The Presentation of Self in Digital Life

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In The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, sociologist Erving Goffman calls attention to the fact that whenever a person is forced to interact with another person, that person is putting on a performance, carefully analyzing every move they make in terms of how the other person will react or how the other person’s image of them might change.

"A society’s cultural norms define the social forces that push humans to interact in a way that is congruent with accepted social rules", he writes. Goffman describes the adherence to these norms of behavior and to societally instated rules such as 'face-maintenance or 'face-saving'. Face-management is a condition of interaction, not an objective (Goffman, 1982:12). If the rules of 'face-saving' are not followed, the individual may risk 'losing-face', which could make the individual disliked or societally rejected.

'Face-saving' is essential to maintaining order in modern society. To study face-saving is to study the traffic rules of social interaction. It keeps individual movements flowing smoothly and regularly, and it also keeps negative altercations among individuals to a minimum. One learns about the code of social adherence as one moves across the social landscape. A sharp look at a staring stranger is enough to get a point across. Non-verbal cues help individuals waste less time in letting others understand what correct and incorrect behaviors are.

Face-Saving and Technology

"An entire set of new social roles, have developed around the use of technology. Whereas technology used to be only for 'nerds', it is now ubiquitous, and mobile phones have made their presence felt in almost, ever region of the world” (Plant 2005:26).

In order to successfully communicate in a transparent environment, face saving must always be taken into account. In an online community where Tweets that are deliberate and sincere and held in higher regard than those that are frequent, obviously promotional, or insincere. It is a place of exchange. The more interesting, useful, and engaging the tweets, the better the face of the user. It is miniature PR.

This is because the Twitter community is a highly transparent environment. It is unique because participants have a small amount of time and space in which to represent themselves. 140 characters are all that can be displayed in one "tweet", or communication packet. Here, face saving measures have less space to be implemented, and spamming is less tolerated.

The Presentation of Self in Digital Life

In Serial Experiments Lain (1994), a Japanese 1994 series about digital and analog worlds, the main character is a 13-year-old student living in Tokyo. Her offline personal is shy and reserved, but she appeares outgoing and powerful to those who connect with her digitally. There is a dichotomy of identity present in her life. The architecture of the online space allows her different movement than what is possible in real life.

Children take on different personas through play, often swapping and trying on many selves, careers, and types of interactions. This set of experiments continues into teenage and college-age, where the youth similarly experiments. Additionally, parents are now creating Facebook profiles for their children even before they are born.

Traditionally, that self-expression existed in the analog space, but now there is an actual digital history of those experiments and trials of youth. Unlike analog interactions and histories, which are stored as memories in the minds of networks that are nearby, digital records allow individual histories and records to be accessed by multiple parties outside the social networks that participated in that memory or experience.

Face Maintenance and Mobile Technologies

In order to successfully communicate in a transparent environment, face saving must always be taken into account. In an online community where Tweets that are deliberate and sincere and held in higher regard than those that are frequent, obviously promotional, or insincere. It is a place of exchange. The more interesting, useful, and engaging the tweets, the better the face of the user. It is miniature PR.

Much of the allure of public cell phone use concerns Goffman's concept of impression management. The cell phone acts as ally of social risk reduction against situations of modern isolation. Impression management is easily accomplished when the appearance of the person on the other side of the line can be completely constructed/construed. Often this person is constructed to be more important than they already are to the user. In this case, the cell phone user shares information specifically for the benefit for of the social setting rather than the call-ee. Correct cell phone usage maintains a balance between mitigating face-management of the call-ee and the social setting at the same time.

What emerges from the fading social norms is naked, frightened, aggressive ego in search of love and help. In the search for itself and an affectionate sociality, it easily gets lost in the jungle of the self...Someone who is poking around in the fog of his of his or her own self is no longer capable of noticing that this isolation, this 'solitary-confinement of the ego' is a mass sentence. [Ulrich Beck, 40 in Bauman 2000:37]

The modern state is a mass communitas of individual isolation with no ability for the individual to personally mitigate isolation. The isolated human in the non-place seeks to reconnect with those in proximity, but cannot. The cell phone is used as a substitute for interaction, but the cell phone user really wishes for face-to-face interaction over virtual interaction, and thus manages face to feign importance. The cell phone user hopes to impress others this way, and thus secure real life acceptance, but the disconnect between face managing for the self and face managing for the social situation, the cell phone user becomes a turn-off for those in proximity, especially those forced to exist coincidentally in non-place with the cell phone user.

The cell phone is an anthropomorphic because, unlike other material goods, it has a human voice. The cell phone is a device that allows a human to be present with another human, though each human is disembodied, compressed, and restructured over wireless waves that permeate the Earth's air fields. Perfume may be a sign that points to an emotion, but the cell phone can actually carry that emotion, actually speak with an authentic human voice.

There is evidence to suggest a functional relationship between the "structure of the self and the structure of spoken interaction" (Goffman, 1982, 36). Thus, people have much more confidence in a cell phone than with another stranger or by themselves. A cell phone interaction provides one half of a conversation equation.

To discover how conventions of social guidance are maintained, the use of cell phones and individual social interactions must be examined. With the addition of a technosocial apparatus, the individual can structure their face through the use of the cell phone. The cell phone adds a greater dimension of face management because it is an object that can be controlled outside of the self. It is a social prosthetic. Confidence may be gained through this social prosthetic because the conversation on the other side of the line is unseen. A mobile user can respond to a conversation in any way they wish.

Social cues are turned on through active or inactive shifts in verbal or non-verbal cues. In terms of cell phone use, these social cues signify that the person is "engaged" or not in social interaction it is not possible for the individual to be bothered by the other "free social radicals" while in social space. The cell phone ‘engages’ the user so that their ability to interact with others is severely diminished. “We may expect to find a variety of barriers to perception used as involvement shields, behind which individuals can safely do the kind of things that ordinarily result in negative sanctions . . . involvement can be shielded by blocking perception of either bodily signs of involvement or objects of involvement, or both (Goffman 1963:39). If cell phone users were like molecules, the addition of a cell phone to an individual’s technosocial electron shell would make the electron valence complete. A user with a complete technosocial valence shell would not be able to interact with social entities with empty spaces in their valence shells. Neither can they interact with entities that have complete technosocial valence shells.

Richard Sennett's definition of a city is a 'human settlement in which strangers are likely to meet’. Bauman adds to this in saying that in a city strangers are likely to meet in their capacity of strangers, and likely to emerge as strangers from the chance encounter which ends as abruptly as it began (Sennet 1978:264, cited in Bauman 2000:94) and that "It is likely, by comparison, a mis-meeting" (Bauman 2000:95). The cell phone gives the individual back the power to create positive social interaction in the face of negative social consequences. The cell phone increases the chance of a ‘positive meeting’ in public space, because the mobile user controls the meeting by choosing who to talk to on the other side, and how to react to them. Technology carries the social, not the other way around.