Chris Brogan’s recent post “All the Hats and Faces” reminds me of Erving Goffman’s influential work on interpersonal communication theory called “On Face Work” written over four decades ago. Chris is definitely onto something and it drives a point that I want to bring up: Is social media flattening the complexities that make us human?
Goffman’s work discusses how as individuals we negotiate “face” in our daily social interactions. What is face? Face is basically our self image within the bounds of what is appropriate within a given situation. Meaning, when we are at work we put on a “face” that fits the work environment which is different than what we may put on when with friends and family.
Chris goes on to list what he does to maintain these various faces. Goffman calls this “face-work”, behavior that helps maintain the “face” you put on. In Chris’ case, when he says he is a blogger, his face-work involves writing about what intrigues him.
This was only possible when these different environments could be kept separate. When Goffman wrote his piece, there were no BlackBerries or iPhones, Youtube, Twitter, Facebook, and on and on. This offered us to be “messy and complex” and at times contradictory. But in today’s connected world, barriers that once existed have melted away. What you say or write in a “personal” capacity on your “personal” blog or Twitter profile may have repercussions at work and various other situations. What may have been said off-hand by an executive that was completely unrelated to the business at hand can affect how business is done off-line. Was this a failure of the person or a failure of the reacting organization to recognize or understand how face plays into it?
Social media is creating enormous stresses in how we reconcile these different faces that we have in a medium that does not afford nuances that exist in reality. Are we having a generation growing up on Facebook and Twitter who do not understand such differences? Currently, as Chris suggests, our professional face is the dominant face online, risking that risks a whole host of other faces that we put on in other social circumstances. But we are more than our professional selves as Chris points out too. Is corporate culture ready to take this into account going forward knowing that future generations will continue to spill everything onto the medium unfiltered? Or will social media allow greater control to the user in how, when and by whom their communication can be viewed online?