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This article was written on 01 Apr 2003, and is filed under Miscellania.

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Erving Goffman on the Thoughtless Kind

Finally, consider that whatever else an announcer does, he must talk to listeners who are not there in the flesh. Because talk is learned, developed, and ordinarily practiced in connection with the visual and audible response of immediately present recipients, a radio announcer must inevitably talk as if responsive others were before his eyes and ears. (Television announcers are even more deeply committed to this condition than are radio announcers.) In brief, announcers must conjure up in their mind’s eye the notion of listeners, and act as though these phantoms were physically present to be addressed through gaze, body orientation, voice calibrated for distance, and the like. In a fundamental sense, then, broadcasting involves self-constructed talk projected under the demands, gaze, and responsiveness of listeners who aren’t there.

So announcers must not only watch the birdie; they must talk to it. Under these circumstances, it is understandable that they will often slip into a simulation of talking with it. Thus, after a suitable pause, an announcer can verbally respond to what he can assume is the response his prior statement evoked, his prior statement itself having been selected as one to which a particular response was only to be expected. Or, by switching voices, he himself can reply to his own statement and then respond to the reply, thereby shifting from monologue to the enactment of dialogue.

Erving Goffman, “Radio Talk”

The other half is that listeners, confronted with the one-sided conversation, will tend to imagine themselves in the dialogue and attribute to themselves responses which the broadcaster is assuming them to have had. When someone gets involved who doesn’t play by the rules, there is less offense than there is dissonance, since the script is broken:

BROWN: Well I hope that soldiers in the field aren’t looking at CNN but I think, it strikes me, Dr. Ellsberg, that we veered a little there. Let me try and re-frame the question. If the Iraqi political strategy is to use the anti-war movement to put pressure on the coalition to cease fire, don’t – whether that’s the case or not -

This is how I talk when I’m hitting someone up for something and I’m not sure if I’m going to get it. This is how a greenhorn activist speaks when they solicit donations. I wouldn’t mind hearing it more often.

(Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers to The New York Times in the days when they would print something like that. I wasn’t around then–was it better? Was it worse?)

My question is, what would Goffman’s model say about weblogs and the discourse on such? There’s plenty that’s been said about the absence of vocal and visual cues; that’s not as interesting as the extent to which the momentary (minutes/hours/days) absence of response allows the sort of construction Goffman discusses.

One theory: the vicious and petty squabbles (often in disguised form) that run rampant on newsgroups, blogs, chatrooms, comments boards–whatever–are partly an attempt to repossess and re-envisage the other person while they’re not present. I post a comment to you, you one-up me by shifting context, I try to pull back even further to the big picture, you accuse me of missing the point. The time dilation allows for a lot of little appropriations of authority without ever seating power firmly in one place.

Another theory: this authority granted to bloggers and even those who comment on their boards has generated such a diaspora of promulgated self- and other-images that they (a) blur together, or (b) cancel each other out. The average volume and heatedness of the discourse grows in an attempt to compensate for consequent insecurity.

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