Social media and identity: From Goffman to Sherry Turkle, Meyrowitz and beyond

This is a learning module for the class Contemporary Social / Mass Media Theory taught at Purdue University by Sorin Adam Matei

Identity theories and social media

What cultural and intellectual forces account for the social and intellectual ethos that fuels the social media revolution? Was the Facebook or blogging revolution a simple effect of new technologies becoming available? How does new media, in turn, influence the intellectual outlook and cultural patters of modern life? What kinds of social groups do the social affordances of the social media produce?  How is the presentation of the self influenced by a constantly networked world?  Is this a communitarian, or individualist ethos? Is the ”social” aspect of media equivalent to ”communitarian”? Or are we dealing here with an altogther different kind of community, possibly one that is closer to that of ”communitas,” a temporary state of affairs that appear only during ”ritualized” encounters. page of No Sense of Place

These issues can be approached from two different directions. One would look at the unique role technologies play in altering and shaping our experiences. Medium-theory, proposed by Joshua Meyrowitz, author of No Sense of Place, affirms that technologically-mediated communication is a sui generis context that exists outside and is opposed to ordinary individuals. Or, according to Sherry Turkle, our sense of self and deeper understanding of our own ego is shaped by our own image as seen on a computer screen (The Second Self and Life on the Screen). In her view, media impelles on us a second sense of selfhood.

At the other end of the spectrum, technology itself is seen as a consequence of cultural and social choices that precede it. Technology is society incarnate. Social media would thus become a consequence of a game that has already been played.


Shifting Worlds of Strangers: Medium Theory and Changes in “Them” Versus “Us”
Joshua Meyrowitz, Sociological Inquiry, 1997, Volume 67 Issue 1, Pages 59 – 71

Macrolevel analyses of the influence of different communication technologies are more difficult to test and apply than the results of focused studies of particular media messages. Nevertheless, “medium theory” is of potentially great significance because it outlines how media, rather than functioning simply as channels for conveying information between two or more social environments, are themselves social contexts that foster certain forms of interaction and social identities.

This article uses a medium-theory perspective to address one variable related to “technological communities”—the changing boundaries between “them” and “us.” The ways in which oral, print, and electronic modes of communication each foster a different balance between strangers and “familiars” are outlined.


  • changes in social structures [are] encouraged or enabled by new forms of communication
  • how the choice of one medium over another affects a particular situation or interaction
  • how the addition of a new medium to an existing matrix of media may alter social interactions and social structure in general

Major question: How do the particular characteristics of a medium make it physically, psychologically, and socially different from other media and from face-to-face interaction, regardless of the particular messages that are communicated through it?

Major conclusion:  Each shift in communication is accompanied by a shifting sense of place, by a change in our perception of what George Herbert Mead (1934) called the “generalized other,” those others who seem significant enough for us to imagine how they may be imagining us. Each shift also is accompanied by a new sense of what I have called the “generalized elsewhere” (Meyrowitz 1989), that general imagining of how our locales may be viewed from the outside. [While] printing creates smaller units of interaction at the expense of the oral community, it also bypasses the local community in the creation of larger political, spiritual, and intellectual units. [At the same time] the current postmodern trend is toward integration of members of all groups into a relatively common sphere of experiential options-with a new recognition of the special needs and idiosyncrasies of individuals. Electronic media, therefore, foster a broader, but also a shallower, sense of “US.” The effect of these boundary changes is both unifying and fractionating. The forms of group identities and place-defined roles characteristic of modem societies are bypassed in both directions: Members of the whole society-and world are growing more alike, but members of particular families, neighborhoods, and traditional groups are growing more diverse… Just as there is now greater sharing of behaviors among people of different ages and different sexes and different levels of authority, there is also greater variation in the behaviors of people of the same age, same sex, and same level of authority…. Just as modem European nations developed with the help of printing in the vernacular, which bypassed the face-to-face communication of the feudal system and its network of oral oaths of allegiance, new technologies are fostering the rise of a system of quickly changing neofeudal alliances on a global scale.

Framework: Technological determinism?

Sherry Turkle, Who Am We? (fragments from her book, Life on the Screen)

There are many Sherry Turkles. There is the “French Sherry,” who studied poststructuralism in Paris in the 1960s. There is Turkle the social scientist, trained in anthropology, personality psychology, and sociology. There is Dr. Turkle, the clinical psychologist. There is Sherry Turkle the writer of books – Psychoanalytic Politics (Basic Books, 1978) and The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit (Simon & Schuster, 1984). There is Sherry the professor, who has mentored MIT students for nearly 20 years. And there is the cyberspace explorer, the woman who might log on as a man, or as another woman, or as, simply, ST.

All of these Sherry Turkles have authored a new book, Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet, published November 30 by Simon & Schuster. Life on the Screen tells how the computer profoundly shapes our ways of thinking and feeling, how ideas carried by technology are reshaped by people for their own purposes, how computers are not just changing our lives but changing our selves.

Andy Oram, What sociologist Erving Goffman could tell us about social networking and Internet identity
O’Reilly Radar

Our conscious presentations of self are often meant to be scaffolding, which–as Goffman points out–can be taken down once it has performed its purpose. For instance, we put up a front in a job interview or our first date with a potential partner, knowing that we can gradually relax the front if the initial contact is successful and leads to commitment.

But on the Internet, our front is being presented to the entire world for all time, and therefore can never be relaxed. We also have to worry, even more than real-life performers, over the essential question of whether we can sustain our performance.

Is Google making us Stupid? Nicholas Carr (see also the book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains )

Marc Smith, From hyperlinks to hyperties. The Hyperlinked Society: Questioning Connections in the Digital Age
Joseph Turow and Lokman Tsui, Editors, 2009

A new form of hyperlink is emerging, the “hypertie,” which bridges the gap between links created in computational media and those authored in the physical world when people interact with one another and the objects around them. The hypertie is an innovation in the interaction order, the result of the merger of existing social practices of association with the technical affordances of mobile networked information systems and the existing hyperlink infrastructure. A new era in social life is arriving when the ties that bind people can be inscribed with decreasing effort into forms similar to the ways hyperlinks create connections between resources on the Internet and World Wide Web. New mobile devices represent a novel innovation in an otherwise slow-to-change realm of social interaction—face-to-face encounters. The result is a shift from a social world in which much is ephemeral to one in which even the most trivial of passings is archival.

Taking risky opportunities in youthful content creation: teenagers’ use of social networking sites for intimacy, privacy and self-expression
Sonia Livingstone
New Media Society June 2008 vol. 10 no. 3 393-411

The explosion in social networking sites such as MySpace, Facebook, Bebo and Friendster is widely regarded as an exciting opportunity, especially for youth.Yet the public response tends to be one of puzzled dismay regarding a generation that, supposedly, has many friends but little sense of privacy and a narcissistic fascination with self-display. This article explores teenagers’ practices of social networking in order to uncover the subtle connections between online opportunity and risk. While younger teenagers relish the opportunities to recreate continuously a highly-decorated, stylistically-elaborate identity, older teenagers favour a plain aesthetic that foregrounds their links to others, thus expressing a notion of identity lived through authentic relationships. The article further contrasts teenagers’ graded conception of `friends’ with the binary classification of social networking sites, this being one of several means by which online privacy is shaped and undermined by the affordances of these sites.

Sorin Adam Matei
Journal of Technical Writing and Communication
Volume 35, Number 4 / 2005, Pages: 345 – 365

Claims about the emergence of a new type of social aggregation–“virtual community”–cover a type of ideological discourse about social interactions. The main cultural resource fueling this ideology is the counterculture and its social project. Virtual community, both as a discursive and as a social practice, is a culmination rather than a resolution of the modern conflict between community and individuality. Presenting virtual community as a panacea for modern social tensions, especially that between individualistic and communitarian ideals, hides from sight not only some of the negative aspects of on-line social life (cliquish behavior and incivility) but also the role played by communication technology in fragmenting modern society.

Christina Kalinowski
Goffman Meets Online Dating: Exploring the ‘Virtually’ Socially Produced Self
Master Thesis, Purdue University, 2009

The present thesis applies the Goffmanian framework regarding self-presentation to a study of online interactions, specifically within the context of an online dating website. I aim to show that, like face-to-face interactions, online interactions with others influence performances of self. Additionally, the context itself and those interacting within it produce and enforce social norms and rules that further constrain individual behaviors. One’s self is produced through the use of self-presentational performances that are either publicly validated or discredited by interested parties based upon the context interaction occurs within (Branaman & Lemert, 1997). Feedback from others thus plays a large role in shaping one’s self. Goffman’s explication of the self is dynamic: thus, my research question is two-fold: ‘What impact do other daters have upon the way one chooses to self-present?’ and ‘How do the social norms of a particular site of interaction influence presentations of self?’

Sorin Adam Matei

Sorin Adam Matei - Professor of Communication at Purdue University - studies the relationship between information technology and social groups. He published papers and articles in Journal of Communication, Communication Research, Information Society, and Foreign Policy. He is the author or co-editor of several books. The most recent is Structural differentation in social media. He also co-edited Ethical Reasoning in Big Data,Transparency in social media and Roles, Trust, and Reputation in Social Media Knowledge Markets: Theory and Methods (Computational Social Sciences) , all three the product of the NSF funded KredibleNet project. Dr. Matei's teaching portfolio includes online interaction, and online community analytics and development classes. His teaching makes use of a number of software platforms he has codeveloped, such as Visible Effort . Dr. Matei is also known for his media work. He is a former BBC World Service journalist whose contributions have been published in Esquire and several leading Romanian newspapers. In Romania, he is known for his books Boierii Mintii (The Mind Boyars), Idolii forului (Idols of the forum), and Idei de schimb (Spare ideas).

28 thoughts on “Social media and identity: From Goffman to Sherry Turkle, Meyrowitz and beyond

  • October 20, 2014 at 11:23 am

    I agree with Andy Oram (2009), when he states that Goffman’s underlying framework is still valid today. However, I propose a different application of Goffmans perspective, when analyzing how individuals present themselves on social media.

    Goffman (1959) is concerned with how individuals present themselves to another based on values, norms and expectations. The theory is focused on face-to-face interactions, and states that individual actors play certain roles depending on the situation they are in. Goffman draws a distinct line between what is public and what is private, and describes how individual’s identities are made up of front-stage and a back-stage. In any situation, actors consider certain behavior appropriate determined by the context the behavior unfolds in. Therefore the individual “performs” on the front stage in alignment with the expectations of a situation or “frame”. Contrary to what happens on the front stage, individuals can be themselves reserved from judgment on the back stage. Only confidants are allowed here, as back region are typically out of bounds to members of the audience.

    Although Goffman’s framework was conceived well before the dawn of the Internet, I believe that it stills holds value when applied to present day social media. Livingstone (2008) found that teenagers use both Myspace and Facebook to express their identities, but also noted how they used each network differently. While teenagers on Myspace applied ”identity through display” logic, teenagers of Facebook applied “identity through connection” logic. This implies that there are certain norms and expectations that shape how individuals chose to present themselves on social media. Thus, it could be argued that teenagers do put on a front stage when engaging with peers on social media. This trend can also be seen, if you look at how individuals behave on different social networks in general. The content shared, style of writing and nature of interacting is widely different depending on the network. LinkedIn features strictly professional content, whereas Facebook is shaped by much more personal and private interactions. Content that may be very common on Facebook might be deemed inappropriate on LinkedIn and likewise the other way around. In a sense, each network holds a set of norms, values and expectations, which each user must oblige to in order to uphold “face”. The individual must as a result put on different front stage acts on each network. Granted, it can be argued that the personal characteristics of content shared on Facebook blur the lines between the front stage and the backstage, but in regards to LinkedIn, I would argue, that a front stage performance does occur.

    Goffman, E. (1959). The Presentation of Self in Everyday life., New York, Doubleday

    Livingstone, S. (2008). Taking risky opportunities in youthful content creation: teenagers’ use of social networking sites for intimacy, privacy and self-expression. New Media & Society, 10(3), 393-411.

    Oram, A. (2009). What sociologist Erving Goffman could tell us about social networking and Internet identity. O’Reilly Radar.

  • October 28, 2014 at 8:48 am

    For Jessia Snitko

    When did it become the social norm to take a picture of your food and share it with 400 of your closest friends? Our parents certainly did not snap a photo of their dinner Friday night, have the film developed on Saturday, and then pass it around school on Monday morning. As new media are developed, social interactions evolve with them (Meyrowitz, 1997). Social networking sites have become environments in which we can share information, find long-lost friends, and join virtual communities of like-minded individuals.(Matei, 2005)
    Due to the popularity of social media in our generation it has become increasingly easy to share information, leading to an increase in self-disclosure. Users of social networking sites generally do not seek out strangers and befriend them, but casual acquaintances know more about each other than ever before.(Livingstone) These relationships online rarely transfer to an increase in offline relationships primarily because “there is a limit to the number of people with whom one can feel truly connected.”(Meyrowitz, 1991, p.66) Just because you re-tweet something witty from a coworker, does not mean that you will feel comfortable having lunch with them. Nevertheless, virtual social interaction between acquaintances is increasing, possibly due to the growing visibility of “tickets to talk.”(Smith, 2009) A friend of a friend may share a music video of your favorite artist and because you see you share a common interest, you feel comfortable commenting.
    Although social networking site users rarely seek out strangers, the same cannot be said for participants in virtual worlds or MUDs (Turkle, 1997) where the sole purpose is to create an identity and interact with other created identities. Unlike social networking sites, where you present a stylized version of the “you” that people are familiar with (Oram, 2009), the anonymity of social virtual realities provides the opportunity for individuals to experiment with various facets of their personality.(Turkle, 1997; Matei, 2005)
    The popular opinion of participation in virtual worlds is that it is detrimental- an already withdrawn individual can become even more reclusive by participating more in their life on-screen than in their life outside their bedroom.(Turkle, 1997) My belief however is that virtual worlds, when used correctly, can be beneficial tools for personal growth and realization. Take, for example, the woman from Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet (Turkle, 1997) who was never comfortable speaking up for herself until playing a strong male character on a MUD. She realized that a firm man was treated with authority and eventually found a happy medium between “firm and rigid” and utilized it in her everyday life.(Turkle, 1997)
    Before the widespread use of social media like networking sites and virtual realities, individuals had limited access to tools with which they could form and realize their selves. In modern times, we are able to examine other’s presentation of themselves to develop a sense of social norms and expectations (Kalinowski, 2009) as well as apply other user’s feedback to constantly update and develop the “self” that we display.
    Kalinowski, C. (2009) Goffman Meets Online Dating: Exploring the “Virtually” Socially Produced Self. Masters Thesis. Purdue University
    Matei, S. (2005). A Sounding Board for the Self: Virtual Community as Ideology. Journal of Technical Writing and Communication, 35(4), 345-365.
    Meyrowitz, J. (1997, January). Shifting worlds of strangers: Medium Theory and Changes in “Them” Versus “Us”.Sociological Inquiry, 67(1), 59-71.
    Oram, A. (2009, October 26). What sociologist Erving Goffman could tell us about social networking and Internet identity . InRadar: Insight, Analysis, and Research about Emerging Technologies . Retrieved October 19, 2014
    Turkle, S. (1997). Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet. N.p.: Simon &Schuster.


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