One theoretical tool that is frequently used to explore questions of new media and communication in particular is impressions management.  Impressions management is a term used in fields such as communications, sociology, and in public relations theory, and it is used in roughly the same way, just in slightly different contexts.

Impressions management refers to the overt and the unconscious strategies we, as social individuals, deploy to try and influence how others perceive us.  Impressions management can explain our clothes, our gestures, the ways we speak, the twitter username we choose, or the Facebook picture we pick for our profile.  In deciding on which outwards signs to convey, we try to imagine how others would decode and relate to those signs, and thus choose signs (whether it be hairstyle or a ‘selfie’ on Facebook) which would generate the positive or desired decoding.  By successfully managing impressions, an individual not only receives positive reaction from their peers or social group, and thus peer esteem, but it also allows for a consistent presentation of self – that is, an individual creates and maintains a consistent story of who “they” are – the story of “Kate the friend” or “Tama the student”.

When we deploy impression management strategies in our face-to-face social networks, we often do so unconsciously.  Your first thought when encountering idea of impressions management might have been ‘that’s very calculated’ or ‘I don’t do that,’ and it was only on second reflection that you realized that you do choose your clothes or make other decisions about yourself based on how others might see you.  We are so enculturated to manage our impressions that we stop realizing that we’re even doing it.  How many times did you hear when you were younger ‘stand up straight’ or ‘look nice’ or ‘behave, and make a good impression’?  We do it automatically as part of the rituals and processes of everyday life within our society.

One of the best places to tease out these processes of encoding impressions management strategies is to look at how you manage your online persona in places such as Facebook.  Online, where every communicative act is deliberate and the communication is stripped of non-verbal cues (and quite a few other cues besides), impressions management behaviours become foregrounded.  We are quite deliberate and calculating (even if we’re not explicit even to ourselves as to why we are deliberate and calculating) in selecting the impressions we put online.  A great example of this is your Facebook photo albums – reflect on when and why you might delete or ‘untag’ photos of yourself that you think don’t make you look “good”?  That is impressions management in action.

This idea of understanding identity through trying to imagine how others see ‘you’ is a common one across the symbolic interactionist school of thought.  Impressions management is closely linked with another concept known as the looking-glass self.

Discussion Questions

We can begin by investigating how we, as individuals, employ impressions management to present ourselves to the world. However, is this equally as applicable in understanding corporate, retail and other institutional presence in all forms of media?

More specifically, do such bodies employ similar strategies to individuals in their use of Facebook as an advertising/information tool? If not, identify the techniques they do employ.

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