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


posting some thoughts

a month ago about Erving Goffman’s classic sociological text, The
Presentation of Self in Everyday Life
, I heard from a reader who
urged me to try out a deeper work of Goffman’s, Frame
(Harper Colophon, 1974). This blog presents the thoughts
that came to mind as I made my way through that long and rambling

Let me start by shining a light on an odd phenomenon we’ve all
experienced online. Lots of people on mailing lists, forums, and
social networks react with great alarm when they witness heated
arguments. This reaction, in my opinion, stems from an ingrained
defense mechanism whose intensity verges on the physiological. We’ve
all learned, from our first forays to the playground as children, that
rough words easily escalate to blows. So we react to these words in
ways to protect ourselves and others.

Rationally, this defense mechanism wouldn’t justify intervening in an
online argument. The people arguing could well be on separate
continents, and have close to zero chance of approaching each other
for battle before they cool down.

When asked why forum participants insert themselves between the
fighters–just as they would in a real-life brawl–they usually say,
“It’s because I’m afraid of allowing a precedent to be set on this
forum; I might be attacked the same way.” But this still begs the
question of what’s wrong with an online argument. No forum member is
likely to be a victim of violence.

We can apply Goffman’s frame analysis to explain the forum members’
distress. It’s what he calls a keying: we automatically apply
the lessons of real-life experiences to artificial ones. Keying allows
us to invest artificial circumstances–plays, ceremonies, court
appearances, you name it–with added meaning.

Human beings instinctively apply keyings. When we see a movie
character enter a victim’s home carrying a gun, we forget we’re
watching a performance and feel some of the same tightness in our
chest that we would feel had it been ourselves someone was stalking.

Naturally, any person of normal mental capacity can recognize the
difference between reality and an artificial re-enactment. We suspend
disbelief when we watch a play, reacting emotionally to the actors as
if they were real people going about their lives, but we don’t
intervene when one tries to run another through with a knife, as we
would (one hopes) in real life.

Why do some people jump eagerly into online disputes, while others
plead with them to hold back? This is because, I think, disputes are
framed by different participants in different ways. Yes, some people
attack others in the hope of driving them entirely off the list; their
words are truly aimed at crushing the other. But many people just see
a healthy exchange of views where others see acts of dangerous
aggression. Goffman even had a term for the urge to flee taken up by
some people when they find that actions go too far: flooding

I should meekly acknowledge here that I play Nice Guy when I post to
online forums: I respect other people for their positions, seek common
ground, etc. I recognize that forums lose members when hotheads are
free to roam and toss verbal bombs, but I think forums may also lose a
dimension by suppressing the hotheads, who often have valid points and
a drive to aid the cause. One could instead announce a policy that
those who wish to flame can do so, and those who wish to ignore them
are also free to do so.

How much of Goffman’s sprawling 575-page text applies online? Many
framing devices that he explored in real life simply don’t exist on
digital networks. For instance, forums rarely have beginnings and
endings, which are central to framing for Goffman. People just log in
and start posting, experiencing whatever has been happening in the

And as we’ve heard a million times, one can’t use clothing, physical
appearance, facial expressions, and gestures to help evaluate online
text. Of course, we have graphics, audio, and video on the Internet
now as well, but they are often used for one-way consumption rather
than rapid interaction. A lot of online interaction is still carried
on in plain text. So authors toss in smileys such as :-) and other
emoticons. But these don’t fill the expressiveness gap because they
must be explicitly included in text, and therefore just substitute for
things the author wanted to say in words. What helps makes
face-to-face interactions richer than text interactions is the
constant stream of unconscious vocal and physical signals that we
(often unconsciously) monitor.

So I imagine that, if Goffman returned to add coverage of the Internet
to Frame Analysis, it would form a very short appendix
(although he could be insufferably long-winded). Still, his analyses
of daily life and of performances bring up interesting points that
apply online.

The online forums are so new that we approach them differently from
real-life situations. We have fewer expectations with which to frame
our interactions. We know that we can’t base our assumptions on
framing circumstances, such as when we strike up a conversation with
someone we’ve just met by commenting on the weather or on a dinner
speaker we both heard.

Instead, we frame our interactions explicitly, automatically providing
more context. For instance, when we respond to email, we quote the
original emails in our response (sometimes excessively).

And we judge everybody differently because we know that they choose
what they say carefully. We fully expect the distorted appearances
described in the Boston Globe article

My profile, myself
subtitled “Why must I and everyone else on Facebook be so insufferably
happy?” We wouldn’t expect to hear about someone’s drug problem or
intestinal upset or sexless marriage on Facebook, any more than we’d
expect to hear it when we’re sitting with them on a crowded beach.

Goffman points out that the presence of witnesses is a frame in
itself, changing any interaction between two people. This definitely
carries over online where people do more and more posting to their
friend’s Facebook Wall (a stream of updates visible to all their other
friends) instead of engaging in private chats.

But while explaining our loss of traditional frames, I shouldn’t leave
the impression that nothing takes their place. The online medium has
powerful frames all its own. Thus, each forum is a self-contained
unit. In real-life we can break out of frames, such as when actors
leave the stage and mingle with audience members. This can’t happen
within the rigidity of online technology.

It can be interesting to meet the same person on two different forums.
The sometimes subtle differences between forums affect their
presentation on each one. They may post the same message to different
forums, but that’s often a poor practice that violates the frames on
one or more forums. So if they copy a posting, they usually precede it
with some framing text to make it appropriate for a particular forum.

Online forums also set up their own frames within themselves, and
these frames can be violated. Thus, a member may start a discussion
thread with the title “Site for new school,” but it may quickly turn
into complaints about the mayor or arguments about noise in the
neighborhood. This breaks the frame, and people may go on for some
time posting all manner of comments under the “Site for new school”
heading until they are persuaded to start a new thread or take the
arguments elsewhere.

A frame, for Goffman, is an extremely broad concept (which I believe
weakens its value). Any assumption underlying an interaction can be
considered part of the frame. For instance, participants on forums
dedicated to social or technical interactions often ask whether it’s
considered acceptable to post job listings or commercial offerings. In
other words, do forum participants impose a noncommercial mandate as
part of the frame?

A bit of history here can help newer Internet denizens understand
where this frame comes from. When the Internet began, everything was
run over wires owned by the federal government, the NSFNET Backbone
Network. All communication on the backbone was required to be
noncommercial, a regulation reinforced by the ivory-tower idealism of
many participants. Many years after private companies added new lines
and carried on their business over the Internet, some USENET forums
would react nastily to any posting with a hint of a commercial

Although tedious–despite the amusing anecdotes–my read of Frame
was useful because I realized how much of our lives is
lived in context (that is, framed), and how adrift we are when we are
deprived of those frames in today’s online environments–cognitively
we know we are deprived, but we don’t fully accept its implications.
Conversely, I think that human beings crave context, community, and
references. So the moment we go online, we start to recreate those
things. Whether we’re on a simple mailing list or a rich 3D virtual
reality site, we need to explicitly recreate context, community, and
references. It’s worth looking for the tools to do so, wherever we
land online.

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