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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.

Facebook for fitness: a case study from India

By Shriram Venkatraman, on 18 September 2013

Photo by Bharfot (Creative Commons)

Photo by Bharfot (Creative Commons)

The following is a case study of a fitness enthusiast (a small business owner as well – owns a gym) in our Indian fieldsite who shares his passion for body building and subtly influences his business members through Facebook.

Krishna, aged 28, is a body building enthusiast who just loves fitness to the extent that it was natural for him to start his fitness centre/gym immediately after he graduated. While pursuing his Bachelors in Business Administration at a college close to the fieldsite, he took on several part time jobs, all in the field of fitness, at various privately owned and community gyms both in the city of Chennai and in the villages surrounding it, working in a wide spectrum of roles from being an instructor to looking after the administration. He learnt through being an apprentice to various well known instructors. He read most of the well-known fitness magazines that his work place subscribed to. He was not just an instructor who only preached, but  was also a walking proof  by practicing his own ideals on fitness. He participated very actively in most of the state-based fitness competitions and has even won a few of them, which further added to his credibility.

He surrounded himself with friends (mostly young men) who were also interested in fitness and he seemed to have influenced most of them to get into body building, and even compete in a few city/state and national level competitions themselves. His network which mostly consisted of people who were seriously into fitness and body building, now seemed to have influenced him in turn by respectfully addressing him as their “Master”. They do this even now, and the gym members seemed to have forgotten his real name and just address him as their Master. His personal attention to the fitness of his friends seemed to go a long way. He volunteered to help them compete in competitions and thereby spread around this idea (in a way popularising himself as a brand too, as he did not have a business at that time). Hence, it was natural for him to look out for an opportunity to expand his passion and with a good business sense he turned his network of friends into clients. He started his own gym and had a ready network of friends who naturally joined the gym. A member of his network seemed to have even helped him with procuring the equipments, while one helped him with a bank loan and another with the space for the gym.

Now he is a the owner of this small business, who owns and runs an 1800 square foot gym in a rented area. The gym functions in an artificially created shed in the terrace of a building owned by his friend’s dad. Thanks to his friend’s influence, he pays a rent which is at least 60% less than the market price. He charges his members a very reasonable amount as his gym does not have any electronic equipment and is not air conditioned. His network expanded considerably and so did the gym membership, the membership roster boasts of approximately 200 members on a rotational basis. Given that this is a men-only gym with very limited facilities, this number seems to be significant. Also most most of the gyms for body building use rather than usual aerobic fitness regimes.

As body building requires huge amounts of motivation and inspirational stories and pictures, it required a significant amount of time to ensure that his members are motivated to turn up to the gym every day. Following up with them was itself a huge task. Cell phones helped him in this task, where calling members individually and talking to them personally and messaging them inspirational quotes helped, however sending inspirational pictures of body builders with quotes in them were not possible with the phone that he had. So, he turned to a cheaper but an effective and valuable option: Facebook.

He made sure to add most of his old members as his friends on Facebook and also  asked every new member their Facebook ID and made sure to add all of them as his friends on Facebook. He send all his Facebook friends, who are his clients, pictures of body builders with inspirational quotes. He also sends them personal messages and pictures that he downloads from the internet. As a member of other international fitness groups on Facebook, he has all of these pictures and quotable quotes falling into his lap. He also shares stories of people in unfortunate circumstances and who have made it big and relates them to fitness. His way of caring, motivating and influencing his members/clients was now becoming easier. He says that he knows his members welcome this because, when they open their Facebook page every morning, they see a positive message with the picture of a strong man, which creates a positive energy in them to face the day and, in a way, subtlety influences them and reminds them of fitness and his gym.

He says his membership churn-over has reduced considerably since he adopted Facebook to communicate with them and has definitely helped in reducing a considerable amount of time/money spent over phone in motivating members to turn up for fitness. This method he feels is very non-intrusive. Further, he is now able to use his time effectively to concentrate on other business details and with Facebook groups, he uses them as a knowledge network to know the latest developments in the body building world, which has also brought down his magazine subscription charges. He prints out pictures of body builders and inspirational quotes that he gets on Facebook and now pastes them in his gym, to motivate those working out in the gym. Of course, he also relies on phone to communicate with people with whom Facebook doesn’t work or who are not into Facebook. He says his presence on Facebook also has helped him attract new members in the area. So when people search for gyms in the area, his name stands out with the area name. His Facebook ID is a combination of the name of the gym and his name, as well and with his geographical details are given, it’s pretty certain that his name stands out when people search for a gym in this area. Surprisingly, he doesn’t have a page for his gym and he says he doesn’t want to create one simply for the reason that his clients would then be clients and lose personal touch with him if he has a page instead of his profile. A profile makes sure his clients are his friends and it shows he cares for them.

The role of social networking and technology in relationship difficulties

By Tom McDonald, on 25 February 2013

Photo by Asela (Creative Commons)

Photo by Asela (Creative Commons)

I heard a fascinating piece on BBC Radio 4’s Today program this morning on how men often find it difficult to understand relationship problems, which can lead to a worse outcome for them and their families if the relationship ends.

Towards the end of the interview Ruth Sutherland, the chief executive of Relate, a leading relationship support organisation in the UK explained that since men often find it more difficult to talk about relationships, service providers and counselling organisations ought to think of more suitable ways to engage with these men.

One example Sutherland gave was that men most often accessed her charity’s website looking for relationship advice using their smartphones whilst they are on their lunchbreak at work. Whilst Sutherland’s example is really powerful and obviously makes sense in the context of the UK, in other cultures family relationships operate in very different ways, and often each culture posseses a host of unique institutions that also impact upon relationships. Therefore it will be interesting to see how, over the course of our research project, social networking and technology helps to negotiate difficulties and ambivalence in family relationships.

Cigarettes and alcohol: towards healthier relationships through social networking?

By Tom McDonald, on 24 November 2012

Social drinking in a chinese karaoke (Photo: Tom McDonald)

It is 11:42 on a Tuesday night, in the height of Red Mountain Town summer, and I find myself standing in a darkened, noisy and stifling, private room four by ten feet in size. Running along one side of the room is a fitted sofa covered in vinyl padding that is supposed to imitate leather, and opposite it a flat screen television. In the space in between is a table, holding a semi-decimated feast of beer bottles, fruit platters, sesame seeds, and cigarette packets. In the corners of the room, above the television, hang two oversized speakers, blaring out distorted music. The room is walled with a smooth glittery surface, constructed from opaque, black-silvery backed tempered glass, set into which are metal purple and red fluorescent lights, and plain strips of metal detailing.

There are seven people in the room, mostly tubby men and women in their forties or fifties; respectable businessmen, engineers, nurses, and retired townsfolk. Their faces are entirely smeared in birthday cake, a bizarre combination of clotted cream, and light fluffy primrose-yellow sponge, as if they were characters straight out of a ‘Laurel and Hardy’ custard-pie fight gone awry. They are maladroitly dancing to the corrosive 2005 Euro-trance song ‘Axel F‘ by Crazy Frog, in an almost paraplegic conjunction of un-coordinated hand waving, and leg shuffling, whilst on the television, askew decade-old video footage shows young nubile bikini-clad Chinese women writhing, out of time with the music, on the stage of an anonymous crowd-filled nightclub in an unidentified Chinese city. In front of me, one portly woman, a divorcee, grabs her boyfriend, a scrawny forty year old moustachioed ferret-like man, and they break into a mini-waltz, which they manage to sustain for about thirty seconds before reverting to their discombobulated convulsive gyrations. One man breaks off from his bopping to stand by the light switch, eagerly turning it on and off repeatedly, plunging the room in and out of darkness in a disordered strobe effect.

A corpulent fellow, heavily exuding sweat, grabs me, throws his arm around my shoulder while thrusting a bottle of Kingway beer into my hand, “Bottoms up!” he bellows into my ear over the music, knocks back his head, and with concentrative purpose, glugs down the beer as if he were a baby suckling fervently on his mother’s teat. I do not want him to feel I am spurning his generosity, so I follow immediately, despite having long before lost track of how much I have had to drink tonight. The warm, additive-soaked beer gushes past my pharynx, and down my throat, as I put in a concerted deglutitive effort. I am out of practice, though, and find simultaneously breathing through my nose, while swallowing the drink and maintaining eye contact with the heavily perspiring man unexpectedly problematic. When I reach the point of asphyxiation I involuntarily gag, foamy carbonated beer erupts from my mouth and down my neck. No sooner than I have drawn the bottle away from my face, though, that another man, who I am unaware is standing behind me claws a handful of cake into his palm, and swings it towards my face, as if applying a chloroform-soaked towel to an unsuspecting kidnap victim, roughly smearing the syrupy mixture over my face, and ears, and most of my clothes.

I take a moment to remind myself where I am. ‘Heaven on Earth Karaoke parlour’ in Red Mountain Town. I wonder for a moment how on earth did it come to be, that out of all the places in the world, I should have ended up here? Then another, altogether more interesting question popped into my head: how on earth did it come to be, that ‘Heaven on Earth Karaoke parlour’ should have ended up to be like this?

The above fieldnotes were made as part of my PhD research into the structures of hospitality in a medium sized town in south-west China. The thesis examines the way in which everyday hosting activities, such those described in the karaoke parlour above, become significant by their adoption of certain material and behavioural structures of hospitality that are partly homologous to forms of hosting in popular religious life and traditional ways of receiving visitors into the home.

Central to many forms of hosting in Chinese society, especially between adult males, are alcohol (Chau, 2008:493) and cigarettes (Wank, 2000). My own friends in Red Mountain Town would often wax lyrical about what they perceived to be the country’s ‘alcohol culture’ (jiu wenhua 酒文化). This concern with using alcohol to comfort others extends to the afterlife: during the tomb sweeping festival my friends would leave a cup of liquor on their ancestors’ tombs for their deceased relatives to consume.

I, on the other hand, did not always see their hospitality in a wholly favourable light, doubtless because my own attitudes have been shaped by the far less positive national discourse surrounding alcohol and smoking that exist here in Britain. However, China too is starting to become aware of the problems that these specific forms of sociality bring. Commercial alcohol production in the country has increased from 0.4 kg beverage alcohol per person in 1952, to an estimated 42.5 kg per person by 2005 (Cochrane et al., 2003). Rates of diabetes and lung cancer in China are increasing at amongst the fastest speeds in the world, and I witnessed first hand the distress, heartbreak and loss that these diseases bought to families in the town.

Nevertheless, this problem seems to be a social one. Alcohol and cigarettes appear to be inseparable from the creation of friendships in China. Which is why social networking is of particular interest. On QQ, China’s most popular social networking service, it is possible to give one’s friends ‘virtual’  gifts of alcohol and cigarette lighters (amongst other things).

Gifting french red wine on QQ (Image © QQ)

This raises a question of whether China’s youth are increasingly tiring of some of the social behaviours of older generations. Are options to gift virtual versions of such objects ways in which they are seeking new forms of sociality, at once different from other generations, whilst still remaining identifiable with ‘traditional’ Chinese culture?

Of course, it is impossible to tell from this one piece of evidence, but given that our study of social networking will have an important welfare element, I hope that through the ethnographic encounter I will be able to find out in what ways social networking might be influencing these established means of relating to each other.

References
Chau, A. Y. (2008). The Sensorial Production of the Social. Ethnos, 73(4), 485-504.
Cochrane, J., Chen, H., Conigrave, K. M., & Hao, W. (2003). Alcohol use in China. Alcohol and Alcoholism, 38(6), 537-542.
Wank, D. L. (2000). Cigarettes and Domination in Chinese Business Networks: Institutional Change during the Market Transition. In D. S. Davis (Ed.), The consumer revolution in urban China (pp. 268-286). Berkeley; London: University of California Press.