Friday, December 18, 2009


The Nature Of Facebook/Twitter Updates

Ana's simple question, so disarmingly articulated, rendered me speechless. It happened about twenty years ago during a chat over coffee, and I would have been effusively babbling on about my day. After listening politely, she hit me with charming directness.

"William, why are you telling me all this?"

Initially seemingly unanswerable
, I contemplated upon it for many months, whilst, at times painfully, reevaluating almost every subsequent utterance I, and others, made. Ostensibly, I'd been telling her about my day, and yet what purpose did that serve her or me? What was behind this communication, for that matter any conversational communication?

Eventually, I came to the conclusion that it's little more than a need to be heard.

A need to be heard for existential validation. And to successfully realise this mutual need we: allow for conversational reciprocity; employ rhetorical devices to make our chatter entertaining (e.g. through humour), or intriguing (through common themes of interest); exploit status differences to be heard (e.g. teachers, leaders, priests, etc.); use devices to elicit sympathy; and so on.

It was with this increased sensitivity to the hidden whys of communication that I initiated a fascination with the modern phenomenon of our Facebook/Twitter/MySpace updates. They have two curiously unique features: first, the communication is made to nobody in particular, as if to an unknown second person, to an unspecific you; second, there is a severely tight numerical word restriction.

On the face of it, these updates are just small chunks of trivia, with little depth or meaning. Or are they?

There's an old joke of the apprentice Trappist monk who is permitted two spoken words at the end of each initial twelve months' training in silent contemplation; at the end of year one, he tells the abbot, 'bed hard'; after the second, 'food horrible'; and the third and final, 'go home; to which the abbot exclaims, 'well, thank God for that because you've done nought but complain since you got here!!'.

Paradoxically, it seems the more restricted our opportunities to communicate, and the more remote and less defined the second person is (the you), the more meaningful the utterances become. 'Meaningful' I define here as more revelatory of our identity, along with our illusion of identity. In the case of ostensibly glib online status updates, through the application of dietrological analysis, much can be inferred.

Accepting and bearing in mind this need to be heard to be validated, below is a suggested hierarchy of factors for measuring that need.

- use of first person pronouns (I, me, my, mine etc.)
- frequency of first person pronouns
- proximity of first person pronouns to the beginning (e.g. commencing with 'I')
- use of active or passive voice
- expressions of opinion (an implicit or explicit 'I think that...')
- ratio of factual detail (times, places, names etc.) over process language (feelings)
- degree of assumption of second person interest
- pseudo-attempts to engage (e.g. throwing out a question, attention-seeking, sympathy-seeking)
- enigmatic, in-jokes

The feeling of validation from conversation comes with verbal and nonverbal responses to our utterances which we've already established as often not being a reliable indicator of chemistry or rapport owing to the invisible effects of, for example, our choice of language patterns. This is even more the case here.

coming soon:
DIETROLOGY : What Are Movie Credits For?



Frederick said...

One other type of poster I have wondered is the package dealer: a person known to be "in a relationship" who only refers to themselves as part of a we (be it a couple or family unit).

And, conversely, those who never do refer to the significant other.

James Banner said...

I've asked people the same thing Ana asked, "why are you telling me this?" when associates have felt it necessary to convey the details of their day, work, life, etc. because I think it's a valid question.

Most people talk simply to hear themselves speak, or to unload the emotions of their experiences rather than to convey actual information, much less to inform others of things they can actually benefit from (truths or lessons, etc).

I personally believe the idea of "existential validation" to be utterly without value. As long as we're looking to others for validation we're maintaining an incomplete or co-dependent role in the world.

One extreme example of this on Facebook is a suicide threat someone posted in their status. It's the perfect expression of the need for existential validation, hoping to elicit a desired response from acquaintances - which is the most pathetic part of this entire exchange; while we may say things to people, we only hear responses that we already know. Those which are outside of our experience are filtered out as 'noise' or 'nonsense'. And this supports my basic premise, that existential validation is without value - because it doesn't lead to deeper truths, which can only be arrived at on through self-revelation.

I disagree with your thesis that interaction leads to distancing or remoteness with the Other. But, on the other hand, I also believe that conversation doesn't engender intimacy or closeness. These qualities seem to be the product of moments which may happen in silence or under conditions which are entirely outside of the dialectic experience.