Instagram culture and Goffman’s concepts of front stage and backstage behavior

There were several ideas in this week’s reading about the applicability of Goffman’s works to online identities that really stuck with me. When reading the paper, I found myself answering, early on, “of course his concepts can be applied! People constantly act when they are online.”

So why was I so eager to see the authors’ conclusion that people choose to highlight a certain part of their identity online, using what Goffman termed front stage behavior?

Concentrated and carefully curated content

Well, perhaps it’s because — though I didn’t grow up with Instagram — then I’ve certainly been on it for a long time.

To me, it seems that Instagram is the almost-too-perfect, the extreme, example of Goffman’s concepts of front stage and back stage behavior.

Instagram, like most social media platforms, allows us to pick and choose the facets of our lives we want people to see. However, I find that the crucial difference between Instagram and, for example, Facebook is that Instagram allows us to share content in a more concentrated form (think about a person’s profile with the ultra-short bio and their entire profile nicely laid out in a grid without any text for context).

In contrast to the image-centered focus of Instagram, Facebook is made to provide much more context for our content through status updates and a more diffused feed.

What I mean by a more diffused feed is that you often have to scroll through a sea of status updates and ads to find that one update you were looking for. Moreover, on Facebook, you aren’t entirely in control of your content in the sense that the updates and pictures you’re tagged in will occur amongst your own (carefully curated) updates. On Instagram, they’re nicely hidden in a different section — so you won’t have to worry about that ugly picture your friend shared of you popping up as one of the first things a person will see when checking out your profile.

Front stage behavior at its finest

My brief transgression into the nature of Instagram versus Facebook feeds serves to highlight what most of us already know: That Instagram can be the ultimate way of controlling how we present ourselves to others. Most importantly, it’s a brilliant way of emphasizing certain aspects of our identity through pictures accompanied by very little context (usually in the form of a cringe caption).

So, Goffman’s theory that people perform by projecting a certain image of themselves to others couldn’t be applied in a more literal way than most contemporary Instagram feeds. An Instagram profile can quite intuitively be understood as what Goffman terms front stage behavior and our “real life” (including the parts that are not so instagrammable) encompassing back stage behavior.

Instagram and #livingmybestlife

But while Instagram is largely dominated by people seemingly living their best lives, being happy, fit, and constantly sipping lattes in aesthetically pleasing surroundings, I find that there’s also more and more pushback against the perfection of Instagram.

In recent years, an increasing amount of ‘Instagram vs. Reality’ posts have shown up on social media and I rarely find a post with #livingmybestlife that isn’t sarcastic (at least in my circles).

I think we see it exemplified in the trend of having a ‘finsta’ some years back (though those are of course still to some extent showcasing front stage behavior) but also in the current popularity of influencers such as Rianne Meijer who makes fun of online trends and behaviors.

Is the front stage behavior on Instagram becoming less staged?

To some extent, I would say so. In the paper about the applicability of Goffman’s work to online identities, the authors concluded that people wanted to keep their online identity somewhat close to their offline one. Their observation was made in 2013 and, without having any evidence except my own experience, it seems even more so now.