Reading the Collective Text: facing up to Facebook

About a week ago I was approached to help out in a project being developed as part of the annual awards ceremony here at Umeå University. I had blogged about the social network phenomenon Facebook and the post had given the impression that I was familiar with its uses. For this reason I was asked to give advice about the setting up of a Facebook group for the honored guests who will be attending the ceremony in late October. Since agreeing to do so I have been learning a lot about Facebook. In fact I have been close reading Facebook from the perspective of use as a collaborative text, investigating its contours and textures. Here are some of observations.

Facebook is a horizontally arranged network based on association rather than interest (unlike Myspace). One builds connections with others in the viral sense; email is used to bring contacts into the system. By allowing Facebook access to email account (Hotmail, Gmail, Yahoo and AOL) mass mail-outs can be one way of building up you friends list and of course bringing contributing to the Facebook database. The other way of finding contacts is through work, school and college. I myself went to a tiny high school in a small town in rural Australia (Oakey State High…go the Bears!) so it is not on the list of schools (you can only choose, not type in). But the town I went to university in is well represented. Interestingly the private schools (as in non-government) seem to be much more represented in the lists of high schools. In Brisbane, the capital of my home state there are 13 High schools listed and only 3 of them are government schools that did not charge fees. I wonder if this reflects the overall demographic of Facebook or the use of digital social software in Queensland, Australia. There is also college and company searches but when you type in the title Facebook will not prompt the line for you as there are no prior entries in the database of the term.

Setting up a profile on Facebook is not too different from other social platforms. There is lots of plug-ins that can be loaded into a page; video, books I’ve read, photos, movies and the list is growing daily. There are issues of readability relevant in regards to a Facebook site. I myself believe minimalism works on the web, this is a design question but I try to keep my site fairly sharp and to the point. I decline lots of offers from friends for zombie clubs, vampire attacks and poking or biting my colleagues. I have decided it is an identity thing I have going on Facebook and not a game. I am also fully aware of what I disclose on Facebook as it is a public space, even if it does have something of a gated community feel to it. I don’t think the gated (restricted access, password protected etc.) is that substantial.

Once you have a profile on Facebook then you can join interest groups. These can be from the sublime to the ridiculous: “I bet I can find 1,000,000 people who dislike George Bush!” was a group I just noticed. I have just applied to be friends with digital researcher Anna Valdes (I have met her…I wonder if she remembers me?) in order to join her group Gender and Computer Games. The gender group is made up of serious academic researchers, game developers and players in Sweden. A worthwhile project I believe. The groups are what led me into the close reader of Facebook, as we need to create a group for our honored guests visiting Umeå for the annual awards ceremony. There are actually 3 stages we have to get through to create a group:
1. Joining Facebook
2. Becoming a friend with one central person who is organizing the group if it is not open.
3. Joining the group
Each of these stages has to be fulfilled if one is to be a member of the group. If it is a closed group only the administrator of the group can invite another;

You can join any open group on your networks. Also, you can join any “global” group that is open. These groups can be found using the Search page. Just type in a keyword for the group you want to find and specify that you are looking for “Groups.” Alternatively, you can browse by category from the Groups page. When you find the group you are looking for, click on the “join group” link on the right side of the screen. Some groups require administrative approval for you to join. If you try to join these groups, you will have to wait for an admin to let you in. Finally, there are some groups on Facebook that are invitation only. You cannot request to join these. Only an invitation from a group admin will give you access

So sometimes you have to make each member a friend before you can invite them to the group (tedious). If you send an invite to become a friend to someone who is not a member of Facebook they are asked in the same mail to join Facebook and become members of the group once they accept the invitation that appears in the Facebook Inbox.

All these considerations add up to becoming the texture of Facebook. The texture is the layers of text that have to be negotiated to engage with the site. Texture combines the collaborative aspects of Facebook (millions of authors creating content) with the structures and laws that come from those that created the Facebook platform. In essence with the efforts to create the annual awards group, I have been navigating the texture of Facebook in something akin to what Jerome McGann described in Radiant Textuality: Literature After the World Wide Web (2001) as a ‘Deformance’, the moving from non-normative readings of Facebook (I have no idea what I am doing and I make ‘mistakes’) to normative readings, where the texture becomes familiar and I create the group site that is suitable for the annual awards ceremony.