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Interviews with Students about Social Media: Exigence, Audience, Constraints

Six first-year composition students agreed to participate in a follow-up interview after taking the survey: Jana, Rachel, Madison, Jimmy, Chase, and Hallie.[1] These interviews were semi-structured in that all participants were asked the same series of eight questions, with the opportunity provided to expand on or clarify particular responses. The audio-recorded interviews were then transcribed. The quotes from the participants that are referenced here are therefore my interpretation of the audio recordings: I added punctuation, em dashes are used to indicate pauses, and, in some cases, I have edited the content for clarity or concision (indicated by an ellipsis). What is included on this page, however, is my attempt to authentically capture the participants' responses to the interview queries. These questions were as follows:

  • Which social media sites do you use? Approximately how many hours per day would you estimate you spend on social media sites?
  • Which site do you use most frequently? Approximately how many friends, followers, etc. do you have on the social media site you use most frequently?
  • If you use more than one social media site, do you typically follow/friend the same people on each site? In other words, are there individuals that you allow to see your information on one site but not on another?
  • Has there ever been a moment when you were concerned about how one of your friends, followers, etc., might interpret something that you posted on a social media site?
  • What is typically your reasoning behind why you post (share thoughts/images, tell a story, etc.)?
  • Are your social media sites public or private? Why?
  • Can you explain to me a circumstance in which you formed an opinion about someone based on something they posted on a social media site?
  • Is there anything else you would like to add?

Responses about site usage echoed the data represented in the survey in that all of these individuals indicated their high daily use of these sites, with each participant revealing that he or she engaged with social media for at least an hour per day. All six participants have Facebook accounts, and all but Rachel also have Twitter profiles. Hallie, Chase, and Madison indicated that they had Instagram profiles, and several interviewees noted that they used other social media sites such as Reddit (Jimmy), Pinterest (Madison), Tumblr (Rachel), and YouTube (Jana). All the participants indicated that they used either Facebook or Twitter most frequently, again reinforcing the survey data. My interest in discussing these social media practices was to ascertain their understanding of the rhetorical situation, and thus several emergent themes became evident when their responses were viewed using Lloyd Bitzer’s (1968) notions of exigence, audience, and constraints as a framework.

Exigence: "I want to get likes"

According to Bitzer (1968), an exigence is rhetorical “when it is capable of positive modification and when positive modification requires discourse or can be assisted by discourse” (p.7). In the context of social media, I read exigence as the motivating factor—the circumstance that prompts the individual to seek “positive modification” by engaging in the act of composing. When asked to discuss the exigencies for social media usage—in other words, their reasons for writing or posting—many of the participants specifically indicated a desire to receive (positive) feedback and engage with other users. Jana, for instance, noted that she posts on Twitter when she wants to engage in a conversation about a common interest: "[When] I'm watching a show or something and I really want to like talk about the show, I'll put it on Twitter. That way people can respond to me like, 'Oh, I'm watching it and I thought this'—and there's that whole aspect of getting a retweet or a favorite." Indeed, that notion of receiving a direct response from an audience member as motivation for writing or posting was also reiterated by Chase, who claimed, "[My Twitter] is all public ... 'cause I want to get retweets. 'Cause I'm not, like, trying to hide anything. If I had, like, bad tweets then I'd make it private. Same thing on Instagram. I want to get more likes, so I keep it public." Students' practice of posting in order to elicit a response suggests that the act of writing is not conducted within an empty vacuum of Internet discourse, but rather that the students engage in posting because they seek to elicit some kind of reaction, even if that particular reaction comes in no other form than a tacit approval of that content.

In addition to seeking interaction, these students were also motivated to write due to a desire to articulate a particular purpose; however, intriguingly enough, the students with both Facebook and Twitter accounts indicated very different reasons for posting on each respective site. Hallie, for instance, noted that "On Facebook I think I do more important things ... like posting about getting a job interview and [on] Twitter I usually just post, like, random stuff during the day that's insignificant." This notion of posts on Facebook being reserved only for more "important" events was also echoed by Madison:

Yeah, usually [when I post] on Facebook it's just to share if I, like, get a part in a play or if I win something—Facebook is more just like major events. That's why I post: to keep my family updated because I am friends with a lot of my family on Facebook. As far as [why I post on] Twitter, I really have no reasoning [behind] what I tweet. I mean, sometimes I tweet at people to ask them questions if I don't have their cellphone number, but it's just kinda my thoughts like "I hate the rain." Yeah, just kinda random thoughts for Twitter.

Jana additionally spoke of her use of Facebook to promote the campus events and organizations that she was involved with and to share the "significant events" that occurred at school, and noted that, in contrast, Twitter is used to indicate "what is on my mind today ... like 'I just had a great sandwich'." This repeated emphasis on the apparently "random" or trivial nature of Twitter postings indicates that these students have a distinct understanding for the purpose of writing—the idea that, by and large, an event must be of a larger perceived importance in order to warrant a mention on Facebook. This is an especially interesting trend in the larger space of social media analysis, as a student who possesses multiple accounts must then negotiate the relative level of importance of the content when a decision is made to post. This decision is rife with opportunity for application when discussing notions of rhetoric, as the choice to post on one site over another suggests a consideration of the conventions of each site—with a 140 character limit for each post, Twitter is perhaps the platform more conducive to "random" thoughts. Yet, such a choice also indicates an awareness of how this might be perceived differently by the different audiences for each site.

Audience: "Even My Grandma has a Facebook."

Bitzer (1968) described a rhetorical audience as "[consisting] only of those persons who are capable of being influenced by discourse and of being mediators of change" (p. 8). The interviewees all, by and large, demonstrated a keen awareness of the individuals who they might possibly influence through their social media posts. Many of the participants were able to identify the particular number of friends or followers that they have on each site: Chase, for instance, noted that he has "exactly 232 followers" on Twitter. This numerical quantification of the audience for these posts suggests, first, that these students are concerned with how many friends and followers they possess, which is not a surprising notion since having a larger number of followers/friends comes with a certain level of cachet. But, perhaps more importantly, this awareness of audience is manifest in whether or not the students chose to make their accounts public or private. All social media users have the option to make their sites accessible to all persons on the Internet or to limit their posts only to individuals that are approved by the user (i.e., "friends" or followers). Again, there was an evident distinction here between how the concept of public and private discourses was negotiated amongst users of both Twitter and Facebook. All of the female participants noted that their Facebook profiles were private—the two male users indicated that they had a measure of privacy on their Facebook accounts, but that some material was publicly accessible—whereas all but one participant with a Twitter account (Jana) indicated that these profiles were public.

The reasons for these public versus private settings consequently speak to both differing purposes for the writing that is produced on these sites as well as the different audiences for these postings. Madison indicated that, "My Facebook is completely private ... I just don't want people to know. I feel like I have more information about myself on Facebook, [my] personal life, and I don't want people to know all that. Whereas Twitter it's more just my name and my tweets, so Twitter, I believe, that is public." This idea of Twitter not being as "personal" was also mentioned by Hallie, who suggested that, "My Facebook is private—well, only my friends can see it because so much goes on Facebook, so many pictures and things like that ... I don't want so many people to see it. But my Twitter isn't so personal ... I don't post pictures of myself all the time or any of my friends, so that's public ... anyone can see it." Jana, the only individual who had a Twitter profile that was private, indicated that she made this decision because she was being considered for a part in a television show, and so did not want her information accessible to the producers on the program. This acknowledgement, however, indicates an understanding of an audience beyond her specific awareness—i.e., the notion that she might be subject to additional scrutiny from individuals that she is not personally acquainted with.

This is not to suggest, however, that specific and known audiences of social media profiles—the audience of friends—do not also have a substantial influence on why these individuals decide to post on these sites. The reach of Facebook, in the last five years especially, has expanded substantially beyond its initial target audience of college students to include individuals from nearly every demographic. Because of this, many participants noted that they were especially cautious about what they posted on Facebook, as so many members of their family have access to the content via their own profiles. Chase perhaps put this concept most succinctly, commenting that, "I mean, my grandma has a Facebook." The high prevalence of family members on Facebook, however, left some participants especially concerned about how they might react to opinion-based content: Hallie, for instance, mentioned that " [on] Facebook I don't post controversial things because then if my family or friends don't agree then they comment and comment and I just don't like that. So, I usually just keep that to myself on Facebook—because I am worried about what my friends or family will say if they don't agree with me." Jana also indicated her anxiety over posting content on Facebook due to her family members' presence there, suggesting that she is "very censored on Facebook just because of family ... they have interpreted things wrong in the past, and they're like 'oh you need to calm down ... I'm gonna tell your mom what you're saying.' " This concept of family members—to borrow playground terminology—"tattle-taleing" and using social media to monitor the activities of the students thus appears to be a very real anxiety. Perhaps most poignantly, Rachel—the most infrequent social media user amongst those who participated—indicated that she feels uncomfortable discussing her personal life on Facebook for very particular reasons:

I worry about how my family will perceive something just based on how they think of things socially—considering that my fiancé is transgendered. So I think, um, maybe I shouldn't post things about that or things like that, and even some of my personal interests, like television shows. I kinda wonder, you know, that they might think of [them] as weird.

This fear of family using Facebook then to judge the activities of these individuals consequently has substantial bearing on why students post, causing them to censor their activities, and—in the case of Rachel—perhaps forcing them to construct an inauthentic identity in order to mitigate the potential for censure.

In a further iteration of a difference between Facebook and Twitter, many of the participants indicated that the absence of family members on Twitter led them to be less cautious about what they post on this site. Jimmy noted that "Twitter's more like my close friends and non-relatives, so it's more, like, college-y stuff that I put on there, whereas Facebook is more family-friendly." Jana also commented that she believes that if a user wants an individual's "truest opinion" it is more fruitful to turn to Twitter over Facebook, and Madison was very direct about keeping her audiences for the sites separate, indicating that, "I'm friends with family on Facebook, but I don't like them to follow me or me follow them on Twitter." This concept again suggests an important rhetorical difference between usage of Facebook and Twitter, as well as an indication of how such sites might be used to ascertain how students negotiate the critical notion of audience in writing.

Constraints: "It Changed My Whole Idea I Had About that Person"

Bitzer (1968) explained that “standard sources” of constraints “include beliefs, attitudes, documents, facts, traditions, images, interests, motives and the like; when the orator enters the situation, his discourse not only harnesses constraints given by the situation but provides additional important constraints—for example, his personal character, his logical proofs, and his style” (p. 8). The notion of constraints then refers to the factors that influence the interpretation of the act of composing, which is often articulated (in classroom discourses) through the Aristotelian concepts of ethos, pathos, and logos. As such, in my interviews with participants, I was interested in the ways in which students understand the reasons for why they might form an opinion about another user of social media—in other words, what actions they view as having an effect on the ethos of the profile author. I was particularly interested also in determining how students perceived images, and whether or not they would indicate that an author's choice of profile picture, for example, had any bearing on their perceptions of that user. Jana was perhaps the most vocal participant about how images impact her ways of comprehending these individuals:

I get really judgmental about people who post pictures of themself [sic], you know, like that typical selfie, and they put a quote with it, and it has nothing to do with the picture ... I [also] use Instagram a lot and the hashtags people put on there—ugh. The worst ones sometimes [are] just people [who] really want attention and they're like #feelingsexy, #imgay, #hottie, and I'm like "What are you doing?" Like if you want to take a selfie because you felt pretty that day, good for you, but put "I feel pretty" don't put, like, "gay"—it just bothers me a lot.

Jana's response is an interesting one, because it indicates that it is not so much the picture itself that causes her to form an unfavorable opinion of the user, but, rather, that the textual accompaniment does not match her expectation for the accepted discourses of social media practice—that there is some standard for determining what constitutes an "acceptable" image caption versus one that is simply a cry for attention. This speaks to an intersection of text and image that perhaps has other iterations particularly in social media sites like Instagram (as Jana mentions) and Pinterest. Chase was even more straightforward about what causes him to form opinions about social media users, noting that he also was inclined to censure Facebook users for both their image and text-based choices: "[I judge people] probably everyday. But [especially] girls [who] post a lot of pictures of them[selves] like 'got my bellybutton pierced' just to show a picture of their belly. That makes me judge them." Chase echoes the idea established by Jana that the perceived duplicity is the truly vexing aspect of this exchange—it again is not necessarily the content itself that proves to be judge-worthy, but rather the concept that the language (unsuccessfully) masks the true intentions of the user, or at least the intention implied by his or her choice of image. This suggests an interesting interplay between image and language, and Jana's and Chase's comments here hint at the complexities of interpretation that may result due to the inherent multimodality of social media. The fact, however, that they are aware of the text/image disjunction—even as it exists in metadata (e.g., hashtags)—is certainly an important observation, especially as it pertains to thinking about rhetoric in relation to composing in multiple modes.

Other interview subjects indicated that social media can be detrimental because the sites (largely) remove interpersonal communicative signals and permit passive-aggressive confrontation, and students believe that they (or others) are consequently more likely to view a post unfavorably. Rachel noted that, "I know one of my friends is sarcastic all the time to the point where even other people are flagging what he says and trying to get him off of Facebook, but, you know, [they should] ignore him because he's not like that [in person]. When people get online they act a little differently." Students also expressed concern for how their social content might be perceived by someone in a position of authority. Jana, for instance, who expressed her desire to have private accounts because of her involvement in the casting of the TV show, seemed to be particularly sensitive to this issue, noting that her decision to make her accounts private was motivated by her worry over what her employers might think about her social media profiles. She indicated that, because she is followed on Twitter by her current employers, "I get really concerned about how they're going to interpret my lifestyle or the things that I tweet about, so I try to be really careful especially about my language usage. Because I don't want them to misinterpret me and think that I'm maybe some like wild and crazy unprofessional person." Madison also revealed an anecdote in which she radically altered her opinion of someone because of something posted on Twitter:

I always thought that [a high school acquaintance] was the nicest person, then they started tweeting some horrible things about another person in their class—so then it just kinda changed like my whole idea that I had about that person. And I was like, "oh maybe they are not that nice person that they are said to be." And maybe they like to hide and [be confrontational] through Twitter rather than to your face.

Thus, Madison functions as the recipient of content that impacted her interpretation of an individual, affecting, potentially, her own understanding of how her posts have the potential to be received. This notion of constraints—whether they have their origins externally (how others might perceive their sites) or internally (how they have judged others for things that they have posted)—is consequently one that overlaps substantially with conceptions of audience and exigence, as students constantly negotiate their reasons for writing, how this writing might be perceived by both specific and implied audiences, as well as the potential implications of these interactions on their own (and others') ethos.

[1] All names are pseudonyms.