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Hashtagging on Twitter as a Performance of the Self

The penultimate speaker at AoIR 2011 is the awesome Zizi Papacharissi, whose interest is in self-performance on Twitter. Performance, she says, is public dreaming: everyday life is a theatre, and online, too, we are performing a networked self. We do this towards a blend of imagined as well as actual audiences, evoking a type of public dreaming.

Performance theory tells us that individuals live by performance – every little gesture is a little performative, and performances are inherently self-reflexive. We have a repertoire of performative actions, and play out an ‘as if’ element in our behaviours.

Online, performative props and spaces are afforded by scalability, persistence, replicability, searchability, and disclosure, and the ambient, always-on performative spaces of online heighten social awareness. Homophily, group affiliation, and self-affirmation come into play here, and there are a number of possible performance strategies for the networked self.

Zizi’s study focusses on trending topics on Twitter; she picked a number of trending topics to gather some 1,700 tweets for further analysis of performative elements. This measured the magnitude of performance (the scale and scope of performance), the presence of play, and the different strategies of play being employed (playing with convention, exaggeration, fragmentation, repetition, and incomplete movements), as well as general content characteristics, themes, and redundancy.

What shape does the performance of the self take, then? How do they balance publicity, privacy, and sociality? In the first place, 80% of the tweets contained no @reply mentions or comments, only the hashtag – the self was front and centre, even if it was an overt attempt to communicate. The most popular strategy for play was reordering (of grammatical rules, syntax, spelling, convention, etc.). The magnitude of performance and the degree of playfulness were inversely related, as it turned out.

Acting out and ‘as if’ elements were played out through profanity, vulgarity, drama, shock value, and private/public crossovers; depending on topic, this was different across different trending topics, too. Tagging was evident as a performative act; it includes the comment in a particular conversation, but it is also tagging in a graffiti sense: signing a statement and affording it a greater visibility. Affect also played an important role – while there was an appearance of spontaneity, this was a form of deliberate improvisation.

These performative strategies can be thought of as part of the ongoing storytelling of the self; they are a form of emotional release and affect as well; connect with publicity and the everyday; and combine redaction and improvisation to generate theatricality.