Re-engineering Talk: Artificial Communications on Facebook

Facebook users

Most of us are on Facebook (600 million IS most) and use it as one of the primary means of communication. The Wall on Facebook is pretty much a dual-purpose entity. It serves as a linear narrative of all its members’ activities, sort of like a three dimensional pin-up board where messages, conversations and external links are posted and commented upon; these comments and conversations transform The Wall into a ‘real-time’ interactive space.

As Facebook evolves, and with it its league of users, we have come to see the changing dynamics of conversations online. One-on-one conversations are slowly overtaken by a lot of posts: videos, comics, audio and music clips, images and personal photographs, and predominantly, news links which are topical. Secondly, commenting has received a huge fillip via Facebook. The presence of the ‘comment’ button is an ‘incentive’ to use it, to speak your mind, make your presence felt and contribute to the Facebook universe of one-liners or mini-thesis.

Facebook is all about transparency and the ensuing culture of participation that underpins open systems. If you are open about your life, you engage with people more often and gradually post increasingly greater bytes of information as well as the minutiae of your life. You feel the minutiae carry relevance or ‘value’ on the message board as seen by the anticipation and eagerness with which we reserve for responses, comments and the ubiquitous ‘Like(s)’. Could there also be an ‘obligatory’ response stimuli engineered in the whole process? A best friend posts a link and we feel ‘obligated’ to acknowledge its presence.

Critically, it has given rise to a new breed of conversationalist: the lurker (to borrow from Prabhas Pokharel – The Right to Lurk post). Offline, you do have the odd person in the group who does most of the listening and chips in with a laugh or just nods her head during conversations. However, lurking as a defined ‘online’ behaviour, as characterized by consistent lack of engagement, is quite peculiar to the world of Facebook-like platforms. With multitudes of posts and links, lurkers engage with virtual material through the process of ‘observances’ aka non-engaging participation.

If obligation is the obverse, then the reverse asks equally relevant questions. What does it say about a system’s values when half the posts, comments and conversations pinned on the online board – The Wall – are subject to only being read, scrolled over or worst, manually hidden / deleted as if the words never existed? What sort of a system consciously engineers a space where a person’s output – her words, ideas, opinions – are not subject to a response. What are the implications of subscribing to and evolving towards a culture of inconsistent response to stimuli?

There is no barometer to measure and ascertain whether your presence is ‘valued’ in the ‘corporeal’ sense – you are present as a body on the other side of the screen, but only really represented through your posts, links and status updates. Offline, a look, gesture or nod conveys fully well a ‘response’. Similarly, when you post a status update, you essentially are ‘talking’ to an audience, the Facebook universe comprising your ‘2889 friends’. Silence or deletions are not the usual responses to a ‘spoken’ word. How do you measure the impact of a ‘read’ or ‘Like’? In simple terms, I think Facebook does away with the offline value of ‘courtesy’.

Facebook users thrive in an environment where all personal remarks are subjected to increasing *non-formal* responses, either one-on-one or one-to-many communication. These non-formal responses are new, novel, disparate from the communications we engage in offline and thrive on their own codices of conducts. In effect, these responses are not taught or borrowed, but mutate over every epoch of usage – which could be a week of activity or a month on Facebook.

Facebook cloaks itself as a platform that is alive and teeming with people all engaged and interconnected with one another. What I see, however, is an aggregate service, which culls minutiae of all its users and archives it. I fear the sum total of all my contributions will just be a footnote in the vast archives of The Wall. I am wary of a future where my body of work ends up representing a lot of news, links, posts and Likes, with no recall value associated with most of the inputs; how many of us recall even 1/3rd of our activity or chatter on Facebook? Real conversations do, and should hold non-computational value, in our memories and in our evocations of them. Never mind, if I don’t know how many ‘Likes’ or ‘Comments’ those memories never receive.

This post has been featured in the print and online edition of PC Tech Magazine’s May 2011 issue: download the copy here: http://www.pctechmagazine.com/news-a-blogs/news/411-pc-tech-releases-issue-4-may-2011

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2 thoughts on “Re-engineering Talk: Artificial Communications on Facebook

  1. Loved it absolutely. I think you just “Robotized” Facebook in the sense that it deserves. Frankly it’s not popular everywhere, with some people Fbooking is on the rise, but I’m one of the people who perceives that the effect is waning. Real conversations, in the flesh, hold a lot more value for us, not whether someone “liked” it or “commented” on it. I’ve really become a fan of you’re writing. It’s really struck a chord.

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