UCL Social Networking Sites & Social Science Research Project
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    Visibility in the society pages of social media

    By Jolynna Sinanan, on 19 March 2014

    Photo by Jolynna Sinanan

    Photo by Jolynna Sinanan

    I have passed the 10 month point in fieldwork where I am perhaps getting a bit too comfortable with being in Trinidad. Like hundreds of thousands of Trinidadians this month, all my responsibilities and commitments have come second to the greatest show on earth: Carnival. Although Carnival is the height of the Trinidadian calendar year, it is experienced by Trinidadians is different ways. The parades of people you see on the streets in bikinis, beads and feathers (‘pretty mas’, or ‘pretty masquerade’) that resemble Brazilian Carnival, is a transformed version of Carnival that emerged in the 1980s as part of the state strategy to attract more tourism. It’s a strategy that has worked, thousands of tourists come each year paying up to £6000 to ‘play’ mas with the biggest and most popular groups, or as they’re locally known, bands. Prior to the 1980s, playing mas was a uniquely Trinidadian event that resembled the mix of the callalloo* nation. There were elements of theatre, Amerindian ritual and African dancing and drumbeats and costumes were embodiments of political commentary that mocked upper classes or foreign influences such as American seamen who were based in Trinidad in the Second World War. Many people tend to agree that mas had political potential and social commentary. But what of it today?

    February has been a rich month for fieldwork as everybody has an opinion on Carnival. Common discourse and normative values emphasise that contemporary Carnival is vulgar, it’s not really Trinidadian, all the wining (a dance where the main movement is gyrating the hips) and carrying on is indecent. A lot of women agree with this view, but it is undeniable that each year, hundreds of thousands of Trinidadian women play mas. I have been discussing this with Dr Dylan Kerrigan at the University of the West Indies, a fellow anthropologist who has expertise on gender, masculinities and Carnival. We agree that Carnival has retained fractions of its potential for political subversion, perhaps now, not along the lines of race and class, but along the lines of gender. Carnival is the month of the year when a woman of any background, age and race can be extremely scantily clad, dance with whoever she likes and you don’t hear a peep from male onlookers or spectators. Yet, purchasing the space for freedom has an explicit economic dimension, paying for the pre-Carnival parties (fetes) and to play mas with big bands with their own food, drinks, portable bathrooms and security is an investment for a fun (safe) time. The demarcation of expensive fetes and bands makes sure that people of certain levels of society remain in their respective groupings. The one big contradiction to the prestige of going to expensive fetes and playing with big bands is that at this time of year, banks give special loans just for Carnival. People save money over a year (or two) or take out loans to visibly occupy spaces they don’t the rest of the year. Which brings me back to the ongoing theme of visibility.

    I thought that if so much money is being spent on parties and costumes, surely this is the time of year Facebook would be inundated with selfies and mirror shots. Carnival is the pinnacle of the year to be seen by others. With the prestige of fetes and bands, comes with being photographed. Danny Miller is currently doing an in depth study of one such photography company that takes photos in fetes and uploads them to social media and their own website, reminiscent of the society pages in newspapers and magazines. Trinidad is a small society with few print magazine publications. The biggest and most expensive bands publish their own magazines after Carnival, displaying photos of masqueraders on Carnival Monday or Tuesday. Anybody who plays mas with these bands could be potentially snapped for the magazine. The photos I have seen on Facebook of masqueraders have mostly been tagged by others. The extreme few selfies have been ‘before going out’ shots. I saw many people with camera phones on the day, but there is an etiquette of visibility that photos of you are posted by others. What is the point of being the show and being the spectacle for your own gaze, otherwise?

    Contemporary society pages are now the pages of social media. Four major social photography companies regularly post photos of events they have photographed on Facebook and people can tag themselves. The brands of photographers and the brands of fetes and bands is another aspect of how Facebook is made Trinidadian, through emulating the society pages of print magazines.

    *Callalloo: a local dish made of mixed vegetables and cooked together, but also a local idiom for the mixed culture of Trinidad.

    The continuum of visibility

    By Jolynna Sinanan, on 17 February 2014

    Photo by Jolynna Sinanan

    Photo by Jolynna Sinanan

    If Facebook is a visual platform-one where people can show aspects of themselves through words in posts, or what was status updates or comments and in photos that they have taken themselves or photos taken of them in posts, uploads and albums, or share something made by someone else in memes, clips, audio and video-then we also have to think about how people engage with each other through visibility.

    Since returning to field work in Trinidad last week, I have been continuing working with Dr Gabrielle Hosein at the University of the West Indies on spectacular politics, work which started when I documented the hunger strike of Dr Wayne Kublalsingh last year.

    Now, we are thinking about how people engage with each other though the Facebook tools: Like, Comment, Post and Share. What can these things say about how social life plays out on Facebook? Trinidad is well versed and have a language for degrees of visibility. The most extreme, the spectacle, is played out for four days of the year, culminating on Carnival Tuesday. Playing Mas is about being the spectacle and being the show, ‘playing yourself’, externalising a true self that can’t be enacted the rest of the year, on the festival of disruption and inversion of the usual social order. The literature on Carnival speaks to how people come to exist through visibility, being seen and being in stage, whether or not one is being seen as themselves, or through a mask (Lovelace, 1979, Birth, 2008, Mason, 1998, Franco, 1998).

    As Carnival has specific understandings within Trinidadian culture, the cultural understanding of the usage of Facebook is less about Facebook, than an enactment of a cultural world that is Trinidad (Miller, 2011, Miller and Sinanan, 2014). So what can ‘likes’, ‘comments’, ‘posts’ and ‘shares’ tell us about the degrees of visibility? The first very important factor to note is the research that is informing this pre-theorising is based in a small town. El Mirador has all the ideals and frustrations of small town life. It’s a town that is considered to hold ‘traditional’ family and community values and most people know each other or at least know of each other and each other’s families. El Mirador can be too social, where everybody knows everybody’s business.

    We’re starting to ask people when and how they use ‘likes’, ‘comments’, ‘posts’ and ‘shares’ and we are finding there is a distinct correlation to ‘offline’ social life. ‘Like’ represents the benign sociality of the local idiom of ‘liming’, hanging around, gentle acknowledgement and visible presence, and the other end of the spectrum is ‘post’, which is really putting yourself out there, on show. The majority of posts are sharing of moods, what people are doing, where they have been, holidays, family events, parties etc, there is very little political comment or commentary. When asked when they would not engage with something someone has posted, that is when they ‘do nothing’, the majority respond around ‘TMI: too much information’- when people are too visible. ‘Sharing’ is directed to specific groups or individuals, there is less sharing on an individual’s wall, but more general sharing that would resonate with certain individuals or groups. ‘Commenting’ is more personal, it is one degree down from posting, people comment when they feel strongly about something: ‘if it affect me’.

    If usage of Facebook is embedded in existing social relations and spaces, it is worth unpacking the nuances of what ‘posts’, ‘comments’, ‘shares’ and ‘likes’ connote. The hazards of becoming too visible, even through online engagement on Facebook invites controversy and invites attacks on the self, whereas gentle acknowledgement, hanging around and being present is, in this context, more socially acceptable.

     

    References:

    Birth, Kevin, 2008, Bacchanalian Sentiments: Musical Experiences and Political Counterpoints in Trinidad, Durham and London: Duke University Press

    Franco, Pamela, 1998, ‘Dressing Up and Looking Good: Afro-Creole Female Maskers in Trinidad Carnival’, African Arts, Vol. 31, Iss. 2, pp. 62-67

    Lovelace, Earl (1979), The Dragon Can’t Dance, London: Longman

    Mason, Peter, 1998, Bacchanal! The Carnival Culture of Trinidad, London: Latin America Bureau (Research and Action) Ltd

    Miller, Daniel (2011) Tales From Facebook, Cambridge: Polity

    Miller, Daniel and Sinanan, Jolynna (2014) Webcam, Cambridge: Polity

     

     

    Digital public, publics, publicness

    By Jolynna Sinanan, on 5 December 2013

    todays yoof_davity dave

    (image, courtesy of davitydave, Creative Commons)

    Doing what is essentially two simultaneous ethnographies is no simple task (‘Simple’ as in ‘straightforward’, not ‘easy’. Conducting ethnography is generally not easy, but analysing the ‘online’ component can be mistaken for being easy. In the last two weeks, doing ethnography entailed sitting on Facebook for a few hours a day, staring at hundreds of posts and actually calling it work). Now that we have all done a considerable amount of fieldwork and have met quite a few people, we will all also be spending more time on Facebook (or QQ, or QZone) looking at streams of what people post. For us, debates and differentiation between ‘offline’ and ‘online’ are becoming increasingly irrelevant, as each area gives us more information and provides more insight and depth of understanding to the societies we are studying. Looking at posts on Facebook involves a mix of images, text, acknowledgements in the form of comments, tags and likes and sharing of content made and modified by others in links to other material, memes and videos. We aren’t just analysing images taken and posted by individuals, we are also analysing shared and mixed content. Just photos, for example, would be more straightforward: photos are inherently reflexive, they are taken by someone of something, and they are a way of pointing out, describing and judging, yet; the image-maker is also visibly absent from what they have captured.

    So who is all this content for? A general public, groups of publics, or certain individuals? A brief review of other studies on visual practices, photo-sharing and circulation included a study from 2011 by Lindtner et al. on how the sharing of digital media is not just about the exchange, but about social and cultural production, maintaining social ties and identity production. They interrogate the idea of ‘publics’ by drawing on the work of Warner (2001, 2002), which distinguishes between a single public and several publics. Media sharing is aimed towards specific publics, for example, when friends see what other friends have posted there is a sense that ‘this is aimed for me to see’, despite their actual relationship (if any) to the individual (Lindtner, 2011: 5.3). An individual could have several of their networks on Facebook and so each network or ‘digital public’ in this sense is also part of the individual’s impression management (in Goffman’s sense). Aspects of the individual that are being shown through what they post are for specific people in those networks to understand the reference and not others. Some posts I came across that exemplify this are status updates like ‘DON’T LIKE ME?? Have a seat with the rest of bitches waiting for me to give a F#@k’ and ‘I hate how after an argument I think about more clever shit I could of said’ and  ‘The most amazing things happen when you really slow down and look at all the wonders around you and you realize God truly does have a plan.’ A quick look at the likes and comments, especially by those informants I’ve met, says that these are distinct messages to people where close friends know the context.

    A discussion with the other researchers on the project leads us to think that aspects of managing publics will be common and others will be comparative. By looking at the content of shared images, posts and updates, we can start to gauge what MacDougall describes as ‘the range of culturally inflected relationships enmeshed and encoded in the visual’ (2005: 221). So there will be a lot of time procrastinating, I mean, working on Facebook in the months ahead.

     

    References

    Lindtner, Silvia, et al. “Towards a framework of publics: Re-encountering media sharing and its user.” ACM Transactions on Computer-Human Interaction (TOCHI) 18.2 (2011): 5.

    MacDougall, David. The corporeal image: Film, ethnography, and the senses. Princeton University Press, 2005

    Facebook as freedom

    By Jolynna Sinanan, on 13 October 2013

    Image courtesy of Creative Commons

    Image courtesy of Creative Commons

    We started this project by thinking about Facebook as an ‘in’ to understanding the social totality of people’s lives. Facebook may be the means, but relationships are the ends. One of the themes that has emerged from Trinidad is how people navigate relationships that are given, for example kinship, family and the community where one grew up in a small town where most people know each other and relationships that are made such as friendships through school, university, work and interest groups.

    In other blog posts, I have mentioned aspects of ‘Trinidadian’ uses of Facebook, to ‘fas’ or ‘maco’ (look into) other people’s business and existing through visibility is a major theme of Danny Miller’s Tales from Facebook. To take this further, Facebook could also tap into another Trinidadian theme, that of freedom. Within family relationships for example, bound by obligation and reciprocity, while people value being dutiful to their families, there may be an underlying resentment about being taken for granted.

    On Facebook, where one’s social circles collide and congregate in the same space, a person may be friends with most people they have known face-to -face for several years, but it may be the only space where they exist as an individual. My pre-theorising of this comes from two examples from El Mirador. Two ‘hubs’, or clusters of people that I have gotten to know are an Evangelical community church and a group of sales people from the international multi-level marketing company Amway. Both groups strongly emphasise belonging to a community, the church has its usual service on a Sunday morning and Amway business owners have monthly meetings and in the times in between, when the entire group doesn’t get together, members take to Facebook. People in both groups tag each other in events, and individuals post regularly in relation to the interests of the group. Church members post a Bible verse that they know is relevant to another member or one they feel speaks to their situation of the week or an inspirational quote or meme. Amway members post similarly, with motivational quotes of images that encourage their fellow members with their sales and businesses.

    A quick look at the timelines of some members of these groups and I can see they are no less active in the lives of their family and friends, multiple people post or comment, the individuals are tagged in non-church or non-Amway activities, but the difference is that the majority of post by the profile owner reflects their independent affiliations and interests, as if to assert “I may be all these different things to different people, but this is me.”

    Social media may be a huge source of entertainment or ways to pass the time for vast amounts of people in different contexts such as people on long commutes or shop sellers in the small stalls, but for people who have grown up in less populated places, where they are less anonymous, Facebook might be a ticket to individual freedom.

    Audience vs. Community in blogs and Facebook

    By Jolynna Sinanan, on 5 August 2013

    audience

    Image courtesy of GlowPlug, Creative Commons

    Having finished fieldwork for the time being has brought with it some time to reflect, read and think about what all this data will become once it grows up and leaves my head into the world. As part of this project, I have also had the chance to present some initial findings and have some discussion with other researchers at Tembusu College at the National University of Singapore. From this visit, I am now working on a short project on Singaporean lifestyle (or fashion, depending on how you characterise the genre) blogs, which has given me the opportunity to pre-theorise sociality and Facebook (often framed in terms around ‘community’, see Miller, 2011, Zhang, Jiang and Carroll, 2010) and sociality and blogs (often framed in terms of publics and audiences, see Myers, 2010, Dean, 2010, Papacharissi, 2007).

    As a social space, Facebook has remained far less elusive than blogs. Through the site’s idioms, “friends”, “timeline”, “sharing” and “liking”, there are inclusive connotations, which markes the user (profile owner) as the centre of their social universe. Groups can be categorised as “good friends”, “acquaintances” and networks separated into sub-categories, to give order to the open-plan space where people from separate domains of one’s life congregate (Postill and Pink, 2012). Normative anxieties around Facebook are often about which people are going to see what activities and privacy settings can be adjusted down to the access of individuals to certain posts and photos.

    In contrast, blogs are framed as very personally created entities, as diary entries, opinions, tips and trends floating around the World Wide Web aimlessly for anybody’s access (Papacharissi, 2007, Livingstone, 2008). Yet, some studies, and in particular those of teenage girls’ blogs, argue that being visibly public is more about creating safe and closed spaces akin to community and friendship than about a narcissistic desire to simply put oneself on display in front of others (Lövheim, 2011, Mazarella, 2005).

    I might note that most of the studies on blogs quoted are based on textual analyses of blogs as data from the US. From my short research trip to Singapore, I argue that lifestyle blogs lie somewhere in between sociality as community and as (public) audience. Lifestyle blogs indeed have a different emphasis than Facebook, the authors are ‘micro-celebrities’ who entertain as much as they inform. The authors we have looked at are women, which also presents an interesting intersection of aesthetics, consumption and citizenship.

    As I have suggested in previous posts, ‘political’ activity on Facebook falls into two categories: very political in the forms of activism and commentary and non-existent, where not even a “like” or a “share” is given to any post that could be read as political. Both visibility and invisibility of political activity on Facebook have implications for forms of citizenship in Trinidad. In the study of Singaporean blogs, we are seeing something very different, where again, ethnographic context is everything. Contemporary literature on Singapore describe a mix of values, for example, Singapore has a “unique combination of liberalised economic values, alongside elements of cultural traditionalism and authoritarian statehood” (Lewis, 2011: 22). Lifestyle has symbolic, spatial, economic, class and gender aspects and is also a form of expression of citizenship. As Professor Miller and I describe in the upcoming book Webcam, Trinidadians are self-conscious about their culture, especially in its presentation to the rest of the world. Similarly, in Singapore, the presentation of self is significant in a self-conscious culture (Clammer, 1994: 197*). The potential comparison of these ontologies across different platforms such as webcam, blogs and Facebook makes me wish I had another 8 years on this project.

    *Clammer discusses shopping in Japan, from our research in Singapore, we suggest a similar conclusion applies

    Bibliography:

    Clammer, John, 1994 ‘Chapter 10: Aesthetics of the Self: Shopping and Social Being in Contemporary Urban Japan’, in Shields, Rob (ed.) Lifestyle Shopping: The Subject of Consumption, New York: Routledge

    Dean, Jodi, 2010, Blog Theory, Cambridge: Polity

    Lewis, Tania, 2011, ‘Making Over Culture? Lifestyle Television and Contemporary Pedagogies of Selfhood in Singapore, Communication, Politics & Culture, 44: 1, pp 21-33

    Lövheim, Mia, 2011, ‘Young Women’s Blogs as Ethical Spaces’, Information, Communication & Society, 14: 3, pp 338-354

    Mazarella, Sharon R. (ed.) 2005, Girl Wide Web, Girls, the Internet and the Negotiation of Identity, New York: Peter Lang

    Miller, Daniel, 2011, Tales From Facebook, Cambridge: Polity

    Miller, Daniel and Sinanan, Jolynna, Webcam, Cambridge: Polity

    Myers, Greg, 2010, The Discourse of Blogs and Wikis, London and New York: Continuum International Publishing Group

    Papacharissi, Zizzi, 2007 ‘Chapter 2: Audiences as Media Producers: Content Analysis of 260 Blogs’, in Tremayne, Mark (ed.) Blogging, Citizenship and the Future of Media, New York and Abdingdon: Taylor and Francis

    Postill, John and Pink, Sarah, 2012, ‘Social Media Ethnography: The Digital Researcher in a Messy Web’, Media International Australia, 145, pp 86-93

    Zhang, Shaoke, Jiang, Hao and Carroll John M, 2010, ‘Social Identity in Facebook Community Life’, International Journal of Virtual Communities and Social Networking, 2: 4

    Connecting the dots

    By Jolynna Sinanan, on 26 June 2013

    IMGP0331a

    El Mirador has a small and unexpected population that I found to make up a significant part of my research. We all like our comforts away from home, and mine was the little Chinese restaurant on the corner of my street. I noticed that like other restaurants in the town, they specialise in food from Yunnan in the south of China. Throughout my fieldwork, I got to know the family, their 20-something year old daughter Lili in particular and found that similar to Xinyuan Wang’s field site, these transnational migrants also live in El Mirador as a destination, but it is not a place they live in.
    Lili’s uncle who own the restaurant, works all day and Skypes his family for a couple of hours in the evening. He then watches movies in his laptop or he invites other extended family to come over for a drink or to play some mah-jong. In quiet hours during the day, Lili Skypes her toddler son in Kunming, where she lives with Lili’s parents-in-law. It turns out that quite a few of their extended relatives also live in El Mirador, and they own restaurants similar to theirs.
    Lili happened to leave Trinidad just after me to return to Kunming to visit her family and she asked if I was going to be in China, I should also go and visit her. I spent nearly a week with Lili’s Chinese family Trinidad, who are the other ‘halves’ of her Chinese family in Trinidad. Without drawing a complicated kinship diagram, Lili’s family is one of about 10 families in Trinidad, from Port of Spain to El Mirador to San Fernando, that make up a transnational network of reciprocity, labour and restaurants that specialise in food from Yunnan. One family will migrate to Trinidad for a few years, either on a loan from another family, or they will work for another family when they arrive, or they will borrow materials to help set up their own business, send remittances to Kunming, then move back after 2 or 3 years and an uncle of cousin will come over and pick up where they left off. And the chain continues. Or, a family like Lili’s will migrate with the intention to stay permanently, or emigrate again to Canada or the US.

    Consistent with literature on transnational migration for labour, there is an enormous amount of pressure and sacrifice on both halves of the family on both sides of the world. This trip to Kunming was so Lili could visit her son, whom she hasn’t seen in a year and so she could bring him back to Trinidad to live with her and her husband. Lili ensured that the money she sends home is used well and her family make sure that business is going well and she and the other relatives are healthy and ‘happy’. Despite not knowing many Trinidadians, Lili is adjusting to life in Trinidad, she finds living there easier, and even though home is Kunming, she is increasingly feeling like it would be difficult for her to move back there. It has been ok that her son has been living without her while he was small, they Skype a lot and sends gifts, but now that he is starting to remember her and her absence is felt, she feels it is important that he migrate with her.

    Being around Lili, in her home and her workplace in Trinidad without her child, being shown his photos and videos on her iPhone and then visiting Lili, her parents, her in-laws, the friends she grew up with and seeing her with her son reminds me with no trace of arrogance, just how important this research is.

    The secret world of the inbox

    By Jolynna Sinanan, on 24 April 2013

    Photo courtesy of Harlan Harris, Creative Commons

    This is my last week in my field site until 2014. I’ve been hussling to spend as much time with as many people as I can in the last couple of weeks, I’ve been invited to a wedding, a ceremony of Hindu prayers (a puja), a political rally, a cd launch by a local band and a high school reunion on a cruise. Ethnographically, all great stuff. Some days, I’ve just been leaving my apartment with my worldly possessions tied in a gingham tablecloth attached to a stick and wandering around to see where the day goes and who I’ll end up talking to (metaphorically. I’m actually in the car, driving around and checking in on different informants to see if it’s convenient to hang around.) Last Friday was particularly rainy for a dry season day in El Mirador so I decided to try some virtual fieldwork on Facebook, a habit I’ll have to get into from next week when I leave Trinidad. I had a look at the timelines of around 20 friends- informants I know quite well and people I’d asked to complete a questionnaire and I saw something that gave me that heart-in-your-stomach-oh-my-God-I’ve-been-in-the-field-for-six-months-and-I’ve-got-it-all-wrong feeling. There was very little activity on most of those timelines for the last month, a friend added here and there, an occasional meme or tagged photo, an occasional status, but for the majority of those pages, there was a sharp decline in activity than when I arrived six months ago.

    Is this the start of the decline of Facebook in Trinidad? When I come back, will there be a new popular social networking site? It is those particular individuals? Is it just a quiet time of year? I caught up with a few of those people this week and asked them what their most common used feature of Facebook was this last month. Almost unanimously, it was the private message inbox and it was used almost every day.

    What it means to be visible in Trinidad is a key theme in understanding Trinidadian personhood. Trinidadians have a language for visibility, bacchanal: drama, scandal, commotion, gossip, fas: to point something out and make a big deal of it and maco: to get into other people’s business (usually unwanted attention). Cultural idioms of visibility are embedded in Carnival through the use of the stage, spectacle, performance as a transformation of the self. The nature of performance, staging and being seen are all things that Trinidadians understand well.

    The other side of controlling what is seen and how is controlling what is concealed and how. Razvan Nicolescu’s assertion in his project blog post from earlier this month, that “new technology grants people freedom to work towards what they actually want to be” is certainly resonant in Trinidad. People go through extraordinary efforts to amplify aspects of themselves they want to be seen and at the same time concealing others. And here, perhaps like in Italy, “the individual and the society press people into particular kinds of persons.” The ‘Trinidadian’ element is the constant negotiation of revealing and concealing, some of these informants were quite pleased that their timeline looked inactive and perhaps boring, as there was a lot of activity going on in Goffman’s backstage of the inbox (even some bacchanal) and nobody knew it was there.

    It is starting to look like my virtual fieldwork is going to take the form of sitting on my couch, in front of my tv, ice cream on the table and hanging around the Facebook inbox. Leaving the Caribbean for now suddenly doesn’t seem so disheartening.

    The ‘timeline’ as narrative?

    By Jolynna Sinanan, on 25 March 2013

    Image courtesy of Alec Couros, Flickr Creative Commons

    Image courtesy of Alec Couros, Flickr Creative Commons

    Last January, Facebook replaced the ‘wall’ and introduced the ‘timeline’, ‘a new kind of profile that lets you highlight the photos, posts and life events that help you tell your story… Timeline gives you an easy way to rediscover the things you shared, and collect your most important moments’ (McDonald, 2012). Over a year, on, I was sitting with one of my informants, Charlie, in front of her open Facebook page, enjoying a typical past time: macoing other people’s pages (maco: Trinidadian colloquial for looking into other people’s business. One of the most common things that has come up in conversation is that people don’t like it when others maco their profile, even though everybody is looking at everybody’s profiles and profiles of their friends. I actually regret not putting the question, “Do you maco other people’s profile on Facebook?” into our general questionnaire on SNS usage.) Charlie showed me one of her friends from work who recently had a baby. We scrolled through the page and she said “What was I doing last year when she when she got engaged, then got married, then was pregnant and then had this child? All that happened in a year?! Wow, Facebook.” Each life event that had taken place for her friend in the last year had been captured on screen, in pictures, statuses, albums and comments.

    The timeline is a curious thing. It’s not quite a blog, which has aspects of different categories of personal documents: they are ‘part life history, part diary, part letter, part guerilla journalism, part and “literature of fact” (Graham et al. 2010: 284). The timeline has elements of a blog, it can support a collection of different media, like text, photos and videos, but it’s not quite diary keeping, history or faction. Facebook clearly encourages the use of the timeline as a quick entry diary or scrapbook that becomes a collection of moments that reflect the important things in a person’s life, but after speaking with over 100 people now about how they use the timeline, the more common use is for sharing of memes, music videos, and ‘clippings’, links to other things that are made by other people.

    Are people constructing their narratives by speaking through the digital artifacts of other people? Are they even constructing narratives at all? What is somebody revealing about themselves by sharing Grumpy Cat memes? Am I taking Grumpy Cat too seriously?

    Having oodles of data in the form of timelines, I’ve been toying methodologically with how to tackle understanding the timeline while doing this ethnography. If the timeline is a form of narrative, perhaps a revisiting of narrative in ethnography might be a starting point. How do people talk about the timeline? What is it exactly to them? Krizek, for example privileges story telling in ethnographic methodologies and culture and communication, “with a specific focus on meanings and identities as revealed in personal narratives” (2003: 143). Krizek’s research interest is non-routine public events; social occasions, performance and enactment. To an extent, the timeline is an event, it appears, it passes, it can be recollected, here in digital form. Personal narratives are part of a larger context, in the case of the Facebook timeline, this is two-fold: the narrative of the timeline in the wider context of Facebook to the person, and the narrative of the individual (about Facebook or themselves) in the larger context of their lived experience. Krizek, quoting Rosenwald and Ochenberg (1992: 1) agrees that “Personal stories are not merely a way of telling someone (or oneself about one’s life; they are a means by which identities are fashioned” (2003: 142).

    These two levels, the narrative of the timeline in the context of facebook usage and the narrative of the person in the context of their lived experience seems worth investigating. It just feels a little too post-post-modern at the moment, though.

    References:

    Graham, Connor, Satchell, Christine and Rouncefield, Mark, (2010), ‘MoBlogs, Sharing Situations and Lived Life, Computer Supported Cooperative Work, Springer, pp 269-289

    Krizek, Robert L. (2003) ‘Chapter 12: Ethnography as the Excavation of Personal Narrative’, in Carr, Robin Patric, Expressions of Ethnography: Novel Approaches to Qualitative Methods, State University of New York Press, Albany

    McDonald, Paul, (2012) ‘Timeline: Now Available Worldwide’, http://ja-jp.facebook.com/blog/blog.php?post=10150408488962131, accessed March 24, 2013

    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.

    References

    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

    The face in Facebook

    By Jolynna Sinanan, on 18 December 2012

    Photo by Jolynna Sinanan, effects by Charlotte Mohammid

    After my first month of fieldwork in El Mirador, I had gotten into a comfortable pattern of hanging out in hubs around the town, chatting with people and keeping up to date with what’s going on in the news and what people were talking about.

    The big issue in Trinidad a couple weeks ago surrounded Dr Kublalsingh, a prominent academic at the University of the West Indies (UWI), well known environmental activist and the face of the Highway Re-Route Movement. Dr Kublalsingh and his supporters are opposed to the construction of a section of the highway that is proposed to link the southern towns of Debe and Mon Desir. The protest culminated when Dr Kublalsingh went on hunger strike for 21 days, he set himself up in front of the prime minister’s office in Port of Spain during business hours and continued until the government agreed to review the plans for that section of the highway and release the information informing their decision so far to the public.

    Back in El Mirador, I was hearing different opinions on whether Dr Kublalsingh was right or wrong, that the highway is good or bad, that what he and his supporters were doing was meaningful or pointless. I decided that if I was going to understand this better, my camera and I needed to spend some time in Port of Spain.

    My first day was Day 15 of Dr Kublalsingh’s hunger strike and the protest had taken a dramatic turning point. His health was deteriorating rapidly with grave implications for permanent organ damage and his family had become far more vocal with concerns that he should stop. On the other hand, Dr Kublalsingh had become very much a celebrity figure and charismatic leader as the face of the movement and for democratic expression in Trinidad. And most of this played out on Facebook. I uploaded my photos from the day and within hours, particular photos had been shared, liked and tagged amongst people I didn’t even know. I followed the movement until it ended, mostly photographing and following the effect of posting photos, which has now opened up a key question for me while I do this research: What does the face in Facebook mean in Trinidad?

    Trinidadian anthropologist Dylan Kerrigan reminds us that ‘in political anthropology, the hunger strike is seen as a front-of-stage social drama. It is a cultural performance for a broad audience. It is not just the hunger striker who is on stage. The authorities, politicians, media and general public all become performers in the drama too.’

    Here, a lot of the drama was portrayed, polarising and mobilising people online and in the media. More so, I would argue it was the images of Dr Kublalsingh, the toll the strike was taking on his body, the determination in his eyes, the effort that was captured in his media comments at the end of the working day that people responded to and cemented their views on what he was doing. The body was both viewed as “Look at how passionate this man is about his cause” as well as “Look at how crazy this man is and what he is doing to himself” and the same image could be used to reinforce both views.

    Dr Gabrielle Hosein at the Institute for Gender and Development Studies at UWI argues that Dr Kublalsingh’s hunger strike shows hunger for information, reflective of a country’s hunger for a responsible government, transparency and accountability.

    The circulation of images and in particular, an iconic image of a hungry body for a social and environmental movement is indeed a focal point on this very large political stage.

    References:

    Kerrigan, Dylan, ‘Political jiu-jitsu?’, The Trinidad Guardian Newspaper, 09.12.’12

    Hosein, Gabrielle, ‘A hunger strike in a hungry nation’, The Trinidad Guardian Newspaper, 28.11.’12