The pandemic of online persona
Professor P. David Marshall has been one of the leading figures in the emerging field of persona studies over the past 15 years. His newest offering, Persona Studies: An Introduction, co-authored with Christopher Moore (University of Wollongong) and Kim Barbour (University of Adelaide) is the first major work to examine the construction, delivery and curation of public identities in contemporary online culture.
Billions of people worldwide are increasingly engaged in the production, presentation, and modification of their public selves—curating personas through various social media and fundamentally altering how we interact in the twenty-first century.
“When we walk down the street, we present a public version of ourselves by what we wear, how we walk, what we choose to look at – all of those things are a version of persona,” says Professor Marshall.
“But the past 20 years have seen a fundamental shift in the ways we can present these public versions of ourselves. New social media and communication technologies have really changed the game which is why I’ve been so eager to build this new field of enquiry from the ground up.”
Professor Marshall explains that in many ways, persona studies is about power and about the way that people negotiate their relationship as an individual to a collective or collectives. He argues that we’ve moved from a regime of representational culture of media to a presentational culture of media, and it’s having a profound effect on our systems of representation affecting everything from politics to culture to even our own personal identities.
“If I had say 200,000 people who followed me weekly, that would essentially be the equivalent of the power of a newspaper in a medium-sized city. Yet that’s still a fairly small audience for what would be considered a ‘serious influencer’.”
“I can be quite powerful having something that would have been unheard of 25 years ago. If I had say 200,000 people who followed me weekly, that would essentially be the equivalent of the power of a newspaper in a medium-sized city. Yet that’s still a fairly small audience for what would be considered a ‘serious influencer’. But if I had 4 million followers, well that would put me far beyond the dimensions of most political entities that existed in the previous centuries.”
“We have a totally different constellation of relations because of this new influence and power of persona, which is something that can to a certain extent help to explain phenomena like the emergence of Trump or the Brexit vote through this transformation of public identities.”
“It’s a pandemic,” says Professor Marshall, “The way that people are constructing and conveying the presentations of their ‘selves’ is mediatised, using the same techniques that Marilyn Monroe or Ronald Reagan would have used in their time. It’s a pandemic of people making another version of themselves.”
“I use pandemic not because it’s inherently negative, which of course there are negative aspects related to this new presentational culture, but to really emphasise how widespread and pervasive it is.”
“The way that people are constructing and conveying the presentations of their ‘selves’ is mediatised, using the same techniques that Marilyn Monroe or Ronald Reagan would have used in their time. It’s a pandemic of people making another version of themselves.”
Professor Marshall is clear that this book, and his broader research agenda, isn’t just about the high profile stars and celebrities cultivating their online and offline personas. The case studies examined include the gaming community, artistic community and the professional community, looking at the medical, legal and academic professions in particular.
“It’s about the everyday just as much as the high profile. What people think of as something that is high profile is actually happening in the constitution of your own social relations, consciously or not.”
“When you ‘heart’ something on Instagram, you’re not thinking about what it is you’re doing in a conscious way. Actions as simple as a ‘like’ or a ‘react’ are small actions in this ongoing construction of your identity – validating or negotiating your online relationships.”
“It’s a constant process of constructing your identity that’s a fiction, for all intents and purposes. It’s obviously related to who you are, but it isn’t actually who you are. All of us adopt different identities in different situations, whether that’s as a parent or as a professional.”
Working in a University provides the perfect backdrop for Professor Marshall to see this identity construction and negotiation in action.
“At the start of the academic year, it’s funny. These students just coming out of high school, they’re still working out who they are, or who they want to be seen as being. They test and negotiate and sometimes do bizarre things; but eventually about a month in, they’ve settled into who they’re going to be, but it’s changed from what it started out as.”
“The persona that we produce is always a fiction, and now it’s a lot more complicated than anything we’ve ever had before thanks to modern social media and communication technologies.”