Back stage front stage

Today I enjoyed an interesting chat with Dr. Robert Nagy over lunch in Liberec, in the North of the Czech Republic. Robert is a lecturer both at the Technical University of Liberec and also at Charles University in Prague. He's a fellow psychologist, and we had a lot to chat about subsequent to him sitting in on one of my sessions this morning.

I was discussing one of my favourite theories with the group - Erving Goffman's Drama model of social interaction. Goffman suggests that each of us attempts to 'manage our impression' before our 'audience' as if we were performing on a stage. Front stage representation draws upon scripts, costumes, roles and props, as each person tries to present themselves in their most favourable manner. Back stage is different - this is the region where we are at our most informal, and where we let our guard down. I was applying Goffman's theory to online spaces such as social networks. I asked the group how many of them had a Facebook account. Of course, as I expected, everyone did. Next we discussed how people represent themselves on Facebook through their profiles, pictures, games they play, groups they join, and people they 'friend' online. Part of the downside of Facebook, I reminded them, is when you (or someone else) posts images of yourself onto the site. It's difficult to remove them once they are posted, and if they are tagged, it is easy to find them. Most people don't mind this, we agreed, but if an image is inappropriate (falling out of a pub at 3 am, the worse for wear), this may work against you when you apply for a job and your prospective employer decides to check you out on Facebook.

The problem, I theorised, is that many Facebook users perceive the social network as a 'back stage' area where they can let their hair down a little, remove their mask, relax and banter with their friends, and generally say what they want to. The mistake of course, is that Facebook is quite public (depending on how you manage your privacy controls) and open to many people to view. In reality it is a front stage region, yet with your guard down, you are likely to make a public fool of yourself if you are not careful and think you are bacjstage. The rules of social interaction, I suggested, are changing.

Afterwards, over lunch, Robert expressed doubt that the rules are actually changing. His argument is that most social conventions are usually quite rigid and that bad or good behaviour is the same, whatever platform, real or virtual, it is acted out upon. To an extent I agreed, but I pointed out that some conventions are in fact changing because of new affordances being introduced by technology. What is considered rude or aggressive by one person may not be seen as such by another. An innocent text message sent by one person may be construed by its recipient to be offensive or threatening. This may be due to a reduction in social cues, or simply not enough supplementary information being embedded within the text. Failure to include emoticons, or other 'non-textual' communication may render the message void of emotion, and then readers are left up to their own devices to decide whether the message is in fact ironic, or sent with some malice. Lack of experience in an online environment may lead the recipient to take the least form of resistance and miscontrue the message.

For me, the rules of engagement are changing to adapt to the technology that is increasingly mediating our conversations. The reduced or 'squeezed' text that is redolent of short message services such as mobile texting has spawned a new style of communication. If you are on the inside you will ROFL when you read the message. If you are on the outside, and not used to this style of communication, you may very well take offense or miss the point. So are the rules of social interaction changing, or are they the same as they ever were, just dressed up in a different form?

Image source by Slimmer_Jimmer

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Back stage front stage by Steve Wheeler is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.


Brad said…
:) ♥ this post. LOL

Studied sociology in college, and enjoyed the class I had on Goffman's drama model. The front/backstage concept is certainly interesting, and I think that you've put your finger on another good point as well--- everyone uses social media differently--- what is front stage for some certainly isn't for others because they have friend/professional/different cultural contexts on FB.

I remember my little brother writing something kind of "harsh" on my wall a few years back, and I didn't erase it but some friends were scandalized. Of course he was still in school, whereas I wasn't. Though, I didn't moderate then, I would have to now.

Nowadays, being caught somewhere in between front and backstage, I think the drama environment IS evolving, mixing old and implementing new rules, though as always, you'll have those who abide and those who won't.

Interesting times. Thanks for the post.

Cheers, Brad
Steve Wheeler said…
Thanks for commenting Brad. I like the term 'caught between front and back stage' - It sums up a lot of the confusion of roles we currently witness on social networking sites.
Simon Ensor said…
"We don't see things as they are, we see them as we are." Anais Nin.

One thing which strikes me from your post and reported conversation is the possible cultural differences stemming from language, age, and nationality or regional origin of the people involved.

While I wouldn't go along with Digital Native Labelling there is certainly a generational determination of language used and the perception of relationship between people.

Judging by conversations I have has with young students, they don't have the same vision at all of their communication on social networks.

Like all younger people, the future and how their past will be seen/judged is the least of their worries. Maybe this is the worry.

I would hate to think that my teenage self could be held against me now :-)

Has there been any work done on national differences/language/cultural differences when transferred to social networks? Is there any culutral reason why certain social networks are more popular in some countries rather than others?

To conclude I think this environment has more than two dimensions -front and back stage.

We now have the footnotes, the draft text, the rehearsals, the lighting, bad costumes and make-up all potentially available before the opening night.
The critics don't necessarily make the difference.
Steve Wheeler said…
Wow, Simon, so much to unpack. As to your main question, I am not aware of any studies conducted into cultural differences on the web, particularly in relation to social network use, but I would not be surprised if someone has already published one. Anyone else know of any relevant studies?

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