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

After

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
Analysis
(Harper Colophon, 1974). This blog presents the thoughts
that came to mind as I made my way through that long and rambling
work.

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
out
.

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
meantime.

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
message.

Although tedious–despite the amusing anecdotes–my read of Frame
Analysis
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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  • http://www.carribeanvacation.org Ajeet

    If it is true that “we automatically apply the lessons of real-life experiences to artificial ones” then we might just be at stage 1 of the impact of online social networking on the human civilization. Trying to imagine how far this can go is mind boggling!

  • Beth Cohen

    Andy -
    Interesting thoughts on frames and how they relate to the on-line social medium. I suspect that the on-line communities are not so much new, but a way to create old style communities over wider circles. Sort of like the concept of the yard sale taken to the Internet that EBay was able to capitalize on so profitably. However, like Ebay, the ability to recreate community with more people over wider distances, will eventually turn back to the old ways. EBay is no longer the yard sale of the world and hasn’t been for a while. It is now mostly a place for small and mid-sized retailers to sell their wares. Linked-in is already going back to a medium for real communities to capitalize the convenience of the on-line media.

  • bob

    “a victim of violence” Wtf does that mean? Are you referring to some impartial non-combatant caught in a war torn country? No, you’re talking about someone who couldn’t stand up for themselves in a physical confrontation. The only thing such a person is a victim of is their own fear of getting bruised.

  • http://etholos.net Peter Bachman

    A great example of frame alignment in action would be the sound stage of the theater at Epidaurus. A chorus performing in the stage area can clearly be heard by approximately 4000 people, with no electronics. The question then becomes whether that clarity of voice transmission, (or a spinning rhomb), is a natural or artificial event, as a performance when prefixed with the word tele.

  • bowerbird

    andy said:
    > many people just see a healthy exchange of views
    > where others see acts of dangerous aggression.

    this captures the essence of the “real” disagreement.

    but the plot is even thicker.

    because many of the people who choose to view an
    online situation as “acts of dangerous aggression”
    — and make no mistake, for some people, it _is_
    a conscious choice that could go the other way –
    adopt that particular perspective because they’ve come
    to the discussion _not_ as an open forum to seek truth,
    but rather as a place to “win friends and influence people”.

    and because they intend to pursue their agenda by using
    dale-carnegie tactics of neuro-linguistic programming,
    a person who speaks honestly and frankly is dangerous,
    and therefore _must_ be “neutralized” as a rude terrorist.

    and, lest you think i go too far by bringing up the “t” word,
    take a look at this phrase:

    > 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.

    the use of the word “bombs” here is quite overloaded,
    even though it was modified with the use of “verbal”…

    “hotheads” who “roam” and “flame” are also examples
    of applying a certain type of negative spin to people…

    and yes, you do acknowledge that these “hotheads”
    can “have valid points and a drive to aid the cause”.
    but you’ve pigeonholed them as rude and emotional.

    furthermore, you’ve implied — by negative comparison
    with you, “mr. nice guy” — that these “hotheads” simply
    do _not_ care at all about “seeking common ground”;
    nor do they “respect other people for their positions,”

    even the word “flame” implies a mostly-emotional tone,
    inconsistent with a calm, collected, rational argument.

    the dale-carnegie people want us all to do “happytalk”.

    but when you’re trying to get at the truth of a situation,
    you need to be able to judge something as “stupid” or
    “wrong” or “insane” or “ridiculous” or “beneath contempt”.

    and ad hominem is never a viable logical strategy, but
    neither is the person who _chooses_ (again, that word)
    to _interpret_ and _define_ any criticism of their position
    as “a personal attack”, and then reacts based on that
    misinterpretation. (especially when their reaction is too
    often the exact type of rude and emotional attack which
    they claim — so loudly — to disdain and disapprove of.)

    if there’s one thing i’ve learned in my decades online,
    it’s that people don’t like you to call their position stupid.

    if there’s a second thing i’ve learned in my decades online,
    it’s that they like it even less if you make a pubic list of
    12 solid irrefutable _reasons_ why their position is stupid.

    and if there’s a third thing i’ve learned in my decades online,
    it’s that they will turn vicious on you quickly when you do…

    -bowerbird

  • bowerbird

    i said:
    > if there’s a second thing i’ve learned in my decades online,
    > it’s that they like it even less if you make a pubic list of
    > 12 solid irrefutable _reasons_ why their position is stupid.

    ok, i’m quite sure i didn’t mean “a pubic list”,
    but rather “a public list”, because i am always
    looking for that particular embarrassing typo.

    the other one i try to concentrate on is the
    now/not confusion, since it changes the
    meaning of the sentence quite entirely…

    -bowerbird