The disappearance of multiple “I”s
Goffman uses the metaphor of a play to explain how day-to-day human interactions work. In making this comparison he underlines the importance of distinguishing between front-stage (proscenium) and back-stage (postscenium) spaces.
Communication can permit audiences to gain a glimpse of what is happening back-stage, and in doing so allow them to alter or correct their interpretation the message that those communicating with them are attempting to convey. In this way, audiences may be able to identify cases of fraud, subterfuge or incongruence.
As we have seem, social networks have greatly reduced the classical understanding of space. Prior to their arrival, the distinction between front-stage and back-stage was quite clearly defined; since they have come into existence the exact location of the dividing line between them has become ever harder to pin down.
The telephone, which constricts users to communicate without having recourse to images as a means of communication, has already allowed us to experience the problems resulting from working within an operating consensus requiring the shared endeavours of two parties.
Obviously, we cannot see our interlocutor during a telephone conversation. Let’s suppose our interlocutor is talking to us on speakerphone. In this situation we will have no way of verifying where they are or who they are with. Rather, we will be forced to place our trust in the operating consensus that has been established between us at the start of the conversation.
That will primarily depend on the amount of trust we have in the person. However, even if we do have a high level of trust in our interlocutor, it is always possible that we will, for example, forget that we are on speakerphone and make an unpleasant joke about another person who is “present” but not taking an active part in the telephone conversation. The impossibility of knowing the precise location of our interlocutor creates a potential “risk” for us, one which is not present in face-to-face communication (unless, of course, there happens to be someone behind the curtains spying on us).
It is for this reason that the speakerphone is often not perceived as being the most user friendly of communicative devices. The unknowable nature of the communicative context associated with it can lead us to activate defence mechanisms to protect ourselves “within the situation as we have defined it at a given moment”, as Goffman would say. This may mean, for example, that we will avoid speaking when on speakerphone as we would when not on speakerphone. And this is exactly what happens on social networks: this is the technique that is applied every time that we find ourselves confronted by an epistemologically ill-defined communicative context. It is something that happens so frequently that even internauts themselves begin to take on the neutral qualities of the space that they inhabit. The great majority avoid displaying their real “I” at any given time, out of fear of being confronted with the consequences of the many differing “I”s of which their self is composed.
The arrival of social networks, as we have seen, has led to a blurring of the definitions of space and time, and thereby of the very framework within which communication takes place. Their arrival has also led to the loss of certainty over the borders between front- and back-stage space, producing an effect quite the opposite of that which might have been expected: our different online “I”s, instead of being able to open themselves up to the world in all their individual glory, have been forced to conform to a single standardized “I”: one as unaltering and indifferentiated as the space that they inhabit. The situation is comparable to one that may be found in a football stadium, where supporters of different teams are grouped together, separately from one another. In this situation, an individual’s allegiance will be given by their spatial position and will no longer something they simply choose for themselves.
If you take time to observe the behaviour of social media users you will on occasion see them, quite obliviously, behaving themselves front of stage as if they were behind scenes: a consequence of the loss of a clear definition between those two spaces. The digital world makes it possible to immediately jump from one point to another without a precise “before” or “after” ever being defined. Such jumps will be perceived as irregularities and, on pain of exclusion from the group, will not be tolerated.
Being, as we now are, the producers of communication, we are ourselves the only filters which make it possible to correct or impede these kind of inopportune leaps: a process of regulation that will occur regardless of whether such jumps are made wilfully or as a result of negligence.
In his book No Sense of Place, Joshua Meyrowitz does a good job of describing the situation of the multiple, mutually antagonistic “I”s within us that can come into conflict with one another as a consequence of the circumstances we find ourselves in on social media. Meyrowitz recalls school trip he once made abroad and how, on returning home, he recounted different pieces of that experience to his parents, teachers and friends. He did not tell lies to any of these groups, but he did tell each of them a different version of the truth: one tailored to meet their particular expectations.
How can it be possible for our different “I”s to maintain a level of coherence in a non-space in which time itself has been rendered contested and indefinite? A reality in which even if one “I” appears clearly defined on a particular web-page, a single click will allow a user instantaneous access to its antithesis. How can it be possible for any “I” to justify such frequent costume changes?
Set out in these terms, it seems clear that the apparent communicative egalitarianism between individuals is in fact disequilibrated by the cultural capital that each of them possesses. Such capital makes it possible for individuals to increase the efficacy of the communicative acts and to ensure that those acts are interpreted as desired. Those with less cultural capital will be less able to find an appropriate key with which to decode the meaning of messages lacking in context and may struggle to understand the intended meaning of messages they receive.