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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.

Doing stuff, and telling people about it

By Daniel Miller, on 1 April 2013

Photo by ehnmark (Creative Commons)

Photo by ehnmark (Creative Commons)

Ok, this is a seriously big project. Starting from today, there will be eight simultenous 15-month ethnographies taking place in fieldsites around the world. To have funding for something on this scale devoted to a given topic is unique. Given that, we have a responsibility to do things which transcend the academic outputs we are initially funded to produce. There has to be an altogether different ambition for the results of this project that goes way beyond our remit. To signify that ambition we recently appointed Sheba Mohammid as Director of Policy and Implementation and also devised a new title for the project called the Global Social Media Impact Study with its own website at gsmis.org. What these changes signify is that even while the main fieldwork is about to start, we are thinking about two future developments.

The first is to ensure there is an applied outcome and the second concerns dissemination. As it happens, the very first project to be carried out to conclusion was my own research on behalf of a hospice, just North-West of London, where for six months I studied usage by end-of-life cancer patients and the hospice itself. I have not written any academic papers, but have constructed an extensive report detailing recommended changes that use this research directly to improve communications with patients. It’s early days, but I am optimistic several of these will be implemented. Once we feel we have gained enhanced knowledge of how people use social media, then we hope that Sheba will help us to find case-studies in Trinidad. This partly because we would like to do more than simply align ourselves with the usual welfare and critical stance of social science. We want to commit to projects that demonstrably make peoples lives better. But at the same time we want to test ourselves. If we are making claims that we will understand social media usage better through our studies, then the best evidence may be not just academic papers, but creating social media projects ourselves that demonstrably work better as a result of implementing our findings.

The second shift is intended to ensure that whatever it is we learn from our study is conveyed beyond the academic audience. So under our original title ‘Social Networking Sites and Social Science‘ we intend to produce considerable academic output, but the Global Social Media Impact Study is about using the same social media we study to also disseminate the results to non-academic popular audiences. Amongst other initiatives is the hope we will raise money for films directed by Meghana Gupta. We are looking to co-create, through user generated content, enhanced e-books, perhaps a MOOC (freely available university course). Sheba spent seven years implementing e-policy and e-learning for the Trinidad and Tobago government and has been educating our team in these areas of implementation. She will carry this out working with myself together with Jo Tacchi and Heather Horst at RMIT Melbourne. If we end up having things we feel are worth saying then it makes sense to be active in soliciting an audience. The gsmis.org website is a start towards that goal.

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.