Pretending on Facebook

diary study, interview, coding, thematic analysis

chart about inductive codes


Goal: Understand the impact of platform design on Facebook "Pretend" Groups and translate insights into actionable principles for satisfying Facebook role-playing.

Outcome: Qualitative understanding of member experience in Facebook Groups where people "pretend" and principles for satisfying "pretend" experiences.

My role:

Too much to read? You can download a PDF summary of the project.

Just the deets, please!

The Process

Why are there 1.9 million Facebook users all pretending to be ants in an ant colony? What does "pretending" mean anyway? My Master's dissertation used diaries and interviews to find out how communities dedicated to "pretending" (a.k.a. role-playing) use Facebook Groups and answer the question, what goes into a satisfying "pretend" group experience?

To find out, I recruited participants to join four such groups (with prior permission from the group) and then asked participants to record their activities and perceptions of the group through a daily diary study over a period of 7 days. Afterwards, I interviewed them to understand the context of their diary entries, as well as their overall impressions of their experience in the group. I conducted this research in pieces over the period of July to December 2020.

My research questions:

  1. Do members of pretend groups adapt their use of Facebook to suit their participation within the group?
  2. How does platform design shape how people participate within their pretend groups?
  3. What leads to a satisfying pretend group experience?

By studying this niche genre of Facebook Group, my data would not be generalizable but I thought to gain insight into how Facebook's platform design impacts community engagement, and that this might lead to potential analogies or considerations when designing for other communities or platforms.

Conducting the study

The diary study was conducted on Google Docs. Google Docs was familiar to all participants, enabled participants to get creative with their entries, and could be edited without a login. My goal was to keep the study as lightweight as possible to avoid putting unnecessary burden on the participants, which theoretically would keep engagement high. Thus, each diary entry's questions were simple; this was also to avoid subconciously influencing the participants and capture inactivity as well as activity to get a full picture of interactions.

diary explainer
The instructions contained within each diary to explain how to fill out an entry. Participants were asked to fill out an entry per day, but how much to write, how many posts to capture, and what to write about was left to their discretion.

Once the participant completed the diary, semi-structured interviews were conducted over Zoom with participants to gain an overall picture of their experience. This filled in the gaps of the diary, and allowed me to pull at interesting threads from their entries. The diaries were used as visual aid to jog participants' memories.

Screenshot from an interview
Interviews were semi-structured, so the conversation went to many interesting places (image used with permission)

The difficulty of collecting data through interviews includes users unintentionally generalizing or rationalizing, and the difficulties of collecting data through diary studies (or other in-the-moment observation) includes being unable to capture infrequent behavior and understanding behavior without knowing the true context. So both of these methods complemented each other nicely.

chart about captured in diary entry
Count of participants who recorded specific behaviors in their diaries, which were then explored during the interviews

The main topics covered during the interview were:


After 13 participants, 13 diaries, and 13 interviews, I got a pretty good picture of how users (mostly newcomers, due to my participant sample) approach Facebook role-playing groups. The user data was anonymized and coded inductively (x2) to surface categories and connections. Then these connections were examined against existing literature around virtual communities, Facebook, platform design, affordances, and role-playing, to check how my findings sit within the exisitng body of work.

chart about inductive codes
Here's how the categories mapped out after I inductively coded the data twice


This data resulted in rich data that generated many potential questions to pursue. However, I focused on a few key findings in relation to my original concern around platform design's impact on these communities and their interactions:

1. Do members of pretend groups adapt their use of Facebook to suit their participation within the group?

Members reinterpreted conversational content to suit the group purpose, i.e. role-playing, since posts and comments had the potential of being in-character, as opposed to the rest of Facebook where such content was assumed to be sincere. But members largely perceived platform affordances as usual if they did not relate to producing conversation (e.g. reacting or viewing profiles).

The main difference in user behavior appeared when it came time for users to produce content, as users needed to align their comments and posts with group conventions, but this is hardly unique to these groups.

2. How does platform design shape how people participate within their pretend groups?

The platform design of Facebook can be seen in the ways that users create group content, discover group content, expect moderation of content, and understand group norms. Members are limited to using posts and comments to build the shared world, cultural conventions, or game mechanics.

Rather than users explicitly subverting or appropriating the group interface for role-playing needs, the main influence of the platform on participation is largely in determining the group norms, through explicit and community moderation, and unintentionally through Facebook's algorithm.

3. What leads to a satisfying pretend group experience?

At the core of the role-playing experience and the social networking site experience is conversation. In order for there to be a good pretend group experience, there must be good conversation. This is not to disregard the importance of less generative engagement (e.g. reacts and reading comments) which help users understand group norms and signal a supportive environment, but the shared game world and community interaction depends on promoting robust in-character dialogue.

How to Create a Satisfying Pretend Group Experience

After conducting thematic analysis of my data, I came up with a few principles that summed up what leads to a satisfying Facebook pretend groups experience. (Other interesting tidbits also came up that I haven't included here, so feel free to chat if you're curious!)

  1. Promote in-character conversation
  2. Define a clear group purpose
  3. Encourage distinctive group norms
  4. Foster a collective understanding of group history

Borrowing from Fogg's Behavior Model, each situation needs motivation, ability, and a trigger. If users are unmotivated, they won't be interested in participating. If it's too difficult to role-play, they won't do it either. And if they have the motivation and the ability, they won't necessarily take action until there's something to spark their action.

My principles focused mostly on boosting ability, and a little of motivation, to explain how satisfying role-play comes about on Facebook Groups. Not every user will or wants to participate, but because role-playing on Facebook Groups depends on conversation, my findings focused on how to promote engagement through posts or comments.

1. Promote in-character conversation

Facebook is inherently all about conversation, and conversation is the only way to build the role-playing world and mechanics. So the most important factor of a good role-playing group is good in-character conversation that inspires other users to participate in the collective storytelling. Good conversation can be fostered but not forced, so the other principles focus on the mechanics.

2. Define a clear group purpose

Users were confused by moderator (and community) approval of posts that they perceived to be unrelated to the central "pretend" premise of the group (such as self-promotional or "spam"-like posts). Out-of-character posts are sometimes acceptable if they related to the topic, and in the data, some resulted in highly-engaged conversations where members felt a sense of connection. Where to draw the line is hard to say!

3. Encourage distinctive group norms

Groups studied, such as the ant group, that had distinctive content and linguistic quirks enabled newcomers to quickly understand how to participate. The more distinctive the better, since it helped users delineate a distinctive space for role-playing within their News Feed or their group space. Additionally, the novelty of these groups wore off early within the diary study for some participants, so it would be ideal to encourage participation early.

4. Foster a collective understanding of group history

Facebook as a platform is inherently difficult to study due to the subjective experiences of users—everyone has a different Facebook algorithm and also navigate through Facebook differently. Because users may not see the same posts, understanding the group's history (in terms of group norms and in-game events) can bring everyone onto the same page. Consistent moderation and distinctive norms within these pretend groups can achieve this effect, but this could also be achieved hypothetically through a page or a pinned post in the interface for new members or returning members to review.


My research aligned with much of existing literature around Facebook and virtual communities, since findings indicated that Facebook role-players are not too different from other Facebook users. Instead of being extreme users, they were more of a specific use case of Facebook Groups. This also means that these same principles may be applicable to a greater swathe of virtual communities, such as for other communities on Facebook Groups.

But, in the end this study was conducted from a qualitative Western perspective on specifically Facebook pretend groups, so keep that in mind!

I found it interesting to think about the communities in terms of platform design, as I started noticing patterns of behavior that I had not even noticed as a user myself. So much of my own Facebook experience is focused on user-generated content, but this project gave me the chance to reflect on how behavior is impacted by design as a whole.

(Due to my consent forms, I haven't used any direct quotes in this online write-up, but included a screenshot of an interview with permission. I am indebted to all my participants for their keen insight and willing spirit! And very grateful for the permission from the groups as well.)