On Facebook Time

For the final week of our New Media Seminar, we read Scott McCloud’s (1993) “Time Frames,” a comic that performs a meta-analysis of time as represented within the genre of comics, along with Tim Berners-Lee, Robert Cailliau, Ari Luotonen, Henrik Frystyk Nielsen, and Arthur Secret’s (1994) “The World-Wide Web,” which describes the now ubiquitous system that enables widened access to information across servers and platforms. Both of the readings consider how interfaces shape user experience (something I’m particularly interested in) as McCloud analyzes the “interface” of comics as a genre, while Berners-Lee, et al. discusses aspects of the World Wide Web interface that enable wide user accessibility. These readings lead me to wonder how time is encoded within other technologies and interfaces, including social media applications like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. I’m particularly interested in the first two considering how recent events like the earthquake in Nepal as well as the death of Freddie Gray and the protests against police brutality in Baltimore are framed through these mediums.

Over the last several days, I’ve experienced a seemingly unending supply of posts, articles, and opinions about the protests in Baltimore through Facebook and Twitter that has helped me to not only learn about events that have been taking place, but that has also provided particular ways of processing and contextualizing those events. These applications enable hyperlinked, networked information and ideas to come together in ways that disrupt, revise, and append to the narrative timeline constituted by popular media narratives, institutional histories, and other official accounts. Admittedly, my Facebook and Twitter are something of an echo chamber–and certainly there are pros and cons to this–but I am nonetheless consciously aware of how they affect how I see and what I feel when I am out and about offline. Time as depicted by social media interfaces inform how users in general interact with information and each other.

Chris Rock’s comedic analysis of how Facebook time affects how people understand and interact with one another on- and offline.


Facebook Time

Facebook’s interface is divided into three columns with a narrow navigational header up at top. The header, set with a dark blue background, contrasts the white and light gray backgrounds of the rest of the site. The largest part of the header is a search bar, from which users have the ability to quite literally leap to “people,” pages and posts according to their individual desires.

A screen grab of my Facebook home page. Note how the font of the published title of the Salon article is much larger in size than any other font on the home page. Whose voices are being prioritized here?

The middle column, the “timeline” is not only centered but it is also proportionally the widest and thus given the most emphasis. The timeline is intended for users to share “What’s on [their] minds?” and generally includes photos, memes, articles, opinions, ads, and user commentary. This content is framed in white and gray rectangles visually separated from one another based on who made the “original” post. Facebook’s structural interface is such that each status (not including ads) always includes the name and avatar of the person who posted the status, how long ago the status was posted, the privacy setting of the post, and buttons that allow users to hide a status, unfollow the person who posted it, report, the post, save the link, and turn on notifications. Aside from the avatar, this main information is represented in alphabetic textual format. At times, there is an indication that the original post has been edited, and on occasion, a digital or physical location is also indicated in textual alphabetic format. In other words, names of places are prioritized as opposed to a place’s physical geography or the “unofficial” memories attached to it. There is a level of prioritization on authorship, and identity is signified by an alphabetic textual first and last name alongside a single image.

While the design of the “timeline” may give the illusion of reverse chronology in terms of its name (timeline) and the design of the interface–the coloring, fonts, and space between posts is uniform–it is generally not true that posts are displayed in the order that the original post took place in the way that Twitter displays tweets, nor is the pacing of posts temporally uniform, nor is the spatial representation indicative of temporal duration. For instance, my current timeline shows a status posted 57 minutes ago followed, below it, by another status posted more recently, 33 minutes ago. What appears and the order in which it appears is also driven by an algorithm that takes into account numerous conditions, including who one is Facebook “friends” with, their friends’ activities and “likes,” the activity surrounding a status update, and what and who one has permitted to show up on their timeline. Further, activity is contingent on a number of factors including the time of day that a person has posted in relation to the time of day when people tend to use Facebook.

That is, what users see on their Facebook timelines is based in part on something of a “popularity contest”–whether in terms of the popularity of a post as well as the popularity of a user. While on the one hand, this means users have to do less work to access particular kinds of information, encouraging dialogue across particular events, this also means that if a user can’t get activity to take place around his or her post, it is less likely that others will be exposed to the post. And while older technologies like newspapers and magazines select what’s featured based on a variety of considerations including predictions about what will attract their audiences, social media is able to take into account actual activity of users that has already taken place because of its ability to update instantaneously. Whereas Michael Wesch said we “will organize all of this data,” we are here seeing how machines are instantaneously organizing user-generated content based on our activity. It can be said that we are still organizing data, but this organizing is oftentimes taking place in a way that is less purposeful than, say, titling and tagging.

Thus, Facebook time is generally based on qualitative features like activity and popularity over quantitative time. It prioritizes people (via a single name and avatar), their activity on Facebook, events as represented online, and names of places over perhaps other possible aspects of those people and places. The algorithms that dictate what appears in an individual’s Facebook timeline enables users to interact and enter into dialogue around particular topics and events across not only spatio-geographical boundaries, but also across temporal boundaries, asynchronously, according to an individual user’s time scheduleSuch connections are made across users as well as across content, where posts about particular topics or with particular keywords are visually grouped–and thus experienced–together.

Visual representation of layered, hypertextual time across social media from the last few days. Note how historical events and writings across time, including the excerpt from Langston Hughes’ “Dixie Man to Uncle Sam” written in the 1960s, a reference to the acquittal of the four LAPD who beat Rodney King, and 11 images of white riots are placed alongside one another. I’ve also seen several instances of Martin Luther King Jr. quotes de- and then re-contextualized. What new forms of argumentation and persuasion are enabled through this arrangement?

Here, I’ll end by asking, rather than answering:

How, then, does the interface of social media like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube shape how users experience information and world events beyond what I’ve described here? What new political formations are enabled? What are the implications for how writers and designers of technologies work?

One Comment

  1. Found your site on Google. This is a cool post. I’d like to see you take the main idea from this article and cretae another second article, and maybe you could embed a vid, also?

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