Social Network Sites as Stages of ‘Dramaturgical Performance’ – Interpretation Sketch

A study of the University of Georgia describes as more likely to be narcissist those Facebook users who have a large number of friends and wallposts, narcissism in this case being defined as an emphasis on self-promotion and quantity of friends. The use of Facebook to emphasize self-promotion, that is considered to be narcissism in psychological studies of social network sites, is given another interpretation in a related discipline, sociology, who analyzes the individual’s identity in the context of symbolic social interactions with other individuals, as acts of dramaturgical performance, to use Goffman’s methodology. 

Regularly in everyday life we shape our behaviour and appearance in order to determine and control the way that the others perceive us. This behaviour trend is part of what sociologists analyze as impression management. Much of the understanding of the process is attributed to the sociologist Erving Goffman and his book, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959), who conducted an innovative observational analysis of the component parts of the human interactional process from the theatrical performance perspective. Goffman focuses on a dramaturgical approach, and defines the individual as an actor, and his social interactions as dramaturgical performances shaped by environment and audience, aimed at creating specific impressions according to the desired purpose of the actor. The result is a “face”, a mask that varies according to the social situations. The face according to Goffman is “the positive social value a person effectively claims for himself by the line others assume he has taken during a particular contact” [1]. A face is therefore a successful staging of an identity.

Goffman’s analysis of social interactions as dramaturgical performances can be applied to humans’ social interactions online as part of social network sites (SNSes) as well. According to boyd, a social network site is a “web-based services that allow individuals to (1) construct a public or semi-public profile within a bounded system, (2) articulate a list of other users with whom they share a connection, and (3) view and traverse their list of connections and those made by others within the system”[2]. Thus, the concept of a SNS, is to create a micro-society centred around the user, offering him the possibility to link with other users, in Goffman’s terms, offering the user, the actor, a stage where he can perform in order to model his identity. The SNS stage, the webpage, is divided in three regions, in Goffman’s terminology: “front”, “back”, and “outside”, according to the relationship of the audience to the performance. The audience has access to the front stage of the performance, to the information that the actors want to display. On Facebook the frontstage is comprised of the profile page, which displays personal information about the user, the wallpostings, the friend network and the photos. The backstage is reserved to the actor only, in Facebook this being the information available only for the actor after login in, such as the inbox, for example. To be “outside” the stage means to have no access to the performance, which is the case of users of the same SNS who are not “friends” of the actor.

The segregation between audience and non-audience ensures optimal results of the performance in impression creation. Specific performances must be given to specific audiences, in order for the actor to be able to deliver the right front (face) to match each audience and preserve proper relationships in interaction.

An optimal segregation would prevent the bringing together of different publics, for example work colleagues, school mates and family for the same performance, which would be sensed as an intrusion and would cause problems to the actor, as boyd also notes, tendency often noticed in humans’ everyday life. The segregation within audience becomes problematic in some of the SNSes. For example, in Facebook there is only one category of public, the so-called “friends”, which does not correspond to the denotation of the term according to boyd[3], and brings together different categories of public for the same audience, which leads to the inconvenience of staging one face, one presentation for all types of audiences: family, friends, colleagues. The non-segregation policy is stated in the website description: Facebook is a social utility that connects people with friends and others who work, study and live around them”. There are SNSes though that are constructed on the principle of audience segregation, as for example LinkedIn, which is a network for professional to establish connections with other professionals.

Another inconvenience as far as crossing the boundaries of typical regions of social interaction, is that the internet blurs the distinction between frontstage and backstage, which leads to concerns about privacy and abuse of personal information online. danah boyd notes as a consequence of these concerns the doubtful quality and truth of profiles, in light of the fact that a personal profile is public.

Another concept of Goffman, the face, develops specific tools within SNSes. An actor within an SNS can make use of different tools to create his face, a mask that changes according to the actor’s role, the audience and the social interaction. Facebook for example offers a series of tools: social network profile (SNP), made up from cultural signs: favourite books, movies, etc., the wall and the friends network. Donath and boyd speak of friends as part of the online performance of self: “a user’s friend connections speak to their identity—the public display of friend connections constitutes a social milieu that contextualizes one’s identity. The act of “friending” others, and choosing the subset of these friends to display in the so-called “Top 8,” constitute identity performances, because they are willful acts of context creation”[4].

Actors can develop two types of faces: a positive face shows the desire to be appreciated, approved, etc., and a negative face is the desire to preserve autonomy of self, not to be imposed upon or intruded. Researchers that examined the patterns of gendered identity, discovered that “females tend to turn to others for validation in contrast to males, who are more apt to maintain their individuality and whose relationships are more of an extension of their already-complete selves”. In the light of this finding, it can be stated that females are more likely to develop a positive face on SNSes as well, and males a negative one.

The performance is the process of social interaction that has as a result the creation of a face. Any performance tends towards idealization, either positive or negative. The positive idealization can be interpreted as narcissism in psychology, by emphasis on self-promotion. Performance on SNSes like Facebook is focused on the demonstration of the actor’s social competence in presentation of self, and establishing interactions online, in which association with popular or attractive users is an important tool of identity definition.

A more in-depth analysis of SNSes using Goffman’s methodology may lead to a better understanding of online social interactions and the ways they differ from everyday interactions, due to the mediation of the technological platform. From this brief interpretation, one can conclude that SNSes are online stages which allow actors to emphasize their social network of relations, using their audience for self-promotion purposes. The limitations of an SNS like Facebook, following Goffman’s description of dramaturgical performance, come from the fact that the user is compelled to display only one face to a variety of audiences simultaneously, which results in a “cynical” performance in Goffman’s terms, or an untruthful profile in boyd’s terms, due to the incapacity to more accurately define and segregate the audience. A cynical performance is also the result of privacy concerns and abuse of personal information online.

Bibliography:

Goffman, Erving, Viata cotidiana ca spectacol, translation of The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, Comunicare.ro, Bucharest, 2003


[1] Goffman Erving, in Lemert & Branaman, The Goffman Reader, www.googlebooks.co.uk/the_goffman_reader,

[2] danah boyd and Nicole Ellison (2007, October). “Social Network Sites: Definition, History, and Scholarship.” Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 13 (1), article 11

[3] Ibid

[4] Ibid