Interaction in digital contexts: persistent characteristics

Annette Markham

Aug 24, 2012


How does digital media influence the enactment of self, the interplay of self and other, and the construction of meaning in context?

This is a key question in thinking about the dramaturgy of digital experience, which is also the title of a chapter I’m working on for the revised Handbook of Dramaturgy, edited by Charles Edgley.  I’m not a dramaturgical scholar by training, but I have a lot of background in symbolic interactionism, which is a strong foundation of the dramaturgical approach.  I also happen to have studied Kenneth Burke in grad school, who, with Erving Goffman, are credited as key founders of Dramaturgy.

Big question, but here, I focus on the starting point: certain persistent characteristics of Internet for communication[1] and fundamental technical requirements for interacting with others via any digital interface that links to the Internet. These features and requirements impact how we experience space, place and time, how we think about and enact the self, how we interact with others, and how we make sense of both local and global situations.

Presence and sociality is distinct from physicality

The Internet enables instantaneous transmission of information between people, regardless of geo-location. The Internet extends our senses in McLuhanesque fashion, allowing us to see, listen, and reach well beyond our local sensory limits. The telegraph, radio, television, and phone did the same, but the digital and networked qualities of information, as well as the multiple modalities for interacting with it, yields significant differences in experience. One can experientially connect to situations far removed from one’s physical location, or be engaged in multiple, distinctive situations simultaneously.

Having a sense of presence without actually being there is a hallmark of Internet-mediated communication. Presence becomes a more complicated concept because it is determined by participation more than proximity, a point made early on by Meyrowitz (1986), who discussed the distinction of social from physical presence. This liminality, as Dennis Waskul discusses, means “places are transmitted from one locality to any and all users’ varied geographic ‘space’ (2005, p. 55). In this way, physicality is separated from sociality. As Waskul continues, “the dislocating and disembodying characteristics of the medium necessarily force a reconstitution of self and society. To state it bluntly, places, bodies, and selves are unavoidably translated into the conventions of the medium—they are not ‘there’ otherwise; in these environments, they must be made to exist” (2005, p. 55).

This can play out in more or less remarkable ways. In the early 1990s, novel and shocking examples fueled academic as well as public interest. In one instance, a key member of an online community who was known and beloved as a disabled older female turned out to be a middle-aged male psychologist (Van Gelder, 1985). The discovery of this long-time deception resulted in the demise of a formerly stable and longstanding community. It demonstrated not only the ability of a person to construct and sustain an alternate identity very unlike his physical attributes, but the extent to which this deception impacted the lives of other community members. A few years later in another community, a member named “Mr. Bungle” took over the characters of two other people in a public online living room and performed a violent rape scene between them. Unable to control their own identities, these two victims could only shut down their computers. Even so, their online counterparts continued to be violated, as the rape scene kept going.  This case, which has come to be known as “the rape in cyberspace” (Dibble, 1992), highlighted the potential selfhood of an avatar and illustrated how visceral, embodied presence could be separated from physical bodies.  Text-based violation of one’s online identity caused intensely physical emotional responses for both the online and offline persons involved.

The 1990s Internet facilitated a marked shift in the way people understand, on an everyday level, where and how meaning derives in interactions. In particular, it shifts attention to the content and form of interaction, which has a richness that belies the instinctive notion that text-only exchanges could never be as meaningful as face-to-face. The Internet also shifts attention toward the way the enactment of self can be edited and altered; for many users (see interviews by Turkle, 1995; Markham, 1998), computer-mediated communication promotes a strong sense of control, or freedom to choose how to fill in missing information for others. This sense of control is aided by the fact that one’s choices are made within a non-simultaneous context, in which time is more flexible.

Time is a malleable variable

As well as collapsing distance or making it irrelevant, Internet technologies can disrupt time, shifting it from an unchanging or universal flow to a pliable variable in everyday interactions. Although this was also once a novelty, we now take for granted the ability to stop and start time in the midst of a conversation to consider and adjust our interactive choices. Most of us don’t notice that we are, in effect, manipulating time to suit our purposes.

Time is also shifted in ways we cannot control and may not notice, by the interface we’re using, the quality of our network connection, and other factors. For example, technologies make it easy to keep the past present.  Archived and searchable, I can review my personal email communication back to 1996, bringing details into the present that might have previously been lost and more importantly forgotten in old manila work folders, notebooks, or a diary.  Facebook promotes searching for long lost friends and acquaintances, encouraging us to pick up where we left off back in high school or college. This potential creates a unique situation in that now, we not only have to manage various presentations of self (a taken for granted dramaturgical premise) but also the presentations of selves from the past that collide with selves of the present.  While not unique to the digital environment, the ease with which people can search and find each other, made possible by the persistence of our digital content over time and the strength and finesse of search engine algorithms, is astonishing. Anyone who has reconnected with someone they never thought they’d see again because of Facebook (such as a former boyfriend), or who has received a status update from someone who is dead confronts this unique dynamic and must reconcile the way the Internet changes one’s experience of time.

These characteristics of the Internet — the reconfiguration of proximity and distance and the manipulation of time — significantly influenced the development of platforms and interfaces we now take for granted. We can develop relationships regardless of our individual physical abilities, appearances, and locations. People can and do build communities based on common interests, bridging typical barriers of geography and regional or national politics.[2] Robust virtual worlds and game environments facilitate our capacity to build innovative places and interact with others in avatar forms we have partially or totally invented. Notably, although contemporary tools and modes of interaction are far more ubiquitous and mobile, the characteristics above have remained salient.

Delving deeper into the pragmatic and technical aspects of how we actually interact with others when we’re using a computer interface, we start to parse out what has been called ‘ekstasis’ (Berger, 1963; Waskul, 2005): how everyday activities in digital media contexts require conscious deliberation, technical skills, and more reflexivity about activities or rules that are in constant play in the construction of self and society.

Presentation of self is a deliberate, technical achievement

Participation in digital contexts, while perhaps engaging or exhausting for the entire body, requires–at the most fundamental level– focused activity of only certain body parts, primarily the eyes and hands.  The user must pay attention to the physical details of particular devices and attain a basic level of skill with the mode of interaction, which can be as simple as clicking a button on the screen in order to open a chat window and typing on a keyboard, or as complex as learning a series of keystroke combinations and other programming procedures to make one’s avatar body speak or maneuver in a particular direction.[3] Anything that would be hoisted or hosted by one’s voice, movements, and senses is a technical achievement. In early stages of learning a new mode of interaction, one’s self consciousness about this process is intensified. This is because one must make active choices within platforms that have fairly stringent constraints on one’s movements and actions.

Even after learning the technical rules, or understanding the constraining features of the technology or software, the process of selfhood is deliberative; in online environments, we must write ourselves into being.[4] Then, to recognize our own existence in any meaningful way, we must be responded to (MacKinnon, 1995; Markham, 2005). Although this basic mode of interaction can be enhanced beyond the text by uploading audio, images, and video, and is certainly moderated by a range of software programs and devices, the baseline exchange that creates the potential for selfhood and social presence is still, at least at this point in time, highly textual (or at least keyboard based).  If I want to express emotion in a text-based messaging system, such as SMS, IM, or email, I must choose from a range of possible emoticons or I can build emotion into the content or form of the message. Either way, it’s more an active choice than a spontaneous reaction. In visually-oriented systems like personal websites or Facebook, this deliberation takes different forms, when we select particular background images, profile pictures, or in video conferencing, tilt the camera in particular ways to fulfill specific purposes.[5] These activities may feel awkward at first, but as newness fades, they become more routine, natural, and automatic, incorporated into what Merleau-Ponty (1945) calls the ‘body schema.’[6]


[1]The Internet, the backbone for digital experience, can be defined at the most basic level as a meta- medium for the transmission of digital information. But it is also much more than this.

[2]Of course this is not unproblematic and I don’t mean to paint a naïve portrait of a gloriously democratic Internet. Real barriers still exist, such as access, speed of connection, capacity of device, physical characteristics or abilities of users, and so forth. New barriers are created by the technologies and our use of them.

[3] See, e.g., Toft Nørgård (2011) for vivid phenomenological descriptions of the corporality involved in gaming.

[4] See e.g., Markham, 1998; Waskul, 2003; Sunden, 2003

[5] For interesting empirical examples of this in social media, see e.g., Marwick, 2010; Senft, 2012.

[6] Also see e.g., Newman (2002) and Toft Norgard (2011) for more elaborate discussion of this.


Dibbell, J. (1993). A rape in cyberspace: Or, how an evil clown, a Haitian trickster spirit, two wizards, and a cast of dozens turned a database into a society. The Village Voice, 21 (December), 36-42.

Goffman, E. (1959). The presentation of self in everyday life. Garden City, NY:  Doubleday Books.

Marwick, A. (2010). Status Update: Celebrity, Publicity, and Self-Branding in Web 2.0. PhD dissertation, New York University, Department of Media, Culture, and Communication.

MacKinnon, R. C. (1995).  Searching for the Leviathan in usenet.  In Jones S. (Ed). Cybersociety:  Computer-mediated communication and community.  Thousand Oaks, CA.

Markham, A. (1998). Life Online: Researching real experiences in virtual space. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press.

Merleau-Ponty, M. (1945/2005), Phenomenology of Perception. New York: Routledge Press.

Meyrowitz, J. (1986). No sense of place: The impact of electronic media on social behavior.  Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Newman, J. (2002). ‘The myth of the ergodic videogame. Gamestudies: The International Journal of Computer Game Research, 2(1). Available at

Senft, T. (2008). Camgirls: Celebrity and community in the age of social networks. New York: Peter Lang.

Sundén, J. (2003). Material virtualities: Approaching online textual embodiment. New York: Peter Lang.

Toft Norgard, R. (2011). The Joy of Doing: The Corporeal Connection in Player-Avatar Identity.  Philosophy of Computer Games 2011, Athen, Greece. Available from:

Toft Norgard, R. (2010). Stillborn Gamers? : Writing a Birth Certificate for Corporeality and Locomotion in Game Research.  Nordic DiGRA, Experiencing Games: Games, Play, and Players. Stockholm, Sweden.  Available from:

Turkle, S. (1995). Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet, New York: Touchstone

Van Gelder, L. (1985). The strange case of the electronic lover. Ms. Magazine (October).  Available from: .

Waskul, D. (2003). Self-games and body-play: Personhood in online chat and cybersex. New York: Peter Lang.

Waskul, D. (2005). Ekstasis and the Internet: Liminality and computer-mediated communication. New Media & Society, 7(1), 47-63.