Face-work and Facebook: Managing Social Interactions
A limited time offer! Get a custom sample essay written according to your requirements urgent 3h delivery guaranteedOrder Now
Erving Goffman’s “On Face-work: An Analysis of Ritual Elements of Social Interaction” introduces the concept of face-work to describe the strategies people use to protect their identities during social interactions. Face-work theory is important in studies, offering insight into what happens when people’s identities cause doubts during face-to-face interactions. Since 1967 when Goffman’s original work was written, advances in technology have generated changes in communication and social interactions. The internet has created new media for social exchanges, like text messages, emails, and social media. These media require new theories that speak to their electronic nature. For example, Facebook is a popular hub for online conversations that enables strategies for face-work beyond those Goffman originally conceived. When Goffman’s theory is expanded to include the types of face-work that are taking place on Facebook and elsewhere in social media, it is evident that technologies have allowed us increased control over our “face”.
In order to apply the theory of face-work to current forms of communication, some of the main points of Goffman’s foundational theory must first be understood. Goffman describes face as “an image of self-delineated in terms of approved social attributes” (299). Face is not a physical part of the body, but rather the perception of self. The idea of face is of Chinese origin and has been described as one’s sense of value, prestige, and personal reputation. Face is the way that people see themselves within the context of their environment. Goffman explains that people keep face when they “[present] an image of [ourselves] that is internally consistent, that is supported by judgments and evidence conveyed by other participants” (300). Face is constantly at risk during social interaction because it can be damaged by conflicting evidence that may arise during a discussion.
When a person’s face does not align with evidence that is presented or is not internally consistent, the person is said to be in wrong face. Wrong face occurs when “information is brought forth in some way about [a person’s] social worth which cannot be integrated, even with effort, into the line that is being sustained for [them]” (Goffman 300). Wrong face is often accompanied by embarrassment, humiliation, anger, or other negative emotional responses. It can damage an individual’s reputation and other participants’ perception of the individual. In an effort to avoid wrong face, humans have developed ritual methods for saving face during social interactions. Face-work, according to Goffman, is “the actions taken by a person to make whatever he is doing consistent with [their] face” (302). Avoiding wrong face or reacting to wrong face or saving face in a social interaction is face-work.
Goffman describes two basic types of face-work: the avoidance process and the corrective process. The avoidance process takes place when a person avoids situations in which their face is likely to be threatened or insulted. Avoidance could include withdrawing from a threatening situation, lying in order to avoid an incident, or even overlooking the fact that a face-threatening act has occurred. The corrective process, on the other hand, occurs when someone attempts to “correct for [their] offense and re-establish the expressive order” (Goffman 305). This requires the person who performed the face-threatening act to correct their action by performing additional acts, like apologizing or retracting their comment. The apology or corrective action then must be acknowledged by everyone in the conversation and approved by the person whose face has been harmed before additional social exchanges can take place. Goffman explains that if the corrective action is not sufficient, the offended person may react in “violent retaliation, destroying either themselves or the person who had refused to heed their warning” or leave the interaction in “in a visible huff” which denies the offenders’ authority and judgment in the situation (Goffman 306).
To Goffman, face-work is both necessary and complicated. Face-work often “induces compensative effort” from all involved because face-work is an integral part of our identities and feelings of social worth (Goffman 307). It requires the participation of everyone involved, either in avoiding face-threatening acts or helping to save the face of others. A person’s acknowledgment of face and cooperation in saving their own face or someone else’s face “represents his willingness to abide by the rules of social interaction” (Goffman 308). Problems develop in conversations when a person does not see face-work as an important tool in restoring social balance and performs “aggressive use of face-work” (Goffman 306). This occurs when someone forces others into awkward social exchanges by refusing to save their own face or complete face-work on behalf of others. Cooperation in face-saving acts is vital to maintaining social order.
Face-work allows people to maintain their identity and feelings of value during social exchanges. Goffman’s theory can be applied to any conversation exchange because face is always being presented or maintained. Social interactions and the media through which they occur are changing. The face-to-face social exchanges that Goffman studied were complicated because face-to-face interactions could be difficult to follow, unpredictable, and impulsive. However, online communications, like social media websites and text messages, allow people to carefully monitor and maintain their face and give them control over content. Facebook is an especially relevant medium for exploring the traits of online conversations and the related face-work strategies.
Facebook, identity, and face-work
Facebook is a social networking website that allows people to connect with each other and share information. Each user has a profile, which includes a profile picture, a status, personal information, educational and vocational information, interests, likes, photo albums, list of friends, videos, notes, and additional content. The Facebook profile holds a store of information about a person and their associations, communicating their values and opinions to their social circles. This cultural capital creates a line or argument about an individual’s identity. If face is “an image of self-delineated in terms of approved social attributes,” the Facebook profile is the virtual and visual incarnation of this self (Goffman 299). Social attributes are represented through the cultural capital and relationships displayed on the profile which solidify an individual’s membership within various social groups.
The social interactions on Facebook require that users constantly work on maintaining face. In fact, completing face-work is one of the main tasks involved in having a Facebook profile. Goffman perfectly summarizes the task of face maintenance saying:
“By entering a situation in which [a person] is given a face to maintain, a person takes on the responsibility of standing guard over the flow of events as they pass before him. He must ensure that an expressive order is sustained – an order that regulates the flow of events, large or small, so that anything that appears to be expressed by them will be consistent with his face… (301)
By signing up for a Facebook profile, users position themselves within an ever-evolving social situation. A Facebook user constantly monitors “the flow of events” on his or her profile to make sure that all events are consistent with the face represented through their profile (Goffman 301).” The excess of communication on Facebook requires users to constantly address comments and posts from friends. They must also be aware of the content they choose to share to ensure that it aligns with the identity they have presented on their profile. Users work to make sure that no wrong-face develops and that they can perform timely face-work when needed.
As with any social interaction, face-work is necessary and occurs as users interact through comments, posts, and other communication tools on Facebook. The principle acts of face-work on Facebook are like the avoidance and correction strategies described by Goffman: users ignore face-threatening comments; friends apologize to each other; and controversial conversations end with hurt feelings. These types of face-work mimic real-life interactions and utilize text-based communication that is much like face-to-face conversation. Facebook’s features, however, offer new strategies for saving face beyond conversational exchanges that create new rules for social interaction that are specific to Facebook. Friend requests, the hide feature, privacy settings, and the ability to delete and untag content are all strategies that users can implement to save face.
Unlike real life situations where interactions with others are often unplanned, online communications can be more carefully planned and supervised. One example of this is in the ability of Facebook users to choose who they interact with. To interact on Facebook, a user must submit a friend request. The friend request goes to the other user who then decides to accept or reject the person. This feature puts the user in control of who they want to interact with, allowing them to be more discerning about their social circle than might be possible in real-life situations. Some users friend everyone that they have ever known while others choose to keep their friend list short and intimate. In approving or denying a friend request, the user makes a statement about the nature of their relationship with the requester and their desire to communicate with them. In the context of face-work, users can practice avoidance by denying a friend request, thus preventing social interaction with the requester.
By avoiding certain people as Facebook friends, a user can maintain a friend list that aligns with their social values. Since it is unlikely that friends with common social values would perform face-threatening acts or aggressively use face against each other through Facebook, maintaining a list of friends that is consistent with a user’s Facebook identity prevents most wrong-face from happening.
Hiding and privacy settings
Another method of avoidance specific to Facebook is the hide feature. This feature gives users the ability to hide certain content from their friends. For example, a user may choose to hide a specific photo album or a status update from their friend list. Hiding is a method of avoidance because it prevents friends from being able to perform face-threatening acts regarding the content that has been hidden from them.
Facebook privacy settings allow users to hide content from specific people or groups of people. Privacy settings originally only allowed users to remove themselves from public searches, so that strangers wouldn’t be able to access their profile information. Over time the settings evolved to include privacy from specific friends or groups of friends. By hiding stories and making content viewable only to certain people, users can avoid interactions that may lead to face-threatening acts.
This type of avoidance still abides by Goffman’s original idea of “[avoiding] contacts in which threats are likely to occur” (302). In terms of face-to-face conversations, this might include not attending specific events, avoiding a certain person, or acting like a comment wasn’t made. Facebook, however, introduces settings and commands that give the user ultimate control over who they talk with and how they interact online.
Deleting and untagging
Many conversational approaches to face-work are used on Facebook through comments and posts. Apologizing, hedging, and offering solutions to face-threatening acts are common examples of correction that can be seen throughout Facebook comments. While such interactions are like a corrective process that would take place face-to-face, Facebook’s features also allow for a new method of correction: deletion.
Facebook allows users to delete any content that they have added or that appears on their profile. In effect, deleting content permanently removes conversations from the Facebook profile and news feed. Friends who saw the comment may remember it, but it is no longer recorded on Facebook or visible to other users. Deletion gives users ultimate control over the social interactions that are taking place on their profiles or regarding their own comments.
Untagging photos is another way to remove content from a Facebook profile. Facebook’s photo settings allow users to upload pictures of their friends and tag the pictures with the friend’s name. Tagging a photo automatically posts the photo to the friend’s profile. At times, tagging can be a dangerous game as it not always easy to judge whether a photo is flattering or aligns with a friend’s face. Just as you never know what a friend will say in a real-life conversation, you never know what kind of photos your friends might post of you online. Untagging a photo is a way to remove it from your own profile. Untagging oneself from photos that show inconsistency of face is a vital face-work task on Facebook.
Deletion and untagging are considered corrective for the purposes of this analysis because they generally occur after evidence is presented in communication. The acts of deletion and untagging could also be considered avoidance because they are like Goffman’s explanation of interactions where “the person [being threatened] acts as if an event that contains a threatening expression has not occurred at all” (303). They could be considered correction in that they forcibly remove an offender from a conversation, thereby “denying the offender his status as an interactant, and hence denying the reality of the offensive judgment he has made” (Goffman 306). Regardless, these methods of face-work are important to restoring social order and saving face within Facebook profiles.
Our main task as Facebook users is to maintain our identities amid the multiple conversations and interactions that take place in the virtual world. Facebook profiles represent personal identities and reflect face; humans are attached to the content and ideas that the profiles come to represent. Control of our virtual identities, face, and the face of our friends is a high priority on Facebook because the conversations and social interactions are constantly changing. Most users check Facebook every day, performing face-work acts to save their own face or the face of friends.
Facebook face-work strategies reveal an interesting phenomenon in online communication: that individuals can control social interactions. Goffman wrote of discourse as being governed by rules and a self that acted “as a kind of player in a ritual game” (308). Facebook conversation, however, lacks the rules and rituals that Goffman describes. Face-to-face interactions may be spontaneous and unplanned, and the success of face-work strategies depends on everyone’s agreeing to follow rules. The social interactions that occur on Facebook and other social media websites, however, combine both the face-to-face conversational face-work strategies and face-work strategies made available by technology. A Facebook user’s ability to hide information, deny friends, and delete unwanted conversations illustrates the amount of control that Facebook users have over social order. The rules of interactions vary from profile to profile and revolve around the individual user and the types of social interactions that they value. The control of conversations and flow of events in relation to a user’s face rests at the click – not the natural flow of face-to-face conversation or social conventions.
Goffman explains that “the person becomes a construct, built up…from moral rules that are impressed upon him” (310). The rules that govern our social interactions shape us as people and form our perception of face, dignity, and tact. Goffman continues, “The particular set of rules which transforms him into a human being derives from requirements established in the ritual organization of social encounters” (310). If a person is a being shaped by the rules of social encounters, what types of people are being shaped by Facebook encounters? An individual’s ability to manipulate online social exchanges surely influences face-to-face interactions. When conversations are mediated through a technology, the rituals and rules of face-to-face encounters may no longer be relevant. Undoubtedly, technology is shaping our conversations and in doing so, it must also be shaping ourselves.