Recently, I’ve had occasion to teach the first several chapters of Joshua Meyrowitz‘ 1985 book “No Sense of Place.” The premise of the book is that new media produce new situations, if I might take the liberty of boiling an excellent and complicated argument to a blog-friendly little nugget. Our lives are filled with specific situational definitions, or social contexts, in which specific patterns of typical behavior can be observed. Most of the time the relationship between the situational definition and the corresponding pattern of behavior is intuitive and invisible, and so we just go about our business, mainly oblivious to all the little markers of congruent and incongruent behavior.
Take, for instance, a fight. Imagine you happen on a couple of adolescent boys wrestling on the ground. Their faces are red and intense. How is it that we assess the situation to determine whether or not the fight is real or play? Most of us will stand a safe distance from the fight and feel our way through the event, finally deciding something about its nature. “Ahhhh, they’re just messing around,” or, “Wow. Someone’s going to get killed.” Yes, occasionally our assessments prove to be false, but we’re actually pretty good at playing detective in those instances. Why?
The everyday assessment relies purely on intuition and prior experience with both actual and play fights. Unconsciously, we pick up subtle hints about how people communicate verbally or non-verbally during either situation. When we attempt to describe the clues, the game becomes much more difficult, but begins the work of the social scientist, in earnest. That’s the detective game of the trained observer.
One of the other interesting games is the “paralleling” of social acts between different environments. Identifying the purpose of a particular gesture, allows us to relate it to similar gestures in different situations. The keys to human communication are found in this little game. Meyrowitz offers a few examples that we played with in class. Before opening the front door for a visitor, many people primp their hair and adjust their clothing. This is related to an idealized form of self-presentation required when meeting a guest. Clearing one’s throat prior to making a phone call is similar. The idealized vocal tone and presentation of voice (all you’ve got of yourself on the phone) necessitates the gesture. Meyrowitz is relying on Erving Goffman for this point, as Goffman argues that impression management involves the separation of a front stage and a back stage. The front stage is where our public performances take place, and the back stage is a place for rehearsal and private behaviors. Meyrowitz argues in the book that electronic media have blurred the lines between front and back stages. His concern is primarily television, given the mid-80s date of publication, but I think it’s easy to see how these things play out online, perhaps even more clearly 30 years later.
We promote a great deal of behavior that was once reserved for the backstage. People Instagram their meals, and Facebook their feelings, and Tweet their opinions on religion and politics. Got foot fungus? Show the world. It’s not to say that there are no boundaries between front and back stage. Clearly, the person who shares the photos of their feet risks “unfriendings” and negative feedback. We all live for ‘likes’ and ‘favorites,’ which are positive reinforcements, and react poorly when sanctioned by people in our extended networks. A lot of traditionally back stage behaviors have moved to a middle region, often tweaked before becoming part of our public performance, but a lot of other things must remain hidden. For instance, when posting about religion or politics the risk of sanction is great enough that a bit of “throat clearing” must take place before promoting one’s private opinions to the public performance. When posting a photo of the 50 stitches you received in the back of your head, you parse the multiple images that might be shared, looking for the right angle that reflects the drama you hope to communicate without any unnecessary gore. The back stage must move forward. It’s the nature of our digital media environments, but it would be a mistake to think that traditional behaviors have been completely lost in the process. We just don’t recognize them anymore. All that work you do to edit your status updates and tweets before sharing is just another throat clearing exercise. When you finally post your cleverest of thoughts and discover that you’ve spelled ‘your’ as ‘you’re’ it a bit like having cleared your throat only to sneeze when the other party picks up the phone on the other end.