Kim de VriesBite, lick, or tackle them back, or click here to the­o­rize about what this all means. I’m very happy to pub­lish the first guest post­ing here on datadirt. Kim De Vries, who I met via Face­book, wrote a very inter­est­ing paper about the sym­bolic kind of com­mu­ni­ca­tion we all know so well from social net­works like Face­book. “He who never super­poked shall throw the first rock” — enjoy the read­ing! Dr. Kim De Vries is work­ing at the Cal­i­for­nia State Uni­ver­sity Stanis­laus, you can reach her at kde­vries [at]


Though Face­book was ini­tially the province of col­lege stu­dents, it has become pop­u­lar with a broad range of users since open­ing its door to any­one with an email address in Sep­tem­ber 2006. How­ever, until very recently, most research on Face­book has focused on the stu­dent demo­graphic rather than explor­ing how Face­book is grow­ing into a mas­sive online soci­ety that is inhab­ited by many dif­fer­ent groups using Face­book in a vari­ety of ways for a vari­ety of rea­sons. The aca­d­e­mics study­ing Face­book gen­er­ally join it and use it in order to observe stu­dents; now that more fac­ulty are using Face­book out­side the class­room, to orga­nize events and to social­ize, turn­ing the focus to our own use of Face­book reveals that our own com­mu­ni­ties are being affected as well.

Ana­lyz­ing the kinds of com­mu­ni­ca­tion that dif­fer from the tex­tual exchanges com­mon via email, blog­ging and com­ment­ing, online forums and so forth shed light on what may occur when we begin to Con­nect with our col­leagues through Face­book. Face­book pro­vides novel and amus­ing ways for peo­ple to con­nect. More impor­tantly, the con­nec­tions feel more embod­ied, so that users may believe they are get­ting to know peo­ple in a more per­sonal way than through an email list or chat room. Par­tic­i­pants may also be more inclined to dis­play ludic behav­ior because by virtue of meet­ing on Face­book, which is a rather un-serious place, a cer­tain level of play­ful­ness is assumed. How­ever, the fact remains that while we may par­tic­i­pate in a vari­ety of com­mu­ni­ties via Face­book, includ­ing fan, artis­tic, social, famil­ial, and pro­fes­sional, these traces of this com­mu­ni­ca­tion may be vis­i­ble to all of our com­mu­ni­ties, though the com­mu­ni­ca­tions may only be appro­pri­ate to one. Thus, our par­tic­i­pa­tion in var­i­ous spheres actu­ally does not hap­pen in sep­a­rate ‘bub­bles’ but may in an addi­tional way be con­sid­ers as a sort of foam in which there may be shared bor­ders or inter­pen­e­trat­ing cells.

Because var­i­ous social spheres may inter­pen­e­trate on Face­book, aca­d­e­mics who par­tic­i­pate there risk cross­ing social bound­aries. Just as we warn our stu­dents, we have to con­sider who we add as friends and what they can see us doing. A num­ber of arti­cles have recently focused on the risk of los­ing stu­dents’ respect by using Face­book, yet this does not seem to stop most fac­ulty from using Face­book. And what about what our col­leagues may see? What do we gain from tak­ing these com­mu­nica­tive risks online, and how is our use of Face­book to com­mu­ni­cate and form social con­nec­tions affect­ing offline schol­arly communities?

These are vast ques­tions and pro­vid­ing a com­pre­hen­sive answer is beyond the scope of this paper, but con­sid­er­ing an exem­plary case will sug­gest what pos­si­bil­i­ties might be prof­itably investigated.


Ken­neth Burke’s pen­tad pro­vides a help­ful frame­work with which to under­stand com­mu­ni­ca­tion (Burke 1945). Accord­ing to Burke, any human inter­ac­tion (or text) may be ana­lyzed in terms of five ele­ments framed as these five questions:

  • Act: What purposeful act has taken place?
  • Agent: Who took this action?
  • Agency: How or with what did they do it?
  • Scene: Where, when and in what context did the act take place?
  • Purpose: Why did they do it? What was their intent?

Rhetor­i­cal analy­sis is then per­formed by exam­in­ing the how pairs of the ele­ments func­tion within the inter­ac­tion or text, and by demon­strat­ing how one mem­ber of the pair deter­mines the other member’s nature. The results of such an analy­sis may reveal con­tra­dic­tions between what is stated by a rhetor (writer, actor, or speaker) and what is sup­ported with the rhetor­i­cal evi­dence he or she presents. In this case how­ever, the issue is not that peo­ple on Face­book are try­ing to will­fully mis­lead each other (though some may be try­ing to), but rather that the inten­tions of users in car­ry­ing out actions are not the same as the inten­tions of design­ers in pro­mot­ing the same actions, nor are the inter­pre­ta­tions of recip­i­ents nec­es­sar­ily accurate.

Though com­mu­ni­ca­tion is always medi­ated, in the case of Face­book, the phys­i­cal dis­tance and the inter­face my both intro­duce dis­tor­tions into our under­stand­ings of each other, even while cre­at­ing the impres­sion that we are get­ting to know each other very well indeed. Per­form­ing a rhetor­i­cal analy­sis will help shed some light on how schol­ars are con­nect­ing on Face­book, and on how these con­nec­tions are affect­ing our com­mu­ni­ties. Ulti­mately we may see that our pro­fes­sional net­works are actu­ally being changed by an online interface.

Fur­ther, Face­book may be more gen­er­ally con­tribut­ing to the devel­op­ment of hybrid agency, shared between user and sys­tem. For aca­d­e­mics to be come con­di­tioned to this hybrid agency may have quite impor­tant impli­ca­tions as well. To explore these issues, and exem­plary analy­sis of some mem­bers’ use of the Super­poke appli­ca­tion was conducted.

The Five Ele­ments to be Analyzed:


The acts being con­sid­ered are com­mu­ni­ca­tions through Face­book appli­ca­tions, and an exchange of Super­poke ges­tures is the exem­plary case. The spe­cific ges­tures vary, and this vari­a­tion makes clear that the def­i­n­i­tion of an “act” is com­pli­cated when it is vir­tual, not actual. Wish­ing some­one “happy birth­day” can be expressed through a vari­ety of media with­out the mes­sage vary­ing much, but slap­ping some­one with a trout would be very dif­fer­ent if car­ried out in per­son; it’s vir­tual mean­ing depends on the fact that it is virtual.


The most obvi­ous agents are Face­book users, but arguably the sys­tem itself and the devel­op­ers become agents in the way they chan­nel user actions. Each user chooses how and when to com­mu­ni­cate, but the sys­tem encour­ages cer­tain actions by fre­quently remind­ing users to respond to com­mu­ni­ca­tion of another user; by sug­gest­ing cer­tain actions — like explic­itly choos­ing to have a ges­ture fea­tured in the news­feed; and by reward­ing a higher vol­ume of com­mu­ni­ca­tion generally.


In one sense, mem­bers use their own agency–they decide how to com­mu­ni­cate. But on Face­book, mem­bers use the Face­book plat­form to com­mu­ni­cate, in par­tic­u­lar choos­ing from an array of appli­ca­tions which offer lim­ited choices and in that way chan­nel user behav­ior. In this case the Super­poke appli­ca­tion allows users to make a vari­ety of ges­tures, largely physical/audible toward one another. A ges­ture may be sent either to one friend from the user’s friend list, or broad­cast to many. Depend­ing on how both sender and receiver have set their pri­vacy options, the ges­ture may be reported in the News­feed (on the mem­ber pro­file page) and on the Minifeeds of each mem­bers’ friends. Arguably we see and emer­gent hybrid agency devel­op­ing in all of these appli­ca­tions, that com­bines user agency with that of the sys­tem and the developers.


The scene is the Face­book plat­form, specif­i­cally the pro­file and home pages of the mem­bers engaged in the exchange. How­ever, thanks to appli­ca­tions like Plaxo and Friend­feed, which col­lect social net­work news across plat­forms, the ges­tures maybe re-posted out­side of Face­book. Fur­ther, the news of the ges­tures maybe dis­cussed in other venues–in blogs, email, in person–so that the bor­ders of the scene are fluid. The per­ma­nence of the ges­tures, for­ever recorded, marks a sharp dis­tinc­tion to the real-life actions they mimic.



Pur­pose is a key ele­ment in this analy­sis because par­tic­i­pant inter­pre­ta­tion of each other’s pur­poses shapes the idea each forms of the other’s per­son­al­ity and iden­tity. Fur­ther, because online social­ity func­tions in some ways dif­fer­ently from social­ity enacted in per­son, under­stand­ing par­tic­i­pant motives depends on under­stand­ing those dif­fer­ences. Finally, par­tic­i­pant pur­pose is always chan­nelled by the design, and so it always echoes the devel­op­ers’ pur­pose to some degree. The analy­sis begins with the par­tic­i­pants’ pur­pose, because this pur­pose under­lies not just use of Super­poke, but of Face­book more generally.

Jonathan Mar­shall has argued that par­tic­i­pants in online com­mu­ni­ties often expe­ri­ence “asence” or onto­log­i­cal uncer­tainty expe­ri­enced online because “there is no marker of exis­tence beyond the act of com­mu­ni­ca­tion itself (Mar­shall 2004).” Face­book dif­fers not only in com­bin­ing the per­ma­nence of the homepage/profile with email– and bul­letin board– like func­tions, but espe­cially in offer­ing games and other appli­ca­tions that mimic phys­i­cal expe­ri­ences and leave highly vis­i­ble traces. Thus on Face­book even if par­tic­i­pants are not in steady com­mu­ni­ca­tion, asence is reduced.

A strik­ing aspect of this shift is the trans­gres­sive behav­ior often exhib­ited as a mat­ter of course inside Face­book toward those who are col­leagues and may become friends. Mar­shall has sug­gested that mem­bers of online com­mu­ni­ties may use sex­ual behav­ior to estab­lish inti­macy and main­tain con­tact, much more so than in face-to-face rela­tion­ships. Many email lists explic­itly warn par­tic­i­pants away from overly per­sonal chat­ter, but this stric­ture would seem at best counter-productive and at worst stodgy in an envi­ron­ment like Face­book. The flir­ta­tious tone of many Face­book appli­ca­tions may attract users because it per­fectly addresses this already estab­lished mode of online com­mu­ni­ca­tion. the appear­ance of this dynamic in a space that is at least par­tially pro­fes­sional how­ever, is a shift, and may seem far-fetched to those who have not expe­ri­enced it. This flir­ta­tious dynamic can be seen clearly with some of the most pop­u­lar applications.

The Super­poke appli­ca­tion allows users to send ges­tures and actions to friends who have also added Super­poke. The pos­si­bil­i­ties range from sea­sonal or hol­i­day greet­ings, to roman­tic or sex­ual acts, to mean or even vio­lent ges­tures. Wish­ing some­one Happy Chi­nese New Year is fairly unequiv­o­cal, but the actual mean­ing expressed when one user licks, tack­les, whips or throws a sheep at another is open to a wide range of inter­pre­ta­tion and sex­ual innu­endo can eas­ily be con­veyed. In addi­tion to strength­en­ing a feel­ing of inti­macy through flir­ta­tious behav­ior, ambi­gu­ity may also con­tribute to mak­ing Super­poke seem enter­tain­ing to schol­arly types; every mes­sage or a series of them can be treated as a puz­zle to be solved or a cypher to be decoded.

But what­ever else is accom­plished when these mes­sage are exchanged, the goals of the devel­op­ers are always ful­filled, so long as com­mu­ni­ca­tion continues.

Exam­ples of Super­poke Exchanges

superpoke examples

If each of the five ele­ments are con­sid­ered in this exchange, on the sur­face, agent varies accord­ing to who sent the poke, and motive may vary as implied by the dif­fer­ent actions cho­sen. In choos­ing to use Super­poke instead of text, the par­tic­i­pants in the exchange have already opted for a poten­tially more ambigu­ous mode of com­mu­ni­ca­tion, and also one that “feels” more embod­ied. In the above his­tory of ges­tures, we see some that are socia­ble and friendly, such as danc­ing, giv­ing cook­ies, hit­ting the beach, or find­ing enlight­en­ment. But we also see some that are ambigu­ous, like throw­ing Yuri Gagarin or hyp­no­tiz­ing, and some that are down­right naughty, like spank­ing, tak­ing sexy pic­tures, and going wild. Com­pli­cat­ing the inter­pre­tive task for par­tic­i­pants is the accu­mu­la­tion of ges­tures, how the ges­tures directed at one friend com­pare to those directed at another, and each member’s cul­tural aware­ness of what ges­tures mean. In spite of ample room for mis­un­der­stand­ing, exchang­ing ges­tures often leaves the peo­ple involved feel­ing they are get­ting to know each other much bet­ter than if they were sim­ply exchang­ing text mes­sages. Fur­ther, because the ges­tures occur in what is already defined as a friend­ship (because par­tic­i­pants must be on each other’s friends list) appar­ent hos­til­ity must be assumed as humor, while flir­ta­tion may be meant as a joke, or meant seri­ously. How­ever when we say “seri­ously about vir­tual actions, what doers this mean? Were we meet­ing in per­son, I would not in fact be able to hyp­no­tize Hans, nor would R. Pet­tauer be able to toss a long dead astro­naut at him. So along with always being already defined as friendly, these actions are also always part of a game the par­tic­i­pants play together.

This kind of play­ful activ­ity seems espe­cially con­cen­trated dur­ing times when in a rela­tion­ship car­ried out in per­son, par­tic­i­pants might nor­mally meet, whether because of a spe­cific event, like a birth­day, or because the rela­tion­ship is advanc­ing. For exam­ple, the fol­low­ing brief but con­cen­trated exchange took place between myself and a fel­low inter­net scholar two days after meet­ing at a con­fer­ence at which we’d spent a few hours after the ban­quet drink­ing and talk­ing shop, but hadn’t had any fur­ther chance to meet for more than a few minutes.


It does not appear to be a very friendly exchange, but in fact car­ries on the humor­ous tone already estab­lished when we met face to face, and though brief, this exchange served to con­firm our ini­tial impres­sions of each other. Trout-slapping evokes a sort of slap-stick humor, while a restrain­ing order is a melo­dra­matic over-reaction, and so also humor­ous. A hadouken ref­er­ences an aspect of Asian cul­ture that would be known to fans of videogames, Japan­ese Anime, or Hong Kong action movies, so the ges­ture invites acknowl­edge­ment of a shared interest.

This may sound quite cozy and alto­gether pos­i­tive; two col­leagues main­tain a con­nec­tion rather than not. And in fact, it may in some ways be pos­i­tive since, to con­tinue this exam­ple, David and I are slowly mov­ing toward work­ing on some Face­book research together. However,we are also fol­low­ing a path laid out by the Super­poke devel­op­ers and as we fol­low that path, we are becom­ing more and more con­di­tioned to con­duct­ing parts of our pro­fes­sional exchanges in the game world, accord­ing to it’s rules. Of course, users are not think­ing of this when they choose what to do; they are think­ing of how much they enjoy feel­ing more con­nected and as explained below, this has been an ongo­ing issue in online sociality.

The Impor­tance of Being Together, or at Least Feel­ing Like You Are

Super­poke pro­vides a selec­tion of actions that users choose from in order to express inter­ests, polit­i­cal views, fla­vors of humor, and so on. But any action can be intended seri­ously, or iron­i­cally (or both). Under­stand­ing each other’s motives becomes para­mount because com­press­ing all con­tact into an online chan­nel inten­si­fies the exchange, and the more effort users expend in inter­pre­ta­tion, the more com­mit­ted they are to the exchange. So by offer­ing some actions that may be cryp­tic to some users and require them to make an inter­pre­tive effort, devel­op­ers increase the odds that users will con­tinue the exchange.

Of course not every­one uses Super­poke, but sim­i­lar exchanges can be observed in Booze­mail, Free Gifts, Hug Me, and numer­ous other appli­ca­tions. Fur­ther, as has been pointed out, play­ing a game con­di­tions us to the game-world or sys­tem. In this case Face­book con­di­tions us to a world in which we inter­act play­fully with every­one, whether they are friends or col­leagues, shift­ing the tone of all these rela­tion­ships in a more play­ful and some­times trans­gres­sive direc­tion. Play­ing with oth­ers we feel we get to know them bet­ter. In addi­tion to asence being reduced and co-presence main­tained between indi­vid­u­als, this occurs also in groups and communities.

It seems the play­ful or ambigu­ous tone prompted by Super­poke and other appli­ca­tions has influ­enced pro­fes­sional com­mu­ni­ties on Face­book, such as the intrigu­ingly titled ‘Crit­i­cal The­ory and The­o­rists are Hot.’ In fact, many seri­ous schol­arly groups now have a pres­ence on Face­book, such as the Insti­tute for Dis­trib­uted Cre­ativ­ity; Theory.Org; the Elec­tronic Lit­er­a­ture Orga­ni­za­tion; the Soci­ety for Lit­er­a­ture, Sci­ence, and the Arts; and of course the Asso­ci­a­tion for Inter­net Researchers, to name just a few. On the last for exam­ple, mem­bers can iden­tify who else is attend­ing the con­fer­ence and find any friends shared in com­mon, which may cre­ate a stronger feel­ing of belong­ing in the group. In these groups, mem­bers inter­act through wall posts or forum dis­cus­sions in a man­ner that may feel more embod­ied and ‘authen­tic,’ and espe­cially in con­junc­tion with the other inter­ac­tions facil­i­tated and even pre­scribed by Face­book appli­ca­tions that we see a real shift in the way we are meet­ing and estab­lish­ing hybrid social/professional rela­tion­ships. But do we really get to know peo­ple in the same way as we would inter­act­ing in per­son, or if not, what impact does the dif­fer­ence have on our personal/professional connections?


Sev­eral appli­ca­tions offer to illus­trate a user’s social con­nec­tions, often with the impli­ca­tion that by col­lect­ing all kinds of data, some rev­e­la­tion will be found in the sub­se­quently gen­er­ated map. In fact exam­in­ing the Face­book appli­ca­tion “Nexus” reveals that though net­work visu­al­iza­tion appli­ca­tions are sup­posed to reflect par­tic­i­pants’ social con­nec­tions, they often offer a dis­torted view, sug­gest­ing that Face­book itself may offer a dis­torted view. Face­book seems to allow cer­tain kind of expan­sion of user’s social net­work. For exam­ple, the Nexus screen­shot below appears to show a dense net­work among some of my friends/colleagues, with some con­nec­tions lead­ing out of the frame from Monty Cantsin and Karen Elliot.

social network

Were we to expand the pic­ture, we would find that Monty Cantsin and Karen Elliot con­nect this clus­ter to two other dense clus­ter of my friends. How­ever, both of those “peo­ple” are fic­tional. Any user can of course see where these kinds of rep­re­sen­ta­tions are dis­torted in their own rela­tions, but from the out­side, there is no way to know how accu­rate they are, unless one has the offline knowl­edge to draw on. In this case, not every­one would know that “Monty Cantsin” is in fact not a real per­son. Fur­ther, unless they are well known in per­son, even peo­ple in one’s own net­work may inter­pret notices from Face­book appli­ca­tions that they share movie taste, life goals or other pref­er­ences as accu­rate rep­re­sen­ta­tions, but are they? In many ways dis­tor­tions may be intro­duced that are not dis­cov­ered until a rela­tion­ship moves beyond the pre­scribed inter­ac­tions of Face­book appli­ca­tions to actual con­ver­sa­tion or meet­ing in per­son. But see­ing behav­ior that in its play­ful­ness or appar­ent inti­macy is occa­sion­ally inap­pro­pri­ate may lead peo­ple to per­ceive it as more authen­tic and the per­son observed as more can­did and “real.”


This pre­lim­i­nary analy­sis sug­gests that Face­book is affect­ing our com­mu­ni­ca­tion prac­tices and our com­mu­ni­ties in sev­eral ways. First of all, the rhetor­i­cal analy­sis reveals that while Face­book appli­ca­tions appear to sim­plify the rhetor­i­cal sit­u­a­tion by reduc­ing the num­ber of vari­able ele­ments, in fact the remain­ing ele­ments become harder to inter­pret, and agency is divided between users, the sys­tem, and devel­op­ers. Sec­ond, because the appli­ca­tions chan­nel user actions in a more play­ful direc­tion, they con­di­tion users into com­ing to expect this kind of play­ful exchange and to engage in it them­selves across social spheres, rather than dis­tin­guish­ing between them. Third, though these exchanges reduce asence, strengthen feel­ings of co-presence and make par­tic­i­pants feel they know each other bet­ter, when not com­bined with face to face inter­ac­tion, the oppor­tu­nity for mis­per­cep­tions is great.

These con­clu­sions need to be ver­i­fied and elab­o­rated trough study of a much larger sam­ple, but a chal­lenge in con­duct­ing this research is data col­lec­tion. Because most Face­book users restrict their pro­files to friends, observ­ing a rep­re­sen­ta­tive sam­ple becomes quite dif­fi­cult. While sur­veys are being attempted, rely­ing on self-reported behav­ior has some prob­lems. The best approach now seems to design a Face­book appli­ca­tion and that rep­re­sents the next step pro­posed in order to deter­mine the wider impact on schol­arly com­mu­ni­ties and connections.

In spite of the risks of trans­gres­sion and dis­tor­tion, form­ing con­nec­tions that are play­ful and emo­tion­ally more inti­mate can be pos­i­tive in per­sonal and pro­fes­sional terms. Peo­ple with whom we have formed multi-valent rela­tion­ships online may also become peo­ple with whom we might col­lab­o­rate on research, or orga­nize con­fer­ence pan­els, or at least go to for advice when vis­it­ing their home countries/cities. If the kind of com­mu­ni­ca­tion fos­tered by Face­book does indeed pro­mote these kinds of con­nec­tions, that will have a pro­found impact on schol­arly com­mu­ni­ties. Until now, in spite of the ease of com­mu­ni­ca­tion offered by the Inter­net, when it comes to col­lab­o­ra­tive work, “space still mat­ters (Borner 2007).” Thus I ulti­mately argue that we are mak­ing a deal with the devil: users shar­ing play­ful and even trans­gres­sive exchanges strengthen their social and pro­fes­sional bonds. In cir­cles where com­mu­ni­ca­tion is often ephemeral, lim­ited to a brief chat at a con­fer­ence recep­tion or an exchange on a mail­ing list, Face­book may be espe­cially attrac­tive. But as we use this amus­ing and use­ful plat­form, we are first and always ful­fill­ing the pur­pose of devel­op­ers who don’t care what we say, as long as we keep talking.


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