This is the preprint version of
Lim, S. S. & Basnyat I. (2016). Face and online social networking. In S. S Lim & C. Soriano, (Eds.) Asian
Perspectives on Digital Culture: Emerging Phenomena, Enduring Concepts. London: Routledge.
The final version is published by Routledge and is available here
Face and online social networking
Sun Sun Lim, National University of Singapore
Iccha Basnyat, National University of Singapore
Face is a concept with considerable resonance in many Asian cultures. The Asian concept of
face broadly encompasses three dimensions: self-face, concern for one’s own image; other-
face, concern for another individual’s image; and mutual-face, concern for the images of both
parties and the image of their relationship. This paper transposes the concept of face onto the
growing use of online social networks. It argues that the dominant analytical threads for
studying online social networking would be enriched if expressions and practices of gaining,
saving, losing and giving face are incorporated. This paper first enunciates variances in the
notion of face, demonstrating how it is culturally nuanced and socially shaped. It further
argues that maintaining face on a highly public and visible medium such as online social
networks is an issue of growing salience, as more of us interact online with our multiple
Keywords: face, social networking sites, self-face, other-face, mutual-face
What is face?
The term “face” is commonly used in everyday parlance to refer to acts of deference,
for example, “I gave face to her on account of her experience.” And face is also often used to
describe efforts to maintain one’s pride and dignity, for example, “to save face, I agreed on a
compromise.” Face is therefore both a means and an end, where one gives face to another
person to attain something, but one also strives to maintain face in order to sustain one’s
position within one’s social circle. Face therefore bears a distinct personal dimension, but is
also vested with a palpable social dimension.
Even as “face” seems to be a commonsensical notion that people instinctively
understand, practise and articulate in daily social interactions, it is fundamentally steeped in
cultural norms and social customs. Indeed, it is expressed, interpreted and experienced
through a plethora of complex verbal and non-verbal codes, even (and perhaps especially) in
the online realm. This chapter explores how face can be applied to our understanding of
interpersonal interactions via social networking sites such as Twitter, Facebook and
Instagram. Although much of self-presentation research has been on Facebook, we extend our
argument to other social networking sites (SNS) that share similar dynamics of social
interaction and publicness. We will first discuss the origins of the concept of face, and probe
into whether it is an Asian or a universal phenomenon, while also reviewing the variety of
Asian conceptions of face. It then canvasses previous research on online social networks to
consider how ‘face’ has and has not been utilised as a lens for understanding such
interactions. It then ruminates on the utility of ‘face’ as a construct for interpreting and
assessing online social network interactions compared to other typical analytical fames.
Face – Asian or universal?
The concept of face is commonly attributed to the Chinese but its origins can be
traced to many cultural and philosophical traditions within Asia. Analogues of the term face
can be found in many different Asian societies – mian/lian (China), izzat (India/Pakistan),
taimen/mentsu (Japan), Chemyon (Korea), Nâa (Thailand) and mặt (Vietnam).
The Chinese notion of face can be discussed as Mianzi (mien-tzu) and Lian (lien)
(Liang & Walker, 2011). Mianzi refers to a person’s honor and standing within his/her social
circle, or the social perception of the person’s prestige. Mianzi thus represents a positive
social value that one successfully earns from others in and through specific social interaction
(Lin, 2011), essentially the reputation or prestige that a person attains through personal effort
and/or being supported by the encompassing society (Hu, 2004 in Liang & Walker, 2011).
On the other hand, Lian represents a person’s social morality achieved by behaving properly,
in accordance with social norms and standards (Hu, 2004 in Liang & Walker, 2011). It refers
primarily to a person’s integrity and moral character and is usually expressed in its negative
form bu yao lian (i.e. shameless) when seeking to condemn immoral behaviour (Liang &
Walker, 2011). While Mianzi is viewed through the positive lens of gaining face, Lian tends
to be used in the context of loss of face. However, the two terms are often used
interchangeably in the real world (Gao, 1998 in Liang & Walker, 2011). A related term is
guanxi, the Chinese term for one’s personalized networks among whom one seeks to
maintain face. The Chinese emphasize individuals' social capital within their group of
friends, relatives and close associates (Huang & Wang, 2011). Therefore, guanxi refers to the
web of social connections between people that lubricates and even cements relationships.
Consequently, Mianzi is integral to one’s position in a guanxi network because it is difficult
to achieve effective guanxi without Mianzi (Huang & Wang, 2011). The Chinese notion of
face thus encompasses: gaining face, maintaining face, saving face and losing face. The fact
that face can be gained or lost in the Chinese conception is worthy of note.
The Japanese conception of face, Mentsu, is understood to mean a person’s honour as
derived from the external judgments of others, and adjustments to others so as to maintain
harmonious relationships within one’s social network (Boiger, Güngör, Karasawa &
Mesquita, 2014). Indeed, harmony is the foremost priority. Relatedly, “social identity” is then
the principal motivation in interpersonal dealings, taking precedence over individual wants.
Matsumoto (1988) explains that the “[a]cknowledgement and maintenance of the relative
position of others, rather than preservation of an individual’s proper territory, governs all
social interaction” (p. 405). So when Japanese people strive to be courteous, they must be
cognizant of their position within the social group, and must openly articulate their reliance
on other people. The distinctions between the positions and roles of interacting parties are
used to reflect hierarchical interdependence. Individuals must be acutely aware of their social
standing, especially in superior-subordinate relationships (Haugh & Watanabe, 2009). This
pronounced performative dimension of Mentsu serves to therefore underline individual status
and highlight interdependent relationships, all in the pursuit of harmony. Notably too, the
negative aspects of face, i.e. face-threatening behaviour that leads another person to lose face
due to individuals’ natural desire to be free from impositions (Brown & Levinson, 1978;
1987), are less pronounced in the Japanese conception. Hierarchical interdependence is thus a
common thread that runs through Chinese and Japanese concepts of face, and both are
orientated toward an ideal social identity (Pham, 2014).
Whereas the Chinese and Japanese notions of face greatly privilege the social
dimension, the personal aspect is also highlighted in Chemyon, the Korean equivalent.
Chemyon guides how someone in a social position or status should behave so that one’s
character is positively demonstrated. Not unlike the Chinese Mianzi and the Japanese Mentzu,
social Chemyon refers to the social representation of self (Yang, 2014). It is closely related to
hierarchical status which reinforces Chemyon-related behaviors (Yang, 2014) and therefore
fulfils an important role in maintaining good social relationships (Kim & Yang, 2010), where
saving one’s and others’ face is crucial in gaining others’ approval/acceptance (Kim & Yang,
2010). Therefore, social Chemyon places value on external evaluation, and people with high
social Chemyon feel pressured to meet the expectations of others in order not to lose
Chemyon (Jung 2011 in Yang, 2014). Social Chemyon is thus concerned with other’s
evaluation while personal Chemyon is related to self-evaluation and individual autonomy
(Lim & Choi, 1996, cited in Yang, 2014).
Face in the Thai conception, Nâa, is considered the “representation of ego” and the
underlying rule of all Thai interaction is preserving one another’s ego or face (Ukosakul,
2003; 2005). The importance of face in Thai society cannot be underestimated considering
that no less than 180 idioms are based on the Thai word Nâa (Ukosakul, 2003). Nâa centres
around ego, self-identity, dignity, and pride (Ukosakul, 2003). Essentially, it involves both
the self and the other in gaining face, as well as not making others lose face, and is therefore
intimately linked to honour and shame (Ukosakul, 2009). Preserving one’s honor or self-
esteem, as well as recognizing one’s status in society implies maintaining one another’s
“face” (Ukosakul, 2005). In other words, the notion of face relates to giving face to others,
through which one also maintains face. One’s face thus exists in relation to not making others
lose face, and in turn saving one’s own face. This ego-orientation underlies other cultural
values such as “face saving,” where if one gains face, dâj nâa, more honour is earned,
thereby engendering feelings of social acceptance. In contrast, losing face si˘a nâa resulting
in the loss of one’s honour, causes embarrassment (Ukosakul, 2003).
Similarly, the Vietnamese concept of face is made up of social roles and role-driven
characteristics such that it revolves around individuals’ desire to be approved of, and
appreciated by, other people (Pham, 2014). Mặt (from Mianzi), and thể diện (from Lian) are
the two equivalent concepts of face in Vietnam and has variations such as “mất mặt and mất
thể diện (face loss); vắng/mất mặt - being absent (literally: absent face), vác mặt/mò mặt -
showing/turning up (literally: bringing face), cách mặt - being out of sight (literally:
separating face),từ mặt - giving up associating with (literally: abandoning face), and tránh
mặt - avoiding meeting someone (literally: avoiding face)”(Pham, 2014, p. 225). The
Vietnamese conception of face bears close resemblance to the Chinese understanding of
Mianzi and Lian, but extends it further into many idioms of face similar to those of the Thai
conception. However, the Vietnamese concept of face is a person’s image in social
evaluations and seems to have a more salient negative quality, being attached to a sense of
shame, i.e. the loss of face (Pham, 2014).
Although most of the discussion around face is orientated around East Asia, a loosely
related term Izzat is found in South Asia. Izzat refers to respect, honour, reputation, or
prestige which guides social relationships through a set of societal and personal conduct rules
in order to protect the family honor and one’s position within the community (Baig, Ting-
Toomey & Dorje, 2014). Izzat is described as a learnt set of rules to adhere to in order to
protect the family honour and sustain his/her position in the community (Gilbert, Gilbert, &
Sanghera, 2004). Izzat is derived from the Arabic noun izzah, meaning glory, and upholding
izzat is a driving motivation for vast numbers of people who believe in it, including Hindus,
Muslims, and Sikhs (Baig et al., 2014). Izzat is therefore a shared notion in the Indian sub-
continent and in Pakistan (Gilbert et al., 2004). To lose honour by the actions of another or to
bring dishonor (i.e.be-zzat) is to be externally shamed (i.e. sharam - bringing shame upon
oneself or one’s family) and consequently to lose status in the eyes of others (Gilbert et al.,
2004). Avoidance of shame and loss of honor to one’s family is about conserving face vis-à-
vis others. Izzat then is maintaining the face of one’s family according to personal and social
rules, thereby gaining and preserving the family’s honour within the community. The
individual’s obligation to shoring up the family’s standing, and the family as the key unit by
which an individual interacts with broader society and from which an individual derives
personal status, are the distinctive aspects of this particular instantiation of face.
As the preceding discussion shows, the concept of face has considerable currency in
Asia and is deeply rooted in many societies. While each of these aforementioned iterations of
face bears particular cultural specificities, nuances and inflections, commonalities can clearly
be discerned that point to an “Asian” conception of face. Public judgment is a necessary
condition across the understanding of face in different Asian cultures because face exists in
relation to social relationships. Indeed, face in the Asian conception has pronounced personal
and social dimensions. Society is not meant to be atomised nor individualistic, and the mutual
interdependence of its members serves as its bedrock. Members must be conscious of their
relative social standing, recognize their reliance on others, and behave in accordance with
shared norms. In doing so, members earn for themselves pride and dignity, as well honor for
the family. Face management is the manifestation of these principles, as well as the
mechanism by which such social order is maintained, influencing both individual and group
activities in these societies.
Broadly therefore, the Asian concept of face is observed to encompass three
dimensions: self-face, or the concern for one’s own image; other-face, or the concern for
another individual’s image; and mutual-face, or concern for the images of both parties and
the image of their relationship (Ting-Toomey & Oetzel, 2002). In self-face, a person gains
face by attaining status that is conferred by one’s social group or by earning the status
through competition and individual effort (Ho, 1976). Individuals who lose face acquire a bad
reputation, loss of respect or prestige and suffer embarrassment or humiliation among the
peer group (Ting-Toomey & Oetzel, 2002). Loss of face also occurs when people expect
group members to respond to them or their requests in particular ways, but do not find these
expectations realized (Ho, 1976). In concerns about other-face, the impetus to uphold other
people’s image motivates individuals to give face to others by displaying affirmation and
acquiescent behavior. Mutual-face is attained in reciprocal relationships where interested
parties collectively give face to one another, such that every member of the social group is
subjected to mutual restrictions and possibly coercion. Instantiations of face in different
Asian cultures accord with these broad conceptions of self-face, other-face and mutual-face.
Despite its Asian origins, the concept of face has also influenced Western
understandings of interpersonal communication and social interaction, although scholars have
sought to identify the distinctions between Asian and Western conceptions of face. The point
of departure for much extant research on Western notions of face has been Goffman’s (1972)
work on ritual elements in social interaction, where face is a positive social value framed in
largely prosocial terms: “Face is an image of self delineated in terms of approved social
attributes – albeit an image that others may share, as when a person makes a good showing
for his profession or region by making a good showing for himself.” (p. 5). Notably, Goffman
acknowledged that his treatise on face was inspired by that of the Chinese. Building on
Goffman’s work, Brown and Levinson (1978) developed a model of politeness that hinged on
face: “face is something that is emotionally invested, and that can be lost, maintained, or
enhanced, and must be constantly attended to in interaction” (p.61).
Face has therefore extended beyond its Asian origins to inform and influence
understandings of interpersonal interactions. However, the universality of face is not a given
considering how cultural norms and contexts determine the specific ways in which face is
asserted, practised, experienced, and upheld. Ho (1976) acknowledged that “the
conceptualization of what constitutes face and the rules governing face behaviour vary
considerably across cultures,” but nevertheless argues that “the concern for face is invariant.
Defined at a high level of generality, the concept of face is (a) universal” (p. 882). Similarly,
Ting-Toomey (1994) asserts that face has dimensions that are both “cultural-universal” and
“cultural-specific,” and attributed the principal differences between Asian and Western
societies’ conceptions and practices of face to the collectivism characterizing the former, and
the individualism marking the latter (Ting-Toomey et al, 1991). In individualistic Western
cultures therefore, individual behavior is regulated by an in-built sense of self but in contrast,
the behavior of people in collectivistic Asian cultures is influenced by a sense of self as
perceived by others. As earlier mentioned, a central trope across the different Asian
conceptions of face is “social face” that reflects this stronger relational dimension of self than
in the Western conception.
Another distinct characteristic of face management in most Asian societies is the
importance of maintaining prevailing role relationships and sustaining interpersonal harmony
(Gao, Ting-Toomey & Gudykunst, 1996), where face is not just the means but the veritable
purpose of social interaction (Qi, 2011). For example, facework in Chinese culture involves
observing status differences between individuals in a group, managing conflicts in a non-
confrontational manner (through the use of intermediaries if necessary), and opting for
compliant and non-assertive communication. One other distinction between the Western
notion of face and the Asian conception is a broader definition of socially acceptable
behavior. Whereas Goffman stressed that face management behavior had to be positively and
socially approved, Qi (2011) argues that as long as actions are socially shared or approved for
one instance in a particular social situation by a specific social group, face is gained, even if
those actions violate wider societal norms. Despite these distinctions however, there is
sufficient evidence from research in Asian and Western settings to suggest that “the
presentation of self vis-à-vis others is a basic problem that no one, in any society, can avoid”
(Ho 1976, p. 881).
Face management in online social networking
Indeed, with the emergence of online social networks, individuals have unprecedented
opportunities for self-presentation and by implication, face management. Online social
networks with an international reach such as Facebook, Google+, Instagram, LinkedIn and
Twitter, as well as regional favorites such as Weibo (China), Mixi (Japan), Me2Day and
KakaoStory (Korea), and LINE (Thailand), have opened up new realms for people to
maintain their relationships with friends and acquaintances. With their unique architectural
characteristics, these online social networks facilitate social connections that can be deep yet
expansive, allowing for close interactions with significant others, while facilitating superficial
contact with a web of weak ties. Prior research on the motivations and gratifications of
individuals’ use of online social networks have not explicitly referenced face as understood in
the Asian context. Yet these studies have been dominated by two salient analytical threads
that are analogous to the concept of face – self-presentation and impression management.
While these two terms are often used interchangeably in extant literature, we would like to
draw a finer distinction between them. We consider self-presentation as discrete everyday
acts that individuals use to create and present themselves to others in their social networks;
and impression management as a more sustained, long term endeavour of shaping and
maintaining a certain public image and reputation. In other words, impression management is
what one hopes to achieve in the long term through discrete short-term acts of self-
presentation. For instance, acts of self-presentation involve an active usage of social
networking sites through acts that require liking, sharing, tweeting, re-tweeting, posting,
commenting, and uploading to create and maintain a certain impression of oneself within a
social network. We will proceed to review how these two terms have been used in previous
research on online social networking before considering how their application and analysis
are complicated, and perhaps enhanced by the concept of face.
Individuals engage in self-presentation to make others accept the images they claim
for themselves (Goffman, 1959 in Rui & Stefanone, 2013). Self-presentation thus refers to
social situations where individuals attempt to control images of, or information about
themselves, or that are self-related (Schlenker, 1980 in Stritzke, Nguyen & Durkin, 2004).
With the advent of online social networks, self-images and identities are no longer private but
become social and visible. These online identities are self-generated and self-curated within a
particular social network in a bid to make others to accept the self-image. In some ways, the
mediated online environment makes it easier for individuals to do so more comfortably and
confidently. For instance, Stritzke, Nguyen, and Durkin (2004) found that for shy individuals,
the online environment results in lower levels of rejection sensitivity, a greater interest in
initiating relationships and ease of self-disclosure. Online social networking sites offer
powerful tools for self-presentation such as customizing pages, updating one’s status, writing
comments, sharing images, disclosing selected personal details and so on (Hogan, 2010; Rui
& Stefanone, 2013). All these acts serve as a way to present the self, even an idealized self, to
one’s online social network. In such a setting, self-presentations can be carefully constructed
and managed (Utz, 2010). Rosenberg and Egbert (2011) note that before engaging in self-
presentation tactics, individuals first have to establish what their desired impression is. This
desired impression can then be created and managed through strategized self-presentation.
Self-presentation thus comprises online practices of creating, controlling, and managing
online identities to maintain the long term desired impression in the online social network.
And what about the audience to whom such efforts at self-presentation are directed?
Invariably, people do make social judgments about one another in an online social network
based on each individual’s self-presentation (Tong, Van Der Heide, Langwell & Walther,
2008). For instance, Hall, Pennington, and Lueders (2013) found that those without personal
photographs were judged by strangers to be less agreeable, and those with attractive
photographs as more agreeable. In fact, Bakhsi, Shamma, and Gilbert (2014) found that on
Instagram profiles with faces were 38% more likely to receive likes and 32% more likely to
receive comments. Face, here is represented by one’s personal photograph that is in turn
judged by both friends and strangers. Similarly, Utz (2010) found that on Facebook, users’
profiles, profile pictures of friends and even the number of friends one has, jointly influence
the impressions that others have of them. Self-presentation thus relies on the approval of the
presented self by those in the online social network, which in turn helps to manage
impressions. One’s social network is therefore no longer confined to personal relationships
but also includes what Marwick and boyd (2011) call “imagined audience”. Although the
authors discuss the imagined audience in the context of Twitter where one does not know
much about the audience, boyd (2007) notes that participants take cues from the social media
environment to imagine and construct the community in order to present themselves
appropriately. Furthermore, online networked environments also complicate the process of
segregating an individual’s different audiences from one another (Strano & Wattai, 2010) due
to the problem of context collapse (Wesch, 2009), where significant others from diverse
spheres of your life (i.e., family, friends, co-workers etc.) converge in the online space. In
such circumstances, discrepancies can emerge between the online and offline self-
presentations of individuals due to varied expectations and preferences among different
audiences, leading to self-presentations that may run counter to what is otherwise known of
that person (DeAndrea & Walther 2011). Furthermore, acts of self-presentation targeted at
one audience “may be construed as embellishments, distortions, or dishonesties” by a
different audience (DeAndrea and Walther, 2011). The latter audience may come to consider
the individual as untrustworthy, unreliable, and dishonorable. Pertinently, Hall, Pennington,
and Lueders (2013) note that friends with whom individuals are acquainted both offline and
online may keep users’ temptations to enhance self-presentations in check.
Over time, discrete and seemingly unrelated acts of self-presentation by an individual
accrue towards a durable, overarching impression that people form of them. Impression
management is the term Goffman (1959) used to refer to the process of individuals constantly
tweaking their behaviors, and selectively sharing personal details. While Goffman made his
observations with regard to face-to-face interaction, online social networks have since
become spaces where individuals refine their behaviors virtually to provide selective details
about themselves (Hogan, 2010). In this exercise of individual agency, impression
management can thus be seen as “the process by which individuals attempt to control the
impressions others form of them” (Leary & Kowalski, 1990, p. 34) via strategic tactics of
self-presentation. Indeed, online impression management involves active engagement in
creating, maintaining, and modifying an image that reflects one’s ideal self (Gonzales &
Hancock, 2008). The public nature of social networks may further motivate individuals to
manage their impressions more carefully because the formation of a favourable impression is
considered to be the ultimate goal (Rosenberg & Egbert, 2011).
However, impression management is by no means a unilateral process. Goffman
(1972) observed that people constantly take into consideration the impression that others have
of them. Impression management of one’s public image involves establishing a certain
public social position in relation to group expectations. Knowledge of such expectations, as
well as how to negotiate them, can only be achieved through sustained social interaction.
These interactions then help to shape people's views of themselves, which are then reflected
in the ways they present themselves during further interactions (Rosenberg & Egbert, 2011).
“Impression management stems from a desire for approval, the self-presentation strategies we
employ are dependent on our understanding of the social values of the group we hope to
impress” (Strano & Wattai, 2010, p. 289). In other words, impression management should
also be viewed as a social value that people strategize to achieve or maintain through self-
presentation. Therefore, impression management is critical for fostering social relationships
and the two can be considered co-constitutive.
As the preceding discussion shows, self-presentation and impression management are
strategic acts of maintaining impressions of self and a certain public self-image, and are
highly congruent with the concept of face. If we superimpose the preceding discussion with
the Asian conception of face that comprises self-face: concern for one’s own image; other-
face: concern for another individual’s image; and mutual-face: concern for the images of both
parties and the image of their relationship, we can derive an appreciation for how face may
add valuable nuance to our understanding of social interactions on online social networks.
Research on self-presentation on SNS has largely ignored the notion of face. However, Lim,
Vadrevu, Chan and Basnyat (2012) found that youths’ online practices on Facebook were
geared towards gaining face, giving face, and not losing face among their friends and were
instrumental in sustaining peer dynamics and relationships. Remarkably therefore, even
though face is a centuries-old concept, it appears to be eminently suitable for analyzing social
interactions in online social networking sites because it incorporates personal, social and
relational dimensions of self.
Self-presentation and impression management are ultimately motivated by a desire to
influence one’s reputation and regard among peers and as currently theorized, resonate with
the positive aspects of self-face, such as “gaining” “keeping” and “saving” face. Much
research on online social networks focuses on gaining face through self-presentation (i.e.,
self-face) which then is presumed to create and maintain a certain image of the person.
Studies have looked at different aspects of self-presentation such as narcissism (Carpenter,
2012; Davenport et.al., 2014; Ong et.al., 2011); and various ways of self-presentation online
(Peluchette & Karl, 2009; Rosenberg & Egbert, 2011; Rui & Stefanone, 2013; Strano, 2008).
Self-presentation is considered to be active self-promoting behavior which lends to gaining,
keeping and saving face on online social networks by establishing certain self-images.
Ultimately, what complicates and compounds online social interactions is the observability
and transparency of communication on these online social networks. Friendship ties and
whatever is (or is not) articulated in such networks are patently visible to the multiple, often
overlapping social networks to which individuals belong. Functions such as “liking”,
“sharing”, “commenting”, “favoriting” and “retweeting” posts enable the social network to
demonstrate affiliation, affirmation and even affection, thus giving face to the person in
question in a very public manner. “Liking” or sharing someone’s humorous post is often
interpreted as a pat on someone’s back or appreciation for their witticisms; commenting in a
sympathetic manner on a post of lamentation is likely to be viewed as a display of moral
support and kinship; and responding to requests for information or assistance would be read
as kind and magnanimous gestures that also signal regard for the individual in question. The
person in question thus gains face from the public and observable social validation.
When we consider the dimension of losing face however, this is where the analysis of
self-presentation and impression management may assume a more complex tenor. The
ramifications of losing face are just as important as those of saving, giving and keeping face.
While acts of self-presentation contribute to impression management through self-face, loss
occurs when one fails to gain face from others in a social relationship. The Chinese notion of
lian used in the context of loss of face can be understood online in the response from one’s
guanxi network. Behaving within the expected and accepted social norms of one’s social
network can prevent loss of face, thereby not being condemned within or by the social
network. Similarly, the Vietnamese concept of face also revolves around loss of face. Loss is
therefore dependent on how others respond to one’s self-presentation. While self-presentation
is aimed at image management, the successful conveyance of the desired image is dependent
on whether others affirm it through their responses. Publicness is online social networks’
critical affordance, displaying network members’ responses to a person’s efforts at self-
presentation and impression management. While a great deal can indeed be expressed
through the commission of communicative acts such as “liking”, “sharing”, “commenting”,
“favoriting” and “retweeting’ posts, their very omission can also speak volumes. If an
individual’s efforts at self-presentation and impression management should fail to elicit
positive responses from close friends and acquaintances, and this indifference from the social
network is also publicly visible, the person in question thus loses face from the absence of
public and observable social validation. Loss of face is therefore a potent indicator of one’s
social standing or more specifically, the lack thereof. Current research on online social
networks has indeed captured the active response of the social network to individuals’ self-
presentation efforts by measuring how they are positively or negatively perceived by network
members (see for example Hall, Pennington & Lueders, 2013; Tong, Van Der Heide,
Langwell & Walther, 2008; Utz, 2010). However, situations of non-response by the social
network have largely been overlooked. From the perspective of face, non-response on online
social networks is tantamount to the lack of recognition of other-face. Online, this may be
represented through comments that express affirmation and show concern for other-face by
giving face within one’s social network. The Korean notion of Chemyom is simultaneously
self-face and other-face, where self-face can only be gained by respecting other-face.
Similarly, the Thai concept of Nâa also relates to other-face in that one’s face exists in
relation to not making others lose face. Rather than the advancement of self-presentation
alone, it encompasses the critical relational task of giving face to others. Therefore, it would
be valuable to delve more deeply into how non-response and the possible loss of face that
follows is perceived by both the individual in question, as well as members of the social
Of course, another critical dimension of face is mutual face, where members of a
social network seek to shore up the images of all parties and the image of their relationship.
Mutual face is best advanced through an understanding and acknowledgment of the
relationships of hierarchical interdependence undergirding social connections. For instance,
the Japanese concept of Mentsu can only be derived through other’s judgement and by
maintaining relationships within one’s social network. This mutual face online becomes a
way to display harmony, respect, and affirmation of relationship within one’s online social
network. Often positive acts that reinforce relationship status such as hierarchy and
interdependence in the relationship are amplified through SNS when performing mutual face.
For instance, Strano (2008) found that women tended to change profile pictures to emphasize
the nature and status of friendships or family and romantic relationships. These images
openly signal the status of the relationship, thereby giving face to these significant others.
Similarly, Izzat relates to mutual-face where one avoids shame and loss of honor vis-à-vis
others and emphasizes maintaining face in accordance to social norms. In the online realm,
these iterations may take the form of maintaining hierarchy which remains visible to others,
the choice of images presented, or the language used to refer to each other that shows respect
and avoids dishonour. For instance, Strano and Wattai (2010) argue that the deletion and
untagging of photos and explicit verbal communication on the user’s page ensure managing
the desired impression, while indicating to others the nature of the relationship. These visible
acts avoid shame, dishonor and highlight the positive aspects of the relationship. This
understanding is then put into practice by giving face to others through acts of affirmation,
support and even deference. Current research on self-presentation and impression
management in online social networks do shed light on the relational dimension of network
interactions, but primarily from the perspective of external endorsement and sanction of
projected self-images or lack thereof, as well as individual responses to the same (see for
example, DeAndrea & Walther 2011, Hall, Pennington, and Lueders, 2013). While this
approach has definite utility, if we accept that much social interaction is contingent upon
mutual face, there is also a need to think about how reciprocal relationships in online social
networks are sustained. With the perspective of mutual face, there is a greater illumination of
both parties' efforts to preserve and give face, in light of the mutual interdependence. To best
capture the dynamics of mutual face and their impact on online social network interactions,
future research can comprise a greater effort to chart the pre-existing relationships
undergirding people within a network, the length of their acquaintance, the nature of their
interdependence and their relative status. The feelings (both positive and negative), that are
elicited by the enactment or omission of communicative acts necessarily vary according to
the mutual relationships linking the parties involved, their shared expectations and the social
norms to which they subscribe. Given the relative novelty of online social networks, social
norms influencing how they are to be used in social and professional interactions are already
emerging, but these standards of social acceptability are constantly in flux as both technology
and individual attitudes evolve.
A central trope across the different Asian conceptions of face is “social face” that
reflects a stronger relational dimension of self than in the Western conception. This
pronounced social dimension lends itself particularly well to online social networks that are
designed to be deeply social, while allowing for individual introspection. Face management
within online social networks requires active strategies which take on new forms in
computer-mediated communication. For online face, all aspects - self, other, and mutual face
- simultaneously come together as face management to create and maintain a desired public
image. It also implies that deliberate acts of self-presentation must be reciprocated online for
impression management. In online social networking sites, face management transpires in
technologically-facilitated ways where the structural design of these networks can amplify,
constrain and complicate facework. Individuals can take to online social networks to
announce personal triumphs or milestones that invite salutations. Conversely, personal
difficulties may also be publicly aired, eliciting gestures of support and proclamations of
assistance. However, the absence of social affirmation is not without consequences for both
the self and the peer group. The Asian concept of face thus sensitizes researchers to different
dimensions of social, cultural and possibly economic capital that individuals can derive when
giving, saving and gaining face via their online network interactions.
When we consider current research on online social networking, a great deal of
emphasis is placed on the dimension of gaining face but insufficiently focused on losing face.
Little or no research attention has been paid to situations where face is not given to someone,
for example, where a post or tweet is not liked or shared, wherein the person who is actively
self-presenting then loses face as a consequence of peer indifference. All of these online
articulations, whether employing or subverting the technical tools that the platforms afford,
be they textual or visual, can be consciously or unwittingly made in the interest of face
management. Ho (1976) noted that face has not gained extensive traction as a concept in the
social sciences. We would add that extrapolation of the concepts of face and facework to
online social networks is also limited. Yet the inherently ego-driven and community-oriented
nature of face is highly congruent with the logics and characteristics of online social networks
that impel people to interact while individually showcasing themselves. Hence, we posit that
the dominant analytical frames for studying online social networking, while justifiably
concerned with social capital, would be enriched if the principles of gaining, saving, giving,
and losing face, and the dimensions of self, other, and mutual face are incorporated.
Furthermore, future research that incorporates the dimension of face in online social
networking can also seek to integrate online and offline “face” and explore how and to what
extent online practice and offline social relationship dynamics surrounding face complement
and complicate each other.
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