I wanted to post this after reading the ‘Everyday Sociology’ post about Goffman and the ‘front stage’ / ‘back stage’ take on social media and the Dharun Ravi / Tyler Clementi case.
I originally wrote this in 2010 for my old blog
On browsing through Facebook the other day I got to thinking how Erving Goffman would respond to Online Social Networking. In many respects Facebook brashly lauds the findings in Goffman’s “The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life”. People are invited to manage their identities, strategically providing a polished example of their idealised selfs. The pictures of social celebrations, holidays, weddings, and children, convey how people would like to be imagined. The more mundane aspects of uploading photographs, editing profiles, and managing privacy settings are overlooked, yet they are really what makes the site tick. Only mobility is addressed, photos uploaded from phones are given credit as such, other ones, presumably from the home, or office are not given such acknowledgment.
But ultimately ‘photos’, image, and appearance, is what the site is really about. This should be plainly understood from the name of the site. I recently overheard a friend speak to a colleauge whom they were not facebook friends with, and questioned why. The colleauge, who appeared on good terms with my friend replied ‘But I don’t want you to see all my photos’, implying that there were too many embarrassing images for a work colleague to witness. My friend replied ‘but the photos are the whole point’.
To me Facebook signals something more that our often stated hyper connective globalised world. It corresponds with our delight in the visual which has be growing incessantly. In fact the whole success of Information Technology and the Internet relates to how it has been a visual exercise. Windows and Visual Basic enabled people entirely disinterested in computer technology the competence to use PCs. The rapid development in mobile technologies has similarly been facilitated by the visual dynamic, the ease of use, the intuitive.
A Critique of ‘visual’ culture exists in everyday life social theory where some works and methodologies have addressed the dominance of the visual in Western culture. Michel de Certeau’s (1984: xxi) critique of visual culture as a destructive element in modern societies that measures ‘everything by its ability to show or be shown’ provides a challenge to Facebook in a very different way to that of Goffman. De Certeau caustically argues that ‘our society is characterized by a cancerous growth of vision, measuring everything by its ability to show or be shown and transmuting communication into a visualjourney’ (1984:xxi). It is here that my reference to Facebook seems most apt, but beyond this connection his argument evokes not only the pervaise use of new medias, but also contemporary thinking, even policy. Terms like transparency, inclusion, and trends such as cosmetic surgery, conspicuous consumption, and CCTV, are all tied to visual culture. Ultimately de Certeau asserts his concern that the use of the visual image is a form of robbery that both denies experience and makes people passive in their pursuits, ‘what is given to the eye is removed from the hand’ (1997:18). He urges us to consider how we can be involved when we thirst for only the images of lived experiences, rather than living. This assertion is something that Henri Lefebvre (1991:75-76) agrees with. For him the predominance of seeing and looking has become the mode through which people live and it has ultimately ‘turned into a trap.’ He argues that we work, consume, and understand ‘on the basis of image’.
So what is absent in our modern culture? To begin with what is absent on Facebook? Perhaps listening? Les Back argues that ‘we need to find more considered ways to engage with the ordinary yet remarkable things found in everyday life’ (2007:7). By approaching research with methods that seek new ways to understand society, visually, physically, auditory and spatially, he argues that new ways of listening can be achieved. Back states that ‘social investigations that utilise a “democracy of the senses” are likely to notice more and ask different questions of our world’ (2007:8). In this way we need not revoke the visual but find ways to complement it.
The social aspect of Facebook holds the promise that more can be made of these shallow connections and online identity management. It is the nexus built up by social groups that Facebook wants to exploit in dominating web use (see here also). The critique of the visual is much needed, however it is also something that should be balanced. As technology develops the visual may be supplanted for more advanced modes that enable a democracy of the senses in both the supply and reception of information and social connections.