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To what extent does Erving Goffman’s theories of social ‘performance’ apply to modern digital forms of social interaction?


The sociologist Erving Goffman (1922-1982) focused on the social world at the micro level to analyse the social and symbolic interactions between individuals. Goffman (1959) analysed the ways in which individuals presented themselves to others. Goffman (1959: 74) found that individuals do not present their real, true selves; instead they present an ‘idealised’ version of how they would like to be perceived by others using ‘cultural scripts’ (Hogan, 2010: 378). An example of this is when a waiter dons a Tuxedo and straightens his posture to wait on customers in a restaurant (Goffman, 1959: 122). He is tentative, patient and enabling, and his manners are impeccable even when the customer asks ‘[Do] you call yourself a waiter, you young bastard? You a waiter! You’re not fit to scrub floors in the brothel your mother came from. Maquereau!’ (Goffman, 1959: 122). This symbolic interaction ensures that the waiter remains composed and apologetic, but when his shift ends, he changes into casual wear, his body visibly relaxes and he unwinds backstage in the staff room by collectively mocking the customers with his ‘team’, who collectively share these sentiments (Goffman, 1959: 97). These appear to be two different individuals because individuals adopt ‘impression management’ to present the self in ways that obscure the ‘authentic self’, or in simple terms, they ‘put on a front’ (Goffman, 1959: 116; Hogan, 2010: 378). This paper evaluates whether Goffman’s fifty year-old ‘dramaturgical theory’ is relevant to the social ‘performance’ portrayed in modern digital forms of social interaction in the context of the social media networking sites in contemporary society.


Goffman conducted his research using a technique that he conceptualised as a ‘dramaturgical’ approach; the key to his theory is ‘drama’ (1959: 113). Goffman (1959) used the analogy of an actor interacting or rather performing on a theatrical stage in front of an audience. Within this ‘dramaturgical’ situation, every scene is a new role on another stage (Goffman, 1959:113). While the interaction using a preferred identity is performed to an audience on the front stage, backstage is where perfecting the performance takes place and where the actor can revert back to his authentic self again (Goffman, 1959). Thus, the process of symbolic interaction is an individual who ‘puts on a front’ to an audience (Hogan, 2010: 378). Symbolic interaction is predicated on locating the meanings from which shared or collective meanings are created within the performance (Hamilton, 2004). The interaction occurs in the presence of an audience [the customer] which either credits or discredits the actors [the waiter] based upon the performance (Goffman, 1959).

Social Media

Facebook provides a platform upon which numerous roles and dramaturgy are performed uniquely by millions of interpersonal interactions on the front stage before an audience every day. The proliferation of handheld digital devices on the market has led to a huge increase in the number of people using digital social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter and MySpace (Hogan, 2010; Almjeld, 2009). Social media and digital devices are personal and portable, which maintains a ‘constant networked connection’ with the individual’s social networks (Burchell, 2012: 3). This has radically altered the ways in individuals interact with others (Hogan, 2010). Social media websites such as Facebook provide a stage in which they interact with old school friends, long lost best friends, family, extended family, friends of family and colleagues (Hogan, 2010). Although the authentic self of the actor may be known to these associates, impression management is nevertheless practised; in Facebook terms this can involve vast numbers of audience as this networking forum now has over a billion subscribers (Frissen et al., 2015: 23). The popularity of an individual is defined based on the number of friends they have in their friends list (Hogan, 2010). Facebook is described by Timmermans as ‘a site for individual entertainment, and as a tool for maintaining and building communities’ (Timmermans 2010: 189). However, Hogan argues that it is a place for symbolic interaction on a hitherto unknown scale (Hogan, 2010). By contrast to the one-way processes of television, social media enables the two-way interaction whereby commentary and feedback make these platforms simultaneously ‘exciting and frightening’ (Meden, 2009: 59).


Evidence of Goffman’s performance is present in the research findings by Almjeld (2009) on female users of MySpace. The research highlights how social networking was overall empowering to women, who demonstrated ‘impression management’ which sold their online identities and interactions through numerous construction of multiple identities by the ‘re-writing of the self’ (Bolter, 2001 197; Almjeld, 2009: 155). It also enables women to ‘practice and perform’ new ‘femininities in relative security’ (Meden, 2009: 61). Meden’s research on women found that they conveyed an enhanced image of themselves through renaming themselves on Facebook as ‘jocks, scholars, tech enthusiasts, flirts and friends’ (Meden, 2009: 61). In doing so, they rejected their bland identities and traditional roles as wives and mothers on blogs and social networking sites (Meden, 2009: 61). This illustrates the ’emancipatory potential’ of social media (Cheung, 2000: 55). The practice and performance of disguising the authentic self illustrates the relevance of the front stage and the backstage in relation to impression management (Miller, 1995). In the physical world, women have traditionally undertaken making ‘scrapbooks, photo albums and note passing’ to equip themselves with the building blocks needed to forge social identities and form new social relationships (Almjeld, 2009: 154). However, in the virtual world, women practise impression management as ‘bloggers and [by] instant messaging and in chat rooms’ (Almjeld, 2009: 154). Miller and Arnold (2001) argue that online interaction is no ‘more or less problematic’ than face-to-face interaction because it is real life in both contexts (in Kelly, et al., 2006: 92). However, there are different issues attached to each.


It is claimed that the online approach does not mediate the expressions or body language to its audience; actors only give what they type in their message to enhance their persona, whereas in contrast, face-to-face interactions give away far more information to the audience than online interactions (Bullingham and Vasconcelos, 2013; Goffman, 1959). This is because the actor is physically before the audience in the face-to-face context whereby the observers can read the expressions that they give as well as those that they ‘give off’ or ‘leak’ (Miller and Arnold, 2001: 74). In the latter, actors inadvertently ‘give off’ information that was not intended for their audience (Miller and Arnold, 2012: 1). Specific fronts are displayed in accordance with the level of the sustained observation of the audience (Hogan, 2010). In cases where the enhanced identity nurtured by the interaction is knowingly contradicted on the front stage, the audience can identify this error which results in the actor’s performance being discredited (Bullingham and Vasconcelos, 2012). Backstage is where the work is done to avoid these issues (Bullingham and Vasconcelos, 2012).


Goffman identifies three overlapping groups of potential errors that could impinge on the performance of a genuine actor when the impression is mismanaged, resulting in the performance being discredited by the audience (Goffman, 1959). The first group may ‘trip, stumble or fall […] ‘belch, yawn’, or go blank (Goffman, 1959: 60). For example, Ed Miliband stumbled off the stage after performing to a live audience to vote him in as Prime Minister (Bennett, 2015: [Online]). Journalists focused on the stumble and not his interaction thereby discrediting his performance (Goffman, 1959). The outcome may have differed significantly if he had pre-recorded his interaction via YouTube. However, David Cameron gave off numerous ‘expressions’ as he perspired and recoiled in his incoherent and inarticulate responses to questions on Gay Rights (YouTube, 2010: [Online]; Goffman, 1959: 73).

Goffman argues that the second group experience nervousness, lack confidence or are too self-aware, which thereby discrediting the performance (Goffman, 1959:60). This is linked to the both the second and the third group which are the backstage team who in this case left Cameron wholly under-prepared, resulting in a discredited performance (Goffman, 1959). ‘Backstage’ preparation helps to counter such issues as participants collectively enable the ‘smooth’ running of the performance at the front stage to avoid the ‘redeeming gaffes’ (Miller, 1995: 1). For example, Goffman questions whether performers are being truthful or whether their points are ‘valid’ or ‘spurious’ (Goffman, 1959: 66). However, sometimes previous performances in the past can come back to haunt the present.

One example is the case of Paris Brown who secured the authoritative post as Britain’s first Youth Police and Crime Commissioner (The Guardian, 2013: [Online]). However, in a number of interactions on Twitter prior to getting the job, she displayed ‘homophobic, racist and violent’ tweets which resulted in a call for her resignation (The Guardian, 2013: [Online]). Goffman argues that audiences cannot wait to put a ‘chink in the armour’ of performers who fail in order to ‘discredit’ their ‘pretensions’ (1959: 66). These claims may well have been Brown’s way of presenting herself as something more lively and streetwise than she really was, but only to her peer group as she experimented with her identity (Livingstone, 1998). Paris Brown also described herself on Twitter as:

‘either really fun, friendly and inclusive when im drunk or im an anti- social, racist, sexist, embarrassing a****** often it’s the latter’ (cited in Myers, 2013: [Online]).

Paris Brown provides two sides to her identity: a nice fun girl who cares about others and one who is unpleasant and intolerant of diversity (The Guardian, 2013: [Online]). While this may have been a case of bravado, this impression [mis-]management illustrates how performing to a global audience can be discredited repeatedly, and at a much later date such ‘redeeming gaffes’ may be problematic for the teenager (Goffman, 1959: 66; Miller, 1995: 1).


According to Livingstone, teenagers tend to experiment and play around with their online identities (1998: 407). They recognise opportunities and risks and self-actualisation is more likely to be realised where teenagers negotiate a cost benefit analysis between the risk factors such as abuse, privacy or being misinterpreted and the opportunities in terms of identity, relationships and social capital (Livingstone, 1998: 407). Evidence is provided in the respondents in Aspling’s qualitative research study. However, ‘Lars’ wants people to think he has a life away from Facebook when he asserts:

‘I don’t want to be seen as someone that lives with Facebook. But no, I don’t do that, I don’t want to be seen as a freak…'(cited in Aspling, 2011: 22)

This is despite the fact that ‘Lars’ confessed to updating his status several times a day thereby ‘contradicting’ his enhanced identity which would result in his performance being discredited by his audience who would potentially see him as a freak (Bullingham and Vasconcelos, 2012: 102). In contrast, another Facebook user asserts that:

‘Maybe they gain a somewhat positive image of myself, you only upload images that are good, everything good you have done, perhaps it is a more positive image of myself than in reality, … you only upload things that are good’ (Cited in Aspling, 2011: 22)

This highlights the dramaturgical nature of impression management in full force as this respondent wants to convey a perfect identity and life. This is wholly unrealistic and would no doubt be discredited by some of his audience. The same applies to profile pictures which attract the most comments on Facebook. Impression management involves enhancing profile pictures or dressing provocatively to convey a more desirable, sexier identity in the search for a new partner (Goffman, 1959). As one Facebook user asserts:

‘I think that people are more intimate on Facebook than they should, pictures of them in lingerie, party-pictures etc. that anyone can see’ (Cited in Aspling, 2011: 22)

This disapproval of intimacy shows that audiences are more likely to discredit performances that convey a sexy identity by dressing up. As Goffman argues, ‘[Even] if each woman dresses in conformity with her status, a game is still being played [which] plays to the imaginary’ as in a picture or sculpture (1959: 221). In other words, being so ‘fixed’ or perfect’ is unreal in this overt form of impression management (Goffman, 1959: 221).


In conclusion, it is evident following a critical analysis of the debates above that Goffman’s dramaturgy is perhaps even more relevant in contemporary society than at the time of Goffman’s writing. Social media provides actors the platform for actors to convey enhanced identities through impression management using cultural scripts. Evidence of impression management is abundant in the rejection of their authentic identity which, in a face-to-face setting, is more problematic. For example, the impression management of two politicians aspiring to be Prime Minister were discredited on both live television and pre-recorded social media because they gave away elements of their true identity despite claims that expressions are only ‘given off’ in face-to-face interaction. Facebook users only ‘give’ intended information which are credited whereas constantly updating statuses ‘gives off’ negative expressions that are discredited. Nevertheless, the actors’ enhanced personalities are constructed and rehearsed backstage which through social media is anywhere that is not online; the dramaturgy is performed at the front by a keystroke.

Word Count: 2,194


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