65.4, November 2018

Designing Outrage, Programming Discord: A Critical Interface Analysis of Facebook as a Campaign Technology

By Jennifer Sano-Franchini


Purpose: Facebook is a place where political candidates actively advertise and campaign, and where a large population of citizens share and interact with information about political issues and with one another. I explore how Facebook’s UX/interface design has contributed to user engagements that have implications for the current political context within which we live and work.

Method: I engage in a critical user interface analysis focusing on four key microinteractions on the site: browsing, reacting, commenting, and posting.

Results: My analysis shows that Facebook’s user interface is structured around several design choices that create an ethic that prioritizes concision, speed, curation practices that limit divergent perspectives, and the flattening of complex identities and political commitments such that they are indexable, processable, and thus, monetizable.

Conclusion: The analysis presented here considers the relationship between user experience design and political engagement. As such, this paper helps industry practitioners to see 1) how technology designs create new, mediated intimacies over time and 2) how those relationships have implications for user engagement with politicized content.

Keywords: social media, politics, user experience, interface design, microinteractions

Practitioner’s Takeaways:

  • Suggests that UX designers should be attentive to how technology designs create new relational circuits, along with how those relationships work to mediate the dissemination of politicized content.
  • Examines the potential impacts of a social media interface on its audiences.

Conversations around U.S. electoral politics since Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign have centered in large part on a social networking site once designed to bring college students together. Facebook has become a source from which a significant number of voters and potential voters, at least in the U.S. context, receive news and information about candidates and political issues (Mitchell, Gottfried, & Matsa, 2015; Gottfried & Shearer, 2016; Desilver, 2014). Correspondingly, there exists a growing body of scholarship that explores the relationship between Facebook and political participation emerging across communication, new media studies, sociology, and public relations (Carlisle & Patton, 2013; Effing, van Hillegersberg, & Huibers, 2011; Gil de Zuniga, Jung, & Valenzuela, 2012; Gustafsson, 2012; Sweetser & Lariscy, 2008; Vesnic-Alujevic, 2012; Vitak et al., 2011). Although the term “election technology” is often used to reference voting technologies, such as on-site voting equipment and election management systems, it must be noted that election campaigns are an integral part of the electoral process (“Presidential Election Process,” 2018). As social media has played an increasingly significant role as a campaign technology, there emerges a need to examine the fluid relationship between user experience (UX) design of social media and what happens in the polling booth.

The gravity of that relationship was highlighted in recent controversies surrounding the 2016 U.S. presidential election of Donald Trump, including the indictment of twelve Russian intelligence officials for interfering in the election, as well as the Cambridge Analytica data breach scandal. These events have raised urgent questions regarding Facebook’s role in both advancing and inhibiting electoral integrity and thus in shaping election outcomes. While some have examined how Facebook enabled Russian hackers and troll farms to disseminate “fake news” during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign (Allcott & Gentzkow, 2017), others have considered how algorithms and the click economy facilitated that dissemination (Lapowski, 2016). To be sure, Facebook is not the only social media site that has been implicated in discussions about the propagation of disinformation online. At the same time, it has perhaps most frequently been identified as a key factor that contributed to a Trump presidency. Trump’s digital director himself, Brad Parscale, said that the Trump campaign benefitted from targeted advertising on Facebook, which was also the campaign’s “biggest incubator” that allowed them to generate $250 million in online fundraising (Lapowsky, 2016). It is therefore important to note that Facebook has not only enabled but also profited from dis-/misinformation (Leonnig, Hamburger, & Helderman, 2017) as it “actively … pursued election advertising as a business strategy” (Beckett, 2017).

The case of Russian interference in the 2016 election has highlighted how Facebook’s business strategy was exploited as a political tool for sowing outrage, fear, and distrust on social media. Roger McNamee (2017), venture capitalist and early investor in Facebook, argued that Facebook (and Google) incentivizes harmful behaviors in its pursuit of profit via users’ attention, and that it does so by prioritizing sensationalism, fear, and outrage over substance or enrichment in order to keep users on the site. McNamee (2017) further asserted that Russia took advantage of this business model “to sow discord among Americans and then to interfere in the 2016 election” (para. 13). This assertion was later confirmed in the February 2018 indictment of Russia’s Internet Research Agency (IRA) for interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections: The indictment states that the IRA “had a strategic goal to sow discord in the U.S. political system, including the 2016 U.S. presidential election” by posting “derogatory information about a number of candidates, and by … supporting the presidential campaign of then-candidate Donald J. Trump … and disparaging Hillary Clinton” through fraudulent political advertisements and fake social media accounts (p. 4). In addition, the indictment states that the IRA aimed to “[spread] distrust towards … the political system in general” (p. 6). Such statements highlight how Facebook succumbed to—and profited from—“bad actors” through psycho-social means, by re-programming the emotions and affective orientations through which users interacted with digital content, with one another, and with the political system in ways that are visceral and deeply embodied. This notion is important for UX designers, especially if we consider how this social and affective re-programming—and its subsequent disruptions to democracy in the US—took place through Facebook’s user interface (UI). But how do social media interfaces shape how we interact with—and feel about—one another? This paper takes the case of Facebook to explore this question, asking:

  • If Facebook’s UI is the medium through which particular interactions and affective orientations are facilitated, how are those activities and dispositions inscribed in and through the interface itself?
  • What kinds of interactions and affective orientations are facilitated by Facebook’s UI, and how might those interactions and orientations contribute to how citizens engage politically?
  • Finally, what can UX designers do to more fully account for the political implications of design?

The section that follows is a literature review that situates this research in relation to existing scholarship on Facebook and its effects on politics and emotion. I then describe my research methods. Specifically, I engage in a critical user interface analysis with a focus on four key microinteractions (Saffer, 2013) as mediated by Facebook’s UI: browsing (or scrolling), commenting, reacting, and posting. Furthermore, my analysis is theoretically framed in terms of interaction design’s focus on user experience and emotion, along with the assumption that writing and design are epistemic. Next, I describe my analysis, before moving into a discussion of my findings. In brief, I find that Facebook’s UI creates spatiotemporal realities that prioritize concision, speed, curation practices that limit divergent perspectives, and the flattening of complex identities and political commitments such that they are indexable, processable, and thus, monetizable. In addition, such design features are conducive for promoting polarization and discord among users. I conclude by describing the implications of this research for practitioners and scholars, encouraging that both be vigilant in considering how technologically mediated social interactions materially re-shape how users connect and relate with one another both online and offline.

Literature Review

This paper serves as a response to salient arguments within the field of technical communication to more boldly take up the call of social justice (Agboka, 2013; Agboka, 2014; Colton & Holmes, 2018; Jones, 2016; Jones, Moore, & Walton, 2016; Walton & Jones, 2013). By examining how the work of UX designers has significant implications for upholding and/or disrupting democracy, and for enabling and hindering equitable representation of citizens within the democratic process of an election, this paper speaks to social justice concerns of collective action in the name of equity. For instance, Jones, Moore, and Walton’s (2016) 3Ps heuristic—positionality, privilege, and power—speaks to this case in terms of the need to observe the positionality of Facebook users and how they are configured to accept and maintain particular kinds of relationships, whether to other users, to political candidates, to political perspectives, or to advertisers in general. The 3Ps heuristic also demonstrates how this UX work speaks to the privileges of the state and of corporations in disseminating information that affect users’ embodied and material existences in ways that affect the flow of power.

In addition, this paper builds from and contributes to the existing literature on social media and technical communication, which has explored uses of social media in managing workflow (Stolley, 2009; Pigg, 2014; Kimme Hea, 2014; Ferro & Zachry, 2009), in risk communication (Ding & Zhang, 2010; Potts, 2013), in considering work opportunities for technical communicators (Katajisto, 2010; Frith, 2014; Longo, 2014), to manage company-consumer interactions (Lillqvist & Louhiala-Salminen, 2014), and in the teaching of technical communication (Bowdon, 2014; Lam, 2013; Verzosa-Hurley & Kimme Hea, 2014; Vie, 2017). Although these studies have examined social media and/as technical communication in many domains, there is still room for work that considers how social media UIs impact user experiences, mindsets, and dispositions as they interpret information. In other words, this paper speaks to St.Amant and Meloncon’s (2016) finding that technical communication practitioners are interested in “how technical communicators should use newer forms of media (e.g., social media) to convey information” (p. 354). More specifically, one practitioner interviewee asked, “How much is social media playing a part in how documents/information are viewed in that medium?” (p. 354). This examination of how Facebook’s UI inspires particular affective responses in users that shape their engagement with that information and with each other is a contribution that addresses this question.

By exploring the research questions stated in the introduction above, this paper brings together two areas of inquiry that have taken up how Facebook motivates, influences, and/or directs users’ behaviors within and outside of the social media platform: 1) it contributes to the robust body of cross disciplinary scholarship that seeks to understand the relationship between Facebook and politics (Alashri et al., 2016; Borah, 2016; Bosch, 2013; Bossetta et al., 2018; Chang et al., 2018; Chen & Chang, 2017; Edgerly et al., 2016; Housholder & LaMarre, 2014; Jang et al., 2014; Khairuddin & Rao, 2017; Lee et al., 2018; Kim, 2016; Kim, 2018; Kruikmeier et al., 2016; Langlois et al., 2009; Lin, 2016; Gustafsson, 2012; Stier et al., 2018; Taibi et al., 2017; Van Dalen et al., 2015; Wang & Silva, 2018; Yang et al., 2017; Yue et al., 2017; and others) by centering on affect and emotion as an analytic and factor that contributes to the shape of this relationship; and 2) it adds to cross disciplinary research on the embodied—and thus psychosocial and neurological—effects of Facebook (Achen, 2016; Amichai-Hamburger & Vinitzky, 2010; Aricak & Ozbay, 2016; Bayer et al., 2018; Bessi, 2016; Bessi et al., 2016; Blachnio & Przepiórka, 2018; Bogolyubova et al., 2018; Brailovskaia & Margraf, 2017; Buchanan, 2015; Burwell, 2018; Calancie et al., 2017; Cionea et al., 2017; Çapan & Sarıçalı, 2016; Errasti et al., 2017; Hanna et al., 2017; Kim & Lee, 2011; Knausenberger & Echterhoff, 2018; Koban et al., 2018; Krishna & Kim, 2015; Lin & Utz, 2015; Meshi et al., 2015; Montag et al., 2017; Runcan, 2017; Seargeant & Tagg, 2018; Shackelford, 2018; Spottswood & Hancock, 2016; Stefanita et al., 2018; Tromholt, 2016; Verduyn et al., 2015; Vitak & Kim, 2014; Waterloo et al., 2017; Wee & Lee, 2017) by considering the political implications of mediated emotions, affects, and social behaviors as imparted by—and visible in—the UI.

Research on the political effects of Facebook is still emerging, and more studies are needed to better understand this impact in different cultural contexts. For example, in “Does Social Media Use Really Make People Politically Polarized?” Lee, Shin, and Hong (2018) reported on a South Korea-based study that found that “although there were no direct effects of social media use, social media indirectly contributed to polarization through increased political engagement … which eventually pushes the users toward the ideological poles” (p. 245). In other words, the researchers found that those who were already politically moderate did not become more extreme in their views; however, those who considered themselves politically neutral did become politically engaged through the use of social media. Interestingly, those who were politically neutral “who used social media regularly during the data collection period were more likely to become liberal than those who did not use social media” (p. 251). On the other hand, Yue et al. (2017) conducted a Hong Kong-based study that found “there is no causal correlation between online duration of Facebook and offline political participation” (p. 426). Correspondingly, Gustafsson (2012) presented findings from a Swedish perspective, stating, “Although practices and attitudes vary, using social network sites alone does not drive previously inactive respondents to political participation” (p. 1). Besides the variable that different national and cultural sites might contribute to the divergent findings that appear across these studies, it is also worth noting that research on Facebook is something of a moving target, and that Facebook’s UI as well as the political climate has undergone many updates and changes between Gustafsson’s 2012 study and Lee, Shin, and Hong’s 2018 study. In addition, some variations may exist due to the fact that Facebook presents personalized News Feeds. Therefore, any results may be contingent on the content that shows up on an individual user’s feed.

Examples of existing work at the nexus of Facebook, political elections, and emotion include Wang and Silva’s (2018) “A Slap or a Jab: An Experiment on Viewing Uncivil Political Discussions on Facebook,” which found that “a strong negative emotional experience after viewing uncivil political discussion [that expressed insults or mockery] did motivate … participants to express stronger intention to engage,” but that the effects also depended in part on the topic at hand (p. 76). Furthermore, they found that different types of “uncivil” political discourse have “different affective impacts on audiences across political issues” (p. 78). In addition, Kim’s (2016) “Facebook’s Spiral of Silence and Participation: The Role of Political Expression on Facebook and Partisan Strength in Political Participation” reported on a South Korea-based study that found that “a perceived hostile opinion climate on Facebook was negatively associated with political expression on Facebook,” particularly for those who expressed low to moderate levels of political partisanship (p. 696). This finding is notable when examined in relation to Verduyn et al.’s (2015) study, which suggested that passive consumption of Facebook “undermines affective well-being” (p. 480). Finally, Taibi, Hussin, and Ishak’s (2017) “Facebook and Political Cynicism: Undergraduates’ Perception” presents a Malaysia-based study that found that undergraduates expressed neutrality and were thus assumed to be undecided about politics in their country. This finding suggests that how Facebook, politics, and emotion come together for a particular individual may also be contingent on other factors like age, educational background, and/or their perceived degree of political agency within a particular context. Examining these studies collectively offers several caveats that one should keep in mind when researching the political and affective impacts of Facebook. I describe such limitations for the current study in the section that follows.

First, however, it is worth noting that the existing literature on Facebook as a political tool has highlighted how the social media platform has been deployed as a liberatory and democratizing tool in several localized contexts, oftentimes acting as a space for dissent and community building. In many ways, social media enables the amplification of perspectives and voices that were previously omitted from official media channels that tend to be dominated by state and corporate interests. It seems increasingly apparent, however, that we must recognize that oppressive state and corporate interests, too, permeate social media technologies. The effects of Facebook’s UI and business model should therefore not be assessed in good/bad binary terms; rather, the critiques presented in this paper should be understood as situated within a larger terrain of possibilities that are multifaceted, complex, and in flux.


To understand how Facebook’s UI impacts how users interact with—and feel about—one another, as well as the political implications of these mediated affective orientations, I look to the UI itself, engaging in what I refer to as a critical interface analysis, a method that layers theory, critique, and reflection. In doing so, I draw on theories from writing studies and interaction design. More specifically, I perform my analysis with a focus on four key overlapping and interconnected microinteractions (Saffer, 2013) as mediated by the site: browsing, reacting, commenting, and posting. In addition, my analysis is informed by my personal experience as a Facebook user since 2006, as a social media user since around 1997, and as a former graphic designer.

My method of critical interface analysis is constructed from the idea that writing and design are epistemic, and that human beings make knowledge and meaning from the interpretation—whether conscious or subconscious—of signs, including alphabetic textual and visual design. In addition, critical interface analysis is built from a tradition of scholarship that has explored the ideological function of technological interfaces in technical communications (Knight et al., 2009; Moses & Katz, 2006; Selfe & Selfe, 1994; Sidler & Jones, 2009; Tufte, 2003). As Selfe and Selfe (1994) have argued, “Within the virtual space represented by these interfaces, and elsewhere within computer systems, the values of our culture—ideological, political, economic, educational—are mapped both implicitly and explicitly, constituting a complex set of material relations among culture, technology, and technology users” (p. 485). A critical interface analysis blends theory, critique, and reflection on embodied experience in a recursive fashion, understanding that the relationship across the three can lead to an intentionally reflexive critical approach. A critical interface analysis can be used to analyze the ideological and rhetorical function of design via a computer desktop or other technical interface (Selfe & Selfe, 1994), software or application interface (Moses & Katz, 2006; Tufte, 2003), or website (Knight et al., 2009; Sidler & Jones, 2009). To perform a critical interface analysis, one might consider several questions about the meaning making function of the site:

  • Who is the target/primary user? Who are the secondary users, unintended users, and other stakeholders?
  • What are the tasks, interactions, and relationships (human-computer, human-human) that are facilitated by and through the interface?
  • What kinds of content are presented through the interface?
  • What are the organizing logics of the interface?
  • What are the ideological and cultural values and assumptions imparted through the interface, whether through its content, its organizing logics, or the interactions facilitated by the site?
  • In what kinds of environments will these tasks be conducted and these interactions take place?
  • What are the various affordances of the interface? Who benefits from its use and how do they benefit? What are the limitations of the interface? What and whom does it leave out?
  • What are the range of emotions and embodied responses that are enabled and encouraged by the interface?
  • On what memories, literacies, and histories does the interface rely?

For this study, my critical interface analysis is further supported by ideas in interaction design that examine processes of technology use over time. Specifically, I draw on Saffer’s (2013) concept of microinteractions as activities that enable the dissemination of—and shape engagement around—politicized content. Saffer (2013) described microinteractions as “the functional, interactive details of a product” (p. 3), “a contained product moment that revolves around a single use case … the small moments that can be dull and forgettable, or pleasurable and engaging. Every time you change a setting, sync your data or devices, set an alarm, pick a password, turn on an appliance, log in, set a status message, or favorite or Like something, you are engaging with a microinteraction” (p. 2). By attending to these four microinteractions of browsing, reacting, commenting, and posting, I examine the small, apparently commonplace uses of the site, and I consider how these small design features have much larger implications as they shape user engagement with politicized content as well as their interactions with other users. Drawing from Vitak et al. (2011), Facebook users are able to engage in several political and election-related microinteractions on the site: 1) They can join and leave Facebook groups like The Political Resistance Against Donald Trump, Right Wing News, Conservative Politics, or Being Libertarian; 2) they can become a “fan” of a candidate; 3) they can send private messages about political content; 4) they can add or delete political applications; and 5) they can RSVP for political events. In addition, Facebook users can change or put a filter on their profile pictures to show their commitments to particular issues, and they can donate to various political causes. For the purposes of this paper, however, I focus on political and ideological activity via four fundamental microinteractions that perhaps represent some of the most basic and common uses of the site.

A central premise of interaction design argues for the need to account for embodied experiences of emotion, affect, and feeling as significant to research, analysis, and design. For example, interaction designers have argued that UX designers must go beyond usability and ease of use to consider the emotional impacts of design, in part because usability and emotion are interconnected (Klemmer et al., 2006; Lim et al., 2008; Norman, 2004; Norman & Ortony, 2003; Spillers, 2004). As Norman (2004) put it, “Emotions, we now know, change the way the human mind solves problems—the emotional system changes how the cognitive system operates” (p. 18). With this relationship in mind, my analysis is shaped by my own embodied experiences as a Facebook and social media user. I have been a member of Facebook for more than a decade now, having signed up for an account in 2006 when it was open only to those with college email addresses. Since then, the site’s user base, functionality, and features have expanded dramatically. I have used the site at varying levels of intensity, at times posting various kinds of content regularly, at other times mostly browsing and “reacting,” and commenting on occasion. I have also used the site for a range of purposes, including, at times, to post politicized content, react to politicized content, and/or engage with other users around politicized issues. Like many other Facebook members, I have deleted my account—as it happens, not long after the 2016 election—and returned a couple of months later. Prior to using Facebook, I was an active member of some of the earliest social networking sites that featured user profile pages, including AsianAvenue, Friendster, and MySpace, since around 1997. I consider my experiences with—and uses of—Facebook in relation to the functionality and interfaces of other social networking sites. In sum, I draw on my personal experiences as a member of Facebook over the last decade or so and as a social networking site user over the last two decades to critique my experience of politicized and other content on Facebook.

The impetus for this project began in late April 2015. I was participating in a new media seminar for faculty at my institution. That week, we read McCloud’s (1993) “Time Frames,” which performs a meta-analysis of time as represented within the genre of comics, alongside Berners-Lee, Cailliau, Luotonen, Nielsen, and Secret’s (1994) “The World-Wide Web,” which describes the now ubiquitous system that enables widespread access to information across servers and platforms. Both readings considered how interfaces shape UX, as McCloud (1993) analyzed the interface of comics as a form, while Berners-Lee et al. (1994) discussed aspects of the World Wide Web interface that would enable widened user access to information. At around the same time, I had been reading about the April 18–24 uprisings in Baltimore after the death of Freddie Gray and about the April 25 earthquake in Nepal. I noticed I was experiencing these events in ways unlike I had ever experienced world events in the past. This culmination of readings, world events, and experiences led me to wonder how time is encoded within social media applications and how the interpretation of world events are framed through these platforms. I took a screen capture of my Facebook News Feed on April 30, 2015, and wrote a blog that day, reflecting on my own embodied experience of temporal dissonance while using Facebook at the time. I have since reflected on my Facebook use and looked back on the site several times for the purpose of this study in 2017 and 2018, spoken informally with other Facebook users, and observed posts by my Facebook connections that have addressed issues of alienation, depression, and grief in relation to their use of Facebook and social media more generally.

To be clear, although this paper focuses on user experience (UX), it does so through means that may be seen as outside of typical UX research methods that generally call for consulting, observing, or otherwise engaging technology users directly. Instead, I make the case for drawing on humanistic methods of theory-based textual analysis and personal reflection—albeit, by a user-researcher—to come to a more complete understanding of how human beings make meaning from UX design. Doing so offers a strong starting point for interrogating challenging questions about politics, culture, and ideology in UX for several reasons. First, users are not always self-aware of the ideological and epistemological implications of their experiences with digital technologies, nor are they always reflexive about issues of culture, politics, and ideology, which work precisely because they are immersive, normative, and thus viewed as inevitable and natural.1 Second, by drawing on my personal experience with the site over the years, I am able to draw on a deep account of the varied affective impressions of the site on one user over time. At the same time, I draw on theories from UX and interaction design for my analysis, and my personal reflection is informed by my background in cultural rhetorics and cultural theory, as well as my industry experience in graphic design.

Finally, these methods are, of course, limited. First, the study is drawn from my own subjective personal experiences as a US-based user and is thus not meant to be taken as the universal experience of all users. As mentioned above, it is important to keep in mind that Facebook personalizes News Feeds and that one person’s News Feed may look very different from another’s. At the same time, my focus is on the UI itself. While I must at times discuss the nature of the content presented on the UI and describe specific examples of content, especially to talk about emotion and affect, my focus is on the structural features of the interface. It must also be noted that Facebook frequently updates its UI, and this study is thus based on a relatively small—though still meaningful—snapshot in time, as Facebook’s UI in April 2013 is not the same as its UI in 2016 or 2018. For instance, criticisms resulting from the 2016 election have led to several changes to Facebook’s operations, its UI, and the algorithms that determine content. Finally, this study is built from the assumption that writing and design are epistemic and that there is thus a fluid relationship between the interface and the embodied experiences of users.

Facebook And Interaction Design: Browsing, Reacting, Commenting, Posting

Between April 18 and April 30, 2015, I experienced a seemingly unending supply of posts, articles, opinions and think pieces about the death of Freddie Gray and the subsequent protests in Baltimore regarding police brutality and systemic violence against African Americans through social media. As I moved between Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and news sites, I found that these posts, articles, and commentary helped me to not only learn about the events that had been taking place, but they also provided a way of processing and contextualizing the events in ways that are quite unique to social media. These applications enabled hyperlinked, networked information and ideas to come together in ways that disrupted, revised, and appended to the narrative timeline constructed by popular media narratives, institutional histories, and other official accounts (See Figure 1).2 I found myself reading about historical events and writings, weaving across space and time: Articles drew parallels to the April 1992 beating of Rodney King, demonstrating that systemic violence against African Americans has been a longstanding problem in the United States. Lines from a 1960s Langston Hughes poem, “How can you / Shake your first at tyranny / Everywhere else / But here?” encouraged me to reflect on the habit of critiquing problems abroad while failing to see problems in one’s own backyard; images of “White riots” over time enabled me to see double standards in the public discourse about White riots versus Black protest. Quotes from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. appeared alongside critiques of the de- and re-contextualization of King’s words, offering ways to think about appropriately and respectfully drawing on the words of Black figures from the past. These fluid snapshots moved alongside contemporary perspectives about ongoing events, and about what we needed to do to address issues of racism moving forward (See Figure 1). As the days progressed, I wondered: How does this cross-temporal engagement impact how users interact with information, especially politicized content?

Figure 1. Visual representation of layered, hypertextual time across social media in the days between April 27 and April 30, 2015. (Clockwise, from bottom L: Tweets about “Nonviolence as Compliance” article from The Atlantic; tweets from @langston_ poems citing lines from Langston Hughes’ 1960s “Dixie Man to Uncle Sam”; “April 29, 1992: Four LAPD Of cers Who Beat Rod- ney King Are Acquitted, Prompting Riots,” from The Nation; “11 Stunning Images Highlight the Double Standard of Reactions to Riots Like Baltimore,” from Mic; “Dear white friends: I need you to respect what Black America is feeling right now,” from Salon; photograph of person lying on the ground in protest of police violence, holding up a sign that says, “The whole damn system is guilty as hell! I can’t breathe.)

Having been a Facebook user since 2006 and social media user since around 1997, I couldn’t help but notice that my affective experience of using social media was going through some dramatic changes at this time. Perhaps this was partly a result of growing national conversations about systemic violence against Black people. The #BlackLivesMatter movement—which has protested police brutality against African Americans and systemic violence against Black people since 2013—was in full swing. Examples of systemic violence against African Americans were reported on repeatedly at this time: The murder of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman, who was acquitted in 2013; the 2013 murder of Michael Brown and the subsequent the protests in Ferguson, Missouri; the 2014 murder of Eric Garner in New York City; and the 2014 murder of 12-year-old Tamir Rice by a Cleveland police officer, to name only a few examples. Around the same time was the April 25, 2018 earthquake in Nepal, which I would later learn killed nearly 9,000 people and injured nearly 22,000. Facebook took up this cause, collecting more than $15 million in donations and deploying its safety check feature to help indicate whom among Facebook users in Nepal were “safe” in the midst of the national crisis. I couldn’t help but wonder about the consequences of Facebook bringing exposure to such events front and center in my everyday life, and I found myself consciously aware of how social media affected how I interpreted events, issues, the world, and myself while I was out and about offline as well. While I appreciated gaining a more informed perspective about the events taking place around me, I began to feel, in visceral ways, how time, as represented by social media interfaces, impacted how I feltabout the world around me and about others.

In the subsections below, I analyze four microinteractions as facilitated by Facebook’s UI: browsing, reacting, commenting, and posting. First, however, I provide a brief description of Facebook’s UI, through which each of the four microinteractions take place. The homepage is divided into three columns with a narrow navigational header up top (See Figure 2). The header, set in Facebook’s signature dark blue background, contrasts with the white and light gray background of the rest of the site. The largest part of the header is a search bar, from which users have the ability to leap to “people,” pages, and posts as desired. The middle column, the “News Feed,” is the centerpiece of the interface, and it is proportionally the widest column on the site. The News Feed asks users to share “What’s on [their] mind?” and generally includes photos, videos, memes, articles, opinions, advertisements, and user commentary. Content can be reposted from other users’ “walls” as well as from external sites. This content is framed in white rectangles, and posts are visually separated from one another based on who within one’s network created the post. Each status update includes the name and avatar of the person who posted the status, how long ago the status was posted, the privacy setting of the post, and buttons that allow users to hide a status, unfollow the person who posted it, report the post, save the link, or turn on notifications. Aside from user avatars, much of this information is represented in alphabetic text. At times, there is an indication that the original post has been edited, and, on occasion, a digital or physical location is also indicated in alphabetic text. In other words, names of places are prioritized as opposed to some other way of characterizing a place, for instance, a place’s physical geography that might be represented by a map or photo, or the personal memories attached to a place might be represented by links to a user’s prior posts or images relating to that place. User identity is a key building block of Facebook and is thus visually significant. Identity is signified by an alphabetic first and last name alongside a single image. It is through this visual interface that users browse, react, comment, and post on Facebook.

Figure 2. A screen capture of my Facebook home page on April 30, 2015

Browsing Politicized Content on Facebook

The most passive form of engagement among the four microinteractions listed above, browsing involves scrolling through the News Feed and browsing through posts by people within one’s network, interspersed with targeted advertisements (See Figure 3). The News Feed is designed with an infinite scrolling technique, making it easy for site users to spend substantial amounts of their time browsing. As Loranger (2014) explains, “Long, endless pages are good for time-killing activities because users are in the mindset for serendipitous exploration and discovery,” and infinite scrolling involves a “lower interaction cost” in comparison to having to navigate and click to a subsequent page. While the design of the News Feed might give the illusion of reverse chronology in terms of its name, its linear design, and the spacing of various elements (the coloring, fonts, and space between posts are uniform), it is generally not the case that posts are displayed in reverse chronological order, nor is the pacing of posts temporally uniform, nor is spacing indicative of temporal duration. For instance, my current timeline shows a status posted 12 minutes ago followed by another status posted four hours ago, followed by another status posted more recently, 23 minutes ago, followed by another posted an hour ago. As this example shows, the News Feed presents an anachronistic sense of time and order.

Browsing on Facebook often takes place alongside engagement with other social media platforms and websites that present a range of perspectives around political issues (See Figure 1). Historical events, memories, and writings across time are interwoven in a layered, hypertextual temporality where literature from the 1960s, events from a few decades ago, and a catalogue of images from across time can be experienced alongside one another. This cross-temporal engagement affects how users interact with information by enabling the potential for engagement with an issue from multiple temporal perspectives, allowing users to draw connections across time, space, and embodiments. Such cross-temporal experiences may not be unique to Facebook; it can be argued that we have similar encounters when browsing the Internet more generally. At the same time, Facebook brings such perspectives to the user through instant feedback, and with very little effort required from the user. Such engagements are also distinct from media engagement across older sources of news such as radio, the newspaper, or television, which audiences tend to experience relatively synchronously, based on the broadcasting and publication schedules of media corporations. When reflecting on this temporal re-arrangement in relation to users’ experiences with politicized perspectives on their News Feeds, we can see how encounters with posts presenting oppositional views might feel jarring and out-of-context.

Figure 3. My Facebook Ad Preferences: How I have been categorized by Facebook’s algorithms

The content that appears on one’s News Feed and the order in which it appears is not driven by quantitative time but by an opaque algorithm that takes into account factors like with whom people are Facebook “friends,” their groups, their activities, their “Likes,” their friends’ activities and “Likes,” the activity surrounding a post, and what and whom they have permitted to show up on their timelines, as curated using the “block” and “hide” features (See Figure 3). As a result, activity is also contingent on external factors including the time of day that a person has posted in relation to the time of day when people tend to use Facebook. That is, what users see on their News Feed is based in part on what Facebook’s algorithms deem most relevant to them, along with something of a “popularity contest,” whether in terms of the popularity of a post or the popularity of a user. Facebook’s ad preferences show users how they are sorted, and what kinds of data determine what advertisements show up (See Figure 3). Some of this information is gleaned from user activity; for instance, Figure 3 shows that I have been categorized as being away from my hometown and family, “very liberal,” an engaged shopper, and as a frequent traveler within a “family-based” household, even though I have not directly identified with any of these categories within Facebook’s UI. In addition, my “multicultural affinity” has been identified as African American (US). Through such markers, Facebook racializes content that is relevant to a much wider range of races, ethnicities, and cultures.

These features—algorithmic sorting and individualized curation—can often lead to the creation of a News Feed that serves as a virtual echo chamber that validates existing perspectives and interests rather than presenting a range of viewpoints that deeply engage and dialogue with one another (Bessi, 2016; Bessi et al., 2016; Seargeant & Tagg, 2018; Vitak, 2014). In addition, the design of the News Feed causes certain kinds of content to stand out to users as they scroll through: The headlines and titles of linked articles and opinion pieces (See Figure 2), as well as shorter posts by users, can be presented in larger font. Figure 2 shows that titles from external sources are generally much larger than any other text on the UI, including the commentary of the user who shared the link, when it was posted, or the source of the link. Through this contrast in size, the UI prioritizes external source headlines (regardless of the type of source) and thus the voices of media companies (and potential corporate investors and marketing partners) over the voices of individual users or the interactions across users. Source information is especially important for determining the credibility of information and thus for deterring fake news. Although the source is identifiable on the interface, it is de-emphasized in small, gray font below the title and the description, making it easy to overlook.

On Facebook, users browse through news and think piece headlines intermixed with friends’, acquaintances’, and family members’ posts, perspectives, and personalized photos in what is oftentimes a cursory manner. Through this assembled amalgamation of content, the News Feed de-/re-contextualizes political content to where it can feel dis-/mis-placed. That is, people have tended to consume news and political information in contexts that were specifically designed for that purpose, through television programs and networks, the newspaper, news programs on the radio, town halls, and political flyers. Even when individuals engage in dialogue about political issues offline, such conversations are often located in the context of a specific relationship and generally amidst a more extended conversation or set of conversations and relationship building activities. In contrast, encountering politically divisive perspectives on Facebook, which currently has a much wider scope to include every so-called “Friend’s” thoughts, opinions, interests, and accomplishments can feel like something of a sudden, textual assault. Polemical content can feel especially contentious when one is not mentally prepared to engage with this type of information. As political content on Facebook has become more ubiquitous, users may indeed have come to expect such encounters on the site. At the same time, the expectation of a negative experience does not necessarily negate the affective impressions of that experience. As long as users continue to use Facebook for a range of purposes, we would do well to consider the affective experience and varied implications of sudden and decontextualized political discourse. To be clear, my point is not that there is no place for sudden and decontextualized political discourse. Rather, the issue is when this one rhetorical strategy is normalized and implicitly encouraged by the design of a ubiquitous platform like Facebook.

The Politics of Reacting

A second, more active yet perhaps simpler and more limited, microinteraction afforded by Facebook is the ability to “react” to posts. The ability to “Like” posts was enabled in 2009, and reacting to posts on Facebook now involves a decision to select among six emotional reactions: Like, Love, Haha, Wow, Sad, and Angry, as represented by six animated emoji (See Figure 4). By moving from a singular “Like” button to six possible reactions among which one must choose, Facebook is able to obtain more granular data about how users respond to content. At the same time, the design of the reaction function epistemologically limits user conceptions of how one can—and should—react to information. Reacting typically takes place in the context of browsing, and it serves as a quick way to validate and/or reframe a user’s post and perspective. Further, reactions are tallied quantitatively, and users are able to see how many other users have reacted—or not reacted—to the original post while quickly scrolling through the News Feed. This ability to accrue “Likes” and other reactions impacts how users make decisions to post content. In addition, Facebook instantaneously registers this information to further tailor users’ News Feeds, using this data to organize users and thus present tailored political content. (See Figure 3) In this way, reacting further serves to limit the range of perspectives to which users are exposed, so that users are comfortable enough to return to the site, engage with material on the site, and spend time on it. In addition, this microinteraction works to sort users into indexable groups, thus enabling profit via data mining. In doing so, Facebook flattens user identities, communications, and interactions in order to make them quantifiable, processable, and, thus, profitable.

Figure 4. Facebook reactions

Commenting and Political Engagement

The algorithms that dictate what appears in an individual’s News Feed enables users to engage in conversations about topics and events across spatio-geographical and temporal boundaries, as users can interact with posts asynchronously. Such connections are made across users as well as across content, where posts about particular topics or with particular keywords are visually grouped and thus experienced together. Commenting is a third microinteraction that, like reacting, often occurs in the context of browsing, if not by using the search bar to jump to a specific user’s profile or to a group. Commenting involves an even more active form of engagement than browsing or reacting, as users are able to provide a wider range of tailored content in response to a post. The ability to comment on Facebook has, in recent years, expanded to include visual comments, including emoji, images, gifs, and “stickers.” Such features make it easy for users to quickly “comment” without requiring the effort or literacies that would have been needed to compose using alphabetic language. Expedient responses can contribute to political polarization and discord, as users are able to share immediate reactions without being required to take the time to reflect and think about how to best deliver those responses. As a result, Facebook enables brash, reckless, and emotionally heated interactions. At the same time, such discourse can indeed bring greater attention to the site, which is ultimately profitable for the company.

Comments are threaded and either presented in reverse-chronological order or are sorted by “Top Comments,” particularly for highly circulated content. At the same time, one can engage in conversation—through comments—with users outside of their network of Facebook “Friends.” Through this capability, the commenting function can serve to de-/re-contextualize human engagement such that users who have no prior relationship are able to engage in dialogue, debate, and arguments about what can be deeply personal and polarizing political issues. In this way, Facebook forges new relational circuits that can serve to further contribute to political discord. That is, it is easy to dismiss and feel antagonistic toward a person with whom one has no prior relationship. In addition, commenting exists within a context where even though one might be unacquainted with another commenter, they may be well familiar with a mutual acquaintance, oftentimes the original poster. In these contexts of asymmetrical relationships, disagreements can be especially fraught. When disproportionate numbers of individuals are on one side versus another, it can feel to the person with less support as visible on the interface like they are under attack. In addition, the fact that Facebook’s UI includes private and group messaging features that enables parallel backchanneling does not inspire trust in the idea of a fair and open dialogue. Such a context may not be the most conducive for involved discussion around political issues and may rather serve to inspire feelings of unfairness, defensiveness, or hostility instead.

There are several potential consequences of commenting in the context of Facebook. Comments themselves can be “Liked” and reacted to, and the number of these reactions are quantitatively represented beside the comment itself (Meshi et al., 2013). As a result, some users may be compelled to create comments designed to accrue likes and reactions as a means of social validation and digital exposure. In many cases, it appears that this has led to attempts to produce “snappy comebacks,” snark, oneupspersonship, “hot takes,” and what has been dubbed by some as “callout culture,” or the “practice of publicly criticizing people for violating accepted behavioral standards” (“callout culture”).3 Moreover, expediency is privileged in this environment, and provocative content that can garner the strongest emotional response is prioritized over content that is, for example, the most informative, thoughtful, or intellectually engaging. At the same time, posts with numerous comments often do not show all of the comments on the post, unless the user takes the step to click and expand the “view comments” link. In this way, the interface highlights the original post, while minimizing the conversation surrounding the post that can serve to contextualize and provide greater nuance to the post. As a result, users who are browsing might not see comments that could potentially reframe how they interpret a post, because those comments are buried under an extra click. In addition, the criteria used to filter what content is visible is oftentimes based on users’ immediate reactions as opposed to factual accuracy or ethical consequences. Users can also be “Faceblocked” by other users for posting “political” content or for posting content that others find off-putting in some way, thus further enabling user filtration of political and other challenging content. Such features can be seen as strategies that further strengthen the echo chamber, that enable people to avoid considering critiques of their perspectives, and that can ultimately further ignorance while strengthening users’ conviction in their perspectives.4

The Politics of Posting

Finally, the fourth microinteraction I discuss in this paper is that of posting to one’s “wall” or “timeline” and thus to their “Friends’” News Feeds. One might assume that posting requires the highest level of engagement among the four microinteractions, as users are able to post and share lengthier reflections and insights as mediated through alphabetic text, but Facebook’s UI encourages quick posting just as with the commenting feature; the main distinction is that posts appear on one’s own “page,” as opposed to being threaded on someone else’s page. For example, Facebook’s “Memories” feature, which occasionally pops up at the top of News Feeds, presents users with sharable, pre-formatted posts and short videos that memorialize events and relationships that exist within Facebook’s database, thus validating and concretizing within users’ minds the memories that had been entered into that database. Posting appears to reward brevity, as shorter posts by users can appear more prominently in larger, bolded font and formatted with a colorful background (See Figure 5).

Figure 5. Shorter post in large, bolded font and colorful background

A third aspect of posting that encourages expediency is how users are able to quickly “share” or repost the content of others, including external content. Such content is formatted to appear larger than an individual user’s own content, as well as official and formal with little to no effort on part of the user. Visually, then, this design feature inspires a sense of credibility, regardless of the actual accuracy of the information, as such posts are formatted in the same way regardless of whether the post comes from a mainstream news source, personal blog, or think piece by a political interest group. Furthermore, headlines that have already been strategically composed by others—oftentimes to generate attention via clicks—are pre-made for users to share (See Figures 2 and 6). Finally, users are easily able to “share” content based only on the headline that is presented, without being required to click the actual link and gain a fuller sense of the content that is being shared. Again, the ability to quickly enter data into the site’s UI is prioritized.

Figure 6. Sharing external content on Facebook

In the current 2018 update, Facebook users are able to post not only alphabetic textual content but are also presented with several options where they can “Ask for Recommendations,” “Answer a Question,” “Poll,” “Tag Event,” or “Support Nonprofit” (See Figure 7). By presenting options to quickly post pre-formatted content based on a number of set purposes, Facebook again prioritizes expedience and emotional reactivity to get users to spend more time on the site. Furthermore, by presenting these options for engaging with the site, Facebook implicitly encourages particular ways of interacting with others. In general, these options appear to focus on enabling users to assess the opinions of others or to pronounce their own opinions as they respond to requests for recommendations and polls, answer questions, or as they opt to support a nonprofit. In other words, the focus is not on learning, sustained inquiry, dialectical exchange, or psychosocial support. Rather, Facebook encourages users to take a stance and to categorize others based on their stances, a priority that can, again, contribute to political polarization and discord.

Figure 7. Facebook’s dialog box for posting to the site

At the same time, despite Facebook’s “ethic of expediency” (Moses & Katz, 2006), two qualities make posting on Facebook affectively fraught: first is the sense of the permanence of the Internet, as expressed by the oft-repeated phrase, “the Internet is forever.” Oftentimes used to warn Internet users of the dangers of posting content they may regret being publicly accessible in the future, the idea of the permanence of the Internet can inspire fear and anxiety over what one posts. This anxiety is especially true given that, secondly, Facebook’s user base has widened exponentially. That is, many users are connected through Facebook with a “Friend” base that includes friends, family members, relatives, colleagues, and people with whom they grew up. With such a varied audience, it becomes difficult to post content that appeals effectively and is understood appropriately by all groups. In addition, Facebook and other social media platforms encourage the expectation of instantaneous feedback. As with comments, posts can be validated in a number of ways, including through “reactions” and “comments.” The fact that this data is displayed—depending on one’s privacy settings—for all of one’s connections to see again encourages the accrual of “Likes” and other reactions. And because the News Feed moves so quickly due to information saturation on the Internet, speed is a factor. In other words, one’s post must generate an immediate response, lest it be pushed down the News Feed and forgotten. As with commenting, such conditions encourage users to try to come up with witty remarks and observations and punchy “one-liners.” In these ways, the design decisions that enable posting on Facebook encourages concision and response-driven content—qualities that tend not to be conducive to deep engagement or discussion, and that can even encourage increased polarization around political issues.

The qualities I describe above—the permanence of the Internet and Facebook’s wide user base—alongside Facebook’s ethic of expediency, alongside the tendency to encourage judgment and criticism (as opposed to critique) via “callout culture” and to expect instantaneous feedback, can create anxiety in users about posting any tentative thoughts or perspectives and can discourage the kinds of vulnerability required to engage in deep negotiation of political issues. Through this combination of features and conditions, Facebook’s UI creates a kind of affective dissonance where users are encouraged to post content easily and quickly, even while the risk of doing so may feel especially great. In a situation where it is anxiety inducing to share one’s genuine thoughts, questions, and confusions about political issues without fear of judgment or consequence, the conversation—as well as individual development with regards to political concerns and social thinking—stagnates, polarization across political views deepens, and the possibility of a more equitable democracy is compromised.


As my critical interface analysis shows, Facebook’s UI prioritizes concision, speed, curation practices that limit divergent perspectives or nuanced critique, and the flattening of complex identities and political commitments such that they are indexable and processable. Affectively, the site encourages sensationalism, controversy, drama, intrigue, as well as feelings of amusement, anxiety, fear, and suspicion over curiosity, empathy, understanding, or kindness, and it does so in part by rewarding content that garners a strong immediate emotional response, as quantified through users’ reactions. Another factor that contributes to this affective response is how Facebook encourages the sharing of opinion and judgment. It even asks, “What’s on your mind?” (See Figure 7). At the same time, the UI enables a siloed way of interacting with ideas through algorithmic filtration and its block and hide features that, I argue, impacts how users interact with the world around them. In this mediated reality, any question about—or challenge to—one’s political views can feel like a threat that will potentially rock the stable worldview on which one’s values, judgment, and way of navigating the world rest.

Furthermore, Facebook achieves these outcomes largely through spatiotemporal means. First, by designing its site such that users will spend as much time on the site as possible—via infinite scrolling technique, sensationalistic and reactionary content, and ease of use—Facebook is able to present a tailored reality and to determine the shape of that reality. By making it as easy as possible for users to quickly register their reactions to content, Facebook speeds up conversations in superficial and cursory ways and, in doing so, is able to amass and to profit from user data. By decontextualizing conversations and relationships through an anachronistic mediated reality, Facebook creates pathways for new mediated interactions, without seeming to have considered the need to design the support necessary to encourage those interactions to develop and grow in fruitful and healthy ways. In sum, Facebook refigures spatiotemporal realities, which thus shape users’ experiences of information, politics, and world events; by reorganizing users’ temporal realities, Facebook shapes users’ understanding of their place in the world. As Sean Parker, former president of Facebook, put it, Facebook “changes your relationship with society, with each other.” In doing so, Facebook enables new forms of mediated intimacies, which has been described by Chambers (2013) as “new meanings of ‘friendship’ as features of a networked society” (p. 1), and as “a framework to explain the distinctive ways in which new media technologies are being engaged with to sustain personal connections and to understand the nature of these connections” (p. 17). Furthermore, Facebook’s UI enables new relational circuits, which work to mediate the dissemination of politicized content, thus enabling new political formations. In this way, I argue that it is not just the content posted to the site but also Facebook’s interface design—in shaping that content—that contributes to a deepened polarization around political issues. On Facebook, a site that encourages speed, concision, superficial engagement, and decontextualized relationships, it becomes difficult to maintain the kinds of intimacies and interpersonal engagements that are necessary for sustained critical and thoughtful political exchange.

The impetus for this research stems from my own experiences on Facebook and the growing concerns I’ve had about how the site mediates our perceptions of the world and the people around us. Specifically, there was more than one occasion between 2015 and my decision to take a break from Facebook after the 2016 U.S. presidential election when I distinctly noticed how my perceptions of reality seemed to be distorted based on all the time I was spending on social media. I was spending embarrassingly large amounts of my time on the platform, perhaps ironically as a way of coping with all of the negative news I was reading there. I cannot honestly remember if it was after the Orlando nightclub shooting, Hurricane Harvey, the Las Vegas shooting, or the shooting of Philando Castile or Alton Sterling. More likely, it was after reading some of the numerous responses that explained how to interpret and respond to those events. What I do distinctly remember is my reaction to tragic and sobering news moving from tears, mourning, and anger to exhaustion, avoidance, and ambivalence.

I remember feeling like everything was horrible and that there were so many “wrong” ways to be, and feeling perpetually anxious about doing or saying the “wrong thing,” to the point where I found it difficult to interact with others in the way that I used to. Perhaps what I experienced is what Stosny described as “headline stress disorder,” (Spector, 2017; Rodriguez-Cayro, 2018) or what Pattillo (2018) referred to as “disaster fatigue.” And, I must admit that there were times when I wrongly conflated people with their social media personae, and when I fell into thinking of people not as full human beings but as defined by their political opinions and perspectives—in some of the same ways that users are categorized on Facebook, even when I knew the limitations of those categorizations. I remember reading large amounts of content but retaining very little of it, because I was not giving myself time to reflect on—or recover from—what I was reading. Even as someone who understands the importance of critical digital literacies, I found myself using Facebook to wind down and, as a result, feeling firsthand the embodied experience of Facebook’s mediated affects.

UX designers must be attentive to how technology designs create new relational circuits, along with how those relationships work to mediate the dissemination of politicized content. As scholars like Attwood, Hakim, and Winch (2017) have argued and as this paper has shown, “While the sphere of the intimate excites considerable fascination and attention, it continues to be seen as relatively unimportant within the wider scheme of political and public life … . Yet politics, economics and intimacy remain profoundly interconnected” (p. 249). This statement is proving all the more true with the 2016 U.S. presidential election of Donald Trump and with Russia’s continued effort to sow discord online; apparently, affecting how people relate and connect with one another has political consequences. Furthermore, as McNamee’s (2017) concerns about Facebook imply, the work of UX designers has important affective consequences that impact democracy and public health. In other words, UX practitioners design interactions that potentially uphold and/or undermine citizen voices, public deliberation, and equal access and opportunity. Thus, this study has several implications for UX practitioners—especially those who work with political content, raising such design-based questions as:

  • How does a given UI mediate how people interact with one another over time? That is, how does pacing and duration as mediated by the UI impact those relationships? Does political engagement take place in the context of those relationships, and, if so, what does that engagement look like?
  • What are the purposes and outcomes of connecting users with one another? Are we only connecting users for profit, or are there other outcomes that might benefit the users themselves? If the latter, what potential barriers exist that may keep one or more users from experiencing those benefits?
  • How will this feature make people feel (understanding that it is not necessarily a good thing to feel good all the time)? What are the logics of the interface, and how will it encourage them to interpret and engage with the world around them?
  • How and why might we create designs that encourage more active, critical, and deliberate participation among users?
  • What kinds of content, values, and logics are rewarded over others? What are the affective, temporal, and political consequences of these priorities?
  • What is the relationship and place of these mediated interactions within the larger media ecology?
  • How can we keep in mind that when dealing with political issues, people need background information—whether about democracy, institutionalized racism, immigration, healthcare, environmental issues, and/or women rights—to make informed decisions?
  • Finally, what kind of society do we want to live in? And, how might we design technologies that bring us to that ideal?

Such questions, I argue, push forward existing approaches within UX and interaction design—approaches that examine technology use over time and in the context of larger media ecologies, that consider social good, and that account for users’ emotional experience of a technology—and it does so by weaving together affect, time, and politics.

In addition, this work has methodological implications for technical communication researchers and scholars, highlighting the need to incorporate humanistic, interpretive research methods including textual analysis via a critical user interface analysis of microinteractions, theory-driven critique, and personal reflection, to more strongly understand the cultural and ideological dimensions of UX. While it is of course important to understand the technical aspects of technical communications as well as user’s perspectives about technologies, it is also imperative that we consider how technologies affect users through processes of interpretation and embodied engagement. Although technology researchers have done important work examining the role of the algorithm as it pertains to the political and affective consequences of social media, (Noble, 2018), I have shown how these divisions are also interpretive, interface driven, and designed, contingent on micro-level interactions with digital interfaces and the cultural and epistemological assumptions embedded within them. Furthermore, my method of analyzing the four microinteractions of browsing, reacting, commenting, and posting can potentially be applied to other social media sites. For example, Twitter and Instagram also incorporate the same four microinteractions, though they do so in distinct ways. A comparative approach may yield important insights for UX designers who want to understand how various design choices impact political engagement across social media. Future research that extends on this study to interview users based on their affective experiences with social media or to categorize and quantify posts based on affective resonances across various social media platforms may also help us to understand with greater precision the implications of UX on affect and political engagement.

In “The Science of Fake News,” Lazer et al. (2018) called “to promote interdisciplinary research to reduce the spread of fake news and to address the underlying pathologies it has revealed” (p. 4). They ask, “How can we create a news ecosystem and cultures that values and promotes truth?” This paper suggests that technical communication is one discipline that can and should contribute to this effort. To do so, we must we continue to critically interrogate how UX design can prioritize truth and integrity over expediency, usability, and profit. In addition, UX designers must understand that user politics are shaped by digitally networked and mediated intimacies. Only by taking ownership of this responsibility can the field of UX contribute to a more democratic, culturally reflexive technological future. In closing, I echo Roose’s (2018) question posed on The New York Times, “Why is educating citizens about digital literacy the solution to misinformation … rather than fixing the tech platforms that make misinformation hard to distinguish from the truth?” (para. 14). This analysis is just one more step toward a fuller consideration of how reflexive technology designers have an important role that can lead us toward more ethical, balanced interface design for disseminating political content and encouraging nuanced political engagement. Perhaps such designs would require slowing down and reimagining the way online economies work. Regardless, UX designers and scholars must be vigilant in considering how technologically mediated social interactions materially re-shape how users connect and relate with one another both online and offline, as well as across political and ideological commitments. Here’s to future work that engages in deliberate examination of user experience through a humanistic and culturally reflexive lens that looks at how everyday online interactions can affect one’s political sensibilities, one’s level of reflexivity, and one’s way of engaging with others.


  1. See, for example, Althusser’s (2006) “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses,” Gramsci (2006) on cultural hegemony, and Engels on “false consciousness,” each of which, in different ways, take up how ideology works to create complicit subjects. This conception of ideology is also taken up in technical communication. See, for example, Palmeri (2006) on ideology of normalcy in usability discourse, Blyler (1995) on the ideologies that ground research practices within technical communication, and Herndl (1993) on ideology and its implications for professional writing research and pedagogy.
  2. Even though this study is of Facebook, it is important to note that the actual lived experience of using Facebook often involves toggling between social media, news sites, other websites, and messaging applications.
  3. To be clear, this observation is not a critique of cultural critique, including the critique of racism, sexism, misogyny, heteronormativity, ableism, or classism, which is sometimes dismissively labeled as “callout culture.” Thoughtful and measured critique is important and necessary for any democracy.
  4. Note that this analysis focuses on what Facebook’s UI prioritizes and encourages at its default settings. Thus, users who themselves value credibility of information or its impacts on society at large and who are technologically literate can purposefully negotiate the site in ways that best support their values. At the same time, it must be noted that many users do not have the technological literacies nor the educational privileges needed to modify their use beyond the site’s default settings.


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About the Author

Jennifer Sano-Franchini is an assistant professor of Professional and Technical Writing at Virginia Tech. Her scholarly interests include the cultural politics of information design, feminist interaction design, institutional rhetoric, and Asian American rhetoric. Publications include articles in Rhetoric, Professional Communication and Globalization; Rhetoric Review; and College Composition and Communication, and a chapter in Rhetoric and Experience Architecture. She has a seven-year industry background in professional writing and design. She is available at sanojenn@vt.edu.

Manuscript received 20 February 2018, revised 24 July 2018; accepted 15 August 2018.