Group Behavior on Facebook: Amateur Self Ethnography

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What surfaces and what do we miss when all traces of our textual avatar is deleted from a group?

If posts are representations of a person – their voice, so to speak – what does it say about group behavior online when we ignore or remain neutral to status updates?

In a fit of frenzy, when I was feeling particularly stir-crazy, I deleted the more than 100 posts I had up on a Facebook group I am part of. A hundred-odd status updates, news and information links, poetry, polls I conducted, videos, and photos that were specific to the interests of the group – “digital natives with a cause?”.

There was method to my madness. I was interested in finding out if: anyone would notice the missing posts; would anyone miss the deletions, from an emotional context; would it concern anyone that a chunk of the group’s archive has now gone missing; would members consider the issue from an ethical point of view? I had unfairly deleted posts that were partly, group property, considering so many of the members commented on these; and lastly, do we ascribe a nominal value to posts, say in its impact or purpose, or more importantly, do these posts help add value in our understanding of the person posting them?

The last point is crucial. The “digital natives with a cause?” Facebook group is made up of 250+ members from 25 countries. While several members have met each other at workshops and seminars, most of us only know each other through our profiles and posts. The way we interact within the group is largely through status updates, link sharing or group chat. The posts have become a guide to form impressions on the natives: there are members who are known as communicative and talkative, as they frequently share, comment and participate in live chat. There are others whom we label as “lurkers,” simply because we see them online all the time, but never in a participative or engaged capacity within the group. Then there are the rare “moderators,” folks who know how to ask leading questions and help take forward discussions that someone else had started.

Within the group, posts have three value markers: updates are seen as informational (useful, and so acknowledged through a Like), emotive (personal, resonant to the theme or culture of digital nativity, and so, acknowledged through Likes and Comments), or non-descript (posts that fall through the crack, garnering no Likes or responses). In the group, an overt response to your post or link is the only way to ascertain if your presence has validity. However, since The Wall is seen as a hybrid performer, acting both as a room where conversations take place, as well as a message board where conversations can be fixed, literally suspended in time and space.

So, two points here: how do we decide whether a post is “data” or “voice,” and second, is there an affective dissonance in the way we respond to either?

In physical interactions, you have a complex and interconnected web of sounds, smells, touch, and sight to reinforce your connections and engagements with all the people you meet. Even if I forget the exact details of the midnight phone call between me and my BFF (discussing the day’s event), I will have visual or aural markers to help me retain bits and pieces of the conversation and build a mental archive of the outcome of the talk. These markers could be the weather that night, the softness of the pillow I was lying on and the smell of my deo, the music playing on the laptop, along with my general state of being.

In a Facebook group, we have visual markers to guide our interactions with a post. The time of posting, the punctuations and emoticons accompanying the post, as well as the placement of the post (is it on top or do you have to scroll down?). We don’t rely as much on external markers (what we are doing outside The Wall) as we do on the conversation itself. Since the conversation is not live, it’s actually just text awaiting acknowledgment. The text, in this case, is not seen as requiring instant response as posts are not live, active or time-bound. And so, in this cyclical map, our interactions are fragmented, turning into a piecemeal approach to engagement: Like, Comment, Share, and Scroll. This interaction feels even more disconnected and unlike a kinetic real time conversation when we move out of the group page to browse the timeline, news feeds, notes and links on the main Wall, and eventually, log out of Facebook.

Coming back to my “stir-crazy” experiment. Following that aberrative exercise, I waited for up to a week to see if anyone would notice the missing archive. Sadly, for my vanity, no one did and I had to post another update notifying members of the missing posts. The experiment was a personal one; I wanted to understand my place in this group and what this group means to me. This group carries a lot of imagined significance. I imagined it to be associated with values such as warmth, curiosity, sharing, and networking – values that were a throwback to the workshops and conferences we participated in. But the fact is: values are space-specific and time-intensive and are attached to the mechanisms through which we operate.

Which brings me to the question, “Should all posts be assigned the same value?” The fact remains, IRL as well, all our utterances don’t always elicit a fully composed, fully engaged, cohesive, and conscious response. Think about it, while conversing in a physically present group – with your friends at a café – are you always heard, responded to and acknowledged for every little snippet that you share? The answer is no. Of course, there is the satisfaction of knowing that within a group, there’s someone who would be listening, or nodding their head in acknowledgement or you would be getting feedback through their body language, eye movement, or expressions.

The answer is not to replicate offline modes of communication and interaction on a highly dynamic, constantly evolving platform like the Web and social media. What we could look at, and grapple with urgently, is to engineer mechanisms of engagement that focus on our emotive need to be heard and acknowledged. This has to go beyond textual and click-heavy forms of interactions, to more real-time, immersive and tangible media. I think we are moving towards that reality. In the meantime, the question remains: what happens to all our textual detritus and archival silos? I get a sense that they are slowly turning into living remains.

♣♣♣♣♣♣♣♣♣♣♣♣♣♣♣♣♣♣♣♣♣♣♣♣♣♣♣♣♣♣♣♣♣♣♣♣♣♣♣♣♣♣♣♣♣♣♣♣♣♣♣♣♣♣♣♣♣♣♣♣♣♣♣♣♣♣♣♣♣♣♣♣♣♣♣♣♣♣♣♣♣♣♣♣♣♣♣♣♣♣♣♣♣

Remembering What Is Left Behind

The alphabets wax and wane
the afterimage of a fly’s winged path
eluding capture
except in bursts and blasts

And when all is but memory
When I no longer breathe my last
Neither shall the words remain
To stand testimony of my past

All is deleted, all is erased
What surfaces to the top
Are others’ traces
half three quarters of forget-me-nots

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