Case Study #1 Duckfaces, Political Messages, and Cats: Genre Theory Applied to Facebook Profile Pictures

                                                                                                                                                           Fig. 1                                                                                                                                                                         

Deciding on a theory for this first case study was difficult, as each theory discussed thus far in class applies to Facebook profile pictures in some form or fashion. While Genre Theory does not allow discussion of every element of the Object of Study (OoS), it does provide a sufficient lens for analysis of the actions behind posting a specific profile picture on Facebook. Carolyn Miller writes in Genre as Social Action, “a rhetorically sound definition of genre must be centered not on the substance or the form of discourse but on the action it is used to accomplish” (p. 151). For this initial case study, I will use Miller’s approach to Genre Theory to outline the implications and intentions that surround choosing a specific profile picture for one’s Facebook page, as well as how this particular lens defines the OoS’s networks and corresponding nodes. For a detailed description of the OoS itself, please refer to Fig. 1.

As Miller suggests, the action behind the substance is more important than the substance itself within Genre Theory. Using this definition, the intent, or idiosyncratic motives, behind posting a specific profile picture is more important in this case study than the picture itself. Because an individual can select any image as his/her profile picture as long as it adheres to Facebook’s policies, the individual has an opportunity to choose an image that he/she believes best represents him/her or his/her relationships with others. The various intents behind this choice, as well as the power relationship associated with the photograph or image, determine which genre is associated with the profile picture.

The first genre is the “selfie,” or a photo taken by oneself of oneself. This photo is usually chosen as a profile picture because it encompasses a fair amount of power for the individual. This photo was intentionally taken by the individual to show that he/she is independent, which shows emotional and physical strength. This genre also allows the individual to chose elements for the photo that highlight what he/she would like the networks to associate with him/her, such as attractiveness, independence, other desirable personality traits, and interests.

The second genre is the candid photo, an image taken by a trusted person (often family, friend, or significant other) of the individual when he/she is not anticipating a photograph being taken. When an individual chooses a candid photo for his/her profile picture, he/she is often trying to invoke a particular reaction from the networks, such as camaraderie. This choice also shows a high level of trust between the individual and the person who took the photo, since the power in this genre is shared. While the individual still has the overall choice to upload this photograph or not, the individual did not have input into the photographs creation.

The third genre is the icon, an image that is not a photograph of the individual but rather an image that represents the individual. This image may be of the individual’s pet, favorite band, political affiliation, or any other non-personal image that depicts the individual’s interest. This genre has the most power for the individual, since he/she has decided not to share his/her personal likeness with the networks.

The individual’s idiosyncratic motives behind choosing the perfect profile picture are influenced by how the individual thinks the networks will react to the image he/she selects. These reactions can be considered nodes within the networks. The nodes can vary based on the reactions from various members within the networks, some may be jealous while others may be encouraging or cheerful. The nodes are represented in various ways through out the networks, through Facebook’s “like” and “comment” functions. Friends within various networks can also share the individual’s profile picture, which can create more nodes in different networks based on further reactions. Because of how easily the nodes travel, they can either strengthen or deteriorate the friendships that develop the networks. One of the main reasons the networks deteriorate is because the original content, the profile picture, can be completely distorted based on who shares the image and why the image was shared. This thus affects how the networks emerge, grow, and dissolve.

A network can emerge when a person is intrigued by an individual’s profile picture. This person may be attracted to the individual or believe they have shared interested based on the image associated with the individual’s Faebook page. If the individual agrees with the person about the attraction or shared interested, a virtual friendship begins and a new network is established. A previously established network can grow based on the same principle, if the new friend fits into the network’s requirements. A network can also dissolve, however, based on negative nodes. If a network is offended by the individual’s profile picture, the network may decide to “unfriend” the individual and sever contact.

As the reader has noticed, Miller’s approach to Genre theory has similar parallels within the Facebook community. This theory allows one to discuss the connection, intent, and reaction within various Facebook networks and the relationships between nodes within said networks. Miller’s approach provides a way to look past the profile picture itself, and determine what effects the individual’s intent or idiosyncratic motives cause within the various networks that make up Facebook. This theory does not, however, allow one to apply judgment to the profile picture itself, only to the action behind the individual’s posting. I plan to develop this discussion further in future case studies by applying theories that allow for such judgment.


Works Cited

Miller, Carolyn R. “Genre as Social Action.” Quarterly of Speech 70 (1984): 151-167. Digital.

2 thoughts on “Case Study #1 Duckfaces, Political Messages, and Cats: Genre Theory Applied to Facebook Profile Pictures

  1. Hi Adrienne,

    I really appreciated that you contextualized your framework using Miller from the very beginning as well as gave a brief outline of what was to come. I found that really helpful as I followed along. I also liked how you defined how genre would be used in your analysis. I thought it was interesting how you discussed the different types of genre that you saw in terms of the power (agency?) of the individual. How do you come to those decisions about the levels of power? I could definitely tell you’d spent time wrestling with that so I’m really just curious what went into that thought process.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s