Social media, checking in and public displays of connection

This stems from a very interesting question raised by my colleague Dave Harte in a recent BCMCR research seminar. He commented on the habits of ‘checking in’ on social media and how certain places in Birmingham are desirable to meet up and publicly ‘announce’ you are there through checking in on Facebook, Foursquare and so on.

From my own observations and experiences, I notice the more ‘independent’ restaurants in Birmingham such as Turtle Bay and Cherry Reds are always popping up on my Facebook news feed, yet places such as KFC and McDonald’s, less so. That of course doesn’t mean those establishments are less popular, quite the contrary in fact. Yet why do my friends announce when they are in certain places, and choose not to shout about others? Is it because the independent places seem ‘cooler’? Before ‘checking in’ was a thing, what did people do? Did they go to an independent restaurant and think “Wow, i’m in a really cool place, I wish I could tell people I was here, with this person”?

The same goes for people too, i.e. announcing you are with certain people in certain places. I take myself as an example once again – when I meet up with certain friends from University who I haven’t seen for a while, they check me in with them almost everywhere, yet they hardly post on Facebook normally. I don’t think this is because I’m a person ‘to be seen with’ or that I’m ‘cool’ in any way, but I think it’s because I’m quite active on Facebook, especially so during University and this was how we all used to communicate with each other, before Facebook opened up to ‘everyone’. I have a feeling there is an element of nostalgia in this practice, which brings me to the point – in looking at social media, we need to consider the past. Not only what went before social media, but also the ‘early days’ of social media, and the nature of people’s habits and practices relating to place as well as others. Does this ‘nostalgia’ I experience also apply to others? What are other people’s feelings about ‘checking in’?

Platform architecture

The functionality of ‘checking in’ and ‘tagging’ others are examples of platform-based architecture which Van Dijck (2013a) highlights as examples of social media’s shift from”connectedness to connectivity” (Van Dijck, 2013a:202). When I first started using Facebook with my friends from University, what I sent out was for them, and it was in the form of text and photos, and often I would get text responses when they wrote on my ‘Wall’. I remember having whole conversations with my housemates through the Facebook ‘wall’ even when we were in the same room. We were aware it was ‘public’ but it didn’t seem as ‘public’ to us as it is now. Now, I would never dream of having such a conversation on Facebook, because I have friends on there from a multitude of different spheres of my life. Now I don’t feel like I’m ‘talking’ or ‘connecting’ to one or a few people, I broadcast to many different people, some hardly know me, others are my best friends. My relationship with Facebook has become very generic as a result of the reflexive and very conscious way I use it, and this may be why my university friends treat it similarly, unless we’re all together. The ‘Wall’ has gone, (and its function of ‘connectedness’) and is replaced by the new, more story-led architecture of the ‘Timeline’ which lays out in a more narrative form where you’ve been and who you’ve been with (‘connectivity’), and is very much public as the range and number of friends we have on Facebook have increased over the years.

Though social media platforms don’t change significantly over time, my anecdote above is an example of how social media usage habits can adjust as a result of platform adjustments. However, these platform adjustments do not just ‘happen’ to people; they themselves are socially constituted (Van Dijck (2013b)) and this social dimension of platform usage over time is in need of further exploration.

Public displays of connection

Danah boyd and Jeffrey Heer (2006) talk about ‘public displays of connection’ on social networking sites, which Dawn Gilpin (2011) argues plays a role in professional identity construction online. Is ‘checking in’ a public display of a connection to a place? If so, how did those people who ‘check in’ relate to places before mobiles and social media? How people relate to others is an area of social media scholarship in which there is a great deal of work, a lot of which I have referred to in earlier posts on this blog.  However there is relatively little on social media in relation to place (which is one of the areas my research aims to problematise) and especially physical establishments through the mechanism of ‘checking in’.

Linking all of this is ‘publicness’. These things are (usually) done with the public in mind, and ‘what we did before’ was comparatively less public, as summarised by Van Dijck (2013b):

“Many of the habits that have recently become permeated by social media platforms used to be informal and ephemeral manifestations of social life. Talking to friends, exchanging gossip, showing holiday pictures, […] used to be casual, evanescent (speech) acts, commonly shared only with selected individuals. A major change is that through social media, these casual speech acts have turned into formalized inscriptions, which, once embedded in the larger economy of wider publics, take on a different value. Utterances previously expressed offhandedly are now released into a public domain where they can have far reaching and long lasting effects. Social media platforms have unquestionably altered the nature of private and public communication”

(Van Dijck, 2013b:6-7)

So Dave’s question in a research seminar has spurred a lot of further questions and points to think about in not only my research, but the field in general. In sum, further thought is required on:

  • Historical consideration of social media – not only what went before (relating to ‘checking in’) but also the early days of social media
  • Social, collective dimension of social media usage over time. Is there nostalgia? Memory?
  • Is checking in a public display of a connection to a place?
  • Publicness – the public and the private, people’s perceptions of it, and how this has changed over time
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About Karen Patel

PhD candidate in social media and cultural work at Birmingham City University.
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