The secret world of the inbox
By Jolynna Sinanan, on 24 April 2013
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.