The Mirror in the Backstage

by Laewoo(Leo) Kang, Dan Cosley, March 2012

“The Mirror in the Backstage” is an interactive mirror in which a user can explore the relationship between his/her private identity and public presentation of it in social media by observing his/her digital traces. Based on Goffman’s Dramaturgical Theory, people selectively present themselves in the different social context, and their identities may be negotiated in a different way depending on whether they are with (front stage) or without audiences(back stage). In this project, we conceptualize the online social media as a front stage where people intentionally produce digital traces to present themselves in certain ways. The mirror is used as a metaphor to stimulate people’s reflection on the backstage. The system extracts a user’s Twitter messages written in first-person format. These messages are converted into the second-person format, and are randomly displayed in a two-way mirror with time stamps. When interacting with the device, the user could both see his or her Twitter messages and their face
interchangeably. By reflecting both a user’s face and digital content created by the user, the goal is to highlight the experience of mixed stages where people might reflect on their identity.

One’s identity cannot be easily defined, since it might manifest in different ways according to different social contexts. Erving Goffman argues in his book, people put on different “faces” when they are engaged in different social interactions, by which their identities are continuously reconstructed. In the era of digital media, his idea becomes more interesting to be examined because the virtual platform of online media flattens many types of audiences into one. Moreover, social media provide great freedom for users to present themselves in an ideal way. Users can easily change their masks and the physical layout of the stage such as ‘setting’, ‘appearance’ and ‘manner’, as Goffman suggests.
Goffman further classifies two regions, the front stage and the backstage, where people negotiate their identities. In the front stage, we protagonists are a role or script in order to meet the audiences’ expectation. In order to have a successful performance, people express their identity by selectively choosing appropriate words, appearance, manners and so forth. The backstage, relative to the front stage, is where only the performer exists, without the audience. Since performers know they are not being watched by audiences in this less public space, they feel a less pressing need for performing and are expected to express their identities in different ways. Back stage is where performances could take off their “faces” and abandon their “lines” to reflect on themselves. Goffman also argues that individual identity is not stable, but continuously re-defined by multiple roles that he/she plays. Therefore, true identity might exist in the place where diverse identities projected in different stages are intertwined and influenced by each other.

Motivated by the desire to explore one’s true self though self-reflection practice, in the current project we created a mirror-type device that displays both a user’s digital trace in online social media and the physical reflection of their face. Following Goffman, we conceptualize online social media as a front stage and the place where a user could interact with the device as a backstage. A mirror is utilized as a mediator to create a place where people could go back and forth between the front and back stages to explore the relationships between them and to reflect on their identity.