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All in the pose

Jolynna Sinanan25 August 2014

Image courtesy of J.G.

Image courtesy of J.G.

Danny and I are in the midst of looking at hundreds of Facebook profiles and in his case, Twitter and Instagram feeds as well to start writing the first book to come out of the project so far, What They Post. The project has always intended to be an anthropology of social media, but as we presented at the Royal Anthropological Institute a couple of months ago, instead of studying social media, we can also see social media as an unprecedented opportunity to study the wider anthropological context.

This is the premise of the book we’re (or at least I’m) muddling through at the moment. By looking at visual posts on social media- photos and self-generated or collaborated images (memes etc.) we can see an alternate route to doing ethnography. We are comparing our two field sites, The Glades in the UK and El Mirador in Trinidad. We’re not comparing Trinidad to the UK, it would defeat the purpose to take the values and cosmology of one society as the bedrock to which all others are compared. In our study, the use of social media by the English looks just as ‘exotic’ as uses of social media in China, Turkey or India. By looking at what people post, we can demonstrate the contrast between Trinidadian and English posting as the best way of showing that posting is in many respects Trinidadian and English.

We have now looked at thousands of images posted on social media and are starting to work with about ten comparative themes. Some are directly taken from the content of images, such as counting how many times alcoholic drinks appear, either with people or images of drink alone. Others are bigger themes that have been more subject to academic study we have big question marks next to that will need deeper analysis, where an images says something about gender or class but we’re not sure what yet.

One of the themes that has stood out to us is the way that women pose in photos. Danny has noticed a pattern where women over the age of around 30, do not overtly pose. They may try to look pretty, attractive or feminine, but they don’t show their bodies in any particular way. Posing years seem to be for teenagers and young adults, but certainly not for adult women.

It is quite the opposite in Trinidad. Women of all ages post images of themselves on Facebook, they pose to the side, they show their behind, they may have a hand of their hip or a leg slightly turned out diagonally from the body, but they show themselves.

And this is where it is very important to not take the values of any one society as the cornerstone to compare others. We have all seen countless journalistic articles that feed into the anxieties we have with the introduction of any new media, usually from a psychological perspective. That social media encourages, or brings out latent narcissistic tendencies, that we are all obsessed with our own image and we are all become more exhibitionist, photographing and sharing everything that we do.

But when I ask women why they post photos of themselves, I get a number of responses like ‘I was in a good mood’, ‘I felt like it’, ‘I liked my make-up’ or ‘I liked how I looked that day’ followed by ‘and I wanted to remember it.’ Trinidad is a society where people strive to be seen and we can’t contextualise that desire in contexts of Western mediatisation or celebrity phenomenon. Because of its own history and experience of modernity, being seen is to be acknowledged that one exists as a person. Visibility has far more existentialist implications in Trinidad than simply wanting fame.

I would also argue that Trinidadian women are generally kinder to themselves and to each other about their bodies. You don’t have to have a certain look to post lots of selfies, young women aren’t ridiculed by their peers for posting selfies or posing in photos if they aren’t thin or pretty enough, they don’t need to look like celebrities to celebrate themselves. Trinidadian women generally have a healthier sense of body image than we have observed with their UK counterparts and it all comes across when we take a comparative look at the photos they post.

What is an anthropological global generalisaion?

Daniel Miller17 August 2014

Image courtesy of Lindsay Campbell, Creative Commons

Image courtesy of Lindsay Campbell, Creative Commons

Perhaps the biggest problem of our entire project is that every time anyone asks us a question we have nine different answers, which is not what the person asking the question wants to hear. As our project becomes better known we are all constantly asked for the ‘results’ of our study in the form of  ‘does social media do this?’ or ‘is Facebook having that impact?’ With very few exceptions people want and expect a simple and clear answer. But any answer we give that fitted such questions would be in effect an ‘anthropological global generalisation’ and it’s not clear what such a thing could be. As a recent blog post noted, Chinese social media are not even the same platforms and so can be constantly rendered peripheral by answers in the form of ‘Facebook does this – but not in China’.

We also recently posted a study of how the World Cup appeared on social media in all nine sites. We have no evidence that this was used as ‘news’ by others, although we felt the results were fascinating. We might publish an academic paper using this information but other people find it difficult to know what to do with nine different answers. Of course, for us the single most important academic result should be an insistence on acknowledging these differences. Not because it suits us as anthropologists but because it is the truth about social media. They are different in each site. But endless reiteration of this point reduces us to being never more than the critics of psychologists, economists and pundits generally. This is important and we now have a vast amount of evidence that they are wrong in pretty much everything they say, to the degree that they ignore such differences. But this isn’t the only thing we want to say. Furthermore it is empirically evident from our study that there are many ‘sort-of’ generalisations we could and should make. We too are interested to find out that some things are more generalisable than others, often unexpectedly so.

When we met for a month in May we attempted an initial solution to this problem. We sat together, proposed, argued and discussed our findings to see what generalisations we could come up with. In the end we tentatively suggested around 30. Since that time I have put many of them up on my own twitter account at @DannyAnth. As Tweets they are both succinct and wildly over generalised. But at least this forces us to confront the issue. What we discovered was that there might be a solution as long as we are prepared to make certain compromises and this might be worthwhile in order for our work to be actually taken up and used. Even for educational purposes people want something other than nine different answers. We felt it will be safe to make generalisations partly because there will be nine books with enough detail to show how there exists another finer level of detail available to anyone who wants a more honest account of our findings. Secondly we found a mode of expressing ourselves of the ‘Yes-But’ variety.

What transpired was that we had no generalisations at all that didn’t require caveats. Even if something seemed generally the case for most of us, there would be one site, often in Turkey or rural China where this was conspicuously not the case. So the compromise was to have a mode that linked each generalisation to its caveat, that is a footnote that could slightly expand on this point and take note of which places this generalisation did not hold in. In May these took the following form:-

5) Social media should not be viewed as a simple extension of prior uses of the Internet.

Footnote: For example, prior uses of the internet caused concerns about anonymity, while with social media concern has shifted more to privacy. Though with exceptions, for instance we find Facebook used to create anonymity in India and Turkey.

6) Social science has tended to see modern life as an inexorable movement from communal living to more individualism. Social media, by contrast, may lead to re-connections between people or entirely novel connections.

Footnote: In our South China site we find the more conventional movement largely from communal to more autonomous life through social media. The meaning of individualism also varies from site to site.

7) Our studies suggest that in some areas groups continue to be the key units of social media usage. For example the family in Italy and low income Brazil, the caste in India and the tribe in South-East Turkey. 

Footnote: For example, the acceptance of friending depends on groups beyond the individual. In China QQ organises friends lists and most people have one dedicated to the family. Trinidad and England seem to accord better with the notion of ego-centred networking. In Turkey we see both group control and also the creation of ego-centred networks through anonymous profiles.

Even here we have the additional problem that, of course, we didn’t study ‘Turkey’ or ‘England’ but just sites of around 25k in each case. To use national tags is itself problematic. But without them we once again fall into the trap of being ‘correct’ but useless to non-anthropologists. When we complete our fieldwork we will return to this issue. Whatever we do will require compromise all of which will lead us to be criticised, not least by other anthropologists. There will inevitably be different levels of dissemination from the full and detailed expression of our differences to the over generalised statements without which we will never transcend our anthropological audience. In practice even a book of 80k words feels like an overgeneralised account when you have done 15 months fieldwork.

We believe this exercise is important not only for our project but for the future of anthropology more generally. Help and suggestions, for example of good precedents in making anthropological global generalisations, would be very welcome.

Englishness, the World Cup and the Glades

Daniel Miller27 June 2014

Football fandom in the Glades, images by Daniel Miller

Football fandom in the Glades. Images by Daniel Miller

Viewing the world cup from the perspective of  a relatively homogeneous English site, The Glades, a dual village with a total population of 24,000, North of London, seems to bring out the ‘Englishness’ of this site compared to others around the globe.

At the time of writing England are already out of the World Cup, and most of the overheard conversation is about failure. England is ranked below the two teams, Italy and Uruguay, that beat them. Most experts felt they played quite well. So the results are pretty much in accordance with expectations. But this is not how things are seen here. Social bonding seems most effective when everyone agrees that England are ‘rubbish’. The humour on social media is typically self-deprecating, for example, a picture of the tour bus on sale with signs such as ‘only used twice’.

On social media we looked at all posting on 30 Instagram, 40 Twitter and 65 Facebook accounts during one week. This provided very clear support for my earlier claim that Facebook is no longer a peer to peer media for youth but has migrated to older people. Of the forty teenage Facebook profiles only one person used it for extensive football comment and this was because all his Twitter posts were set to also show on Facebook. Two others made a single relevant posting, one posted twice and that was it. World Cup references are more common for older users of Facebook with two people posting 11 times and one six times.

Instagram is only used to post ones own photos so the World Cup was not relevant. The core to young peoples posting today is Twitter. Of forty teenage sites, of those who posted during this week there were 5 males who posted frequent comments throughout the week. 11 males made just a few comments often around 3 to 5 while only 1 male made no comments at all. Of the females none posted extensively, half posted a few and half posted no world cup related tweets. Males tend to post either exclamations at events, general comments such as: ‘Why were Uruguay and Italy so poor against Costa Rica?’ Also popular is humour or critical remarks, such as:

‘I don’t get all the people that say England are good, we are shit, you just don’t want to admit it… when was the last time we won anything?’

‘Any coincidence that nations who sing their anthems with pride and feeling put in spirited performances, rather than our pathetic effort?’

Humour, as well as being self-deprecating, is often sarcastic, such as:

‘”BREAKING – Steven Gerrard to retire from international football after the World Cup” what a shame.’

Females add a gendered perspective, with posting such as: ‘why are all the Uruguay player’s shirts so so so tight? lol’, or cute pictures of the Brazilian player Oscar. If they comment on the football itself it may be apologetically such as ‘Uhh ohhhhh!! trust it to be Suarez (like i actually know what i’m talking about)’. Only those who comment extensively tend to mention games other than those played by England, or if they have connections such as family in Portugal and therefore support that team.

As well as self-deprecation the English qualities of modesty and reticence are much in evidence. There is relatively little public display. Across the two villages only 3 shops had extensive world cup influenced windows (see photos), 3 more had minimal and around 80 had none. Apart from an electrician, it was either the most traditional English butcher and pub or ethnic minority restaurants (Indian or Chinese) that had displays. There was only one example of commercial exploitation, a supermarket that had a selection called ‘tastes of the world cup’ with Brazilian watermelon Ivory Coast cocoa etc. Less than 1% of homes or cars displayed flags.

Going to pubs during the games when England were not playing one rarely saw more than 3 or 4 people that looked like they might have come especially to watch that game. During the England game one pub was crowded with 140 people another less than half that. The atmosphere was subdued. Apart from the collective shouting and celebration when the English goal was scored, there were no instances of people making remarks loud enough for anyone to hear other than their own companions.

THE WORLD CUP ON SOCIAL MEDIA WORLDWIDE
This article is part of a special series of blog posts profiling how social media is affecting how ordinary people from communities across the planet experience the 2014 World Cup.

Thinking of writing cultures

Razvan Nicolescu15 June 2014

Project team selfie (Photograph by Xinyuan)

Project team selfie (Photograph by Xinyuan)

This blog post will try to give just a short glimpse of what our collective work means and how we envisage doing it.

This May, the entire project team reunited in London. This came after roughly twelve months fieldwork for each of us. Imagine nine anthropologists (Elisabetta Costa, Nell Haynes, Tom McDonald, Daniel Miller, Razvan Nicolescu, Jolynna Sinanan, Juliano Spyer, Shriram Venkatraman, and Xinyuan Wang) sitting at the same table and each trying to talk in a way that would make sense for the rest of the team while also addressing very different individual issues and concerns. In a way, this task was very similar with one of the main underlying thoughts since the beginning of the project: how to make our ethnographies really comparable?

We started by structuring our individual presentations into themes and focused more on ‘what went wrong’ or ‘what we didn’t do’ rather than on the positive aspects of our fieldwork. We felt we needed this exercise, as on the one hand we identified common issues and workarounds and on the other hand the kind of feedback we each received was incredibly effective. This was also one occasion to realise how much we have done so far: tens of questionnaires, exploratory interviews, in-depth interviews, close work with local schools and in a few cases (Turkey, Trinidad, and India) with local Universities, gathering of specific quantitative and demographic data, and so on. Besides, each of us followed their individual research interest, updated on a monthly basis the research blog, and circulated inside the team a total of around 70,000 words in monthly reports.

Next, based on our continuous discussions we started to draw a list with the main preliminary insights of the project. We qualified as ‘insights’ the kind of information based on ethnographic evidence that, even if could be strongly relativized between all the nine sites, it is nevertheless essential in understanding the impact of social networking sites on our society. After a few rounds of refinement and clarifications we ended up with around thirty preliminary insights that we will begin to publish on this blog. The idea beyond this is that we recognize that the earlier we put our findings in the public domain and under critical scrutiny the more social science will benefit.

Then, we started to work on a list of tasks that we all have to do in the last three months of fieldwork. We ended up in defining 20 tasks, mostly qualitative, that respond to issues we overlooked so far or we decided collectively we have to have. Some of these are: we redrew parts of the in-depth interview grid, we defined a few common mechanisms to work on and to analyze the online material, and created a second short questionnaire to be done by the end of the fieldwork. Sometimes the endless debates on the various nuances and particular issues in each fieldsite had to be closed down by mechanisms such as democratic votes inside the project team: by voting, we collectively decided whether we will address that particular topic as a collective as part of the mandatory deliverables or it will remain to be further investigated by just some of us.

There are so many other things we worked on during this month and I do not have space to discuss here: gathering user generated content, producing short films on the main themes in each fieldsite, the course we’ll collectively teach at UCL/Anthropology in the second term of the next academic year, discussion on research ethics, methodologies, and data analysis, AAA conference this year, dissemination plan and our collective publications, as detailed here by Danny, the strategy for our online presence, and so on.

By the end of the month, when my colleagues also prepared their panel for the RAI conference on Anthropology and Photography, we all agreed that going through such an immense quantity of data and ideas, process, and plan our further common actions in a relatively short period of time was the real success.

 

The no make-up Selfie

Daniel Miller29 April 2014

Image courtesy of Send me adrift., Creative Commons

Image courtesy of Send me adrift., Creative Commons

My previous blog post was about the Selfie and our failure to acknowledge its varieties including the ‘uglie’ and the poignancy of a Selfie that proclaimed someone as cancer free. But in general the Selfie is something that has been largely restricted to younger people in my fieldsite. I now want to extend the previous blog to consider one more variety – the no make-up Selfie. Since this is something that had a very clear presence in my study. Most adult women who I have Facebook friended as part of this fieldwork have now put up a no make-up Selfie, even though most of them had never previously posted a Selfie of any kind.

Most of the journalistic attention has focused on several key elements. The first was the sheer level of success, with the UK raising 8 million pounds for cancer charities in around a week. The second was the participation of various celebrities. The third was a critique of this phenomenon. Perhaps one of the clearest critiques was by Jenni Murray. She pointed out that while no one can begrudge the successful raising of so much money for such a good cause, people who have been through cancer have grounds for seeing this as a kind of unfortunate pastiche/parody of the deterioration in their appearance that comes with cancer and especially with chemotherapy. In my hospice work I constantly see the massive impact of this loss of appearance on the desperate need to retain dignity during cancer. So the grounds for this critique are very clear.

This may not have been the intention of those who either began or participated in this genre, and most would probably be horrified to think that they have given offence. Though it is entirely possible that subliminally there was an association made and this was a kind of misdirected gesture of sympathy. However, when I turn to the evidence for the actual participation in this by ordinary people who appear on my research site, I would argue that the success of this campaign was only tangentially about cancer. I suspect it was in fact almost the direct opposite of what Jenni Murray concluded in her critique. Looking at these postings it seems clear that the no make-up Selfie was much more directed at the actual participants, and the excuse it gave them to do two contradictory things at the same time. One is that when a phenomenon becomes as huge as the Selfie and associated with the young, everyone wants to take part and post at least one Selfie, to feel included within the phenomenon. More a sense of inclusion than vanity per se. But at the same time most of these women constantly tell me in our discussions that they share pretty much exactly the same sentiment as Jenni Murray in their critique of young people as narcissistic and self-directed and see the Selfie as symptomatic of this decline in social values.

The no make-up Selfie was a way to both post a Selfie but at the same time be active in expressing a critique of Selfie culture. So far from individual vanity, the no make-up Selfie was highly socialised with each person nominated and then nominating others in turn. It was a direct repudiation of the aesthetics of the ideal Selfie in that it showed people at their worst. Unlike some celebrities most of the people on my site didn’t just decline to wear make-up. They clearly aimed for a kind of truth telling warts and all look that emphasised a view of their face that they would normally hide away. In short they used it to critique not just the Selfie but the much wider social pressure to appear glamorous and made-up for social consumption. Most contemporary English women share, at least in general terms, the feminist critique of these pressures to glamour, even if they routinely succumb to them. It was perhaps particularly important that this came out on Facebook, since it gave public voice to what these women inevitably say to me in private, which is that they want to use Facebook but somehow at the same time repudiate the vestige of shallow self-expression that Facebook became associated with as it emerged with youth. I don’t know if they will stick with Facebook but for Facebook to work for these older women they need to somehow cleanse it from these problematic associations of superficiality. By exploiting this charitable campaign they discovered a way in which they could collectively express their values and express their distaste with media such as Facebook and the Selfie which at the same time they are drawn to and want to employ. What they are looking for is not individualised self-expression but a return to more socialised and collective communication with family and friends that Facebook seemed to provide.

It is a generality of our anthropological observations, that most cultural trends that become this popular do so, not because they are the simple expression of some value, but because they help people deal with a contradiction in the values they perforce live with. The no make-up Selfie may be a typical example of that observation.

Know thy selfie

Daniel Miller1 April 2014

Image courtesy of ClaudsClaudio, Creative Commons

Image courtesy of ClaudsClaudio, Creative Commons

As noted by last week’s The Economist it seems that every new cultural development is assumed by both journalists and academics to be a sign of our growing superficiality and especially our narcissism. A primary use of Anthropology has been to bolster the idea that it is `other’ societies that represent authenticity and depth. I have lived in tribal and peasant societies and I do not accept that my fellow Londoners are either more superficial, or more narcissistic, or even that they are more concerned with the public appearance of the person, than would the case for most other societies studied by anthropologists. It is no surprise that the most recent `proof’ of this narcissism is held to be the Selfie, presumed to be a key moment in growing infatuation with our own appearance. But once again I think it is the interpretation of the Selfie, not the Selfie itself, that should be condemned as merely superficial. To equate the Selfie with narcissism is to imply that it is an idealised version of the self, directed at the self. This is surely mistaken.

The Selfie is clearly aimed at others, placed on social media as a form of communication. What is a Selfie without its `likes’? As a school pupil put it:- `But it’s sort of while you are having a conversation, you just send a picture of yourself.’ It is literally a `snap-chat’. More importantly the Selfie is subject to polymedia and cultural variation. With respect to polymedia, the `classic’ young, female, pouting, dressed to party, pose has become strongly associated with Instagram. But there is a whole other genre that is found on the much larger platforms of Snapchat and WhatsApp. For young people in England by far the most common form of Selfie is an image designed to make oneself look as ugly as possible. One common pose is with the camera taking the face from below the chin, right up the nostrils. It is predominantly the same young people who create the Selfie that create this `Uglie’. Many more Uglies are posted that Selfies, but most discussions entirely ignore the more prevalent image. Adults often create a similar dualism, but vicariously. Look at the endless postings of their babies, either highly idealised, or looking as ridiculous as possible. These are not individualistic, rather today they have become highly normative forms. The Uglie relates to English humour and self-deprecation rather than being a universal form and thereby reflect cultural specificity. The single term Selfie also fails to differentiate adult Selfies from teenage usage, the increasingly common group Selfie from the individual. It also ignores the difference between all of these and what might be termed the `meta-Selfie’ where the image is of a person taking a Selfie through the mirror. These are often taken simply because they are a more effective way of showing the whole outfit that an individual is wearing. But at least in the English context they can also become a visual comment, ironic or otherwise, on the taking of the Selfie.

There are even more reasons for taking Selfies than there are genres, and of course, a Selfie can be superficial. I don’t especially admit a tradition in cultural studies that enjoys taking something denigrated as superficial and then making some pretentious claim for its deep significance. But a recent encounter with a Selfie helped me appreciate that the Selfie certainly has that capacity for depth and profundity. This Selfie is the cover photo for the Facebook profile of someone I interviewed as part of my hospice research. One of the main reasons that people dying of cancer retreat into isolation is that they don’t want others to see the devastation to their own appearance that often comes with chemotherapy, if not from the cancer itself.

The physical disfigurement is itself debilitating. This forty-two year old even kept his girlfriend away during chemotherapy which had been particularly gruelling and destructive in his case. After the chemotherapy ended he began to put back on some weight. He once again started to look like himself. After six weeks he decided to take precisely that kind of Selfie that is posed in front of the mirror. The stance and facial expression are clearly assertive. As he makes clear he first had to acknowledge to himself that he could once again become a decent human being and only then could he communicate this to others. The distance between knowing something as an external fact and internalising it as an acknowledged truth is circumvented because this particular kind of Selfie can operate on both of these modalities simultaneously. Prior to the existence of this form of Selfie it is unlikely that there is anything he could have done that could so succinctly have communicated to others that he had acknowledged the change in himself to himself.

In this instance I found myself drawn back to the writings of Sartre whose work on existentialism directly equated issues of self-expression to the freedom to choose the nature and manner of our death. More generally the Selfie seems to fit arguments made by the sociologist Anthony Giddens about self-identity. It is not that we are more obsessed by our public appearance. Compared to say the characters in the world’s first novel from the 11th are almost relaxed. As argued in my and Jolynna’s recent book Webcam, what has perhaps changed is our self-consciousness about this concern with appearance, and therefore the need to not only cultivate our looks, but to simultaneously comment upon that act of cultivation, that suggests we know what we are doing. In England this is ideally done with irony and the Selfie only makes sense when we also include the Uglie in our analysis. But the Selfie can be also a serious and evidently in some cases literally a life-affirming use of a new visual genre that exploits it’s very specific form of self-revelation.

Facebook, death and memorialisation

Daniel Miller13 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.

Scholarship, integrity and going viral

Daniel Miller30 December 2013

For a professional academic the foundation of reputation must be scholarship and integrity. Academic studies are interpretations, and even what our informants tell us are their interpretations, and may not equate with the underlying reasons for their actions. Nevertheless, we can and should strive for our writing to be well informed, and authoritative as the basis for original insights. This commitment is at the heart of the Global Social Media Impact Study (www.gsmis.org) a team of nine anthropologists in eight countries each spending 15 months collecting data on the use and consequences of social media.

WHAT WAS THE DATA BEHIND MY BLOG POST?

As part of our project I have been working north of London in an area I call The Glades (not the real name), a site with a population of around 24,000 people. I have worked there full time since April looking explicitly at the use of social media. The first focus of my research was a hospice and terminally ill patients. The most recent has been with three schools, where I and a colleague have conducted interviews with forty pupils aged 16-18. But the findings I set out in my blog post (24/11/13) were not dependent on those interviews. The trends were emerging right from the start of fieldwork in April last year through the door-to-door interviews (over 150 different informants, each a minimum of forty minutes). I was conducting around the villages which included young people. Ethnography also means the countless informal encounters with people who live in the area. Of particular importance is direct observation and participation, so you know what people are doing and you don’t just rely on what they say they are doing. Many in the team don’t even interview, everything is direct observation and participation, for example, the analysis of informants’ postings.

If the schools agree, we may also conduct some questionnaires involving much larger numbers, perhaps several thousand. The best academic work in this field, such as that of Barry Wellman or Sonia Livingstone, combines qualitative and quantitative sources. But the post was based on the strength of qualitative rather than quantitative work. Asking the right questions in any future questionnaire depends upon this earlier research. At first, if you merely ask these school pupils why they hardly use Facebook today, they may talk about the functions of Twitter or even claim they care about privacy – because they may realize that this is what adults want them to say. A quantitative survey is often a bad aggregate of these superficial responses. By having long conversations with individuals, under conditions of anonymity, about actual postings and the effects these had on their class or on their families, you can dig deeper. On further discussion, they themselves make clear that these issues of privacy were not really their concern, and in the end they don’t think the newer media are more effective. But rather the key issue is that media used by older people is not a cool site for their own peer to peer interactions. My blog post on ‘The Fall of Facebook‘ was not so much about the decline of Facebook amongst schoolchildren as trying to understand what we can learn from this. Quantitative surveys are fine for simple questions such as ‘what phone do you have?’, but for a subtle issue, such as the motivation for shifting platforms, I believe our work should prove far more reliable than any survey, however extensive.

WHERE IS THE REPORT?

So far I have completed 9 out of 15 months fieldwork. Before I write any formal publications, however, I will be reviewing these results, again and again, and we will be continuing to interview young people and engage in participant observation until the end of our data collection in September 2014. I do have one report on an early applied aspect of my findings, though with a very different focus, which may be found here.

We hope eventually to produce at least ten books of data, an Open Access university course and perhaps teaching material for school children, all free and online. We hope this will be in multiple languages, so that people all around the world can be better informed. Rather than anecdotes about the political impact of Twitter or the effect on privacy of Facebook they will have access to sustained scholarship. They will also come to see how these things differ from region to region. But with data collection continuing until September 2014, we don’t expect to publish reports until 2016. This is why, given the interest in our topic, we keep a blog of interim findings and stories. We would prefer our final reports to go viral rather than our blog posts (there was no press release), but we now appreciate we have no control over this.

WAS THIS BIG NEWS?

Well not really, the very reputable Pew Research Centre in the US had published a report called ‘Teens Haven’t Abandoned Facebook (Yet)’ on 15/08/2013. So I was not the first to note these trends. However, while Pew found that in the US Facebook still takes the bulk of teens’ attention, I observed that in The Glades it was now relegated behind its rivals and used for family much more than for peer communication. That is why I could say with confidence that with respect to coolness Facebook is ‘dead and buried’ for these teens. But then their survey ended in Sept 2012. By 5/11/13 Pew had published ‘5 sites teens flock to instead of Facebook‘.

I don’t think anyone reading my original blog post would be misinformed. I don’t ever suggest that Facebook is doomed. I state clearly that Facebook is expanding in other field-sites and age groups and that these same teens retain Facebook for family purposes. My data overwhelmingly made the case for this loss of cool. The phrase ‘dead and buried’ unambiguously only refers to the way Facebook is never going to be cool again for this age group. If you saw the NBC report on my work, it implies that my findings also reflect trends in the US. Even the ‘opposing’ industry analyst could not deny this loss of cool. What he opposed was the idea that Facebook itself was dead and buried, something I have never ever suggested – though the same report implied that I had.

GOING VIRAL

What went viral was not the blog piece, but a version that was re-written by a journalist for an online academic magazine called The Conversation. The journalist gave me the opportunity to review her version, which I checked for factual errors. But, mea culpa, I realize now that I left in elements in her version that perhaps over-simplified the original. For example, my original post recognized that there was some time between a mother’s friending, and the move from Facebook to other media, while the new version implied an immediate effect. I should have corrected and qualified more precisely. I apologize for this and regret that I didn’t. But on the other hand, the journalist in question was only trying to do her job based on the journalistic claim (usually correct) that academic work will not gain popular attention because of the way it is written. Allowing your work to be ‘sexed-up’ seems to be a compromise academics will have to accept if they want to reach those audiences. So I didn’t want to challenge everything she had done. In the future I will be more pedantic about correcting such rewrites. Small shifts in meaning that came with the rewrite became accentuated in later less careful reportage by other journalists. Yet the substance was accurate, and I nowhere imply a demise for Facebook.

I am not of course happy when a subsequent journalist mistakenly claims that this trend was found in all eight countries, or when European funding is turned by some reports into the project being a study of Europe. Journalists have to work to demanding deadlines, but equally I was not responsible for these mistakes, which simply distort what I had said. I am sure there are journalists who have as much concern with integrity and keeping people properly informed as we do. We will want to work with those journalists in the future as a partnership, with anthropologists having the time for more sustained research, and journalists helping to rewrite for and disseminate to a wider public. Over time genuine positive collaborations are entirely possible and to be welcomed.

But what happened last week was not that. The reason the post went viral is likely to be due to a combination of factors. In some media, my post was used for more sensationalist purposes to claim that Facebook itself was doomed. This was ‘news’ at a Christmas period when journalists were short of news. Most important was the way items spread easily through the viral impact of digital media. Phrases such as ‘dead and buried’ shifted from a description of Facebook losing its cool for English schoolchildren, to the supposed fate of Facebook as a whole. I soon began to get emails from financial analysts, because in our world there are many people who couldn’t care a less about academic research but care hugely about share prices.

THE FUTURE

On reflection, I am relatively sanguine as to the results of this last week but I would much rather go viral with our actual published research results. What clearly should happen now I think is quite obvious. I really, really hope that some of the journalists or indeed readers of this news story will now go out and talk to some teenagers in depth about their use of new media. By its very nature as ethnography our work is highly parochial, based in one place. It would be extremely interesting to know if there are similar trends amongst school pupils in the North of England or in France.

Meanwhile, on return to London in February, I have another six months to continue this research, expanding on these findings but also exploring in much more detail why these trends develop and what we can learn from them. The eventual report will be hundreds of pages not just a quick blog post. We will never be able to fully control the spin that is put on our results, but the reason we do this work is to keep people informed and it is to be hoped that what happened last week will result in continued interest in the amazing work of the GSMIS team.

Finally, our field method is participant observation. So being a participant in ‘going viral’ is quite a useful experience. This response has of necessity been immediate, but I will reflect on it over the longer term and hopefully will learn some useful lessons about the nature of viral spread. Going viral just became part of what we study.

I apologize that I was unable to respond to most inquiries. I am currently in the Caribbean and visiting our field-sites in Trinidad and Chile, but if you have further questions about our research please contact me at d.miller@ucl.ac.uk, though I am not back in the UK until the end of January.

What will we learn from the fall of Facebook?

Daniel Miller24 November 2013

kids computer

Photo by Lucélia Ribeiro (Creative Commons)

The ‘Fall of Facebook’ seems an odd title given this is a social media platform that continues to expand worldwide. Yet there is no doubt that we can and should be commenting on its demise at least for some. This month my focus has been on the sixth formers, that is 16-18 year olds at schools in The Glades, our UK fieldsite. For this group Facebook is not just falling, it is basically dead, finished, kaput, over. It is about the least cool thing you could be associated with on the planet. It has been replaced by a combination of four media, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat and WhatsApp.

Looking back on my career as an academic I have rarely made predictions, partly because when I have, they have almost always turned out to be wrong. In the case of Facebook, however, even when everyone saw it as a university peer group thing, I predicted that Facebook was much more naturally a platform for older persons, not the young, a prediction that was repeated in Tales From Facebook. Just for a change I think this will prove correct, since most of the schoolchildren say they will remain on Facebook, but in essence as a mode of family interaction because their parents and even grandparents are starting to see it as almost an obligation to keep in touch through Facebook. So I don’t expect Facebook to necessarily disappear altogether. Rather it is finally finding its appropriate niche where it will remain. But I think it’s finished for the young in the UK and I suspect other countries will follow.

So what lessons should we learn from this?

  1. The development of new social media is not a story of increasing or better functionality replacing older or worse functionality. Actually most of the schoolkids I am interviewing are perfectly happy to admit that there were various ways in which Facebook works more effectively than things like Twitter or Instagram. As one boy put it ‘I don’t think Twitter is better, I think people just get bored looking at that blue sign.’ Most people feel Facebook is more integrated, better for photo albums, more effective for stalking people’s relationships, and in most respects worked more effectively than those platforms that replaced it. WhatApp is probably a better social messenger service, but then WhatsApp is as much a replacement for texting. The lesson therefore is that when something goes out of fashion, that factor may be more important than the reduction in functionality.
  2. Changes in social media do not reflect the attitudes that other people hoped would be the primary influence in determining such movements. As Facebook became a behemoth, like all media that grow in size, many adults started to hate it and see it as something that ‘represented’ global neo-liberal capitalism, or Americanization or some other of the usual objects of loathing. Even pre-Snowden, they saw it as a mode of global surveillance. They hoped people would leave Facebook because it was an over commercialised and over controlling platform, ideally moving to something more open source and less commercial. In fact, however, young people have replaced Facebook with Instagram, which is of course owned by – Facebook. In short while journalists and activists are highly concerned with issues such as media ownership, most young people couldn’t give a rat’s arse about such matters or who indeed who gets to see what data. It’s simply that it’s no longer cool to be there.
  3. All of which begs the question as to why Facebook lost its cool. Pretty much everyone remembers the shock of that moment when ‘my mother just asked to friend me on Facebook’, and that is probably the single major reason that it lost status. You just can’t be young and free while all the time Mum is watching you. The second reason is simply that there is a desire for the new which allows each new age grade of youth to find their own media, some, such as Snapchat may be short explosive fashions, that may not last, others more foundational, but it is enough that they are new. It is nothing new however that young people care about style and status in relation to their peers, which seems sufficient to explain change in this instance.
  4. This is also our best evidence for the way polymedia (Madianou and Miller 2012) corresponds to the earlier theoretical ideas within structural anthropology. The innovative insight of structural anthropology was that things are not entities; rather they exist through their relationship with that which they are not. Fast forward and we can see this idea transmuted into the ‘ecological’ model of modern media, in which each media is said to occupy a niche that is different from those occupied by the rival or complementary media.

It follows from this that a change in Facebook can arise, not from anything that happens within Facebook itself, but because of changes in the other media it is differentiated from. In my surveys at schools it is now Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp and Snapchat that connect pupils with other young people. Snapchat connects the closest friends, WhatsApp the quite close friends, Twitter the wider friends, while Instagram can include strangers. By contrast, Facebook has become the place where people interact with older people, especially parents and the wider family, or even older siblings who have gone to university. To prevent overgrazing, Facebook has to feed off somewhere else. It has thereby evolved into a very different animal – not that anyone seems to have noticed.

UPDATE
30 December 2013 – Daniel Miller posted a response to the widespread media coverage of this blog article.

Why we still need an Anthropology of Europe

Daniel Miller1 October 2013

(By Daniel Miller and Razvan Nicolescu)

Cake – Grano style

Cake – Grano style (Photo by Daniel Miller)

One of the advantages of visiting other field sites is exposure to the incredible contrasts between them. Although Italy and England are both part of the European Union there is almost nothing in common between our respective sites. Both Leeglade (our UK fieldsite) and Grano (our Italian fieldsite) are approximately 16,000 in population. But Leeglade is in every respect a village. There is just one small high street of basic shops. By contrast Grano is clearly a town with many different streets full of shops, probably hundreds of shops in total. There is no manufacturing in Leeglade, while artisanal work is common in Grano.

Most people in Grano live in extended families and own land. Indeed most people in Grano are self-sufficient in home grown olive oil. We have never met a landowner in Leeglade and almost everyone lives in nuclear families or on their own. Furthermore many people in Grano also own empty properties they envisage one day will be occupied by their children, this too is unknown in Leeglade.

Perhaps the biggest contrast is an economic activity and what the money is used for. The owners of most shops in Grano work in their own premises. Shops seem to exist more as places to establish the social position of the owner and an opportunity for them to socialise, rather than as a mechanism for the maximisation of profits. Indeed most things that go on here, including online activity, are really ways to facilitate offline social networking. Partly as a result most people’s incomes are considerably lower than those of the inhabitants of Leeglade. Although in Grano property prices are low, transport and food are cheap so one needs much less to live. By contrast, most of the clothing shops in Grano consist only of extremely expensive clothes, that one would have imagined as well beyond the means of the people who live there. In Leeglade property prices are very high and there are no clothing shops at all.

In Grano people will rarely spend money on a drink outside of the home, saving for items such as very expensive sunglasses and accessories. One reason is that in the summer especially the whole town socialises in the public squares. In Grano between 1 o’clock and 5 o’clock in the afternoon you can hear a pin drop. The shops are closed and no one is moving around the town. In Leeglade this is prime working time. In Grano people are very often invited to somebody else’s house for dinner. In Leeglade people spend a good deal on drinking and entertainment outside of the home, but it is very rare for them to have another person from the village invited to dinner inside the home.

Overall we would suggest that the degree of differences between the two sites are pretty much as they might have been a hundred or two hundred years ago. Some things were once in common but have disappeared. A 90 year-old in Leeglade recalls how, as a child, he saw men literally doff their cap when a carriage with local landowners passed by. The same might have been true in Grano. Today both sites are witnessing an increase in home-based IT work.  But in general a person from Grano would find almost everything about Leeglade astonishing and inexplicable. People in Leeglade would find Grano wonderful as a tourist destination but would have no idea how people live like that whole year. Though the view each has of the other has changed dramatically. Not so long ago people who were studying English were considered to be gaining an entry to a land of bowler hats and conformity, perhaps the most formal place in Europe. Today adverts in Grano for English classes portray England as the land of quirky individualism, the most informal place in Europe, in contrast to the strong social conformity of Grano.

One of the main reasons for insisting upon an ‘Anthropology of Europe’ is that when we experience these differences we also realise the importance of anthropology as a critique of other disciplines with their tendency to extrapolate into universals of human behaviour. The writings of economists and psychologists are likely to fit much more easily with the norms of Leeglade than of Grano, probably because so much of that academic writing takes place in places such as the UK and the US, amounting to a kind of academic imperialism of human norms. Indeed Razvan regards an important contribution of his work as a critique of assumptions in political economy.

We don’t want to make the same mistake in our understanding of social media. Having our nine sites means we are much less likely to privilege any one place as the basis for claims about cognitive or economic imperatives that pertain to overly abstract notions of ‘the Internet’ or even Facebook. Here we can see generalisations at the level of Europe are problematic, but as other blogposts have shown the differences between our two Chinese sites may be even more striking. Sometimes people think that anthropology is just being obtuse or ‘difficult’ because we eschew easy generalisation, and seem to be deliberately siting ourselves as flies in the academic ointments that are proffered to our understanding the world. But comparing our sites we would say quite the opposite. We do not choose to be difficult and relativist. We simply acknowledge the world as we know it to be, and refuse the dishonesty and blindness that wants to wish away these realities because they make academic life harder and make anthropology less popular than ‘science’. We will still strive for generality, theory and analysis, but we do not apologise for the fact that we are really going to struggle to achieve these things, because the integrity of our discipline says that this has to incorporate and not exile the diversity that simply is our contemporary world.