We Have Lost Control of the Backstage
Or worse, the backstage no longer exists.
I don’t know about you, but spending time with people outside of my immediate family is exhausting. I’ve been told that’s a symptom of introversion, which I understand, and it isn’t because I don’t like spending time with people. A significant part of me has very much missed spending time with close friends throughout our time of relative isolation and quarantine. This bizarre experience has been a reminder to me of both the importance of alone time and the side effects of too much alone time. But there are fewer more relaxing feelings than when the last friend has walked out the door after a long night of food and fun. Do you know what I mean? The release provided by the simple presence of no more than one’s immediate family after a long evening of hospitality is like the crisp air of a fall morning after a warm night’s sleep.
It’s like retreating to the green room after a night on stage.
In The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, Shoshana Zuboff shares a metaphor from mid-twentieth-century social psychologist Erving Goffman, which he wrote in his book The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. “Goffman,” Zuboff writes, “developed the idea of the ‘backstage’ as the region in which the self retreats from the performative demands of social life.”
We all need a backstage. We all need a place where we can relax, wipe the smiles off of our faces, and not worry about how we’re being perceived. I tend to think I’m a pretty genuine person. I don’t intentionally “perform” for anyone, ever…intentionally anyway. I tend to be pretty upfront and honest and real no matter who I’m with, which has been a benefit and a drawback at various times in my life. All of that is to say: I never think, “Oh our friends are coming over, I need to look nice/talk differently/perform for them in some way.” But when they leave I feel a sort of weight leave my shoulders—a sort of implicit sign that I may have been performing more than I realized or intended.
As Goffman puts it, the backstage is a place where we feel the freedom to be quietly left alone. He says, “The surest sign of backstage solidarity is to feel that it is a safe place to lapse into an asociable mood of sullen, silent irritability.”
In our present world, we have lost control of the backstage. Or worse, the backstage has evaporated entirely.
The Evaporation of the Backstage
Derek Thompson writes in his book Hit Makers that today’s teenagers are always in the hallway, meaning they can never leave the social pressures of their school hallways behind because social media is with them wherever they go.
The same goes for adults, the high school hallway analogy just doesn’t apply as much to life for an adult as it does a teenager. In the same way the high school student can never leave the hallway, it is becoming more and more difficult for the adult to achieve the crisp-air feeling of escaping the spotlight of performance than it has in the past.
There is always another tweet to be sent.
There is always another filter to be applied.
There is always another family member on whom to check.
There is always another potential mate to swipe.
There is always another portrait to double tap.
There is always another text demanding a response.
We never feel the release of that last friend leaving the evening party because in a world woven together by the tentacles of the social internet: the party never ends, and we can never let our hair down.
A Troubling Reversal
Once upon a time, the social internet was meant to be a virtual representation of who we were in our offline lives.
I fear this is not only no longer the case, but that we’ve become quite keen on the opposite being true.
I fear that many of us have begun to build our offline lives around the perception of our online personas.
The backstage has evaporated, which ought to leave us longing for the intimacy of authenticity. In reality, we have come to lust for the attention of the stage so much that we no longer care to spend any time backstage, in reality, with those closest to us.
We have come to fear the intimacy of the backstage in favor of the polish of the performance.
May God have mercy on us and open our eyes to how backward our thinking has become.