Cyberspace is a Place

Since the Industrial Revolution and our subsequent globalization, the prevalence of tightly knit neighborhoods has diminished. Main Streets, formerly the hub of towns and cities, lie noticeably emptier than they might have even half a century ago, lending the air of a ghost town to some communities. This has caused sociologists like Émile Durkheim, Georg Simmel, Ferdinand Tönnies, Karl Marx among others, to argue that we have slipped into a state of “community lost.” They argue that our reduced focus on geographical centers has caused our interpersonal relationships to be less complexly bonded. Sociologist Claude Fischer summarizes their position, citing that “limitation on the number of potential social relations available to individuals leads to more communal social relations. Communal refers to relations of intimacy and moral commitment, the sort of relations sociologists generally assume to be important for psychological well-being.”

However, a progressive set of “community saved” sociologists, including Barry Wellman, consider that globalization allows for increased potential in forming a greater number of positive relationships, and subsequently a heightened sense of self. “We now know,” says Wellman, “that community has stood up well to the large-scale social transformations of urbanization, industrialization, bureaucratization, technological change, capitalism and socialism.”

Kurt Reymers writes about the prismatic nature of the self in relation to community. He says, “identity is the social object that is a result of the constant process of subjectivation and objectivation that informs the sense of self. The degree to which such identities are constructed within the individual is the degree to which an individual commits to any given identity.” This suggests that increasing an individual’s exposure to a greater number of people, as happens in globalization, allows the individual to gravitate toward more and more specific subsets with greater choice and flexibility. Consequently, they have increased opportunity to enter into a state of what’s called the saturated self: an adopted identity to which they commit more fully. Small, tightly knit towns may constrain an individual’s choice of who to include in their community; therefore, the individual is more influenced by that place and may have less control over shaping their own identity. They are forced to adopt social masks in order to adapt. By contrast, greater freedom of choice in selecting one’s own community empowers the individual to take control of their own social masks. Taking these theories into the realm of social media, the individual’s online community forms into a kind of sacred space for the user, personally defined by the exclusivity with which they accept friend requests or followers. And the ritual of logging on acts as a veritable submersion into self-saturation. Online they can self-actualize into the most of who they want to be.

But even so, some may question whether this is truly a community since it lacks the geographic center of a Main Street. Fischer posits that “locality is egocentric.” Therefore, community is not based on the spatial notion of neighborhoods, but rather our own perceptions. An individual’s community is founded on the set of people with whom they interact, or even simply identify, whether near or far. Therefore, cyberspace is a neighborhood, since the interactivity of Web 2.0 creates a new space for social exchange. This space is public, insofar as ISPs are reasonably affordable (though their cost doesn’t makes them wholly innocent of elitist exclusionism, which is a separate and complex problem that I hope you will forgive if I don’t address here). This communal nexus becomes a site for public declarations of politics, entertainment, indulgence, self-promotion, and personal announcements. But unlike street performers or town criers who seek out city squares, audiences aren’t simply passing through social media as a crossroads to another destination. The web is their intended destination, albeit for variant lengths of time. Therefore, these declarations find a more engaged audience than the public square. Facebook recently attempted to make a similar point through this promotional feature:


Social media allows us to truly saturate ourselves. Its tools for creating social masks grant almost absolute control to the individual. Additionally, the individual is able to align how they perceive their own behavior against who perhaps they ought to be. To put it another way, they have greater occasion to edit or contextualize their behavior to suit their own values. It becomes an opportunity to market the self and form justified identity. The freedom created by such malleability echoes the aspirations Peter Brook voiced in seeking an empty space, free of influencing factors. Each user becomes an actor who performs their social mask in a space with greater neutrality than any physical locale.

Consequently, social media is also a platform that lets users learn about one another in a way that surpasses what they might have gleaned in live social interaction alone. The net accumulation of one performer’s behaviors may give another viewer a fuller picture of that performer’s identity than cursory interaction. Therefore, reading tweets of what someone is up to, or watching videos, or following links to articles they’ve posted, or seeing what they’ve Instagrammed, gives the viewer a greater sense of intimacy with the performer than someone they speak to in person only occasionally. The fact that users can accomplish all this from the cave of their private computer screens, or virtually any where on their smartphones, adds not only efficiency to the exchange, but a titillating sense of voyeurism. Anyone can be an observer at any time, and anyone an exhibitionist. And when these two users next interact in person, their sense of intimacy continues. Multiply this exchange by acknowledging that dozens, hundreds, even thousands of friends within a community are all viewing and performing for one another all the time, and what emerges is a network of significant density.

In this way, online social exchanges allow the user to slip in and out of the roles of audience and actor. It is not unlike circular space in theater, where attendees can engage with the action or with one another, since they are always within view. Awareness is shared between actor and audience.

Web 2.0 users understand that the self isn’t an isolated introspective creation, but a product of social interaction. This may be partly why this generation of users may be cynical of Cartesian theater, which asks the audience to patiently observe someone else’s introspection even though this introspection may offer little social exchange with the audience. Rather than auditory stoicism, what is instead prioritized is communication, and more specifically, how this communication affects the user’s sense of self-saturation. Prior to Web 2.0, many behavioral psychologists argued that individuals generally only became aware of their own behavior after it had provoked situational dis-ease, such as shame, embarrassment, or fear. These negative experiences cause “communication to become painfully oblique” (Reymers), and therefore challenge the individual to alter their behavior. By contrast, positive experiences may reinforce behaviors, but don’t usually instill the same self-awareness of behavior. However, social media often centers around validation, or “liking” things, which reinforces our choices directly. Greater positivity is exchanged, and shared items or personal posts become fodder for immediate conversation. This kind of interactivity makes social networks a sympotic space, offering direct engagement between actors and audience, where things can be discussed and the audience attains ownership of their own entertainment as tastemakers.

As users scroll through posts and tweets, or tumble down endless threads of entertainment, the result is a processional experience, often of seemingly unrelated topics. But the cumulative effect of this procession creates an awareness of the perceived identity of their community. And the freedom of clicking links gives users the ability to actively choose-their-own adventure in a way that Cartesian drama precludes.

But despite all this, a significant problem remains to be debated. And that is that purists rate live performance, with audience and actors contained within the same geographic locale, as superior to online exchanges. Many people even consider this a prerequisite to the definition of what theater is. Certainly, there is implicit significance when a group decides to convene at the same place; the coming together gives an air of sacredness to the event, and group reactions increase network density. Champions of this ritual balk at the idea of audiences live tweeting because it implies that users are valuing an online experience over the live offering presented them. But “liveness” may be a broader idea than what our preconceptions of limited physical geography suggest. Following the National Theatre’s NT Live events, in which performances were live broadcast all over the world, Nesta launched a study to understand its implications. They found that, “At this new kind of event, savouring a fleeting moment is part of the pleasure, just as it is in the theatre… 84% of NT Live cinema audiences ‘felt real excitement’ because they knew that the performance they were watching was taking place live that evening… But these benefits of the live experience have also been observed in audiences watching time-delayed NT Live broadcasts. There is a four-week window for the NT Live recording to be shown, and screenings on the other side of the world can take place weeks after the event. It has been a surprise to NT Live to find that these screenings appear to work just as well, suggesting that the screening and the brand are as important as the instant relay.” There is an event-like nature to NT Live. And doesn’t cyberspace offer a similar, if more accessible, event-like experience? Isn’t there also something immediate about posting and receiving likes, IM’ing, texting, video conferencing, multiplayer gaming, or participating in a Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game (MMORP)? If they aren’t live, they are at least responsive, and the freedom that that allows in social exchange is revolutionary. So many people spend time online everyday, and the statistics are only increasing. Here is a breakdown, surveyed in February of 2012:


For all that’s live about theater, the Cartesian model of proscenium separation isn’t responsive. Perhaps some artists like that about it, that the audience is passive. And perhaps some audiences prefer to escape into a state of forgetting themselves. But the interactivity of the web seems like a playground for artists and audiences. And online or digitized performances don’t require the constraining effort exerted by most companies to get butts in seats. So how can these tools be harnessed by artists? How can we create theater in cyberspace? Is there a way to preserve what’s visceral about live experiences and combine that with new media? How do the shifting paradigms of social media, and the way they influence the sense of self, affect the way we should think about theater?


Where to next?