Archive for the 'Death' Category

Memes: The internet’s moral police

By Daniel Miller, on 12 May 2015

On the face of it memes and religion would seem unlikely bedfellows, or even worthy of mention in the same discussion. Religions come to us from centuries of tradition and are defined by the continuity of custom and belief, and would be generally considered deep and spiritual. By contrast most people associates memes with funny looking cats, terrible puns and representing the latest phase of the superficiality and transience of the internet.

Despite that, if we look across our nine fieldsites there is certainly an argument to be made that memes have occupied the place in social media we might have anticipated being colonised by religion. Firstly memes are in fact the primary way most people do post explicitly religious imagery. In our book Visualising Facebook (forthcoming), which directly compared the visual posts of our fieldsites in England and Trinidad, this is something common to both.

A meme celebrating the religious festival of Diwali (Original author unknown)

A meme celebrating the religious festival of Diwali (Original author unknown)

But relatively few memes are actually religious in content. By contrast, a very high proportion of memes could now be said to represent the ‘moral policing’ of the internet. Memes have become the way people post visuals that express their values. In some of our fieldsites it is clear that people with less power or less confidence and who would be shy of posting their opinions directly or as text, are much more comfortable posting such memes.

An example values-based meme (original author unknown)

A values-based meme (Original author unknown)

But the notion of moral policing suggests that this amounts to more than simply the declaration of values. It is also about establishing what values are (or are not) acceptable for online postings. This might range from the support of gay rights, to accusing males of hypocrisy in their relationships with women, or even asserting the right not to care about football.

A humorous meme accusing males of hypocrisy in their relationships with women (Original author unknown)

A humorous meme accusing males of hypocrisy in their relationships with women (Original author unknown)

A meme directed against posts regarding football (Original author unknown)

A meme directed against posts regarding football (Original author unknown)

Perhaps the strongest argument for this idea of memes as moral policing comes from what might seem to be the counter instance, which is that the vast number of memes are devoted to humour. But when examined more closely actually a great number of these funny memes are humorous at the expense of some position of behaviour of which they disapprove. Or alternatively they are a way of allowing licence for behaviour of which they do approve but might not have been accepted. So in these instances women are all making fun around stereotypes about women, but also establishing a position with regard to that characterisation, though humour. This policing is as much about making freedom for values as for suppressing unacceptable ones.

A humour based meme (Original author unknown)

A humour based meme (Original author unknown)

A humour based meme (Original author unknown)

A humour based meme (Original author unknown)

Looking across the nine fieldsites in our study, this use of moralising memes seems common to all. Which is very helpful to our study, since one of our conclusions is that in each site there is considerable conformity and repetition. To explain this we need to understand the mechanisms that keep people in line. Moral memes may well be ones of these.

Does Targeted Advertising Work?

By Daniel Miller, on 5 February 2015

Photo by Mike Licht (creative commons)

Photo by Mike Licht (creative commons)

As Ethan Zuckerman noted in The Atlantic (14/08/2014) even though many groups and initiatives really didn’t want to go down that route, targeted advertising has become the default funding model for the internet, as people failed to find an alternative. A combination of developments such as big data and mining information from sources such as search engines and social network sites means that today it is possible for ads to be honed quite precisely to the interests of individuals as revealed by their online activity.

It is not at all surprising to find that English people who, as many of my blog posts have argued, are hugely concerned with privacy and keeping people away from their homes and intimate worlds, vociferously complain about the development of targeted advertising. The two most commonly quoted examples are Facebook and the supermarket chain Tesco. A typical complaint was ` Google will change your settings on your cursor, so that every time it goes back and tells them what you are using it for. Then they send you certain adverts….If you join Tescos, every time you go through the till it records everything you’ve brought. And suddenly they start sending you vouchers to buy meat… or this persons a drinker. Everything you do.’

In our project we anticipate cultural variation and it was interesting to read an article in the Financial Times recently (28/01/15) that suggested in China customers of WeChat felt personally insulted when they were not included in a targeted advert for BMW. This leaves us with at least two interesting possibilities. The first is that people say they resent the advertising but actually find them convenient and use them, which is why they continue to spread. Alternatively corporations tend to follow technological advances and do this simply `because they can’, even if in actuality these adverts did not in fact work. When I studied businesses (Miller, D. 1997 Capitalism: An Ethnographic Approach) I found that fear of what the competition might do was much more important than evidence for what customers actually do in understanding business practice around advertising. The academic work on the topic is still slight, and it is starting to look like targeted adverts in some combinations might actually be sending people away from companies rather than building their profits (e.g. Goldfarb, A., and C. Tucker. 2011 “Online Display Advertising: Targeting and Obtrusiveness.” Marketing Science 30.3 (2011): 389-404). In the meantime I have been faced with some of the most egregious examples of such advertising through my research with hospice patients. As one put it `I’ve joined the moving-on group now, since I’ve finished treatment, try and move on. Sometimes I get a lot of feeds and it does get a bit much. Don’t want it in your face all the time, keeps coming up, so I had to stop a lot of the feeds, otherwise every other thing was cancer cancer cancer and I’m not moving on. Think I’ll get rid of these off my Facebook.’

On death and desserts: Mourning heroes on Facebook

By Nell Haynes, on 11 August 2014


Photo courtesy of Creative Commons

On 5 December 2013, Nelson Mandela died. At the time, I was reviewing about 50 different Facebook accounts of people living in my Northern Chile fieldsite to see in a systematic way, what exactly they posted about on Facebook. I noted that only a few posted about Nelson Mandela. Those that did made funny ironic references to actor Morgan Freeman, who portrayed the South African politician in a film biography, while more politically socialist users posted old photos of the politician alongside their hero Fidel Castro. Yet these posts represented only 6 of the 50 users I was concentrating on, or 12%.

That same week Paul Walker, a film actor of The Fast and the Furious fame, also died. More than 20 of the users whose activity I was observing posted about his death on Facebook. As with Mandela’s death, no one linked to obituaries or news articles, but instead posted photos of the actor, or at times posted photos of their own cars with quotes from The Fast and the Furious or other commentary suggesting that the films had inspired their love of automobiles.

From this, along with Presidential elections which had just taken place in Chile, I got a sense that people were much more likely to post something on Facebook when they felt personally affected by it. While people recognized the significant contributions of Mandela to peace and humanitarian efforts, he had not affected Chileans’ daily lives, while Walker had been an important hero for many people. One young man posted about both. On the day of Mandela’s death he simply wrote “QDEP Morgan Freeman” [Rest in Peace Morgan Freeman] in an ironic and humorous attempt to conflate the politician with the actor who had portrayed him. A few days later, when news of Walker broke, he wrote, “I’m watching The Fast and the Furious on TNT (television channel)…in honor of the movies that inspired my Honda, and more importantly in memory of Paul Walker.” Clearly this user had reserved the more sincere and personal message for Walker who he characterized as an inspiration.

My insight that personal connection was more important than world impact has been put to the test again with the unfortunate death of a local celebrity. Arturo Mejía Koo, the son of Chinese immigrants to the region, was locally known as the authority on chembeques—a kind of pastry made of corn flour and honey. Though chembeques can be found in almost any outdoor market in the region, Koo’s shop was something of a pilgrimage point for those who love the dessert. Perhaps then, it’s not surprising that Facebook has been littered with homages to Koo. At the time of this writing, about 1/5 of the posts that appear on my Facebook timeline are related to Koo’s death. People post links to the local paper’s story with a simple comment of a frowning face, or no comment at all. Others post links with the comment “Noooooooooooooooo!!!” Responses are lacking in eloquence, but the sheer number of them is impressive.

Among my highly educated, urban, middle-class friends in the United States, posting about the death of a highly iconic politician such as Mandela was an act of both proclaiming political stance and being “in the know.” Yet in Chile, it is much more important to be “in the know” about local events. While in both places I see memes that circulate with text such as “If you didn’t eat/watch/play [insert local favorite], you didn’t grow up in [insert local area],” Northern Chileans take to heart this mentality. They experience the death of world icons with a grain of irony, likely owing to the distance they perceive between that person’s life and their own. Yet a local hero’s death is experienced as a personal heartfelt loss.

This makes clear that for most Northern Chileans, Facebook is an outlet for performing personal and local affiliations, rather than a platform for interacting with global discourses. Mandela’s death was noteworthy for a few because he was a world figure. Yet lacking in a personal connection, emotions were expressed through irony or affiliations with other more regionally relevant politicians. Walker’s death was important for some because he had been a Hollywood hero, yet was still expressed at a distance through reference to his film roles. But in the instance of Koo’s death huge numbers of people in the region feel personally affected because eating his pastries had been an important part of local belonging. Facebook then was an appropriate place to express the very simple emotions of sadness and disbelief that emerged from the loss that felt so personal. The outpouring of public response to Koo’s death then demonstrates the ways that Facebook may reflect local affiliations much more strongly than global awareness.

Facebook, death and memorialisation

By Daniel Miller, on 13 March 2014

Photo by Rosie O’Beirne (Creative Commons)

Alongside my ethnographic research in The Glades I have now been working for over a year alongside The Hospice of St Francis. When I am in the UK I try to spend a day a week interviewing their patients who are mainly terminal cancer patients. I was delighted to hear this winter that the wonderful hospice director Dr Ros Taylor was awarded an MBE in this year’s honours list. My intention in working for the Hospice was a concern that a project of this size should also have an applied or welfare aspect where we could see the direct benefit. The initial work was simply an attempt to see how the hospice could benefit from new media. The report was published on my website, but once I was working with them I realised that in a way the hospice was the clearest example of what the whole team have endeavoured to demonstrate through this blog.

The hospice movement represents no kind of technical or medical advancement. It is entirely the product of a transformation in collective consciousness. Previously it was assumed that when people knew they were dying this was tantamount to a stage in merely their withdrawal from the world. We talk about ‘investing in our children’ as though there were long-term financial assets. The same logic would condemn the dying as of limited value. The Hospice movement was all about saying that knowing someone is terminal should be seen as an opportunity. It is no longer a medical issue, they will not be cured, instead we can concentrate on their quality of life and make this stage of life, since that is what it is, as enjoyable and fulfilling as it could be. Everything that Dr Taylor says and does demonstrates this, as does my colleague in this research Kimberley McLaughlin a senior manager of the hospice.

On reflection this is perhaps our single most important finding also as anthropologists of social media. People become fixated on the technological advances of new media. What each device can now be capable of – the latest app or smartphone or platform. These certainly feature throughout our work. But the vast majority of our blog posts are not about that. Instead they describe changes in the same collective consciousness: the social uses that people creatively imagine for these media as part of their lives.

The two issues come together in my observations of Facebook in relation to death and memorialisation. One of my early informants was a woman who felt that she wanted to use the experience of terminal cancer to help educate the wider world about her experience. A subject people tend to avoid but need to gain a better understanding of. I last saw her six days before she died and she was quite clear that using Facebook as almost a daily blog had enabled her to do just that. I am hoping (if I obtain the funding) to make a film based on her and other patients who have used Facebook in this manner.

I would be equally positive about the ways people have found to use Facebook in memorialisation and grief. Previously we have tended to use highly formal and religious institutionalised frames for dealing with death. As I argued in my book Tales From Facebook, this was out of synch with changes in our notion of the authenticity of the individual. Where once we took formal posed pictures, now we like to capture images that seem spontaneous, informal and thereby more ‘real’ to us. Similarly we needed a form of memorialisation that contained this element of personalisation and immediacy. People on Facebook can put both serious and jokey memories and do so at a time of their choosing. I find these sites poignant and effective. I don’t find other social media sites, such as Twitter or Instagram, as having the same potential, so I hope we retain this capacity of Facebook.

But the point is that the inventors of Facebook were certainly not thinking about its relationship to death or memorialisation. Rather, as in the case of the invention of the hospice movement, this reflects a change in our collective imagination in what we could potentially do in relation to death and grief. This is why we argue it is anthropology rather than more tech-driven studies of new media that are most suited to understanding what social media actually become. Most of these reports reflect not the technological potential, but the imaginative realisation of social media.

The Future of Facebook: What will we learn from the study of Chinese social media?

By Xin Yuan Wang, on 29 January 2014

Image courtesy of emreterok, Creative Commons

Image courtesy of emreterok, Creative Commons

China is a dreadful desert to Western social media giants such as Facebook and Twitter, however it is a tropical rainforest to many local species. It is curious to note that even though none of the participants in my field site use, or have even heard of Facebook or Twitter, the way they use Chinese social media such as QQ and WeChat provides an interesting parallel to the way UK teenagers in Danny’s study differentiate a range of social media in their daily life, even though as social media QQ, or WeChat are both significantly different from Facebook.

Among certain groups of Chinese people, like teenagers, QQ seems to be in stasis. For teens with relatively high education and social status that are more willing to try something new and urban middle-class, QQ is not cool at all, just as what Danny reported about Facebook in his previous blog article. It is not rare to find people who have used QQ for more than 10 years in China given QQ started to become popular almost 15 years ago. In fact, QQ could be considered Facebook’s predecessor and to some extent through the study of QQ’s development in China we may ‘foretell’ what will happen in ‘Facebook land’ in the future. Many of my participants have told me that around 10 years ago, QQ represented the coolest thing about urban life because rural migrants who came back to their village during Chinese New Year showed off that they had a QQ account in front of their stunned fellow villagers. After 10 years, when almost half of the Chinese population have QQ accounts, QQ numbers rather than mobile phone numbers are exchanged most frequently as  permanent contact details (it is reported that people change their mobile phone much more frequently than their QQ account). QQ has lost its association with trendy or cool things, especially for urban Chinese people who want to escape from the ‘hustle and bustle’ QQ land which somehow has been associated with rural Chinese. On one hand, some people report that they use QQ less and less in recent years since Wechat’s audio message is more fun and convenient, and WeChat seems to be more in line with urban life. Some report that their closest friends and frequent contacts all moved to WeChat. On the other hand, people admitted that they would always come back to QQ when they wanted to catch up with long-lost relationships, such as old classmates or previous colleagues. As one informant put it, those contacts “didn’t move to other social media,” but remain in the “old home” of QQ. Those contacts may also have started using WeChat or other social media, but from my participants’ perspectives, they ‘belong’ to QQ. These friends may not have updated their social media details because of sparse communication, or are regarded a part of ‘past old days’ in one’s mind and QQ is the PLACE to go.

That is to say, people didn’t quit QQ because of their engagement with other social media. Rather, QQ survives time and thus obtains a ‘senior’ status, something like an old friend who has witnessed one’s ups-and-downs in life even though they may only meet once a year. QQ may also be regarded like one’s birthplace, which my rural migrant informants only visit during Chinese new year but always remains as one of the most import places in their lives. People don’t dump QQ, but keep it, and use it in a different way.

So the quick conclusion is QQ seems to be in stasis among certain groups of people not because of ‘being QQ’, but because of the law of ‘nature’ – here let me call this the nature of social media. And it also makes sense if one replaces “QQ” by “Facebook” in this argument.

And what is the nature of social media? You may need a bit more patience to read through the following academic ‘block’ to get a clearer picture:

First, stuff becomes more than the material after being used by people. For example the pen from your passed-away grandpa is to you by no means equal to any other pen which was produced on the same factory assembly line. If we have to use jargon, we call the process ‘objectification’ where an object consumed by people is domesticated and becomes part of the person and their relationship to others. That is where material culture starts, and the context in which we study digital technology. Digital technology, as a form of material, is no more sophisticated or mediated than any other object in terms of the relationship between material and human beings. Having said that, however, it is worthwhile to highlight the uniqueness of social media in the way that social media show the relationship between the digital and social relationship in a more visible and obvious way. That is to say, without people’s engagement and usage, social media is next to nothing. In a way, ‘Facebook’ and ‘QQ’ are only half finished goods before being used by people. Social media is produced through the consumption, as the terminology ‘prosumption’ suggested. Thus, it is safe to say social media is highly entangled with the ‘self’ and personal relationship to the degree that it somehow grows with the person and has its own life (Gell’s theory of ‘agency’ also shed light on this argument).

Furthermore, the concept of ‘polymedia’ describes another feature of social media. Each social media platform finds its niche in specific personal relationships and people take moral responsibility for their choice of different social media. In the case of ‘Facebook’, as Danny suggested, at the moment when people got friend request from their mother, the social medium is transformed into a family-orientated place rather than the place where people share secrets with their close friends. Also the concept ‘remediation’  helps to illustrate the way how certain social media (like QQ and Facebook) become ‘old’ because of the development of other social media. Dialectically, there is no so-called old or new social media without the comparison with others, that is to say people tend to re-define certain social media in the context of polymedia.

Even though my research is still unfinished, let me ‘jump to the conclusion’ and put my incomplete version of ‘the nature of social media’ here: First, social media as a social agent grow with the person and own their own lives. Second, social media were applied and valued by people in a context of polymedia.

Having discussed the nature of social media, then, let’s go back to my argument from the beginning – QQ seems to be in stasis among certain group of people not because of ‘being QQ’, but because of the law of ‘nature’, and so does Facebook. It is important to not treat social media as functional technology like we would computers. In terms of technology, new social media are not more advanced than pre-existing ones. It makes sense to say that today’s computers have taken the place of the early bulky computer, whereas we can’t say that a certain social medium is dead completely because its users turn to new ones and use others more actively. The situation in practice is like the way people treat friendship and the attitude toward one’s birthplace. From time to time, my participants in this Chinese town used “old friend” or “lao jia” (hometown) to describe their QQ profiles. For some of them, the usage of WeChat is more frequent and active than the usage of QQ. They report and I have observed that WeChat is more for recent contacts one meets in face-to-face situations, and generally speaking closer friends in a smaller circle. QQ on the other hand is used to keep up with all kinds of friends, acquaintances, and communities (QQ offers a group function, such as ‘class group’  used in one middle school) that one has accumulated over a relatively long term. In some cases QQ has become some people’s digital legacy where they keep the ‘silly self’ of 10 years ago. As one of my informants said she won’t use QQ to communicate with her new friends anymore since “on QQ you will encounter a little girl of 10 years ago”, however it is always good to view that ‘self’ in the past as it remains alive on QQ. QQ has become the PLACE, the legacy. Each generation, each human being owns their own history, and in the digital age, social media have become the place people store their history, and where old friends and memory dwell. I have witnessed it already in the usage of QQ among Chinese people and I don’t see any reason why Facebook will not follow suit.

Finally, the findings in China, with the absence of Facebook, actually reinforced our essential argument that the study of digital anthropology and this GSMIS project go beyond specific usage of a certain social medium. Social media usage is the point of entrance which allows our digital anthropologists to look into, understand and interpret the social relationship and the relationship between people and technology in different cultures and societies in the digital age.

Things that never appear on Facebook

By Juliano Andrade Spyer, on 4 October 2013

2013-08-20 17.42.01

Photo by Juliano Spyer

On one morning, towards the end of last year, my research assistant here in Baldoíno (our Brazilian fieldsite) a 25 year old college student, was approached by a friend who asked if she had heard of ‘the murder’. About one hour earlier the body of the murderer had been found and taken out of the river. He was the father of four children, a quiet man who killed his wife due to jealousy and shortly after committed suicide. My assistant told me this story as an example of the types of information that spread quicker through face-to-face contact than through digital media – which, here, translates to Facebook. But this story eventually arrived on Facebook and was openly discussed.

I started thinking about the speed at which information is transmitted at the beginning of my fieldwork when another young informant mentioned how surprised she was at the knowledge her mother had about things that happened in the community. ‘I’m the one who’s on Facebook’, she told me, ‘but she knows much more that I do’. Everything her mother hears come from her trusted network of friends and family members. I want to argue that my initial ethnographic evidence suggests that face-to-face communication is more efficient because there are certain types of information that does not arrive at Facebook at all (or at least not to its public spaces of communication).

About a month ago, a truck had been improperly parked in Baldoíno’s main street. While the driver was unloading goods, the vehicle started to roll down the road and hit two children. Both were taken to the hospital with severe injuries. One of them, a nine year old girl, lost part of her arm as a consequence of the accident. This happened in the early morning while children and teenagers were walking to school. Teens are the most active users of technology here and one of the things they love doing is taking photos and recording videos. On that day, the village looked like a contained but tense swarm of bees as people formed small groups on the streets to exchange information about the accident, what caused it and who was responsible for it. But surprisingly, not one bit of this event made it to Facebook.

So, how come certain events arrive at Facebook and others don’t?

The day of the accident with the truck, I passed by a store where a trusted research participant works. The moment I came in, a police officer and the truck driver were leaving the store after discussing with her about what she had witnessed. After they left, she told me: ‘It is true, I wasn’t here at the time of the accident, but even if I had been, I would’ve said the same thing, that I didn’t see anything that happened.’ Then she developed her argument explaining she knew the driver, and that he is from the village and is friends with “dangerous people”. She does not feel that the police will protect here. The police won’t prevent a criminal from attacking her or someone from her family out of vengeance, so ‘we must know when to be quiet’, she concluded.

The logic about the spreading of information is that potentially hazardous news must be kept in the domain of verbal conversation (which likely includes some direct chatting on Facebook using it’s ‘messages’ function). This solution allows the person to participate on the network of communication without leaving traces of the exact information or opinion she or he shared. Things that are not threatening but equally violent such as a passionate murder can be used openly on Facebook because the subject is of collective interest and will increase the attention given by peers and other people from the same community.

Communicating death in an Indian village

By Shriram Venkatraman, on 14 August 2013

Photo by Matt Zimmerman (Creative Commons)

Photo by Matt Zimmerman (Creative Commons)

Communicating the occurence of a life event to one’s social group (relatives, friends, colleagues etc.) is something that is seen in most societies around the world. However, the patterns and processes of communicating such events differ between societies. It is not a rarity to find extensive use of Facebook and other social networking sites as major platforms to communicate major life events such as the birth of a child, birthdays (where now reminders from the social networking sites now help to prompt the sending of messages), wedding anniversaries, deaths and so on. Exploring instances of how life events such as news of the death of a close relative or someone important are communicated becomes very interesting and given that one of the areas of focus for the project is to also explore death and memorialization, it definitely becomes an area worth observing.

The death of one of my informant’s grandfather occurred a couple of days ago, right at a time when there was a yearly religious village carnival going on in my field site. This was unexpected, though the village elder who had passed away was paralysed and had been “suffering” for almost a year now. He was 82 years old. The death was now viewed as pollution (theetu) as it had happened right in the middle of a sacred week. Further, given that a lot of money had already been spent on preparing for the celebrations, the idea was to cremate the “dead body” as soon as possible and to go on with the celebrations without cancelling any of the planned events.

Within an hour’s of the death people from at least five to six neighbouring villages and also from the closest city had gathered there to offer their respects to this village elder who had passed away. It was fascinating to see how so many people (between 1500–2000) had assembled within such a short span of time. As it was the death of the head of a lineage (Thala Kattu), the ceremony had to have all the regalia and the ceremonial and ritualistic arrangements befitting the status of the dead person and all this had to be prepared in a very short time. Normally, a dead person’s body is kept in state for at least a day or two so that everyone around the area gets a chance to come  and pay their last respects. Further, the day is also used to make arrangements for the cremation. However, this time it was different, the body had to be taken off from the area as soon as possible as it would halt the religious ceremony. What normally happens over 48 hours happened in just five to six hours. The speed at which communication worked and the news spread was something worth observing/exploring. The reason was very clearly discernible – it was use of mobile technology – cell phone at its best.

The original classical method of spreading the message of someone’s death in this village was to send people in all the four directions to convey the message to their kin in other villages and let the neighbouring village heads know of this, so people could come in to offer their last respects to the dead. Though this was still followed as a ritualistic process in order to maintain their age old practice, the urgency which the situation demanded seemed to be negotiated with the help of cell phones. It was clear that it was a mix of both voice and text that seemed to accomplish things. However, there was a clear distinction of purposes to which the use of voice and/or text was assigned. Communicating the news of death in person to the very senior elderly people and the head of the villages was considered respect and was a formalized unwritten protocol and that was still followed. However, communicating the message of death to middle aged and other elderly people always ensured a voice communication through cell phones as it was once again considered respect to use one’s voice to communicate such messages while text seemed fine with the younger generation. Logistical requirements and their arrangements like flowers, fireworks etc. happened over voice communication on cell phones.

Although an unsaid prohibition of not taking pictures of the dead body was followed, it was pretty much evident that there were a few youngsters (relatives of the now dead village elder) taking pictures of the dead body on their mobile phones. A casual chat revealed that they were planning on sending picture messages to their relatives and friends who were not able to make it to the ceremony. However, they were certain that they would not put it up on their Facebook or other social networking sites as they were only interested in sending this to people to whom this mattered. Putting this news on Facebook or other SNS would be seen as insulting the dead person, in short they were trying to focus their communication to reach the target audience (though marketers use this all the time, but have more of “brand pages” which was not the case here). Further, they did joke that some of their friends would “Like” the picture post, or sometimes even send in unwanted comments and if someone from the family saw that, then it would result in unwanted issues. Further, not all their counterparts or kin used social networking sites, but they had cell phones. The events as they unfolded very clearly revealed the power of technology; however, they also revealed that constant negotiation with the type of technology to use, the purpose of using them and how they were used even during a single event differed widely.

There was an urge to understand if such communication during death worked the same way when telephones found a place in this society too. The idea that communication of a message of death might have changed first when telephones came in which in a way is a gradual process of upgrading from manual news carriers to telephones and then to cell phones is something that most think as being true, as these steps seem to be the logical order. However, very soon it was revealed that most of them in the village here never had a telephone, as telephones (specifically from the government) were pretty hard to secure and their names in the waiting list seemed to have a permanent fixed position, thereby ensuring that most households in the village never had a telephone. The process was a movement from manual carriers directly to cell phones, bypassing the era of telephones. So how did they communicate messages of death to their social circle living in far off places? –  Telegrams. They came in very handy when telephones were not available to the common masses as cell phones are now spread out.

Telegraps were the text messages and forerunner of the today’s text messaging. Telegraphs did have their own lingo as the messages now do, as charges incurred depended on the number of words. It was called “Thandhi” in Tamil. Most villages/small towns in India, as in my fieldsite did associate “Thandhi” with death. They assumed that such urgent messages meant the death of someone they knew, though telegraphic services did carry countless other messages too. But, it was symbolically associated with the announcement of death. This was prevalent in my fieldsite too. However, last month the Indian Telegraphic Service closed shop after 162 years and the idea of symbolically associating it to death had its death then.

Why start with death?

By Daniel Miller, on 8 October 2012

Holding the hand of an elderly person

Photo: Rosie O'Beirne (Creative Commons)

Even I would have to admit it wasn’t the obvious way to go. The last three weeks have been amazing with the whole group coming together, but I have been on this project since May and during the intervening period I went ahead with my own fieldwork. Eventually all eight of us will start on our respective ethnographies with hopefully strong common threads. But we have agreed that there will also be some degree of autonomy in which we each have some themes of our own, something probably essential in a discipline such as anthropology.

So in May I decided that my own theme would be to start my study in collaboration with a hospice. This was possibly a very stupid move since our project is centred upon the consequences of social networking sites, and the one group who are least likely to be using this sites are the elderly who, in turn, make up the majority of those who are terminally ill. So why work with a hospice? I guess there were three reasons. The first was that for such a large grant from the public purse I felt that ethics is not just written consent forms, ethics is also whether your research directly benefits the welfare of populations who, in some sense, are paying for it. As it happens, the hospice director was interested in the likely long-term impact of new media and had asked if I could work with them. The health service has been incredibly conservative on this front, the NHS is still mostly based on fax and letters, so this seemed potentially a useful contribution.

The second was that I felt a project this big should address the big picture of anthropology, and not just our parochial ethnographies, and that, for theoretical reasons, I wanted to rethink what we understand by life as enhanced by technology and that this might be understood better in relation to the imminence of death. The third reason was that most researchers studying things like social network sites will simply focus on those alone, while for anthropology everything is context. Getting a real sense of the wider world of communications and social relations from non-users would ensure that we kept that broad context in view when it came to working on social networking sites specifically.

It’s too early to know if any of these were right, but one thing I can say, is that you would not expect that a project based largely with terminal cancer patients would be anything other than downbeat. But I have found that these patients are genuinely happy to find someone who wants to talk about something other than illness and is asking for their advice and life stories and that actually the fieldwork so far has been really uplifting and often surprisingly enjoyable.