Digital facework and the digital interaction order

8 minutes to read
Ico Maly

‘Interaction’, argued Goffman (Goffman, 1983: 2), ‘can be identified as that which transpires in social situations, that is environments in which two or more individuals are physically in one another’s presence.’ Between brackets, he added that ‘presumably the telephone and the mails provide reduced versions of the primordial real thing’. Interaction was a label that Goffman predominantly reserved for 'face-to-face interaction'. In his own work, he excluded mediated communication on the basis of practical but not theoretical reasons (Moore, 2019). He did stress that both types of interaction are of a different order: ‘a telephone talk must first be seen as a departure from the norm, else its structure and significance will be lost’ (Goffman, 1964: 136). Ergo, he considered mediated interaction to be interaction that deserved scrutiny in relation to non-mediated interaction.

Goffman’s insights in interaction are still very relevant but only if we update his work with digital interaction in mind. That’s exactly the objective of this article. In what follows, I build further on key notions of Goffman’s work – facework, the social situation, the interaction order – and update them to make sense of digital interaction. First, I introduce the notion of digital face work and the digital interaction order to highlight how people  use digital media to construct and maintain face in relation to the socio-technical characteristics of digital media. Digital facework, I argue, is a socio-technical assemblage and should be analysed as such. Digital platforms are not just spaces that afford interaction, they are also (algorithmic) actors that co-construct the facework of their users and have agency in co-determining who is part of the interaction and thus who can assign meaning to the interaction and one’s face. To understand digital facework we need to understand:

  1. how digital platforms afford and direct interaction (Georgakopoulou, 2020), 
  2. how platforms shape the social situation,
  3. how users interact in relation to the specific characteristics of online mediated interaction (such as SpaceTime compression (Thompson, 2020), modes of communication, many-to-many communication, and the algorithmic logic of digital media), 
  4. the techno-economic context of those platforms and how it influences platform cultures and digital interaction.

Digital facework and the social situation 

Digital media are part of what Goffman (1967: 35) called the social situation of interaction. The social situation not only encompasses the direct occasion – a meeting or a chat with friends – and its associated sociocultural conventions but also the physical setting in which the speakers perform. According to Goffman, all should be studied to understand the meaning of interaction as they all potentially give direction to it. Goffman stressed the complexity of that social situation, and warned against bypassing it (Goffman, 1964) by focusing only on specific parts of the speech or the social situation. In the end, those seemingly unimportant details, can be of major importance in the construction of meaning (Blommaert, Spotti & Van der Aa, 2017: 351). It is in the coming together of actors in a specific social situation that certain formats and (moral) scripts enter the picture. Platforms are part of the social situation of digital interaction. Not only do they afford interaction, they are also actors in the interaction. They breed specific platform cultures that give birth to specific interactive practices (Maly, 2023b; Maly & Beekmans, in review). 

Digital platforms co-construct the digital interaction order through their affordances, interfaces, community guidelines, moderation practices and overall algorithmic organization 

One of the discursive effects of the platform organization is the rise of so-called small stories that narrate ‘trivial events from the teller’s everyday life, rather than big complications or disruptions’ (Georgakopoulou, 2021: 2). In the work of Georgakopoulou, small stories are used ‘as an umbrella term that captures a gamut of underrepresented narrative activities such as tellings of ongoing events, future or hypothetical evens and shared (known) events but I also captures allusions to (previous tellings, deferrals of tellings, and refusals to tell)’ (Bamberg & Georgakopoulou, 2008). Even though platforms are used to communicate ‘trivial events’, they are meaningful as they are instruments of identity communication. Such ‘small stories’, she argues in later work, are programmed and amplified by social media. She identifies three phases in the development of small stories within digital platforms:

  1. In the first phase platforms encouraged people to share the moment now.
  2. In the second phase it seduced people to show the moment in terms of sharing ‘selfies’.
  3. In the last phase the sharing of stories programmed as ‘distinct features, integrated into their architecture and named as such’ (Georgakopoulou, 2021: 2).

The small stories-format, is in a post-digital era, clearly steered by platforms. On a daily basis platforms ask us to share ‘what’s on our mind’ (Facebook) and encourage us to share ‘stories’ (TikTok, Instagram, Snapchat and now also YouTube and Facebook) from our daily lives. This digital format of interaction is visible in the narrative strategies dominant in influencer culture. Among other things, influencer culture normalized the sharing of intimate information to a large audience. Staged intimacy and authenticity (Gaden & Delia, 2014) has now come to be expected from YouTubers (Dekavalla, 2022; Raun, 2018): it has become part of what we can call with Goffman the digital interaction order. Note here, that this intimacy is staged, and thus performed and that influencers do not really give their followers insight in the back region, they suggest or perform that 'intimacy' and carefully stage 'back region' access.  

The digital interaction order

This digital interaction order shares a lot of characteristics with the face-to-face interaction order. Central are the rules and expectations that participants use in designing interaction. But there are also differences. The main difference is that the interactional rules and expectations online are not just informed by the social occasion, or the socio-cultural context but also by the socio-technical context.

The first, and maybe the most direct and obvious impact of digital media on interaction is found in the affordances of the platforms. Posting a written post on Facebook is different than a live reel on Instagram or a YouTube live stream with a live chat. And none of them are the same as meeting face-to-face. Users have the choice between chatting, live streaming, video calling or posting statuses and/or responding with memes. It is clear that depending on the medium and modes of their choice, users have a wide range of interaction possibilities. Users can choose to address a broad mass of people or only their close friend(s).

Contrary to offline situations, the platform rules and expectations are not only unconscious, tacit, taken for granted practices, but explicitly stated and enforced by platforms 

Communicating for 5000 friends on Facebook is clearly different than one-to-one interaction, but it is also different from what Goffman would call a platform event. Digital technologies format interaction in distinctive ways. They for example steer users to mainly communicate through images (Instagram), discourage to post links (Instagram) and favore short text (X, former Twitter), or afford to make duet video’s on TikTok. They contribute to the emergence of specific technological enabled orders of interaction. Digital media potentially limit and/or expand the scale of communication, potentially limit or expand the range of symbolic cues but also potentially limit/or expand what can be said, how it can be said, and who will interact with this message and who won’t. Even more, it is obvious that also the SpaceTime configuration of digital interaction is vastly different than non-mediated communication. 

Digital platforms co-construct the digital interaction order through their affordances, interfaces, community guidelines, moderation practices and overall algorithmic organization (Maly, 2022a). It is for instance algorithmic organization that determines what becomes visible (Bucher, 2018) and thus who will become part of the interaction and who will never hear about it. Platforms program sociality (van Dijck, 2013): they format and direct how and with whom we interact.

Digital interactional rules, expectations and normativities are at least partially informed by technical characteristics of platforms (affordances, algorithms, interfaces) and cultural interactions with those technicities in the form of media ideologies, algorithmic imaginaries (Bucher, 2015) and platform cultures (Maly, 2023). And contrary to offline situations, the platform rules and expectations are not only unconscious, tacit, taken for granted practices, they are in many ways explicitly stated and enforced by platforms through human and algorithmic moderation practices. Dating on Tinder, Bumble or the Right Stuff enables interaction, but is worlds apart from traditional offline dating: the platforms co-organize and steer interaction from specific normative positions (Maly & Beekmans, in review). 

Analyzing Digital Facework

Analyzing digital facework thus directs us towards a digital ethnographic approach – or a micro-analysis in Goffman's terms – where we focus on how users try to construct face in a digital interaction order. How people construct face online is not just their individual and authentic expression, but should be analyzed in relation to the socio-technical context. Analyzing digital face forces us to look at the construction of that face through discursive action in relation to media infrastructures and cultures. Digital facework thus invites researchers to analyze the poiesis-infrastructure nexus (Arnaut, Karrebaek, Spotti, & Blommaert, 2017: 13). The poiesis-infrastructures nexus focuses the attention of researchers on understanding human activity as creative social interaction embedded in infrastructures and allows to better grasp ‘how creative activity is both enabled and constrained by the conditions in which it takes place’ (Calhoun, Sennett & Shapira, 2013: 197). Digital facework thus necessitates the detailed attention for the small – the details of the actual interaction between users and their followers in a specific social occasion – and to connect it with the large: the socio-cultural and the socio-technical context, including how affordances and directives also shape this particular interaction ànd the larger digital culture . 


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