Andy Oram over at O’Reilly Radar writes a really interesting piece on the work of Erving Goffman and how it relates to identity and the web:
[Goffman’s] fundamental contribution is how he slants his premise that we present a front in all our behavior before others. You have to understand that this posturing is real and pervasive, but rarely a consequence of out-and-out deception, or because we have succeeded in deceiving outselves. Usually we simply associate certain behaviors as appropriate in certain circumstances; some stylization is inherent in our interactions.
For instance, just as a certain attention to style–or a stubborn flouting of its demands–enters into the clothes we choose to wear in public, there is inherent artificiality in our choice of screen name on a social network (unless an account related to our real name happens to be available). And whatever we choose certainly expresses something we want to reveal about our nature. This doesn’t mean we are deceiving ourselves or others–we are being ourselves, but in a stylized manner.
Goffman’s approach certainly applies online, because our postings–even our instant messages–are more deliberate acts than our informal behaviors in real life. Although some participants play at being flippant and spontaneous on Facebook walls and microblogs, they must have greater consciousness of their effects on the viewer than most dinner table guests or concert attendees. Our online personas, therefore, conform even more closely to Goffman’s idea of everyday life than our everyday life does.
Goffman is by far one of my favorite social scientists and a major influence on my graduate research and my worldview in general. I recommend the entire piece.