digital rhetoric

the curious skeuomorph of the Facebook conversation

facebook_chatI recall where I first encountered the work skeuomorph, in Katherine Hayles’ How We Became Posthuman, which she defined as “a design feature that is no longer functional in itself but refers back to a feature that was functional at an early time. The dashboard of my Toyota Camry, for example, is covered by a vinyl molded to simulate stitching” (17). A good definition, though the OED offers a more general definition: “an object or feature copying the design of a similar artefact in other material.”

Somewhere in there is a good description of conversations in Facebook. As you know, conversation on Facebook is uncommon, not rare perhaps, but uncommon. If you read your feed basically it is a series of non-sequiturs: people talking past one another, unaware, and incapable of knowing that they appear beside one another in your feed. Conversation happens, when it happens, in the back and forth of replies. In most cases, at least in my experience (I haven’t done a study or anything), replies are written as if the author had not read the other replies to the feed. Most of the time reading those other replies seems unnecessary as the nature of the reply is an expression of sympathy, laughter, congratulations, or something like that. In other words, the reply isn’t really a gesture to start a conversation.

When we limit our analysis to a series of replies to a status update where it appears that most of the authors have read at least a significant portion of the prior replies and seem to be engaging in some kind of back and forth, I suppose we might call that a conversation. But it might be better to think of it as a skeuomorph of a conversation. It’s not that hard to start building a list of the ways a series of Facebook replies is different from a verbal conversation or a series of handwritten letters or even an exchange of emails on a listserv. We can also see how it’s different from other conversations on Twitter and other social media. I’m not going to make a list right now.

As near as I can figure, the purpose of Facebook is to collect marketing data on its users. We all know that Fb is a business in the business of making money. It offers a service to its users in exchange for our sharing/producing this data. If you want to congratulate or console or be congratulated or consoled, FB works well. If you want to share something funny or cute or interesting or exciting, FB is great for that as well, especially if you can find a group that shares your particular definition of those things. But, at least as I can figure it, none of that stuff requires much heavy lifting from conversation.

So what happens when we try something a little more rhetorically challenging in that space?

The recent events in Paris and the resulting actions of Facebook (specifically the Safety Check and the Temporary Profiles, i.e., the flag overlay on the profile pic) are an example of this. There’s a good article in Wired about some of this, (which I learned about from Facebook), though maybe the key line in that article is this:

The fight over whether the people who changed their profile photos are sheep and part of a “social experiment” isn’t a worthwhile one (and, if you’re using Facebook, you should already know everything you do is part of a giant social experiment)

Mostly what I’ve seen in my feed are the knock on effects of these arguments: users talking about ignoring or de-friending others out of the ill will produced here. For my purposes it doesn’t really matter if the arguments are about whether or not to drape one’s profile pic in the French flag or if Facebook should expand Safety Check to other situations or if the US should accept Syrian refugees and so on. Facebook takes up these messages the same way as it does things like “Hey I just got a cool new job!” or “Look at this cute puppy!” Those are things we can just Like or post a quick reply. Why would we think the same interface would work well for more complicated and contentious matters?

The answer is that we don’t expect it to work. No one really expects persuasion or consensus-building in these “conversations.” Those kinds of discussions require some really specific actor-networks and assemblages. Things like university courses, court rooms, and laboratories are designed to do things like that. Certain written and other media genres can work that way too but only in the context of some larger network. E.g., I can read an academic article on my home computer and change my thinking on an issue because of the way that I am tied to that community.

But Facebook doesn’t work that way, and it’s hard to imagine that it ever could. So even when I read (or possibly participate) in a FB thread with academic friends about an academic issue, it still can’t really work the way academic conversation does elsewhere. Sometimes I feel like I can smell the digital oil burning as the interface creaks against the tensions of trying to have a “real” conversation. It’s a skeuomorph, It looks like a conversation, but…

Is that a criticism of FB? Sure, why not. Is it a condemnation? I don’t think so. Maybe it’s an argument that if what we desire is a forum for working through significant, public, political disagreements then we haven’t built it yet. Personally I’m not convinced we want such a thing, but that’s another matter.

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