What sociologist Erving Goffman could tell us about social networking and Internet identity

I just finished Erving Goffman’s classic sociological text, The
Presentation of Self in Everyday Life
. A friend told me to read
this for an exploration into what “identity” means online, and I did
find that the book offers some useful frameworks.

I have to admit, to start with, that it’s a rather distasteful work:
personally, I don’t see my entire life as a performance and everyone
around me as an audience. That seems to be just what Goffmn wants me
to do. (He calls this attitude his “dramaturgical perspective.”)

Furthermore, the book was published in 1959, just before the social
revolution of the 1960s exploded the expectations of formality it
documents–all the assumptions about proper behavior, social
distinctions, making a good impression, and so forth. These
distinctions remain, of course, but people tend to behave in ways that
consciously disavow differences in class and status instead of
highlighting them (at least in the United States).

Goffman’s underlying framework is still valid, though, and it casts a
useful light on some of the dilemmas of going online.

His fundamental contribution is how he slants his premise that we
present a front in all our behavior before others. You have to
understand that this posturing is real and pervasive, but rarely a
consequence of out-and-out deception, or because we have succeeded in
deceiving outselves. Usually we simply associate certain behaviors as
appropriate in certain circumstances; some stylization is inherent in
our interactions.

For instance, just as a certain attention to style–or a stubborn
flouting of its demands–enters into the clothes we choose to wear in
public, there is inherent artificiality in our choice of screen name
on a social network (unless an account related to our real name
happens to be available). And whatever we choose certainly expresses
something we want to reveal about our nature. This doesn’t mean we are
deceiving ourselves or others–we are being ourselves, but in a
stylized manner.

Goffman’s approach certainly applies online, because our
postings–even our instant messages–are more deliberate acts than our
informal behaviors in real life. Although some participants play at
being flippant and spontaneous on Facebook walls and microblogs, they
must have greater consciousness of their effects on the viewer than
most dinner table guests or concert attendees. Our online personas,
therefore, conform even more closely to Goffman’s idea of everyday
life than our everyday life does.

Second, Goffman points to the importance of a separation between
spheres of action that lets us tailor our actions to our setting. Most
institutions have a “front stage” where workers focus on the
impression they make upon the public, and a “back stage” or back
office where they can interact freely in order to get their work done

Eliminating the distinction between front stage and back stage not
only degrads the workers’ performance but causes intense distress–yet
that is exactly the situation on most Internet forums. Very rarely can
people collaborating or sharing information on a public forum pull
aside into a private space.

Even if you request a private chat session or exchange of email, you
take the risk that your correspondent will save the exchange and leak
it to others (the taboo against revealing internal conversations,
firmly enforced by teams in everyday life through their social ties,
is significantly weakened during Internet interactions), or that the
secret communication will come out through a subpoena or malicious
break-in. And many online forums discourage private conversations in
order to enforce an ideal of transparency: the right of all to
participate in decisions.

On the Internet, it is also nearly impossible to use the implicit
signals that team members reserve for each other in real life–a kind
of “side channel,” to use a popular term from the field of digital
communications–such as when a salesperson slips a word into a
conversation with the customer that has a special meaning to a fellow

Under certain extreme circumstances, Internet users can develop hidden
signals–see, for instance, Guobin Yang’s book

The Power of the Internet in China: Citizen Activism Online
which I
reviewed a few weeks ago–but
the difficulties of developing such signals usually prevent Internet
users from collaborating in the construction of those side channels.

That the Internet suppresses implicit signals such as body language,
and maps poorly to high-context cultures, is well known. But what we
can learn from Goffman is that the elimination of all these nuances
reduces the effectiveness of team behavior when they interact in
groups with other participants who have differing interests or

The Internet is also famous for preserving and broadcasting the
faux pas that, in everyday life, are witnessed by only a few
people. The dangers of being caught “off-mike” are greater than ever,
and what might, in the past, have eroded over time into a vague rumor
now becomes an ever-present, presence that can never be disavowed.

Furthermore, people who witness faux pas in real life may,
because of the context, possess enough sympathy for the transgressor
to ignore the gaffe and refuse to talk about it later. But the global
reach of the Internet brings in many far-flung witnesses who feel no
need to show the transgressor any respect.

Goffman cites some differences between cultures in the behaviors they
expect and how they interpret those behaviors. The Internet, of
course, flattens all public expressions without regard for culture. If
you strip off some clothes and dance with members of the opposite sex
at a party, you depend partly on the cultural context (as well as the
guests’ regard for what you do in other settings) to judge your
behavior appropriately. If a video of that dance is posted to the
Internet, it is subject to all the prejudices of viewers coming from
other cultures, as I described in

another article

Much has been made of the discardability of Internet personas; if we
don’t like who we are (or who others have come to see us as) we
supposedly can simply start over. But I think the ability to quietly
withdraw from Internet activities and reappear under a different
pseudonym has greatly decreased since the days of USENET forums. Most
of the groups we engage in expect us put up profiles, and
cross-linking profiles is also encouraged. The strain of trying to
maintain a totally fictional persona is so taxing that only a
determined con artist or post-modern adventurer is likely to try.

Goffman also describes a two-edged or, as he puts it, “discrepant”
role that has a particular implication for the Internet. He describes
how people relax their performance in the presence of family members
or colleagues whom they treat as confidants. Although the role of
confidant is usually assigned with great care, some people publish
secrets from their careers in memoirs, seemingly bringing in the
entire public as their confidants. Modern bloggers do this all the
time, offering their readers the impression they’re peeping into the
blogger’s private thoughts, as opposed to the public face he or she
must maintain in official settings. When such private thoughts are
published to the world (or even a corporate intranet), I’m left
wondering what “meta-private” thoughts lie behind the private

Our conscious presentations of self are often meant to be scaffolding,
which–as Goffman points out–can be taken down once it has performed
its purpose. For instance, we put up a front in a job interview or our
first date with a potential partner, knowing that we can gradually
relax the front if the initial contact is successful and leads to

But on the Internet, our front is being presented to the entire world
for all time, and therefore can never be relaxed. We also have to
worry, even more than real-life performers, over the essential
question of whether we can sustain our performance.

And this leads to the ultimate dilemma in Internet identity. The
artificiality of our participation online, and the limited scope of
available media, suggest that the Internet will never let us show our
true selves. But other characteristics–the persistence of information
and the ease of recombining information from different
places–suggests just the opposite: that we can’t conceal our true
selves for long. It all depends on what characteristics of the
individual you consider true: the “wet” versus the “dry”–the inner
soul versus the worldly behavior.

A lot of what Goffman wrote in 1959 seems outdated. And a lot more
seems obvious, because the various guises people use have been the
subject of literature and commentary from earliest texts we possess in
civilization. Goffman is more chronicler than analyst, I’ve found, but
his categorizations and conclusions can still be helpful when we
suddenly find ourselves in new social settings–where the Internet never ceases to thrust us.

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