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Chris Baraniuk wrote an interesting piece at the blog The Machine Starts a few hours ago and I wanted to offer a comment. I agree with much of the analysis about so-called “Facebook Narcissim,” but what I find particularly interesting is how one fundamental assumption –the existence of a true self– drastically alters the conclusions we might draw.

Baraniuk discusses how social media sites, like Facebook, are designed to promote more sharing through creating a generally positive vibe. Indeed, Facebook has stated explicitly that they do not have a “dislike” button because they want the site to be a fun place to hangout. In addition to the positively-biased valence, Facebook makes calculable social interaction which also serves to create an atmosphere that values and encourages more sharing. For the site more sharing means more profits. And for the user more sharing about our lives creates an inward-gaze that could be described as narcissism.

Lasch’s famous study of The Culture of Narcissism argued that Read More »

This essay, like the one I posted last month on faux-vintage photography, is me hashing out ideas as part of my larger dissertation project on self-documentation and social media. Part II will argue that the media also overstate how public we have become, sensationalizing the issue to the point that the stigma associated with online imperfections erodes more slowly. It is no stretch to claim that we have become more public with social media. By “public” I mean that we are posting (1) more pieces information about ourselves online in (2) new ways (see the Zuckerberg Law of Information sharing), and are doing so more (3) honestly than ever before. We are connected to the web more often, especially given the rise of smart phones, and new layers of information are being invented, such as “checking in” geographically. And gone are the days when you could be anyone you want to be online; today we know that online activities are augmented by the physical world. People are mostly using their real names on Facebook and nearly everything one does there has everything to do with the offline world.

But we are not as public as this suggests. We need a balance to this so-called triumph of publicity and death of anonymity (as the New York Times and Zygmunt Bauman recently declared). “Publicity” on social media needs to be understood fundamentally as an act rife also with its conceptual opposite: creativity and concealment. And I am not talking just about those who use false identities on blogs (see Amina) and pseudonyms on Facebook, those with super-strict privacy settings or those who only post a selective part of their multiple identities (though, I am talking about these folks, too).  My point applies to even the biggest oversharers who intimately document their lives in granular detail.

I’ll describe below how each instance of sharing online is done so creatively instead of as simple truth-telling, but will start first by discussing how each new piece of information effectively conceals as much as it reveals. Read More »

Jeff Jarvis wrote a critique of having multiple identities on social media (find the post on his blog – though, I found it via Owni.eu). While acknowledging that anonymity has enabled WikiLeaks or protestors of repressive regimes, he finds little utility for not being honest on social media about yourself. Jarvis argues against having multiple identities, e.g., one Twitter account for work and another for friends or a real Facebook for one group and a fakebook (a Facebook profile with a false name) for another.

Jarvis argues that the problems associated with presenting yourself in front of multiple groups of people (say, your mother, boss, best friend, recent fling, etc) will fade away under a state of “mutually assured humiliation.” Since we will all have the embarrassment of presenting a self to multiple groups, we all will forgive each other so that others will return the same favor to us. Ultimately, “the best solution”, Jarvis argues, “is to be yourself. If that makes you uneasy, talk to your shrink.” This is reminiscent of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg who stated “having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity,” or current Google CEO Eric Schmidt who said that “if you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.”

The obvious problem with this line of thinking is that the problems associated with displaying a single self in front of multiple populations is not “mutually” the same at all. Just as WikiLeaks or protestors often use anonymity to counter repressive and/or powerful regimes, we know that anonymity is also used by the most vulnerable and least powerful on the personal level as well. Jarvis misses the important variables of power and inequalities in his analysis.

Having a stigmatized and not always accepted identity can bring much conflict Read More »

On this blog, I typically discuss the intersection of social theory and the changing nature of the Internet (e.g., using Marx, Bourdieu, Goffman, Bauman, DeBord and so on). In a chapter of the new third edition of the McDonaldization Reader edited by George Ritzer, I argue that what we are seeing is a general trend towards the deMcDonaldization of the Internet.

The shift from a top-down centrally conceived and controlled “Web 1.0” to a more user-generated and social “Web 2.0” is a shift away from the dimensions of McDonaldization as Ritzer defines the concept. For example, a corporate-generated website that does not allow user-generated content is paradigmatic of Web 1.0. The site is produced efficiently by few individuals, making it predictable, controllable and relatively devoid of outside human input. Web 2.0, alternatively, is not centered on the efficient production of content [I’ve made this argument previously]. User-generated content is, instead, produced by many individuals, making it much less predictable –evidenced by the random videos we come across on YouTube, articles on Wikipedia, or perhaps the best example is the downright capricious and aleatory experience of Chatroulette. The personalization and community surrounding social networking sites are hard to quantify and make the web far more humanized. Thus, Web 2.0 marks a general deMcDonaldization of the web. Examples of these points are further illustrated in the chapter.

This conclusion also counters the thesis that McDonaldization is something that will only continue to grow – opposed to the “grand narrative” that Ritzer (and Weber before him) put forth.

Finally, further consideration needs to be given to the various ways in which Web 2.0 remains McDonaldized, rationalized and standardized. Many of the sites that allow for unpredictable user-generated content do so precisely because of their rationalized and standardized -and thus McDonaldized- underlying structure. In many ways, our Facebook profiles all seem to look and behave similarly. The rationalized and standardized structures of Web 2.0 seem to coexist comfortably with irrational and unpredictable content they facilitate. ~nathanjurgenson.com

by nathan jurgenson

Web_2_imageFor many (especially youths and young adults), attempting to quit or never start Facebook is a difficult challenge. We are compelled to document ourselves and our lives online partly because services like Facebook have many benefits, such as keeping up with friends, scheduling gatherings (e.g., protests) and so on. Additionally, and to the point of this post, the digital documentation of ourselves also means that we exist. There is common adage that if something is not on Google, it does not exist. As the world is increasingly digital, this becomes increasingly true. Especially for individuals. One adolescent told her mother, “If you’re not on MySpace, you don’t exist.”

Christopher Lasch’s Culture of Narcissism argues that we are increasingly afraid of being nothing or unimportant so we develop narcissistic impulses to become real. The explosion of new ways to document ourselves online allows new outlets for importance, existence and perhaps even immortality that living only in the material world does not allow. The simple logic is that increased digital documentation of ourselves means increased digital existence. More than just social networking sites, we document ourselves on Twitter, YouTube, Flickr, and even increasingly with services that track, geographically, where one is at all times, often via one’s smart phone (e.g., Loopt, Fire Eagle, Google Latitude, etc).

So what?

Neon_Internet_Cafe_open_24_hoursIn this world where we can document our lives endlessly, we might become fixated on our every behavior. How it will appear to others, how it will help us with our jobs, friends, relationships, etc. Simply, self-presentation is a strategic game. Erving Goffman discussed this using a dramaturgical model where we are like actors on a stage performing ourselves. The new technologies described here mean that more and more areas of our life become part of this perforce because new parts of our lives are now able to be documented (e.g., our every-moment geographic locations). More and more areas of our life are lived subservient to the performance and identity we want to convey.

In this way, a hyper-fixatedness on our own subjectivity to create its own digital simulation (e.g., Facebook) can, to some degree, dictate how we live, becoming like characters on a “reality” show always performing for the camera. With digital documentation technologies we can become increasingly subservient to subjectivity and identity via its documentation if we are seduced by the importance and immortality that digital existence promises. ~nathan