I find myself more and more often going through a frustrating routine which involves signing into facebook, reading through the latest status updates, and after a bit of eye rolling and disappointment, signing out and vowing never to do so again (I usually repeat this several times a day). It’s partly because the process has become so predictable: Picture of cat. Picture of dog. Someone is going to the gym. An obvious observation about the weather. A Youtube link to some song everyone has heard before. Humorous anecdote. Inspirational message posted as a jpeg. However, this post isn’t (primarily) meant to be a sanctimonious knock on facebook or on the inanity or unoriginality of the things most of my “friends” post (although most of it is unbearably inane and unoriginal).
I want to discuss the broader implications of something others began noting shortly after usage of facebook and other “social media” sites became widespread, namely, the proliferation of these kinds of posts. Why this is noteworthy is because they all, despite their range of topics, tend to serve a similar function. They are all forms of “phatic communication.” This term was coined by anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski in the 1920s as somewhat of a technical term for small talk. Malinowski was originally making an observation about “primitive cultures” – he argued that phatic communication is the primary form of communication in these cultures. But, he noted that the same could be said for “civilized cultures” as well (except that “civilized cultures” were obviously better because they had science and other substantive forms of communication). Academic colonialism notwithstanding, here’s how he defined the concept: Continue reading