FACE TO FACEBOOK: The construction of identity in the Internet Era
This is an ethnographic discussion of the presentation and the construction of the self in the Internet Era and, more specifically, on Facebook, one of the most popular websites of social interaction.
Facebook falls under the broader context of cyberspace, which, as an object of anthropological interest, belongs to the broader research context of what ethnographers call “multi-sited fields” (Marcus 1995). As Marcus explains, “[…] any ethnography of a cultural formation in the world system is also an ethnography of the system, and therefore cannot be understood only in terms of the conventional single-site mise-en-scene of ethnographic research” (1995: 99). Here, Facebook is approached as such a cultural formation, whose ethnographic study requires a redefinition of key concepts (e.g. time, space, and – in our case – identity) as parts of a multi-sited context.
In addition, cyberspace, from a philosophical point of view, integrates into the concept of virtual reality. Virtual reality, according to Pierre Lévy, is a way for the actual reality to become innovative and powerful, to give space for creation and to open the horizons for potential features and meanings beyond the shallowness of the immediate physical presence (Lévy 1995: 16). However, the virtual should not be considered as the opposite of actual reality. “Virtuality” is not a simple representation but mostly a transition of space, time, the self and other elements that constitute the new conditions of the existence (Lévy 1995: 30). In order for this recreation to be established, the French philosopher (Lévy 1995: 30) introduces in his analysis the term “deterritorialisation” describing the situation when space and time are reinvented in a reality with no common characteristics of what we perceive as actual reality and where the construction of the self occurs in a different context.
In my research the construction of the self is discussed – apart from its mediated and redefined character – through a theatrical path. To be more specific, American sociologist Erving Goffman offered a significant contribution to social theory for the understanding of social interactions. In his book, The presentation of Self in Every Day Life (1956), Goffman’s main challenge was the analysis and interpretation of face-to-face interplay. According to Goffman, communication between two or more people – in other words social interaction – is mostly based on the process of presenting the self in front of others. The self – and, as a result, identity – consists of a variety of characteristics which are chosen and managed by the same person who bears the identity and identifies with it.
To put it in his own words, Goffman considers the notion of the self as similar to the performance of the self and the notion of “impression”. Hence, the constitution of the self for Goffman is formed as a “performance” and “image” at the same time, because it is addressed to “audiences”. Without being divided between reality and performance, Goffman’s notion of the self can be seen as an expression of the self through its impression, conceptualized in a dramatized way.
Before moving onto the main point of this analysis, I will describe in short how the website functions for an outsider, a person who enters Facebook for the first time. It is important to highlight that there is no possibility for someone to visit the website by chance or simply as an observer, since when typing www.facebook.com in the address bar of a browser the first page appears to ask either to register or to leave (picture 1). The registration of potential users demands the completion of some information about themselves regardless of whether the information given is valid or not. In this way, the user starts to compose an initial profile on Facebook. After entering the community, everyone is asked to fill his/her blank virtual profile by presenting a number of experiences, preferences and memories (picture 2). In philosophical terms, this interpretation may correspond to the theory of a newborn child’s mind as tabula rasa, a blank slate which is filled by experiences over time constructing gradually the identity (Kilhstrom, Beer, Klein 2002).
Among a variety of facets that Facebook as a field of study offers to researchers, my intention is to approach it as a community: a community that functions as a living organism consisting of human actions and affecting them at the same time, an idea expressed by Thomas Hylland Eriksen (2001: 73). The interpretation of Facebook as a community creatively bridges Erving Goffman’s study with the field of hypermedia. But still, how the dramaturgical approach of social interaction, according to Goffman’s conceptualization, can be used in the context of Facebook?
Goffman defines as social interaction “the reciprocal influence of individuals upon one another’s actions when in one another’s immediate physical presence” (Goffman 1956: 8). In the case of Facebook the presence of others is not physical but virtual, as it was described by Pierre Lévy. However, the nature of the presence does not affect the current study because cyberspace is seen here as a new way of conceptualizing reality. Facebook is not just a means of communication, as for example telephone devices or e-mails are. The whole idea of constructing Facebook is based on the networking which takes place on the “wall” where the members can share experiences, exchange comments and Likes, follow links and transit quickly and easily from one virtual piece of information to another. All these are characteristics which build up the social interaction between Facebook members (picture 3). They become part of the experience where their virtual presence mutually interacts with others on cyberspace. In this way, the “virtual selves” are exposed and supposed to exist and act within a web of humans, pieces of information, possibilities and restrictions.
Dramaturgical sociology examines human behavior by putting human action at the center of attention in relation to space, time and “audiences” (that is the others). In Goffman’s study, human action and social interaction correspond to a performance. Performance consists of any activity of someone that takes place in front of a particular set of observers and influences them somehow (Goffman 1956: 8). This performance, as defined by Goffman, appears on Facebook. To be more specific, the member has a lot of virtual space (Facebook wall, private messages, live chat) and ways of communication (links, words, emoticons, Like button, photos) in order to create virtual activity. What is more, the “friends” of every member find on their own Home page any activity made by their “friends”, hence, they take on the role of the observers (picture 4). And finally, the effect of someone’s activity on the observers is expressed with the available option of the comment which accompanies every post.
However, both the performance and its theatrical dimensions on social interaction cannot be seen separately from their spatial arrangement. Goffman introduces a place where the performance is shown and another place behind the scenes. More specifically, the front consists of the setting that gives an idea of the type of social interaction which is going to be “performed” depending on the physical parts of the expressive equipment and their spatial location included in the scenic. In the same way, the front region of Facebook consists of the “wall”, the personal messages and the live chat, while the scenic includes the profile picture, the cover picture, the Friends lists, the Fun Pages, the posts, the comments, etc. In addition to that, Goffman defines another place, called “personal scenic”, which is formed by different components that characterize the person. Most of Goffman’s components in the “personal scenic” are the same as the ones on Facebook, such as age, gender and ethnicity.
The place behind the scenes or alternatively the back consists of the expressive equipment of the person who is “performed”. This could be very conveniently juxtaposed with the way of constructing the self on Facebook. The member can create any role that he/she wants to play by adapting the profile and cover picture, the educational and professional profile, the relationship status with other Facebook members, the personal beliefs. In the context of social interaction, Erving Goffman argues that a person presents the self to others through the concept of impression management. The person creates, forms, exposes and controls his/her impression in a similar way to an actor performing a role in front of the audiences. Hence, the impression management as an important part of social interaction can be re-examined in the Internet Era where the virtual self plays any character/role by using a variety of available tools for its mediated presentation.
I have already referred to the “others”, the “observers” and the “audience”. The observers, according to Goffman, are people who attend a performance given by another person (Goffman 1956: 8). Their role is to collect different kinds of information regarding the performer in order to deduce some conclusions from his/her appearance and behavior (Goffman 1956: 1). However, every person who is part of a social interaction becomes an observer, observes the others and is observed by them. In terms of the dramaturgical approach of social interaction the observer represents the “audience” in a performance.
The word “friend”, as the dominant bond bringing together all Facebook members, could also be associated with Goffman’s “audience”. This correlation can be seen with the following argument. First of all, the social occasion regulates (most of the times) the manners of the people involved forcing them to manage and adjust their social roles. For instance, in a theater the mother of an actor is expected to behave primarily as part of the audience and secondarily as a mother. In the same way, in the theater of Facebook, as conceptualized here, members are primarily characterized as “friends”; the other bonds that connect the members (e.g. mother, father, cousin, sister, etc.) are of secondary importance. Consequently, the social behavior coming from the social role of “friends” on Facebook produces the same expectations as those of the audiences in a theater. As far as the impression management is concerned, although people in their “actual interaction” can adjust their impression and their manners depending on the social occasion (Eriksen 2001: 54), on Facebook the “virtual self” is one and unique at the same time for all of his/her “friends” regardless of the social occasion. In the same way, in the context of a theater, the role of the actors and the audiences are inflexible and stiff and dominates any other personal affiliation they might share. Actors are supposed to act and audiences are supposed to watch no matter of the dynamic of other social roles (e.g. mother, teacher, etc.) hidden beyond their current social role (actor-audience).
The general purpose of this study is to problematize and analyze the concept of identity and the way that it is constructed and presented within a reality whose nature is virtual. This investigation can offer a particularly creative reading of those conditions where the self can be formed. According to Arjun Appadurai (1991), “flows” are created by the movement of people, ideas, etc. resulting to the creation of a multicultural map/picture.
We are in the epoch of simultaneity, (…) the epoch of the dispersed. We are at a moment, where our experience of the world is less that of a long life developing through time than that of a network that connects points and intersects with its own skeins (Michele Foucault 1984: 46).
Cyberspace and its functionality are part of this system that is constituted by the “flows”. The construction of the self in the era of Social Media is affected by the exchange of multicultural experiences and therefore it should be interpreted within this context and its extended dimensions. In my opinion, a key-word for this new reality that the field of cyberspace incises for the identity construction is reinvention. Space, time, human actions, conditions and all the circumstances that build virtual reality are perceived in a new and creative way other than the one perceived in actual reality.
Facebook offers every member the ability to compose and edit an identity. In other words, the protagonist (the person who holds the identity) is at the same time the creator/ instigator and the director of the self. As a consequence, in the Internet Era people are able to construct, perform and direct themselves creating a new understanding of what we consider as self. Concluding, I would like to mention that although Goffman’s theory has been widely criticized by the theorists of his time due to the lack of a clear definition of the notion of identity, nowadays his analysis about the self finds great resonances in the field of cyberspace. This noticeable turn to and return of Goffman’s theory might be associated with the general trend of our research interests from developing definitions to offering interpretations. Finally, in this context we can appreciate the resilient character of “hybridity”, a term that recently becomes increasingly popular and is suggested to replace the term “identity” because of its problematic nature.
Appadurai, A. (1991), “Global Ethnoscapes: Notes and Queries for a Transnational Anthropology”, in R. Fox (eds), Recapturing Anthropology, Santa Fe: School of American Research Press, pp. 191-210.
Eriksen, T. H. (2001), Small places, Large issues: An introduction to social and cultural anthropology”, London and Sterling, Virginia: Pluto Press.
Foucault, M. (1984), ‘Des Espace Autres’, Architecture, Mouvement, Continuité, 5, pp. 46-49.
Goffman, E. (1956), The Presentation of Self In Everyday Life, Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh.
Kilhstrom, J., Beer, J., Klein, S. (2002), ‘Self and Identity as memory’, in M.R. Leary, J. Tangney (eds), Handbook of self and identity, New York:Guilford Press, pp. 68-90.
Lévy, P. (2001), Δυνητική Πραγματικότητα. Η φιλοσοφία του πολιτισμού και του κυβερνοχώρου /Virtual reality. The philosophy of culture and cyberspace, transl. Μ. Karachalios, Athens: Κritiki.
Marcus, G. (1995), ‘Ethnography in/of the World System: The Emergence of Multi-Sited Ethnography’, Annual Review of Anthropology,24, pp. 95-117.