Transmitting the Body in Online Interaction

1Cyberspace is much celebrated because it is viewed as a disembodied realm of social interaction. The identity adopted in a chat room or a message board need not bear any resemblance to the physical, corporeal and material body that is so important in face-to-face interactions. This is seen to confer a transgressive potential to the individual to explore aspects of the self, particularly with regards to sexualities and gender identities which may otherwise be liable to stigma. However, to conceptualise cyberspace as disembodied actually involves a ‘very narrow construction of how we should conceive of this space and the activity that occurs within it’ (Whitty 344). In fact, a central tenet of online interaction rituals is the transmission of the body. The popularity of chat programmes (such as Microsoft Messenger), chat rooms and online dating sites necessitates individuals to construct and transmit the self to others through text. However, drawing on the work of Goffman, this article notes that such transmissions are frequently problematic. In particular, the content of transmission is often subject to ‘framing troubles’, can be purposefully falsified and, as such, may be regarded with suspicion.

2A close examination of ‘virtual’ interaction reveals that bodies are, in fact, everywhere. Online interaction is far better understood as the inability to escape from bodies, as opposed to some utopian conception of bodily transcendence. If online interaction is concerned with transmitting the self to others (and receiving the transmissions of others) then this self is always embodied (as is the other). These bodies tend to be constructed through textual descriptions and signifiers (although the increasing popularity of digital cameras and web cams may place an increasing reliance on the visibility of the physical body) and play a vital role in the online encounter. The body may not be visible to the eye, but its gender, ‘race’, (dis)abilities, age, and measurements are just as liable to judgement and classification online as they are offline.

3However, does the online body necessarily have to correspond to its offline counterpart? If the body is transmitted to others through text, then the body that this text acts to materialise may differ dramatically from its supposed corporeal blueprint. This discrepancy can be for two reasons. Firstly, texts are polysemic in nature. The ‘body’ decoded from the text by the audience may be different from that which the ‘author’ attempted to encode. Secondly, online interaction is also vulnerable to, what Goffman terms, fabrication. The following is an extract of an online interview conducted by John Campbell in his research into gay men’s use of Internet chat ‘channels’. The respondent (Younghung) had falsely informed another user (Britannic) on the channel of his body size and muscularity (stats):


John: When Britannic first messaged you, he asked for stats?
Younghung: yes, so he’d know what I looked like
John: Where [were] your “stats” how you saw yourself offline?
Younghung: no, they weren’t
John: How did Britannic react when he received your “stats”?
Younghung: he was very excited from what I could tell
John: How did you feel when he responded that way?
Younghung: it was fun, exciting …a sexual release
John: Why was it a sexual release?
Younghung: it was a sexual release…sexual role playing…living out a fantasy for each of us.
Younghung: just Britannic didn’t know it was a fantasy. (Campbell 154)

5The text-centred nature of online interaction allowed Younghung to construct and transmit a body that differed wildly from his corporeal ‘reality’ (which he himself described as ‘considerably obese and physically unattractive’; Campbell 153). In Goffman’s terms, this would be an instance of ‘framing trouble’ or ‘the matter of false assumptions and incorrect interpretations’ (Burns 287). Whilst Britannic had framed the encounters, and their content, as ‘reality’, Younghung had framed them as ‘play’. Thus, the body, transmitted online through text based interaction, is vulnerable to both fabrication and misinterpretation because of the ease with which framing troubles can occur.

6However, it is important to resist the idea that online scenarios allow us to transmit any image of the self that we so desire. For many people, the liberatory capacity of the Internet is, and has always been, grounded in its potential to transform their real life ‘situations’. Thus, as Shilling argues, it is imperative to conceptualise the ways in which ‘cyberspace’ and ‘physical space’ interact and co-extend and the implications that this has on our transmissions. One example of this is with regards to Internet dating sites. As Hardey notes in his research, although these sites facilitate forms of online ‘chat’ between individuals, the explicit aim is to transfer such interaction offline through ‘real life’ meets and dates. As such, it is beneficial for the ‘presentation of self’ transmitted by an individual to correspond to their material and corporeal reality.

7Furthermore, it is important to recognise how the limits of transmission are policed. In her research on Internet chat rooms, Bassett argues that hyper-gendered performances often led to feelings of suspicion in those who were audience to them. Similarly, in his ethnography on the trading of sexualised representations (‘sexpics’) in Internet chat rooms, Slater notes that the authenticity of the relationships and identities performed are constantly questioned. For example, ‘how can I trust or believe anyone or anything? How can I accept the other, or be myself accepted, as an ethical subject?’ (Slater 105). In both instances, evidence (such as photographs) may be sought to confer the ‘reality’ of the content of transmission.

8However, seeking out evidence to confirm or deny the content of the transmissions can actually have the effect of increasing our vulnerability to deception. For example, a male who wishes to explore a female identity online may transmit a female body to others through textual means, such as the use of a woman’s name and/or through the description of a body which is intended to be ‘read’ as female. To facilitate this, a hyper-feminine body may be constructed and transmitted. This, as already noted, may stir suspicion and lead the audience of this performance to seek proof of ‘sex’. In such instances, false evidence may be provided (such as a series of photographs of a particular woman who corresponds to the body already transmitted). The presence of this ‘evidence’ may be enough to relieve suspicion in the audience and to reassure them that they have framed the interaction and transmission correctly, even if this is not the case.

9Individuals bestow trust in evidence and its capacity to reveal the ‘truth’ of any situation which increases one’s vulnerability to fake evidence. Thus, the taking of pictures, or the accumulation of a collection of false/falsified representations, may be considered a mechanism for supporting the ‘presentation of self’ offered. As Goffman (466) notes, ‘he [sic] who would contain another may be advised to work his design on the moments before the scheduled activity, since then the dupe will be least wary’. This has dramatic effects on the content of online transmissions and how they are framed by those who receive them.

10As has been argued, bodies are central to the dynamics of online interaction. However, the transmission (and receiving) of these bodies can be particularly precarious. It is advantageous for many people to offer a presentation of the self that corresponds to their material, offline, reality. However, the anonymity that the Internet confers also provides an opportunity to explore new identities and new bodies and to actively transmit these to others. This, however, is limited by the suspicion that some performances, and online spaces in general, can arouse. It is thus vital to understand how people frame and understand online transmissions and how the ‘reality’ of online being/doing is confirmed. It will be interesting to witness the implications of further technological developments in the area of online communication. In particular, how will the proliferation of visual technologies limit or expand the possibilities of transmission?