What Designers Can Learn From Facebook’s Beacon: the collision of “fronts”

The blogosphere (and even the regular old newspaper-sphere) is alight with stories of Facebook’s online advertising flop, Beacon. What can designers learn from this flop? It’s not about privacy; it’s about the presentation of self. People have different “selves” for different places — virtual or otherwise — and designs must be consistent with these variety of selves.

Boing Boing’s Cory Doctorow posted an interesting story on InformationWeek that predicted the decline of Facebook because of its own success. He predicts that the more people that are one Facebook, the more confusing it is. Your “creepy coworkers,” your boss, and your friends you met at Burning Man are all in the same “place,” making it confusing, embarrassing and difficult for everyone.

What Doctorow is really describing is sociologist Erving Goffman’s notion of “the front.” Using the theatre as a metaphor Goffman argued that we actually “perform” multiple selves. Each place we go has a “front” that we learn to incorporate. A front has a wardrobe, a setting, a decor, make-up, a script and stage direction. We have a “front stage self” that we perform for everyone to see, a “back stage self” for only our closest intimates to see, and a “core self,” which is deeply private.

A doctor, for example, has a front that includes an office, a lab coat, a stethoscope and medical jargon. This is her “front stage” self. But when she’s talking to her best friend, she may use a “back stage self,” being less formal, not wearing a lab coat, or using less formal language. Her “core” self is secretly wishing she were a full-time marathoner, but she tells no one that.

Facebook’s Beacon didn’t work because it forces people to use multiple fronts AT THE SAME TIME. If I tag a recipe from Epicurious.com, but I broadcast that fact to friends that perceive me to be a party girl, I have a collision of fronts. If my boss demands to be my friend, I have a collision of fronts. If I rent The Notebook on Netflix, and my friends think I am a Goth, I have a collision of fronts.

Facebook’s Beacon forces its users to combine multiple selves. Goffman considers the collision of fronts to be a source of embarrassment or shame. Take, for example, the hilarious “Meeting in a Swimming Pool” gag on Just for Laughs. Swimmers have their swimming front (including a bathing suit, casual demeanour) and forced into a meeting, with its serious demeanour and fully clothed attendants. This is embarrassing.

Facebook has done the same thing by forcing its users to expose their selves to different fronts simultaneously. It is embarrassing, even shameful.

What Designers Can Learn From Facebook’s Beacon

  • Discover your users’ fronts: If you are designing a product or a virtual place, ask your potential users what they consider the character of this “place” to be. Is is a formal place? Is it a casual atmosphere? What kinds of “props” are expected here? What would be an embarrassing topic of conversation or incident?
  • Design using the theatre metaphor: Make the product consistent with that place, as if you were writing a play. Ensure that what you design is part of a script that users understand or expect.
  • Pay attention to embarrassment: If your users mention shame or embarrassment in any way, gently press them about it. Discover the character of the “collision of fronts” that is the source of that embarrassment, and, above all, avoid forcing users to feel embarrassment.

Update: The New York Times is reporting that Facebook’s lawyers have not succeeded in having documents about its founder Zuckerman removed from an online magazine. These documents are “embarrassing.”

Update (12/19/07): Mashable is reporting that FB is now allowing people to “group” their friends, but they haven’t quite mastered the collision of fronts problem.

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17 responses to “What Designers Can Learn From Facebook’s Beacon: the collision of “fronts”

  1. I feel a little embarrassed that I don’t have anything to add to this other then my praise for how great this post is.

  2. Thanks for this.
    Bringing Goffman in is so great. It sheds light on so many things.
    Why do I feel comfortable with Linked in but not Facebook? Linked in is a clearly circumscribed social sphere – work in a market economy. (And maps well from the ‘physical world’ – my connections are like the business cards I used to collect, good examples of the conventionalised props you mention.)
    Facebook always seems too open, too exposed. And when I look at other’s spaces I get that slightly cringing feeling of looking in through someone’s brightly lit living room window as I pass in the dark.
    Very thought provoking.

  3. Christian Nelson

    The problem with Facebook and other such web technologies is that they prevent a critical social practice that Goffman called “audience segregation.” Goffman noted (in Presentation of Self) that we show different characters (constructed by differing fronts) in different contexts and to different people, but that we cannot be seen to do so (in the West, at least) because of the Western belief in a constant, core self. The only way to keep up this pretense is to show only one self to each audience, and keep those audiences apart so they cannot compare notes on our self. These practices were what Goffman meant to refer to by “audience segregation.” (Note that this means, despite what was written above, that Goffman did NOT believe in a core self. Further, if you read Goffman carefully, you’ll see that he mostly refers to the back region as a place where one ACTS as though one is relaxed, in order to make it clear that those in that space are part of one’s performance team in the adjacent frontstage region. This becomes clear when he notes that any back region can be redefined as a frontstage region later on, once someone in the back region leaves.)

  4. Quite right, Christian, quite right. I concur with your contention regarding the “core.” I am particularly interested in the contradictions between the front and the back, and though Goffman didn’t say so, the cognitive implications for this contradiction.

    What does it mean for one to ACT as if they are relaxed, but are not? Do they actually BECOME relaxed, after a fashion, because their brain tells them that’s what they are doing, even if they are not? This is a tangent obviously, but I would very much like to bridge Goffman’s theories with current work in cognitive science.

  5. Interesting posts. Goffman’s observations apply but I am not sure that one can simply use them to “design” something as fluid and eclectic as a social networking site. Sometimes this new forms of interaction actually redefine notions, at least in a segment of users. Perhaps some Facebook users have realized, and are comofortable, with leaving in constant collision of fronts? Maybe is that access to multiple “fronts” what makes some people addicted to Facebook?

    Regarding sladner’s comments, I think that it is very limiting to think about human interaction (at least in the way that Goffma approached it) as something that result from “brains telling people” what to do. There is a “being-in-the-moment” that is, I believe, more of a confluence of emotions, physical sensations, brain projections, and a situated, contingent, flow resulting from constantly monitoring and being influenced by own’s present environment. That being said, it is very interesting to thing of how that applies to “acting”. If “being-in-the-moment” is so powerfully situated… can we fake one state? Of course we can…we “project” all the time, that is one of Goffman’s realizations, and “projecting” is a unique characteristic of our social, public lives. But projecting only in some “breakdown” situations causes trouble… mostly interactional trouble.

  6. Pingback: As Facebook scales up, can it handle identity conflict? « DESIGN DIALOGUES

  7. A cogent and inspiring post Sam. I’ve added this blog to my watch list – Thanks for posting to the UXI list, I would have missed this. I got off my butt and posted my first entry in a week or more because this exchange hit the sweet spot. Here’s a bit of my response on http://designdialogues.net

    There’s no activity system in the Facebook ecology for me. There’s nothing for me to DO there. At least with LinkedIn (as Avi responding to Sam;s post also says) there’s a proscribed purpose, a well-defined kind of resume-exchanging business-oriented community. An activity theory perspective shows LinkedIn as a complete system: It mediates my interaction with many others toward business-oriented objectives, following a certain rule base, community values, and fits within an organizational schema of sorts.

    Facebook has no inherent activity system, and it has scaled beyond its ability to contain them effectively. It is now becoming an advertising ecology, so many may regret all the work they’ve done in creating elaborate personal profiles and networks, now for the benefit of targeting consumers.

    “Keeping up with classmates” was its original purpose, and then it grew. It seems to me more feature and tech-driven, making a cool testbed for new ideas. But ultimately a waste of time for someone like me to actually invest in and use with intention.

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  9. Pingback: The collision of fronts « Culture is a Conversation

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  11. Pingback: The Brand as A Self: Web Design as Impression Management « Design Research

  12. hey, this is great information have any more websites that i can go to for more great info? thanx

  13. Pingback: Border Crossing Stats » What Designers Can Learn From Facebook’s Beacon: the collision of …

  14. Is it such a bad thing to force people to rethink their identities? Why is it that we are embarrassed of who we are in the first place? I agree that we have different fronts, but not that we have different identities. These fronts are simply different facades of one identity, that is made of the combination of all of our different fronts.

    We can continue to have the strange culture where we let ourselves see only selective facades of a person, maybe believing somewhere in our naive minds that that is the only facade they have, and then judge them negatively for diversions from it. Or maybe we can learn to become more accepting of each other’s identities, and learn to appreciate the uniqueness that shines through more the more thorough a picture we have of someone.

    I would also hesitate to criticize Beacon so sharply. Making mistakes and stirring up controversy are necessities of creativity, disruptive technologies and creating progressive change. Beacon has called for a way distinguish between different online audiences within one central social networking platform. Admit it, another problem of these social networking tools is that there are so many of them, and if you want one to represent each of your different “selfs”, it could quickly become overwhelming. Now, you can use Facebook to create an identity, as well as control who sees which facades.

    Sorry, I had to play devil’s advocate…. hate one-sided arguments.

  15. It’s not that it’s a “bad” thing that we have different identities. This is not a condemnation of our comportment in everyday social life.

    What I’m saying is that it is NECESSARY for us to have different social selves, depending on the front, because otherwise we would be overwhelmed. And I’m also arguing that we need to do that in the virtual space as well as the face-to-face space.

    This is not about “judging” people. It is about examining how social life is organized. Berger and Luckman tell us that we have “typifications” or tried and true roles, that we understand and use in everyday life.

    We do this not because we think it’s “right” to treat someone at the drycleaner’s in a particular way, but because it is convenient. We could not possibly take the time every social moment to figure out, “How should I treat this person? Should I shake their hand? Should I kiss them?”

    Beacon does deserve to be criticized, but not for this reason. It is morally wrong to co-opt someone’s identity for market purposes. They did this not because they are “disrupting” anything — they are actually cementing market values. In fact, Beacon is REGRESSIVE.

  16. Pingback: Don’t think privacy, think identity « Design Research

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