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s4140022 Phd Submission Final

Constructing Facebook: Constituting Social Space Online

Naomi Smith
BA Hons, The University of Queensland

A thesis submitted for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy at The University of Queensland in 2014
The School of Social Science


This thesis explores the ways in which Facebook is created as a space and how this space is produced through the presentation of the self and the friendships that Facebook contains. The focus of the thesis is on understanding the interplay between the constraints of Facebook’s framework, and how users act within it. To address this focus, this research takes a critical realist approach. To embody a critical realist approach in the social sciences is to use a combination of methods in order to elucidate the phenomena at hand. As such, this research takes a case study approach to Facebook which combines a variety of methods in order to approach the object of study. These methods include a structured questionnaire, semi-structured interviewing and observation.

From the results generated by these methods, I argue that Facebook, while new in many ways, is not inherently more disruptive to friendship than other forms of mediation that have preceded it and should be understood as part of a continuum of changes that have shaped the expression of friendship. In fact, Facebook removes some of the temporal aspects of friendship, being no longer location or place specific as it relocates some of these characteristics to Facebook. The architecture of Facebook means that friendships become simultaneously dynamic and static, as they can be maintained with little effort, while remaining current. Using Facebook as a hub through which to manage friendships means that users must present at least a portion of their selves to be presented for consumption and comment. Not doing so tacitly resists the pressure that Facebook puts on users to be part of its social hum. Deciding on the ‘right’ way to present the self requires accounting for the space one is acting in, similar to face-to-face interaction. The sharing of the self helps to facilitate impromptu socialising regardless of corporeal presence.

Building on these results, I argue Facebook can be best understood as a parochial space that contains known, although not necessarily intimate others. Facebook is a place and a space – an abstract space rather than an organic space created by capital for its own purposes. Even so, abstract space can be resisted and re-shaped. People demonstrate agency in reshaping both in how space is used to ‘get around’, but also in how social relations are formed, maintained, ordered and sustained. The popularity of Facebook has helped foster a reconfigured parochial sphere that be framed as a return to gemeinschaft, and the ‘village square’. There is little of the public realm or the stranger about Facebook.

Although Facebook potentially gives the comfort of Tönnies’ gemeinschaft village square it does have some important differences. Rather than bestowed through birth and kinship, this village is intentionally created and ‘curated’ by the user to meet varied social and relational needs and obligations. Relationships are formed, ordered and sustained reflexively according to the dictates of Facebook’s architecture and the reflexive preferences of the user.

This research extends the current literature by critically re-examining how Facebook can be understood as a space beyond dichotomies of public and private. This thesis argues that re-contextualising Facebook as a parochial space means that the implications of this space for the presentation of the self and the friendships represented within this space must also be examined. In critically examining these aspects, this thesis concludes that users can and do exert agency to use Facebook in a way that best suits their needs.

However, social obligations, technical structures, and corporate interests, mean the village is not fully within our control.

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