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Facework on Facebook: Intertextuality and Politeness Moves in an Online Social Networking Community

Anna Trester, Georgetown University & Laura West, Georgetown University

Thursday, March 10, 2011; 10am-12pm

This interactive workshop will apply sociolinguistic theoretical concepts to discursive data from Facebook to gain insight into online communicative norms. The focus on Facebook comes at a time when membership of the online social networking space hit 500 million, doubling its size in the past year (as noted by the New York Times on July 21, 2010). Although we limit the data for this workshop to non-commercial, non-institutional users, the site is used by giant corporations, politicians, small business owners and activists. Facebook members now include teachers, college professors, middle school students, graduate students, parents, grandparents and teenagers all over the world with social functions ranging from organizing parties to sharing wedding photos to announcing promotions and pregnancies.

The workshop will begin with a basic introduction to the practices and terminology of Facebook and a brief review of the previous research, which has mainly focused on identity construction (Papacharissi, 2009; Westlake, 2008; Zhao, 2008). Then, drawing from an ongoing ethnography, we will dive into actual data, mining posts and comments for clues about interactional and communicative norms of Facebook, including how members use texts to create a shared repertoire of “prior texts,” and how they build and maintain positive face in an online community.

Our theoretic grounding relies heavily on Goffman’s breakdown of participation framework and his concept of footing, which deals with the structure of and the participants’ alignment to utterances. In addition, we draw from Brown & Levinson’s politeness theory and the idea of facework to demonstrate how many face-to-face interactional rules and expectations also hold for communication online.

Facebook conversations are an exciting new domain for the examination of language and application of discursive concepts (And the data is already transcribed!). Research in this area is also invaluable for non-academic pursuits as more and more companies are developing social media outreach. By using our training as sociolinguists and the theoretical framework of discourse analysis, we hope to contribute to the knowledge about the ways social media, specifically Facebook, is shaping our social lives.