The question of who is the self is one that has been asked by writers and philosophers for millennia.
We might ask ourselves what makes a person the person they are? Is it the clothes they wear, the way the walk, the friends they have? What happens to past versions of ourselves that we can’t remember? And, key for studying the media, do people look at us the same way we look at ourselves?
Hannah Arendt, a German philosopher, suggested that ‘nothing and nobody exists in this world whose very being does not presuppose a spectator’ – by this she meant that we all change who we are when we are being watched.
This is an idea that Erving Goffman, a Canadian researcher, wrote about in the 1950s. His ideas, explored the Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959), were perhaps the beginning of the rise of self-help books. He encourages us to think about who we are and how we might understand ourselves in a world of social media and electronic communications.
Goffman had many ideas but perhaps his most famous is that of the Front-stage and Back-stage self. He wrote that we are all acting for others to give the best possible impression for the situation. We wear certain clothes, behave in certain ways and use particular language; this he called the Front-Stage. He also suggested we have a Back-stage self, one that people don’t see and one that is more truly us.
Goffman wasn’t suggesting that we are lying when we are front-stage but that we naturally know how and when to adapt our behaviour. It isn’t so simple though, we don’t have so much control over the way in which people view us. The ‘performance’ we give Front-Stage is only what we give to the other person, or ‘audience’; what we give-off, might be totally different. The audience might see something different. For example, you might be wearing new trainers that you think make you look good and because they were expensive, rich.
However, someone looking at you might think that you look like a bit of a show-off, that is the impression you give-off – and you can’t change how people think. In the digital age, where we spend hours crafting our online personas, some people spend a lot of effort to try and control the impression they give off.
Goffman’s work can help us to think about whether the way we present ourselves on social media is a true representation of ourselves, or whether we are trying to make a better image for people to look at through the pictures we post and updates we make.
Open one of your social media accounts, take a look at the content you have been posting; pictures, comments, thoughts or maybe even videos, and write some thoughts about the following:
- Who do you think is looking at your posts the most?
- Is there anything you wouldn’t want your parent or teacher to see?
- Have you ever changed or removed a post because of the way people reacted to it?
How do these answers compare to how you act in real life? Are you different online?
Now work with a partner, give them a link to your social media account. Try the following:
- Write five ‘facts’ about your partner, only using their social media account.
- Quiz your partner about these, how many are true?
- Discuss: was your partner truthful on social media or were they showing another version of themselves?
Goffman was writing before the internet. Do you think his work applies to social media? Write 3 reasons why it does and 3 reasons why it does not.
- Baym, N. (2015). Personal connections in the digital age. 2nd ed. Malden, MA: Polity Press.
- Buckingham, D. (2008). Youth, identity, and digital media. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
- Goffman, E. (1990). The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life London: Penguin.
- Turkle, S. (2017). Alone together: Why we expect more from technology and less from each other. 3rd ed. New York: Basic Books.
Download the activity card below:
These resources are produced by the University of Westminster School of Media and Communications. This topic was developed by the EPQ team and Doug Specht of the Communication and Media Research Institute (CAMRI) at the University of Westminster