About     Social Interaction Design     Writings     SxD Blog

Social Media Research
Communication technology and theory: Research into the interpersonal and social interface

Summary: The symbolic interactionism of Erving Goffman provided a powerful and illuminating encyclopedia of what "happens" during face to face social encounters. He was particularly insightful in his analysis of the handling requirements of social occasions, most of which he described as various forms of talk. What then does online talk look like? How does it refer to face to face talk? How does it reshape it? What is left outside the frame of talk, and how well does talk function when embodied interaction is impossible?

Framing interactions, or "where are you?"

Interactionists use the term "framing" to describe the contextual boundaries of a social encounter. The frame forms a beginning and ending to the interaction, in between which we can scale our intensity, speed, interest level, and so on as long as we still know what is "going on." That's the key phrase: what's going on. Without having to define it, we have to be able to recognize it. The framework must provide recognizable context. And that's one of the reason that framing is as mushy a concept and principle as it sounds. You may not be able to characterize the framework that makes a casino what it is (the money, the buffets, the desert, the lights, the day, the night, the girls?), but you know it when you're in it. Just as you know when you're in trouble, and you know when you're in for a promotion.

The idea of a frame is critical to the idea of interaction as performance, because for us to participate in a social encounter we have to know what is going on. And when we interact, we interact not only with one another, but with the social framework itself. Context informs our action, behavior, and understanding. How a technology interfaces with, renders, distorts, or conceals this social framework is important not only to how well we can proceed with communication, but also to what extent our participation reproduces the social framework. If communication technologies strip desks out of the classroom, and democratize learning, do they also undermine the relationship between education and social conditioning? If chatrooms are free of moderators, let alone disciplinarians, what context is there to keep people's language in check? The issue with framing, then, is how do virtual communication technologies and experiences serve to reproduce the normative and social basis of society, if that basis hangs on the richness of communication. And how does the lack of context (framing) impact our ability to successfully interact through communication technologies?

Back to: Communication technology and theory: Research into the interpersonal and social interface