A (Pre- ) Theory of Non-Usage

By Jolynna Sinanan, on 12 March 2015

Photo by Tom Jutte (Creative Commons)

Photo by Tom Jutte (Creative Commons)

Now that we are heavily into writing our individual books on social media, it’s the time to think about the original insights we have gained from our fieldwork in relation to wider themes and issues. This month, I want to deal with non-usage. Generally, Trinidadians are keen to be up to date; with fashion, pop culture and uses of new media. Trinidadians were very enthusiastic to embrace using the internet generally (see Miller and Slater, 2000) and similar to their use of Facebook, internet usage was more of a product of social norms and perceptions than it was a product that was exported from Silicon Valley.

I can appreciate that even the term ‘using the internet’ is outdated, I’m ‘using the internet’ throughout the whole process of writing and publishing this blog post but accessing the digital ether has become so normal and ubiquitous that we wouldn’t think of checking our email on our phone as ‘using the internet’.

I want to deal with an aspect of non-usage that I have called ‘digital resistance’. As resistance implies, there is a wilful refusal to something that is an imposed (or forced) expectation. There are two main reasons that drive digital resistance that came out of my fieldwork. The first is that people refuse to adopt technology for more social communication because their lives are already socially saturated, meaning that people already have too many face to face relationships (mostly family and extended family) that are demanding of people’s time. There are already enough expectations, obligations and negotiations digital resistors have in their lived social relationships that they don’t want to ‘keep up with the times’ or ‘get on board’. New communications media add yet more modes of conduct that they have to negotiate and strategise and learn for their relationships. They feel they become more mediated.

The second reason has a lot to with the first. For people who ‘opt out’ of using new media beyond a basic mobile phone for personal communications, social media not only represents an increase in mediation in already complicated relationships, but it also represents a lifestyle that directly or indirectly opposes their immediate way of life and values. There are gender, age and class dimensions that are intertwined with the values of people’s immediate way of life and why they would not want to be associated with using new media. For example, there were research participants who have the latest smart phones or keep up trends because they enjoy a lifestyle of having the newest fashionable things. The other side is that for people consider themselves as being more ‘traditional’, keeping up with technological trends and adopting social media means that their way of life, where they see face-to-face communication as more authentic, becomes less valued. Their social circles, for example, groups of mothers who are housewives, or farmers where all their friends are farmers, are made up of people with shared circumstances and values. These participants often frame not using social media as ‘not having the need’, but it is also that they don’t associate with groups who see social media as central to their social lives.

When we think about people who don’t use the internet regularly, or who don’t own smartphones, their reasons might not be so straightforward, or even easy or obvious for them to explain.

Mentoring across borders

By Shriram Venkatraman, on 13 October 2013

Blogpost Wordle

A social network consists of several kinds of networks, and a knowledge network is one of them. While knowledge sharing and/or information sharing happens both formally and informally on social networking sites, some of them have formal user groups and pages dedicated to sharing knowledge/information (all user generated). The users get introduced through the network and sometimes even develop relationships outside the online social networking site, which could be of various kinds, mentoring relationships being one of them. Social networking sites such as Facebook are not an exception to this. This becomes all the more interesting when a person from a small town in India gets in touch with a professional on the other side of the world and is provided with mentoring across borders, in other words transnational mentoring, all through Facebook.

Recently I met with an informant who benefited by this knowledge network on Facebook. This person is from a very humble background and worked very hard to graduate with a MBA, majoring in finance. His college is very close to the field site and this ensured that he never really moved out of this area until he joined a bank in their financial product sales team after graduating from his MBA. He seems to have become interested in the number crunching that finance as a subject offered him. He was quickly disillusioned with the job, as it involved more  smooth-talking rather than the number crunching that he had hoped for. Not giving up, he initially tried to advise his friends from the neighbourhood on their financial planning but didn’t find many enthusiastic takers for his suggestions.

Disappointed, he turned to the internet and chanced upon a Facebook group that had people from all over the world discussing and sharing knowledge on financial concepts. Enthused by this discovery, he carefully followed the discussion and was struck by the suggestions given by a particular discussant from Germany. My respondent started corresponding with this person and found that he was a senior financial analyst in a stock brokerage firm in Germany. Thus began a deep friendship that progressed from talking about debentures, futures, options and equity to career goals and aspirations. The analyst from Germany became a mentor to my respondent and inspired him enough to quit his job and set up his own stock brokerage firm. This firm was started with the blessings of the mentor who provided my respondent with the necessary knowledge support and a list of the required software. Where possible, he also provided the software itself for the start up. My respondent managed to procure the necessary funding and the rest of the software with some of the latter being sourced as pirated versions. The firm runs from his humble two bedroom home in the field site which he shares with his parents and two younger brothers. He claims that his life has become much better and he now has support (international knowledge and moral support) to follow his dreams.

I was particularly struck by the true globalization that took place through a social networking site!

Social networking and social relations

By Razvan Nicolescu, on 10 April 2013


Photo by Razvan Nicolescu

Epistemologically, this project is starting from the premise that ‘social networking’ is not something new. In the project proposal I suggested that the science of anthropology was founded on the belief that societies should be described as complex social networks, rather than as aggregations of individuals. In such social networks, individuals occupied different roles, which were put into evidence by the ethnographers in relation to their particular interests within the discipline, focus on kinship, economic relations, political organization, and so forth, as well as to the different paradigms they were actually working in.

At the same time, anthropology is a peculiar discipline when it attempts to understand the whole by a minutiae description of the particular, or of the partial. In other words, as Danny put it during our group discussions, anthropology often tends to become a partial aggregate of rather disparate detailed descriptions. Positivist methodologies or holism represented different kinds of ways in which anthropologists attempted to grasp the totality of a culture. They did so by employing a vast array of techniques, be they methodological, writing or interpretational.

This project aims at restoring this epistemological shortcoming. The eight simultaneous ethnographies in seven countries could formulate unique universal claims on the nature of social relations. The aim is not to recuperate terrain from other social sciences, such as sociology or geography, but rather to give an anthropological understanding to some of the common grounds on which anthropologists are working anyway.

The opportunity given by ‘social networking’ resides mainly in the fact that with the advent of digital technology, the human social networks tend to be encapsulated in something with true universal pretentions. At the same time, for the average user of online social networking, this does not necessarily correspond to any particular ideological or economic imposition. One may argue that these impositions could be obvious at other levels, such as at the level where the dominant Western world imposes its classificatory categories or tastes, but this research attempts to demonstrate whether this is actually true.

For example, whether new media technologies are created by egoistic entrepreneurs, or, by contrary, by idealistic activists, I suggest that they actually end up in being used by people in ways which are consistent with their respective social contexts. In particular, thinking about my fieldsite, I suspect there is a clear expectation from people in Italy who belong to a particular class and political ideology that they should behave in a particular way on a particular social networking site. The expectation does not stem necessarily from any imposition created by technology itself, or by its perpetrators. Rather, I suggest that new technology grants people freedom to work towards what they actually want to be. In my work, I suggested for a dialectical process in which, on the one hand, the individual, and, on the other hand, society, press people into particular kinds of persons. Throughout this process, technology seems to act as a sort of mirror (as Strathern suggested) in which people recognize themselves and the society they are part of. I am excited to explore these issues in the field.

Why Facebook but not Twitter

By Jolynna Sinanan, on 21 January 2013

by Daniel Miller and Jolynna Sinanan

Image courtesy of Beth Kanter, Creative Commons

During the time we have been conducting joint fieldwork in Trinidad, we have been developing through conversations an argument that perhaps Facebook is the revenge of most of the world against the internet. This builds on arguments in Tales From Facebook that suggested that so far, instead of being the latest iteration of the internet following the same trajectory, Facebook actually reverses several trends as it re-socialises peoples networking, for example, it brings back into visibility the nature of ‘community’, where instead of sharing a nostalgic view, it reminds us that community is close knit, everyone is visible to everybody else, and everybody knows about everybody else (2012). Indeed, the problem with most studies of networking today is that they confuse two forms of networking, one of which is largely instrumental and focused upon the more effective modes of transmitting and obtaining information in this ever more diverse and complex world. This for example, is a key imperative to ‘bridge and build social capital’, to create ‘knowledge and ‘information networks’ in many development programs, where social networks are viewed as an untapped resource for creating information networks, indeed, instrumental networks (Craig and Porter, 2006, Li, 2007). This was and remains the main imperative behind the internet itself. Rainie and Wellman and Castells for example, speculate and argue for the avocation of a knowledge based society, where people are the nodes for transferring information (2012, 1996). The other is the traditional networking of social relations that actually turns people from what are generally regarded as these significant advances, favoured by the field of development studies, and instead re-orients them to the trivial everyday stuff of our social banter and exchanges. In short, it helps bring them back to the sort of worlds traditionally studied by anthropologists, but which are just seen as a kind of barrier to breaking through to the educational and informational future of development. So, not only should informational networks and social networks not be confused, which is a constant problem of networking studies, but they are often in contradiction to each other.

In Tales from Facebook, the argument was that Trinidadians took to Facebook with alacrity because it finally allowed online activity to express traditional values that foregrounded social over informational content. Indeed, today, it is increasingly items such as political news or following latest styles that in Trinidad are being extracted from the wider internet and relocated within the more socialised environs of Facebook. But what then happens to Twitter, which superficially looks a bit like a social network such as Facebook but in another way, is its inverse? Twitter is among other things, a means to use social networks to effectively transmit and obtain information, which is why it is much closer to conventional journalism and older mass media. If that is the case, then what would Trinidad do with Twitter? The answer was not clear during out fieldwork in 2011-2012 since Twitter was new and Trinidadians will always adopt the latest thing (much of our current fieldwork is about WhatsApp). But by 2013 we have a clear answer. Trinidadians have almost entirely rejected Twitter. Our informants say they tried it for a while but then abandoned it. The story may be different for the more cosmopolitan population of the capital, but in our small town, Twitter is dead as a dodo. Yet Facebook continues to flourish and becomes ever more dominant. We believe that the reasons closely conform to the problems similar populations have with development projects. They resist attempts by top down initiatives that lead to more abstract, de-socialised agendas focused on efficiency and information. They use against these, the strength of contextualised social networking. Thus our initial statement, that perhaps Facebook is much of the world’s revenge again the internet.


Castells, Manuel, 1996, The Rise of the Network Society, The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture Vol. I. Blackwell, Oxford

Craig, David and Porter, Doug, 2006, Development Beyond Neoliberalism? Governance, Poverty Reduction and Political Economy, London, Routledge

Li, Tania Murray, 2007, The Will to Improve: Governmentality, Development and the Practice of Politics, Duke University Press, Durham and London

Miller, Daniel, 2012, Tales from Facebook, Polity, Cambridge

Rainie, Lee and Wellman, Barry, 2012, Networked: The New Social Operating System, MIT Press Cambridge, London