Thursday, February 26, 2009

I've been battling with trying to get a handle on the temporality of status updates in Facebook. My ideas are still pretty rough around the edges, but I'm posting them here in the hope that some of the narrative / new media scholars and philosophers will give me some feedback and help me hone the ideas. Special thanks to Amy Elias for making me go and read some phenomenology and Joe Baker for pointing me to Ricouer's work on cosmic time. Anyway, here goes...

The temporality of the status updates operates on a number of levels. Against the backdrop of a-personal cosmic time, the writer’s status updates can be seen in Ricouer’s terms as an attempt to ‘make time human’ (1984:52) by selecting particular events as worthy of narration while other material is not. However, the human time depicted in the updates themselves is far from a linear string of dates. Rather, as Ochs and Capps put it, human time is ‘sensed holistically’ (2001:157) where the past and future are brought to bear on the present moment.

We might interpret the significance of the ‘pull of the present’ in terms of the particular context created by the social network. At one level, the significant of the present moment in status updates might be interpreted simply as a result of the immediate discourse situation. The prompt for the status update after all, asks the writer what they are doing ‘right now’, not what they were doing at some point earlier in their life. As such, the stories in the status updates are a far cry from the canonical examples so influential in work on life story (Linde 1993) or narratives of personal experience (Labov 1972) where the speaker is narrating past events that have since been completed, and are usually retrospectively distant from the present moment. The significance of what is happening ‘right now’ to a writer is clearly appropriate to the technology of Facebook, which is driven by the RSS feeds that promote recency as a driving organizational force.

Returning to the Chronotope of the status update, we are reminded that FB is not a collection of updates that exist in isolation to each other. Instead, there are two parameters (the time of the individual's narrative and the space of the social network) where updates are distributed across and form intersections in the social network of Friends. Within the framework of Newtonian time imprinted by the Facebook timestamp, a framework which is linear and unidirectional, the present moments narrated in the status update construct an elastic temporality that generates a sense of ongoing-ness that transcends objective measurement. Hermeneutic approaches to time are useful here. Drawing on Heidegger’s (1962) concept of Dasein, time is not defined in individual terms, but profoundly contextualised by living with others. Status updates are an apt vehicle for realising this idea, for they project an illusion of a present moment that carries beyond its point of articulation (it remains in the archive for longer than the moment it is written) and which is instantaneously shared with all others in the Friendship network. The effect of this ongoing present is one of intimacy, “through mutual embracing of the temporal context (Dasein) we come to understand one another and our own being as well” (Bennett 2000:13). The present tense quality of the status updates’ narrative is not just one that humanizes time (Ricouer) but also is inextricably linked to the social dimension of human reality.


Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Status updates, narrative beginnings and chronotopes

The social network of Facebook complicates locating the beginning of the sequence of status updates. Walker Rettberg points out that blogs are dominated by the present tense, supported by technology that prioritizes the new (2008: 65). Status updates share a similar focus on recency, as writers respond to the question of what they are doing ‘right now’. Like email in-boxes and blogs, status updates appear in reverse chronological order, so that the most recent activity appears at the top of the list the reader encounters when opening their profile. If the reader wants to reconstruct the updates in the chronological sequence in which they were posted, they have to visit the writer’s profile page, extract the status stories from the archive of wall interaction and read backwards from the furthest point in the list. So the sequence of status updates has at least two points of inception: the assumed chronological beginning of the events which are posted about, or the position of the most recent update.

In addition, unlike blogs and email in-boxes which build a single archive of an individual’s interactions, when status updates are posted, they appear not only on the writer’s profile but also distributed via RSS feeds into each of their Friends’ profiles. Individual status updates are thus simultaneously positioned in multiple sequences which we might explain using Bakhtin’s concept of the Chronotope (1966). The Chronotope plots two intersecting parameters: the time and space of a narrative. Here I am re-appropriating this matrix to plot the sequence of status updates that appears in the writer’s profile against the sequence of updates that appear in the Friends’ news feed page. Heuristically, we might think of the first of these as the ‘narrative of the individual’ – the series of their life experiences documented in status updates, which intersects with the ‘narrative of the social network’ – the sequence of all Facebook activity constructed by the RSS technology into a single temporal series. The status update ‘knots together’ the life documentation of the individual with that of their community in the social network as a point of intersection between the writer’s profile and its distribution across the online context. So, not only does the position of the initial update continuously change relative to subsequent facebook activity (it will move further down the archive as new activity supersedes it in recency), it also changes relative to the newsfeed that it is being distributed into across the network. For the narrative of the network is not a homogenous entity but a composite mass constructed from the profiles of potential hundreds of Friends. What this means is that it becomes very difficult to think of the series of status updates as a single chronological thread, with a unique starting point and unified trajectory. Instead, the position of any given status update will occur in potentially hundreds of combinations within the space of the online community.


Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Facebook's Lexicon

My PhD student, Allison Martin gave me a link to Facebook's new Lexicon, which looks like a very interesting tool for analysis of the language on Facebook. I can't wait until it goes live so that I can test out some of the topics that occurred in my data sample. And oh my goodness, how annoying that I have categorised the 2000 updates in my sample according to topic already. At least I'll be able to compare the demographic variation with a wider sample now!


Sunday, February 22, 2009

Hating Facebook?

Why is it that people hate Facebook so much? The fifth anniversary of the website has been met with acerbic tirades, like that from Janet Street Porter last week in her Daily Mail article ‘Why I hate Facebook’. You don’t have to know very much about social networking sites to read Street Porter’s article and just feel plain irritated with the lack of decent research that has gone into her essay (compare it instead with the much more informed and for that reason if nothing else more interesting NY Times article on Digital Intimacy by Clive Thompson). For example, one of Street Porter’s key objections is that virtual relationships are not ‘real’, and connect ‘strangers’. She says: They [social networking sites] are pernicious because they delude users into thinking they are experiencing and managing real relationships, when in truth they are connecting with a gang of people - often strangers - tapping away to each other in cyber-space.
She clearly hasn’t looked at the empirical research that points out that the dynamic between ‘Friends’ in Facebook (not other sites) is that users primarily use the site to connect with those they already know from the offline world, and use this to generate benefits in social capital (Ellison, Steinfield and Lampe 2006) that feed into those offline friendships that she rightly points out are so important.
Now, I’m not saying that Facebook is without controversy – it clearly is, for lots of very good reasons. But if you’re going to write in a public forum about the dangers of social networking, it is better to make sense of what exactly the gains and losses of sites like Facebook are in relation to more than a personalised, anecdotal response.


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.


Thursday, February 19, 2009

Barbie in the news

Here's a link to a recent news article on young girls' reactions to Barbie that was forwarded on the IGALA listserv today. I have to confess I finally let my daughter have Barbie dolls bought for her when she was four - they too are sitting in a plastic box, long neglected - although not tortured. And Bratz dolls have been completely banned from our house.


Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Trivia and Tellability: Status updates again

One element of my Facebook Status Update analysis is to chart the kinds of topics that individuals self disclose about. I’ve compiled the data, but not quantified it in detail yet. One thing is clear, though. Most of the time, the status updates in the data sample I'm looking at are about pretty much every day events. They are a far cry from the landmark, traumatic events narrated in ‘danger of death’ personal narratives (Labov 1972). That’s not to say that the status update material is not selective – it clearly is, otherwise the individuals would be filling their updates with material constantly (and they don’t – even the most prolific updaters don’t update more than a few times a day). However, the updates are often related to trivial, ephemeral issues: ‘Ruth is eating banana on toast’ (or I was this morning, and contemplated putting it in my status update).

The questions I now find myself asking are:
Why are status updates usually about trivial topics?
What does this tell us about narrative?

My thoughts so far in response are:

People don’t necessarily choose to update about everyday, ‘lightweight’ topics because their ‘actual’ lives are necessarily like that. Could it be that the status updates are working as a form of phatic communication (Malinowski 1922)? Are they a kind of ‘online grooming’ or small talk functioning as a gesture towards a social tie? After all, Fred Wilson just lately described status as the ‘ultimate social gesture

But perhaps it is also possible that the impact of networked publics (boyd 2008) means that self disclosure of a profoundly emotive or personal kind can be risky in a context where the divisions between separate offline subgroups of your network are collapsed into one? So, on a personal note, I try not to disclose anything in my status updates that I wouldn’t be prepared to say in front of a class of my students. That means that sometimes I really have to hold back on what I want to say (maybe that is a good thing). So taking this further, is the lightweight nature of the status update an attempt to reduce the level of self disclosure to as low risk a common denominator as possible?

This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t devalue what is happening with the status updates – after all, Georgakopoulou’s (2007) discussion of Small Stories stresses that these fragmentary, ephemeral snatches of narrative are crucial for recognising the generic variability of stories that fall outside the narrative canon. So in answer to my question (2), one of the things that Status stories makes us take account of is the range of storytelling possibilities that have yet to be systematically accounted for, and just how very selected and crafted conversational narratives (let alone literary stories) are.


Monday, February 16, 2009

Status Updates as Storytelling?

In my work on Facebook, I am trying to make sense of the Status Updates in Facebook. Can we consider them to be a form of story? If we take classical definitions of narrative as reports of events that happened in the past, where those events are ordered in a time sequence, usually with a marked change in state and a ‘beginning-middle-end’ structure, then Status Updates seem not to fit the bill. After all, status updates:
(1) Do not necessarily report events that happened in the past. They can be the ‘breaking news’ situated in the present or project future events yet to happen.
(2) Although Status slots are updated chronologically, the events in them need not be causally or thematically linked other than that they are mediated through the consciousness of the Facebook updater.
(3) Status updates are episodic in nature, so are part of an ongoing pattern of online interaction without a defined beginning, middle and end. They are spatially fragmented, without clearly defined boundaries as they are distributed across the RSS feeds into Friends’ profiles.
(4) They tend to be low in tellability, often equated with low narrativity.
So why do I keep wanting to treat them as narratives? Here are my initial reasons:
(1) When collated, they form a chronicle of ‘updates’ that unfold over time, forming a constellation of micro-episodes of the user’s life-story. As such, they seem to be related both to online impression management, autobiography and narrative as an entry point into identity analysis.
(2) At micro-level they can contain narrative-like elements. These include both temporally ordered events and evaluation of those events.
(3) They call into question the idea of ‘tellability’, both because of the kinds of topics people update about (typically mundane/everyday) and because the updates themselves often make use of what Labov calls ‘evaluation’ markers.
So clearly, the Status Updates are outside the narrative canon (both spoken, literary and online), but might well be a useful way of reflecting on (and maybe even reworking) our narrative vocabulary. The frameworks I am using draw heavily on Georgakopoulou’s (2007) work on Bamberg's concept of Small Stories, together with Jill Walker's ideas about distributed narratives and sociolinguistic work in CMC. There’ll be more to come as I try and figure out my ideas. But let me know if you have any useful leads.


Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Taken out of context

I've spent most of today reading danah boyd's excellent Ph.D dissertation: Taken Out of Context. An excellent study of social networking sites and teen identity. It's given me lots to think about for my own Facebook project.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Facebook - interaction profiles

Finally got around to writing something here, as I am at last working on something new rather than tidying up loose ends on edited collections / chasing administration in the office! Well, the 'new thing' is looking at the narrative potential of Facebook, with a particular focus on status updates. The work I'm doing is extending both Georgakopoulou's work on 'small stories' and the Labovian concept of evaluation to the fragments of life stories that get posted in status updates.

As usual, I'm interested in how status updates and the interactional patterns they generate (formerly on wall posts, now in comments) vary according to age and gender. So I have a data sample of 100 people, ranging from teenagers up to 40-somethings, split equally between men and women, and I've been comparing their profiles and status updates in particular. More work will follow on the micro-detail of the status updates themselves (what storyworlds are constructucted, topics, evaluation markers etc.), but just this morning I finished a rough and ready quantitative comparison of photo sharing, amount of self disclosure in personal profiles and status updates. The figures I am quoting obviously are not hugely representative (you can find more data like that in data-analytic posts). So here's what I've got so far:

On average across all age categories, the men tended to have slightly more friends (128 per person) than the the women (113 friends per person)
On average across all age categories, men have less photos of themselves on their profiles (40 / profile) than the women (94 / profile), and use less words in their personal profile (59 words / profile) than the women (78 words / profile).
And surprise surprise, women wrote more status updates over a two-month period (12 status updates / profile) than the men did too (7 updates / profile).

Obviously, there is a lot more work to be done here, disaggregating the scores according to the age band; qualitative analysis of the updates; comparing this with interactional data; beginning to interpret all of this. But it is an interesting start point. Clearly, it is not the number of friends that you have on Facebook that influences your interaction with them via your status updates. More to come!