From a January 29, 2010 interview with Margaret Atwood on Bigthink.com. To watch Atwood discuss her writing process, the future of paper books, and new forms of communication, see the full interview at Big Think.
What do you make of the need to perform one's life on Twitter and Facebook?
Margaret Atwood: It is just an extension of the diary. There is a wonderful book called The Assassin's Cloak which takes diary entries from all centuries and arranges them according to day of the year. So you can turn to January 1, and there will be an entry from Lord Byron, and there will be one from somebody during World War II, and there will be one from Brian Eno. And then on January 2, there will be somebody else.
People used to perform their lives this way to themselves in their diaries and through letters to other people. So, for me, anything that happens in social media is an extension of stuff we were already doing in some other way. It's all human communication. The form that most closely resembles the "tweet" is the telegram of old—which also was limited, because you paid by the letter. So they were also short communications very rapidly sent.
All of these things, the postal service, et cetera, they're all improvements or modernizations of things that already existed earlier in some other form. Even African tribal drums, for instance, could send very complex messages over great distances. They were very rapid, they were very well-worked out, and communications could go like wildfire using that medium of communication.
All of this stuff is what we do now, but it's not different in nature from what we have always done, which is communicate with one another, send messages to one another, and perform our lives. We've been doing that for a long time.
But it's no longer just about sending a message; it's about being seen sending a message, right?
Atwood: It's very interesting. Once upon a time in social lives, say before the 19th century, people coded themselves or were coded by the authorities according to their clothing. Unless they differentiated themselves that way or they were differentiated, people were forbidden to wear this or that or the other thing, and they had to wear this or that or the other thing. Therefore, it was a visual performance for the benefit of anybody looking at them.
We have reduced clothing to a much more horizontal level. You can't tell by looking at somebody what level of society they come from unless it's really at the bottom or really at the top. The kind of jeans and...the jeans outfit is pretty ubiquitous.
Maybe we feel the need to perform ourselves in some other way. And if you think that what goes up on people's blogs is really the full content of their lives, of course, you're quite wrong. It's what they're doing in the spotlight. It's their turn. This spotlight, they can shine it on themselves, and they can go in there and sort of dance about and create a persona for themselves. Of course it's not the whole story.