Digital Graphology: Facebook

by Michael Limiero on Monday, 5 December 2011
In December 2007, I joined many of my friends on a social networking site that was becoming a possible alternative to MySpace. Unlike its predecessor, this up-and-coming site was very minimal in what it allowed users to do. My eyes rejoiced when I discovered there was no option for my friends to change their profiles to gray-on-black Comic Sans, apply spiral filters automatically to every one of their pictures, or sprinkle emoticons and dancing banana GIF's throughout every block of text on the page. Also absent was the possibility of constantly changing aliases. I no longer had to guess which one of my friends had changed her name to “xOxOx♥♥♥SeXxYbOo♥♥♥xOxOx” and her profile picture to a pine tree. I soon all but abandoned MySpace in favor of this more grown-up land of real names and clean white and blue pages. The rest of my friends eventually followed suit, and even my grandfather is now one of Facebook's 800 million members.
All jokes about the design wisdom of 14-year-olds aside, Facebook has always differed from sites like MySpace or Xanga by putting content at the center. The site was meant to be a crystal goblet, showing information about its users instead of attempting to be a form of artistic expression for them. Since the introduction of the News Feed in 2006, this difference has been even more pronounced. Instead of needing to visit your friends' profiles to see if they had posted anything new, their updates came to you. This encouraged users to update their statuses more often, since others could now see all of their updates instead of just their most recent status.
In these early years Facebook was essentially a broadcast medium, and a constrained one at that. My early statuses were all of the form
Michael Limiero is ______.
I don't remember if Facebook actually added “is” as the first word of every status or if that was simply a habit carried over from MySpace, which did. This format wasn't particularly suited to self-revelation, but in some cases simply telling what I was doing revealed a lot about my personality.
Michael Limiero just wrote an encryption program from scratch... and it works. I am such a nerd.
Other statuses managed to show my sense of humor and fondness for false mysteriousness.
Michael Limiero is NEVER using liquid superglue again.
With no comment threads and an unspoken length limit of one or two short sentences, these early statuses are just isolated glimpses into my 15-year-old life, and most of them boring glimpses at that.
Michael Limiero is bored again.
Michael Limiero should probably be doing something productive.
Michael Limiero is not at school.
In the first half of 2009, a new form of content appeared on my Facebook profile: apps. Suddenly mixed in with all my status updates are a bunch of quizzes.
How well do you know {friend}?
What Star Wars character are you?
How common is your last name?
Most of these were quite pointless and just imitated what people used to do on MySpace. On the other hand, Facebook's built-in apps added a new dimension to the site. Photos were not new but started to show up more often as more of my friends and family members joined the site and started uploading a visual record of my life, interwoven with the record of statuses. Pictures of an awkward teenager eating pie to celebrate a victory at a 3/14 math competition, working at the homeless shelter with a bunch of other church members, sitting in a messy room playing a brand new guitar, or looking smug behind the wheel of a driving school's Mustang convertible truly are worth a thousand words.
Meanwhile my usage of statuses began to change. The “like” button subtly added a new element to the site: instead of just writing random things, I started attempting to get “likes” on my statuses or to provoke comments. Sometimes this was subconscious – ending with “...” instead of a period. Other times it was more obvious – using sarcasm and template jokes like “story of my life,” adding intentionally provocative statements like “Figured out what everybody's problem is,” or going all-out with my own brand of humor. One gem from this period is this pair of statuses:
Michael Limiero
<vacation class="camping" length="4 days" size="13 people" src="yosemite/san_simeon" bgcolor="#55FF99"><!-- only Akash will get this joke -->
and 4 days later:
Michael Limiero
</vacation><!-- you don't appreciate a shower until you've camped 4 days and returned in a car without AC -->
By breaking the standard format, I revealed quite a bit about myself while still answering the standard question: “What are you doing?” A joke like this wouldn't work in any medium besides the short-form Twitter/Facebook environment.
In July 2009 I made a new kind of post: a Note. While my friends had been using the feature for a while to post the “surveys” that used to flood MySpace, I used it for the first time to post a 2-page writing titled “Invisible Christians.” It was a bit of an angry rant, but it was honest and quite well-written: along with my argument against the titular offenders, I offered a call to action and the scriptures to back it up. It was the perfect medium for the message – I didn't need to start a blog, get my friends to read it, and then feel obligated to maintain it; I just had to post and watch the comments roll in as my friends saw it in their feeds, and maybe even reposted it to their own profiles. Had the medium not existed, this side of my personality would have remained hidden from even my close friends – I was very shy and emotionally reserved, and even though I wrote the note as a speech in a moment of passion, I would have never done anything with it except put it in a folder somewhere and try to forget about it. Instead, the feedback I received prompted me to write a few more essays about my thoughts on worship, faith, and the American public educational system. Of course, I didn't abandon my usual format of witty statuses – the day after “Invisible Christians” I posted this profound bit of wisdom:
Michael Limiero
Christianity is not about getting you into heaven. It's about getting heaven into you! (This is true even outside of Soviet Russia.)
Throughout 2010 and 2011 I began using another type of content more often: links. One might argue that these aren't really content, but they still show my personality by showing things I'm interested in, found useful or funny, or wanted to make fun of, and the captions and comments definitely count as new content. Maybe I started to realize how boring many of my statuses were and tried to replace them with interesting things from other sources. Maybe not, since a huge number of my 2010 statuses are just updates on my Rubik's Cube speed records (even after I realized nobody cared, I kept using Facebook to keep track of these records just to have them all in one place). Maybe I wanted to redeem some of the hours I spent on web surfing by finding useful links for my friends and starting discussions. Maybe I just wanted to present an image of myself as the guy who finds all those cool articles.
The last possibility is the biggest weakness of Facebook and any other social network in terms of representing a person: it represents only the version of myself that I choose to portray. By being selective in which thoughts I post and which ones I keep to myself, I can emphasize or downplay different aspects of my personality. I can even delete posts later if they don't fit this persona. Did no one get that joke? One click and it's gone, and I appear a little bit wittier than I really am. With text, no one has to know how I really feel. Maybe something that happened really upset me, but I can play it off like I found the whole thing humorous. Maybe I'm depressed but pretend to be laughing at myself. Maybe I'm cripplingly shy but act confident in writing.
The medium itself also influences how I appear. Because it isn't real-time, I have a chance to think about everything I say. That clever comeback may have actually taken a few minutes to come up with, but to anyone reading the comment thread it looks spontaneous. A great example is a response I made to an atheist friend's derogatory comments on a post related to my religion. I was mad and typed up a long retort about why he needed to stop judging me and reevaluate his own beliefs, but instead of posting it I read it over, decided it sounded angry, and rewrote it more than once. I even asked a friend over chat to preview it before I finally posted. In an actual conversation or even an IM chat, the whole thing would have quickly escalated and I would have come off looking like an angry fundamentalist. Instead it ended as peacefully as possible and I looked a lot more calm and rational than I actually was in that moment.
Still, no matter how much I tweak things, some very real personality traits will emerge. Everything I do on Facebook reveals something beyond the explicit message I intended it to have. The simple fact that I post a lot of links reveals that I spend a lot of time on the Internet, and that I want to be seen as helpful or interesting. Every status tells not only what I'm doing or thinking, but also that I thought it was worth mentioning, and with enough data points it's possible to draw a detailed picture of my personality. Looking at my friends' profiles could reveal where I live, what social circles I fit in, and what hobbies interest me even if I never posted anything at all. If you consider our interactions – the things we post on each others' walls, how often we like or comment on each others' statuses (and this becomes easier with every change to the Facebook layout) – you can also figure out which ones are my closest friends. Last year one friend was even able to figure out who I had a crush on from looking at my posts (and I tried very hard not to post anything even hinting that I had a crush at all).
In some ways Facebook has changed not only how I portray myself on the site, but my personality in real life. Every time I see a status with a bunch of likes, I get a little hit of dopamine from knowing people thought I was clever. Wit is a social currency on Facebook, and over time it's started to leak into real life. I find myself injecting one-liners and puns into actual conversations. I think this has been a good thing – it's given me more confidence and helped me form real-life friendships – but it could just as easily cause me to be that annoying guy who's always hijacking discussions and trying to get attention. I also find myself mentioning facts I learned on the Internet, which may cause me to seem knowledgeable, but if overdone could soon turn me into that guy who's always interrupting and trying to impress people with trivia. Facebook isn't the only factor that caused this shift but I'm sure it's a part.
Facebook is really a multimodal form of communication, quite unlike anything before it. It isn't blogging – it's much faster-paced, shorter, and more spontaneous. It isn't Twitter – over time it's become more focused on conversations and relationships than isolated posts. It isn't IM – it's directed at a group of people or no one in particular, rather than one or two individuals, and it's premeditated as often as instant. It certainly isn't print – the way it gives photos, videos, and links to outside content equal status with original text is completely unlike traditional media and very different even from earlier “Web 1.0” sites. With the upcoming Timeline feature that allows you to see a history of someone's posts, it is an even more powerful tool than before for getting to know someone better than we could have imagined a few years ago, before you even meet them in person. Or at least, it's good for getting to know a version of someone.