I’ve been re-reading Erving Goffman, who wrote a seminal wee book called The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, in which Goffman wrote about our daily life as a series of performances – and indeed, a constant shifting between formal performances on the big stage, and informal ‘backstage’ chitchat.
I’ve been working on a social media project for the last few weeks, and one thing that strikes me is the loss of backstage in internet-mediated conversation. It used to be that you had a bad day and you moaned about it to your sympathetic friends over a pint. Job done, and no (particular) danger that your friends will tell all their other friends.
It’s getting complicated now. Whether you lead an online life in public, or pseudonymously, or buried under 130 Facebook privacy settings, your online buddies can often check out what you said unguardedly 6 months ago. I think we’re aware of this, that there is a large audience who may read our artless thoughts on Lady Gaga or Seth Godin and who may not always approve of our critical stance. ^^
Beyond the response of our known online audience, there is the business of large-scale analysing, scraping, searching, mining, and aggregating. I link to your post (moaning about your unreconstructed opinions), you read your pingbacks and come over to complain. Perhaps Seth Godin and Lady Gaga get bored one day and hunt down our complaining reviews, and set their internet pack-dogs free. Someone finds our angry, stupid comment and complains to the police. Maybe our social network helpfully allows our text to be searched and aggregated, so that the world can know what we think of our boss.
We know this, I think. Perhaps we learn it painfully. We take care of our public performances, even when they look private. We might look like we’re merely chatting idly to the make-up artist, but we’re also keeping one eye on the mirror.
Our unvarnished opinions aren’t even backstage. They’re in the interstices, the cloakrooms, the whispered conversations. And if you’re analysing free-flowing conversation openly available on the internet, you’re looking at a hell of a lot of minor performances.