Some notes on Goffman’s theories of strategic interaction as I am trying to think through how Influencers/social media microcelebrities present themselves in digital and physical spaces.
Class, taste, and aesthetics are chiefly performed by Influencers through strategic interactions, in which Influencers shift between multiple personae and tailor their self-presentation to the qualities from which they wish to elicit from their audience. Most prominent in this field of study is Goffmanʼs theories of strategic interaction, specifically his notions of decorum and staging, which I adopt as the primary framework to illuminate the work that Influencers do.
Sincere performer vs Cynical performer
In The presentation of self in everyday life, Goffman (1956: 10) distinguishes between a “sincere” performer and a “cynical” performer.
1) A sincere performer is one who is “convinced that the impression of reality which he stages is the real reality” and is able to persuade his audience that his presentation is genuine,
2) A cynical performer is one who “may be moved to guide the conviction of this audience only as a means to other ends, having no ultimate concern in the conception that they have of him or of the situation”.
3) Cynical performances may be utilized for “self-interest”, “private gain”, or for what the performer perceives to be for “the good of the community” (1956: 11).
Personal front/Front stage
Goffman defines the “personal front” (1956: 13-14) or “front region” (1956: 66-68) or “front stage” (1956: 78) as the portion of a personʼs performance that is displayed publicly for an audience.
1) It comprises an “appearance”, which marks the performerʼs social status during the exchange, and
2) A “manner”, which marks “the interaction role the performer will expect to play in the on-coming situation” (1956: 15).
3) Audiences naturally expect congruence between the performerʼs “appearance” and “manner”, and the interaction that results between audience and performer usually requires both to signpost their status through “symbols” (1956: 15).
Elsewhere (2003), Goffman further analyses one aspect of the “front stage” performance known as “face-work”.
1) He introduces the concept of the “line” as “a pattern of verbal and nonverbal acts by which [a performer] expresses his view of the situation and through this his evaluation of the participants, especially himself” (2003: 7).
2) Drawing from this, “face” is defined as “the positive social value a person effectively claims for himself by the line others assume he has taken during a particular contact” (2003: 7).
3) A performer would normatively preserve his face and that of his audience in a transient contract or “mutual acceptance”, based not on “heart-felt evaluations” but on “temporary lip service” (2003: 7).
4) Goffman terms “face-work” as the labor in which a performer engages to make congruent his “action” (1956: 21) and his “face” (2003: 8) .
In contrast, the “back region” or “backstage” (Goffman 1956: 69-70) is where the unseen “action” (1956: 21) and “suppressed facts make an appearance” (1956: 69-70).
1) The “backstage” features performers “out of character”, and for this reason it is usually obscured from the audience as a form of “impression management” (1956: 70).
2) In the “backstage”, performers are very likely to “correct” or “conceal” their “errors”, “mistakes”, and failures before presenting their act to an audience, thus giving the impression of their “infallibility” (1956: 27).
3) They are also likely to conceal any “dirty work” mobilized to sustain their performance or conceal the fact that the actual “action” required to produce the “expression” is severely overrated by the audience concealed from the “backstage” by the performance (1956: 28).
To paint the illusion of relatability, performers may engage in “scheduling” (1956: 84) to segregate different audiences from each other.
1) This is so that only one aspect of a persona is presented as required (1956: 30-31, 84-85).
2) Performers may also obscure the “routine character” of their act and stress its spontaneity so as to foster the impression that this act is unique and specially tailored to whoever is watching (1956: 31-32).
3) In instances where several performers occupy the “backstage” together as a team, there may be some “informalit[ies]” and “limitations” in “decorum”, which Goffman (1956: 67) defines as “the way in which the performer comports himself while in visual or aural range of the audience but not necessarily engaged in talk with them”.
Backstage impression management
Goffman (1956: 79-82) lists four of these motives behind impression management even in the “backstage”.
1) Firstly, performers would want to solicit trust within the team.
2) Secondly, performers may have to “sustain one anotherʼs morale”.
3) Thirdly, performers have to be considerate of social divisions across demographic differences in the team.
4) Lastly, performers may feel the need to demonstrate their “familiarity” with the team by actively expressing and displaying their comfort and intimacy with each other (1956: 78-82).
5) However, Goffman suggests that in most instances, “the surest sign of backstage solidarity is to feel that it is safe to lapse into an associable mood of sullen, silent irritability”, where performers can “appreciate the unsavory ʻunperformedʼ aspects of [their] own backstage behavior” (1956: 80).
Expression vs Action
In the interstitial space between the “frontstage” and the “backstage”, Goffman notes that some performers are required to dramatize their act to “portray confirmatory facts that might otherwise remain unapparent or obscure”.
1) For example, as in the case of a baseball umpire who despite actually being unsure of a decision has to display confidence in the “personal front” so that the audience will be convinced by his judgment and authority (1956: 19-20).
2) In other instances, such as the service industry, some performers may find it difficult to dramatize their act because “clients cannot ʻseeʼ the overhead costs of the service rendered them” (1956: 20-21).
3) Other merchants dramatize their act by “charg[ing] high prices for things that look intrinsically expensive in order to compensate the establishment for” other expensive overhead costs unseen by customers (1956: 20-21).
4) Using the example of a model, Goffman differentiates between “expression” and “action” wherein a modelʼs pose may appear effortless and easy to the audience (expression), and thus conceal the actual physical effort and training needed to portrayal such effortlessness (action) (1956: 21).
Turning his focus to social mobility, Goffman (1956: 23) posits “in most stratified societies there is an idealization of the higher strata and some aspiration on the part of those in low places to move to higher ones”.
1) He highlights that this is not only mobility towards a class of more prestige, but also towards one that is considered “sacred” and a “common valu[e] of the society” (1956: 23).
2) Social mobility is largely negotiated in the “personal front” and demonstrated by “status symbols”, which, depending on the society and its values, are expressed through “material wealth” or “non-material values” (1956: 24).
Goffman, Erving. 1951. “Symbols of Class Status.” The British Journal of Sociology 2(4): 294-304.
Goffman Erving. 1956. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. London: Penguin Books.
Goffman, Erving. 1959. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. New York: First Anchor Books Edition.
Goffman, Erving. 1974. Frame analysis: An essay on the organization of experience. Boston: Northeastern University Press.
Goffman, Erving. 1979. Gender Advertisements. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Goffman, Erving. 2003. “On Face-Work: An analysis of ritual elements in social interaction.” Reflections 4(3): 7-13.