I have mentioned previously on this blog that I am engaged in an ongoing, qualitative, Facebook-based project looking at the experiences of social media users. None of the work from this most recent project is yet published, though I did use the data for my TtW2012 presentation. As I move into manuscript preparation, there are several theoretical and empirical trends that I need to flesh out. I hope that readers will indulge me today as I work through one such trend. I especially hope that readers will offer critiques and literature suggestions, as the end product will inevitably be strengthened through collaborative input from this academic community.
Specifically, I hope to flesh out the notion of reality curation. Much of the work on social network sites focuses on self-presentation, or the ways in which people curate images of themselves. These strategies of image-curation include friending practices, selective photographic and textual displays, and careful utilization of privacy settings—among other practices. Users are careful about their self-images, diligent in their upkeep, and protective against identity threats. Undeniably, I see these laborious practices of protection, maintenance, and care in the participants of my study. I also, however, see a second kind of labor; I see a diligent upkeep not only of outgoing data, but also incoming data. In particular, participants report careful curation of their Facebook News Feeds and (when applicable) Twitter networks.
This second type of curation—the curation of data coming in—is empirically and theoretically interesting. Work that focus on self-presentation (data going out) understands social network sites as both window and mirror—spaces for both voyeurism and self-reflection. This implicitly neglects, however, the idea that windows work two ways: they offer a view from outside in, but also a view from inside out. Social network sites, as opposed to non-social websites, are spaces of simultaneous projection, reflection, and, as I argue here, observation by the prosumer of the Profile.
Although self-presentation studies assume that observation takes place (indeed, it is largely for the observing audience that the actor presents hirself), the role of the observing audience is largely relegated to that for which the actor must account in preparing and situating hir performance. In contrast, I focus here on the very active role audiences plays in curating the performances that they “attend.” Or, in other words, the ways in which viewers curate a sense of reality.
In particular, participants in my study show a strong sense of confirmation bias, or seeking out information that confirms what one already thinks. This coincides with research on selective exposure on Blogs and news sites, which show that people largely seek out those information sources that confirm (rather than challenge) existing perceptions and opinions. The affordances of social network sites, however, which facilitate broad and diverse networks that spread information quickly and publicly in a shared space, have the potential to create a melting pot of voices, a true public sphere, a mind-opening mecca of digital bits. Even though we know that social network site users generally connect with those who they know in the offline world, the problem of context collapse suggests that there remains enough diversity within these networks to necessitate exposure to divergent worldviews. Agentic users of these sites, however, actively resist such exposure.
Just as existing studies show that social actors work to eliminate that which threatens their self-concepts, participants in the present study engage in serious labor to eliminate information that threatens their worldviews or “ethos.” These threats come in several forms, and are dealt with in a two-tiered manner.
Thus far, I have seen three main threats to actor’s worldviews: 1) politics, 2) religion, and 3) demeanor. Politics and religion are straight forward. Participants report working to block out political and religious views that contrast with their own, and seek out those with whom their own views coincide. Demeanor is a bit trickier.
By demeanor I refer to a way of being in the world. This often manifests as affective states, humor, and language use. For instance, participants express frustration at those who perpetually display either unfettered joy, or unrelenting despair. It seems that these extreme emotions, perpetually displayed, fail to fit into an affective reality of fairness—where nobody gets to be happy all the time, but nobody has to drown in a pool of their own depression. Participants often roll their eyes when talking about each of these groups, questioning the realness of the displays, complaining of the effect of such displays on their own emotional states, and often, removing those who display perpetual extreme emotion from their field of vision. Similarly, participants complain about those who post content that is of no interest to the viewer, often referring to the way someone “clogs up” their News Feed with unfunny jokes or offensive language and links.
Participants manage these threats in a two-tiered manner. At the base level, participants seek out those connections who confirm their ethos, while eliminating ties to those who threaten it. I refer to this as selective connection. At a more nuanced level, rooted in the social norm of accepting and maintaining particular formal connections, is the elimination of ethos threats from view. I call this selective visibility.
In selective connection, participants report de-friending people on Facebook who post content that contradicts with their religious or political views, or offends their sensibilities of demeanor. Similarly, they report using Twitter to follow political pundits, commercial establishments, and news and entertainment outlets that present information in the bent that dovetails with the participants own preferences. Connections are actively sought, maintained, or severed based on the incoming information that these connections produce.
Selective visibility takes place largely through the “hide” function on Facebook. Social norms dictate that we maintain certain kinds of formal connections. For instance, it would be rude to de-friend your mom and costly to de-friend your boss. Participants manage this norm by simply removing the content of ethos-threatening posters from their News Feeds. The connection remains, but the voice associated with the connection is silenced.
Together, these management strategies work to curate a landscape at which participants are comfortable gazing. And it seems that participants are most comfortable with a confirmatory view. In looking at reality curation, we not only better understand the active role of social media audiences, but also address questions about the expanding versus shrinking nature of our social worlds in the digital era. We can also address the mutually constitutive relationship between technology and reality.