Impression Management and
Social Networking Sites
By Jennifer Brown
All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women
merely players. -William Shakespeare
Since Erving Goffman's death in 1982, technology has dramatically altered the nature of human interactions, with social networking sites (SNSs) being a large factor. “By mid-2008 Wikipedia listed more than 120 SNSs, some claiming very high numbers of registered users.. Particular sites enjoy greater popularity in certain regions of the world or with specific linguistic groups.. MySpace (with an estimated 110 million users), Facebook (70 million), and Bebo (40 million) were popular in the United States... The sites are based on users providing personal information - building profiles with information on background, interests, work, and so on, uploading photographs, and in some cases music and videos - “making friends” with other users” (Gorman 2007). In shifting the medium of communication, these ubiquitous websites have also affected the nature of impression management (or lack thereof).
Goffman took a dramaturgical approach to the self, viewing the self “not [as] a possession of the actor but rather the product of the dramatic interaction between actor and audience” (Ritzer 2007: 137). This self, according to Goffman, is expressed in an “all the world's a stage” concept, wherein social life is viewed “as a series of dramatic performances akin to those that take place in the theater” (Ritzer 2007: 137). The process of maintaining this self within a dramaturgical context is called impression management. The import of social networking sites lies in the fact that the so-called “stage” of these interactions has shifted from a face-to-face setting, which was Goffman's focus, to one of online interaction.
The drive for self-expression has led to some practices that Goffman would probably consider poor impression management. Goffman's concept of mystification, for example, is often completely disregarded on SNSs. According to Goffman, the idea is that “actors... restrict the contact between themselves and the audience. They do not want the audience to see the very mundane things that go into a performance” (Ritzer 2007: 140). The “status” feature of Facebook is infamous as a tool used to share “too much information” (TMI) too often. Users can update their status, often from their phones, to share recent activities or thoughts with their online community, but some people get carried away. “How Not to Look Dumb on Facebook”, merely one of a myriad of Facebook groups dedicated to the topic, shares one girl's rapid succession of updates of a personal nature (name withheld):
(User) is omg like worst day ever. text. (updated 3 minutes ago)
(User) is i hate my life. text. (updated 2 minutes ago)
(User) is omg i hate you so much </3. text. (updated 2 minutes ago)
(User)is i dont wanna talk to anyone. text. (updated 46 seconds ago)
(User) is feeling kinda better. text. (updated 20 seconds ago)
This is a perfect example of how SNSs are beginning to blur the lines between the front stage, the back stage, and outside. Backstage is supposed to be more informal and comes with a sense of safety, as “performers can reliably expect [that] no members of their front audience [will] appear in back” (Ritzer 2007: 141). Social networking sites change things by essentially making the dramaturgical “performance” permanent. Unless the user has especially stringent privacy settings, many people can have access to performances not necessarily intended for them. It makes it much harder to compartmentalize different parts of one's life, which is an integral part of impression management.
Though not Goffman's term, compartmentalization is a tool the actor uses to manage his or her various audiences. Obviously it can refer to the different sectors of the front stage, back stage, and outside, but it also describes the differences in performances for different audiences. According to Goffman, actors try to to make the audience feel closer to the actor than is the actual reality. This can partly explain the “TMI” status updates, as perhaps users are engaging in forced intimacy by sharing personal information in an attempt to coerce the audience into a sense of closeness. The actor will also try to make the audience feel unique, as if this is the only performance with any bearing, but in order to accomplish this, “actors have to be sure that their audiences are segregated so that the falsity of the performance is not discovered” (Ritzer 2007: 140). Social networking sites make the user profile a single, tangible performance that is given equally and identically to every virtual audience, no matter how varied. Even the rare unique personal interactions (such as writing on someone's wall or commenting on a picture) are still public. It is impossible to compartmentalize one's audiences when the “setting” is permanent and universal to all the user's virtual “friends.”
The concern is clearly demonstrated each time Facebook changes its interface. Users often have trouble adjusting to new privacy settings as demonstrated in the group “Bring Back Limited Profile.” Users post comments (not necessarily grammatically correct) such as, “
In these ways, Goffman's concepts can be used to demonstrate how social networking sites have dramatically transformed human interactions, at least in developed countries where SNSs are readily available. The sites have hindered impression management by blurring the line between front stage and backstage, provided a more democratically accessible and concrete “setting”, demystifying our everyday lives, and limiting the possibility of hiding things in dramaturgical performances. As is the usual, the technology has developed before the social etiquette and laws to regulate it, but as new generations become socialized to the concept, new rules and sociological concepts will likely follow.
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