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Why Facebook but not Twitter

JolynnaSinanan21 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

JolynnaSinanan18 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

Reflection on fieldwork perks

JolynnaSinanan19 November 2012

Divali Diyas, photo by Jolynna Sinanan

And so I have left the rest of the team to start fieldwork after 8 weeks of debating, arguing, listening, learning and laughing. One of the joys of doing comparative work is that in the introductory phases of navigating the field, observing, counting and hanging around, I can still hear 8 people’s voices in my head (I suspect that this time next year it will be replaced by the 150 voices of my informants.)

One of the joys of doing ethnographic research on social networks is that you get invited to lots of social events. This week as in many other countries, Trinidad celebrated Divali – the Festival of Lights. As one of my colleagues on the project said a few weeks ago, ‘anthropology is the most romantic of disciplines’. That resonated with me this week, I was invited to a religious festival by a family, clean all week, cook all morning, eat lots of food, catch up and at sunset, light dozens of tiny diyas and scatter them around the garden.

Social events are also a wonderful source for conversations, everybody is in good spirits and wants to talk to you. It’s one of the situations where you are in a great position if you aren’t familiar with the significance of the event, you can get several interpretations and explanations in one setting. The more questions you ask, (clever or otherwise) the more people want to jump in and correct you or each other. Fieldwork in Trinidad at this time of year is littered with upcoming celebrations, we are now into pre-Christmas, Parang (‘indigenous’ Christmas music with a Spanish flavor) parties are snowballing, Soca songs for Carnival are beginning to be released, Mas Camps for making costumes and the pan yard for practicing steel drums are beginning to open. Not to mention the oodles of cooking and eating.

I am working, I swear.

This is not a user study

JolynnaSinanan24 October 2012

Photo: Frederick Dennstedt (Creative Commons)

Our project is about social networking. We all agree on that. It’s also about contributing to social sciences. We also agree on that. So far, every question we have discussed and asked ourselves along the way has come back to the conclusion ‘whatever we say has to be ethnographically informed.’ If it’s in our field site, we look at it, if it comes up as important to the context of our informants and their social worlds, we look at it.

Yet, when we have referred to social network sites or have discussed how we might look at different ones, we inevitably end up gearing our thoughts towards imagining how facebook might look and be used out there in the field. We insist that this is not a study of facebook and its users, it really isn’t. (A quarter of our project will be looking at QQ in China). So how can we do a project about social networks and SNS without making it just about usage?

What we have come up with so far, to keep with the anthropology equivalent of the Hippocratic oath to our fidelity to ethnography is this. We start with our SNS, facebook, or QQ, or Orkut or whatever the dominant site is in the field. When we start looking at its usage and start to identify trends or patterns, we then start to think about the wider sphere of the media of social relationships. Where does the SNS fit in with other sites? Where does it fit in with texting or emails or webcam for example? And then we widen our lens further to think about the totality of social relationships within that context. What is Trinidadian friendship or experiences of motherhood like? How are the expectations and the norms of these relationships similar or different to friendship or experiences of motherhood in Turkey or China or Brazil? And for that, we then need to consider all the possible things that might come up for us to better understand these relationships.

For example, this makes my first task of understanding friendship and teenage girls in my fieldsite in Trinidad very easy. If friends spend a lot of time bonding over their mutual love of Robert Pattinson, I read Twilight because Twilight will be my ‘in’ to be able to better understand friendships between teenage girls in small town Trinidad. The idea of looking at anything that may come up as important to better understand the totality of social relationships in our field site actually sounds quite fun. It also means we aren’t just looking at usage of facebook. Unfortunately, it also means that I might have to read Twilight.