Comedy is a strange thing. Sometimes the best jokes are created by the audience.
It was 2014 and I was working as Producer/Director of a comedy-science stage show, The Science of Doctor Who. A newly minted partnership with BBC Worldwide saw the show grow from small regional shows to a large-scale national tour, and it needed to become bigger and funnier than it ever was before.
A whiteboard had always been in the show as a prop. But during development we built it up to the point it received cheers from test audiences when it appeared.
It became its own character. It gained its own jokes and entrance music. It even had its own personal assistants referred to as minions. The audience elevated it so far they were asking for photos with The Whiteboard after shows.
And then the joke went online. We had a celebrity, and a celebrity needs a Twitter account.
Creating an identity
The creation of an identity for an inanimate object is reflective of the performativity of our own identities – just taken to an extreme.
Erving Goffman suggested over 60 years ago, long before social media existed as we know it, that all interactions are a performance – as if on a stage to an audience, and requires staging to maintain the self (Goffman 1959). In the social media realm, this performativity is reflected in what we post, how we post it, and what we don’t, and is a process of creation rather than static (Cover 2014, p.56). We’re always stage managing our actions, depending on the audience and the identity we want to portray to that audience (Marwick & boyd 2010).
Furthermore, our identities are essentially a collaboration between ourselves and our audience – an identity’s existence depends on the recognition it gets from an audience (Davis 2012). Given this mutual collaboration between ourselves and an audience, if there is a mismatch between our respective understanding of the identities, the relationship will breakdown (Goffman 1959, Marwick & boyd 2010).
Thus, The Whiteboard’s identity was one that was performed and stage managed to be an extreme curation and exaggeration of myself. This is little different to the performance we all make of our own identities – stage managed, curated and selected to represent who we wish it to be, and the audience understands it to be.
Authenticity of self
This wasn’t “fake identity”. Smith & Watson (2014,p.75) suggest that in regards to authenticity “users find online environments potent sites for constructing and trying out versions of self”. And essentially that’s what I was doing.
The Whiteboard became an avatar, an alternative way of representing myself that broke away from social rules of self-presentation, and offered a new way to explore the performance of self, and a different version of myself, in an anonymous way (Smith & Watson 2014,p.78).
Through the identity, I could explore a fantasy situation of being a celebrity, and one with an inflated sense of self-accomplishment.
However, the success and continuation of identities rely on its acceptance by the audience (Davis 2012). Offline, during the show, the audience began building The Whiteboard to be the star of the show. Then, as tweets began, audience interaction with the account assisted creating that same identity online. Therefore the twitter identity needed to match that expectation that had come from the collaborative building of the story, and their acceptance of that story (Davis 2012, Marwick & boyd 2010).
An account such as this though, had an advantage. The authenticity of self-presentation did not really matter, and in presenting as an inanimate object, audiences may be more likely to accept fabrication and exaggeration (Smith & Watson 2014). It is more than likely that acceptance is more generous for an account that is obviously fanciful, than one purporting to be a person.
Ben Lewis vs The Whiteboard
The construction of The Whiteboard identity reflected in many ways the performativity and construction of my “real” identity online.
Just as The Whiteboard was a stage managed performance – curated, selected and performed to suit, so is the Ben Lewis identity I use on Twitter. It presents a version of myself, with elements and content chosen and curated to portray an identity that suits the image I choose, and an audience’s expectations. And while The Whiteboard used an avatar, the visual representation of Ben Lewis similarly reveals and hides facets to suit the chosen identity.
Just like The Whiteboard, my Ben Lewis identity presents a public self, which is the professional side of my identity, as well as a public-private self – where a managed and curated insight to my private life is on display, and which engages with the wider social network (Marshall 2010).
And through that performance, The Whiteboard, and Ben Lewis, are accepted by audiences and given a license to exist.
The Whiteboard demonstrated that identities for inanimate objects or actual people are arguably just as constructed and performative as each other.
Cover R 2014, ‘Becoming and Belonging: Performativity, Subjectivity, and the Cultural Purposes of Social Networking’, in A Poletti & J Rak (eds), Identity technologies: constructing the self online, The University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, Wisconsin, pp.55-69.
Davis K 2012, ‘Tensions of Identity in A Networked Era: Young People’s Perspectives on the Risks and Rewards of Online Self-expression,’ New Media and Society, Vol.14, No.4, pp.643-651. doi:10.1177/1461444811422430
Goffman E 1959, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, Doubleday, New York
Marshall PD 2010, ‘The promotion and presentation of the self: celebrity as marker of presentational media’, Celebrity Studies, Vol.1, No.1, pp.35-48. doi:10.1080/19392390903519057
Marwick AE & boyd d 2010, ‘I tweet honestly, I tweet passionately: Twitter users, context collapse, and the imagined audience’, New media & society, Vol.13, No.1, pp.114–133. doi: 10.1177/1461444810365313
Smith S & Watson J 2014, ‘Virtually Me: A Toolbox about Online Self Presentation’, in A Poletti & J Rak (eds), Identity technologies: constructing the self online, The University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, Wisconsin, pp.70-95.