Performing as ourselves

In Neil Postman's book Amusing Ourselves to Death—one which I talk about endlessly since I discovered it—there is a section that talks about a TV discussion.

The discussion doesn't matter nor do the people involved, but the intended purpose does.


The 'discussion' took this format:

  1. Person 1 spoke for 5 minutes.

  2. Person 2 spoke for 5 minutes.

  3. Person 3 spoke for 5 minutes.

  4. Person 4 spoke for 5 minutes.

  5. Return to person 1.

I remind you of the first thing I said: discussion.

I'm sure you're already coming to the same conclusions as me. Four people each taking five minutes to talk about something isn't a discussion, it's a monologue. And if you were one of those four people and you decided to talk about somebody's previous monologue, you would have likely forgotten about it by the time it came to your turn. I know the audience certainly would have done.

The point I'm stumbling towards here is that this wasn't a discussion, merely a television discussion where several people played the roles of being involved in a discussion. The moderator pretended to be probing, but they were merely keeping the show tight and making sure everyone got their five minutes. The people involved in the 'discussion'? They were just there to perform their prepared pieces.

The entire thing could have been performed in a theatre and nobody would have suspected a thing, other than seeing the discussion for what it truly was: a performance piece.

Performing as ourselves

This got me thinking—as these things often do—about social media. Most of us—me included—turn up every day on social media or on our blogs or our email newsletters or our YouTube channels and perform. We produce a performance piece for the benefit for our audience, for them to judge and review it by giving us likes or replies or retweets.

There's an element of performance always involved because the medium requires it of us. To be pithy in 380 characters on Twitter means that we have to create a succinct point, which requires us to perform.

I don't think this is a bad thing. I think this is a necessary thing. I might even say that's inevitable. There's no other way to do any of these things honestly than treating them as performance pieces (hat tip Thomas J Bevan).

When I make a video and post it on Twitter, I am very literally performing. But I have some ways I try to reduce the fakery of that performance.

  • I record them in one take, meaning I get one shot at 'performing'

  • I don't script them

  • I don't dress them up, throw on graphics or try to make them look good beyond using a nice camera and good mic

I am performing, but it's an improv performance at best. I turn the camera on, sit down, talk, then upload. Because of this, it feels honest, real, and people connect to it.

This isn't exclusive to the videos I sometimes post. It's everything I do.

It's a theme that runs through most of my work:

  • I write my tweets every day and don't delete them

  • I record my podcast live and don't script questions and don't edit it

  • I write my newsletters in one sitting and don't edit them other than for spellings and punctuation

  • I create my visuals every day in one sitting and publish it whether it's good or bad

I treat all of my work as an improv performance piece.

In all my work there's an element of urgency and having one shot to get it right. There's pressure, jeopardy and improvisation involved. Inevitably there's mistakes and whilst they're not intentional, they're intentionally left in.

Performing as ourselves allows us to show our mistakes.

Mistakes show our humanity.

Humanity is what makes us human.

Performing as someone else

I think we're at our worst in our creations and ourselves when we try to perform like actors do in Hollywood movies:

  • Carefully scripting and rehearsing

  • Editing out our bad bits and only showing the director's cut

  • Only producing completed work and never showing outtakes, bad work or worst: deleting it

People don't connect with that. Sure, they'll usually like it and applaud it. They'll probably even tell their friends. But they won't connect with the performance on a human level because the performance they're watching isn't human. Humanity has been removed.

If you set yourself up as a content stream without any personality you'll be treated accordingly. You'll gain likes, followers, an audience. Maybe minor acclaim. Maybe some notoriety. But humanity? No.

Life isn't a Hollywood movie. Life is messy, unordered, chaotic. If we're being true to ourselves online—and I think we should be—our creations will be too.

I think that's important.