Blog Post

A Week of Handwritten Facebook Statuses

Also available on my blog, Fleeting Carrots (includes handwritten statuses).

Over the past week, I’ve been posting all my status updates on Facebook as handwritten text that I scanned and uploaded as photos. After finishing Sherry Turkle’s book Alone Together, in which she discusses how modern communication technologies are changing our communication practices as well as our relationships with each other and with technology, I wondered what it would be like to use a communication technology such as Facebook in a way closer to older modes of communicating, e.g. snail mail. Although I probably won’t continue posting handwritten statuses (mostly to save sticky notes), it was a fun and thought-provoking experiment.

My Rules

Beginning Friday November 4, I posted a photo/status update that asked, “I wonder, what would Facebook be like if I wrote status updates by hand for a week?” I responded to any comments on such updates via handwritten note, and attempted to do the same when commenting on friends’ posts. However, I excluded links, events, and regular photos from this rule because it might confuse people, and because it meant including an extra link to a photo in each post.

My Assumptions

  • I assumed I would post less often to Facebook because posting would take longer, and as a result, I would be more deliberate in posting (i.e. I’d be less inclined to post a quick rant).
  • I also thought I would check FB less often because I wouldn’t be receiving comments on posts if I didn’t post updates regularly. Essentially, I thought it would be more like using snail mail than email or Facebook.

My Results

  • Writing by hand didn’t seem to reduce the number of status updates I made.
  • The amount of time I spent writing each status seemed to be the same as when typing. However, scanning each update added time.
  • I still spent the same amount of time checking Facebook for updates.
  • I commented on fewer statuses, particularly any involving complaints or stress-related emotions. This was partially because to comment, I had to write, scan, upload the scan to a separate image-hosting site, and then paste a URL into a Facebook comment. However, posting fewer comments on certain statuses has become routine for me, and I “think before I post” a little more now.

What I Learned/Recognized/Pondered

  • I realized how much I use spellchecking utilities in Firefox daily, while also recognizing that I’m more forgiving of grammatical/spelling errors in handwritten texts than in typed.
  • I noticed that Facebook stopped suggesting pages related to my status updates (I assume the same is true for ads. I block them though, so I can’t say definitively).
  • Why does Facebook allow users to organize collections of photos into albums, but not status updates, comments, etc. (excluding notes)? Why not include tags? Why the lack of user control in some areas, but not others?

This experiment solidified that the act of digitizing handwriting is still different than sending a letter because it is instant and intangible. Ironically, once the text was digitized, the handwritten image seemed closer to text created in InDesign. That is, typed text can be modified in order to convey attitude, personality, etc. through strategic typographic choices; things commonly associated with handwriting. Where is the line between personal and programmed once the physical is removed? Is it the authenticity of tactile input, the difficulty in forging unique handwriting? This returns me to a TED talk by Paul Bloom on original paintings, and it’s something I’ll continue to question.

Finally, although it may seem obvious that “Facebook doesn’t delete anything,” being able to physically throw away, burn, shred, flush, or otherwise destroy a status update makes the act of preserving a thought online forever seem more monumental. It gives weight to words. Books don’t last forever, but when will Google’s pages fade away?

It’s refreshing to dispose of written thoughts, they’re in the garbage right now, yet… they’re still on Facebook. What if the postal service kept a copy of everything everyone mailed?

Conclusion

This weeklong experiment reminded me that Facebook doesn’t delete anything, but in a concrete way, and it emphasized some of Facebook’s limitations as an interface. It also made me question how much time people spent deciphering my handwriting, as well as what the choice of pen, ink, and paper meant to them. Furthermore, this experiment clarified some differences between print and digital communication while also blurring that line for me.

So where does this experiment leave things? Facebook clearly was never meant for distributing handwritten statements, and each social network offers different levels of control and organization. What about Twitter, Tumblr, Google Plus, and email? Why do some users post handwritten documents regularly? What is the value of a handwritten letter in physical form when it can take just as much effort to create a well-designed, evocative, print document? What does it say about valuing print media in academia over digital?

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3 comments

I found this fascinating - thank you for sharing your experiences with this experiment. Definitely makes me think about how our expressive choices and identity-defining decisions are both limited and expanded through digital communication. I'd love to see what a social network designed specifically around this functionality would look like.
- Kevin

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As someone who studies and uses Facebook on a regular basis, I never thought about the process of writing a status update through a keyboard versus handwriting one and posting it online; I applaud your idea and persistance in posting each day. Something I was curious about- you mentioned that you thought you would check FB less because you would receive less feedback on the handwriten updates than your old ones- did you notice friends commenting the picture status updates at all? Did they question what you were doing more than discussing the content of message being displayed? 

I think this was a great experiment, and think you're right that when we stop and take the time and think a bit more before we post, it may just alter the way in which we post.

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I'm glad this was interesting to both of you, it was a fun week.

Regarding your question, Natalie, because I assumed I would be posting less content overall, I also assumed I would receive less feedback overall, not necessarily on individual posts. However, you raise an interesting question. Assuming the number of status updates I posted stayed the same as usual (again, I don't have solid numbers, so this is speculative), it did seem like I received fewer comments on the picture updates. However, the number of "likes" seemed much higher than usual, with 6 on the initial post, 4 each on the next two, and one on the final. The first two posts had 2 comments each (excluding my own response of "Why?" on the first). However, I really can't draw any solid conclusions from such a small sample. That said, compared to the previous week's text updates, it seemed that the "like" to comment ratio was more equal on text updates than images.

As for whether friends commented on the experiment or the content, they did both. There was some good-natured trolling directed at my handwriting on the first post I made (not surprising given the commenter). However, the two comments on a later status/photo were directed at the content of the update, as shown below (first post on left, latter on right [which is also the status that I accidentally threw away]).

I'm now almost motivated enough to write a script that will run through a downloaded Facebook profile and calculate the average number of posts made per week, along with the average number of comments and likes per post... having such a utility and then posting handwritten updates over a longer period would definitely be an interesting endeavor...

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