John C. Young Scholar studies the theatrics of social networking

Posted by Centre News in Academics, Drama, News, Research 20 May 2014

Olivia Palmer

“Humans are fundamentally concerned with how we perceive others and how others perceive us,” says Olivia Palmer ’14, who has spent the past year studying how people express their identities on social networking sites like Facebook.

Palmer, a double major in dramatic arts and history from Asheville, N.C., was named a John C. Young Scholar for the 2013-14 academic year.

For the past 25 years, the John C. Young program has provided funding and course credit for Centre seniors to pursue independent study. The program is named for the college’s fourth president, and selected students work with faculty members in relevant disciplines. Patrick Kagan-Moore, professor of dramatic arts, served as Palmer’s mentor.

The senior found that theatre gave her insight into human interactions in the online realm. “Theatre is a particularly powerful way to examine human relationships and dynamics as well as identity,” she says. Her project culminated in a paper titled “Crafting the Self: A Dramaturgical Analysis of Identity Presentation on Facebook.”

The idea to do a project on social networking came to Palmer when she was studying abroad in Strasbourg.

“As a drama major, I spend a good deal of my time with my fellow majors,” she says. “On this trip, I spent three months with people who weren’t involved with theatre at all. During this time, it became clear to me how theatre can often become a very isolated discipline. I hoped to use this project to begin bridging that gap and revealing ways in which theatre can branch out and work with other disciplines.”

Part of the appeal of this research was the immense popularity of sites like Facebook.

“What interested me most was working with a topic, Facebook, that has become a normalized group experience,” says Palmer. “It was easy to sit down and talk with people about their experiences on social networking sites and gain valuable insight as to how people saw themselves, others and the world through that lens.”

Some of the things Palmer learned in her study were unexpected. “What most surprised me was actually how different online identity expression is from offline identity expression,” she says. “It became clear that the entire nature of online and offline performance is different, despite the attempts of the online networks to simulate offline performance.”

Palmer and the six other John C. Young Scholars presented their research during a formal symposium at Centre on April 26th.

“After spending a year working on this research paper, I was very excited to share it with other people and see their reactions,” says Palmer. “The other presentations were all very interesting and diverse. It was a beautiful representation of a liberal arts education.”

Following graduation, Palmer will be moving to Florida, where she will work as an education associate and touring manager at Florida Repertory Theatre. “My long term plan, however,” says Palmer, “is to return to graduate school and possibly continue on to get a Ph.D.”

by Laurie Pierce

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