Rethinking Goffman's Front Stage/Back Stage
Over the years, many posts on this site have referenced sociologist Erving Goffman’s concept of “front stage” and “back stage” behaviors. Stemming from his book The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959), the twin concepts suggest that we have two different modes of presenting our selves: one when we are “on” for others (front stage) and another when we let down our guard (back stage).
But does this dichotomy hold up in the internet age?
Goffman stated that “back regions are typically out of bounds to members of the audience” (p. 124). While that might have been true in the mid-twentieth century, both performances and audiences have different meanings today.
Think about some of the ways we interact with others today electronically: texting , emailing, Facebooking and Tweeting may seem like private ways of interacting. We might reveal “back stage” kinds of information using these new modes of communication, including personal details we wouldn’t want everyone to know.
These “back stage” communications can easily become “front stage” with an errant key stroke (like hitting “reply all”) or, worse yet, a subpoena.
Recent high profile trials reminded me of this blurred boundary; electronic communication people presumably thought were private (or at least had a limited audience) became legal evidence. In the case of former Rutgers University student Dharun Ravi, who was found guilty of invasion of privacy and other charges after streaming video of his roommate with another man on the internet, numerous tweets were used as evidence in the trial.
His roommate, Tyler Clementi, had committed suicide after finding out that his “back stage” behavior was made “front stage” on the internet. Goffman discusses what happens “when a member of the audience inadvertently enters the backstage,” what he calls “inopportune intrusions” (p. 209).
As you can see from this screen shot of Ravi’s Twitter page, he not only posted that his friends should watch Clementi with another man on iChat, but also tweeted about other things probably best left “back stage.” “Sitting here stoned out of my mind with a buddy watching top 100 viral videos. Panda sneezing is what college is all about,” Ravi wrote a few days before the incident with his roommate.
Would this tweet have been considered “back stage” had Ravi not been charged in a case that became a national news story?
While it might have felt like it was “back stage” if only his friends read the tweet, electronic communications seldom are truly private. Unlike during Goffman’s lifetime, “performances” today can be permanent online and can present serious problems when the electronic curtain is pulled and behavior we believe to be “back stage” is made “front stage,” especially if found by a potential employer.
Young people aren’t the only ones who confuse “back stage” with “front stage” in the internet age. Google “fired for Facebook post” and you’ll find over 43 million hits! (Click here to view a list of people who endured post-related firings.) Posts or tweets about hating one’s boss, customers or students have gotten numerous people fired.
In another highly publicized trial of a man who was found guilty of murder, the victim’s wife was allegedly having an affair with the killer—who was also her boss. Although she denied the affair, emails, texts, and cell phone records only added to the suspicion that their relationship was more than just professional. Texts and cell phone records also publically revealed Tiger Woods’ many affairs a few years back, and I’m sure have been used to catch many less famous cheating spouses in the past decade.
The past life and current round of activity of a given performer typically contain at least a few facts which, if introduced during the performance, would discredit or at least weaken the claims about self that the performer was attempting to project….These facts may involve well-kept dark secrets or negatively-valued characteristics that everyone can see but no one refers to. When such facts are introduced, embarrassment is the usual result (p. 209).
This observation certainly applies to the many slips electronic communication affords between “front” and “back” stages. According to Goffman, we regularly do image repair work to ensure consistency in our “performances,” the act of trying manage others’ impressions of us.
Impression management in the internet age can be tricky, especially if we forget that electronic communications that seem private can become public relatively easily. Some advice I heard and regularly repeat is to never email, tweet, post, or a leave a voice mail you wouldn’t want to be read aloud in a courtroom.
Is privacy outdated, or just a concern of “old people,” as the founder of LinkedIn suggested? Is there still a distinction between “front stage” and “back stage,” and if so, does it matter? What might Goffman say if he had lived in the internet age?