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Facebook: Front Stage, Back Stage, and Comparing Ourselves to Others

Facebook became a publicly traded company last Friday, so we thought that we’d take a sociological look at Facebook this week. There has been some recent research that suggests that the rapid increase in social networking use across society has significant implications for all of us. A study published in the journal, Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, taps into the potential concerns we as a society face as we become increasingly connected online. In this post, David Mayeda, applies Erving Goffman’s front stage and back stage metaphors to this empirical study of facebook users. If you’ve ever wondered about facebook’s pros and cons, read on.

“All the worlds a stage, and all the men and women merely players,” was how shakespeare phrased it. Famed sociologist Ervin Goffman, put a sociological spin on the same idea. He argued that members of society are constantly engaged in dramaturgical modes of interaction with each other, meaning our behaviors metaphorically represent being on a theatrical stage. Thus, each of us leads “back stage” lives where we behave knowing that the no audience (i.e. other people) is watching. In our “back stage” lives, we can practice how we want to present ourselves later on the public stage. Once we are out and about with other members of society who are able to physically see us, we are enmeshed in our “front stage” lives.

There are innumerable examples we can all think of that distinguish between our front and back stage lives (see also here, for how men do this in mixed martial arts). In private (“back stage”), I myself have thought about how I would celebrate after an athletic victory, behave/dress on a date, prepare for a course lecture, and so on. Sometimes my “front stage” performances coincide with the “back stage” preparation; sometimes they don’t. I’m sure you can relate. But how does all this pertain to facebook?

One of the things that makes the social networking site, Facebook, so interesting to sociologists is that it offers us a platform to present a “front stage” of themselves, online Among many (if not most) facebook users, the “front stage” presentation of themselves on facebook is incomplete, focusing largely on the awesome aspects of their lives through pictures, status updates, commenting on friends’ pages, etc. Of course some people express negative personal circumstances on facebook, but this tends to be far less common than an overly positive presentation of the self.

Scholars Hui-Tzu Grace Chou and Nicholas Edge recently published an interesting study titled, “‘They Are Happier and Having Better Lives than I Am’: The Impact of Using Facebook on Perceptions of Others’ Lives.” The study notes that social networking sites like facebook allow their users to have “friends” that they might barely know, and perhaps have never met in person. Thus, the only way users get to know these “strangers” is through those friends’ “front stage” presentation of themselves on facebook. Because this presentation of “strangers” may be a disproportionately positive representation of their lives that omits important negative occurrences, it could make facebook users who have a high number of friends that are strangers think poorly about themselves.

Using a university sample of 425 undergraduate students in Utah, United States, the study investigated two over-arching questions: do (1) an increased use of time spent on facebook; and (2) having a disproportionately high number of facebook friends who are “strangers” have a significant association with the assumption that others have a better life and are happier than the user, and that life is not fair?

The study results are not terribly surprising. Indeed, those facebook users who spend more time on the social networking site and who have lots of friends that they have never met in person, tend to feel that their own lives are inferior to those of their facebook friends. Likewise, they are significantly more likely to feel others are happier with their lives, and that life in general is not fair. In contrast, users who spent less time on facebook, but with friends that they knew beyond an online community, were generally more conscious that their facebook friends’ lives had problems not shown on their facebook pages. Thus, these users did not compare their own lives as much to those that their friends presented on Facebook.[1. this study shows a correlation between two social phenomena, not causation. In other words, the study finds students who use facebook frequently and have numerous “stranger” friends tend to see these friends as having better lives and that life is unfair. This does not necessarily mean facebook causes low self-esteem. Conversely, it could be that people with low self-esteem go on facebook and are more likely to add friends they have never met in person.]

Now think about your own use of facebook and the types of friends you have on the site. Do this study’s results ring true for your own experience?

Dig Deeper:

  1. When on facebook (or another social networking site), how does your “front stage” presentation of yourself differ with the “back stage” aspects of your life? What do you strategically omit from posting on facebook, and why?
  2. Now think about your facebook friends. Do you think their online “front stage” presentations of the self differ from their “back stage” lives?
  3. Why do you think it is so important for facebook users to present an overwhelmingly positive “front stage” presentation of the self, when we all know each of us experiences challenges in our daily lives? How could sites like facebook be used more constructively if users presented a more realistic presentation of themselves?
  4. Returning to the study, do you have a large number of facebook friends who are “strangers” (people you’ve never met in person), and do their overwhelmingly positive presentations of themselves make you think their life is better than yours? Apply the study to your own experience!

Reference: Chou, G. C., & Edge, N. (2012). ‘They Are Happier and Having Better Lives than I Am’: The Impact of Using Facebook on Perceptions of Others’ Lives. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 15 (2), 1-5.