More that sociologist Erving Goffman could tell us about social networking and Internet identity


posting some thoughts

a month ago about Erving Goffman's classic sociological text, The
Presentation of Self in Everyday Life
, I heard from a reader who
urged me to try out a deeper work of Goffman's, Frame
(Harper Colophon, 1974). This blog presents the thoughts
that came to mind as I made my way through that long and rambling

Let me start by shining a light on an odd phenomenon we've all
experienced online. Lots of people on mailing lists, forums, and
social networks react with great alarm when they witness heated
arguments. This reaction, in my opinion, stems from an ingrained
defense mechanism whose intensity verges on the physiological. We've
all learned, from our first forays to the playground as children, that
rough words easily escalate to blows. So we react to these words in
ways to protect ourselves and others.

Rationally, this defense mechanism wouldn't justify intervening in an
online argument. The people arguing could well be on separate
continents, and have close to zero chance of approaching each other
for battle before they cool down.

When asked why forum participants insert themselves between the
fighters--just as they would in a real-life brawl--they usually say,
"It's because I'm afraid of allowing a precedent to be set on this
forum; I might be attacked the same way." But this still begs the
question of what's wrong with an online argument. No forum member is
likely to be a victim of violence.

We can apply Goffman's frame analysis to explain the forum members'
distress. It's what he calls a keying: we automatically apply
the lessons of real-life experiences to artificial ones. Keying allows
us to invest artificial circumstances--plays, ceremonies, court
appearances, you name it--with added meaning.

Human beings instinctively apply keyings. When we see a movie
character enter a victim's home carrying a gun, we forget we're
watching a performance and feel some of the same tightness in our
chest that we would feel had it been ourselves someone was stalking.

Naturally, any person of normal mental capacity can recognize the
difference between reality and an artificial re-enactment. We suspend
disbelief when we watch a play, reacting emotionally to the actors as
if they were real people going about their lives, but we don't
intervene when one tries to run another through with a knife, as we
would (one hopes) in real life.

Why do some people jump eagerly into online disputes, while others
plead with them to hold back? This is because, I think, disputes are
framed by different participants in different ways. Yes, some people
attack others in the hope of driving them entirely off the list; their
words are truly aimed at crushing the other. But many people just see
a healthy exchange of views where others see acts of dangerous
aggression. Goffman even had a term for the urge to flee taken up by
some people when they find that actions go too far: flooding

I should meekly acknowledge here that I play Nice Guy when I post to
online forums: I respect other people for their positions, seek common
ground, etc. I recognize that forums lose members when hotheads are
free to roam and toss verbal bombs, but I think forums may also lose a
dimension by suppressing the hotheads, who often have valid points and
a drive to aid the cause. One could instead announce a policy that
those who wish to flame can do so, and those who wish to ignore them
are also free to do so.

How much of Goffman's sprawling 575-page text applies online? Many
framing devices that he explored in real life simply don't exist on
digital networks. For instance, forums rarely have beginnings and
endings, which are central to framing for Goffman. People just log in
and start posting, experiencing whatever has been happening in the

And as we've heard a million times, one can't use clothing, physical
appearance, facial expressions, and gestures to help evaluate online
text. Of course, we have graphics, audio, and video on the Internet
now as well, but they are often used for one-way consumption rather
than rapid interaction. A lot of online interaction is still carried
on in plain text. So authors toss in smileys such as :-) and other
emoticons. But these don't fill the expressiveness gap because they
must be explicitly included in text, and therefore just substitute for
things the author wanted to say in words. What helps makes
face-to-face interactions richer than text interactions is the
constant stream of unconscious vocal and physical signals that we
(often unconsciously) monitor.

So I imagine that, if Goffman returned to add coverage of the Internet
to Frame Analysis, it would form a very short appendix
(although he could be insufferably long-winded). Still, his analyses
of daily life and of performances bring up interesting points that
apply online.

The online forums are so new that we approach them differently from
real-life situations. We have fewer expectations with which to frame
our interactions. We know that we can't base our assumptions on
framing circumstances, such as when we strike up a conversation with
someone we've just met by commenting on the weather or on a dinner
speaker we both heard.

Instead, we frame our interactions explicitly, automatically providing
more context. For instance, when we respond to email, we quote the
original emails in our response (sometimes excessively).

And we judge everybody differently because we know that they choose
what they say carefully. We fully expect the distorted appearances
described in the Boston Globe article

My profile, myself
subtitled "Why must I and everyone else on Facebook be so insufferably
happy?" We wouldn't expect to hear about someone's drug problem or
intestinal upset or sexless marriage on Facebook, any more than we'd
expect to hear it when we're sitting with them on a crowded beach.

Goffman points out that the presence of witnesses is a frame in
itself, changing any interaction between two people. This definitely
carries over online where people do more and more posting to their
friend's Facebook Wall (a stream of updates visible to all their other
friends) instead of engaging in private chats.

But while explaining our loss of traditional frames, I shouldn't leave
the impression that nothing takes their place. The online medium has
powerful frames all its own. Thus, each forum is a self-contained
unit. In real-life we can break out of frames, such as when actors
leave the stage and mingle with audience members. This can't happen
within the rigidity of online technology.

It can be interesting to meet the same person on two different forums.
The sometimes subtle differences between forums affect their
presentation on each one. They may post the same message to different
forums, but that's often a poor practice that violates the frames on
one or more forums. So if they copy a posting, they usually precede it
with some framing text to make it appropriate for a particular forum.

Online forums also set up their own frames within themselves, and
these frames can be violated. Thus, a member may start a discussion
thread with the title "Site for new school," but it may quickly turn
into complaints about the mayor or arguments about noise in the
neighborhood. This breaks the frame, and people may go on for some
time posting all manner of comments under the "Site for new school"
heading until they are persuaded to start a new thread or take the
arguments elsewhere.

A frame, for Goffman, is an extremely broad concept (which I believe
weakens its value). Any assumption underlying an interaction can be
considered part of the frame. For instance, participants on forums
dedicated to social or technical interactions often ask whether it's
considered acceptable to post job listings or commercial offerings. In
other words, do forum participants impose a noncommercial mandate as
part of the frame?

A bit of history here can help newer Internet denizens understand
where this frame comes from. When the Internet began, everything was
run over wires owned by the federal government, the NSFNET Backbone
Network. All communication on the backbone was required to be
noncommercial, a regulation reinforced by the ivory-tower idealism of
many participants. Many years after private companies added new lines
and carried on their business over the Internet, some USENET forums
would react nastily to any posting with a hint of a commercial

Although tedious--despite the amusing anecdotes--my read of Frame
was useful because I realized how much of our lives is
lived in context (that is, framed), and how adrift we are when we are
deprived of those frames in today's online environments--cognitively
we know we are deprived, but we don't fully accept its implications.
Conversely, I think that human beings crave context, community, and
references. So the moment we go online, we start to recreate those
things. Whether we're on a simple mailing list or a rich 3D virtual
reality site, we need to explicitly recreate context, community, and
references. It's worth looking for the tools to do so, wherever we
land online.

Health gets personal in the cloud

Healthcare is one of the biggest industries in the world. The United States spends over 17% of its GDP on healthcare and the issue of the industry's future is being hotly debated in Congress. Whatever happens to other elements of health reform, health information technology will play a key role in moving us towards the goal of bending the cost curve and improving quality and clinical outcomes. A Personal Health Record (PHR) is one way that patients can have some control of their own health data, while providing an interoperable platform for sharing relevant clinical data between providers. Healthcare is changing rapidly and there are some important trends worth watching.

Healthcare in the near future will be quite different than it is today. Web enabled technology is already changing the way medicine is practiced. As the digital nation comes of age we will see new opportunities, and new challenges, bringing healthcare in America into the 21st century. Health consumers will come to expect they will have control over their own health data. Having secure, interoperable access to clinical data will allow patients to partner with their care providers in new ways incorporating Web 2.0 principles.

For example, Google announced at the Health 2.0 conference that they have entered into a partnership to provide telehealth services through their Google Health platform using MDLiveCare. With the integration of MDLiveCare technology, Google can provide a service that offers patients access to doctors from remote locations, via webcam or telephone, into its personal health record offering. This will be particularly valuable for those who are caring for their loved ones from far away. My family is scattered around the country and caring for our mother with advanced stage Alzheimer's was quite a challenge that would have benefited from this type of service.
Here is a screenshot of Google Health:

"Patients remember less than 25% of what they're told when they consult with a doctor,” said Bob Smoley, CEO, MDLiveCare, in the statement. "By directly synchronizing the information that's shared…we're able to provide patients with a convenient solution to review their physician or therapist encounters."

"We strongly believe that the patient has the right to control their own health data," said Product Manager of Google Health Roni Zeiger, MD a practicing Internist who also works in urgent care. "You can now request an online consultation with a physician. At the end of the visit the doctor documents the encounter and it is immediately sent to your Google Health account and you will have a complete record of the doctor's notes."

Also, Microsoft has introduced My Health Info as part of HealthVault. My Health Info is an interactive and customizable dashboard that allows people to view all their health information: Blood pressure, blood glucose, BMI, immunizations, allergies, lab results, medications, steps walked, health articles and more, in a single, organized, and convenient location. It connects with HealthVault so information updated in one product is automatically updated in the other. This service offers tools and widgets to upload, organize and monitor health information stored in their personal HealthVault accounts. The service also allows people to research medical concerns, read the latest health news, gain guidance from medical experts, learn about nutrition, and monitor conditions such as high blood pressure or diabetes.

This is the main screen for My Health Info: myhealthinfograb.JPG "As consumers are increasingly being asked to manage more of their health and wellness, they are looking for solutions that help them navigate an overwhelming amount of information, enabling them to take control of their personal health data," said David Cerino, General Manager of Consumer Health in Microsoft Health Solutions Group. Marguerite Yeo, Director of Product Marketing for Microsoft HealthVault told me about Online Care deployed by Hawaii Medical Service Association (HMSA) an independent licensee of the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association. Online Care, enhanced by Microsoft Healthvault, allows patients to see physicians immediately, through live consultations via Web or phone. By providing access to doctors anytime in the patient‘s home, health plans like HMSA have the opportunity to shift healthcare to less expensive care settings when appropriate.

Another company that is doing some interesting work in this area is Practice Fusion. Practice Fusion is a free, Web-based electronic health record service for physicians. They recently announced the launch of Patient Fusion, their new PHR, at Dreamforce 2009 in San Francisco,'s user and developer conference.

"The healthcare and life sciences community is a rapidly growing sector," said Clarence So, Senior Vice President of Strategy, "The platform allows companies like Practice Fusion to quickly innovate around a common objective for improving health." Through Patient Fusion, doctors grant patients instant access to their medical records, medications and immunization history. Updates to the patient's records are available in real-time in the cloud. Patients will also be able to schedule appointments, request prescription refills, email their physicians, and, most importantly, share their data with other providers at any time.

Here is a shot of the main Health Manager screen: Thumbnail image for myhealth_screenGrab.png

They also announced ChartShare, a feature which allows users to have real-time access to patient records in a familiar and interactive format. All authorized users can access records simultaneously. This enables care providers to share clinical data and allows real time collaboration and consultation.

"Practice Fusion continues to innovate in the healthcare market by offering a free Web-based PHR that is an extension of the practitioners' EHR. We're unlocking the physician EHR to give patients access and control over their own health data," said Ryan Howard, the CEO of Practice Fusion. He also told me, "The January release of Patient Fusion will allow the same ability that physicians now have using ChartShare for portability of data on the patient side."

Whether it is by using a platform like Microsoft HealthVault or Google Health, or a SaaS model EMR/PHR like Practice Fusion, the options for patients and providers to coordinate care using Web 2.0 technology is making great strides. We will increasingly see platforms that provide virtual visits with care providers, and greater use of the web for tasks like making appointments, medication and therapy reminders, and making payments. I look forward to the day when I can login for a consultation with my doctor as easily as I Skype with my friends around the world. The future of healthcare is here, and it is beginning to be distributed.

MyPorts Gives You Detailed Information on Open Ports [Downloads]

Windows only: We've talked about ways to portscan your computer before, but if you're looking for a simpler solution to secure your connection, free utility MyPorts shows you what open ports are being actively used and which may be unnecessary.

Generally, open ports can be pretty easily associated with a specific program or running process that is connecting to the internet, such as your browser, IM client, or mail client. When these programs close, so do the ports. However, if some ports are open and have no purpose at that moment, they can be a security risk. MyPorts helps you check whether there are any unnecessarily open ports that could be used by malicious users.

At startup, the program gives you a list of all open ports on your computer, along with detailed information about each port, such as its state, local and remote IP address, local and remote port number, and the application currently using it. Most are fairly straightforward—the port will say it is in use by iTunes, Thunderbird, or some other running application. Others are less obvious—they may be in use by Windows or some other background service, and if you're having problems (or are just suspicious about your security at that moment), you may want to do some research and find out which of these are actually necessary to have open.

Of course, this program is also useful if you're having trouble with certain programs connecting. If you have an especially slow BitTorrent connection, for example, you can always check what port you're using and look to see if it comes up in MyPorts (if it doesn't, it's probably because it's blocked by your firewall, and needs to be opened in your BitTorrent client or by some other means).

MyPorts is a free download, Windows only.

Google Latitude Adds Location History, Alerts You When Friends Are Nearby [Google Maps]

Google Latitude to find your nearby friends, you're in luck: Google updated Latitude with location history and alerts for when your friends are nearby. If you don't love your every step tracked—well, it's kind of creepy.

Clearly if you're someone concerned about your privacy, a service like Latitude (and its recent updates) may feel a bit strange. Just keep in mind that the extent to which Latitude tracks you is always in your hands. Moving onto the new features:

Location history is pretty straight forward. Enable it in Latitude and the app starts keeping track of where you've been as well as where you are. Location alerts, on the other hand, are a little more interesting.

After working on this for a while, we realized it wasn't as straightforward as sending a notification every time Latitude friends were near each other. Imagine that you're Latitude friends with your roommate or co-workers. It would get pretty annoying to get a text message every single time you walked in the door at home or pulled into work. To avoid this, we decided to make Location Alerts smarter by requiring that you also enable Location History. Using your past location history, Location Alerts can recognize your regular, routine locations and not create alerts when you're at places like home or work. Alerts will only be sent to you and any nearby friends when you're either at an unusual place or at a routine place at an unusual time.

Neat. Of course, the features are only as useful as their adoption, and considering iPhone users are stuck with a kind of lame webapp because Apple worried that Latitude would confuse users, so it probably hasn't been adopted as widely as might be necessary. Then again, if you've got an Android, BlackBerry, Symbian S60, or Windows Mobile phone, you can grab the proper app.



Google Dashboard Provides a Top-Down Look at Your Google Use [Google]

Ever wanted to take a step back and look at all the Google apps and data you're hooked into? Google's offering that top-down view with Google Dashboard, a central clearinghouse for app settings, privacy information, and use statistics.

The main value to the average user at the Dashboard, reachable at when signed into a Google account, is a peek at all the services you use, the data Google's acquired from you, and quick links to each app's settings. You also get direct links to your Google calendars, your most recent Gmail messages and Google Docs documents, and secondary settings, like changing your personal information in apps that use that data. Those with privacy concerns also get quick links to the policies of every app they're using.

Here's how Google explains their Dashboard in animated video form:

What features would you want to see added to a Google Dashboard? Personally, I'd like to see a single, secure place to suspend or recover passwords from certain accounts, assuming you could log in with stronger-than-normal verification.

Close All Windows from the Windows 7 Taskbar [Downloads]

Close All Windows is a simple application that forces all your open windows to quit immediately, and the Addictive Tips blog points out that you can also pin it to the Windows 7 taskbar for quick access.

All you really have to do is download the application, save it into a permanent location somewhere on your drive, and then pin it to the taskbar using a simple right-click -> Pin to Taskbar—just make sure that you don't double-click the application, or all your windows will immediately close. Unlike some of the other similar applications we've written about, this one has no interface, but it has a higher resolution icon that looks good pinned to the taskbar. If you are looking for a way to immediately close all your running applications, this could do the trick nicely.

Close All Windows is a free download, works on all versions of Windows, but will need to be pinned to the Quick Launch instead of the taskbar in XP or Vista.