Friday, February 20, 2009

Episodic nature of Status Updates and Temporality

I've started drafting my first thoughts on a paper about the Status Updates in Facebook and how/why we might consider them to be narratives. Over the next weeks I'll be posting portions of the draft essay here, and would be very grateful if you'd give me some feedback! Without more ado, here is a chunk of today's writing....

The autobiography that emerges from the status updates, like narratives told on blog posts and discussion forums is episodic. This has (at least) two implications for narrative structure. First, the story content unfolds via small fragments of text, each of which makes sense on its own. As Walker Rettberg (2008) points out, this style of episodic writing is particularly suited to the demands of reading a screen (as opposed to a print page). As the reader pieces together their ‘mental image’ of the story, they do not necessarily rely on the story content being delivered in adjacent textual episodes. In some senses, this is no different to postmodern print fiction, nor to the dispersed stories in conversation that Norrick (2006) describes. Nonetheless it draws our attention to the limitations of minimal definitions like Labov’s: stories do not have to be told in strict chronological sequence to be recognised as such, readers seem remarkably competent at ‘filling in the gaps’ to build a storyworld.
The sequence in which the episodic fragments (updates) appear prioritizes recency over the conventional chronology. That is, the readers will see the update which has been written most recently first, and if they wish to read the events in the order in which they occurred, they will have to retrieve earlier posts from the archive of updates on the writer’s homepage. The time of narration becomes all important, constructed as an ongoing moment of ‘now’ through the typical use of present continuous tense. No doubt this results in part from the default template of the status update which asks ‘What are you doing right now?’ to which the individual can add to the prompt ‘X is….’. The appearance of the updates thus unfolds in keeping with the temporality of life experience, rather than narrating the life experience retrospectively as a complete and coherent whole. This also alters the reader’s expectation of narrative closure. While Peter Brooks (1984) has argued that readerly anticipation of an ending drives plot dynamics, the serial nature of status updates (like blog posts and other forms of serial web writing) is somewhat different. As Walker Rettberg puts it, ‘The blog reader hopes there is no end’ (2008:118), and I would argue that the same is true for status updates. If the status updates finish, this doesn’t provide a sense of teleological closure, but more likely a sense of disconnection between the writer and reader.
The illusion of a ongoing ‘now’ of narration through the present continuous tense used in the status update counterbalances the asynchronous nature of interaction between status writer and reader, for the audience may not receive or respond to the update at the present moment at which it is posted. Instead, the reception of the status update occurs at the later moment that the viewer is also online, and will appear in the viewer’s news feed relative to all the other Facebook activity generated by others in the Friends’ community. Although the status updates are in one sense highly ephemeral, always transitioning through the fluctuations of the updates in the Facebook RSS feeds, they are also retrievable. It is this capacity to retrieve and reassemble the story material from the updates in those feeds that fosters the critical sense of continuity and connection that is so important for understanding the potential of Status Updates as stories more fully.



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