Last week, a sociology professor was placed on administrative leave after students reported two of her Facebook comments to university officials. They felt threatened by the comments about killing students or hiring a hitman. Commentators are mixed: some think the university went too far, others that administrators have to be careful – especially in the aftermath of three killings by an angry female professor in Alabama the week before. The focus is on the individual behavior of the professor, not on the social setting in which it occurred.
Dramaturgy, a sociological approach popularized by Erving Goffman, takes a different view. Most of our behavior is scripted by our setting – we know our roles in the scene and enact them, sometimes with utter sincerity and other times simply because it’s expected or expedient. Extending the theater metaphor, Goffman speaks of our frontstage performance – in the public eye, under scrutiny – and our backstage performance, when we’re with friends or family.
Professor Gadsden’s explanation of her behavior has this quality: she thought her Facebook settings created a private social space, carefully sequestered from her professional role. Changes in Facebook’s policies opened the curtain on her backstage world, with unfortunate consequences. She thought she was backstage when she was, in fact, under the spotlights.
There is nothing inherently evil in backstage behavior. The Gospels portray both aspects of Jesus’ life: the frontstage of preaching, healing, and parrying with the Pharisees contrasts with the backstage early morning prayer with a few friends, weeping over the fate of a friend or of Jerusalem, and meals at the home of special friends. Nothing in the backstage points to insincerity in the frontstage – although Jesus refers more than once to saying or doing something for the sake of those who will hear or see, rather than for its own sake.
Other people have not been so fortunate: Ronald Reagan joked with radio technicians about a bomb and had the Soviet Union on alert for 30 minutes; Jesse Jackson and Earl Butz had backstage episodes that rendered their frontstage performances not credible, at least for a time. The backstage behavior of Eliot Spitzer, Tiger Woods, Martha Stewart, … the list of those who were forced off the mainstage by the revelation of their backstage persona is nearly endless.
Professor Gadsden’s case – along with Google‘s fiasco of creating Buzz by making all their users’ email contacts public and searchable as soon as they used the service – have two important differences from the other backstage revealed scenarios:
- The curtain is mobile, not fixed, and can be changed without the actors’ awareness
- The groups who control the curtain, in general, want to blur or extinguish the distinction between front stage and backstage.
With the constant changes in interfaces and privacy settings on Facebook, MySpace, Google, Yahoo, and the rest; with the purchasing and sharing of “your settings” between these applications; with the advent of services that detect your location and tell you what stores – or friends – are nearby: it is clear that the thrust of the social media world is for the end of the backstage. Each change raises a clamor, the offending company backs off about 50% of the backstage it was choosing to reveal. The clamor quiets down: and more of what we used to consider our private backstage area has become public.
As the backstage and frontstage are merging, we might choose to act as though we were on the frontstage even when we are alone – an old-fashioned approach often referred to as having character or integrity. The social media, though, force the other choice. By creating settings which seem to be a private place among friends, they encourage backstage behavior – then put it on the frontstage.
Who hasn’t been surprised and a bit appalled at a photo of a glassy-eyed colleague, drink in hand, on some social media site? A profile picture that prompts the question, “Are you trying out for a porno magazine?” I saw a status line “Called in sick b/c it was a good day for biking” – haven’t you? We’ve lost the ability to remember to play our public role.
Lost, too, is our ability to play the role of supporting actors. Our new bishop started a Facebook page – following the Pope’s urging to make use of modern social media. Most people who left a comment saw the formal photo, realized this was frontstage for the bishop, and left comments appropriate to the scene -“Thank you for becoming our bishop.” But one Facebook afficionado missed or ignored the cues, button-holing the bishop online:
“I have a question about my upcoming wedding….my wish is to have my Chihuahua (Tika) at my ceremony. Why is every Priest that I talk to refusing to grant me this wish? Was Jesus not born in a stable amongst the animals? So why is it so taboo, for the Church, to have her present on one of the most important days in my life? She is a part of my Family and it would be heart wrenching to not have her there. Is it really that big of a deal, she’s attended Mass on several occasions and nothing has been said before. Why is it on one of the most important days in my life is she, all of a sudden, “banished”? Do I really have to attend my own wedding with a heavy heart?”
Wait! This is not in the script – the other visitors steadfastly ignored the message, attempting to restore the performance. But the bishop’s own uncontrollable backstage – the strange comments and requests he must hear often – is now frontstage for him as well. The social media have not only cut back on the places where we can relax in semi-privacy. They have given us an ever-present audience that may, or may not, have the desire or ability to support us in playing the role of “my best self.”
Do I defend Professor Gadsden’s remarks? Of course not – but I also recognize that my unguarded remarks may find themselves publicized some day as well. And I might not like it any better.
Related articles by Zemanta
- What Google Could Learn From Goffman (fstutzman.com)
- Pa. Prof: Suspended Over Hit Man Facebook Posting (huffingtonpost.com)
- More that sociologist Erving Goffman could tell us about social networking and Internet identity (radar.oreilly.com)