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This month's Frame: How Goffman helps us to understand the rise of hybrid social selves
A framework for understanding how social apps enable users to blur the lines between IRL and virtual performances of the self.
Just over a year ago the “metaverse” emerged as a buzzword creeping from the niche of sci-fi fans and tech nerds into mainstream discourses. It even came second in the Oxford Dictionary’s Word of the Year in 2022. Mark Zuckerberg’s emphatic announcement of new virtual spaces created enthusiasm about a future where everyone can be whoever they want to be and explore fantastic worlds distinct from real life. But a year of growing techlash and a few rounds of tech sector layoffs later, much of the initial enthusiasm has faded.
Despite the debate moving on, virtual spaces increasingly do play an important role as proper social spaces, especially among teens and young adults. The rise of social gaming and the proliferation of social media apps gives users new social spaces with an unprecedented amount of agency to present their social selves to friends and followers.
Unlike Zuckerberg's vision of distinct virtual worlds, these virtual social spaces are often deeply intertwined with the everyday social spaces users inhabit in real life. In particular, coming out of the pandemic the boundaries between IRL and virtual social spaces have become increasingly blurred and hybridised. To make sense of how young people are reworking these boundaries it is helpful to dig out a sociological classic—Erving Goffman’s seminal “The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life” published in 1959.
For Goffman social life is comparable to a theatre performance. Individuals perform their social selves across different roles that depend on the “stage” they are performed on, ie. the specific physical environment and the audiences observing and reacting to the performance. Goffman distinguishes between 3 types of stage:
The front stage: public social contexts with bigger audiences including strangers. The individuals’ performance is adapted to clear conventions shared with the audience. It is also shaped by the awareness that one is being observed which leads to the individual adapting her behaviour to avoid negative impressions. An example here would be going to a party or taking public transport.
The back stage: more private contexts with smaller audiences of people one knows, eg. meeting a group of close friends, working with colleagues. There is still a performance happening here, but the role performed is closer to what the individual believes represents her “real self”. The performance ignores and can even subvert conventions that matter on the front stage, but it still tries to correspond to conventions existing in the more private context.
The off stage: private spaces where there are no audiences and expectations around roles. Often the off stage is where individuals relax, decompress and prepare for moments of higher social exposure, i.e. social performances in more private and public social settings.
For Goffman the physical settings of the different stages limit individuals’ agency when performing their social selves. This is because the boundaries between stages, assigned roles and physical appearances tend to be rigid. The individual has little control over their audiences and the internalised norms and expectations for behaviour.
Moreover, across the front and back stage there can be situations where the individual may be observed and their performance is judged without them being aware of it. The impressions they create on others are hard to control as their roles are attributed to them by others.
Using the framework
Goffman’s framework was written for face-to-face interactions. Yet it is useful to understand how users blur the lines between IRL and virtual everyday social performances. For one, the framework encourages us to focus on the role of social online performances in contemporary everyday life rather than still largely imaginary fantastic futures. Secondly, it helps to understand how online performances relate to IRL performances.
It has become second nature to teens and young adults to use social apps to create their own back, front and off stages, modify their roles and appearances, control and monitor who is watching, and set their own norms and behaviours. In virtual social spaces they do not have to deal with the rigid settings, roles and boundaries between stages.
What is really new though is that young users increasingly blur the boundaries between more private and more public stages as well as IRL and virtual social performances, eg. when they engage in “lives”, live streaming sessions and hangouts shared with their followers. During lives the sense of where social spaces are primarily occurring is elided. The boundaries between the physical environment, the private embodied “here” and the more public “out there” of the virtual audience are blurred.
Lives can be shared with close friends through more private profiles, opened up to broader audiences on public profiles or provide the setting for a gathering across the digital / physical divide, eg. by live streaming a hang out that happens with friends IRL to friends online. Audiences can be controlled by shifting between different profiles and the different followers, but also by moving to an entirely different social app or game where the audience the user wants to reach is to be found. In that way multiple social selves can be performed to distinct audiences that are tightly controlled by the user.
Goffman’s model helps to move beyond the artificial distinction between everything subsumed under the acronym IRL on the one hand and virtual worlds on the other. It shows how contemporary everyday social worlds cut across the virtual vs. real distinction creating hybrid spaces and selves that mutually influence and shape each other.
To be successful social apps need to give users the tools to build and control these stages and audiences as well as the boundaries between them across physical and virtual spaces. Users want to determine how they are seen by choosing how much they reveal of themselves and their environments, who is watching, the available modes of interactions with their audiences and which means they use to express themselves.
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