Remains of the Text
How does textual memory operate and what’s the performative role of an online archive?
[An ethnographic experiment to understand how users negotiate the Facebook timeline and assign values to posts based on relevance, context and urgency]
In August 2011, I joined The Center for Internet & Society as a community manager for a year-long research project called ‘Digital Natives with a Cause.’ Participants from three continents across South America, India and Africa participated in workshops that explored the changing nature of citizen activism and internet-enabled interventions staged by youth in the Global South. This was the heyday of the Arab Spring. I was responsible for keeping the 200 odd participants active on our Facebook page by engaging them with interesting news, photographs, essays, and links to the works of other activists who are leveraging digital platforms to effect change.
This was the time of intense intellectual ferment for all of us. Most of us were in our early 20s to 30s, constantly on social media broadcasting micro-snippets of our lives, and attempting to augment our personal circles with the nodes of the larger peer-level networks that were thriving on the interwebz. Interests ranged from gender roles and feminism to cyberlinguistics and subversive emojis, to censorship and privacy issues online, to the lack of last mile access for citizens in developing countries. It was exciting to suddenly be part of a pool of concerned digital users who believed in the power of the click to bring down governments. Heady stuff, I know, and unlike anything we had encountered before.
My own research interests dwelled on performance and the nature of our selves online and I dug into texts, research, and critical essays on cybersociology, cyberethnography and Actor Network Theory. I had become fascinated with observing how we use Facebook and came to think of the connections we made as “friends”. Here’s what I posted on the Digital Natives with a Cause Facebook timeline 5 years ago: “The Wall on Facebook is pretty much a dual-purpose entity. It serves as a linear narrative of all its members’ activities, sort of like a three dimensional pin-up board where messages, conversations and external links are posted and commented upon. These comments and conversations, in turn, transform The Wall into a real-time interactive space, a town square where citizens interact, exchange information and services, and keep tabs on each other’s activities.
However, as Facebook evolved, we have come to see the changing dynamics of conversations online. One-on-one conversations are being hijacked by links to videos, comics, audio and music clips, and news. Secondly, commenting has received a huge fillip via Facebook. The presence of the ‘comment’ button is an ‘incentive’ to use it, to speak your mind, make your presence felt and contribute to the Facebook universe of one-liners or mini-thesis.”
Facebook is all about transparency and the ensuing culture of participation that underpins open systems. If you are open about your life, you engage with people more often and gradually post increasingly greater bytes of information as well as the minutiae of your life. You feel the minutiae carry relevance or ‘value’ on the message board as seen by the anticipation and eagerness with which we reserve for responses, comments and the ubiquitous ‘Like(s)’. Could there also be an ‘obligatory’ response stimuli engineered in the whole process? A best friend posts a link and we feel ‘obligated’ to acknowledge its presence.
If obligation is the obverse, then the reverse asks equally relevant questions. What does it say about a system’s values when half the posts, comments and conversations pinned on the online board – The Wall – are subject to only being read, scrolled over or deleted as if the words never existed? Critically, it has given rise to a new breed of conversationalist: the lurker. Offline, you do have the odd person in the group who does most of the listening and chips in with a laugh or just nods her head during conversations. However, lurking as a defined ‘online’ behaviour, as characterized by consistent lack of engagement, is quite peculiar to the world of Facebook-like platforms. With multitudes of posts and links, lurkers engage with the virtual material without really having a stake in it.
Within the group, posts have three value markers: updates are seen as informational (useful, and so acknowledged through a Like), emotive (personal, resonant to the theme or culture of digital nativity, and so, acknowledged through Likes and Comments), or non-descript (posts that fall through the crack, garnering no Likes or responses). In the group, an overt response to your post or link is the only way to ascertain if your presence has validity. However, since The Wall is seen as a hybrid performer, acting both as a room where conversations take place, as well as a message board where conversations can be fixed, literally suspended in time and space.
Experiments with Erasure
So, two points here: how do we decide whether a post is “data” or “voice,” and second, is there an affective dissonance in the way we respond to either?
I wanted to make sense of our re-engineered codes of communications and felt an intervention was in the making. One morning, I systematically deleted the more than 200 posts I had posted on this Facebook group I was managing. A hundred-odd status updates, news and information links, poetry, polls, videos, and photos that were specific to the interests of the group, as well as all the comments and Likes I had submitted. I had deleted all my responses in one fell swoop and logged out.
I waited for up to a week to see if anyone would notice the missing archive. Sadly (for my vanity), no one did, and I had to post another update notifying members of my experiment with the group. I wanted to know if the group would miss the posts or even remember that I contributed something of value in response to their updates and links.
I was interested in finding out if: anyone would notice the missing posts; would anyone miss the deletions, from an emotional context. Would it concern anyone that a chunk of the group’s archive has now gone missing? Would members consider the issue from an ethical point of view? I had unfairly deleted posts that were partly, group property, considering so many of the members commented on these. Lastly, do we ascribe a nominal value to posts, say in its impact or purpose, or more importantly, do these posts help add value to our understanding of the person posting them?
The last point is crucial. The Digital Natives with a Cause Facebook group is made up of 250+ members from 25 countries. While several members have met each other at workshops and seminars, most of us only know each other through our profiles and posts. The way we interact within the group is largely through status updates, link sharing or group chat. The posts have become a guide to form impressions: there are members who are known as communicative and talkative, as they frequently share, comment and participate in live chat. There are others whom we label as lurkers simply because we see them online all the time, but never in a participative or engaged capacity within the group. Then there are the rare moderators, folks who know how to ask leading questions and help take forward discussions that someone else had started.
In a Facebook group, we have visual markers to guide our interactions with a post. The time of posting, the punctuations and emoticons accompanying the post, as well as the placement of the post (is it on top or do you have to scroll down?). We don’t rely as much on external markers as we do on the conversation itself. Since the conversation is not live, it’s actually just text awaiting acknowledgement. The text, in this case, is not seen as requiring the instant response as posts are not live, active or time-bound. And so, in this cyclical narrative, our interactions are fragmented, turning into a piecemeal approach to conversing with another user (instead of a person). We flit in and out of the Group page to browse the timeline, news feeds, notes and links on our personal Wall, and eventually log out of Facebook without having acknowledged the pings in another window.
Text as Memory
This group carries a lot of imagined significance. I imagined it to be associated with values such as warmth, curiosity, sharing, and networking – values that were a throwback to the workshops and conferences we participated in physically. However, values do not exist in silos and neither do they self-produce in perpetuity. There is no barometer to measure and ascertain whether your presence is ‘valued’ in the ‘corporeal’ sense – you are present as a body on the other side of the screen, but only really represented through your posts, links and status updates. Offline, a look, gesture or nod conveys fully well a ‘response’. Similarly, when you post a status update, you essentially are ‘talking’ to an audience, the Facebook universe comprising your ‘2889 friends’. Silence or deletions are not the usual responses to a ‘spoken’ word. How do you measure the impact of a ‘Read receipt’ or ‘Like’ statistic? In simple terms, I think Facebook does away with the offline value of courtesy.
Which brings me to the question, “Should all posts be assigned the same value?” The fact remains, all our utterances don’t always elicit a fully composed, fully engaged, cohesive, and thoughtful response. Think about it, while conversing in a group offline, are you always heard, given a response and acknowledged for every little snippet that you share? No, of course not! There is the satisfaction of knowing that when you are talking to someone or sitting next to your friend or even a stranger, there’s an expectation of some kind of engagement, either with a nod of the head, a look or gesture, body language conveying agreement or solidarity, expressions and a whole lot of non-verbal cues.
You could say video chat platforms have largely filled this gap between offline and online interface, allowing us to see, hear and engage with people as close to how it would be when they are with us. But is it really as seamless and instantaneous as we think it is? What does buffering, call disconnections, reflective screens, slow internet speeds, voice distortions, and screen resolutions do the nature of conversation? How does the technical nature of the platform influence how we prepare ourselves for a chat: it’s never spontaneous, the chin and face angles are always titled to showcase our best sides, and interfacing with the screen rather than the person doesn’t allow us to read other aspects of their body language or non-verbal cues.
The group expressed surprise, disappointment and curiosity with my experiment. They couldn’t believe I had deleted the sum total of my presence and many of them verified my actions by scrolling through countless posts dating back to a year and clicking through every comment and update to trace my presence. There wasn’t any to be found. A peer mentioned the “sad, beautiful loss of archive of my text” and how he would no longer have a reference point to the discussions he shared with me. Another peer commented that it was unrealistic of me to expect people to remember conversations online, seeing how they are so diverse and disparate in scope. Yet another peer was angry that I deleted the posts and comments without permission, saying: We also responded to your comments and liked your posts and you took away our shared archive and the collective memory of our interactions. It wasn’t your decision to take. Our research mentor was electrified by my subversive act and asked me about my need to find validation through acknowledgement from multiple sources, mechanisms and peers. Do our conversations gain similar traction offline? Did I have that kind of affinity with my offline friends, where all my conversations were acknowledged – then I should count myself lucky because everyone doesn’t receive the same validation.
It’s never going to be possible to replicate offline modes of communication on a dynamic, evolving and algorithm controlled-platform such as Facebook. What we could look at, and grapple with urgently, is to engineer mechanisms of engagement that focus on our emotive need to be heard and validated. This has to go beyond textual and click-heavy forms of interactions to immersive and tangible forms of communication that straddle the rather difficult line of acknowledging our human need of being seen and understood, and yet not pandering to the now constant feature of post-digital modes of existence: to receive a serotonin-high inducing incentive for every single beep, ping or click that is sent or received. The red notification message. The blue double tick marks. The read receipt.
Conversations offline are girded and enforced by other cues. Face to face, you have a complex and interconnected web of sounds, smells, touch, and sight to reinforce your connections and engagements with all the people you meet. Even if I forget the exact details of the midnight phone call between me and my BFF, I will have visual or aural markers to help me retain bits and pieces of what was exchanged and build a mental archive of the outcome of the talk. I will remember her feelings toward what was shared: disappointment, anger, hurt. There are other markers, the weather that night, the softness of the pillow I was lying on when I was speaking to her, the smell of the incense sticks, the music playing on the laptop when we spoke, and so many humdrum things of personal affect that act as markers to time, to memory, to our shared intimacy.