By Daniel Miller, on 30 October 2014
I am just finishing a chapter of my monograph on social media in England in parallel with the other eight team members who are simultaneously writing theirs. At the moment the biggest problem I am finding with writing about social media is perhaps not surprisingly the social media themselves. They just refuse to behave decently, by which I mean in ways conducive to being written about in an academic text.
The chapter I have just finished has been trying to explore the impact of the wide variety of platforms that are currently available to people in The Glades. That in and of itself is not a problem. The theory of polymedia comes in handy because it was devised to deal with a situation where, instead of a single or a dominant media, we have many potential platforms such as Snapchat and Tinder and Tumblr and Twitter. These start to express social differences, moral choices, differentiated relationships and so forth – thus polymedia. The next stage would be for academics to explain why people might prefer this or that social media for some particular purpose. For such explanations we are indebted to some excellent writings, of which the clearest is probably Nancy Baym’s book on Personal Communication in The Digital Age.
This work depends upon the concept of an ‘affordance’ which means more or less, that which a particular platform would seem naturally best suited to do. So we can suggest that Facebook is better for the storage of photos, while Twitter seems good at spreading information. Some media demand simultaneous presence, others are asynchronic, some anonymous and others anything but private. What usually happens is that we assume a platform is `naturally’ that which we have found most people use it for and then look at these various affordances in order to account for that dominant usage.
This is fine for a while, but then as we observe these social media more closely and for a longer period of time, they start to behave not just badly but really quite outrageously. They start to be used for all the things we claimed they were useless for, or for the exact opposite of that which they were doing previously. I look at the data and think `Whoopsadaisy’ that is NOT what is supposed to be happening. To take a very simple example, my generation used email as the breakthrough media in destroying a century of attempts by industry and commerce to separate work from leisure, and I could write happily about the affordances of email that explain this consequence. The trouble is that today young people use email to scrupulously divide their personal communication from work and commercial usage – the exact opposite of what I do with it.
Historically in both Trinidad and England BBM, the Blackberry messenger service, was the place teenagers used to be nasty to each other. I could give a whole list of features as to why BBM was good for this purpose. In Trinidad this genre of usage moved from BBM to WhatsApp which is fine, since WhatsApp is basically a copy of BBM. But in England the genre migrated lock, stock and barrel to Twitter which in several important respects is exactly the opposite of BBM. Twitter is very public, BBM was heavily encrypted etc etc. I read loads of articles about how Twitter is naturally about information or Facebook is ideally suited to the young. Only to find that Twitter is used by other groups simply to banter and Facebook is now mainly used to keep connected with older family members. In fact the entirely different `Twitters’ I have discovered operating just within just The Glades is ridiculously diverse. At which point you realise no, it isn’t especially good for information dissemination. It’s just a short text platform that can, and now is, used for pretty much anything. This is just within The Glades. Once you start comparing our nine sites then it is really hard to claim any kind of consistent behaviour at all. Social media are such an undisciplined and unruly bunch of creatures that they would challenge a zoo let alone a poor academic.
The theory of polymedia and the study of affordances remain essential tools of analysis, and often work perfectly well. But there are clearly a whole lot of others things going on, which my chapter attempts to explain and explore. I think this can be done, and basically has to be done, because we do no one any favours if we ignore the variability of actual usage which is precisely what anthropology is built to discover and acknowledge. But sometimes in this study of social media I just want to teach the little bastards a bit of discipline.