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.
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.
- 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.
- 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?
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?