- 13 Dec 19
On social media, we share our opinions and views on politics. But how effective can that be?
In 1959, the sociologist Erving Goffman posited a theory of identity that revolved around play-acting. Human interactions are defined by performances, Goffman wrote in The Presentation Of Self In Everyday Life. Identity is a series of claims and promises, which a person may or may not live up to. But if all the world's a stage, essentially local, our social worlds used to have much fewer players, and our roles were a lot simpler to play.
Thanks to the internet, we can make endless claims and promises to an infinite number of people; we can have different identities for games like Second Life or a pseudonym used for trolling; we can present our life as a series of enviable picture-perfect moments when in reality, we're struggling; or we can tweet endlessly about politics, BlackLivesMatter or MeToo - without ever attending a protest, writing to a politician, donating to a cause. As Goffman observed, there's a difference between actually doing something and merely expressing something, and the internet has blurred that boundary. There's now an imperative to strike a pose online, and most people do. It is a world in which the pose is everything.
Online, far too often, we are surrounded by people who agree with our views. Thus, it has become an arena in which people play to the gallery, and others fawn and applaud what is most often shallow and said, or posted, for effect. Posting photos of a beautifully presented vegan meal will get lots of likes - and distract us from reading articles about how together, Chevron, Exxon, BP and Shell have been responsible for more than 10% of the world's carbon emissions since 1965. All the veggie burgers in the world will be meaningless if we don't dismantle the power and devastating environmental impact of huge corporations. The idea of self-care has been transformed from a political act by marginalised communities preserving their physical and mental health, into a hashtag where white women pose with facemasks and bathbombs on Instagram.
A recent appearance by a transphobic celebrity on a national current affairs show racked up thousand of outraged tweets - but the BAI only received three actual complaints. We were so busy talking about how angry we were and presenting ourselves as trans allies that we forgot to actually do anything.
The personal has always been political - but the narcissism of modern life has convinced us that the personal is political enough. In certain respects, we're more informed than ever - but by over-estimating the power of sharing our thoughts, we're failing to transform our increased awareness into collective, meaningful change. There has to be a better way.
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