hosts pictures of the user, while a graphic virtual world, like the one Dibbell references, relies on images that have nothing to do with his actual physical appearance. His presentation of self, in Goffman’s terms, is limited by the program.

Two dominant theories have emerged in sociology surrounding identity creation: reflexivity and habitus.6 Reflexivity refers to identity creation that results from activities or interactions that force a person to “bend back,” or refer to themselves during an interaction, affecting the formation of identity.7 As an example, a teacher returns a humorous essay assignment to a student. The student, following the directions, used a story well known in his family about a moment when the family car nearly ran over a dog in the road, something the student’s family tells with great laughter every time. The teacher expresses horror at the humorous tone in the essay, and with the feedback, the student can “bend back” and reflect on both the choice of the story and whether that story is something that he should continue to tell outside his family. More deeply, the student may reflect on whether his family’s sense of humor labels his taste in humor as inappropriate to others in society.

Whereas reflexivity is about self-awareness brought on after an action...


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