MA 795 Synthesis: Facebook Profile Pictures & the Future of Social Society

For my first and second case studies in this course, I chose to utilize the theories of Carolyn Miller, Prior et al., and Michel Foucault. For this final case study, I chose to combine these three theorists into one, synthesized theory that will best describe and analyze my object of study (OoS), Facebook profile pictures. These three theories, Genre theory, Cultural-Historical Activity Theory (CHAT), and Archeology, all provide a lens for looking at how both the user, based on agency and urge to connect with others in the network, and communities of other users, based on how they interact with the user and their own profile pictures, interact and connected within the network. The limitations these theories posed in during my initial case studies are solved when combined with the other theories. While Genre theory did not provide an way to fully view the connections made with other users in the network, both CHAT and Archeology supply a way to view these connection based on the user’s profile picture. CHAT and Archeology, however, did not provide a way to view the agency and choices behind the user’s profile picture, which Genre studies supplies.

Although I was given the choice to change my OoS, I decided to continue with my work on Facebook profile pictures based on its relation to my career goals. Because of my interests in digital media and technical communication, I wish to purse a career in either media publications or technical writing. Facebook has quickly become one of the main social outlets, not just for millennial, but for society at large. This site is now a leading source for news and entertainment, as well as family and friend connections. A person’s entire world can be neatly organized and updated through a user’s Facebook account. After all, my personal Facebook account acts as multiple publications: newspaper, family tree and photo album, alumni newsletter, and US weekly to name a few. After reaching a 500-member mark for Facebook, its creator, Mark Zuckerburg, is quoted as saying:

“Back, you know, a few generations ago, people didn’t have a way to share information and express their opinions efficiently to a lot of people. But now they do. Right now, with social networks and other tools on the Internet, all of these 500 million people have a way to say what they’re thinking and have their voice be heard” (Heussner, 2010).

Perhaps this is why Facebook has become so popular. Not only does Facebook provide multiple information sources in one convenient space, but the site is also a place that allows people to share what they are thinking. And while these thoughts might not be opinions every wants to or should hear, the public is given an infinite digital space that they have a certain amount of control over. One aspect of the site that provides this agency is the profile picture, the subject of this case study.

As seen in my initial case study, “Duckfaces, Political Messages, and Cats: Genres Theory Applied to Facebook Profile Pictures,” “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” (Kubat, 2016, p. 1). In said case study, I outline the three most common Facebook profile picture genres: the selfie, the candid photo, and the icon. These three genres are formed on Miller’s (1984) believe that “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). The candid photo possesses the least amount of agency, since another person takes this picture while the user is unaware. By posting a candid photo as the profile picture, the user is demonstrating an element of trust between the user and the friend who took the photo. The user also typically “tags” this friend in the candid photo, making the rest of the network aware of their relationship.

By tagging the photographer in the profile picture, the user is signally to his or her community that this person is a friend. The friend’s community is also able to see this relationship, thus alerting a larger portion of the overall network. Foucault (1969) would describe this example of 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” (p. 62). In other words, both the network and the user learn something from this simple connection. While the network gains connection and insight, the user gains insight to a change within his or her self. By giving the agency behind profile picture choice to the friend, the user is revealing something about him or her “actual” or “real” self to the network that mainly knows this user by his or her “digital” self, the persona the user adopts within the social networking site. This connection to a user’s “two selves” harkens back to CHAT, fulfilling the representation and reception aspects of literate activity.

According to Prior et al. (2007), “representation highlights semiotic codes, discourses, [and] genres” (p. 20). In this way, Miller’s approach to Genre theory and Prior et al.’s CHAT combine to describe how the profile picture’s genre is highlight during the literate activity. The concept develops, as Prior et al. note reception, another important aspect of literate activity, “is actual reading/viewing/hearing and response, how meaning is made under what conditions and for what ends” (2007, p. 21). The actions behind posting the photograph, such as giving agency to a friend and sharing this friendship with the network, become just as important as the genre itself. Foucault relates this connection to 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 and explanation” (1969, p. 22). The network is thus connected by the agency behind the profile picture and the symbolic link of friendship within the community (see fig. 1).

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Fig. 1

The next profile picture genre is the selfie, which allows for a moderate amount of agency for the user. “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” (Kubat, 2016, p.2). As the most common profile picture, the selfie is also most likely to be the image a user chooses to “filter.” A filter is often used to show support for a cause within a Facebook community, such as a pink filter layered over a profile picture to support breast cancer awareness. The filter imposes a multi-layered affect on the user and the image.

By posting an image with a community-focused filter, the user is participating in a functional system. According to Prior et al. (2007), “functional systems—typified and fleeting—tie together people, artifacts, practices, institution, communities, and ecologies around some array of objectives, conscious and not” (p. 19.) Foucault’s concept of continuities and discontinuities applies directly to this genre and to the functional system, as it can be used to describe how the network and user change and stay the same. The functional system, as seen above, is fleeting. The moment a new social trend arises; say supporting gay marriage with a rainbow filter, the network changes to adapt. The genre then adapts as well, changing the overall appearance of the profile picture to support the communities within the network. Or perhaps the genre changes, but due to the connection the user has with breast cancer in his or her family, he or she decides not to change his or her filter. These changes and consistencies either strengthen or weaken the overall connection to the community and thus the network, while also connecting the user to other in the community who have reacted in the same way. “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,” or episteme as Foucault would coin the concept, represent the whole the network as a whole function based on the continuities and discontinuities, or genre adaptations, within the functional system. This layering affect can also be seen as a laminated chronotope.

Prior et al. (2007) describes the laminated chronotope as the conceptualization of the network, which “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). Within the Facebook network, these “frames” can be viewed at the multiple communities and networks connected within Facebook through genre choice, the ability to tag other users, and the ability to share user pictures and comments (see fig. 2). The ability to choose, tag, and share become the nodes within the network, which change and branch out as connections and relationships are formed. The last genre we will discuss, the icon, further enforces a user’s ability within the network.

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Fig. 2

The icon is not a direct photograph of the user’s “real self,” but is instead an image the user has chosen to represent their “digital self” based on an interest. This genre has the most agency for the user, since it is the only genre that does not incorporate the appearance of the “real” user. Because the icon can represent any piece of the user, such as his or her favorite band, a beloved pet, or humorous meme, it instills a different affect within the network than the other two genres create. If members within a community focused around the icon, such as fans of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, the users will create an instant connection a profile with a personal likeness might not create. Since this genre also holds the most distrust for the network, however, the user may make few connections, if any at all, unless the user already has strong connections in real life with other users.

Foucault interjects an interesting perspective on this genre, by noting “the analysis of the archive… 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). The archive, or the accumulation of the various profile pictures a user has uploaded, is most visible within this genre because the profile picture is cloaked in otherness, allowing the user no limits to his or her connections. At the same time though, we must remember that based on trust and agency, this user may casted out of the network unless the community has a strong connection to the user in “real life” or with what the icon represents.

Based on these observations, Genre theory, CHAT, and Archeology provide a much more cohesive interpretation and analysis of the profile picture, and in turn of the Facebook network as well. As seen in figure 2, the three theories work together, building connections until reaching the constraints of the network. I only wish that these theories provided more insight on what the future holds for social life in society. Are we steadily approaching a purely digital world where users have complete agency and thus can have an entirely different “real self” than their “digital self?” If so, what does the future hold for societal connections and the representation of self?

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Fig. 3

I feel that Facebook will continue to be prevalent in the future, perhaps with increased episodes of catfishing and untrustworthy users, but will continue to provide neatly organized connections for users. If you look at figure 3, you will see a screen shot of my personal Facebook account. My profile picture shows my significant other and myself hiking in the Blue Ridge Mountains, representing our shared interest and a shared agency. But if users within my network did not know me, they might assume that I was the man on the right with the beard or that this is a picture of my children on a family outing. Despite this possible miscommunication, however, I still have access to my communities and networks; my family, my friends, my job, my alma mater, and the university I am currently attending to achieve my master’s degree. The methods behind my profile picture are simple, to display a happy photo to identify myself within my personal communities. I am not concerned with sharing outside my network, but based on my discussion in this case study; I am interested to see what comes from users who do possess an urge to breach other networks. As Miller, Prior et al., and Foucault would tell us, the possibilities are inherently limitless as the network continues to grow from endless connections.


Works Cited

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

Heussner, K.M. (2010). “Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg Talks to Diane Sawyer as Website Gets 500-Millionth Member,”

Kubat, A. (2016).Duckfaces, Political Messages, and Cats: Genres Theory Applied to Facebook Profile Pictures.” 1-5.

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.

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

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