Case Study #2: The Digitally Represented Self: Analysis of Facebook Profile Pictures & the Connections They Create

Surprisingly, I found that two of the theories we read this semester, cultural-historical activity theory (CHAT) and Foucault’s Archeology, worked nicely together in regards to my object of study (OoS). Both theories focus on breaking down previous “rules” to create new theories that better apply to the world today. In doing so, each theory addresses ways to organize discourse. Discourse, in a simplified manner, can been seen in the Facebook network as the profile picture. In CHAT, discourse is filter first through a revised version of the five classic cannons. Foucault organizes discourse in a linear manner, focusing on how things change and stay the same despite and because of history. In this case study, I will use both CHAT and Foucault’s approaches to describe how Facebook profile pictures function as the discourse of the Facebook network.

Within the Facebook network, the profile pictures acts as your identifier as your navigate through the various sub-networks the site contains. Hum, Chamberlin, Hambright, Portwood, Schat, and Bevan (2011) note “perhaps one of the most telling pieces of self-disclosure or image construction is the profile photo, the single default photo by which Facebook users choose to identify themselves within the entire network”(p. 1828). Deciding on the appropriate Facebook profile picture is important. It is a decision that takes thought, whether this thought is simply based in amusement or focused on portraying a deeper message. This photo is the image that defines you, that encompasses something about yourself you want other people in the network to know. As Hum et al. also suggest, “if one of the benefits of Facebook is to bring individuals in a community together, then it also makes sense that Facebook provides a means for self-expression in order to form…social, geographical, and political connections.”(p. 1829). A profile picture is exactly that, a form of discourse that allows you to communicate and share your social, geographical, and political views.

Prior, Solberg, Berry, Bellwoar, Chewning, Lunsford, Rohan, Roozen, Sheridan-Rabideau, Shipka, Van Ittersum, and Walker (2007) qualify discourse based on delivery, which “seems to encompass two related but distinct types of issues: mediation and distribution”(p. 7). While delivery used to refer to one’s gestures or stance in the oral traditions, Prior et al. (2007) refocus the term to refer to the time and movement related to a piece (p. 7). When a piece of discourse is created, either orally, literally, or digitally, the piece “travels” through time in a linear fashion through those who share the discourse with others. The discourse, however, is seen based on a fixed point in time. By revising the way delivery is approached into a form of mediation, Prior et al. (2007) remove this fixed trajectory allowing a piece to travel spherically in addition to linearly. This movement through people and time creates an archive, containing the discourse as it was originally and how it has changed through its audience. As a piece of discourse, in this manner of speaking, a profile picture on Facbeook.

Each uploaded profile picture is saved and attached to one’s profile in an archive, creating a literal timeline of their progression since the profile’s conception. One can also potentially see a progression of the person aging and of subsequent life events, since people are fond of posting pictures of themselves as children, at prom, their wedding and so on. Users can also view what people commented on these photos, in the past and present, and can add their own comments to pictures within their network. The profile picture is not static, much like discourse for Prior et al., and can move across the network through one’s ability to tag and share photos. Other users are then invited to comment and share these photos, creating a nearly endless network of connections. Deeper connections can be found behind the profile picture when examining this form of discourse through Prior et al.’s (2007) final version of CHAT theory.

After sharing their multi-step revision process of the five classic cannons, Prior et al. (2007) reveal a completed version of CHAT theory. The theory is separated into three main sections, the literate activity, functional systems, and laminated chronotopes (see fig. 1). These sections fit inside each other, much like a set of Russian nesting dolls. The literate activity (the tools, methods, and affect of an action) resides within functional systems (the connections between people), which resides within laminated chronotopes (how an action is seen and accepted in the world and the actions overall affect) (Prior et al., 2007, p. 19).

Fig. 1

Using Prior et al.‘s (2007) theory, profile pictures take on new meaning. Let us remember that the profile picture is already seen as an important identifier in the Facebook community. “Amongst the various features, the profile picture has been posited as the most important means for self-presentation because it represents the individual in the online platform” (Ong, ANng, Ho, Lim, Hog, Lee, and Chua, 2011, p.181). The profile picture not only represents the user, but also represents and embodies the network as a whole. In order to clearly analysis the profile picture through the CHAT lens, I will outline the discourse from the most intimate (literate activity) to the most broad (laminated chronotopes) facet of the theory.

Representation and reception are the main aspects of literate activity that apply to the profile picture discourse. When choosing a profile picture, a user must first decide how they wish to represent themselves to the network and which picture will gain the desired reception from said network. When the profile picture is posted, it becomes a piece of the functional system. Each time the user interacts with the network, through posting a status update or commenting on a page, this profile picture is attached to the user. A community of these various profile pictures is created within the network as trends arise. “Friends” within a given network will often change their profile picture to reflect a trend they saw on another’s profile picture. Such trends include picture filters that show support for a cause, like pink for breast cancer awareness or a French flag to show support after the Paris bombings, or a type of picture, like the flood of greeting card photos that appear during the holidays. This change in profile picture allows the user to still represent him or herself while participating as part of the community within the network. The overall representation of the community, through these shared profile pictures, further supports the user’s “Internet self,” or the person the user becomes when he or she is online.

Because people are often different in person than they would appear in their profile pictures, the user also has a “real self,” which is who the person is when they are offline. These two selves interact with each other inside the overall network, of Facebook but also the world, and separately, either online or in person. In this way, the profile picture and its connections extend pass Facebook and influence the person, their real life connections, and anyone connected to Facebook. For Prior et al. (2007), this concept is considered a mediated activity or laminated chronotope. This “means that action and cognition are distributed over time and space among people, artifacts, and environments and thus also laminated, as multiple frames or fields co-exist in any situated act”(p.18). Like the Russian nesting dolls, a user on Facebook has many frames, or selves, that are laminated together in the person (see Fig. 2). As a network, these frames are the multiple communities that are connected together within Facebook. Within this network, the ability to tag, share, and change one’s picture in order to connect with the communities within the networks become nodes. The nodes remain the same when looking at profile pictures during a Foucaultian analysis.

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Fig. 2

Like Prior et al. (2007), Foucault (1969) starts The Archaeology of Knowledge by breaking down current conceptions and rules. We are told “we must rid ourselves of a whole mass of notions, each of which, in its own way, diversifies the theme of continuity”(Foucault, 1969, p. 21). He writes that “history, in its traditional form, undertook to ‘memorize’ the monuments of the past, transform them into documents, and lend speech to those traces which, in themselves, are often non verbal”(Foucault, 1969, p. 7). Instead of seeing history in this linear fashion, however, Foucault encourages the audience to see history more spherically. Unlike the Russian nesting doll metaphor for CHAT, Foucault’s theory on discourse, history, and knowledge is more like a carousel. The subject matter sits at the heart of the carousel, with its discursive properties moving on and off the ride but circling the subject matter as well. In order to foster my own understanding, I created a diagram of what a profile picture model of this concept would look like (see fig. 3).

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Fig. 3

The parts of this diagram, the self in reality, what is unique to the self, what functions as part of the community, and lastly the digital self, all surround the profile picture at the center. The image as a whole represents the archive of the network. For Foucault, “the analysis of the archive, then, involves a privileged region: at once close to us, and different from our present existence, it is the border of time that surrounds our presence, which overhangs it, and which indicated it in its otherness; it is that which, outside ourselves, delimits us”(1969, p. 138). Within this archive is the discourse itself, the ways the discourse changes/ stays the same, and where one is situated within the discourse and network.

Foucault describes discourse as “ not the majestically unfolding manifestation of a thinking, knowing, speaking subject, but, on the contrary, a totality, in which the dispersion of the subject and his discontinuity with himself may be determined” (1969, p. 62). The profile picture, then, is not an object that solely represents the self but instead is a vehicle to distribute the self across the network. The self is then determined based on the interactions this picture has within the network communities. This form of analysis becomes similar to our CHAT analysis in that the profile picture becomes of representation of the digital self, one’s self in reality, and the interactions within the network. Foucault explains this connection well, saying “there is a notion of ‘spirit,’ which enables us to establish between the simultaneous or successive phenomena of a given period a community of meanings, symbolic links, an interplay of resemblance and reflexion, or which allows the sovereignty of collective consciousness to emerge as the principle of unity an explanation” (1969, p. 22). The meanings and symbolic links within a network community are largely attributed to the discourse’s or subject’s continuities and/or discontinuities.

Continuities and discontinuities describe how the interpretation of the discourse changes or stays the same based on the subject’s interactions with it (Foucault, 1969). In a similar manner, a user changes his or her profile picture based on the network reaction he or she wishes to receive and on the connection to the community. As we discussed above, a user might change his or her profile picture to reflect a recent social movement or change within the network or to reflect a recent change in self, such as an important life event or sign of maturity (receiving one’s driving license). This causes the discourse and thus the community and network to change based on the reactions of others. Facebook’s ability to save and show the progression of profile pictures also acts in this sense as an archive, showing the changes the user and the community have gone through together and separately. Raacke and Bonds Raacke (2008)’s study of Facebook users showed that 96 percent of the 116 participants used Facbook “to keep in touch with old friends,” with 91.1 percent responding that they use their account to “to keep in touch with current friends”(p. 171). The 74.3 percent of participants who reportedly access their Facebook account more than three hours a day are most likely using this time to build connections, or nodes, with their old and new friends in the network based on such continuities and discontinuities (Raacke & Bonds-Raacke, 200, p. 173). Continuities and discontinuities Facebook communities are reflected within the overall network, or episteme.

Foucault describes episteme as, “the total set of relations that unite, at a given period, the discursive practices that give rise to epistemological figures, sciences, and possibly formalized systems” (1969, p. 191). In terms of Facebook profile pictures, the episteme can bee seen as the entire Facebook network, a group of individual networks and communities that are connected by the discursive practices of users (such as tagging members in profile pictures and forming a comment thread on a profile picture). Users are united trough their profile pictures and comments that give rise to the “possibly formalized system” that is the overall Facebook network. While the profile picture is seen as such a small part of this network, using Foucault’s Archeology and Prior et al.’s CHAT allows one to see how important this discourse is within the network.

Though CHAT and Archeology are very different theories, created at different times in history, both apply to social networking sites like Facebook and can be used to understand the importance behind simple network features, like the profile picture. Both theories provide a way to view the actions and expectations of the user in relation to the communities within the Facebook network through the profile picture. I was pleased to discover that both theories allowed me to analysis the two sides of the user, the digital and the “real” self, as well as the user’s place within the network. Both theories also supported the way the networks within Facebook emerge; when a user shares an opinion through his or her profile picture, grow; as others within the network respond to this opinion by changing their profile pictures, and dissolve; as profile picture trends within the network fade as new ones emerge or when the original opinion of the user is not shared within the communities and networks. While applying the two theories, I did not discover many limitations other than that both theories function without boundaries.

Both CHAT and Archeology are based on breaking down and revising previous theories and thus both Prior et al. and Foucault provide very little guidelines to how far a connection can stretch. While this fact may be helpful in other applications, there are given boundaries within the Facebook community that I was unable to discuss. As a site that allows various ages and people of different backgrounds, Facebook places fairly strict boundaries on what a profile picture is allowed to contain. An image can be removed based on its use of sexual content, profanity, and general offensiveness, causing user creativity with the discourse to be limited. CHAT and Archeology do not provide limits in terms of how a discourse can function. I would have liked to discuss how these limits affect the user and his or her profile picture in terms connections with other users. Despite this limitation, I feel both theories allowed for a greater understanding of my OoS.


Works Cited

Foucault, M. (2010). The Archaeology of Knowledge. 1969. Trans. A.M. Sheridan Smith. New  York: Vintage Books

Prior, P., Solberg, J., Berry, P., Bellwoar, H., Chewning, B., Lunsford, K.J., Rohan, L., Roozen, K., Sheridan-Rabldeau, M.P., Spihka, J., Van Ittersum, D., & Walker, J. (2005). “Re-situating and Re-mediating the Canons: A Cultural-historical Remapping of Rhetorical Activity.” 1-29.

Hum, N.J., Chamberlin, P.E., Hambright, B.L., Portwood, A.C., Schat, A.C., & Bevan, J.L. (2011). “A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words: A Content Analysis of Facebook Profile Photographs,” Computers in Human Behavior. 18-28-1833. /636/636-ArticleOnFacebookProfiles.pdf

Ong, E.Y.L., Ang, R.P., Ho, J.C.M., Lim, J.C.Y, Goh, D.H., Lee, C.S., & Chua, A.Y.K. (2011). “Narcissism, Extraversion, and Adolescents’ Self-Presentation on Facebook,” Personality and Individual Difference. 180-185. GENERAL/JOURNALS/P101012O.pdf

Raacke, J., & Bonds-Raacke, J. (2008). “MySpace and Facebook: Applying the Uses and Gratifications Theory to Exploring Friend-Networking Sites,” Cyber Psychology & Behavior. 11 (2). 169-175. 554e7a0308ae936 34ec7033d.pdf

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