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Connecting the dots

Jolynna Sinanan26 June 2013

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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

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.

The ‘timeline’ as narrative?

Jolynna Sinanan25 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

Jolynna Sinanan21 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

Jolynna Sinanan18 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

Jolynna Sinanan19 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

Jolynna Sinanan24 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.