Increasingly Brief Encounters

I’ve been on annual leave from work for most of this week, trying to get my head down and study. Apart from a couple of frustrations (an empty week eventually turned into having something going on every single day), it’s been going well. Progress of sorts has been made, at any rate.

The bulk of the work has been thematic coding. Steady, methodical, a-bit-boring coding. After downloading the data from the Facebook Groups and Pages some time ago, I ended up with a potential 157,197 individual records to sift. Many of these will be disregarded and will not be coded, but there (fortunately?) is a surprising amount of potential relevance. Well, I say that now, at this stage of top-level coding. Who knows what it will end up like. I certainly need to be more brutal when I come to review what I have, that’s for certain.

At the moment, I have seventeen nodes (to use the NVivo parlance): Archaeology, Artists and Makers, Community and Place, Energy, Events, Folklore, Follow Up, Food and Drink, Heritage and History, Humour and Local Jokes, Landscape and Weather, Language, Living and Working in Orkney, Orcadians (and named others), Orkney Media (and further afield), Research (and education), Tourists and Visitors.

Already some of these have started to blur, and a couple have already split to get to this point. ‘Energy’ is a new node added this week. In another week or so, I will review and refine them all again. As I work my way through, I’m already thinking of the odd observation or statement which will make it into my draft analysis chapter. I occasionally scribble down a few directional hints for later.

The Kitchen Window #1

Here is one such observation, that may or may not make it into my draft chapter (at present, it’s far too anecdotal – ask me after I’ve coded a few thousand more records).

I’ve just finished coding a particular Facebook Page’s data, working my way through posts and comments, starting at the latest at the point of data download and working backwards to when the Page was first created.

There was a vast difference between the response that earlier posts received, to later posts. Though there was still what could be said to be good engagement with the page, it was disappointing how so many of the unique comments trailed away comparatively over the years. That’s not to say that there weren’t likes and equivalents, but there wasn’t the same individual engagement with the page: feedback about events, comments about upcoming developments.

Did the novelty of being able to feel part of that Page’s community wear off? Did everyone just get so swamped with other Groups and Pages? Facebook’s stranglehold over Pages over the last few years may have had some effect in terms of traffic, but that wouldn’t explain ongoing engagement indicated by likes as opposed to comments.

As I say, this is far too anecdotal an observation at this stage (I should note that the Page relates to something which remains as current as it has always been). Nevertheless, my thesis does focus on qualitative engagement through the medium of social media, so it will be interesting to see if further data corroborates my initial observations. But it does bring to the fore a question: is this what we’re becoming, now? Are we less inclined than we once were to engage meaningfully with each other via social media?

There has been much written on this, such as the attention spans of readers and the increasing shift towards more visual platforms. Whole platforms are built around our (apparent) desire for brevity: Snapchat, Tinder. Several blogging sites now list a reading time next to each article, indicating how long the reader would need to set aside to absorb the content in full. The Guardian now refers to what would once have been an investigative piece of journalism as a ‘Long Read’.

The Kitchen Window #2

Increasingly, we quantify success of engagement, setting ourselves targets of hits or likes. Clickbait exists to encourage people to follow up on provocative (and often misleading) headlines. A quick glance at some of the recent articles regarding Facebook (which acknowledge that it’s incredibly hard to find out how Facebook work because they withhold so much of their data) confirms what we all know: that Facebook want to keep people in the system as long as possible, getting lost down a rabbit hole of clicks and tempting content. Responding to our decreased inclination to engage, it provides us with a multitude of options to merely click a single button to indicate how we feel about something. We like something, we love something, we cry at something. And, in doing so, we are further caught in this spiral of reducing our individual engagement: we are silencing our own voices for the sake of a tap or a swipe.

This is nothing new, we all know this. But it was sad to be presented with potential evidence of this happening with Pages that had previously managed great community engagement.

As I said, these observations are anecdotal at present; and they refer to Page engagement on a single platform. Group engagement within that same platform has a different flavour altogether.

Interestingly, the Page in question changed its tone over the years, too: possibly to adapt to such observations, possibly because a shift from more formal notifications to personable chatty posts went hand-in-hand with a community-building strategy.

I don’t ask anyone to draw any conclusions from these thoughts, I offer this simply as an observation, leading to a query: would you rather have more, brief interactions; or fewer, more meaningful interactions?

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