Electrification of the Interaction Order, or, eGoffman

The great sociologist Erving Goffman wrote a number of influential works about a domain of social life he called the “interaction order”, the realm of interactions between people.  Goffman studied how interactions are structured in the most common settings like how people pass by each other in hallways, manage eye contact, or show that they are “together” with someone else.

Goffman did write about telephone conversations as well as the ways broadcasters altered the patterns of spoken interactions in radio transmissions but he died before mobile phones became popular or online Internet social spaces became mainstream.  Several scholars have applied Goffman to social interaction in cyberspace.  There are lots of possible connections: Goffman wrote at length about the ways people “present” their identities to one another as if we were all actors on a stage.  After decades of “reality TV” this is not the revolutionary thought it once was in Goffman’s day.  Today his work can be a guide to studying the ways people now use the Internet to create representations of themselves and interact with one another.  Profiles on social network systems and other kinds of Internet based media publication tools are a new kind of surface for displaying membership insignia and symbols of connections with other people.  Like clothing or landscaping, Internet media are a medium for self-expression and claims to membership in a number of demographics and sub-cultures.

It is no longer necessary to bring Goffman to the Internet; the Internet is coming to Goffman.  Goffman’s work has even more value in the coming years.  The main focus of his work was the minute details of face-to-face interactions.  Goffman relished the details of careful control of eye contact and posture, tone of voice and timing.  When applied to “online” media this aspect of Goffman’s work has been applied metaphorically to the interactions of avatars and user names.  It is certainly possible to extend Goffman into these Internet spaces.  But now Internet spaces are extending themselves into the Interaction Order.

Mobile Internet devices are now along for the ride in many of the situations Goffman wrote about: meetings and encounters between people which feature exchanges and evaluations of identity claims.  Mobile phones are becoming more general purpose networked mobile computers.  Today these devices remain end points of Internet data more than sources.  But increasingly mobile devices have sensors that allow them to measure physical states of their owners and the presence of others in proximity.  When my phone notices your phone and can tell that it is your phone new opportunities emerge for people interacting in the interaction order.

The “interaction order” has been very analog and few innovations have taken place there — with a few notable exceptions.  Speech and body adornment were both big innovations that gave humans a big advantage in the creation of complex societies.  Since those novel practices there have been few things that have dramatically altered the basic nature of human to human interaction in face-to-face situations.  It could be argued that refinements like amphitheaters increase the number of people who can usefully gather in one place and still hear one another.  Similarly, writing and printing altered the interaction order only to the extent that sitting side-by-side with someone looking at the same relatively rare books created a structured interaction space but not new ways of presenting who we are or reading one another’s claims.

Clocks and maps help people get to an interaction at the right time and in the right place, but they do not change the basic capacity to signal between people.  Phones and cell phones create new kinds of spaces for an interaction order – with novel rules, but they do not change face-to-face interaction as much as they pull people out of face-to-face interactions and into a network mediated interactions.

Goffman will have renewed value for those trying to understand the impact of mobile devices because for the first time networked digital machines are aware of social interactions and are able to alter how we interact with each other.  The Interaction Order is “electrified” when we bring devices into our interactions with other people and those devices help us display the right symbols to others and access the right symbols about others.

This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. I have just written my doctoral thesis applying Goffman to Internet fan communities, and I remain stunned he hasn’t been utilised as much as he should be. He’s just not ‘sexy’ enough, I suppose!

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