[DigCult] Flame Wars According to Goffmann (but mostly me)

by Thom Kiraly

In our reading for this week, some of Erving Goffman’s theories were discussed by Hugh Miller and Jill Arnold in their text Self in Web Home Pages: Gender, Identity and Power in Cyberspace. They write about how Goffman views everyday life as a performance and how he makes analogies to acting. One quote I reacted to was this, describing how we need to present ourselves as acceptable and what techniques and resources are available to us in doing this:

“There are ‘back regions’ in which backstage preparation can help in presenting an effective performance in ‘front regions’; ‘expressive resources’ can be mobilised; and cooperation from others present in the interaction can often be relied upon to smooth over jagged places and provide opportunities for redeeming gaffes.”

The first two words in my mind were: Flame Wars! See, the problem (if one chooses to look at it from that angle) with the Internet is its almost perfect memory. Everything we write and publish here is stored. That’s the basic idea, at least, and any deviation from that model is viewed as being abnormal. Not wanting to save, to index, to put into neat folders etc. is seen as sloppy and unorganized. So, where’s the problem? The problem is humans. Humans are flawed, computers are not (well, for the sake of argument at least). In the interaction human-computer-human the mediation is provided by an entity working according to perfect logic, it never  forgets, it never fails to remind us of ours (but mostly those of others) shortcomings. Thus, when your buddy writes an update on Facebook or Twitter using that single ambiguous phrase or forgetting to put the ironic smiley at the end, you are left staring at that update for as long as your anger can fuel you.

From xkcd

A short inflammatory reply is all you need to start a full-scale flame war. There is no smoothing over jagged places, there is no forgetting and forgiving, because every word lingers in digital memory repeating its impact each time it is read. In casual conversations this rarely happens while, online, it happens all the time.