FB Iconography

This week I decided to take a closer look at a page that (for better or worse) I view frequently: The Facebook Page. I chose this site because I believe it is a good jumping off point to begin a discussion of Andrew Piper’s work. Perhaps because I spend a good deal of time answering questions about “reading” websites for library patrons- of particular interest to me are his ideas concerning the shifting nature of literacy in the presence of digital pages.

You’ll notice in the top right corner of the Facebook screenshot a series of icons. Due to the somewhat unsettling fact that I have been using this social networking site for eight years, and because I frequently use computers and other ICTs, I know that the pictures of an arrow, lock, globe, and speech bubbles are symbols. For example, the globe is a label for my notifications button. As other long-time users of Facebook can attest to, this has not always been the case. At one time that button said ‘notifications.’ This use of symbols is not isolated to Facebook: when exactly did three horizontal lines stacked on top of one another come to mean “Menu”? This language of symbols is not self-evident to people who seldom use computers, or who are learning to use them for the first time. Yesterday, as I helped a patron access information for tax purposes, they asked “Was it hard for you to learn computers?” I had no satisfactory answer for this question, as I cannot recall the first time I used a computer, although I must have been around eight years old, old enough to remember such things.

Piper writes: “Sentences have become pixilated, divorced from their normal grammar in the same way that the digital page is no longer connected to the spine of a book” (56). Here, the imagery of pixilation captures the iconography of the internet which is gradually doing away with written words in its adoption of a language of symbols that consists of images without context. It isn’t until you try to explain to an adult much older than yourself why the three horizontal lines means menu that the taken-for-granted connection between signifier and signified is disrupted.


Piper, Andrew. “Turning the Page (Roaming, Zooming, Streaming).” In Book Was There: Reading in Electronic Times. University of Chicago Press, 2012.

One thought on “FB Iconography”

  1. Holly, I appreciated reading this, and was certainly nodding along – it is incredible to think how for those of us who have grown up with ubiquitous computing devices, we come to accept (and re-accept) each new round of symbols, and somehow work them into our understanding. They are absolutely not, as you point out, ‘intuitive’ (although this is a term that so many platforms seem to boast). I too am reminded on a regular basis of the privilege that comes with this understanding, and even more, of the frustration and distress that these symbols elicit for people who feel that they ‘should know’ how to navigate them because they are entirely competent human beings. It seems that this problem may only be exacerbated in the future as our world is becoming more and more condensed and visually distilled.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *