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Context design

When styling a post and designing the context in which it is intended to be understood Facebook users must, primarily, take into account the following elements, organised within the mnemonic POSTING (in analogy with Hymes’ SPEAKING framework). Our argument is that on Facebook users have a semi-conscious awareness of these elements in relation to how their posts are likely to be received and interpreted, and that this influences their behaviour on the site.

P          Participants: the context constructed in a post is shaped by the poster’s general knowledge of the people they are friends with and their experience of their past behaviour and interaction on the site, as well as the more immediately relevant feedback provided by their interlocutors’ responses to their posts.

O         Online media ideologies: people’s ideas about the purpose of Facebook in relation to other platforms, and how status updating works in relation to other channels on Facebook, shape the kind of post they will contribute to the site.

S          Site affordances: awareness of, and attitudes towards, affordances, both of the site itself and online texts more generally. Affordances are socially constructed; it is not simply the case that Facebook ‘has’ affordances which people either do or do not recognise. Rather they the product of people’s awareness and use of potential site functionalities.

T         Text type (or mode) in which the communication takes place. That is, the fact that online communication is often typed, includes the ability to use visual resources, and is characterised by physical distance, quasi-synchronicity, and networked resources.

I           Identification processes: When posting, users are not only taking into account external or ‘other’ centres of influence but are actively involved in positioning themselves in relation to existing norms – (dis)aligning themselves with particular ideologies, discourses and individuals, as well as attaching themselves to, or distancing themselves from, ascribed social roles. Thus context design also involves an awareness of self and of the ways in which an individual wishes to perform and make visible their identity, commonality, connectedness and belonging.

N         Norms of communication: these will vary between groups at different scales of interaction. On a higher scale, interaction on Facebook will be shaped by widely-circulating cultural, religious and political beliefs and values. On a lower scale of interaction, local peer norms regarding appropriate behaviour between friends and how Facebook should be used. In certain cases, norms could include specific regulation as a result of policies laid down by the site company.

G         Goals, or immediate purposes or ends when posting. So, for example, one might be making a joke or being ironic, in which case it is necessary to signal this in order to create the context in which your post can be interpreted. This role may be fulfilled by contextualisation cues such as emoji.

 

Snippets from our survey, as discussed in Taking Offence on Social Media (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017), illustrate how people take the above elements into account when posting on Facebook. These respondents are explaining what they don’t post and why.

I avoid posting things that I know will offend some people because I don’t like offending people. I don't feel it’s the best place to discuss different viewpoints due to its public nature and the very mixed audience who would be reading my posts. I would rather discuss different opinions in real life when someone random isn't likely to join in.

Here we see an expression of online media ideologies regarding communicative norms on Facebook and its ‘public’ nature, as well as a recognition of the participation structure (participants) on Facebook. The comparison with ‘real life’ suggests Facebook is being evaluated as a text type (or mode) in contrast to spoken interaction.

Personal Problems - Many of my Facebook ‘friends’ aren’t friends in real life, so I don’t want to share this sort of personal information. Gossip/rumors, information that might be hurtful to another person.

As well as showing awareness of the nature of their relationships with their Facebook ‘friends’, this response highlights how the respondent’s concern both for her own self-presentation and that of others (identification processes) shapes their decisions about what to post.

In this final snippet, the respondent is explaining what they do when they are offended by a post.

This is terrible to say but if it is someone that I ‘need’ (boss, former boss, employment connection) I used to unfriend them but now I generally ‘unfollow’ or hide their news feed so that I don't need to see it. I’m an ELT [English language teaching] instructor, married to a Korean, so the community here is transient and I feel like I need to try to make some more permanent friends if only because they have more experience navigating the culture and have specific information that makes life here simpler.

This extract suggests that communicative decisions are made in response to what the user aims to achieve through Facebook (their goals) and what Facebook is for (media ideologies), as well as their understanding of their relationship with members of their audience. They also show a recognition of the site affordances and the different implications of unfriending people or hiding their posts.