Introducing Identity Trouble

Caldas-Coulthard, Carmen Rosa and Rick Iedema. Identity Trouble: Critical Discourse and Contested Identities. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008. Print.

Unlike the last one, this book is pretty dense, and so I’m going to break it down chapter by chapter.

Introduction

In the introduction to the book, Iedema and Caldas-Coulthard write that identity is the tension between the past and what we say and are right now, between our normalized behaviors and those we can consciously change.

Whereas in the past identity was fairly coherent, now in the grand PoMo tradition, “stable truths appear to have become unstable truces”—and, perhaps more interesting, they write that “we require new resources and skills to manage the intensification and speed of identity formation and reformation” (1)

Iedema and Caldas-Coulthard draw heavily on Sloterdijk’s (2005) exploration of the historical development of identity, focusing on maritime expansionism and Jules Verne’s exhortation to “be mobile amidst mobility.” According to Sloterdijk, the maritime movement led to a new, mobile sense of self without borders but with the ability to negotiate around fixed points. “To realize oneself in this fluidity as subject—that is the absolute entrepreneurial freedom.” But this also leads to “self without place.”

Our “oceanic self” (Sloterdijk) is now a “mobility amidst mobility” (Verne).

The question of this book, then, is: how do these “displaced selves” construct identities and places to inhabit? There is an expectation that we will re-invent our identities to suit the shifting audiences we encounter, and the project of the book is to examine when and how this process does—or does not—occur.

So…we will see. Paging through the table of contents, I don’t think all of the chapters are going to be useful for me, but I will certainly blog selections over the next few days. 

 

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In which I <3 The Breakup 2.0

Gershon, Ilana. The Breakup 2.0: Disconnecting over New Media. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 2010. Print.

I’ve been excited to revisit this book because I think it’s interesting, focused, and elegant, managing to bring insight both to the particular object of study (technology-mediated breakups) and to our always-changing relationships to technology in general.

Break-ups in particular have the potential to lay bare our thoughts and feelings about technology because, as Gershon writes,

Breakups were moments in which everyone I interviewed would turn into a detective—they told stories about not quite knowing what was going on or not understanding why someone else was acting a certain way. 

As McLuhan said so long ago, the same words mean something different texted, emailed, or posted on Facebook. Gershon’s point, though, is that the occasion of a breakup makes people intensely aware of the differences between media—both in terms of what it “means” to send a message on one versus the other and in terms of what secondary information (e.g., timestamps) can be gleaned through the affordances of each.

To put it in Bolter and Grusin’s terms, every message is hypermediated when you’ve been dumped. 

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Right? RIGHT??? via

The particular media affordances we focus on during these times—ability to password protect, ability for other people to tag us, ability to see when someone is typing—are indicative of our media ideologies, the values and assumptions we bring to our interactions with various media. For instance, if you CAN be tagged in someone’s Facebook photo, but they haven’t tagged you, this has the potential to Mean Something—they could be ashamed of you or trying to hide you from someone or think you are ugly in that picture or etc., etc. Or it could be that they just don’t care about tagging people. But if two people in a relationship don’t share media ideologies—and don’t understand that they don’t share them—a small omission like this has the potential to lead to a breakup.

Gershon discusses how our media ideologies drive how we interpret second-order information—the medium is the message, but the message sent and the message received may be very different if those ideologies don’t match. She tells, for instance, the story of a couple that used text messaging primarily for in-jokes and frivolous communication. When the young man sent a text message to break things off, his (ex?)girlfriend didn’t believe it because texting wasn’t used in their relationship to convey that kind of information. And in many relationships, Gershon notes, texting “I want to break up” may not actually be performative but may only indicate the need to have a talk about the relationship.

Since these exact media are fairly new (even though, yes yes, “new media” are deeply embedded in older media), we haven’t quite figured out the conventions and etiquette surrounding them. When we run into problems, we tend to discuss them with the people who surround us. This results in isolated pockets of shared practices and assumptions that people often don’t realize aren’t universal (because, well, everyone THEY know does it this way). These are what Gershon terms idioms of practice. And these different idioms of practice arise because people base their usage on their media ideologies—someone who finds texting rude is never going to use that medium to ask someone out on a date. Even if new media aren’t really new, in many ways we experience them as such—this book, Gershon writes, is about how we deal with the newness of new media.

As mentioned before, Bolter and Grusin argue that people evaluate media based on each medium’s relationship to lived sensory experience—immediacy is transparent, while hypermediacy places the emphasis on the medium itself. Gershon however, would like to suggest “that this emphasis on immediacy and hypermediation is part of Bolter’s and Grusin’s own media ideologies, and that people care about different aspects of media depending on the context.

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Anyway, Gershon said that in her experience, people were less interested in duplicating reality or in technology for its own sake than they were in figuring out which affordances of a given medium gave clues as to the intentions of their partner. Because certain media do this more effectively than others, the choice of medium in and of itself can be seen as a choice to be forthcoming or to hide information.

The final chapter of the book is, in fact, what first interested me in the idea of online publics and Michael Warner’s fabulous Publics and Counterpublics. But after spending so much time and research disentangling “audience” and “public,” I’m a bit disappointed that, on a reread, Gershon seems to be largely conflating the two. As perhaps makes sense given her subject matter, she’s more concerned with “in-publicness” than with the publics themselves.

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Earlier in the book, she makes the really interesting point that being “facebook official” is the same sort of public statement as “pinning” was in an earlier era. Just, you know, without the double entendre. via

To me, the chapter is strongest (and, coincidentally, the most relevant to my research) when it is interacting directly with Warner. Gershon discusses the idea that every sentence online both addresses you in particular and you as a part of an “indefinite” public audience. According to Warner, understanding and accepting that you are part of an anonymous audience is intrinsic to participation in a public because it affirms your connection to the other people that are also a part of that audience. That is, this public speech is addressed to me because I am a part of a particular group.

But it is in fact this understanding that, according to Gershon, is missing from many people’s online interactions—they somehow believe that their writings are being read not by an anonymous group that includes their intended audience but instead are consumed by that audience alone.

Gershon argues that instead of writing their public discourse with an eye toward the anonymous but connected audience, however, her informants think of publicness in terms of access, the multiple known entities that can and cannot read their writing. Yet in many cases, she says, people deal with the complications of multiple audiences by pretending that one or more of them does not exist.

Usefully, she closes the chapter with five characteristics of these accessibility-based conceptions of the public that distinguish them from the more anonymity-based type:

  1. People assume that they have some level of control over who is or is not hearing what they have to say.
  2. Technological access is necessary for existing “in public.” 
  3. People think of the audience not as “the public” but as multiple smaller, sometimes conflicting audiences.
  4. Proper audience behavior changes depending on which audience you are a member of. 
  5. Shifting ideas about the nature of the public also change what is considered public vs. private information.

As I move forward, I will be interested to think about these aspects in relation to the more pseudonymous publics I study.

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Uwe Matzat takes community administrators to school

Matzat, Uwe. “A Theory of Relational Signals in Online Groups.” New Media and Society 11.2 (2009): 375–394. Print.

This is an article that seemed like it was going to be really useful and interesting and instead sort of fizzled out for my purposes. It looked at first as though it might have something to say about why problems arise in communication within online communities, and I suppose in some ways it did. The unusual thing, though, was that it is written specifically as advice for online group administrators—how do they overcome the typical problems that plague online communities and create a harmonious and productive group?

What follows juggles a lot of factors at once, so I’m going to summarize in numbered points and then do a little more discussion at the end.

  1. In a community, individuals have both common goals and individual goals. These may or may not be in conflict with one another.
  2. These goals can sometimes be achieved independently (as, say, on an auction site), and sometimes they depend on others for fulfillment (as in a support group).
  3. There are three major interaction problems that arise in communities that can threaten the group’s ability to function: (1) opportunity/”free-rider” problems (not enough people are contributing and the common goal cannot be reached), (2) trust problems (the worry that people will use disclosed information in unanticipated ways), and (3) loyalty problems (people aren’t committed enough to the group to stick around).
  4. For a group to successfully achieve its goals, these problems must be overcome, but here’s the thesis: different kinds of communities require different kinds of responses in order to combat these problems.
  5. One part of avoiding these problems is making sure that people prioritize the common group goal as their decision frame rather than individual goals.
  6. There are three kinds of relational signals that let us know what goals a person is prioritizing: (1) bilateral interaction (relationships between two people), (2) participation in common group activities, and (3) relationship with the administrator (Matzat points out here that the administrators’ actions signal to the group what kinds of interactions are expected).
  7. The more “relational interests” a group has, the more its members pay attention to these signals and the more smoothly the group runs.
  8. Group administrators can change how the group views relational interests in two ways. In the short term, they can make policies that exert social control, and in the long term, they can change the level of interdependency necessary to achieve group goals.
  9. There are three types of social control that the group administrators can use: (1) frame stabilizing tools, like group meetings or the appeal to norms and things that separate this group from other groups, (2) indirect monitoring like encouraging self-policing among the community, which lets people show their willingness to be a part of the norms by enforcing them on other people, and (3) direct control, though tangible (as opposed to perceived) rewards for “right” participation.
  10. Frame stabilization and indirect monitoring are much more effective in high-relationship communities, like support groups, while direct control works best in less relational contexts like auction sites.
  11. The more interdependent the group’s goals are, the more interest in relationship-building the participants are, the more they are paying attention to the signals they send, the less direct control the administrator needs to take to keep things running smoothly
  12. Communities embedded in the real world are more relational
  13. Making a group fulfill multiple goals at once will get rid of the loyalty and trust problems
  14. Short-term strategies for administrators should use the appropriate social control for their kind of group. In the long term, though, they can actually change what kind of group they have by increasing either multifunctionality or social embeddedness.

Throughout my reading I kept struggling with some of the statements that Matzat makes about how communities work, mostly because I was comparing what he was saying to the community at Jezebel.  But then, in some ways that helps me isolate why Jezebel is problematic. Do people really have a shared goal that can be reinforced? I would say no, unless it is to provide additional content for Gawker Media. But of course, that isn’t the conscious goal for anyone. In fact, as I wrote in a letter to editor-in-chief Jessica Coen (which maybe I will post one of these days), it is precisely NOT having an articulated goal that causes many of the admin-user kerfuffles on the site.

It’s just interesting to see some of these social controls being levied on the site: allowing users to nominate for movement or actually move posts off of the main page when they don’t conform to expectations, occasional (but not consistent or easily found) commenting guides, the editors’ active intereference in certain comment threads. Would the starring system count as indirect in that it is based on perceived value or as direct in that it is given concrete form? Or would it be what Kim (2000) calls a symbol in a reference I was going to read until I realized it is a book and not an article? Matzat argues that administrators largely set the tone for acceptable behavior and norms, but on Jezebel the messages have been wildly inconsistent. It stands to reason, though, I suppose—Jezebel was never “supposed to” be a community; the community grew up on its own, and now the editors are the reluctant administrators of a group they never asked to take charge of.

Maybe they should read the article.

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Yun & Park discuss fear of isolation, drive me to shake my fist

Yun, Gi Woong and Sung-Yeon Park. “Selective Posting: Willingness to Post a Message Online.” Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 16.2 (2011): 201–227. Print.

This one’s a mixed bag. The point of the study is to see whether people are less likely to post in an online forum when they perceive themselves to hold a minority opinion, and on the one hand, it makes some moves I really like regarding the convergence of online discussion and traditional mass communication. Yun & Park point out, for instance, that social network sites are now actually acting as major news distribution outlets and that, further, news reporters often survey the blogosphere (and the comments therein) to take the temperature of public opinion. How and when opinions are self-censored—and therefore effectively silenced—is therefore vital to our understanding of mass media, and many of the theories of mass media communication may be applied. This is all great! I love it! And it gets even better when the authors call this what is arguably is: a public sphere.

But then they keep writing things that make me want to shake them. The theory that they are testing out is called the spiral of silence—the idea that people don’t want to speak out when they think they have the minority opinion, which just makes the opinion seem even more minority, so even fewer people speak out, etc. So far, so good. It is commonly understood, the authors go on to say, that this refusal to speak out comes from a fear of isolation, but several of the studies that support this conclusion have somewhat sketchy study design. Then things get weird: according to Yun & Park, in order to experience the fear of isolation, you have to have physical presence and social identity. I’m all on board with social identity (if you’re anonymous and people disagree with you, just make another comment and no one will know), but physical presence? What the what?

This may seem like a triviality, but this idea that the stakes are lowered because of a lack of physical presence devalues online interaction in really problematic ways, as though the emotions that people experience due to digital correspondence are somehow less real than those they experience offline. To say that “if people feel the fear of isolation in online forums, it cannot be due to physical intimidation, gesture, or name calling because people on the forums are anonymous and do not have physical presence” is simplistic and silly. Since when is a body required for name calling? And having seen a woman’s opinion in a men’s forum get taken down with the blunt assault of “get fucked, bitch,” I would like to say that physical intimidation is indeed a part of why people might not want to go against the flow in some scenarios.

Come on, guys.

This doesn’t even touch on questions of pseudonymity—the moment a person takes on an identifier, there is the potential to be isolated from a community. Thankfully, Yun & Park do at least address the question of pseudonymity (sort of) in their study design, when they allow some participants to post anonymously while others must register before posting. Interestingly, the registration process did not appear to deter anyone from posting either affirming or dissenting opinions, but as the authors themselves admit, this could have to do with the fact that participants knew they were participating in an academic study and so were more willing than usual to release personal information with their opinions.

So. The authors found that the perceived climate of opinion offline did not affect people’s willingness to post in the online forum. That is, even if they felt like everyone in the “real world” disagreed with them, they would still post their opinion online. And once again, Yun & Park make the bizarre assumption that this has to do with a lack of physical presence—apparently not having a body makes us fear isolation less? This conclusion seems even stranger when you consider that they found that people were less willing to post minority opinions if they perceived that the online or forum-specific climate were against them. Wouldn’t it be just as reasonable to conclude that the perceived climate of the current space is what drives the spiral of silence?

Like, what if a bunch of strangers were put into a room to discuss abortion (the forum topic in the study). The perceived online climate would probably matter less in this case, no? And would people really fear feeling isolated more strongly in person? Yun & Park keep trying to tie isolation to “real” identity, but as I said before, I think it has more to do with just being identifiable in that context. When it comes to identifiability and isolation, a room full of strangers (to whom I might be “that tall girl”) seems to me to be roughly on par with a forum (to whom I might be “tallgirl83”).

So it seems, according to this study, that “it is inevitable for human beings to have a certain degree of fear of isolation whether online or offline” (216).

Just call me Dr. Watson, I guess.

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Pfeil, Zaphiris & Wilson and ONLY OLD PEOPLE, OKAY?

Pfeil, Ulrike, Panaylotic Zaphiris, and Stephanie Wilson. “The Role of Message-Sequences in the Sustainability of an Online Support Community for Older People.” Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 15.2 (2010): 336–363. Print.

As I read the abstract for this article, I was thinking about how much of the work on online communities focuses specifically on support communities. I suppose it’s because the participants almost by definition have an investment in the space—in posting regularly, building relationships and inducting new members. Unlike, say, fandom-based communities, hese are people who have an actual stake in finding other people like them with whom to discuss their issues. This is community for community’s sake at, perhaps, its most absolute. Bringing these findings into conversation with my study—about communities that arise as an appendage to other discussions—could be a bit tricky. Of note, though, is that the community on Jezebel seems to have developed many of the characteristics of a support group, despite essentially being a side effect of the blog posts. I would obviously need to follow up on this more rigorously before I can say anything definitive, but it’s certainly something to think about as I work.

Funnily enough, Pfeil, Zaphiris & Wilson (heretofore PZ&W) are meticulous in justifying their site of study, citing several studies that indicate that online support groups tend to be more responsive and to sustain participation over longer periods of time than other kinds of online communities. Well, now we know, PZ&W.

The authors’ point of intervention is that while many people talk about communication on online support communities, these studies don’t take into account how the dynamics of those communities may change over time. To which I say, well, yes and no—I would argue that several of the readings I’ve discussed here so far do take up these questions, but perhaps not as explicitly as Pfeil, Zaphiris & Wilson (PZ&W) have in mind. What they are specifically looking at is the role of what they call “message sequences” (and what may on other sites be called comment threads) in the activity level of an elder support group. P & Z apparently did an earlier study showing that the posts in these support groups most often either (1) disclose personal information or (2) build community and encourage a feeling of togetherness (339). With the addition of W, they now ask: how does that content affect the sustainability of the community?

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This was one of the first three images that came up when I did a google image search for “online support group for older people.” I couldn’t think of anything more creative, okay? Do you have a problem with an adorable older couple doing the dishes together?

Lest you think that these authors are trying to make an argument about online communities in general or even support groups in particular, let it be known that this is not the case: PZ&W are very clear that their findings can only be applied to “online support communities for older people specifically.” So get off their lawns, middle-aged people! This is not about you! The funny thing is that after all that specificity, they don’t even really discuss what makes a support group for elders any different from a support group for anyone else. I mean, if you’re going to go out of your way to say that your conclusions can’t be extrapolated to other groups, it would be good to at least explain why. A case for Lauren Marshall Bowen, perhaps.

Also, a word about methodology: while SeniorNet seems like an intuitive study site for this kind of research, I must emphasize that the conversations aren’t threaded. Let me repeat that: THE CONVERSATIONS ARE NOT THREADED. This is kind of a big deal when what you are studying is interaction and responsiveness. Unthreaded responses are fairly unusual in forums and ostensibly have a huge effect on the progression of conversations. Obviously I understand that eventually you get used to navigating the system, but still.

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This book cover was Google image search result number two. Actually, is was number one, but I didn’t want to lead with the most depressing image in the world. This is not just a book, not just a book that is sold at Target, but a book that is actually SOLD OUT at Target. I bet you miss those old people doing dishes now.

What PZ&W found is that sequences of messages dedicated to community building appear more often than could be accounted for by randomness. These messages “are often posted in order to reassure each other about the fact that the online support community is a place of togetherness and caring” (353). Further, the authors find that these community building sequences are “basic components” of the communication within the community and are correlated with activity levels on the site.

The kind of message most closely correlated with an increase of activity on the site, though, is self-disclosure. Talk about one’s personal life is generally responded to in one of two ways: either participants respond with personal details of their own, or they give statements of support. It was uncommon for this kind of post to be met with silence.

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No trolling: this is actually the actual third Google image result for “online support group for older people.”

So: messages that build community, disclose personal details, or give support to others are central to the construction of a thriving support community. What’s interesting is that I saw this stuff all the time in Groupthink on Jezebel. So, while on the main page they are modding the stuffing out of the comments, in the open thread interactions are turning into a literal support group. And then they wonder why commenters feel like they have ownership in the site!

Anyhow, before I finish I do want to give a shout-out to the resources that this article provides beyond its own (extremely) specific conclusions. There’s a pretty good section on methodological ethical considerations and a truly TERRIFIC, kickass chart of qualitative studies that address “interactivity and response patterns” in online communities that is probably what I should be doing with these readings instead of a blog. Anyway, when I need to name-check a bunch of people, I now know where to go. Thanks, PZ&W! In addition, there is yet another chart detailing the coding scheme for the study, breaking the comments down into “self-disclosure,” “community building,” “deep support,” etc. If I do want to look at the support group aspects of Jezebel at all, this will provide a great starting point for building my case.

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David Huffaker Asks, Does (Group) Size Matter?

Huffaker, David A. “The Impact of Group Attributes on Communication Activity and Shared Language in Online Communities.” First Monday: Peer-Reviewed Journal on the Internet 16.4 (2011): n. pag. Web.

According to this study, the answer is no—not online, anyway. In this article, Huffaker discusses the effect of group size on community dynamics, testing some offline theories in an online space.

In 1987, R.E. Rice found that the vibrancy of a community increases with its size, but only to a point; when a group gets large enough, two problems arise. First, the members have much more trouble tracking all the input—this brings to mind the discussion of 4chan, where the number and frequency of posts make it impossible to actually know everything that is happening on the site. Second, the larger a group is, the harder it becomes for an outsider to figure out participation conventions or to integrate into the group. This one seems a bit counterintuitive to me, personally, since you would think that as a group gets larger its conventions would necessarily become more diffuse (doesn’t jargon arise when a small group of specialists need to talk about very specific things?), but perhaps it is related to the first point—that is, maybe the sheer number of posts is what makes it difficult for an outsider to pick out what is important.

Huffaker set out to see whether these conclusions hold water online as well as off-, measuring the presence of the following five characteristics (drawn from Heinz & Rice, 2009) within several Usenet groups:

  • Frequency of interaction (How often do people post, and how many posts are replies?)
  • Shared language (They mean this literally—how much overlap is there in the actual words people are using?)
  • Commitment (Is there a sense of group identity?)
  • Openness (How much are cooperation and sharing a part of the culture?)
  • Trust (Do people generally give others the benefit of the doubt I this environment?)

Looking at this list, it’s striking to me how carefully the Gawker commenting system (Jezebel especially) first cultivated these attributes and then, to mix metaphors, tore away at the foundation they had built. Users are constantly told that there isn’t a group identity to commit to, that their intentions are being questioned by the powers that be, that the shared ways of talking about certain topics are not longer legitimate. They really had created an effective space for community on the sites. Such a shame that they decided it was detrimental to their purposes.

Anyway, in the end, Huffaker found that while these five attributes are certainly found in online communities, unlike in offline communities there is no upper limit on group size—the larger the group, the more the characteristics are evident. “It is as if,” Huffaker writes, “more members mean more opportunities to contribute, respond, discuss, and spread ideas.” While this hardly seems surprising to me, I am happy to see him pointing to persistence as a possible factor in the difference between online and offline groups. When all previous conversations are available and searchable, it is much easier to join. Further, he says, these large groups may not suffer from the lack of cohesion that Rice observed precisely because of the core group of super-committed users who “maintain the group norms and institutional knowledge.”(As a side note, it’s interesting to me that Huffaker determined shared language by measuring the repetition of words or phrases throughout the thread. Under this method, a conversation in which several members request clarification about a particular term would show up as shared language—and the use of an in-joke wouldn’t register at all. A strike in favor of qualitative research!)

The core finding of the study, to me, is this:

Although commitment to the group can lead to its success, the findings here show that high member turnover does not negatively affect the ability of an individual to trigger a response, spark conversation or diffuse language. In light of the group size and participation equality observation, it could be that a subset of users might be making steady impact on the other users, even if they come and go.

In light of the emphasis on retention and commitment discussed by Barbara Ley (and others), these findings are perhaps surprising, especially considering that earlier in the article Huffaker cited several studies showing that heavy turnover crates a drop in participation. In this case, Huffaker points out, only 50 authors (of over 30,000) participated regularly over the study period. But apparently 50 was enough to keep the ball rolling—and to make sure it stays appropriately round.

This brings me again to Jezebel, where the editorial emphasis has turned from creating a tight-knit community of commenters to bringing new eyeballs to the site whenever possible. At a practical level, this has meant an influx of commenters who don’t understand (or don’t care about) the norms and conventions on the site, and many of the core group of frequent posters have either left the site or comment so infrequently that only someone with years of the experience on the site would recognize their names.

And yet, although the rules of decorum have changed, new practices have arisen to take their places, enforced by a different group of commenters. It is no longer verboten to post one’s measurements in the comments, a practice that used to be discouraged as a potential trigger for those suffering from eating disorders, but any post on naming practices has a bevy of commenters poised to debunk the urban legends of La—a, Lemonjello and Oranjello.

The establishment and maintenance of community norms is one of the things that separates the comments on Jezebel from the comments on, say, the Washington Post, in which people tend to post one-off comments or participate in flame wars but not express any investment in the site as a whole.

There may not have been an appreciable drop-off in the number of comments on the articles after Gawker shifted its focus, but I would guess that there are far more commenting accounts now with fewer than five comments than there were when the site began, when the focus was on training a cadre of wits and skeptics to create additional worthwhile content at the bottom of each post. And the open thread, the heart of the community? I wouldn’t call it a ghost town, exactly, but it’s certainly less populated than in the days of yore. Perhaps the threshold of regular users, that critical mass, is different depending on the kind of community or the function of the site.

Works Cited

Heinz, Marni, and Robert E. Rice. “An Integrated Model of Knowledge Sharing in Contemporary Communication Environments.” Communication Yearbook 33 (2009): 134-75. Print.

Rice, Robert E. “New Patterns of Social Structure on an Information Society.” In Competing Visions, Complex Realities: Social Aspects of the Information Society. Eds. Schement, J. and Lievrow, L. Norwood, NJ: Ablex, 1987. 107–120.

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facebook doesn’t ruin everything (as of 2007, anyway)

Valenzuela, Sebastian, Namsu Park, and Kerk F. Kee. “Is There Social Capital in a Social Network Site?: Facebook Use and College Students’ Life Satisfaction, Trust, and Participation.” Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 14.4 (2009): 879–901. Print.

This is a fairly straightforward quantitative study, so this should be a pretty brief post.

The purpose of this study, as the authors admit, is basically to provide quantitative proof that Facebook use is not going to create a generation of isolated, uninvolved slugs hidden away in basements all over America. Spoiler alert: they provide it, although they do seem a little disappointed that that the positive correlation between SNS use and political and civic participation is not as strongly positive as they had hoped.

The article usefully provides a overview of scholarly definitions of social capital, settling on “the resources available to people through their social interactions” (877). Once again, Mr. Bowling Alone Robert Putnam receives a citation as the curmudgeon responsible for the idea that all screen time is equated equal. Basically, Valuenzuela, Park, & Kee argue that Putnam’s “time displacement hypothesis” (time spent staring at the television screen depletes the amount of social capital available) has been wrongfully extrapolated to include the computer screen as well, despite the fact that many uses of the computer do in fact involve active interaction with others. Although some uses of both the internet in general and SNSs in particular can in fact have a negative effect on social capital, the authors argue that this has no bearing whatsoever on whether they actually do.

To both define the parameters of their discussion and to accommodate the multidimensionality of social capital, the authors draw on Scheufele and Shah’s subdivision of social capital into three domains: the intrapersonal (life satisfaction), the interpersonal (trust between people), and the behavioral (“active participation in civic and political activities”).

Perhaps my brain is tired, but I find their discussion of the effect of social network sites on trust to be kind of amusing: SNSs provide information about people. Information about people can either promote trust or distrust. People probably aren’t friends with people they actively distrust. Therefore, Facebook promotes trust. Or, as they put it, social trust and Facebook may have a reciprocal relationship.

While, yes, this made me giggle in the library, I do think it’s worth asking to what degree this correlation between information and trust (the authors name-check music tastes, interests, and whereabouts, among other apparently vital facts) exists on sites of pseudonymous or anonymous community. What does trust even mean in, say, the comment section of a fashion blog?

Similarly, the study found a positive correlation between use of Facebook and civic participation, here defined as “individual or collective behavior aimed at resolving problems of the community,” but presumably what these parameters actually look like can change significantly depending on whether that community is located offline (as connected to the offline identities of Facebook) or on-.

In short, this article does two things. First, it provides a study to cite when I want to prove that Facebook isn’t having a deleterious effect on social engagement. Second, and more importantly, it tacitly poses a question that will be taken up in a number of my other readings: what does social capital look like in entirely online communities?

Oh, three things: it also highlights how quickly, quickly, quickly things change when you study the internet. This was published in 2009 but conducted in 2007, and many of the features of Facebook that the authors described–that they based their arguments on–are now obsolete or so changed as to be unrecognizable. I was a late adopter of Facebook, but I have still been on there for four years. And the “Fun Wall”? I have no idea what that is. 

The biggest takeaway of all, though, is this: I am completely incapable of ever being “brief.”

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