Who's Zoomin' Who?

October 20, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

It was one of those news stories that, to a sociologist, cries out, “Goffman, Goffman.” Jeffrey Toobin, the New Yorker magazine’s staff writer on legal matters, got caught with his pants down. On Zoom. The Times said he had “exposed himself,” which is not what Goffman means by “the presentation of self,” at least not most of the time. Vice (here) was more specific.

The New Yorker has suspended reporter Jeffrey Toobin for masturbating on a Zoom video chat between members of the New Yorker and WNYC radio last week. Toobin says he did not realize his video was on.

The Zoom meeting was an election simulation with New Yorker writers each playing the role of some person or group. At one point, the group split into two — Democrats and Repulicans — for strategy sessions in separate breakout rooms. 

At this point... it seemed like Toobin was on a second video call.... When the groups returned from their break out rooms, Toobin lowered the camera. The people on the call said they could see Toobin touching his penis. Toobin then left the call. Moments later, he called back in, seemingly unaware of what his colleagues had been able to see, and the simulation continued.

Mr. Toobin, meet Mr. Goffman:

The answer to this problem is for the performer to segregate his audiences so that the individuals who witness him n one of his roles will not be the individuals who witness him in another of his roles. . . . When audience segregation fails and an outsider happens to upon a performance that was not meant for him, difficult problems in impression management arise.” (Presentation of Self, p. 137, 139.)

Goffman, writing in 1956, was talking about face-to-face encounters, where the person aware of their own gaffe also knows who else in the room has seen it. Zoom allows for a temporarily blissful ignorance that is not possible in face-to-face interaction.

“I am quite sure that Toobin didn’t realize that the people on the New Yorker call could see him,” [New Yorker writer Masha] Gessen said in an interview. “I suspect he thought that when the breakout rooms started, he was disconnected and he didn’t realize we’d all returned to a live camera.” [NYT ]

And if he didn’t know, nobody was going to tell him. Tact, as Goffman notes, requires that we not call attention to something that might cause embarrassment to someone else.

By the standards of the wider society, perhaps only the discredited individual ought to feel ashamed; but, by the standards of the little social system maintained through the interaction, the discreditor is just as guilty as the person he discredits-sometimes more so, for, if he has been posing as a tactful man, in destroying another’s image he destroys his own. [“Embarrassment and Social Organization,” 1956.]

Goffman implies that this norm of tact applies mostly in the moment. Once the interaction is over and the particpants have moved on, that norm is much weaker. Someone might even blab to the press. So the Vice article, in keeping with the journalistic norm of more or less identifying its sources, says, “Two people who were on the call told VICE separately . . . “

Embarrassment, presentation of self, audience segregation, tact, and inattention — the Goffman lecture in a single news story.

By coincidence, the same day that this happened, Sacha Baron Cohen, appearing as Borat on the Jimmy Kimmel show, got Kimmel to take off his pants, though Kimmel then hid discreetly behind a couch. (Here, starting at about 11:00)

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