In his seminal sociological work The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959) Erving Goffman employs a theatrical metaphor to shed light on everyday social interactions – we endeavour to manage the impression we give of ourselves to others through our front stage performance; our back stage performance is where we can set aside our public selves, step out of character, adjust our flaws and construct our public selves. We use any number of props to manage our front stage performance.
In contemporary life, the press release is a typical institutional prop for impression management. However, online social networks are also props which enable the audience (AKA ordinary people) to question, challenge and even undermine those attempts at maintaining a coherent front stage – they demand that the curtains are pulled back and they demand access to the back stage area. But how often are institutions willing to give this sort of access?
Last week saw a storm of protest on Twitter in response to a BBC News film in which the use of prosthetic masks to teach mental health nursing students was promoted. It is easy to see why the press release got picked up by mainstream media – it made a good front stage headline as can be seen in their press release: Hollywood silicone masks bring interactive nursing to life at RGU; the University got positive modest mainstream media coverage as a result.
However, Twitter didn’t receive the story with quite the same uncritical enthusiasm. I won’t go into the detail here, but you can check out the Twitter hashtag #MHMasks to find out more. Firstly the institution defended their use of the masks in a brief statement on their website. In a further statement a few days later they announced plans to suspend their use of the masks pending a review. The University were no doubt influenced by the many people accessing and working in mental health services, who challenged them on social networking sites.
The affordance of social media to enable public debate and discussion as well as protest makes them powerful props. The possibility for people to self-mediate their views in the public domain is a fascinating challenge to apparently lazy mainstream media and institutions experienced in constructing a controlled front stage performance. Other recent examples are Asda #MentalPatient and #SamaritansRadar events which both were challenged by an active and empowered community of people talking about mental health on Twitter and in blogs and vlogs.
The institutional wisdom appears to be to engage in minimal interaction by ignoring your challengers and starving them of attention – attempting to maintain the front stage performance. But what if that makes things worse and has the reverse effect of actually increasing attention and challenge? Silence can be perceived as arrogance, entitlement and detachment. A statement on a website feels like old-school broadcast media clashing up against sociable media. All too often institutions appear to engage on social media for the good stuff but revert to old-school media when they are the subject of protest or challenge. They rarely seem willing to share the back stage where flaws and problems could be collectively resolved.
I’ve been wondering how really sociable institutions might avoid protest in the first place, and when it does happen, how they might engage with it more sociably – an approach which might allow for the back stage to be exposed as much as the front stage. Here are a few thoughts:
- Be wary of shiny launches – big fanfares and polished press releases might look good in mainstream media terms but are easily picked apart by an irritated Twitter community
- Ask questions and err towards self-effacing – online social networks are relationship channels so share your thoughts/ideas and ask people for their views as early as possible. Keep testing the water and getting feedback. Not only does this make your final product better but it avoids you being backed into a corner it’s hard to get out of.
- Provide context – often Twitter storms are built on lack of nuance and context. Make sure you provide this context – your thoughts, ambitions, hopes and fears. Context creates empathy. Blogs and vlogs enable you to share more depth.
- And if it all goes wrong and you have to back down… continue the conversation on social channels rather than retreating to the back stage area to re-group and review. Perhaps take part in a hosted Twitter chat with the community concerned. This would be a brave move but one that could reap real rewards.
Are you aware of any social organisations doing this well? Have you got any suggestions to add to the list I have started?
This blog post is part 1 on the topic of front stage and back stage performance. My next post will focus on the topic from an individual rather than institutional perspective.