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"Why Wonʼt You Be My Facebook Friend?": Strategies for Managing Context Collapse in the Workplace

Conference Paper

"Why Wonʼt You Be My Facebook Friend?": Strategies for Managing Context Collapse in the Workplace

Abstract

This poster presents a preliminary analysis of data collected from staff personnel at a large U. S. university regarding their use of the social network site (SNS) Facebook in their personal and professional lives. Sixty-five percent of online American adults now have a profile on a SNS, and Facebook is increasingly utilized in organizational settings such as universities as a tool for information dissemination, recruiting, and promotion of the organization and its programs. Analysis of interview data (N = 26) found that while social media outlets like Facebook offer a number of advantages for reaching diverse populations, navigating work/life boundaries on Facebook was a concern for many participants. Through the lens of context collapse---the flattening of multiple distinct audiences into a singular group---we explicate these concerns, focusing on participants' strategies for maintaining boundaries between their personal and professional lives.
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“Why Won’t You Be My Facebook Friend?”: Strategies for
Managing Context Collapse in the Workplace
Jessica Vitak
Michigan State
University
409 Communication
Arts
East Lansing, MI 48824
vitakjes@msu.edu
Cliff Lampe
University of Michigan
105 S. State St.
Ann Arbor, MI 48109
cacl@umich.edu
Rebecca Gray
Michigan State University
409 Communication Arts
East Lansing, MI 48824
grayreb2@msu.edu
Nicole B. Ellison
Michigan State University
409 Communication Arts
East Lansing, MI 48824
nellison@msu.edu
ABSTRACT
This poster presents a preliminary analysis of data collected from
staff personnel at a large U.S. university regarding their use of the
social network site (SNS) Facebook in their personal and
professional lives. Sixty-five percent of online American adults
now have a profile on a SNS, and Facebook is increasingly
utilized in organizational settings such as universities as a tool for
information dissemination, recruiting, and promotion of the
organization and its programs. Analysis of interview data (N = 26)
found that while social media outlets like Facebook offer a
number of advantages for reaching diverse populations, navigating
work/life boundaries on Facebook was a concern for many
participants. Through the lens of context collapse—the flattening
of multiple distinct audiences into a singular group—we explicate
these concerns, focusing on participants’ strategies for maintaining
boundaries between their personal and professional lives.
Categories and Subject Descriptors
H5.3. Information interfaces and presentation (e.g., HCI): Group
and Organizational Interfaces.
General Terms
Human Factors
Keywords
Facebook, social network sites, work, context collapse, impression
management
1. INTRODUCTION
Social network sites (SNSs) are increasingly part of the daily
experience of millions of Americans: half of all U.S. adults (65%
of Internet users) now maintain a profile on a SNS [1]. Facebook
is the largest of these sites, with more than 800 million users, and
92% of adult SNS users in the U.S. have a profile on the site [2].
The primary reason for joining Facebook—finding and interacting
with pre-existing connections—offers benefits such as simplified
relationship maintenance and increased access to information.
However, as users’ networks on these sites grow, they are likely to
become increasingly diverse because users are now connecting
with people from different aspects of their lives, including family,
friends, classmates, coworkers, and neighbors.
The concept of context collapse [3] describes the process by which
connections from various aspects of individuals’ lives become
grouped together under generic terms like “Facebook Friends.”
Context collapse is important when considering individuals’ self-
presentational goals on SNSs. According to Goffman [4],
individuals engage in differentiated self-presentations based on
their audience. These differences may be especially prominent
when comparing an individual’s performance in a professional
setting versus a more social one, such as Facebook. Users are
therefore faced with a number of decisions regarding the merging
of these different contexts on SNSs, including whether or not to
connect with coworkers on sites that are typically used for social
activities; how to maintain boundaries between their personal and
professional lives; and the extent to which they should share
personal or family-related information on more professionally
oriented sites. These tensions may be exacerbated when users’
professional duties include managing a SNS profile for an
individual or organization.
The present study presents a preliminary analysis of qualitative
data from 26 interviews of university staff. Analysis focuses on
the strategies they employ to manage context collapse across their
personal and professional lives.
2. METHOD
This study is part of a larger research project examining how adult
Facebook users engage with the site for a variety of information-
based goals. Between fall 2010 and spring 2011, we invited 3000
non-faculty staff members from a large Midwestern university to
participate in an online survey. A subset of respondents (N = 106)
was recruited to participate in a follow-up study, including an
interview. For the analysis below, we focus on 26 participants who
volunteered information about their use of Facebook as part of
their job and how they maintained boundaries—if at all—between
their jobs and the rest of their lives. These interviews were
transcribed, imported into Dedoose (an online data analysis tool),
and coded for emergent themes. Through textual microanalysis
[5], four inter-related themes emerged: social uses of Facebook at
work, task-based uses of Facebook at work, context collapse
concerns, and strategies for managing context collapse. Excerpts
were extracted from interviews, assigned at least one of these
codes, and weighted for their importance on a scale of 1-10.
Among those included in this analysis, participants were likely to
be women (73%), White (84.6%), 39 years old (SD = 8.4), and
have at least a bachelor’s degree (88.5%). Participants spent an
average of 64 minutes on the site per day (SD = 64.6) and had an
average of 315 Facebook Friends (median = 265, SD = 275), of
which 30 were fellow university employees (SD = 27.8).
Copyright is held by the author/owner(s).
iConference 2012, February 7–10, 2012, Toronto, Ontario, Canada.
ACM 978-1-4503-0782-6/12/02
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3. RESULTS
In describing their use of Facebook at work, respondents discussed
the benefits of using the site as a professional tool and the
strategies they employed to manage their site use in a way that
was consistent with their desired self-presentation.
3.1 Facebook as a professional tool
Participants’ comments represented a range of attitudes regarding
the instrumental benefits of Facebook in terms of professional
tasks, ranging from enthusiastic embracing of the technology to
deeming it inappropriate for work-related tasks. Those in
communication or media-related positions were most likely to
report using Facebook as part of their job, especially as a method
for facilitating outreach to a variety of audiences. For example, a
male participant who worked as part of a health-related outreach
program on campus commented that Facebook was useful for
sharing information and communicating with students: “It’s a way
to interact with students and give them information…to have
contact with them.” He said the program’s Facebook presence has
strengthened the program and increased interest significantly.
A more indirect use of Facebook for professional goals was
discussed by some participants, who pointed to the benefits of
sharing social information with their colleagues through the site. A
male who worked as a television producer said connecting and
socializing with colleagues through Facebook made him feel more
comfortable approaching them in the future for information or
other favors: “If I meet someone at a meeting and I connect with
them on Facebook, I can remember what they do so I can go back
to them if I need them for information or for my work.”
3.2 Strategies for managing context collapse
While not true for all participants, several referenced a conscious
desire to maintain contextual boundaries on Facebook and detailed
the strategies they employed to keep the personal and professional
aspects of their lives separate.
The simplest strategy used by participants to manage work-based
context collapse was to keep those contacts out of their Facebook
networks entirely or restrict access to just a few trusted coworkers.
For example, one participant said, “This is my personal network.
This is where I don’t have to be politically correct, this is where
we can be ourselves.” However, at least one participant
commented that this strategy backfired after her supervisor
confronted her at work about why she did not accept the
supervisor’s Friend request. Participants also referenced more
professional-focused SNSs such as LinkedIn and said they were
more willing to connect with coworkers through those services.
A second strategy for managing context collapse referenced by
several participants was creating multiple Facebook accounts,
effectively partitioning off professional contacts from the rest of
their network. A female office assistant described why she
segmented her Facebook Friends in this way: “I wouldn’t want a
professor…to see updates about my daughter’s potty training. So I
just keep it separate because I can’t keep up with the [site’s
privacy] changes.” Her comment reflects Goffman’s [3]
distinction between front stage and backstage performances: she
has a clear sense of how her “professional self” should act (i.e.,
her “front stage” performance), and she attempts to perform in
professional settings in ways that reflect this understanding. If
Facebook is her backstage (i.e., space away from the professional
self), then keeping her professional audience separate makes
sense. Another woman, who worked in alumni relations, echoed
this rationale: “There are certain things I’ll talk about with my
family and friends on my personal Facebook page…I didn’t really
need alumni to see pictures of me in high school.”
Finally, some participants resolved context collapse issues by
adopting what Hogan [6] describes as a “lowest common
denominator” approach. These users consciously avoided publicly
sharing any content that might negatively impact their job or their
relationship with coworkers. One participant, who worked as an
assistant manager, said, “…there are people here [at the
university] who use it to vent, who use it to talk about other
friends, co-workers, and I don’t think that’s appropriate, so that’s
why I just stay away from [doing that].” This strategy suggests
that while users may find benefits from connecting with
coworkers, they may become more careful in making decisions
about the content they choose to share with this more diverse
network. More than any other strategy, this approach points to one
of the negative outcomes that could be associated with context
collapse; if users are only willing to share “sterilized” content,
they may not be able to engage in meaningful interactions with
their network and receive some of the benefits (e.g., social capital)
that have been empirically related to SNS use [7, 8].
4. DISCUSSION
Facebook use is becoming increasingly commonplace in the
workplace—offering users the opportunity to connect with
coworkers through the site and potentially disrupting traditional
professional communication practices. While participants
recognized the benefits of social media to share information,
interact, and reach out to diverse groups, many also worried about
context collapse: the blurring of boundaries between users’
personal and professional lives. To ameliorate these concerns,
users pursued a range of strategies, including keeping Facebook
“Friends Only,” creating multiple accounts, and constraining
content to only material appropriate for all Friends. As these sites
continue to grow, a number of outcomes are possible: users may
adopt these strategies for managing self-presentation to a greater
degree, norms around professional communication may shift, or
new practices may evolve. Future scholarship should examine
these practices in order to better understand the challenges posed
by social media and the ways users attempt to maximize the
benefits while minimizing the risks of their use.
5. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
This work was supported by NSF grant IIS-HCC-0916019.
6. REFERENCES
[1] Madden, M., and Zickhur, K. 65% of online adults use social
networking sites. Pew Internet Project, Washington, DC,
2011.
[2] Hampton, K., Sessions, L., Rainie, L., and Purcell, K. Social
networking and our lives. Pew Internet Project, Washington,
DC, 2011.
[3] boyd, d. Taken out of context: American teen sociality in
networked publics. School of Information, University of
California, Berkeley, Berkeley, CA, 2008.
[4] Goffman, E. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life.
Anchor Books, New York.
[5] Strauss, A. and Corbin, J. Basics of Qualitative Research:
Techniques and Procedures for Developing Grounded
Theory (2nd ed). Sage, Thousand Oaks, CA.
[6] Hogan, B. The presentation of self in the age of social media:
Distinguising performances and exhibitions online. Bulletin
of Science, Technology & Society, 30. 377-386.
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[7] Burke, M., Kraut, R., and Marlow, C. Social capital on
Facebook: Differentiating uses and users. Proc. CHI 2010,
ACM Press (2011), 571-580.
[8] Ellison, N., Steinfield, C., and Lampe, C. Connection
strategies: Social capital implications of Facebook-enabled
communication practices. New Media & Society, 13, 6
(2011), 873-892.
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65% of online adults use social networking sites
  • M Madden
  • K Zickhur
Madden, M., and Zickhur, K. 65% of online adults use social networking sites. Pew Internet Project, Washington, DC, 2011.
Social networking and our lives Taken out of context: American teen sociality in networked publics. School of Information
  • K Hampton
  • L Sessions
  • L Rainie
  • K Purcell
Hampton, K., Sessions, L., Rainie, L., and Purcell, K. Social networking and our lives. Pew Internet Project, Washington, DC, 2011. 3. boyd, d. Taken out of context: American teen sociality in networked publics. School of Information, University of California, Berkeley, Berkeley, CA, 2008.
Social networking and our lives
  • K Hampton
  • L Sessions
  • L Rainie
Hampton, K., Sessions, L., Rainie, L., and Purcell, K. Social networking and our lives. Pew Internet Project, Washington, DC, 2011.