Politics, emotion and identity performance

5 Impulsive performative identity: Is it just pointless narcissism?

Darren Lilleker, Bournemouth University

Perhaps like many around 10pm on Friday 13 November 2015 I was dual-screening. Flicking through social media while semi-watching television. Breaking news invaded my dislocated concentration, gunmen had charged a rock concert at the Bataclan in Paris causing multiple fatalities. As the enormity of that and simultaneous attacks on local restaurants emerged I, like many others around the world became gripped by the news, concerned for loved ones as well as feeling compassion for strangers. Twitter became a place for updates. In French and broken English the survivors, those who came to help and the many bystanders began to report events. The band, The Eagles of Death Metal, were reported injured then safe. The number of gunmen on the loose and stories of manhunts were reported in measured and exaggerated forms. Those outside of Paris simply expressed their concern and solidarity. A trend was to have a profile picture blending your current profile with the French tricolor flag. Facebook helpfully suggested if others wished to do that they simply had to click. I did and for a week I demonstrated my solidarity.

Camilla Hodgson, writing in the New Statesman, derided this phenomenon as a fad; a meaningless act. She argued “If none of your Facebook friends were personally affected by the attacks, then the only people who will see your new profile picture and so-called declaration of support are those who do not need supporting. By changing a photo of yourself for a week, you are doing nothing for the victims; instead, you are making the issue about yourself, by making your public, online persona appear more sympathetic”. But is this dismissal missing the point?

It is true that no symbolic act can help the victims, either the dead or the injured, in the aftermath of such an event. But they are sadly not the only victims. Terrorism is designed to make the masses feel vulnerable, to seek to blame others and to seek forms of solace. While there were no reported figures for expressions of solidarity, many in Paris who understandably felt under attack may have felt supported. The simple symbolic act identified a community who cared, caring at least enough to make a public demonstration of empathy. Therefore these random, symbolic and impulsive acts of caring may have had some psychological ramifications. The action may make ‘the issue about yourself’, but may also have had a wider positive impact regardless of the intentions.

The bigger question is whether these acts are simply narcissistic. Sociologists have long argued that social interactions are representations of identity: through the process of communicating, people are telling others something about themselves. These notions have their root in Judith Butler’s theories of performative identity. Butler discussed communication as ‘self-making’, that all forms of communication are mechanisms for making personality, values and attitudes socially intelligible. While Butler may well have been influenced by the explosion in identity politics in the 1960s, others have considered how the notion of constructing an identity translates into digital age. Rob Cover argued that the uses of social networking sites are performative acts in and of themselves. Firstly he argues that the use of social networking profiles which include information about favourite films, music, quotes etc. is one tool for performing, developing and stabilising identity as a narrative in line with cultural demands for coherence, intelligibility and recognition. Secondly, and more importantly, identity performances occur through interactions between online friends and so increasingly identity becomes reconfigured. In other words users create an identity but, through interactions with others, the constructed identity becomes adapted to suit a particular set of conventions prescribed by a network. Thus, arguably, as with many contexts of modern society, our identity is personally defined as well as being defined by the norms of those with whom we interact. The challenge when considering social networks is that it is less possible to construct multiple identities, for example one for work, one for particular friend groups and one for family. As a social network online may include many from each of those groups the constructed identity becomes one that might suit all groups with whom we interact.

Therefore we can argue that social networks transcend boundaries and lead to the negotiation of identity bringing us back to the impulsive behaviour we witness. Demonstrating public support for a cause may be narcissistic to an extent. But it is not simply about showing off, rather it is about belonging. Social network users have long used likes and shares as a way of showing agreement. Such functions can be simply agreeing, showing sympathy or empathy, saying well done or a range of similar meanings as appropriate to the post. Changing the way you are seen, via the profile picture, has equally become a mechanism for joining into a demonstration, pink ribbons for breast cancer awareness for example. Such acts, and the inclusion of the tricolor is an example, do not just say a person cares but I am part of a community who cares. It is more of an ‘I’m in’ than an ‘I am’ culture.

To write off such acts, which can equally express highly political statements, as pure narcissism misses an important point. The human desire to be part of a community, be accepted by that community and to interact with others and be recognised. Being part of a community involves following norms, capturing a mood or following a trend. Social media may allow this to be achieved through simple acts which despite their simplicity to achieve can have deep meanings, to the person acting and to others who may witness this action. The meaning that goes into the performance may simply be copying in order to belong. But such actions can also be profound and considered. As in the real world, images can be carefully constructed and maintained through communicative acts. They may appear trivial but that ignores the meanings hidden beneath.

Darren G. Lilleker is Associate Professor in Political Communication in The Media School, Bournemouth University. Dr Lilleker’s expertise is in the professionalization and marketization of politics, and its impacts on citizens, on which he has published widely including the textbook Key Concepts in Political Communication (Sage, 2006), monographs Political Campaigning, Elections and the Internet (Routledge, 2011) and Political Communication and Cognition (Palgrave, 2014)and has co-edited The Marketing of Political Parties (MUP, 2006), Voters or Consumers (CSP, 2008) Political Marketing in Comparative Perspective (MUP, 2005) and The Media, Political Participation and Empowerment (Routledge, 2013).

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