Absorbed into Facebook – Immersion, engagement and asynchronous communication

On: October 2, 2009
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About Gwen Keupe
Gwen Keupe is a New Media Master student at the University of Amsterdam. She graduated her Bachelors degree with a thesis titled 'One Million Strong for Barack - Openness and involvement through online deliberation'. Her research interests lie within online social networks and the way people use them to accomplish real things offline.


When I wake up I make myself a cup of coffee and open up my laptop. I enter the passwords to my Gmail, Youtube, Twitterific and Facebook account and until I close my laptop (on those very scarce moments) these sites are always running. Especially Facebook takes a lot of my time and I check it constantly. I can almost say that sometimes I feel absorbed into Facebook. This might sound strange and at least shows some sort of addiction, but I truly believe that one can be absorbed by Facebook just like one can by absorbed into a story or game world. I find pleasure in using Facebook, feeling connected, writing messages to my friends, of course receiving messages, looking at pictures and well, all those things that Facebook facilitates us to do (and make us come back for more). Add to this the fact that I am also engaged into conversations about Facebook offline. This feeling of being absorbed by Facebook lead me to think about how immersion and engagement could be theorized connected to the pleasure of the use of social networking sites and how we become absorbed by them. To take on this thought experiment, let’s first recall what binds immersion, engagement and pleasure.

Immersion as a concept implies different things. Immersion implies a sense of ‘being there’ which is addressed by presence theory. Lombard and Ditton see a division in this sense of being there, namely being psychological immerged (referring to a mental absorption to a story or game world) and perpetual immergence (referring to the way a technology can monopolize the senses of a user) and therefore explaining how a user can be absorbed by a technology and therefore experience some sort of pleasure.

Douglas and Hargadon have examined the concept of immersion building on literacy theory and schema theory, arguing that pleasure occurs when a reader is immerged into a story world through the use of schemas. Schemas help us make sense of a story world as schemas provide a way for us to tap into our prior experiences and the knowledge we have asserted from reading. Absorption into the story world therefore occurs when a story world offers simple schemas and the reader immerses into the story world and thus experiences pleasure.

Douglas and Hargadon argue that engagement on the other hand involves “a more deliberate, critical mode of participation” than immersion. Engagement with a story or game world occurs when one comes a cross more difficult parts within a text or videogame. The user or reader has to tap into different schemas and go outside of the text in order to experience pleasure (pleasure is therefore not evoked by absorption, but by going outside of the text).

So when we look at Facebook, we can also see that we can be totally absorbed by the medium as we are immerged by the short and easy to read messages and experience pleasure from the social network site. Perhaps even experiencing a sense of ‘being there’ psychologically when it comes to the Facebook – chat function or experiencing a sense of absorption thanks to the simple interface of Facebook and moving through the online space. But engagement seems to take an even bigger part when it comes to experiencing pleasure with the use of Facebook.  Engagement, for me, occurs when one tries to make sense of all the different timelines a Facebook – user comes a cross.  By trying to make sense of the different timelines, I mean that in my opinion, Facebook – users are constantly trying to reconfigure all the different messages that are of their interests (so that they can experience a sense of flow and can construct their story world sort of speak). These different timelines, that refer both to online and offline spaces, perhaps call for re – thinking the implications of engagement, absorption and the pleasures that follow when it comes to the use of social networking sites like Facebook.

The way Facebook communication occurs is an asynchronous form of communication (leaving out the chat – function) as Facebook – users take as much time as they need to write and reply to a message and therefore communication on Facebook is not continuous. Facebook users do not experience flow like one can experience reading a book or playing a videogame (even though timelines on Facebook appear linear). There is actually a lot of waiting a round taking place on Facebook. By this I mean that when you post something on Facebook, at a certain time, you would like to have a reply within a certain amount of time (and until that moment occurs you are likely to check your account more frequently). You are therefore constantly in a discontinuous state of mind, perhaps, dare I say it, in an anxious state of mind waiting for messages (that can complete your story world).

Time is a defining factor within any Facebook – activity. When you post on your friend’s wall, when you upload a link, when you update your status, when you send a direct message or when you upload pictures, the time you did it is always mentioned (and you cannot erase or adjust it). So you are constantly aware of the time the actions of you and your friends took place. And although one could argue that thanks to the linear timeline on Facebook one can experience flow, I personally do not think that Facebook – users experience it as such. Messages that are of the users interest are scattered, leaving the user to search for the messages that bring them pleasure (sort of speak). This feeling of discontinuity and anxiousness could of course be defined as a typical characteristic of engagement as explained by Douglas and Hargadon.

But at this point I do want to go back one step in this thought experiment and again address the asynchronous form of communication on Facebook and the way users, in my personal view, experience discontinuity and anxiousness (which can eventually lead to pleasurable state of mind, just like reading a book or playing a videogame and thus being absorbed into the story world). I would like to propose a further look into the way in which Facebook – users experience this discontinuity and anxiousness. My personal believe is that Facebook – users actually use this time of waiting around to construct meaning, talking to friends offline (which are often also their online Facebook friends) and therefore extending the notion of engagement, not only by going beyond the text by searching for scattered messages, but by moving through different spaces, online and offline, creating numerous timeless and story worlds. Engagement as a pleasure therefore could be also an absorbing practice just like immersion when it comes to the use of Facebook.

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