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

PICNIC 08 – “Homophily Can Make You Stupid” by Ethan Zuckerman

In a presentation given yesterday at Picnic for the Bloggers Lab, organized by the European Journalism Centre, Ethan Zuckerman brought up an interesting concept that has quite remotely been discussed over the internet for a while now.

Today we are all enjoying this second step of the web evolution, the web 2.0, a read/write space where we can actively participate and create content by blogging, we can meet individuals that we would otherwise not have access to, by registering in social networks and creating online communities, and where we can use a lot of other interactive tools. The internet thus has the potential to largely expand our informational and relational capacities in a multitude of directions. Nevertheless, humans’ behaviour online seems to disregard the real capacities and potential of the internet. The behaviour of individuals online seems to be following an intrinsically human principle of behaviour that guides our actions in real life, defined by sociologists as homophily. Homophily refers to humans’ tendency to associate and connect with individuals similar to them in certain aspects, people who share their interests, values, culture, who have the same demographical, racial characteristics, etc., which leads to one of the main characteristics of a social network, which is homogeneity. This principle of homophily is the foundation of the most various human relations and networks, from marriage, to friendship, work, information exchange, and others. Homophily, a concept that can be expressed by the saying: birds of a feather flock together, plays an essential role in shaping our individual and collective view of the world. Sociologists acknowledge that “Homophily limits people’s social worlds in a way that has powerful implications for the information they receive, the attitudes they form, and the interactions they experience”.

The same principle is guiding our behaviour online and there are several types of applications that exploit it. One example are online social networks. On Facebook, Hyves, MySpace, etc., individuals connect with other individuals that they know in real life, and with whom they presumably have common interests or other socio-demographical, behavioural, and intrapersonal characteristics, and then with the friends of their friends, and with potential friends that are automatically suggested to them by the application, based on common profile characteristics. Although the web 2.0 does amplify the broadening of our network with people whom it would be unlikely to meet in real life, it is said to also amplify the narrowing of our spectrum of knowledge in other fields, if our actions online are aimed only at reinforcing our own ideas, by, for example, registering in groups that share our interests or subscribing to feeds on a particular subject that we are interested in.

Another type of online application that reflects well homophily, upon which Ethan Zuckerman drew attention in his presentation yesterday, are the media aggregators. Media aggregators are online applications that maintain subscription to feeds of media content coming from various sources: blogs, vlogs, etc. The content of these media aggregators is determined most of the times by user votes. It would not be surprising, if we were to analyze the profile of the users that are involved in the voting systems, that their profile is similar to ours, individuals who subscribe to feeds through these websites. And Zuckerman draws attention on this aspect in one of his interviews by raising a question: “If you look at sites like Digg and Reddit, these are sites that promised the future of journalism, where we would all get together and decide what’s important. …But that begs the question: Who’s ‘we?’”. And the answer to this question would be: people who have similar interests to ours. Zuckerman further develops this idea in another one of his declarations: Cass Sunstein, an amazing legal scholar, says that one of the dangers of the internet is that we’re only hearing like voices, and that makes us more polarized […]. What’s incredible about the net is we have this opportunity to hear more voices than ever. But the tools we tend to build to it have us listening to the same voices again and again.” Zuckerman makes it clear that it is not the internet that is intrinsically wrong, but that individuals tend to use it in limitative ways: searching and selecting information and individuals mainly to reinforce their own ideas: “Encountering new ideas isn’t a supply problem in today’s internet – it’s a demand problem. There’s a near infinity of people unlike you creating content and putting it online for you to encounter. But it’s entirely possible that you’ll never encounter it if you don’t actively look for it… or unless the systems you use to find ideas start forcing you outside your usual orbits into new territories.”

Zuckerman takes a strong position against homophily: “Homophily can make you really, really dumb”. He opposes to the effects of homophily another concept, serendipity: “Search in the future needs to lead us to people, to places, to voices. My hope is that in the future we get over homophily and we start looking for really productive serendipity – the sort of serendipity when you go to that shelf in the library and you think you know the book that you’re looking for, but you actually find the book you’re really looking for within 2-3 shelves of it. You think you’re looking for info on the US elections, but you end up finding info on how the Jamaicans are viewing the US elections. You think you’re looking for info on network security and you end up finding information on why Pakistan is so afraid of YouTube.”

On the other hand, homophily is seen as a good aspect by communication theorists from certain points of view because it facilitates communication. It eliminates communication barriers coming from various types of differences between individuals, that lead to misunderstandings or distortion of messages. It leads to effective communication, effective collaborations between individuals and collaborative development of ideas. The downside of homophily derives from the fact that, although we efficiently and “comfortably” communicate with like minded individuals, we have the tendency to avoid contacts that take us out of our “comfort” zone, which can be a field that we are not in control of, have few information about, or are unaware of: “We know so little about one another, and what we do know is generally so wrong, that our first instinct is to try to shut each other off.” Fighting the homophily instinct is an effort that will lead us to the better or full use of technology: “We can’t just assume that being connected [via the net] solves these problems. If you let us work it out on our own, we tend to reinforce our own prejudices and stereotypes. . .”

The tendency towards homophily in the selection of information is a fundamental aspect that individuals that use new media should be aware of, as a first step towards fighting it. But, although indeed some applications of web 2.0 tend to polarize and reinforce our opinions even more, the discussions about homophilous behavior online tend to take a very critical position and leave aside the fact that some web 2.0 applications specifically encourage divergence of ideas by allowing unrestricted feedback. Placing a posting on your blog or on a forum brings your ideas into the public sphere and automatically attracts opposite reactions by means of comments for example, pushing you towards expanding your comfort zone. 

Ethan Zuckermann is a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society of the Harvard University, co-founder of Global Voices Online magazine. He is involved in several other projects that focus on the impact of technology on the developing world and the encouragement of bridge blogging (including people in developing nations in global dialogues).

More sources:

Why Internet is Making Me Stupid

Homophily, serendipity, xenophilia

Why Everyone You Know Thinks the Same as You


[1] http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/2007/12/19/social-software-serendipity-and-salad-bars-mmm-sybillance/

[2] http://www.contentious.com/2008/04/20/breaking-out-of-the-echo-chamber/

[3] http://www.contentious.com/2008/04/20/breaking-out-of-the-echo-chamber/

[4] http://www.contentious.com/2008/04/20/breaking-out-of-the-echo-chamber/