Goffman methodology sensemaking

Dramaturgical Approach: What’s different about digital experience?

Dramaturgical Approach: What’s different about digital experience?

Annette Markham


I’m working on a chapter on Dramaturgy and Digital Experience and I’m working out how to structure the frame for the piece.  I thought it might be useful to brainstorm here, as well as talk about the key question for me, which is: What makes digital experience different from everyday life in the 21st Century?

Frankly, this would have been an easier chapter to write twenty years ago, when performative aspects of digital experience were more novel, more on the screen, and involved more virtuality. Now, of course, the digital is interwoven into everyday life through a range of devices and interfaces.  As Turkle aptly noted back in 1995, what might have been called “life on the screen” has been thoroughly transformed into “life in the screen” (p. 21).   This sentiment is echoed by Deuze, Blank, and Speers (2012), who say in a recent (great) article that we understand and use media in a way that more accurately would be described as ‘in media’ rather than ‘with media.’

Given that everyday life is mediatized and technologically-mediated, the obvious question for this sort of chapter is “what makes digital contexts different?”

One possible way to frame the discussion would be to discuss those things about digital experience that have persisted in a sticky way over the past 20 years.  This would include such things as distributed presence, textual performance (textuality, intertextuality), and the fact that one’s identity and existence is a matter of deliberate choices.

Another way to frame it would be to talk about specific dramaturgical concepts and link these to different digital contexts. The only problem with this approach is that it relies on the use of categories that may or may not fit well any more. Take Goffman as the baseline here. His elaborately detailed discussions of various aspects of performance of self have long served as a solid foundation for a dramaturgical approach.  Does the analogy fit digital contexts? Surely, we could find in any digital context examples of front stage and backstage behaviors, impression management, realigning actions, expressions given versus given off, and so forth.

But “individuals” and “social establishments” are less easily demarcated in networked cultures.  There are many “players” influencing the performance beyond the actual human individuals.  The “stage” may not only be distant from the body of the performer, but may continue the performance without the actor’s presence or knowledge.  Goffman’s specific examples and categories for sensemaking were appropriate for a much different time period in our history. I’m not suggesting they are no longer relevant in mediated settings. However, I think his overall approach is more applicable than his specific terms and categories.  When we think of his larger body of work, embedded in symbolic interactionism and social psychology, certain premises become fundamental to his dramaturgical approach:

  1. What we think of as “Self” and “Other” are ongoing negotiations among individuals in specific contexts, which could be examined through the lens of theatre;
  2. What might seem a stable entity is a state that is continually achieved through adjustment and realignment of performance;
  3. Rules and structures govern these performances;
  4. Over time and through various processes of enculturation, actions become habitual, serving as invisible frames governing behaviors, sensemaking, responses, and meaning.

These four premises serve as a fallback when the theatre metaphors seem to break down in considerations of digital experience. In other words, if we can no longer distinguish front stage from backstage in certain mediated contexts, we can use the premises and then modify the specific terms/categories.  Take for example the late 1990s phenomenon of webcam girls, who would display every moment of their days and nights through multiple cameras and microphones (a topic that the brilliant Terri Senft has spent years thinking and talking about).  We could use the terms “front stage” and “backstage” offered by Goffman, perhaps concluding that this example represents a breakdown of front stage/backstage or a ‘backstage solidarity.’ We could speculate, as Goffman did in passing, that a chronic “lowering of barriers” might be “part of an anti-dramaturgical social movement, a cult of confession.” Or we might conclude that the dramaturgical framework doesn’t apply at all.

While all three options are certainly viable paths, it may be more amenable to the data as well as the underlying premises of the approach to conceptualize the situation as a type of performance with a specific set of rules, just not understood or encapsulated in the terminology of front stage or backstage. Approaching the example thus, we can discover context-specific performative rules in play, rather than use pre-determined concepts that don’t apply.

While I think the discussion of traditional dramaturgy terms is useful, it ties the hand of the scholar who needs to think beyond these categories. It also keeps us locked in an ambivalent relationship with Goffman, wondering whether or not the principles outlined in “Presentation of self in everyday life” apply.

A third frame for such a chapter would focus more specifically on issues of identity, as this seems an important undergirding concept in any dramaturgical approach, although this may be just a limited understanding of a dramaturgical approach.  Still, when I consider what makes digital experience so very different from other contexts, I return time and again to the fact that digital contexts provide the means for controlling the presentation of self, enacting embodiment and presence, managing identity-for-others, and playing with different performances in ways not possible (or much less possible) than in physical bodies and contexts.  As a sideline, I also think that these performances are not nearly as controlled or controllable as we like to think and in this way, we are beguiled by the technologies for being.  We are relational beings, achieving what we call the ‘self’ through a constant process of interaction. Despite our “impression management” efforts to control the means by which others ‘see’ us, which presumably gives them information in order to have a certain understanding of us, we can never truly control this process.  We give off (in Goffman’s sense) information that we don’t know about, like misspelling words, breaking the rules or norms because we don’t understand them, or having an unintentional tone or attitude that influences others in ways we’re unaware.  We are essentially relational beings.  Unending strings of interactions influence how we see ourselves, how we think others see us, and how we respond to others’ responses (or lack of responses) to us. Maybe a little R.D. Laing is in order here.  Or a mention of the looking glass theory of self (Charles Cooley).

But more apt, probably, would be Kenneth Gergen, whose book “Saturated Self” remains a strong influence on my comprehension of self and identity in mediated contexts.

The fourth frame might be to follow a timeline of how we’ve shifted our thinking about performance and identity, in relation to certain shifts in technologies and capacities.  Of course, it would be a fairly idiosyncratic timeline (to say the least), since it would be based on trends and shifts that interest me, specifically. Still, it would be interesting to consider a dramaturgical approach within larger historical shifts, such as these:  From virtual reality to mobile and ubiquitous environments.  From text-only contexts to multi-media contexts. From the desire to be something ‘other’ to concerns with creating the best ‘brand’ of ourselves possible.

As with most of my essays, I have no tidy ending. Mostly, I just run out of time and either push ‘publish’ or ‘draft.’  Most likely, because I am in the mode of trying to control my identity as a scholar of merit, I click ‘draft,’ because i still don’t like to offer unfinished product to the world at large.  Ah, the possibilities for a dramaturgical analysis are endless.

…to be continued…..

2 replies on “Dramaturgical Approach: What’s different about digital experience?”

Coming to these questions from an STS background, your fourth frame resonates most for me, but I’m a lot weaker in the sociological literature than I should be.

One work from the humanities side that I’ve found useful is Hutcheon’s _A Theory of Adaptation_: while about transmedia storytelling, it’s a useful framework for thinking about adapting other things across platforms: body image, power, dating, etc, and how so many of our practices are, fluidly or haltingly, adaptations across media, from game spaces to IM to Facebook to Twitter and back, and what’s gained/lost/translated along the way.

good nudge reminding me about ideas of adaptation. I’m trying to avoid dwelling on the uniqueness of internet-mediated contexts because I think it overstates the case. Yet the requirement to deliberately construct the body and voice and place so radically disoriented us in the late 1980s, it’s difficult to un-emphasize.

I wonder if it would be worth going further back, actually, well prior to the internet, to look at adaptation. One stop on the way would be Turkle’s Second Self, of course. I haven’t gotten around to reading Hutcheon’s book. But I’d be curious: Does (or how well does) Hutcheon tie adaptation across platforms to adaptation to technologies and media historically?

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