Thesis: Utilisation of Platform Functionality

This post is one of a serialisation of key (edited) extracts of my thesis, “Digital Ethnography and a Virtual Orkney: The Role of Folklore in Creating an Online Orkney Place”, submitted and completed in 2018. You can download the full text below, with all footnotes, full data quotes, and list of references. I have left the original numerical chapter navigation in this post, for ease of reference.

4.1 Utilisation of Platform Functionality

Following the #OrkneySupernatural Twitter Hour, one of the three initial themes which arose as a result of the first iteration of thematic analysis was the role of the internet in discussing and developing contemporary folklore and a sense of place. This developed into the #OrkneyOnline Twitter Hosted Hashtag. This first section of the chapter will focus on features of the data which make them of interest specifically from an online function – as opposed to content – perspective.

Focussing on the Facebook and Twitter data analysed, eight key functions were identified as meriting further consideration. These functions, detailed below, are familiar to and representative of functions available across a wide range of social media platforms. Utilisation of these functions has been evidenced within the data collated from the Twitter Hour and Hosted Hashtags, and the Facebook Groups and Pages.

  • Hashtags
  • Images and Multimedia
  • Multi-Platform Engagement
  • Tagging Individuals
  • Conversations within Social Media
  • Redirection and Sharing within Social Media (Blogs, Facebook, Twitter)
  • Sharing to Social Media
  • Post Content: Soliciting Engagement

4.1.1 Hashtags

Although the hash symbol (#) had been used for many years, usually preceding figures to denote a monetary or numerical value, it was not adopted until the mid-2000s to represent an in-built search-function on social media and the wider internet. The use of the hashtag started to gain traction on Twitter in October 2007, with users following and tracking #SanDiegoFire, but the idea was originally pitched for use on the platform on the 23rd of August 2007. The hashtag symbol, chosen because of its easy reach on a Nokia phone keypad, was already in use on other platforms (Brown 2013, Pandell 2017).

Hashtags are used with slight differences on each social media platform, but the outcome is the same: a hashtag acts a hyperlink that, when clicked, will search that particular platform for all instances of use of that hashtag, similar to category and tag functionality on blogging platforms. Depending on the platform, these can then be further ordered. On Twitter, a search (either with or without a hashtag included) will default to ‘top’ (search results being identified by an algorithm that includes reference to most common user engagement or of most likely potential interest to the user searching), but the search can be filtered by ‘latest’ to access all instances in real-time, with the latest listed first.

Hashtags have entered public consciousness far beyond social media in more recent years. The word ‘hashtag’ has been used, often ironically, orally (as opposed to written) to signify a general feeling or sentiment (Mack 2012); or to reference existence of a particular sub-culture of the social media generation (Biddle 2011). Hashtags remain, though, first and foremost a search or grouping function to facilitate engagement with social media platforms. Hashtags can be used ironically or for amusement value (Zimmer 2011), to add a certain type of shared knowing or understanding to a post, thread, or theme. This could be simply to: indicate a certain sentiment (#winning); to make fun of oneself in a self-deprecating manner (#firstworldproblems); to engage with particular communities, either temporary (#MuslimCandyHearts (Wills & Fecteau 2016)) or more permanent (#PhDchat); or to respond to and engage with others discussing similar events or occurrences. A hashtag can therefore be used as shorthand to either signpost others to related content, or to assimilate and engage with a particular community.

In recent years, an increasing amount of research has been undertaken in relation to hashtags, whether this is analysis of longer-term communities, or of temporary communities focussing on a specific event or occurrence (Rightler-McDaniels & Hendrickson 2014, Wills & Fecteau 2016, and Zhu 2016 are some examples of research using specific time-limited hashtags). Even though in recent years Facebook has increased functionality and encouraged the use of hashtags across a number of platforms, Twitter has a longer history in the use of hashtags, so it is no surprise that it appears that many hashtag-related research projects are associated with the Twitter rather than Facebook.

In recent years, additional platform features on Facebook, such as increased choice of visibility settings for posts, has meant that hashtags can be better utilised across Facebook. Users have increasingly been able to extend or restrict post settings, meaning they can post status updates to as few as only one or two friends, or they can post them marked as public so all users (and anyone on the web) are able to view (and, if they have a Facebook account, comment on) them. Facebook as a competitive platform has strategically allowed such a variety of post settings in an attempt to keep abreast of, and eclipse, usage across other social media platforms; meaning users can choose to engage with hashtags at either a local level, or a global level. As a result, hashtags are seen across the platform much more commonly than they were a few years ago. Using hashtags in public groups such as those studied in this project means that all posts which incorporate a specific hashtag could, in theory, be promoted well beyond the group in which they were posted. This means that anyone outwith the group following a particular hashtag across the web may be drawn towards the group. Such engagement with hashtags is therefore visible to users within Facebook using the search function, and outwith Facebook. Similarly, it means that users within the group are directed to the existence of a hashtag outwith their own group.

The hashtag functionality on Twitter is arguably utilised to best effect with time-specific hashtags, such as a day of action (#IWD2018) or a Twitter Hour (#ScotlandHour). Several such hashtags are recurring, either on an ad hoc basis (#COYS) or on a regular basis (#ThrowbackThursday). By following a hashtag in real-time, users can engage with others and follow comments without the need to be tagged individually or for individual posts to be retweeted.

There were examples within the data of two primary uses of hashtags: firstly, using commonly acknowledged and popular hashtags which were used in posts specifically incorporating Orkney as a focus, and; secondly, the creation or use of a local hashtag, or one with a more obviously smaller remit. Some examples related to recurring, but time-sensitive hashtags, such as the annual #inktober hashtag, first created by Jake Parker in 2009 to encourage himself to develop “inking skills and develop positive drawing habits” (Parker 2018). Since then, it has been picked up internationally and many artists have participated across the globe. The use of #inktober in the Group demonstrates the engagement of local artists in international events, facilitated by the internet.

Hashtags are not used solely amongst creative communities, they are also used across many other groups, including academic communities. Examples of research projects using specifically created hashtags were also to be found within the data. It is worth nothing that there is no definite evidence that the hashtags were created specifically for use within that group; in fact, the purpose of a hashtag is usually to reach beyond the group in question to the wider platform or other social media platforms.

Hashtags are also used on a more local level to promote events and facilitate engagement aimed at specific communities. Not all hashtags relate to global events or are of interest internationally, and hashtags are often created to advertise and encourage participation in specific events or conversations, or to make reference to phenomena which might only be understood by a select few or a particular cultural group. There were examples within the data of events and festivals creating or utilising hashtags in this manner.

The Twitter Hour hosted on the 2nd of November 2016 was dependent on the use of hashtags, as all Twitter Hours are. In advance of the Twitter Hour, the hashtag, along with other key details, was publicised through a series of tweets referencing a blog post to which users were directed if they were interested in finding out more. All tweets posted by the researcher in relation to the Twitter Hour contained the #OrkneySupernatural hashtag, as did the majority of the responses. Twitter Hours utilise hashtags so that users can choose to follow the hashtag rather than an individual user, though some accounts are created specifically to manually or automatically tweet all tweets using a specific hashtag. Similarly, in advance of the Hosted Hashtags, relevant blog posts and the hashtags themselves were publicised via Twitter; and users incorporated #OrkneyAndPlace and #OrkneyAndPeople into their tweets. There was less engagement with #OrkneyOnline, and as a result no users engaged with the hashtag, though there were replies to the initial tweets.

4.1.2 Images and Multimedia

One aspect of the success of social media platforms in terms of maintaining position and continuing to expand upon market share in the field is that of the ability to embed an expanding array of multimedia content, with new developments in the pipeline and being rolled out all the time.

Including an image in a post increases the chance of user engagement with that content (Patel 2016). It is no surprise that many of the posts which demonstrate increased engagement from Facebook Groups and Pages are those which are accompanied by images. The use of images works well to stimulate visual memory and encourage engagement. On both Facebook and Twitter, users can be tagged in images. Though a Facebook Page cannot tag an individual directly, there are options for others to tag themselves and others in images shared by Pages. On Twitter, much as on personal Facebook pages, users can be tagged by other users if personal privacy settings allow. This is of significant importance to Twitter as a character-limited platform, as tagging an individual in an image does not reduce the maximum amount of characters available within a single tweet.

More recently, there has been increased usage of other multimedia content, with the use of videos and GIFs being used across platforms (Graphics Interchange Format files, or GIFs, are most commonly used on social media platforms to support brief animations) (Boissoneault 2017). Interestingly, Facebook has been much slower than Twitter to embed GIFs uploaded as files directly to the platform. Posts across Facebook and Twitter are set to auto-play video content (usually with the volume set to mute as default). Given the increased use of auto-play, videos are often now created with accompanying subtitles to encourage users to click through to watch the videos, or at least to encourage the user not to scroll past the video in their feed, leaving the content to play on-screen. This is another example of how social media platforms have dictated the format of content creation: as many users will be accessing content in public, creators ensure that having the sound set to mute on videos will not detract from the personal user experience by designing videos to be appealing, and making it obvious what content is being played, without the need for sound. It has been considered bad design practice for some time for websites, for example, to auto-play content with sound (Slefo 2017). This is also why an increasing number of videos have subtitles; so users can follow the thread of the multimedia content without turning the volume on. Some video software offers automatic subtitling, though with varying degrees of accuracy and success.

The Facebook data corroborated the observation that including photographs – using the power of images to stir visual memory or draw users in – was the most consistently successful way of encouraging engagement amongst users. Single-photograph posts were popular amongst users in one popular Facebook Group; whether the posts included old photographs, or contemporary photographs (particularly of Orkney landscapes).

4.1.3 Multi-Platform Engagement

Social media platforms are constantly working harder to better integrate multimedia and cross-platform content. Since 2005, Facebook has acquired 67 known platforms to better develop the user experience and to have more significant market control and share. These include platforms with a significant existing and individual user-base such as Instagram (in 2012), and WhatsApp (in 2014). Not only were these potential key competitors to Facebook, such acquisitions allow the company to better develop cross-platform functionality, so content can be shared more easily across multiple platforms (and, of course, provide the company with increased multiplatform metrics).

There are also some platforms that exist specifically to integrate and facilitate posting to multiple platforms. Hootsuite, for example, allows cross-platform posting to Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, as well as many others. Such platforms also facilitate easy access to frequent searches, and ultimately allow users to monitor and utilise multiple platforms as easily as possible.

4.1.4 Tagging Individuals

A key factor in a social media platform’s success is the ability to encourage and maximise cross-user engagement. Possibly the most prolific example of facilitating this is by the function of allowing users to tag other users within the platform. The tagging functionality offers a number of functions. Users tag accounts of official ‘presences’ or public companies on the platform to share information about where they are, have been, and their experiences. On some platforms, this is referred to as checking-in. Additional comments or images may be added for context, or the tagging can simply be an action in itself (this is more frequent on Facebook than Twitter, where there is no specific functionality to allow optional auto-tagging of location).

Individuals are often tagged for one of two reasons: occasionally, to draw fellow users’ attention to the user (and their potential relationship with the post); but more often to draw a user’s attention to a specific post, sometimes to encourage them to engage with the content directly. Users can use tagging functionality to demonstrate shared experiences or associations between themselves and the user(s) they tag.

The process of tagging an individual on Facebook and Twitter usually starts with typing the @ symbol immediately before a user’s name, though platforms will monitor a user’s post during creation and suggest individuals to tag if their names are mentioned whilst the user is typing the post. In itself, this use of the @ symbol, which has a surprisingly long history in its own right (it was originally used to denote ‘at’ in bookkeeping (Allman 2012)), has entered public usage offline to become associated with names and naming.

4.1.5 Conversations within Social Media

On Twitter, tagging individuals (or replying to individuals, meaning the reply is automatically directed at a specific user or users) means that threaded conversations can take place across the platform. Conversations are not formally nested (where replies are indented), but can be tracked by following the thread of replies. Where many users have replied to a single original post (and especially when other users join the conversation partway through a reply-thread), this can get confusing to follow; but the functionality does mean that two users can have a continuous threaded conversation on the platform. In recent years, Twitter have facilitated the use of such conversations by excluding tagged users from the character limits allowed across the platform. Since the data for this research was collated and analysed, Twitter has since launched a specific thread feature (Newton 2017).

Comment integration within Facebook allows for one instance of nested comments within an original reply, and then the platform assumes users will tag the user to whom they are replying thereafter. This can be cumbersome and, again, can be quite difficult to follow, both as an original participant, and as a user following the post comments. Facebook Pages can choose to allow comments to appear either in the order in which they are posted, or by a ‘top comments’ algorithm based on engagement metrics. This is one reason why, occasionally, one-word replies are seen across the platform: for example, ‘bump’ (meaning ‘Bring Up My Post’) to bring a comment to the top of a thread. Though not evidenced within the data for the current study, this has the potential to skew data for researchers using the Facebook platform as their research site.

The ‘six degrees of separation’ theory, which was a precursor to the developing field of social networks, may have been developed over eighty years ago, but in the age of Web 2.0 (and, indeed, Web 3.0) this theory has come into its own. Karinthy, in a short story in 1929, first discussed the notion of connecting social networks using a stipulated number of people:

A fascinating game grew out of this discussion. One of us suggested performing the following experiment to prove that the population of the Earth is closer together now than they have ever been before. We should select any person from the 1.5 billion inhabitants of the Earth – anyone, anywhere at all. He bet us that, using no more than five individuals, one of whom is a personal acquaintance, he could contact the selected individual using nothing except the network of personal acquaintances.

(1929, translated by Makkai)

Over the years, and subsequent research and writing, this became better known as ‘six degrees of separation’, most famously entering public consciousness with Guare’s play and subsequent film in the early 1990s. Since then, there has been further light-hearted social network analysis related to six degrees of separation including Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon (Child 2012); something which itself has entered public consciousness in its own right.

Social media may well have reduced the number of degrees of separation (Bhagat et al. 2016), but the principle of networked people remains the same. During the research, there were many not dissimilar examples on Orkney-related Facebook Groups and Pages, most often when Group users were trying to identify people in old photographs. Throughout the data, such posts were, for the most part, popular amongst Facebook users. Utilising the ability to tag other users, users within Facebook Groups would work through old school photographs or images from Orkney newspapers to name every student or staff member in the photograph. In several instances, there would also follow a discussion of memories about the time the photographs were taken (especially for more recent photographs, such as Stromness Academy school photographs from the 1980s), or users would discuss what had happened to the individuals over the years that followed the photographs being taken. Examples included mention of a teacher who was considered a ‘heartthrob’ at the time, and a pupil who had died suddenly in tragic circumstances on a trip following an inter-school football match. Such discussions sometimes led users to get in touch either directly, or via other users, with old friends or extended family (“Nice to meet you…” and “I’m your cousin 😊”). Incorporating Orcadian dialect into conversations, it was occasionally observed that “it’s a peedie world.”

4.1.6 Redirection and Sharing within Social Media

Tagging individuals draws users to a current post or conversation. Redirection, however, is also a common feature of social media. Social media is designed to encourage as much engagement as possible, and to keep users within the platform (or associated platforms, such as Facebook and Instagram), accessing more content. Encouraging users to engage with other Profiles, Groups, and Pages is a top priority for social media platforms. Parker, a former President of Facebook, has described how the company exploited a “vulnerability in human psychology” to make its platform more addictive (Solon 2017), and Palihapitiya, formerly responsible for user growth for Facebook, recently described his guilt at being part of the team who helped contribute to this addiction:

The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works. No civil discourse, no cooperation, misinformation, mistruth.

(Wong 2017)

There was evidence of various types of redirection used within Facebook. In some cases, users were redirected to other Facebook Groups and Pages to answer queries, or even to redirect them outwith the platform (especially to blogs, archives, or news-related sites). Such redirection was occasionally utilised to assist in answering queries, or to promote work created by a user.

On Twitter, citing tweets has been made more functional by allowing tweets to be linked directly with a subsequent post. The shortened URL to the tweet is still counted in the character count, but the weblink itself does not appear in the subsequent tweet: instead, the original tweet appears, boxed. This functionality was originally used for embedding content such as YouTube videos, but has been rolled out to tweets. Partial functionality also works for embedding other content: Storify links will play media content within the Twitter platform; and blog posts created in certain blogging software platforms (such as WordPress) will provide a boxed link to the blog post, complete with any featured image content.

4.1.7 Sharing to Social Media

Sharing external content to social media platforms is a key feature, and social media platforms encourage users to consider sharing content from compatible platforms to increase user engagement within the social media platform itself. External platforms themselves have further facilitated sharing to social media in recent years, with an option of social share buttons often accompanying content. Facebook allows status posts to link out to other websites without including the URL in the final post (once the URL has loaded, the text containing the web link can be deleted prior to posting); and Twitter allows for URLs to be included using a reduced number of characters (23 characters per URL).

Content is shared to promote events and products (either by those engaged with delivery or creation, or those interested in attending or being involved with the products), to share good news stories, or to discuss current affairs (amongst other examples). All of these are ways in which individuals or companies develop their own personal sense of identity and place, whether that is due to professional engagement or personal interest.

4.1.8 Post Content: Soliciting Engagement

Some posts are deliberately designed to encourage people simply to tag and engage others, not particularly to encourage in-depth discussions; simply to promote the post (and the product or event mentioned therein). The most overt of these examples are the, often humorous, posts simply stating “tag someone who…”, of which a variant is “don’t say anything, simply tag someone” (often associated with more apparently amusing or bizarre posts). Less obvious but potentially more engaging are the posts phrased as questions: “Do you know someone who would appreciate…” This top-level engagement works well for the social media platforms whose priority is keeping users within the platforms and increasing engagement across Pages in particular (as Pages are increasingly encouraged to use paid promotion for their posts).

Methods of encouraging engagement evident within the data included: competitions (particularly from smaller business); engagement with public consultations (potentially offline or outwith social media), and; looking for volunteers or other engagement with local events. The function of threaded comments allows for further engagement, including conversations. There were various examples of this within the data, including people with little or no links to Orkney posting to request advice or information.

The Twitter Hour and Hosted Hashtags were designed to solicit engagement from individual users, and made use of platform functionality to encourage as much engagement as possible: requesting that posts be retweeted, and tagging users in images.

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