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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You're correct, Nikos. For variety, I can also say Facebook is Satan or an angel or a magician. The underlying question: Is such symbolic interpretation science? Well, if we are talking about semiotics the way philosophers do, I will shut up, but it's anthropology. Even in semiotic anthropology, cultural sings, symbols, signification, and symbolization already existing in a culture are studied. If my posts were spirited or somewhat forceful, it was because of the data I have gathered about, from, and on Facebook that I wish to explore further in the future. I think it's my last post before I end up an antagonist in this successful and wonderful seminar. Congratulations, Keith!
Dear M Izabel,

although the seminar is already over, you seem to be really keen on discussing further. It is clear now how everybody should take your “sarcasm”, so no reason to follow this anymore.

As for your doubts: In Daniels text, there where two other main theses (besides the one about Facebook being an analogy to god, that you seem to have given a lot of weight in your discussion): Kula and the impact on Social Science. Due to the reason that I wasn't keen on participating in this “game of thoughts” and the reason that the two other theses could build up another two E-Seminars, I decided to read more between the lines and picked up some statements and conclusions under the other Theses, besides the "god" one. There were actually much more but due to the media and the situation I decided to cut it down. And even now, I just want to explain one apsect I found interesting under the Thesis of the impact on Social Science that was somehow more hidden in Daniels paper. Maybe I should have done better to quote the parts I referred to when writing my first comment. In terms of traceability and understandability this is true! And I should practice to be more precise in where my thoughts come from and go to... So this should be last try here!

Daniel Miller argued that :

“Research by myself and Don Slater was among the first to show that that while the internet may be hugely important in other ways the evidence for this `reversal’ in macro social change towards individualism was very limited.”

So it seems that Miller and Slater have quite critical positions to the tendency of Social Science Discourse to view people more and more as individuals.

But then this key passage reveals that this tendency of Individualism still has some truth:

“Facebook has all the contradictions found in a community. You simply can’t have both closeness and privacy. You can’t have support without claustrophobia. You can’t have such a degree of friendship without the risk of explosive quarrelling. (...) Well if you really do want to have more community and less isolated individualism then that means trading privacy.”

As far as I got out of this part, keeping privacy on Facebook means emphasising Individualism and sharing personal things means emphasising participation in a community. And in Millers view the last is more evident for SNS (taken out of his research in Trinidad). As far as I found out, BOTH is the case on SNS and BOTH can be surveyed and managed much better then in offline life: 1. people who want to retreat from social control by the local community can practice more individualism and diversity of it in SNS and 2. people who have rather weak social ties offline can intensify social relations by sharing on SNS which can also lead to critical “exposure” of a person. (There are also other varieties: People who are quite extrovert and have a big complex (loose and tight) local network can extend or even intensify this in SNS.) So my interest (amongst others) is on how people manage both desires.

And this is what I meant in my first comment with:

“2. the discourse about the modern society and its structural development (or changing processes) of social relations and communication systems (...) and the SNS as compensative places (...)”

Although Miller can't follow the Individualism tendency in Social Science (as mentioned above) Miller gives an example for the desire of looseness or less intensity of community which, in my opinion, also requires more privacy (and therefore more space for individualism):

“When you are living in a place like that, the community is incredibly intense and her use of Facebook, however sociable, is a means to give herself some sort of break from that intensity. If people in Santa Ana turn to Facebook as a kind of milder version of community, it is to achieve some sort of distance, because the reality of living within such a close-knit community is simply too intense and invasive.”

This is just one thing I found inspiring in Millers paper. I should have explained my thoughts better and will do when there will be a prosecution of this E-Seminar in any other form!

Finally, I think that constructive criticism should still always be underlined with some strong arguments (That Philosophy has nothing to do with Anthropology is on such weak argument in my opinion: Has Anthropology been ever a seperate discipline next to others or wasn't it always an interdisciplinary Science? You could also just could look at the names refered in important anthropological works...). Otherwise people could take it personally which would be beneath every level of an academic discussion between Anthropologists.
My very first post was my critique on individualism. I quoted Castells' definition of network and criticized it. It is not my habit to quote a theorist/anthropologist without supporting it with my own or someone's' ethnographic experience/data.

Of the three propositions, only the one about God did not convince me. Again, read my posts before engaging me in your argument that seemed to me an attack from an unleashed pit bull. Maybe you are in collusion with someone to silence me or to discredit me. Don't waste your time. I'm not in the academe.

You said:

"That Philosophy has nothing to do with Anthropology is on such weak argument in my opinion: Has Anthropology been ever a seperate discipline next to others or wasn't it always an interdisciplinary Science?"

My response:

It is not the job of anthropologists to create symbols, signs, meanings, analogies for a culture. Their job is to study those that already exist in the culture and their significations and symbolizations as practiced by the people in that culture. Leave the studying of the dancing angels on the head of a pin to philosophers.

You said:

You could also just could look at the names refered in important anthropological works...). Otherwise people could take it personally which would be beneath every level of an academic discussion between Anthropologists.

My response:

You did not really read my posts. You would not be saying that if you did. I tried injecting cyberanthropology and cyberecology to widen the scope of the discussion by posting a paper about ecology and metacommunity. Nobody listened but one professor, susanne kuehling. So what if I'm "beneath every level of an academic discussion between Anthropologists?" Hahaha... should I prove myself to you or to them? Gee... Okay... no comment.

Now you are telling me that I don't read published works. I always refuse to be part of the conventions and I situate my voice in the margins. It's just stuffy and suffocating at the center, you know. If you think you are an anthropologist because you've read Malinowski or Levi-strauss or Benedict or Mead, congratulations that you continue reading them. Aren';t those what first year anthropology majors read in their very first semester? Expand your reading list and quit assuming as if you know me. Where were you when I started here at OAC and rejected western scholarship? I have mellowed down. Can't you see?



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