Improvising Personas

Mindfulness is a part of improvisation. So is play. Often there is a narrative structure as well. I am thinking improvisation in terms of performance as in performance studies or theatre and drama ‘games’ and also in Twitter. I love to watch people, I also like to listen. In Twitter you can’t, if you ‘know’ the person n the ‘real’ or material world you can picture their face and ‘hear’ their words from your memory of them. On the other hand, if you don’t actually know them as physical embodied beings you don’t know what their voice sounds like, whether they use their hands a lot, whether they go red when passionate about what they are saying, what emotion they are feeling, that they speak softly when they are very angry and so on.  All you have to go on are their words on the screen. The rest are  acts of imagination and projection.

Getting to know people through words on a page is nothing new, and neither is deception in this context. The play Cyrano de Bergerac is a superb illustration of this.  People can fall in love simply because of black marks on the page. Is the writing persona reliable? And what are our imaginations doing with constructing the voice, body and character behind the words ? How far are we projecting our own desires onto the words?

These were questions that held great importance when letter writing was an important form of communication and social glue. Letter writing played an immense role in courtship and seduction, then the telephone took over. We had the voice and could imagine the rest. Now it seems that telephones are becoming anachronistic and we have returned to writing as an important form of communication

So to return to my initial point about improvisation. Normally it is an embodied act of communication held in a specific place and space. There are tacit rules of engagement participants understand when they enter the performance space. I am starting to wonder how far this applies to certain floating worlds in Twitter. How do you react if someone suddenly acts out of character or takes something that is clearly an improvisational game too seriously?


10 thoughts on “Improvising Personas

  1. Interesting post. One doesn’t need to have met someone “physically”, though, to know the sound of their voice or the look of their face. But you’re right: if one knows those things from whatever situation, one can read their words as if they are being spoken to you.

  2. You raise an excellent point. You can see and hear people using communication means like skype. I was thinking more about the communication that is happening in the here and now in Twitter where we don’t have access to anything other than words and and avi. So do we imagine the voices of those people we haven’t met outside of Twitter? Do we imagine the kinds of lives they live through creating some kind of back-story?

    • I feel sure that we do. I believe that it works on a sliding scale: those aspects of someone that we have some knowledge of are automatically incorporated into our mental image of them and those that we don’t, we build up from scraps and imagination. Twitter positively encourages this as it is a rich source of scraps from which to build the back-story. Thus the people that one communicates with on Twitter are mosaics of first-hand knowledge, tweeted scraps and imagination but they are undoubtedly real.

  3. Fascinating piece (as was Personas 1). I think you’re spot on when you introduce the concept of projection. When we ‘meet’ people on Twitter we have a tendency to turn them into who we (unconsciously) need them to be, courtesy of our past experiences. We may idealize someone or have an urge to please her/him because they have written what we needed to read in 140 characters – or even because their avatar strokes our psyche in a positive way. Or, conversely, we may dislike someone for the very same reasons. Projection is a very powerful tool & can be said to be the driving force behind all relationship building.

    However, if someone does ‘act out of character’ on Twitter, I think the likelihood is that they are not acting out of character. They are merely acting how we do not want them to act (because we have either decided to idealize them or dislike them).

    The other interesting issue that you mention is play … which is most certainly what we are doing when we are being creative on Twitter. Twitter becomes our potential space where we can play & discover not only our fellow (sic) Tweeters but also our selves. In Twitterland we tend to move out of a state of continuity into a state of contiguity with whoever we are communicating with, which is not unlike an infant moving away from its mother in order to explore the world in front of it. It is a form of soft separation: a breach but an expansion that allows us to step out of the technical process of Twittering into an I-Thou joining with the ‘other’.

    Perhaps what we do need to remain aware of is our potential to project and displace parts of our selves onto others &, also, our willingness to receive the projections of other Tweeters. A daily reality check that involves answering the question ‘What is mine & what is theirs’ might just serve that very purpose & prevent us from becoming too wrapped up in and attached to the virtual children’s garden that is Twitter.

    Thanks ever so much for your excellent & thought-provoking posting, Marousia.

    • I agree that reality checks are essential. In Drama spaces there are clear social rituals associated with the practice of entering a liminoid/liminal space. Perhaps we need them for Twitter as well. I am thinking about Victor Turner’s seven phases of ritual here.

  4. Well. You’ve hit it on the nail! I’ve enjoyed your very thought provoking post. Plus also the comments of your readers. Is our persona a hidden alter ego or our true conscious self over emphasized?
    Thanks M

  5. I think we all project an idealised version of ourselves to a greater or lesser degree, but Twitter allows people to stretch the elastic a lot further. People are often looking to reinvent or modify themselves; very few of us, I suspect, ever quite manage to be the person we aspire to be (and this changes over time in any case). The question is: where does wanting to be a better person stray into the domain of outright distortion, deception and manipulation? My feeling is that Twitter has smudged these boundaries considerably, because it gives us the opportunity to create a version of ourselves that exaggerates some parts to the exclusion of others. For instance: I aspire to be a writer, so I use Twitter to display the ‘writerly’ side of myself and attract other writers as followers, even though the fact is I’ve had fewer words published than many people have managed pages. Is this a distortion or a legitimate ambition? If I never make it on to the front tables in Waterstone’s, have I been deluding myself and everybody else?
    This isn’t entirely new territory, by the way – as well as Cyrano de Bergerac, Thomas Hardy’s short story An Imaginative Woman is another interesting comparison.
    Excellent post on a fascinating hot-button issue.

    • Maybe Twitter has provided you with a space where you can express your writerly self that doesn’t really exist in other daily communication contexts. There are writing groups of course but the dynamics there are a bit different. I think Twitter also allows you to experiment with different voices as well which is a craft essential to writing.

  6. Hi again. I can identify with Gordon’s reservations about presenting his ‘writerly’ side on Twitter but see that as a completely legitimate thing to do. If that is the side of you that you wish to promote then that, in part, is what Twitter is there for. Yet only Gordon, himself, can decide whether or not he feels to be deluding himself, or others. But this brings us to the fascinating issue of how we can be whoever we choose to be on Twitter … how we can hype up our ‘good’ bits & hide everything else we don’t want to put on public show. Of course, we do this in the concrete world, too. All of us have, to different degrees, developed a protective outer shell that we present as our public image – sometimes consciously but, often, unconsciously too.

    As for how we are seen by others, it’s hard not to fantasize about the people we communicate with on Twitter. I even find myself trying to analyze relationships between Tweeters as well as imagining what individuals are ‘really’ like. People are fascinating & its such good fun to watch them.

    I guess the thing that has surprised me most about Twitter is how kind & accommodating – even loving – people are towards each other. Of course, some relationships on Twitter extend beyond the virtual to actual social relationships – but many are purely built on the exchanging of Tweets. Already, after only three months of Tweeting, I have my favourites who I feel drawn to more than others. Presumably, transference plays a major role in who we favour most and least: the way we project a persona onto someone (whom we have never met in the flesh) based upon our past experiences – good & bad – with significant others.

    Hm! I wonder how this comment will impact upon anyone who might chance to read it. Who will I become in the cupboards and corridors of their imagination?

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