By Steven Dashiell
As COVID-19 makes videoconferencing more normative, one sociologist examines who much work goes into what we see, and don’t see, in the webcam image.
The COVID-19 pandemic has led to a monumental shift in social practices, modifying the ways people and groups are interacting. Specifically, in the United States, the issuing of shelter-in-place orders by 45 states has increased the frequency of telework or working from home (WFH). Dingel and Nieman (2020) estimate that around 37% of the American workforce engaged in telework around mid-March, the genesis of quarantine orders in most states. Loosening of state-level restrictions does little to change these numbers in the short term, as the general guidance of “those who don’t have to go to offices, shouldn’t” encourages huge swaths of various industries to continue WFH activities. People still need to interact both socially and professionally, however, and everyone from PTAs to television talk shows are employing video technologies to allow individuals and groups to collaborate in real time. Zoom, Google Meet, and WebEx have quickly become household names, as scheduled sessions with the “Brady Bunch” image configuration are a common experience on most screens in America. These software packages aren’t just about a business application; they represent a way to connect with others and limit risk in a world impacted by COVID-19.
What is of interest to me is the cultural construction of these online interactions and how these virtual spaces allow a window into the lives of the person living through the pandemic. I was talking to my friend a few days ago and remarking how many individuals seem to pose themselves in videoconferences with what I would call ‘affirming backgrounds’. For example, I’ve seen a lot of academics online have bookcases as backdrops, while others choose particular items like plants, furniture, or bare walls to frame their digital conversation. I have come to wonder – how much of this setting choice is accidental and how much of it is deliberate? How much thought goes into this behavior? I, for example, just defended my doctoral dissertation via an online defense. I was extremely deliberate in my choices of location, dress, and my background. I chose a blank wall in my apartment, with a framed pop-art lithograph of the Golden Girls flanked by an African mask. My deliberate construction was about demonstrating my sexual orientation, my racial identity, and my love of popular culture in one visual statement. Is this common practice?
Sociologist Erving Goffman developed the concept/theory of impression management, or “the wide variety of strategies used by people to control the ideas others have about them. It is concerned with the general ways in which people present themselves in public settings.” (Ritzer 2004, 398). In the process of managing impressions, Goffman (1959) lays out the front stage, or “visible behavior” and the backstage, those social areas which “are typically out of bounds to members of the audience” (123,129). To Goffman, the act of impression management involves both conscious and subconscious strategies surrounding the front and back stage, and belies how much work individuals, or actors, put into crafting their social self. A young girl at high school may be gregarious, with many friends, and seen as a “popular” cheerleader, but at home she is quieter and more introspective, reading her favorite books and listening to music. Neither of these images are “fake” or inauthentic, but they are curated in different ways for aspects of her life. The young girl’s performance at high school is an example of front stage behavior, while her more muted behavior at home illustrates back stage behavior. It is natural to put a lot of effort into the front stage because it is valuable to present an authentic self. What occurs in the back stage is neither inauthentic nor “more authentic,” but personal, and we preserve visible. When worlds collide, front stage behavior has to occur at home on a screen, a locale which we understand as a back stage social setting. Does this change the nature of interactions?
Consider Will Reeve, a reporter for Good Morning America who received national attention because an improper aim of his webcam revealed him to be wearing a shirt, a blazer, and underwear. What does this controversy tell us about impression management? The easiest assumption is, like what Goffman says about front stage, the camera angle and placement is all about what we want people to see (or expect to see). Reeve presents as a person appropriately dressed for work from the waist up. The unfortunate camera angle could be characterized as “when a member of the audience inadvertently enters the backstage” (Goffman 1959, 209). The backstage interpretation would be that Reeve realizes he is home, and therefore there’s no reason to have the full outfit because ideally no one would see (or care about) what he wears below the waist. It’s a logical assumption – as viewers we do not give much thought to the parts of an individual which are out of the frame (Lewis 2020). Reeve’s behavior might also speak to gendered assumptions, and what expectations we have on individuals based on their embodied gender identity, and how much leeway we give to violations of norms. Reeve, an attractive male journalist, gained more fame than infamy from the reveal of his backstage; would we expect the same of a woman? Generally, we would think no; a woman who was in the same situation would be more harshly criticized, and the lack of dress would bring questions of her preparation, her ability to multi-task, and would perhaps take on a sexual tone.
Interestingly, of course, Goffman himself did not speak much to issues of gender in dramaturgy, and was critical of himself later in life – even referring to himself as a “male chauvinist pig” , someone who, while “committed to the study of gender and open to feminist ideas….[retaining] contradictory patriarchal biases that he found difficult to acknowledge”(Deegan 2014 76,83). Sociologists have capitalized on Goffman’s work to gain a deeper understanding of gender, with Candace West (1996) recognizing dramaturgy as a concept opening discussions on “the possibility of studying the personal…in sociological life” (364). Using Goffman’s theory as a foundation, Ragan (1982) notes how front stage portrayal of men and women in photographs “may serve another subtle instructional function, teaching the young and reminding the public how to be feminine, how to be masculine” (42). Videoconferencing is no different in this respect.
According to Goffman, the social setting is the physical space where actions occur. Props are those items that reinforce how people are supposed to think of us. Traditionally in Goffman’s idea of interaction, a prop inhabits a shared space (such as an office or a restaurant). In terms of virtual interactions with cameras, the social setting becomes the interpretation of the shared space and thereby social setting and props become the same cultural artifacts, in those terms’ actors have significant control over both. Nice clothing, coiffed hair, bookcases, and idyllic window views can all provide in the virtual world a sustaining front stage. Use of clothing and background elements reinforce normality and expectation more than they add to the imagery of the individual actor. For instance, if a famous musician was in a Zoom meeting, don’t we expect them to be in a room with instruments, or records on the wall, or posters? These props aren’t ego inducing but come to be what we would expect to see—they affirm our front stage understandings of particular individuals and even professions. The combination of the controlled image makes what Hogan (2010) would suggest is the performance, or phenomena “subject to continual observation and self-monitoring as the means for impression management” (384). Individuals become extremely conscious of what others might see in their presented image, and how it might either augment or inhibit what the actor wants to communicate. A common background for those in academia is a bookcase, for instance. As a prop, shelves lined with books add authenticity, regardless of what other props may communicate. If someone is dressed in a shabby t-shirt, for example, but presents themselves in a room displaying books, the image conveys a sense of intellect and a “maverick academic” despite the clothes. Take that same shabbily dressed person, and place them on a disheveled couch, and there’s a greater need to “support” the academic identity.
Video is a visual medium, so the conscientious participant may take other factors into consideration in terms of how they will be perceived (such as glare or busy traffic areas in a house) that have little to do with this idea of impression management. But we’d be naive to believe that people are not conscious of their presentation of self on the screen, and how much of one’s ‘true self’ one wants to let come through on a web conference. The videoconference allows a fantastic level of impression management, and similar to studies of online communication, individuals are likely to present their authentic self, but edited to highlight their perceived “better” attributes and qualities (Bullingham and Vasconcelos 2013). In general, this means people want to create a complex image. Many of us who are communicating in a professional arena want to seem engaged, but not “too professional”. There is an expected vulnerability in one’s presentation during the pandemic; to present as fully “put together” communicates one is not visibly bothered by the strange circumstances in the world. Thereby, the goal in communications during the COVID pandemic is to curate a “flawed perfection” image, one in which a person displays a sense of control and semblance of professionalism, but simultaneously provides elements that speak to measured resilience in the face of struggle (Flaherty 2020; Killian 2020). A desk that is slightly messy. An out of place book. One of the more common effects for this flawed perfection is within the actor themselves – a days’ growth of a beard, a head scarf, or not-fully-buttoned shirt. There need to be flaws, to make the actor relatable.
Another aspect of impression management we could consider are those who choose not to present a digital front stage at all. What do we think when someone turns their camera off, or joins a meeting without a camera on? Do we automatically assume there are technical difficulties, or do we believe individuals made a conscious choice to not have a camera on? What is the messaging that comes along when someone opts out of being seen? What are the conventions that allow us to ask about a lack of a webcam image? For most of us the answer is probably “we do not think about it”. We assume there is a good reason as to why there is no picture. Not asking why a camera is off is a newly formed folkway; it is not proper to ask. Some people are assumed to be self-conscious about various aspects of their current social lives—their appearance, their weight, their living conditions when besieged by newfound responsibilities. Moreover, video conferencing is an inherent issue of class; think of the connection you need to have the bandwidth to video conference while others in the house do other things (Khalid 2020; Ramsetty and Adams 2020). How much does that digital connection cost? Is demanding someone to use a camera forcing them to reveal financial limitations—a taboo of American culture? The frantic nature of the pandemic has caused us to rethink the expectations and niceties surrounding video conferencing, and to consider, in a group, when someone is not being seen. There are, of course, circumstances where the lack of a camera might be glaring, such as a one-on-one conversation, or meetings (which are becoming more common) where videoconferencing is required.
The culture surrounding video interactions is complex, and how we manage our presented self represents another level of communication that anthropologists and cultural sociologists can dive into head-first (Wang and Roubidoux 2020). While the technology of video conferencing has been present for a while, current circumstances have drawn in people who would likely have not considered communication methods such as Skype and FaceTime. But video impression management is an additional level of visible work above and beyond other means of communication. Unlike Goffman’s original idea, video impression management can be more deliberatively seen by others and there is an effort to control the norms of dressing and videoconferencing (Radin 2020). Will the average “new adopter” of video communication continue use once the pandemic subsides? Following my formulation above, will videoconferencing become a new backstage, a new frontstage, or (my purely speculative prediction) will it fade from view as a medium per se such that folks use it as they see fit: manicured backgrounds during work calls, wandering around the house showing various locales when on a call with family/friends. Will people exercise their agency to not use videoconferencing, and align it as a relic of the pandemic, only optional as a last resort or a preferred tool of the small minority who will continue to work from home as the “new normal” is constructed?
The distinct possibility of video presentation, as this blend of front and back stage impression management, also opens up a number of opportunities and challenges for digital research. The analysis of how someone curates this visual self represents a form of digital ethnography, and as Devin Proctor reminds us, “in digital ethnography, platform is key. And if you are engaging with multiple platforms, the differences between them become even more important, because they allow particular ways of interaction that can influence (or be subverted by) interpersonal behaviors” (Proctor 2020). In its own way, video conferencing involves multiple social platforms, because it involves how the individual perceives themselves, and how others interpret what they see. The degree of agency any individual has over their presented self is limited by what they can control—background and props are ultimately manageable. Additionally, there are questions about the active curation of one’s virtual self in videoconferences (e.g. the ability to use photos as backgrounds), and the removal of agency (such as in Zoom bombing). The degree to which one chooses to manage or control the image, though, speaks to the efficacy of the authentic window created for the world to see. And when front stage and back stage collide, the interaction may be more telling than what an individual might present in person.
Steven Dashiell, PhD is an adjunct professor in the Department of Sociology at Towson University in Maryland and a recent graduate of the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC) with a PhD in Language, Literacy, and Culture. His dissertation research investigates masculinity constructs and the cultural identity of male students who were in the military. His research interests involve the sociology of masculine subcultures, popular culture, narrative analysis, and linguistic anthropology. He has presented his work at several conferences, including the Popular Culture Association, the American Men’s Studies Association conference, Eastern Sociological Society meeting, and the American Sociological Association. Beyond the military, Steven has done research on Bronies, tabletop role players, and fathers. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Header Image from Pixabay.
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