Framing the Audience: Representations of Closeness in Social Media Texts

Berit Henriksen, Mosjøen Videregående skole/ University of London

Social media are central to many people’s experience of, and engagement with digital technology. People with access to computer and mobile technologies use platforms like Facebook and Twitter to create, share and curate digital content, and through these practices communicate and interact. Social media communication is multimodal, as users draw on a range of modes and semiotic resources such as writing, image, colour and layout when interacting. As such, enquiry into the communicative practices of social media users, needs to account for the range of modes available. The focus of this paper is how social relationships are represented in multimodal social media texts. In particular, this paper explored representations of closeness. The concept of closeness is used to describe the meaning potential of semiotic resources as representations of private or personal relationships. The paper provides a multimodal social semiotic micro-analysis of a sample of texts from different social media platforms.

The paper draws on data collected for my PhD-study, which focuses on style-work in social media texts. The data is collected from the platforms Pinterest, Twitter and tumblr. These platforms were selected because they represent a variety of activities and modes. Pinterest is primarily used to acquire and organise images, Twitter is used to share 140 character written messages and tumblr is used to share and comment on written messages, images, videos and sound clips.

The analysis focuses on the modal components of the social media text, drawing on concepts of mode, modal provenance and affordance, multimodal orchestration, metafunctions, interest and motivated signs. The analysis will address and exemplify the question of what semiotic representations of closeness are found in social media text and how the affordances and limitations of the platforms has implication for the composition of social media texts. In spoken language, the familiarity between people interacting can be interpreted by looking at the particularities of the vocabulary and grammar of their expressions, such as the ways in which people greet each other, the formality of the exchange and the intonation of voice. In this paper, markers of closeness as represented in written language are investigated, as well as looking at representation in image, colour and layout.

The analysis suggests that there are patterns in how social closeness is represented in texts collected from the same platform. The community of users within a platform seems to have developed conventions for text-making, noticed in the ways in which different user makes similar semiotic choices. In the texts collected from Pinterest, for example, there seems to be very little use of semiotic resources representing closeness between user and their audience. Rather the texts come across as quite impersonal, both in the choices made for writing, and use of images. This is a result of the main practice of the platform – acquiring and organising digital images as visual bookmarks. The constraints of the platform are such that there is limited potential for the user to make unique, individual choices for the texts generated. They are, for example, encouraged to share commercial images rather than their own. There is an abundance of texts depicting close relations and intimacy, but these depictions are not representations of closeness between the participants in these meaning-making acts.

Interestingly, this lack of closeness markers in the digital pin board is starkly different from many people’s experience of using pin boards offline. Physical pin boards are often filled with signs of close personal relations between people, such as personal pictures, notes, post cards and letters. The analysis suggests that there is difference between platforms, and the users’ interest in developing and maintaining personal online relationships. Pinterest, for example, is not primarily used to communicate with others, rather to communicate with a ‘future self’, to remember what they found interesting at a previous point in time. Pinterest’s potential for meaning-making does not indicate interest in facilitating relations between users, rather between users and digital content. It is a platform used to inquire, acquire and organise digital content. This has implications for the text users produce.

The analysis of text collected from Twitter on the other hand, reveals that user relations are manifested in the composition of the text. Use of resources such as deixis, hashtags and image filters are indicators of closeness between the text-maker and their audience. The interest in representing personal and private relationships is again tied to the functions of the platform. People use Twitter to communicate with people they know from both offline and online contexts. As the platform itself advertise on the twitter sign-up page: “Connect with your friends — and other fascinating people”. The analysis reveals that the platform facilitates users’ interaction with people they are privately close to, as well as professionally. This is manifested in the texts users share. Representations of closeness in this context are a tool for indicating audience. By using resources recognisable to particular groups or people, user can signal who the intended audience of a tweet is.

Tumblr, interestingly, is a mix of the two other platforms. The tag line here is “tumblr lets you effortlessly share anything”. In that is the function of aquiring and organising content, like on Pinterest, directly interact and respond to each other, particularly throught the use of coments. The analysis of data collected from tumblr seems to suggest a specific interest in presenting a notion of closeness between users. Most of the texts collected from tumblr are not overtly directed towards a specific person or group, but still semiotic features suggesting closeness between text-maker and audience are repeatedly used. The tumblr text is personal in style, and the interpretion of the texts are often dependent on familiarity with textual practices of the platform. As such, being personal and showing familiarity with communicative practices seems to be of particular importance in this context. A potential explenation of this phenomenon could be the users interested in establishing online communicties where they discuss various topics. As such, representations of closeness can be a tool in developing personal relations, rather than facilitating existing (offline) ones. Additionally, using semiotic features related to specific groups, activities or interest is a way of indicating audience. By making the choice of using features that are associated with a specific audience, the user can display who their intended reader is.

Social media platforms facilitate a range of different activities, such as networking, blogging, content sharing and social bookmarking. People make choices for which platforms to used based on their interest and motivation for participating in the kind of activities the platform supports. Subsequently, the affordances and constraints of social media platforms, has implications for the meaning potential of social media texts. Texts collected from platforms that does not facilitate interaction between users, rather individual user activity, were noticeably less personal and private in style, with few indicators of a close social relation between text-makers and audience. Texts collected from platforms that strongly support direct interaction where on the other hand noticeably more personal and context specific, suggesting closer relations between the platform users.

At the same time as the affordances and constraints of the social media platform shapes the multimodal composition of the social media text, interest of the user in framing their audience is also noticeable in the choices they make. The composition of the multimodal text, and the choice of semiotic resources, can be a tool for indicating what person or group of people they imagine their audience to be. This can be an open, wide and unknown group in some instances, but also closed and familiar.

This paper will conclude by discussing the importance of framing the audience in an environment where multiple contexts collapse into one. User’s carefully select signs most apt for the purpose, motivated by their interest in placing themselves in relation to others in the social media context. The paper suggests that taking a multimodal approach can support the understanding of social media practices, highlighting the importance of understanding the modal particularities of text.

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