Despite of resounding independence, individuality in modern society is heavily dependent on person's social status. It means that belonging to a particular class of society determines the quality of communication and interpersonal relationships. Higher education obtained from a prestigious university, first-class work providing solid income that allows people to look spectacular, and the ability to participate in a variety of activities are factors that, according to Goffman, allow people to create theatre performance. The latter becomes a stage where comic or tragic plays unfold daily. This is especially true for young people today, who spend more time socializing and watching the latest events in the lives of their friends than reading books or creating something. This paper investigates the correlation between Goffman’s theory and online social networks usage. It supports the point by presenting arguments provided by leading authors in the field of sociology.
With the aim to understand how Goffman's theoretical sociologic ideas presented in “The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life” are intertwined with the concept of usage of social networks and social media, it is important to understand the roots of his theoretical developments. Erving Goffman gained a reputation of acknowledged professional in micro-sociological interpretation among social scientists. He is known as a unique and esoteric thinker. Goffman applied socio-dramatic approach in his work (Smith 2006).
It is important to point out that online social network is a network aimed at building online communities of people with similar interests and/or activities. Communication is conducted through the internal mail service and instant messaging. In such networks Folksonomy (cooperation of a group of people to organize the information.) is typically used. Online network can provide information about the person (date of birth, school, high school, hobbies, etc.), with a help of which a network user will be able to find others. One of the common features of social networking is a system of "friends" and "groups".
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Consequently, for an individual who is a part of a society, being recognized as a unique person possessing certain talents and being successful to some extent is very important. It rarely happens that one can find sentimental pictures of human misery on Facebook. Instead, online social network is overloaded with images of social interactions, travels, numerous parties at nightclubs and themed events that emphasize special status of a person, who wishes to make a positive impression on his friends. The other side of social networking is the possibility to express oneself, when people demonstrate their achievements in a particular field on their webpage (Kaplan & Haenlein 2010).
It should also be pointed out that Goffman described the difference between real feelings and the way a person positions himself or herself. The main goal that is pursued by each person in interaction with other individuals or community group is creation of an appropriate impression that is favourable for the person, so called illusion. It is rather easy to create such an opinion about the person in virtual circumstances rather than during face-to-face interaction.
Goffman perceives social "I" not as the property of an actor, but as the product of theatrical interaction between performers and audience. Just like in theatre, appearance, stage props, and scenery are important in social life. However, the main role, naturally, belongs to partners around the stage and the audience. When individuals interact, they want a certain understanding of their "I" to be adopted by others. However, they understand that part of the audience, or bad partners, can disrupt their performance. Social situations are a drama in miniature, during which people seek to create certain impressions (Scannell 2007).
Goffman describes an important role of managing impressions during social interaction, so it is sometimes called the "theory of impression management". He believes that people will create situations to express symbolic value, through which they are able to make a good impression on others. A person wants to influence behaviour of others, especially their response. It affects not just the situation, but also forces others to feel desire to behave in accordance with his intentions (Scannell 2007).
An online social network eliminates effects described by Goffman, which are caused by gestures and persons appearance during face-to-face communication. Personal homepage, for instance in Facebook or other online social network, allows its creator to promote him or her by demonstrating the best achievements and the brightest events, which happened in his/her life. Therefore, the author of the personal homepage has the ability to create an impression for readers that he/she needs. Informational content is also a result of careful deliberation of the effect that this information will have on the online community. A person can create self-presentation without any external body factors such as intonation of facial expression. Perception and interpretation of the information provided on the personal homepage may be different from different readers’ life position. However, it is structural, deliberate, and purposive and provides more control over the management of impression made by its content to the online community – friends or random users.
It should be pointed that social media is a platform for users’ interaction, which takes the form of personal and common data sharing and creates the possibility to comment in virtual networks. Social media is a diversified phenomenon, including such projects as Blogger, video community Youtube, and social networks such as Facebook. Social media turned from a virtual realm for communication used in everyday life into a major project for the exchange of the latest information, news and achievements in different spheres of social life. Twitter, LinkedIn, MySpace, WordPress, Facebook, and other platforms keep multimillion audience engaged (Kaplan & Haenlein 2010).
There are differences between creation and management of impressions in modern online social networks and in Goffman’s theory. Goffman considers that a person makes an efforts to create an impression on a particular audience at one specific stage in a certain situation. Modern social media allows a person to creating a self-presenting homepage to involve all audiences into one stage, which is single for the virtual space.
Scannell (2007) claims that the way people communicate with each other has changed greatly. He also says that time for the interpersonal live contact is being increasingly replaced by obtaining information and experiencing emotions with a help of television and other mass media. Regarding Goffman’s theory, the author argued “Gofmann’s starting point is not the psychology of the individual but what is required of individuals for them to be social actors in interaction with one another” (p.151).
Smith (2006) in his study points out that critics considered Goffman’s ideas inauthentic and predatory. The author claims “humanistic critics fault Goffman for his apparent promotion of a dark image of humans as cynical opportunists ruthlessly pursuing their amoral interests by managing impressions and controlling information” (Smith 2006, 95). However, in order to understand the importance of modern social media for self-presentation and creation of the needed impression, Goffman’s ideas can be partially applied. Goffman rejuvenates the famous ‘all the world’s a stage’ expression making an emphasis on exigencies of co-presence. Goffman’s focus on each person’s role in definite situation is fully applicable in modern online social networks. This virtual network is an opportunity for the person to be treated and perceived as he or she presented him or her to the audience by the content proposed at the personal homepage. Truly, it is easier to create an imaginary status picture, emphasizing strengths and not even giving the reader a reason to guess what the person hides at the back stage and what are his or her true thoughts and emotions. At the same time, the variance of the interpretation of the read information about personal and professional activities of the person can be controversial. Almost each representative of the modern society, especially those who desire to change their social status, have the opportunity to improve the impression of their unique individuality in social media by perfectly playing their chosen role.
Mattelart and Mattelart (1998) describe the specific notion of the network. They claim that marketing, PR, and advertising are woven into the common history of human failures and victories displayed on smiling or unusual avatars on personal pages in Facebook or similar social networks. Communication becomes a calculated. Each replica is not as impulsive in live communication. It can be adjusted by means of specific amplification of emotional expression in the social network with the sole aim to create the desired impression.
Baym (2010) argues that digital communication is the modern way of expressing emotions and transferring information. The author underlines, however, that, particularly in social networks, digital communication should not be understood and perceived as an impoverished version of live dialogue, where persons communicate face to face having the opportunity to impress the interlocutor by gestures, intonations, and using other body language signals. Modern digital communication is a mixture of online dialogue with expression of emotions by means of various emoticons, slang, or abbreviations supported by photos and videos, which assist in delivering of strong emotions. In digital media, face-to-face communication is combined with written communication.
Baym (2010) argues that digital communication and the level of users' involvement is determined by gender, race, or familiarity with the medium. The author defines five community characteristics that include interpersonal support, shared resources and practices, shared support, and sense of space. Baym emphasizes the fact that communication has shifted from transferring information in the field of shared identity or topic to networked individualism that was more essential self-centring.
Gauntlett (2011) claims that creativity and demonstration of creative results in the World Wide Web connects people in the field of interests. He says “collaboratively make interesting, informative and entertaining cultural spaces” (p.3). Creation of Web 2.0 boosted last achievements related to sharing information and creating something new in the form of communal allotment. Web 2.0 provides the possibility to users to be invited to participate in a play not only to observe the last innovative decisions, but also to change them and become engaged in the creativity process. Such products as YouTube, Facebook, Craigslist, EBay, and Wikipedia are only few examples of sites where users can contribute to its further development and variety of content.
Papacharissi (2010) put an emphasis on communication theory and its correlation to social networks. The author underlines that Web 2.0, with its diversified communication opportunities, in particular social networks, picture-sharing, and video-sharing systems, wikis, reputation systems, or even action sites, supported new communication forms. Papacharissi states that “all of these forms allow ostensible peers - other users – to interact without having to disclose much about one’s offline identity or qualifications” (Papacharissi 2010).
It is essential that in online social network, instead of strengthening the impression made by gestures, facial expressions, intonation in live communication, there exists an opportunity to post comments on author's web pages, in particular on the wall, thus influencing physical appearance and impression of the owner’s profile. “The effect of third-party comments and other attributes of third-party agents also extend to perceptions of individuals who created online profiles in social network system” (Papacharissi 2010, p. 28).
Gofmann’s concept of theatrical place includes such components as front stage, back stage, and off-stage. Front stage is a direct space where crucial events of individual's life unfold, and the person knows that she or he will be watched and, therefore, plays the chosen role. The back stage is described as the place where the person can get rid of the mask and be himself or herself without the fear to make a false impression on the audience. Off-stage is a special place, where an individual actor meets with a representative of his target audience. In this situation person’s behaviour must be specific to create the best impression on the representative of the target audience (Smith 2006).
Drawing parallels with online social networks, it should be pointed out that all these stages are present. It is easy for the personal webpage creator to make such a content using video and photo materials that will influence users in the manner to present himself or herself in a desired way. And no one can get to the back stage, where the individual is sincere. Users can only perceive the person through the prism of the material and a total picture that the person drew at his personal page. Off-stage communication takes place when an individual begins personal communication via message exchanging, information sharing, and gets involved in a dialogue with this user. Taking into account the profile of this user in virtual network, the person chooses particular strategy how to persuade this person and create desired attitude and impressions (Smith 2006).
Miller (1995) argued that Goffman describes face-to-face communication as a well-known frame, which means that a person exactly knows his/her target audience, its preferences and location. Similar situation concerns not only face-to-face communication, but telephone communication too. However, the author underlines that these already known frames about the target audience are absent in the World Wide Web. Anyone can enter person’s “electronic selves” page, and established, well-known by a person frames about the target audience become lost. The author says that “sociality and interaction are necessary for us to know who we are and what we can say about ourselves to others, and much more depth and richness in electronic communication is needed before 'electronic selves' can emerge” (Miller 1995).
Social life in its dramaturgical form and human interaction in this field is in the focus of Goffman’s “The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life”. Goffman appeals to impression creation and its management describing this process as the imaginary theatrical stage. Goffman argues that each person tries to create appropriate attitude to himself or herself or to the specific situation like an actor in the theatre. Such people create an illusion of feelings and emotions and they can be specific for the situation. They are purposely chosen to create the needed impression, however, at the back stage, this person can be completely different.
Goffman uses concepts such as performance, appearance, setting, manner, front, back stage, off-stage and front stage in the framework of dramaturgical field. These concepts can be used to understand communication in online virtual network as a partially impoverished version of face-to-face communication due to the absence of facial expression and body language. Nevertheless, theoretical fundamental concept of interaction between particular person and his observers on stage, which is specific for each situation, is transformed today. By using social media tools each person appeals to the audience on the single stage creating unique personal self-presentation.
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