Reading Goffman (3): The Front and Back (or, ‘On our online presence’)

Reading Goffman’s Presentation of Self can be difficult, much of it is quite dry and abstract, and then you have little moments where he presents eccentric examples of his ontology which perfectly reflects the terminology he has constructed. The emergence of Social Media, and its effects on our presentation of self is a neat way of highlighting the nature of Goffman’s notion of the front and back, as well as the moral crisis of character presented by his division.

Goffman presents our behaviour as social agents in terms of a performance for an audience, and as away from said audience. The essence of the distinction between the front and the back relies upon this. This presumes the presence of an ‘in’ group and an ‘out’ group; for from another perspective, an audience and a performer. Goffman’s Presentation is said to have an obvious relevance for the service industry, as we can understand it in terms of social actors in roles where performance is essential. Upholding a standard of customer service, and the customer’s presumed ideal of servitude is enforced and often met. When it is not met it is presumed that a failure has occurred on the basis of what is presumed to be correct behaviour or service in terms of being treated as a customer, or sometimes, in what is expected of a customer.

The world today places a high emphasis on image, and a binding set of norms on what we presume of the appearance of a known person. In other words, a person may behave in certain ways which creates an expectation, and acting beyond these terms thus violates these expectations and our image of them. This image, this construction can be so damaging that it inhibits the range of possible behaviours of an agent, at least so in public, or among the relevant ‘audience’ where said agent is a performer.

Lately I’ve been thinking of how constructions such as the Facebook Profile or the Twitter account reflect Goffman’s Front. The Facebook Profile is almost ubiquitous around the world, across continents and across cultures. When one looks at Facebook profile, one looks at a carefully constructed image made by that person. When we create a Facebook profile, we do not create an image of ourselves ‘warts and all’, but one which fits what we consider to be our standard of acceptability.

The online profile is increasingly ubiquitous in the industrialised world. It is as commonplace as the suit is in any office. It is part of our inventory for social acceptability as say, a mobile telephone is or a pair of shoes. The online profile is the merging of the front with the back. Through one’s Tweets or Facebook updates, we communicate ourselves, but we also (at least often) write to be read. We expect to be recieved in our views or what we say.

Our Facebook status updates can be signifiers of social class and other tacit signs of character. People are increasingly aware of the importance of personality management in our online identities as it is to manage our personality and appearance in face-to-face social interactions. Our ‘Front’ in face to face interactions communicates features that are not our choice, such as disability or ethnicity, and are unfortunately adversely discriminated upon (and sometimes positively). Online profiles are distinctly different in that one can hide certain stigmatising features. Unless you knew me, you wouldn’t know my ethnic background, or know if say, I had a history with a speech impairment when I was younger. Disclosing these facts invariably changes my appearance to others when I present it to my front side.

Employers and recruiters in an increasingly difficult job market are forced to use background checks such as going through personal Facebook or Twitter profiles to gain a perspective on a person and if they are right for the roles they are being considered for. With the recent spate of arrests and furore over Tweets, it is becoming evident that what we tweet is important towards how we present our ‘Front’. I consider this a worry as normally Facebook status updates and Tweets are forms of self expression which communicates one’s inner world and thoughts. The online world has been considered in some ways an escape from our everyday ‘Front’. I could play World of Warcraft and be a Troll, where on real life one may have more pedestrian adventures by contrast to that Troll.

The worry present in Goffman’s ontology was that the Back stage was pushed further and further away as the Front becomes ubiquitous. If so much of our behaviour is presenting a Front, an image of acceptability, what becomes of our inner world? Let’s put that in more modern terms: we are ever cautious of what we have to say, whether that’s in person or online. The online world is beginning to be policed in terms of offence and trolling has been redefined as defamatory behaviour (without acknowledging there are non defamatory and harmless forms of trolling, if we used a broader sense of the term, like answering the door to a pizza delivery wearing a horse mask).

We are ever cautious of the appearance of our public profiles, and this affects the scope of our presentation. What we choose to share on Twitter or Facebook betrays of our political or otherwise ideological and ethical views, and the backstage has become our Front stage. Sometimes people choose to share aspects of their backstage behaviour on the likes of Twitter, such as their dissatisfaction with a customer or a those moments of solace, which is within their rights, but we should be aware that the medium does not affect the message anymore, complaining about a (say) customer or client in front of an audience is just as bad and damaging (to yourself or who you may represent) as being public about it.

What of the social media in relation to Goffman’s Front and Back? We could say that it allows for a melding of the front and back stages, or this melding pushes back further the space in which we can truly be backstage. I see this analysis as relevant towards the role of online anonymity.

Destre (this post established from conversation with Michael)

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