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The secret world of the inbox

Jolynna Sinanan24 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.

My WhatsApp field trip

Daniel Miller14 February 2013

Trinidadian woman using mobile phone at a carnival (Photo by Daniel Miller)

Trinidadian woman using mobile phone at a carnival (Photo by Daniel Miller)

One of the advantages of working in Trinidad is that somehow it always manages to feel ahead of the game when it comes to the adoption of new communications. It thereby gives us some ideas about where these will go but also how far this is likely to be a universal shift or something more specific to this island. My recent research trip to Trinidad seemed to be defined as the ‘What’s App’ trip. When I left England I had the feeling that WhatsApp was something that was about to happen, people were just hearing about it and wondering if it could be useful or important. Within a week in Trinidad it was obvious that there was a very different situation here. Most young people seemed to have WhatsApp, assumed that most others would have it, and treated it a though it had always been here as an established presence within polymedia. There is every likelihood that this will become an established global phenomenon, but as so often happens, I found myself entranced by the very specific ways it fitted neatly into a quite specific Trinidadian niche. But this is worth highlighting since this tension between comparative generalisation and local specificity will be at the heart of our next five years venture with our eight simultaneous and comparative ethnographies.

The local particularities pertains to the established position of Blackberry. BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) – the platform’s internal messaging system has dominated Trinidadian communications for quite some years. The forthcoming book on Webcam (written with Jolynna Sinanan) includes an analysis of BBM and why it works so well in Trinidad. Amongst the other key points is that with BBM you know a) if the person has read your message b) if they are on their phones, i.e. could have picked up the message and yet for some reason didn’t, or could have replied and didn’t. This means that you can infer something immediately about the nature of your relationship which has not been the case with, for example, with Facebook (until very recently). There are also opportunities for group discussion, and the nature of the quick-fire response suits certain kinds of banter and ‘sexting’.

For most Trinidadians, What App is simply an extension of BBM into non-Blackberry phones. Those with Blackberry assume their first choice of communication is BBM and then if their friend has another smartphone What App and sometimes Facebook messaging is mentioned as a third choice. BBM/Whats App have certain properties of social networking. They allow for constant status updates and various levels of groups or options to message all of one’s BBM contacts. But there is a further dimension. In my writing about Trinidad I discuss a tension between egalitarian transience which seems to fit BBM, and status-conscious transcendence. Trinidadians who can afford it are very interested in the status of iPhones and Samsung Galaxy. So a key attraction of WhatApp is that it resolves this tension. They can have a higher status phone while retaining the sociality represented by BBM and WhatsApp. Whether this is all about the special nature of sociality in Trinidad or a trait that merely reflects the speed of Trinidadian adoption is something that will have to wait until we see what is happening in all the other countries. The difference that this project makes is usually one just ends with that sort of question. In our case we will get an answer.

Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the fairest one of all? Social media as framed mirrors

Xin Yuan Wang2 February 2013

Photo by Sukanto Debnath (Creative Commons)

The other day, my previous informant X showed me her latest Facebook status update with a broad smile. The status looked like a quote out of nowhere, which confused me, and the only comment which came from her boyfriend made me even more confused. Even though I could understand each individual word; however the conversation between the post and the comment didn’t make any sense to me at all, there was a clear disconnect. Then X took 5 minutes to explain the whole story, which turned out to be the first time ‘Facebook official claim’ of their relationship which still remained a secret to most of their friends. I was amazed.

Why would people utter tender words of endearment to their lovers on Facebook which otherwise could be done by more private communicative channels? Why should people add confusing posts/comments, which can be only understood by a few intimate friends on Facebook to a huge number of other people? Many studies are concerned about the social media’s potential to destroy privacy, which I would definitely not disagree with. However, in other cases, it seems that those people who are fully aware of the context of social media, intentionally play around with the ‘transparent/private’ features of Facebook to express the most subtle emotions–is this just for fun?

Linguists have long noticed that the existence of ‘indexical signs’ the meaning of which highly depends on the context of social interaction. For example, smoke would be related with many things, but in certain spatio-temporal contexts smoke is an index of fire, however smoke does not ‘stand for’ the fire the way in which the word ‘fire’ refers to fire–here exists a causal rather than symbolic relationship, which ‘points back’ from the index to the referent (Boellstorff 2012:51). Similarly, the indexicality of those wordplays on Facebook, points back to the relationship itself. And the conversation acquires meanings from the ‘Facebook context’, rather than the ‘face value’ of the content. So why bother to post a ‘Facebook official claim’? Partly because the meaning of intimacy comes from the distinction, which suggests the uniqueness of the particular relationship exclusively against other aggregated public/private social relationships on Facebook – that is ‘among all the others, only we can understand what we are talking about’, which gives rise to the establishment of the relationship. In other words, that making things visible is, in itself, constituting relationship. To take this a stage further, Facebook to some extent has become a mirror to make a relationship visible–just like you can’t see yourself without a mirror.

The sociologist Goffman (1975) used the word ‘frame’ to explain how people’s behavior is cued by the frames which constitute the context of action. The Facebook ‘frame’ tells us how to interpret others’ behaviour as well as our own, but mostly, such framed activities are unconsciously embedded in the social expectations and understanding of what is or is not appropriate. The ‘public’ represented by Facebook is more often than not the people one knows privately (at least the anonymity of ‘real-name’ social media is limited compared to the other online communities), and there are consequences of addressing such a large body of social connections through ‘one-to-many’ texts or photos on Facebook rather than other personal communicative channels with particular individuals. Just as Miller argues “we have reached the point where Facebook may be regarded as providing a crucial medium of visibility and public witnessing” (2011:180). In such a frame, as long as people get used to the ‘public gaze’ or ‘participatory surveillance’, they start to develop a strategy to address the ‘public’. As X said “He knows only I know and others don’t know”, also in a way the invisible confused ‘public’ has contributed to the perception of the distinction which has added meaningful significance to their intimate relationship.

So, “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the fairest one of all?” does the fairy tale ring a bell when you look into the framed mirror of Facebook every day? The question why do people ask the mirror matters as much as the mirror’s answer in the eyes of digital anthropologists.

References

Goffman, E. 1975. Frame Analysis. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Miller, D. 2011. Tales from Facebook. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Boellstorff, T. 2012. “Rethinking Digital Anthropology”, in Heather A. Horst & Daniel Miller (eds.) 2012. Digital Anthropology. London: Berg.