Sunday, May 09, 2010


My friend Amy Bruckman has been talking about her failed attempts to maintain separate online personalities for her personal and professional lives. Me too. I have a very vague and gauzy separation of the different facets of my online life, and those from my real life one. (see here also, and look, it's in the NY Times today).

It got me thinking about how I'd like to divide up my online life, assuming I had infinite time to maintain separate masks to different parts of the world:

- personal life: family, friends, real-world activities
- work life: computation, biology, hacking, the internet, business
- intellectual life: thoughts on economics, history, philosophy, polticial science, and other fields I take an amateur's interest in
- cultural life: books, movies, music, etc
- spiritual life: the deepest longings of the soul

Each of these spheres defines a separate imaginary audience, has separate conventions and separate rules for what constitutes an interesting or acceptable interaction. But the boundaries are blurry, the categories collapse into each other (and in some cases could be subdivided further). I can't keep these separate, yet they don't really fit together. I feel like my real self is something like the union of these sets, but discretion indicates I should only post material that is in the intersection of them, which is pretty close to empty.

Of course, the real irony is that the only reason to have a blog is to scream to the world, "me, me, look at me, I'm so interesting, I'm so great". If so, what's the point of hiding yourself behind a set of masks? But you could say something similar about human communication in general. We are always putting on a mask, staging an act, constructing a persona. The difference is that in the physical world we can use the structure of the physical environment to manage and cue the different roles we play.

The great sociologist Erving Goffman wrote a great deal about the techniques people use to stage their public life, in books like Interaction Ritual and The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. For example, he talks about the distinction between front and back regions, based on the areas within theater. On stage, a certain performance takes place, back stage the artifice is relaxed, but other types of performance take place. Goffman identifies similar structures in work life, for example, a medical office, where certain rules of conduct apply in areas where patients are, and others where doctors and staff congregate behind the scenes (or a the seating area and kitchen of a restaurant, to take an even clearer example).

Goffman talks about how different roles are played out in different contexts and how the tension between front and back areas is exploited by (for example) shills, who are members of the team putting on a performance who pretend to be members of the audience to channel energies of the actual audience memebers. In the land of the internet, shills are sometimes called sock puppets, which doesn't quite capture the institutionalization of such activity as found in casinos and elsewhere. Lee Siegel got mocked and fired for his sock-puppetry (although he hasn't lost his pundit licensesince he still publishes thumbsucker books and essays in the NY Times), but could he plausibly claim that he was just giving vent to the separate personas that we all have. Would the offense have been the same if the New Republic hired an intern to post enthusiastic comments on his blog (eg, if there was a real separate person performing the role)?

The Internet erases all boundaries and cueing strategies, and as more social life is conducted through social media it is harder to know how to act. Are we onstage or backstage, and what is the nature of the show we are in? Random bits of banter that people exchange as teenagers come back to haunt them as adults, in job applications or other formalized situations. The deep structure of social life is dissolved; we're left putting on an act without knowing who it's for; whether at any particular time its supposed to be serious or funny, formal or informal.

The old-school internet didn't have these problems. "Social media" consisted of email lists; the archives of such things were generally private, and it was no problem to present one face to a list concerned with knowlege representation and another that dealt with anarcho-surrealist art, if those happened to be two of your interests. The advent of Google and Facebook has changed that. Is this some kind of unstoppable dynamic, sort of like how global capitalism flattens boundaries and winds up with everybody connected and competing? Or will there be a reaction, with people withdrawing and figuring out ways to put boundaries around parts of their lives?

Just in the last few weeks, Facebook has been subject to severe criticism for its increasingly cavalier approach to privacy. Durkheim (via Goffman) sums up why:
The human personality is a sacred thing; one does not violate it nor infringe its bounds, while at the same time the greatest good is in communion with others.
Goffman's work partly undermines this idea. In his detailed descriptions of social interaction, the persona is a carefully forged tool for getting a job done, a construct, a mask. The sacred part is hidden inside somewhere, occasionally shining through, protected by the concentric boundaries of social space. Because Facebook and other social media blithely destroy these boundaries, they are in effect desecrators.

[update: found an academic treatment of this problem: The problem of conflicting social spheres
: effects of network structure on experienced tension in social network sites, by Jens Binder et al]


exuberance said...

I'd estimate that less than .1% of the people who work internet identity or social software have read Goffman. There should be a law!

TGGP said...

I'd make a snarky comment about spiritual life, but you already know what it would be.

I spend lots of time online because meat-space people are less interesting. Online I can choose topics to tune in to and ignore what I find boring. Pseudonymity gives a kind of freedom of expression that comes without the expectation of real-world repercussions. That's why Hopefully Anonymous used to recommend that everyone online with their real-name also have a pseudonym (perhaps like Tyler Cowen's "secret blog").

What do you think of that Harvard 3L email dust-up? That was a private message, but it didn't stay private forever.

I concur on Goffman being worthwhile reading. I've only read his "Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life" though.

mtraven said...

Re spiritual life, feel free to snark. I'm somewhat embarrassed to use such terminology myself, but there is something I want to talk about for which that is the best term, despite all the crap that is associated with it. I'd like to rescue useful concepts like "spiritual" rather than leave them to my political enemies.

Re "without the expectation of real-world repercussions", there's something to be said for that, but I'd like to imagine that my thoughts have some sort of real-world repercussions, else what is the point?

I had mixed reactions to the Harvard email fracas. I think the Harvard Law students should be smart enough to watch what they say, but I also think the cultural immune response to racism is set way too high. People, especially students, ought to be able to float even stupid and repugnant ideas without the whole world stomping on them. I feel that while Larry Summers may have deserved what he got, because university presidents are political actors and need to be held accountable for stupid things that come out of their mouth, students are not and should be cut slack.

Anonymous said...

The Summers controversy was not about race or racism but about his comments on the differences between male and female IQ distributions.

Whether or not "stupid things" came out of his mouth, the most remarkable aspect of the controversy was that the response to his remarks was not factual rebuttal, but rather moral outrage. The man made a claim that could have been examined on a factual basis - why wasn't it?

An institution of learning should apply scientific standards to claims of fact, whether they are made by students or by university presidents. The often-voiced devotion to "academic freedom" is worthless cant if some claims of fact are preemptively declared off-limits to investigation or discussion merely because some people find them offensive.

mtraven said...

Sigh, why must every single discussion here devolve into the same damn thing?

Warning: comments that are not at least tangentially related to the topic of the main post may be summarily deleted.

TGGP said...

What's the point? What's the point of people playing MMORPGs? I enjoy it, that's all. I've got a conversation with another UR reader where that comes up, which I might post in a while.

From what I've heard, Summers' speech (which has usually been misrepresented, particularly the part about making Harvard a more hospitable place for women juggling other obligations) was just an excuse, and the actual reason was existing conflicts with the faculty about where he was directing funding and his relationship with Andrei Schleifer (controversial for his activities in Yeltsin's Russia).

mtraven said...

I didn't mean to attack whatever reasons you might have for blogging or being pseudonymous. All a blog post can do is change minds, and that can happen no matter what name it's over.

There's quite a divergence, now that I think about it, between blogs done under people's real names and those done pseudonymously. The former are usually extensions of someone's mainstream career (academia or journalism typically, or tech). The latter tend to have more diverse viewpoints but also a greater spread in quality, as one would expect.

Anonymous said...

Mtraven - when your own comments are only tangentially related to the topic of the main post, are responses to those comments subject to summary deletion?

Conversations flow in two directions, and it inhibits that flow to hold others to a standard you don't observe yourself.

mtraven said...

I'm trying to stop myself from getting diverted as well.

It seems that it should be at least theoretically possible to discuss the issue of personal identity management on the internet -- which is, to me at least, an interesting and little-explored area -- without being immediately sucked into the mistreatment of Larry Summers and the grievances of white males in general, which have been amply addressed in other forums.

Anonymous said...

Well, all right, let's talk about "issues of personal identity management on the internet." In your comment (#3 in order from the top) you write:

"I'd like to rescue useful concepts like 'spiritual' rather than leave them to my political enemies."

Isn't it rather grandiose to suppose that you have "political enemies"? Let us grant that public figures (Larry Summers!) have political enemies - that is, people who wish to do them personal harm, such as loss of employment, income, or professional reputation. But is this really ever the case with a person, presumably not in public life, broadcasting his opinions via a pseudonymous internet blog?

Having read this blog for some time, I see from the way that you deal with people with whom you disagree - for example, Bryan Caplan, whom you describe, under the heading "Libertardianism" as having made "extra-stupid remarks" - that you treat them as enemies. It is not enough for you to rebut their arguments. You also demean and sneer at them, or question their motives.

This is an easy way to assure that a simple difference of opinion or criticism eventually rises to enmity. Your perception that you have "political enemies" is self-fulfilling. Treat someone as an enemy, and he will soon become one.

Is it because you can engage in "personal identity management on the internet," which shields you from the real consequences of having enemies, that you do this? Or do you behave the same way toward people with whom you disagree in face-to-face conversation?

mtraven said...

If you've been reading this blog for so long, why don't you identify yourself?

Attacks on my person aren't very much on topic either, but:

- I didn't mean to imply that I am so important as to have personal political enemies. But as you may have noticed, the real world is torn by political differences, and while I occasionally wish that it could be split up into pieces that make more sense than the left and right, that seems to be the structure we are stuck with, and I find myself on the left and thus in conflict with the right. I don't see what's so remarkable about that.

- In the comment you addressed, I was referring to the fact that religion seems to have been appropriated by the right and I'm interested in rescuing parts of it for the left, since it's far too important an area of human experience to cede. That too is not a very remarkable thought; Michael Lerner, Jim Wallis, and Joel Kovel have all written books on that theme. But it's really a subject for a separate blog post.

- Bryan Caplan is a tenured professor and can probably survive being demeaned by a pseudonymous blogger. I'd be more than happy to have a reasoned argument with him. I don't think I questioned his motives; you are projecting your own habits onto me (I assume you are actually Michael S, who can't resist psychoanalyzing me for some reason). Here's an earlier attempt to engage with Caplan's ideas.

- Politics and political discussion are inherently combative. There's an entire industry of left-wing blogs who mock the right much more mercilessly than I do (and they are funnier too). Same thing the other way, except for the funny. I'm far more interested in constructive engagement with the right than is typical, and in fact most of my friends tell me I'm wasting my time (I'm starting to believe they are right).

- But still, nothing would make me happier than having meaty, impassioned yet reasoned arguments with people with whom I disagree. This is one of the great potentials of the Internet and it is sadly mostly unrealized. I don't think it's just my style; blog comment discussions tend to be either amen choruses or childish rounds of insult.

- To circle back to the original topic, yes, I think the pseudonymous nature of a lot of Internet is a contributor to that. It seems to cause a lot of people to lose their inhibitions and act like assholes. I don't think I'm particularly guilty of that, but feel free to disagree.

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...
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mtraven said...

Like I said, I want commentary that is at least tangentially related to the topic of the post. Detailed parsing of my statements to demonstrate flaws in my character does not qualify, and it's not interesting.

It is perfectly fine to disagree with me if the disagreement is about something relevant.

If you don't like this rule, feel free to take your business elsewhere.

Anonymous said...
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mtraven said...

Here, for illustration, is something relevant: The Burning Man people have tried to create a special, protected space for doing whatever it is that they do, but technologies like digital photography and Facebook are threatening to collapse the barriers that separates their space from everyday life.

Anonymous said...

"Social networking" existed long before Facebook, and so did its constant companion - gossip. Facebook is just a new technology for both, as the telephone once was.

A century ago, everyone in a village knew who was the village idiot, drunk, or whore - who was cheating on his/her spouse, who was a wife beater, etc. Gossip was false or malicious in some cases, but was true enough often enough. People knew when to believe it, and when not to, andacted accordingly.

Those who were (or who fancied themselves) respectable avoided behavior that might embarrass them if it became the subject of gossip, or at least tried to be discreet about it. The anonymity fostered by modern urban and suburban life may have given them a brief respite from the social pressures of village life, but technology appears to have caught up with them. If anything it has probably improved the accuracy of gossip. A picture's worth a thousand words, after all.

Anyone who cavorts in the nude at an event like "Burning Man," unaware that doing so might have embarrassing consequences, is a fool, and will pay the price of folly. Why should this bother any serious person?

mtraven said...

See, I knew you could manage to produce a relevant comment.

The point of Goffman's work on (pre-Internet) socialization is that people's behavior is not uniform. People act one way in public and another way in private. Respectible people act less respectably in a saloon or whorehouse, or even at home, with the understanding that such places have different rules of conduct. It may be that such separation of domains is not fundamental to all human societies but a property of modernity, as you suggest. Still, it's a pretty damn important part of modernity (Here's a review of some history of that).

Re Burning Man, it's not my scene, but a hell of a lot of the Silicon Valley technical community seems to participate, including the Google founders, who have enough money and influence that I assume you will grant them the status of serious people. Obviously they don't have to worry about being caught in the nude, but others might.

Anonymous said...

"Modernity," in the sense that it has facilitated events like Burning Man, is a very recent development.

People who participate in such activities seek a sort of prolongation of irresponsible adolescence. As a mass phenomenon, that sort of adolescence was characteristic of the baby boomers, and didn't exist before them. Their parents were the first generation in history who could afford to indulge their children in such behavior. Now those children refuse to act like grown-ups and are petulant when expected to do so.

I'm not sure that adults, however much money or influence they may have, who behave like adolescents on spring break, should be regarded as serious persons. Nor should the possibility that some (not all) who are caught in compromising circumstances will face unpleasant consequences worry serious persons very much.

There was a time in our society when people in positions of social and economic leadership knew they had to behave with propriety, or at least to maintain an appearance of it. They were serious people. If new technologies encourage the return of such self-control, it will be all to the good.

mtraven said...

I'm using modernity to refer to the period since the rise of protestantism, secularism, the printing press, industrialization, bourgeoise civilization, etc.

Youth movements like the hippies and burners are really best understood as a romantic reaction to modernism, with roots that go back to the late 19th century. You don't think it's interesting that the leaders of the most influential technology corporation in the world participate in such things? It is the inventions of these non-serious people that enable to have these enlightening dialogs.

Your harrumphing about the loose standards of today is not very interesting. The world is what it is. I rather doubt that social media will bring back the moral standards of the Victorian era (not that they didn't have different rules for different spaces) or any other time. I don't know what public identity will be like in 20 or 50 more years of the interconnecting of the world with digital technolology, but I can pretty confidently promise you it won't be like anything we've seen previously.

jlredford said...

re: seriousness of people at Burning Man - Dionysian revels go pretty far back, as witness the name. It might be more traditional to do it with hookers and booze at trade shows, but losing your inhibitions is hardly unique to Boomers. I'm too square myself for events like Burning Man, but I'll hardly begrudge someone else their fun.

Anonymous said...

I didn't say that the people who cavort naked before an audience of thousands at Burning Man are not interesting. I said they were not serious. A Feydeau farce may be interesting, but it is not serious. Aren't you left-wing interleckshual types supposed to be attuned to nuance?

And, while I don't begrudge those people their fun, I do not find it particularly worrisome that they may pay a price for their follies. Fools have always done so, and there is no point in complaining about it, any more than there is in complaining about the law of gravity when you drop a piece of china and it falls to the floor and breaks.

Your comparison of the counter-cultural types to 19th century romantics is an apt one. Those romantics did not come to good ends - Shelley drowned before reaching thirty, Byron died of disease at 36. Shelley left his wife in penury; Byron probably gave his wife syphilis. You wouldn't have wanted your daughter to marry such a person. If you are at all normal, you'd want a good provider - i.e., a serious person - as a son-in-law.

Even so, the romantics had a certain tragic grandeur. Here is where the comparison does not hold, for the 'sixties counter-culture and its present outgrowths do not. Without the grandeur, there is no tragedy. There is only a sordid end.

And I'm sure no one will write about the counter-cultural elite the way that Thackeray, Edith Wharton, Louis Auchincloss, and even Tom Wolfe or Whit Stillman have done about previous elites. Manners are, after all, the sine qua non of the novel or comedy of manners - and this bunch has none.