Social media and micro-blogging have been fascinating to me ever since I first encountered them. In the last 3-4 years there has been an enormous growth in social network sites and in the numbers of people using them, especially on the two most popular services, Facebook and Twitter.
That fascination grew to become a doctoral research focus that has explored the different forms of communication dynamics being formed online. I was, in particular, curious why people post trivial, mundane updates and messages to each other – a behavior I have come to term “phatic posts”. It's not just young people, but also professionals from different walks of life as well as internet researchers, including myself.
I used to tweet from the airplane before taking off, or being alone at the airport at 5am checking into Twitter to see if anyone’s awake in “my time zone’’, or logging in to my Flickr account to see if someone commented on my latest photography. I was not the only one engaging in such behavior; au contraire, many internet researchers and geeky people I know would demonstrate similar patterns of online processes.
“Phatic” is a term used primarily in linguistics, to describe the grunts and nods that are given as a sense of indicating that the lines are open for communication and interaction between two sides, two nodes, sender and receiver. One of the most interesting outcomes of this research thread debunks the old theories of scientists such as the anthropologist Malinowski who claimed that phatic expressions don’t have any practical purpose or meaning. For example, research by Pear Analytics in 2009 described phatic communication messages as “pointless babble” to outsiders to the broadcaster’s social network.
Social media provide an expressive channel for sharing our feelings, needs, current status, or simple statements. Those simple and short statements can carry light information about the food you are eating, about the weather, what film are you currently watching and so on. They can also provoke communication: “anyone there?”, “does anyone know...?”, etc.
On the other side there are applications driven by small micro posts (built by social networks) that enable the creation of phatic posts in the form of micro blogs (Twitter statuses), Facebook updates, signal indications of “like”, “poke”, Flickr comments and fav’s of the photos, Instant messenger signals in the form of emoticons and wide variety of smileys.
It turns out that the mundane, brief messages that you tweet are not meaningless at all. I came to very interesting conclusions that I have presented in a paper prepared for the 2012 World Wide Web conference in Lyon. In contrast to earlier authors, the research showed that phatic posts do contain information messages, signals, values of staying up-to-date with micro and macro world of events and news, flirt, chat, public expressions of everyday life and emotions among the participants (affection, hate, anger, and so on). Their contents has some elements of meaning but their main relevance is to denote something: interaction, connected presence and fostering and maintaining connections.
As any other human basic needs for connection and togetherness, phatic posts keep both the online and offline communication alive and sustain the life of social network sites, and social media services. They are not trivial as people may think. They hold together and animate social media.
The new paper built on earlier work about microposts, especially some from 2008 on one of its manifestations on Facebook concerning the “Poke” function. Further examining the communication dynamics among young adults in academia on social networks led Dr Bernie Hogan of The Oxford Internet Institute to inspire me to think about small, brief language expressions as “phatic communication’’. After web analysis, observations, and interviews with people both online and offline, I came up with several findings.
Phatic posts (or small talk) in communication processes online are very meaningful because they indicate and imply social recognition, online intimacy by sharing our thoughts and feelings with others, as well as the sociability in online communities. Phatic posts potentially denote a lot more substance and weight to them than the content itself suggests. We may conclude that, in the phatic communication context, the content itself may not be relevant but the “keeping in touch” signal it delivers is crucial.
You can read the paper in CEUR online database; I would be happy to read your thoughts and comments both here and on my blog.
Related at Scientific American