I’m one of the hipsters who recently quit Facebook. And for the next 400 odd words, I am going to pretend that my decision was calculated, rational, and rooted in my deep understanding of media and its complications. I’ll deconstruct Facebook, Thompson-style , explaining why it could be considered a ‘hybrid’ medium (1995, p. 6), containing elements of face-to-face interaction, mediated interaction and mediated quasi-interaction. Then, I will use this logic to vent a teensy bit of opinion.
Facebook’s space/time constitution
Facebook provides functionality for communications to be sent and received in real time, via ‘live’ streaming and ‘chat’, however, archiving allows users to dip in and out at leisure. As such, its temporal constitution shares characteristics with face-to-face, mediated and mediated quasi-interaction. The “activity of reception” (Thompson 1995, p. 10) often takes place in face-to-face situations as well as online; it’s not uncommon for users to check Facebook on mobile devices while in each others’ presence, using what they read as a “stimulus for interaction” (Thompson 1995, p. 8). During my time as a Facebook addict, I observed that couples in the same spatio-temporal setting – their house – would often make cloying comments on each others’ streams. I used to wonder if this was part of their ‘front’ (Goffman in Thompson 1995, p. 9), a gratuitous mediated PDA providing ‘evidence’ of the loved-up-ness of their relationships. Gross.
Symbolic cues and Facebook
Facebook interaction is “mediated symbolic exchange” on speed. Like mediated interaction and mediated quasi-interaction, Facebook narrows the range of available symbolic cues, accentuating text communication (Thompson 1995, p. 4). Facebook even has its own paralanguage, its symbols intensely tied up with institutional values. ‘Liking’, despite being a near-passive act, has become performative and quantifiable. Relationships can be cut short by ‘blocking’ or ‘unfriending’, enabling an interaction users would be unlikely to perform face-to-face. Thompson states, “participants must always consider how much contextual information should be included in (an) exchange” (1995, p. 4), however his wise words are often unheeded, with users of this new media seemingly confused about the locations of their ‘backs’ and ‘fronts’ (Goffman in Thompson 1995, p. 9): exaggerated intimacy and mundanity are frequently confused with ‘authenticity’ (apparently details of orgasms are not off-limits), while contradictory pictorial contrivances are posted as ‘evidence’ of attractiveness and happiness.
Action orientation? Dialogical or monological?
Facebook culture represents a contemporary desire to be a mass-producer of media (mediated quasi-interaction), while accruing a mass-dialogical ‘fan’ base (mediated and face-to-face interaction). I question whether this is realistic for the average user. Users broadcast ‘status’ updates, shaped by an imagined “reciprocity and personal specificity” (Thompson 1995, p. 5). Volume of interactions is valued, raising questions about whether ‘friends’ really can be considered “specific others”, like those addressed with mediated and face-to-face communications (Thompson 1995, p. 6). Without getting into highly subjective (and heated) arguments about whether Facebook friends represent real relationships, I will make a telling confession: I have, on occasion, seen ‘online-only’ friends in the street, pulled down my hat, thrown on my sunglasses and walked on by.
Quasi-face-to-face, Quasi-mediated, quasi-mediated-quasi-interaction – Facebook has it all! You may find a few rational reasons in this post to reconsider your relationship with the complex beast that is Facebook. And if not, don’t think me more-academic-than thou, even for a second: The true reason I quit Facebook was because all of my coolest friends did!
Thompson, John B 1995, ‘The rise of mediated interaction’ in Media and Modernity: A Social Theory of the Media, California, Stanford University Press, pp. 81-118