Online Seminar 1-12 November: Daniel Miller An Extreme Reading of Facebook

There is no doubt that the last five years have seen a quantum jump in how most people experience the internet. ‘Web 2.0’ features above all the spread of Social Networking Sites (SNS), of which the Open Anthropology Cooperative is one. Chief among them is Facebook. From the OAC’s beginning some of our snootier members complained about the ‘Facebooky feel’ of our Ning platform, the cheesy way of making ‘friends’, the superficial flashiness of it all. And yet it is not outlandish to suppose that we may be witnessing a fundamental change in the way many of us experience living in the world.

Daniel Miller’s paper, ‘An extreme reading of Facebook’ (available here), is not just an opportunity to engage with his ideas, but also to reflect on ourselves and the means we have found for coming together in this place. His is as close to a universal topic as we will come across, since, whatever we may feel about it (and I have had my moments of disenchantment), who does not know Facebook from the inside?

Danny has dedicated his life – and getting on for thirty books – to developing the anthropological study of material culture, the things people have made, and increasingly the virtual society in which they circulate. He has summed up his project in the first of two volumes, Stuff (2010), reviewed at the OAC Press. Join a discussion of the book and review in the Group, OAC Book Reviews.

His method and style are humanist, putting the emphasis on what people think and do as revealed by ethnographic practice and presenting his arguments with as little jargon as possible. He makes three bold propositions about Facebook:

1. It turns upside down the assumptions on which modern social science was founded.
2. It performs a function as an unseen witness similar to that of God.
3. As a cultural system it shares some of the fundamental features of Kula.

Daniel Miller invites the attacks of entrenched academicians; he may or may not be pushing at an open door with us. I want to invite the widest possible participation in our discussions. Please do not assume that there are invisible barriers to joining in, hidden protocols designed to dissuade outsiders. We encourage detailed analysis of Danny’s arguments, but also invite personal testimony, anecdotes and reflections that need not be so closely related to them. The aim is to advance a conversation about what anthropology is and might be, but don’t get twisted in knots over whether your contribution is anthropological or academic enough. We have a large membership from University College London where Daniel Miller is Professor of Material Culture in the Anthropology Department. I hope this will be a stimulus rather than an obstacle to their online participation.

The seminar will last from 1st to 12th November. This gives everyone a chance to reflect and read, maybe even a chance to do some limited fieldwork on Facebook or here at the OAC! We are developing a new medium of social interaction here. You can help shape what it becomes.

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First, a general question about method, Danny. You focus on exotic fieldwork as modern anthropology’s chief methodological standby, reflected in your own decision to find out how Trinidadians use Facebook. These findings are to be supplemented by comparison, not least with the ethnographer’s own life, and by investigation of more familiar settings. Please elaborate on this. What other methods might the anthropological study of Facebook require?

One question/comment on each of your three main propositions:

Do the sociological premises of the SNS spell the end of the twentieth century’s experiment in social science, offering a new opening for the humanities? What are the consequences for how we think about anthropology’s future?

Alienation manifests itself a yawning gap between a puny sense of self and a world out there so vast as to be beyond our ability to influence. The gap can only be reduced by scaling up the self and scaling down the world so that a meaningful connection may be made between them. Traditionally, one way of doing this was praying to God. Works of fiction (novels, plays and movies) offer a similar bridge for the imagination. What are the specific properties of Facebook in this regard?

It is a brilliant ploy to link Facebook to Kula, a classical move that anyone with even a superficial interest in anthropology should be able to make. Marcel Mauss saw in the Kula a mechanism for the extension of society that he likened to markets using money. This led him to reject Malinowski’s claim that gift-exchange was opposed to markets. Where do you stand on that issue?

These are just some of the questions that were stimulated by reading your brave paper. Please feel free to address only a part of them, now or later, or none at all. Perhaps members of our audience will want to come back to them. Or I will.
I would start by saying thanks to Keith for the invitation, it is a pleasure to participate in online forums such as this and medianthro given the way they can facilitate informal discussion on a global scale. Also to say I am `here’ in the cyberspace sense that whether off giving talks or on trains one can still occasionally check in on-line.

So a brief response to Keith’s points. I agree there is an implication here that for people who once thought of scaling up in terms of God, today the analogous secular equivalent is scaling up to a multiple or aggregate of the self. So a few hundred people stand more comfortably for a huge and unemcompassable world. Equally sometimes when we emphasis the opposition between money and the gift we forget the process by which money too is a huge `scaling up’ of exchange, making all sorts of forms of exchange possible that could not have been without this degree of abstraction. One of the principle properties of Facebook/Kula is the creation of an infrastructure whereby exchange can migrate from the merely dyadic and immediate to the `social’. So where money has been seen as in some ways anti-social, this is a form of `money’-like expansion that remains intrinsically social. The conclusion would be that Facebook is a really rather good (in the sense of more benign rather than more efficient) form of money/market that expands exchange but simultaneously expands sociality.

While I suggest Facebook flies in the face of certain core assumptions in social science, this confrontation is not thereby a dismissal of social science but rather something that can strengthen social science by making it less presumptuous and more in tune with the world we actually live in. In any case I am not sure the situation would be that different for the humanities which have their own romanticism and presumptions, especially with regard to the topics discussed in my paper.

My work is centred on Trinidad as a classic anthropological trope that insists that any place in the world has equal right to be considered the exemplary centre, thereby making places such as the UK or the US the `exotic’. Because much of the research is based on observations of ones informants as they appear on one’s own Facebook site, it seems right to acknowledge ones presence, but this should never become so self-focused that others seem reduced to a mere foil to discussion of oneself. This has to remain a study of others, Trinidadians, which is one of the reasons that research within Facebook is best complemented by research offline. This is also reflected in the choice of topic, which was an acknowledgement on my last visit to Trinidad that people I already knew were devoting hours a day to Facebook and thereby giving the lead as to where I should follow if my gaze was to remain respectful of theirs.
I find your paper interesting, Daniel, although some generalized parts were difficult to read. Coming from the outside of the conventions of social science, I cannot force myself to begin from the idea that a cohesive community (communality/sm) will evolve or disintegrate into alienated individuals (individuality/sm) as the premise and direction of social science.
The premise and direction of social science I see is the evolution of communities into a metacommunity. Politics is within the ambit of social science. I don’t see new revolutionaries coming out with their narratives of struggle and alienation a la Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King. What is happening is the movement of communities. Acorn and Tea Party are good examples. Black communities all over America organize as one. The conservative communities of Idaho join hands with the conservative communities of Iowa and of Utah to form a conservative metacommunity. I do not see individuality/sm in both networks.
I see the same pattern in economics and psychology. In developing countries, communities form NGO’s and belong to a national and even to an international organization of NGO’s all for community development and economic changes for the better. Even mental illness is becoming a concern of communities. Homeless schizophrenics in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York are treated as individuals belonging to drug addicted communities in America. Schizophrenia is becoming a community disease. I just do not see communality evolving to individuality happening in my lifetime. Maybe after exhausting the idea of metacommunity, individuals will begin simplifying lives and downsizing their social roles by going primitive and individualistic, but that is only a maybe.
Before I go into your three propositions, I need a clear definition of network or networking. Is the connection that exists in a network purely structural (interweb of nodes) or relational (interrelationship of nodes). Kinship, for instance, at least in my culture exists as a structure or genealogical design to primarily prevent incest. Knowing that the son of my father’s first cousin is my second cousin and that we are forbidden by our culture, community, and elders to have an intimate relationship is the only thing I have to consider when it comes to kinship. I have no personal relationships to most of my relatives. When I have a problem, I cannot go to my father’s cousin for help. I have no idea how my second cousin lives his life. I am more close to my ninong (godfather), who is not a relative, since in our community and culture, he is my second father. I am also close to his children who are my igso (ritual siblings).
So, Castells’ definition of network being “a set of interconnected nodes” is not really what I see in kinship and on facebook. On Facebook, my friend’s friend in Pakistan is not my friend. Where is the interconnection there? Yes, in the structure of the network on Facebook, interconnecting lines can be drawn among us three, but a meaningful relationship among us does not follow.
Castells went further by saying “a network has no center, just nodes.” The nodes he was talking about are actually centers. A network, as I see it, is a set of centers. In kinship, the oldest patriarch (great-grandfather, grandfather, or father) in a patriarchal society is the node or center of his family clan. My grandfather’s brother is another node or center of his family clan who has a connection with my grandfather.
I forgot the name of the social network theorist who compared a social network to a computer system. I think his analogy makes sense. A computer system is a set of subsets. Each subset has a center. I do not think the shift key has a direct connection with the power key or with the memory.
Hi, I think I concur with much of what you say here. Firstly this issue with social science has very little to do with anything we might call actual communities. Actually human sociality as studied by anthropology varies hugely from kinship groups that work in their own terms, to groups with something in common who might term themselves community but never meet. So the first part of my paper is not aimed at the world of sociality but the presumption of social science theory, that often seemed to both presuppose but also privilege a particular rather romantic image of community. Again my essay respects the idea that people have their own use of the word community which may not correspond to any of this. Alana is one example, and I use this village based case because it is closer to the social science model, but the ones you quote are quite happy calling themselves community even if they have nothing much in common. The semantics of the word community is endless and not very rewarding. So the interesting question is not whether Facebook is a community, I am trying to use this essay to get rid of that and then move on to the more important question of what form of sociality is it?

But just as I don’t much believe in community I also don’t at all accept the other side of this equation which is individualism. I agree with you I simply can’t see the world as Castells presents it with individuals and nodes. In The Comfort of Things I argue that to be a mere individual is usually regarded as a failure, leading to loneliness and isolation. Most people crave close social relationships, and that is what Facebook speaks to. I also agree that we can and should remain with the discussion of kinship which for most people remains salient in their lives, as do friendships. So I don’t think we need to define either community nor networks, rather we need to treat Facebook as we treated kinship, through an ethnographic orientation to the study of the way people in practice connect with and make categories of each other.
Thanks for the comments
Danny
Most people crave close social relationships, and that is what Facebook speaks to.

I am reminded, however, of a bit of folklore I grew up with in Virginia: "The Devil gives you your family. You get to pick your friends." When I look at my own usage of Facebook, I do, indeed, see several connections renewed with family members and old friends who had, without Facebook, slipped off my radar. I note, however, that they are only a small subset of the possible relationships that might be activated. I have, if I stop to count them up, thirty-plus first cousins. Several are on my "Friends" list because my dad's younger sister, one of two survivors in their generation, just celebrated her 80th birthday. I got invited to the party and thus got befriended as part of the arrangements. Didn't go to the party; it's a bit far from Japan to the state of Georgia in the USA. Did send some flowers. But with that particular flurry of activity over, there is only one cousin who continues to interact a bit, a former law school librarian who now makes her home in Cairo. The rest are back in fading mode.

The only other case I know at all well is that of my daughter, for whom Facebook seems to function as a way of maintaining a series of networks: sets of people with whom she was already close from her high school, university, and now graduate school classes. But these, too, are highly selective.The networks are composed of people who became friends at a particular moment in their lives, who came of age as the Internet was taking off, and use it regularly to stay in touch in a way that her mother and I never did with our classmates in the day of post and telephone.

Neither of us is stuck with a particular bunch of people because we happen to live in geographical proximity to them and share interests opposed to similar groups.
Daniel, thanks for your thought-provoking paper and for embracing our ethos here by advancing these new and relatively extreme propositions.

I want to stay with the idea of community for the time being and offer some fodder for comparison. From 2007-9, I conducted fieldwork on Internet use in a small town in northern Catalonia. Facebook was rather sparse on the ground there when I arrived, but became more relevant towards the end of my research and I focus on several case studies of Facebook usage patterns in my PhD thesis (Urban Firewalls: place, space and new technologies in Figueres, Catalonia). I am planning to share much of this elsewhere on this site in the near future, so what follows is merely cursory.

In particular, I’d like to address the contention that Facebook (or Facebook-related behavior) may be responsible for a resurrection of classical ideas of community; or at least, that Facebook may be bundled up with a resurrection of “community” via it and other mediated channels that offer enhanced networking capabilities. I share your and Postill’s (p.4) assessment that care must be used by analysts when referring to the slippery concept of “community” and the related semantic nightmare, so I appreciate your trying to move beyond it. You use Alana as a localized example of what community can mean, and I think this is where we can continue to find importance in the concept.

In Catalonia, I found a great deal of discussion about community and, especially, a perceived lack of “community” sentiment among residents in the city of Figueres. The main cause, people argued, was recent immigration (an increase from 7 to 27% of the population made up of foreign migrants in less than 8 years) and a concurrent decline in public sociality, which they linked together alongside a general feeling of fragmentation and disengagement. This fear over a potential or ongoing loss of community by the majority Catalan population was in some ways greater than the evidence to support it, but in other ways, it simply fulfilled its own prophecy.

In connection with this, people often used Facebook and other web forums as a platform to argue that something needed to be done to fix the situation; to bring community back to the city. In my thesis, I address how attempts were made to mobilize Facebook members to these ends via various forms of local activism that traversed online and offline channels. More significant in my view is that in discussing local community on/via Facebook, city residents were literally confirming, debating and re-writing what it means to have community and how to resurrect it.

Of course, young people depicted small town life there as oppressive and old-fashioned (not unlike Alana), whereas older people saw it losing integrity and values. This is nothing new anywhere. But both young and old(er) participants online and younger and older residents in the city were all saying virtually the same thing about this lack of community. Facebook turned out to be an ideal platform for people to talk about these things and to maintain ties with others with whom they already shared a sense of closeness (family and friends).

Meanwhile, only a tiny minority of the city as a whole actually had Facebook accounts, but parallel and identical conversations about community were taking place in my offline interviews, on the street and in offices and schools and pubs. This has led me instead to the conclusion that Facebook is not so extreme as to be likened to a deity or a model for culture itself; rather Facebook is another (contiguous) place. Sometimes it’s a town hall meeting, sometimes it’s a party, or a political rally, or an after-school hangout, etc. So can Facebook resurrect community? Its potential to do so is contingent upon localized understandings not only of what community is, but how to achieve it, and who gets included/excluded. Viewed from specific places, Facebook can only be one part of the story.
Thanks to the two recent postings. It seems to me that we may be achieving some kind of consensus about how to deal with the the concept of community as anthropologists.We start with agreement that community is not a description of degrees of sociality, but increasingly important as an explicit discourse about an ideal of sociality. Though it will always be the case that this ideal, and arguments about this ideal will have impacts upon how we socialise and how we comment upon and judge ours and others sociality, That Facebook can play a role in many ways. In Francine's example as a place of debate about the loss of community that then may or may not come to regarded as thereby a form of community, or as in my case something that is seen to complement offline forms of sociality. But we also appreciate that a)Facebook can only be part of this discussion with respect to community and b) discussions of community only pertain to part of what Facebook is.
Thanks again
Danny
Thanks for your response, Daniel.

I like your idea that Facebook should be treated how we treat kinship. Kinship is operationalized in different ways on Facebook. If a family clan or a patriarch can disinherit one of its/his members, on Facebook a group or an individual can “unfriend” someone. There are also real-life cases where kinship is extended through ritual, belief, experience, interest, ideology, etc. I see the same extension of virtual relationships on Facebook. Individuals who come from the same university or those who speak the same language form bonds on Facebook.

I was not lonely, nor did I feel alienated when I opened my account on Facebook. I just wanted to save money for my phone bills. Initially, I used Facebook to help the current mayor of our town win his election and to organize youth and women in the same town into cooperatives. Later, my friends and relatives started adding me. I did not expect that I would be reconnected with the communities I was once a member. Facebook, it seems to me, is a continuation of one’s communities in the past and a parallel of one’s present community. It defies concepts of time and space as we know them. I can chat with my friends who are poets in Cambridge and Boston, experimental artists in Venice Beach, Marxist activists in Manila, and labor advocates in our town in the Philippines all in one seating. I cannot do the same in real life with real space and real time. Facebook does not only complement offline communities, it also creates and recreates communities.

I did not quite get your point when you considered Facebook as a medium for developing a relationship with God. I cannot totally equate the case of Facebook to that of the coke bottle of the bushmen in “The Gods must be crazy.” Although the functions and effects of both Facebook and the bottle are almost the same, both are graces and curses at the same time, it is an over-stretch to insert God in the case of Facebook. We know the history of Facebook and the story of Zuckerman and his friends at Harvard who started it all. The bushmen in the film did not know the provenance of the bottle. The film somehow was ethnographically correct by depicting what is normal in a belief system, anything unexplainable is within the realm of gods or spirits.

I do, however, see Facebook as a parallel universe. As a virtual communication, it is equivalent to the cosmological beliefs of some animist groups and communities, but only done through electronic artifacts and human to human interaction. Filipinos, for example, have a practice of “pasintabi,” a friendly gesture to spirits to avoid curse and disfavor. They alert the unseen entities and excuse themselves when they pass by an old tree or step on a strange rock. They say “tabi-tabi po” or “please excuse me,” so they will not anger the spirits of the tree and of the rock. Catholics, too, have a litany of prayers to every saint. The more saints they pray to or have as icons on their altars, the more graces they get. Facebook has those kinds of appeasement and paranoia of being rejected and disfavored. I have many relatives and friends who sulked and stopped talking to me because I did not add them.

Yes, Facebook exhibits the same features observable in Kula exchange. Participating in a group on Facebook, like in Kula, is not automatic. When someone adds me, I check first the content of his or her page. I tend to ignore pages that are filled with pornographic images, cultist expressions, and extreme political rants. In a way, I only accept who and what are acceptable to me. One’s quantity and quality of friends also adds to the social or virtual status of a Facebook member. Members also exchange jokes, funny videos, and cool photos. The better the post, the more taggers a member can have. Tagging is very Kula. It is the Facebook members’ way of trading what are “important” and “valuable” to them as participants of their groups or networks. Some post biblical passages. Others have fashion trends on their pages. Most just post what they look like now for everyone to see.

I do think Facebook can introduce new methods in studying culture and practicing anthropology in general. Maybe through Facebook, virtual fieldwork and cyber ethnography are possible. Where there is a peopled geography, there is a culture. Facebook as a network of networks is a geography of geograhies populated by real humans. Maybe physical anthropologists can gather anthropometric data from a group of obese Facebook members coming from the same place, culture, and community and check the nutritional value of the food the same members photograph and post on their pages and find out why their weight loss and weight gain are seasonal. Facebook can be a fresh alternative space to work on for anthropologists. What your informant said about the realness or authenticity of the people on Facebook seems true. By just clicking someone's list of friends and shooting private messages, one can cross-check his information and double-check his identity.
At this point our discussion is still framed by the classic traditional little community vs modern individualized society oppositions of sociological theory. Not a bad place to begin; but I wonder what would be discovered if we extended Danny Miller's initiative in other directions, to gather some data about other intermediate forms of community. There is, of course, a large literature on diasporas and how modern transportation and communication technologies enable those away to keep in touch with those back home.

I think, too, of what marketers call "brand communities," people united by a shared interest in certain products and/or the steps marketers take to maintain that interest (having once worked on the account, I think of BMW, which, at least back then, fifteen years ago, sponsored Tokyo performances by the Berlin Philharmonic and annual golf outings for members of the BMW owners club in Japan). There are also fan clubs, associated with celebrities or sports franchises.

Perhaps closest of all to traditional ideas of community are elite school classmates and former members of the same military units, who not only turn out for each other's weddings and funerals, but actively aid each other in pursuing jobs and careers.

Similar networks are, now that I think of it, also characteristic of immigrant populations, in forms that range from loose networks of friends who share jobs and cover for each other as needed to Chinese triads and Cosa Nostra.
I would like to thank all contributors for giving our discussion such an invigorating launch, especially Danny for his patient and constructive responses. I learned a lot from Francine's and Miyako's personal reports and would endorse John's call for more real world examples from our ethnographer's kitbag. All of this on the first day of 12 and no shortage of intriguing lines to pursue further! I would like to encourage some of you who have not appeared on the OAC front page before to hold your nose and jump in. The sharks are safely penned behind their nets. We can afford to take it easy, but we also have the chance of producing something really special here together.
In studying Facebook we need to resist the idea that it is a `thing' with properties we are trying to discover and categorize. Mark Zukerberg intended it to be more like a utility e.g. like water or electricity, something ubiquitous in the background, and maybe he was not far wrong. Facebook is a facility that possibly in the future will be used by most people (or its successor) , but in many many different ways aligned with cultural and individual diversity. Given that we agree community is not a `thing' either because of the vastly different ways people socialise and network, trying to equate Facebook as thing-like to community as thing-like, gets us into a horrible mess. Which is why I am more comfortable leaving this to how Alana uses community as a discourse about sociality, which is also the point that Francine makes from her data. So when it comes to analogies with the search for the divine, the point is not that this is what Facebook `is', but that there are processes for which Facebook can be employed that are analogous with processes for which religion has been employed, in this case to constitute us as moral beings under the sign of `witnessing'. I am happy to be proved `wrong' if there is evidence that 400 million people don't do this, but if 100 million do, to some degree, I still find it significant and interesting.


Daniel Miller said:
there are processes for which Facebook can be employed that are analogous with processes for which religion has been employed, in this case to constitute us as moral beings under the sign of `witnessing'.

In this sense, discussion of SNS raises once more the question of religion's role in society, perhaps of a secular religion when compared with those of the Book. For this reason, I make Danny's second point the central one, as summarized above, with Nancy Munn's The Fame of Gawa its extension to the world of money and markets and the reference to Facebook and classical social science its negation. He doesn't want to go so far, but I would. The social malaise of the twentieth century had a lot to do with the pretension to find a scientific method for articulating individual needs with belonging in society. Hitherto, religion had provided a bridge between moral subjects and the world as a social object. As Roy Rappaport argued in his magisterial Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity (1999), we need to find new religious means of reconciling subjective experience with scientific law and what became the social sciences will not do.

Each of us embarks on a journey outward into the world and inward into the self. Society is mysterious to us because we have lived in it and it now dwells inside us at a level that is not ordinarily visible from the perspective of everyday life. All the places we have lived in are sources of introspection concerning our relationship to society; and one method for understanding the world would be to make an ongoing practice of trying to synthesize these varied experiences. If a person would have an identity -- would be one thing, one self – this requires trying to make out of fragmented social experience a more coherent whole, a world in other words as singular as the self. Edward Said put the same idea differently: history gives us so many cultural fragments and our task is to make a story out of them.

Regular readers of my posts here are bored stiff with my endless invocation of the likes of Kant, Durkheim annd Gandhi. I offer a link to one such here on how we might go about building a more unified sense of self and society. I still think that Durkheim's The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1912) is the most radical and potent of the works left by the founders of modern social theory. Anthropology is not the new religion we all seek, it is its midwife. Nor is Facebook its cult, but one of many ways that people try to make the world a more meaningful place. Money is another, but don't let me get started on that.

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