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Review of  Facebook and Conversation Analysis


Reviewer: Agnese Sampietro
Book Title: Facebook and Conversation Analysis
Book Author: Matteo Farina
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing (formerly The Continuum International Publishing Group)
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Discourse Analysis
Text/Corpus Linguistics
Issue Number: 30.199

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Review:
SUMMARY

The last two decades have witnessed a steady increase in research on Computer-Mediated Communication (CMC). However, there is a need for studies that apply Conversation Analysis (CA) methods to online corpora. Even though CA has already been used to analyze online interactions, the field of “digital CA” (Giles, Stommel, Paulus, Lester & Reed 2015), “is still in its infancy when compared to spoken CA” (Meredith 2017: 42). “Facebook and Conversation Analysis” by Matteo Farina is a timely contribution to research to this young yet evolving field. The book is an in-depth analysis of a corpus of Facebook (FB) comment threads, mostly written in Italian, applying concepts of CA. Concretely, it focuses on the structure and sequence organization of FB comment threads.

The book is divided into nine chapters. After a general introduction, description of the corpus, and presentation of the research design (Chapters 1 and 2), the author analyzes the specific features of comment threads (Chapter 3) and recognizes tellings as the basic sequences of FB comments (Chapter 4). The following two chapters describe the interactional characteristics of first-post tellings and non-initial tellings, respectively. Chapter 7 deals with responses to tellings, while later comments are analyzed in Chapter 8. The volume concludes with a final discussion and a summary of the findings (Chapter 9).

The introduction reviews some of the most relevant research on computer-mediated communication both in general and for FB in particular. The main hypothesis of the book is that FB comment threads are organized in an identifiable structure, thus showing sequence organization. After describing the rationale for applying CA methods to answer the research questions, key concepts of CA that would be used later in the book are introduced, namely the turn-taking system, sequence organization, and tellings.

Chapter 2 starts with a description of the FB interface and follows with a brief description of the research design. Additionally, the methods for data collection, obtaining informed consent, selection of the captures and transcribing conventions are discussed. The corpus includes a collection of screen captures of the author’s FB feed, from which 1264 comments were selected from 213 unique comment threads. Comments were written in Italian and regional varieties of Italian, with few in other languages.

The third chapter explores the most important features of comment threads, which are composed of several related comments. The differences between comment threads and spoken conversations are also described in this section of the book. Contrary to face-to-face communication, FB conversation recipients and potential participants are often unknown, communication is generally quasi-synchronous or asynchronous, and multimodal elements, such as hyperlinks or images, may be used. Similar to spoken conversation, poster changes are common and pragmatically complete units are preferred. The chapter also introduces one of the main arguments of the book: the presence of a structure in comment threads.

Chapter 4 deals with tellings, the basic sequence of FB comment threads. First-post tellings are of special interest, as almost all the first-posts of the corpus contained a telling. The author classifies the different formats of tellings (textual, photo, hyperlink tellings and combinations of text with photos or hyperlinks) and the focus (autobiographical or related to a third-person). In the final section of the chapter, Farina analyzes how some of the specific affordances of the social network may encourage the use of tellings by FB users, such as the dialogue box “What’s on your mind?” (defined as a “telling elicitor”) and the type of content spreadable by means of the “share” button.

The next chapter (5) further explores first-post tellings. Contrary to spoken conversation, one of the main interactional problems of FB posters is to secure respondents for the tellings. Different techniques used by FB users to deal with this problem are described in the chapter, such as naming the intended recipients of the post, providing background information to guarantee a proper interpretation of the post (and the expected response), and using humor.

In Chapter 6 non-initial tellings, which occur in comments that are not the first of a comment thread, are considered. Similar to second stories in spoken conversation, FB users employ these tellings to show understanding of the first-post telling and to signal affiliation. In the corpus these non-initial tellings stimulate very few responses from other FB friends; according to the author, this is likely because of the specific affordances of FB interface, which by default displays (hence making more available) only the most recent comments of the thread.

The first comment made by each user in a comment thread opened by a telling is the focus of “Responses to Tellings” (Chapter 7). These responses are very similar to spoken interactions. FB users respond expressing evaluations, laughter, further tellings, and humorous unlikely statements. According to Farina, this is not surprising, as the first-post telling usually orients the kind of response the poster expects in return.

Chapter 8 analyzes later comments made by the poster of the first comment in response. These later comments are often responses to the most recent contribution and are often oriented to the action performed in the previous comment. The author also finds instances of dyadic exchanges in his corpus, especially when posters are simultaneously online.

The final chapter presents the conclusions of the work, summarizes the findings, and highlights evidence of the existence of sequence organization in FB comment threads. This section of the book includes suggestions for future research, such as extending the analysis to other languages and demographics, including “reactions” in the analysis and exploring whether the findings are applicable to other forms of computer-mediated communication.

EVALUATION

“Facebook and Conversation Analysis” is a welcome addition to research on CMC, as it provides an original and much-needed systematic analysis of the structure of FB comment threads.

The very choice of CA is of interest, as these methods have seldom been used in the analysis of FB data (as recognized in the introduction of the book). From a broader perspective, this volume joins a scholarly discussion on the use of CA methods to study online corpora. CA has been used since the late 1990s to analyze online interactions. Overwhelmingly, previous CA research on online corpora has dealt with the comparison between face-to-face and online interactions and, to a lesser extent, the way interactional coherence is maintained despite what has been called “disrupted turn adjacency” (Herring 1999). Repairs in chats and other forms of CMC are another topic of digital CA research (see Paulus, Warren & Lester 2016 for a review of research in this field). To the extent of my knowledge, structural features of FB have not been previously analyzed in such a detailed way, thus confirming the novelty of this research.
Drawing on a corpus of FB comment threads written in Italian, Farina found compelling evidence of the existence of sequence organization, such as turns at talk in spoken conversation.

Readers will not only appreciate the analysis, but also the clarity and accessibility of the whole book, since the structure of each chapter is clear, the main findings are repeated several times, excerpts from the corpus are carefully translated and thoroughly analyzed, and the writing style is clear. Though the scope of the book is confined to Italian, its general conclusions can be safely extended to other Western languages.

In the analysis of the structure of FB comment threads, Farina properly considers how the technological affordances of the platform influence the interactions. However, I think that some FB features are not considered in the book. As he works with screen captures, the possible interactional functions of the “like” button (“reactions” did not exist at the time of data collection) are not considered, but it is possible from the data to consider if friends that “like” a post are also more likely to comment on it, or general structural characteristics of posts that receive more “likes”. Another missing FB feature, which may have interactional functions, are notifications. FB users may receive notifications when others comment on a thread they have already commented on or that they are following. It is worth investigating whether receiving a notification increases the likelihood of a response to a comment.

In conclusion, this book is a valuable addition to the literature on CMC in general and digital CA in particular. Aside from the suggestions for future research indicated by the author in the final chapter of the book, other features worth investigating in the future are multimodal responses. Apart from “reactions”, it may be interesting to pursue research on the use of animated GIFs, photos and hyperlinks in response to comment threads (not only in first-post tellings, as considered in this book). In addition, although almost all of first-posts contain tellings, the structure of threads opened by a post that does not contain a telling may be analyzed. Future research could also consider whether the specific affordances of the mobile application have consequences on the structure of FB conversations (Farina’s analysis focuses only on the web-based version of the social network) and expand the analysis to other social media platforms.

REFERENCES

Giles, David, Wyke Stommel, Trena Paulus, Jessica Lester & Darren Reed. 2015. Microanalysis of online data: The methodological development of “digital CA”. Discourse, Context and Media 7(2015). 45-51.

Herring, Susan C. 1999. Interactional coherence in CMC. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 4(4).

Meredith, Joanne. 2017. Analysing technological affordances of online interactions using conversation analysis. Journal of Pragmatics 115(2017). 42-55.

Paulus, Trena, Amber Warren & Jessica Lester. 2016. Applying conversation analysis methods to online talk: A literature review. Discourse, Context and Media 12(2016). 1-10.
 
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
Agnese Sampietro owns a PhD in Linguistics from the University of Valencia (Spain) and currently is Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University Jaume I (Spain). She has expertise in computer-mediated communication and multimodality with a focus on Spanish. Her work draws on different academic traditions around language and communication, as discourse analysis, sociolinguistics, pragmatics and cultural studies to analyze the way language, writing, reading and communication are changing due to the spread of digital devices.

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