Collaborate, Productive, Performative, Templated: Youth, Identity, and Breaking the Fourth Wall Online – by Shayla Thiel-Stern

Article Review By: Lance Wade

In Shayla Thiel-Stern’s article, she attempts to extrapolate information on how adolescents navigate social media and the theoretical changes it has made in their methodological identity.  This process has changed the way young people grow into adolescence.  Thiel-Stern focuses on a number of aspects, in particularly Social Media and its impact on adolescent identities and breaking the fourth wall online.  This review examines Thiel-Stern’s article and highlights key components of her research.

The method of how young people converse in common culture discourse has not changed, however due to social media adolescents reveal themselves to the outside world much faster than previous generations.  Thiel-Stern identifies the misconception of young people being stereotyped as consuming members of the online audience.  However, they are considered prosumers (combining terms producer and consumer) who share their knowledge to the public.  Social Media is their platform or tool of choice that allows them to express themselves.

Essentially, the World Wide Web has moved away from a mass medium to a social medium and has become the vehicle for performance of identity.  Thiel-Stern revisits Goffman’s (1959) theory of identity, which uses a stage metaphor in describing people “as social actors who perform identity along with everyone surrounding them all the time in a simultaneous performance, with ‘front stage’ being the aspects of a public performance of identity and ‘back stage’ the hidden or less publicly performed pieces of identity.  Thiel-Stern argues that Goffman’s model is not complete because it does not explain the interaction between the “audience”, which Social Media strives to produces.

A key point Thiel-Stern makes is “breaking the fourth wall”, which explains how adolescents negotiate, articulate, and perform online identity.  Theil-Stern, (2012) “theorizes that identity construction has become collaborative and iterative – key components related to breaking through the fourth wall – but still rooted in dominant cultural discourse and increasingly templated.”  Therefore interaction and conducting repetitive discourse – helps to develop social cognitive skills and enhances their identity and behaviour with their audiences.

Another interesting focal point for Thiel-Stern’s research is how identity is negotiated and performed online by four components, which include; Productive, Interpellation, Iterative and Templated.

In terms of “Productive” adolescents are expressing themselves by writing to their peers.  “These written conversational performances constitute a kind of ‘produsage’ – a means for non- professionals to create or repackage an existing artifact to create and entirely new product for their own purposes and meanings.” (Bruns, 2005; 2006; Picone, 2011, Proulx, Heaton, Kwok, Choon and Millette, 2011) So, by updating their whereabouts and preferences, sharing video and audio, likes and dislikes, and commenting on other people’s behaviour are all signs of productive articulation, construct and negotiating identity in a way that was not possible before.

New digital tools have allowed adolescents to become producers of Social Media.  These tools include; accessibility, affordability and simplicity.

The second component of online identity is “interpellated” or meshed together.  Thiel-Stern draws from Hall’s (1996) “theory of interpretation of identity being in process and fluctuating.”  and Turkle’s (1995) “view of the online realm providing a space for identity play.”

What I find interesting about this, is adolescents are finding their own self in ways we as adults never experienced.  The Internet allows a form of transparency for individuals as people can quickly Google information to validate statements and information.  Adolescents have a place to vent their thoughts and frustrations.  Statistics show that most teens feel comfortable expressing themselves online versus offline.  Additional, those teens struggling with their own identity are making themselves heard via online channels.

The third component of Thiel-Stern model of understanding online adolescence identity is iterative.  Today’s adolescents are attracted to the idea of being watched and connected to others. “Now more than ever with Social Media identity articulation is immediate and instant, but ever shifting.”  (Thiel-Stern, 2012)  The idea of global village is not foreign concept even to the young and inexperienced.  The act of repeating the online social process improves social dynamics and therefore changes the cognitive social landscape of identity.

Identity as “templated” is the fourth component of understanding online identity.  Thiel-Stern argues, that despite adolescents articulating identity in a creative manner, there are limitations to Social Media as they are developed on What You See Is What You Get (WYSIWYG) platforms.  Unfortunately, this robs young people of their creativity and imagination beyond the user interface.

Thiel-Stern research does not dive deeply into the methodological challenges as it is too early to see the implications associated with adolescent online identities.  She does indicate the behaviour changes from private messaging to in-person conversations when dealing with various types of subject matter.  Thiel-Stern suggests new paradigms in order to further understand the public and private identity of adolescents.  “Given this premise, some might worry that a generation of young people will not learn to develop and negotiate identity independently as they enter adulthood.” (Thiel-Stern, 2012).

In closing, I found this article interesting as it touches upon a topic of online identity and the implications it is having on our younger generation, in particularly, Thiel-Stern metaphoric explanation of social actors breaking the fourth wall.

I do think there is a shift in identity occurring, however it is too early to tell if there will be any societal fallout or ramifications.  I see this as another form of social cognitive evolution that will ultimately change the scope of our social identities and pave the way for new communication technologies and tighten globalization.


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