Introducing Kenneth Burke to Facebook

Tonja Mackey


The following feature draws a parallel between the “Burkean parlor” and the social networking site, Facebook. It also applies the Burkean pentad to the principle of motive behind Facebook users. In addition, it details several different types of Facebook pages and the growth patterns of each regarding purpose.

I am at your mercy. I don’t dare to bore you. But let us not forget that I have a stance of my own. You are for me magic, music, and mystery. But I can magically, musically mystify you too.

—Kenneth Burke, A Rhetoric of Motives (1969)

FACEBOOK WAS FOUNDED IN 2004 TO HELP PEOPLE “communicate more efficiently with their friends, family, and coworkers….in a trusted environment,” (Facebook Factsheet). Currently, there are over 500 million active users on Facebook who create profiles enabling them to construct online identities and post unlimited messages that they want their friends to read. These forums are used for many purposes, and sometimes users’ online identities are contradictory to their real-life identities. Additionally, posts can often include inaccurate information, either intentionally or unintentionally. Both of these instances call into question the ethos of the rhetorical venue, which is not so different from real life. Regarding Kenneth Burke’s philosophy of literary and social analysis, when Facebook users post a ‘status’ on Facebook, they are making a comment about society, or about themselves in relation to society. In actuality, these users are constructing their versions of reality through this online social venue, which can be compared to Kenneth Burke’s argument that language is a creator of and response to what is going on in the world. Likewise, Facebook comments are responses to what is going on in the world of the users. Such users are expressing their opinions, usually embedding one-sided arguments within those messages in order to persuade their “friends.” Users from all walks of life participate in this online community. Burke’s five principles of act, scene, agent, agency, and purpose can be applied to the argument that users are responding to and acting within society, both in the online community and within the real world. Hence, users create identities and alter realities through invented personal narrative. I will argue that the community of Facebook (FB) validates Kenneth Burke’s theories of dramatism, symbolic action, and the concept of language as the key to creating the world as we know it. Weiser explains that “dramatism is an understanding of language as the basis of human interaction with our world…language is more than a conveyer of meaning; language is the maker of meaning” (3). Burke argues that language is symbolic action. We have made, and continue to make, our realities through language. Facebook is a portal through which language (meaning) is spread.

In A Grammar of Motives, Burke defines act as something that takes place “in thought or in deed,” and scene as the site where said action takes place (xv). In comparing Facebook to “[Burke’s] ‘scene,’ setting or background, and ‘act,’ action,” one could say that the forum (portal) is the scene, and the action is the post. “And using ‘agents’ in the sense of actors,” one could say that the actors are those who are doing the posting, or the Facebook users. Therefore, the scene contains the action and the online representation of the agents, but the agents produce the action. Just as it is a “principle of drama that the nature of acts and agents should be consistent with the nature of the scene,” the statements made on Facebook are expected to remain consistent with the nature of the community of ‘friends’ (Burke, Grammar 3). However, the expansive nature of ‘friendship’ on Facebook undermines this expectation and makes one wonder if the environment is really as “safe” as the creators intended.

Never before in history has the average person had the ability to interact socially, politically, educationally, and commercially with such a diverse range of people. Distance transcends the World Wide Web, making the ability to converse with someone halfway around the world a simple task. Social networks such as Facebook not only allow for this ease of interaction, but also expand conversations to include larger groups of people. Conversations occur among users who may or may not know each other; they just have to have a common friend. Facebook allows anyone to interact at any time, hence a unique example of the Burkean parlor:

Imagine that you enter a parlor. You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you what it’s about. In fact, the discussion had long begun before any of them got there, so that no one present is qualified to retrace for you all of the steps that had gone before. You listen for a while, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you, to either the embarrassment or gratification of your opponent, depending upon the quality of your ally’s assistance. However, the discussion is interminable. The hour grows late, you must depart. And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress. (Philosophy 110-111)

Facebook presents a parallel to the Burkean Parlor: You arrive home late from work one evening and log on to FB. You find your wall (messages from friends) full of new posts. Many of your other friends, as well as some of their friends, have made comments on said posts, some emotional (or heated), some not so much. You read and you think for a while before you decide if there is anything you’d like to add to anyone’s comments, or, perhaps, you read something that prompts you to post a hasty response that, later, you wish that you had dwelled on for a while first. You grow tired, so you post a “status” (often a discussion starter) of your own, knowing that you’ll log back on tomorrow to see who has responded to you. And so it continues, day after day. Weiser argues that Burkean “dramatism explores and encourages dialectic (the celebration of differing perspectives) and transcendence (the search for points of merger) in a parliamentary debate…,” (xiv). While FB offers the potential to celebrate differing perspectives and mergers, in reality, most FB users are asserting their own opinions without offering much evidence to engage in persuasive discourse.
In Convergence Culture, Henry Jenkins speaks of communities “defined through voluntary, temporary, and tactical affiliations, reaffirmed through common intellectual enterprises and emotional investments” (27). Facebook users interact on a voluntary basis within defined communities. There are two types of Facebook profiles: personal and organizational. With personal profiles, users must request to become “friends” of other users before they are allowed to post any type of messages on each other’s profile pages – called “walls.” When users post something on their wall, that message, consequently, posts to the walls of all of their friends. Supposedly, users feel that their posts are important enough that each of their friends will want to read or know the content, and, if not, the users suffer the consequences of either being told so or being ignored completely. Organizational profiles allow FB users to “like” a particular page. Examples of these types of profiles include those of public figures, institutions, and causes. Rather than request a friendship, users who want to be part of a community click on the “like” button and are typically automatically accepted.

Individuals typically create the personal profile. Someone requesting friendship normally knows the person of whom they are requesting, or is at least a friend of a friend. However, these communities can become quite extensive. In looking at one college student’s network, I find 852 “friends.” This nineteen-year-old white male uses his profile to post photos and an occasional “this is what I’m doing” or “this is what I think” type post. Personal FB posts fall into several different categories, though this list cannot be all inclusive: (1) to spread the word about something, (2) to express an emotional response to something (I.E. pleasure or disgust), (3) to seek acceptance or agreement, (4) to post a meme, saying, or other expression, (5) to post a video (personal or otherwise), (6) to post personal photos for friends and family to see, (7) to promote a cause, or (8) to find and correspond with a distant friend or family member.

Organizational profiles reach beyond the local network and allow users with common interests to interact. These profiles typically include fan pages, political pages, advertisements, news, education, and businesses. Colleges and universities typically use these type profiles and post comments that they think will be of interest to their students.  Though it’s impossible to see who maintains it, Jacques Derrida has an organizational FB profile with 29, 321 people who “like” it. On his page, I find posts written in English, French, Spanish, and Chinese, at minimum. Though these users do not know one another, they still interact and converse about a common interest (that is if they speak the same language). On a bit larger scale, current pop culture icon Miley Cyrus has 11,925,278 “likes,” while Michelle O’Bama has 4,165,559.  The First Lady posts frequently, almost daily, concerning her various projects and causes. On March 31st, Mrs. Obama (or her aide who maintains her profile; we can’t tell) posted a link to a YouTube video that shows her interacting with children who are planting the 2011 vegetable garden at the White House. This is done as part of the First Lady’s outreach program, called “Let’s Move,” that targets childhood obesity. This one post has 6967 “likes” and 563 comments. Again, not all of the posts are in English, though the majority of them are. Not surprisingly, there is a mix of favorable and unfavorable comments, some related to the original topic, some not. Though not many could condemn the First Lady for encouraging children to have healthier eating habits, there are obvious political repercussions that simply go along with having a public profile that anyone can respond to. The number of “likes,” or followers, that an organizational (or personal) page gets certainly attests to the popularity of the creator of the page (agent).

In A Rhetoric of Motives Burke speaks of Alice in Wonderland, “communication between the classes,” and “social courtship” (267); likewise, Facebook provides the ability to invent a virtual fantasy, a never-ending hole of noise and news in which members fall through judgment, risk, and the wonder of uninhibited expression. Burke states that “Pure persuasion involves the saying of something, not for an extra-verbal advantage to be got by the saying, but because of a satisfaction intrinsic to the saying…It intuitively says, ‘This is so’ purely and simply because this is so” (Burke, Rhetoric 269). Burke compares this to an “ultimate” motive rather than an “ulterior” one. Users find Facebook a venue through which they can “shout from the rooftop” beliefs that they want the whole world to hear. Not all Facebook posts, however, are without ulterior motive. Some use this forum to express an opinion or make a claim that they would never verbally shout to such a large crowd, sometimes with the intent to provoke. The ability to write something rather than say it to someone directly removes the author from the possibility of face-to-face confrontation, thereby making them feel safer to say what they really want. At present, the user doesn’t have to think about what they will say the next time they have to confront that person (or people). Some users don’t think about how their FB world affects real world circumstances.

Language as the key motive for all actions involves a difference between the verbal (or written) and non-verbal (thought) in that “before man added the verbal to the non-verbal nature, there were no negative acts, states, or commands” (Rueckert 130). The ability to express negative thought essentially creates negative circumstances. Facebook is a great venue through which to communicate, advertise, and connect with others. However, online social networking systems are also used to trick and bully others through the manipulation of self and language. It is incredibly easy to create a fake identity through which to prey on unsuspecting victims. The Megan Meier Foundation (1420 “likes” on Facebook) was established to “bring awareness, education and promote positive change to children, parents and educators in response to the bullying and cyber-bullying in our children’s daily environment” (Megan Meier Foundation Mission Statement). The Foundation is run by Tina Meier, whose daughter, Megan, had an online relationship (on MySpace, another social networking venue) with a fictitious friend, Josh. According to the foundation and reported through various news sources, the parent of an estranged friend of Megan’s created an account using a fictitious name and the photo of a “hot” guy Megan’s age to lure her into talking with him. The two quickly became online friends and thirteen year old Megan rushed home from school each day to communicate with the allegedly homeschooled young man. Eventually, “Josh” began to post mean comments about Megan and she didn’t understand why. She became very emotionally distraught when, in a final post, Josh told Megan that she was a horrible person and that the world would be a better place without her. The next day, Megan’s mother found her unconscious in her bedroom; she died the next day, three weeks before her fourteenth birthday. The Megan Meier Foundation’s Facebook page includes many comments of thanks from kids who attend schools that the foundation has visited with their program. Many are simply thanking them for coming and wishing them the best with their mission; however, many are thanking them because they identify with Megan; they too have been or are being picked on online. These “acts” involved a manipulative “agent” misusing “scene” and “agency” with a misguided “purpose.” While the initial purpose of the act was likely not the outcome, this act is an example of language acting as a key motive or scene for all of man’s acts (Rueckert 130). Language was manipulated; there was no truth in the scene or the acts; language created the negative scene that could not be sustained. Writing a fake reality online altered Megan’s real life, as well as her family’s, in an irreparable way.

Anytime Facebook users click on the profile of another user, they can see how many “friends” he or she has. In a world where social status is so important to school-aged children, students view these numbers as having significant importance. FB has been accused of causing “friendship addiction” and “fueling insecurities in users” (“Facebook to Blame”).  In addition to creating online versions of their true selves, social networking sites enable users to try out virtual identities or misrepresentations of themselves in order to attain more friends. “While some argue that the Internet erases difference…available rhetorical features enable individuals to construct not only a representation of their offline selves but also to experiment with and create new identities” (Leonardi 3). Leonardi continues to argue that this creation of new self can also change the way users, and others, perceive themselves offline. In essence, we create ourselves with language when we write. Hence, there are real life implications to what we post about ourselves online. In writing an online identity, it’s not hard to venture into the genre of fiction. Burke asserts, “You persuade a man only insofar as you can talk his language by speech, gesture, tonality, order, image, attitude, idea, identifying your ways with his” (Burke, Rhetoric 55). This assertion contends that imitation within the “act” of creating an identity through language is probable. In addition, “the linguistic motive eventually involves kinds of persuasion guided not by appeal to any one local audience, but by the logical of appeal in general” – or socialization (Burke, Rhetoric 129).

In A Grammar of Motives, Burke quotes Aristotle: “Men, individually and in common, nearly all have some aim, in the attainment of which they choose or avoid certain things. This aim, briefly stated, is happiness and its component parts” (292). He goes on to list Aristotle’s seven causes [motives] for human actions: “chance, nature, compulsion, habit, reason, anger, and desire” (292). Burke presents a broader umbrella under which to classify these motives: freedom and necessity (74). Necessity, however, is a matter of opinion, and freedom has its boundaries before affecting others. In the Megan Meier’s example above, the mother of the friend who created the fake profile may, in some twisted way, have been trying to attain happiness for her and her daughter, but did not consider (or care about) the cost, or unhappiness, that their actions would create for someone else.

However, happiness, freedom, and necessity came together, for good, in Jeff Kurtz’s Facebook story. In early 2011, thirty-five year old Jeff Kurtz’s kidneys began to fail. His wife, Roxy, posted a Facebook message about his health problems and word began to spread, quickly. Ricky Sisco, from a nearby city in Michigan, responded to Jeff’s need for a kidney transplant by donating one of his own – to a complete stranger. These two men had no prior connection other than friends in common on Facebook. This social network, originally developed to make communication easier, served that purpose for this act/scene/agent/purpose. Without this venue, it is not likely that the two men would have ever connected. It’s not often that one’s plea for a kidney is put in a newspaper.

The following examples are actual posts from Facebook both on national and local levels, personal and corporate. Agent, scene, act, agency, and purpose will be looked at in terms of intent, originality, and effectiveness. The agent (FB user), the scene (the online community of FB), the act (the actual posting or thought processes leading to it), the agency (language, words, pictures, videos, etc.) all combine to achieve various purposes, sometimes undeterminable, but perhaps the most important element of the pentad. Burke argues that there may be disagreement about the purpose of acts or the character of the agents, but motive will always answer questions about “what was done (act), when or where it was done (scene), who did it (agent), how he did it (agency), and why (purpose).

The following post has been circulating for about ten years: “Don't buy the patriotic PEPSI CAN coming out with pictures of the Empire State Building and the Pledge of Allegiance on them. Pepsi LEFT OUT two little WORDS on the pledge, ‘UNDER GOD’. Pepsi said they did not want to offend anyone. So, if we don't buy them they won’t be offended when they don't receive our money that has the words ‘In God we Trust’ on it!!! How fast can you re-post this??” (Random post spreading via Facebook) This is a post with an undeterminable original author that is currently (April 2011) spreading by way of FB. It is designed to appeal to the emotions of patriotic and religious, specifically Christian, users. The purpose is to keep users from buying Pepsi products. FB gives those who want to spread the word about this a means through which to do so. It is likely that they would not have the means to advertise this through a television commercial or a highway billboard, but average Joe Smith can start an Internet campaign that has the possibility of reaching a national audience. Could a grassroots campaign like this hurt Pepsi Co.’s business? Of course it could, but not substantially. The quote originally began spreading via email around November 2001 after the terrorist attacks when Dr. Pepper designed a can with the Statue of Liberty with the caption “One Nation…Indivisible” ( The quote, originally aimed at Dr. Pepper, evolved to include Pepsi and Coca-Cola as well. Pepsi has never designed a can with the Statue of Liberty on it. The spreading of Urban Legends has spread to Facebook.

Another campaign currently circulating on FB is political in nature. “Gas is to jump up to $5.00 a gallon by Memorial Day. Obama said ‘get used to it and trade in for an energy efficient car.’ With unemployment above 10% in many states, can you afford a trade in? Re-post if you want Obama to ‘get used’ to being a one-term president! I will gladly re-post to get him out of office!!” (Random quote spreading on Facebook). On Wednesday, April 6, 2011, President Obama participated in a town hall meeting at a factory in Pennsylvania. When questioned about the high prices of oil, Obama suggested that all citizens consider driving more energy efficient vehicles. Obama’s quote was distorted into the above flippant sounding answer that sounds like he wasn’t interested in offering a solution to the oil crisis. He did not say, “Get used to it.” He told the audience that if anyone was driving a vehicle that got eight miles per gallon, they should trade it in. However, the FB post appeals to the unemployed, and there are many. The implication of the post is that unemployment is Obama’s fault, and the purpose is to keep him from winning a second term. In this case, the text has been manipulated to fulfill the author’s purpose.

On April 7, 2011, the Associated Press (AP) reported that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is replacing the five-level color-coded terrorist warning system, which ranges from low to severe with a simpler, more specific, two-level system of “elevated” and “ imminent.” AP also reported that these alerts may be publicized through Facebook and Twitter, “when appropriate,” but only after federal, state, and local leaders have been notified. By doing this, DHS is acknowledging the scene of Facebook as a valid means through which to alert citizens about the threat of national terrorism. The Department of Homeland Security already has an official Facebook page with 14,464 followers. A recent post includes a blog about the new National Terrorist Advisory System (NTAS) (April 20, 2011): “For Americans, this will mean some visible changes. You won’t hear the old color-code announcements when you go to airports, or see them when you visit a government website. Instead, when a threat arises that could affect you and your family, you will hear about it through an NTAS Alert issued by DHS through official channels, such as the DHS website, the news media, and via social media channels such as Facebook and Twitter.” Fifty-nine followers “liked” the post; however, there were thirty-two comments to the announcement, most of which were negative expressions toward the DHS itself: “Oh, absolutely, we believe everything you say in Washington,” “Lame, harder to follow than a simple color,” “We don’t need your ‘protection’ DHS. We need protection from you.” For the most part, rather than responding to the topic of the DHS’s post, citizens used comments as a forum to express displeasure with the department. Despite consistently negative remarks posted on the page, DHS continues to maintain the page and attempt to educate the public through FB updates.

Another way that FB can be used is to spread a cause established on a local level to the national level. On April 1, 2011, “The Caring Tree Project” had 37 followers, or users who liked their page. By April 23, that number grew to 346. The mission of “The Caring Tree Project” is to “educate consumers about cost-saving opportunities to buy your favorite products and services, including home buying and home-related products” (Caring Tree Project Facebook Profile). The project began a contest in which other FB users could submit photos of a boy or girl-scout in uniform. The owner of the photo with the most votes (in the form of “likes” by members of the FB community) will win an iPod. Naturally, anyone who submitted a photo invited all of their friends to join the community so they could vote for their friend’s picture. The company in Hanover, Maryland has reached Northeast Texas by way of the Girl Scouts of America. By April 30, 2011, the page had 342 followers. The page obviously grew during the contest and had support of those who entered, but when the contest ended, followers dropped off the site.

On the more local level, day-to-day posts by the average user vary in terms of purpose, content, format, and length. Some status posts get no comments, while others initiate the Burkean Parlor-type conversation. Many use the forum for a “this is what I’m doing right now” type post. “Standing in the Wal-mart line…again,” “Heading to Dallas for the weekend,” or “Just got home from a great night out,” are common examples. Users create pages to promote a cause or send invitations to events. A local group formed a team for Race for the Cure and solicited sponsorship from their friends through FB invitations. The local college’s drama department sends invitations to plays through FB announcements. Individuals, as well as teams, can elicit support through FB messages. In addition to global announcements, FB users can send private messages to other users. FB has a calendar to help users keep up with and wish friends “Happy Birthday.” All of these acts are purpose driven by the agent, through the scene by way of the agency. The subject matter and content style are as varied as the personalities of the users. It would be interesting to study if the writing style of the agents affects the perceived validity of their comments. Are FB users judged for their writing style, grammar, and punctuation?

While the acts and agents are various and complex, agency is a bit more limited within the community. The agencies through which FB agents can act are written language, pictures, videos, songs, and links to other content. For example, to wish a friend happy birthday, a user might simply post “Happy Birthday” on a friend’s wall, or may link to a digital birthday card that is sponsored by another link on the web. Either way, the user is using language to perform the act of wishing a friend a “Happy Birthday.” To acknowledge Burke’s theory of symbolic action, we have to ask, do these acts, through agencies, improve or alter reality for the individual? Imagine getting a “wall” full of “Happy Birthday” wishes, but then imagine getting only two or three.

Visual rhetoric is a prevalent means through which FB users express themselves. Users can express themselves through the use of “emoticons”, facial expression icons that visually, or pictorially, express a mood or temperament. Users can add a smiley face to something they have written, an icon that represents a shocked or unbelieving look, or a frown- face that expresses dislike for something. Users can post family vacation photos (they’ll post only the good ones, right?), videos, or simply capture a picture of the web to express a thought or idea. In addition, they can add captions or explanations of when and where, etc. the photo was taken. Proud parents post pictures of children, friends may post videos of activities they have participated in with others, or someone may post pictures after an event. As with comments, friends of the ones who post can “like” photos. As of now, there is no “dislike” button on FB, though someone has created a FB page titled “Create a Dislike Button,” and it features 125,049 followers discussing their desire for one.

In a final analysis, the “Arkansas Severe Weather Watchers” (ASWW) FB page exemplifies just how quickly word can spread through this venue when agents are producing significant, relevant information. During the week of April 25, 2011, virtually the entire state of Arkansas (AR) was under severe thunderstorm or tornado warnings. On Monday evening, Vilonia, AR was hit with a mile-wide tornado that destroyed the small town. On Monday afternoon, ASWW had 4500 followers (likes). By 11:00 Monday night, the page had 8000 followers. The following shows how quickly the page grew in popularity over the next several hours: 6:00 Tuesday morning – 14,000 followers; noon on Tuesday – 18,871 followers. By 10:00 on Tuesday evening, the page had 30,000 followers, and the numbers continued to rise. At noon on Wednesday there were 31,242 followers. The most significant rise in followers was occurring as news channels were predicting “treacherous,” “catastrophic,” weather conditions across Arkansas. As the weather improved, the rise in membership began to slow down.

ASWW was providing an immediately pertinent service of interest to citizens of the state of AR. Updates were frequent and informative; they posted every time they learned of any type of weather warning in AR. They posted so frequently that a small number of users began complaining that they were getting too many posts to their walls. ASWW’s response (as if they had to respond or justify at all) was, “If you don’t like the updates, simply ‘unlike’ our page. You’ll stop getting them.” Those who complained also received negative comments back from other ASWW followers. It is impossible to tell if they “unliked” the page, but the comments ceased. While a page such as this one has the potential to create panic or an alarmist reaction, the honorable purpose of trying to inform the public in advance of when it is necessary to take cover supersedes that risk if lives are saved due to their diligence.

As of today, FB has always been free of charge to users, but occasionally a rumor will surface that the owners are going to start charging a fee. So many people are such frequent users of FB, if they were unable to have access, they would likely suffer withdrawal symptoms. One study proposes that a Facebook addiction should be added as a subcategory of Internet spectrum addiction disorders and possibly added to the next update of the DSM (Karaiskos, et al).  FB is accessible through mobile devices such as iPads and smart phones. Users can receive instant alerts when they receive messages. Instant communication with anyone, anywhere, is available at any time. If this widely-used venue suddenly became inaccessible, the lifestyles of many would significantly be altered, through a feeling of extreme disconnect from friends. The web pages of most organizations that maintain a FB page include a button so that site visitors can instantly “like” them on FB and become a follower. For some, consulting, reading, and writing on Facebook is, or is becoming, a way of life. Users stay connected with each other socially, stay informed about events, and keep others informed about information they find important. Through the scene of Facebook, agents act, or react, with an intended or unintended purpose through accessible agencies. Users create an online world through language.

Works Cited

Burke, Kenneth. A Grammar of Motives. Berkeley: U of California P, 1969. Print.

---. The Philosophy of Literary Form: Studies in Symbolic Action. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State U P, 1941. Print.

---. A Rhetoric of Motives. Berkeley: U of California P, 1969. “Facebook to Blame for ‘Friendship Addiction’.” Therapy Today 19.9 (2008): 10. Academic Search Complete. Web. 30 Apr. 2011.

Facebook Factsheet. Facebook Pressroom, 2011. Web. 28 Apr. 2011. <>.

Jenkins, Henry. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York: New York U P, 2006. Print.

Leonardi, Marianne. Narrative as Self-Performance: The Rhetorical Construction of Identities on Facebook Profiles. Diss. U of New Mexico, 2009. Dissertations and Theses: Full-text, Proquest. Web. 13 March 2011.

Rueckert, William H. Kenneth Burke and the Drama of Human Relations. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1963. Print.

Weiser, Elizabeth M. Burke, War, Words: Rhetoricizing Drama. Columbia: U of South Carolina P, 2008. Print.


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