Breaching Experiments on Facebook

By: Alain
On: October 19, 2012
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About Alain
I have a bachelor's degree in Sociology with a minor in Communication Science (UvA). Currently I'm doing the New Media master in which I'll try to focus on the relationship between people and their technologies. To pay the rent I develop small websites


Breaching Experiments
Two recent events on my Facebook newsfeed made me think of breaching experiments, and what their possible value would be within the context of research on (relatively) new online social environments. The breaching experiment is a research method in the social sciences developed by Harold Garfinkel in the 1960s and 70s. Breaching experiments are not often used as guide for actual empirical research anymore. The value of the breaching experiment is now more as enlightening concept. Using two events on Facebook and interviews with the Facebook users involved, I will in this blog post explore the value of breaching experiments in relation to Facebook.

Within breaching experiments implicit and unwritten social rules are being violated on purpose in order to make visible the taken-for-granted social rules. A simple example by Garfinkel was to keep asking “what do you mean?” in normal conversations. The denial of a shared understanding led surprisingly fast to hostile behavior. The unnoticed background features of everyday scenes would come to light this way.

Another well-known example of a breaching experiment supervised by Stanley Milgram involved experimenters asking riders in New York subway to give up their seat without further explanation. Most commuters gave up their seats without a problem, but in some cases it led to frictional situations. For this reason, alongside violation unwritten social rules, experiment like this are very uncomfortable and difficult to do for the researchers who conduct it. This can be also be a hint to how deeply a certain social rule is embedded in society.

The question I want to raise here is if the concept of the breaching experiment is maybe useful for online social environments where taken-for-granted social rules are still more hidden and less obvious than in offline settings. The question of what is ‘normal’ on social network sites like Facebook is a heavily researched topic and maybe the breaching experiment can be added as an online research method.

As mentioned above two of my Facebook friends had done some Facebook postings that can be interpreted as breaching experiments. I interviewed both Facebook friends to get a good understanding of both cases and to hear what their experiences were with their somewhat deviant Facebook behavior. I also explained to them the concept of the breaching experiment and asked them what their action had learned them about social Facebook norms.

First case: Dull posts challenge
The first case is of two sisters who conducted a challenge who could carry on longest with frequently posting banal messages on Facebook. With their challenge they also wanted to make a statement about what they thought Facebook should (not) be used for. Inspired by what they judged as somewhat tiresome posts from some of their Facebook friends on their newsfeed, they took it to the extreme and posted the dullest things about their dinners, delays with public transportation and the like.

In my interview with one of the sisters, I was told they were very surprised by the large amount of serious likes and comments they received in response to their non-serious posts. They thought everyone would understand this was a joke and their sudden change in Facebook use would get noticed by everybody. The challenge ended premature with one of the sister backing out because “she couldn’t bear anymore”. The ending post where they revealed they had been doing this challenge and where they made their statement explicit was also received by merely positive comments and likes.

Second case: Fake debut book post
The second case is of another Facebook friend who suddenly posted he was to release a debut novel. He posted this because he was going to do a sketch the week after in which he would pretend to be a young writer making his debut. He wanted to invite people to the event but didn’t want to spoil the act, so he also pretended on Facebook to be an upcoming writer.

Because he has published some articles in various magazines this fake post was actually somewhat plausible to people that don’t know him very well. Still he was very surprised how many people sincerely congratulated him and liked his post. He too, like the two sisters, was surprised by the large amount of people that failed to see that his post was not serious.

What has been learned?
Apart from their differences in intension, the ‘experimenters’ I interviewed about these two cases shared some discomfort with their fake Facebook posts. Both felt unease with the fact they abused the good trust of the surprisingly large number of Facebook friends who they had fooled. Both concluded that Facebook users expect that what’s posted on Facebook reflect the truth and that playing with these expectations can involve social risks. “Facebook is as real as the offline world”, as one of my interviewees stated it, “and with every like something gets ever more real”.

If we look at these cases and see them as breaching experiments it can be concluded that the concept has some value as a way of doing research in on online social networking sites. But I think there are some important remarks to make that wouldn’t encourage the use of breaching experiment in online settings. I think especially a division should be drawn between anonymous and nomymous (non-anonymous) online social environments.

In nomymous places like Facebook there are the difficulties for experimenters are very high, it is after all their real life at stake. Furthermore nomymous settings seem to particularly facilitate positive interaction, hostile social behavior is not often seen. In this sense it is telling that Facebook does not include a ‘dislike’ button. So a lot of possible negative reactions to breaching experiments cannot be recorded. In anonymous online settings these problems are less apparent. But there remain ethical issues with breaching experiments in all social settings, anonymous or nonymous and online of offline. Is it just for researchers to purposely violate social rules and possible make trouble in social scenes?


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