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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Hello all,

I am also joining late but feel motivated by the many thoughts, ideas and theses that came up here. Lot's of them also crossed my mind (according to Goffman and his theatre metaphor, virtuality as a real online place (so no reality/virtuality dichotomy) and many more...) SNS is a wide yet open field for anthropologists and I like the fact that its discourses are not (yet) fixed or dominated by one main discourse (as it seems, but feel free to correct me).

I am doing some research on SNS and am interested on how people relate to and deal with(in) it in terms of identity. Thereby, my special interest is on how people negotiate privacy in relation to public spheres in them.

Although I would like to share some of my thoughts as additional notes to a lot of comments and arguments here that are worth to do so I rather stick to the paper of Daniel Miller and hope that there might be a summery report of this e-seminar.

The first thing in "An Extreme Reading of Facebook" that caught my attention is the problem of how to look at people and their network(s) on SNS like FB (as Social/ Cultural Anthropologists). There has been a certain tradition to see them as group members or parts of a network, community or kin ship system (mostly with a local or translocal focus). But somehow this doesn't work out (or only partly does) when it comes to SNS. People are not members of one group but of many. They can construct hierarchies and set stratifications of their social world(s) by the possibility to have many and diverse “faces” (by grates of visibility, authenticity of information and the number of accounts on one or many SNS).

So I would look forward to discuss the argument in Miller's text to look at people as individuals at first sight. Coming back to the question: What is a person? I have been thinking about e.g. Marcel Mauss and his term of the “persona” (the mask), Marylin Strathern's “dividuals” and Michel Foucault's “Technologies of the Self” (Objectification). The individualistic approach is not new but how can we set it up right in the discussion of the anthropological research field “Facebook”?

“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. Either everything is more socially intense or none of it is. This is one of the ironies of the huge emphasis on the loss of privacy that we find in journalist’s accounts. It’s the same public discourse that goes on and on about how we have lost neighbourhood and community and everyone is so individualistic and lonely. Well if you really do want to have more community and less isolated individualism then that means trading privacy. But popular discourse wants it both ways, they want a community that is totally private and anthropologists should be pointing out this kind of contradiction.”

It is indeed quite interesting how people balance 1. high sociality by sharing things and 2. closeness and discretion order to maintain or create privacy spheres and what motivations they have to do it how they do it. Concerning the public discourse about the “contradiction of privacy and community” in the media it might be useful to make a distinction between:

1. the discourse about security in terms of data protection laws and freedom rights and how big companies like Facebook Inc. deal with all the information they gather which, on the one hand, is highly sensitive (from the human rights point of view) and on the other hand, has an enormously high market value (and this might not only count for economic dimensions...)

2. the discourse about the modern society and its structural development (or changing processes) of social relations and communication systems (diversity, complexity, individualism, mobility, connectedness ect.) and the SNS as compensative places in a world where time and space become more and more flexible terms (that in context of the Social Web might only be fixed and defined through a situational-relational lens with references to times and places counting for the offline world (like local (IP-Adress depending) date and time notes and notes of names of places in SNS)

Facebook and the “best friend” metaphor is something that inspires me but also evokes some questions (and maybe it is so because I didn't consider the thesis about Facebook and god...). This argument humanises a social web application to the extend that it might act (or has features) of a person. So someone we can talk to, who listens, who informs or entertains us and diverts our mind. I would go further and maybe beyond the idea of a “meta-person”. I was wondering if it is not the idea of “agency” behind it that leads this view? Social Web technology is highly reproductive in many ways. It contains programs (as cultural products of humans) that can produce cultural products by themselves. And as for SNS a lot of people are now a part of this process. Hence, Facebook might be something in between: a living “actant” with agency (controlled by an free market oriented elite group of people working for Facebook, as the last instance).

What Facebook actually means for the people using it seems to be common and diverse at the same time. A common meaning of it is a tool to connect with other people in and out of the local network or community. A specific aspect would be how SNS are self representing “stages” (Goffman), visible or hidden look-outs for the “voyeur” in us and visual surfaces revealing social relations (documenting them and their dynamics in a way we used to produce “reliable knowledge”).

In fact, the word reliability seems to play a major role in SNS because it can't work without references to persons, places and happenings behind the computer. So another remarkable question is what effects do SNS have on us? How does the interaction between technology and humans (like participating and using SNS) influence our understanding of time, space, networks, human relationships and last but not least our Self in relation to everything else surrounding it?

Last but not least: Concerning the basic discussion about WHAT is the Social Web and how we should define it as Social Scientists, I rather tend to see the Social Web as an extension of our social world(s) that still can be seen as an own mediated place (beyond our physical world) where we construct our social world in partly new and more complex ways. Therefore, it is useful to study augmentation and inauguration not as separate processes but as reciprocal phenomena.

As you can see, I have made some statements but I am still filled up with a lot of questions. So I am looking forward to comment!

Best,

Vi
"I appreciate M Izabel's attempt to find an over-arching idea that might lend unity to our discussion of Facebook's endless variety. But to settle on text as that idea seems to me like the last dying gasp of a civilization based on writing."

Don't worry, Keith, we still have independent writers-- those secretive diarists and starving poets-- who still believe in the purity of texts as the only medium that can give life to emotions, thoughts, aspirations, depressions in which images are too wanting and limited to capture.

Although I took off my postmodernist cloak a long time ago, it seems the idea about the fluidity and temporality of texts is becoming beyond question. I observed how "change" became Obama, "economic crisis," Wall Street, and "Muslim," terrorist. I hope these are just linguistic anomalies that will not stay long in our collective consciousness.
I'll double post again. Thank you, Daniel, for making me think and rethink.

Yes, there is "godliness" on Facebook, where its members are the lesser gods who possess omniscience, omnipresence, and omnipotence.

Omniscience

Members are capable to know infinitely what there is to know on Facebook. Such power is infinite because people's stories on Facebook are never-ending and their number, it seems, is endless.

Omnipresence

They posses the ability to be everywhere they want to go on Facebook. They can be on a group populated by Indians talking about India becoming a superpower or a group of Californians who has marijuana legalization issue in their minds.

Omnipotence

They also have unlimited power to create, destroy, and manipulate. They can make a community or "unfriend" and delete members they disfavor. In our real world, only God and death can "delete" someone on the face of the earth.

Facebook members are lesser gods because they are ruled by Zuckerberg, the creator, and his team, a battalion of seraphs or saints or middle gods, perhaps. Zuckerberg, being the creator, is also the destroyer. He can press just one button and Facebook, a universe where the lesser gods rule and roam, will cease to exist.

This religious narrative is beautiful, but I don't think anthropologists should be doing the existentialist angst studied in philosophy. Let's not forget that anthropology is "the study of man." Let's study and focus on mortals, who are still trying to make sense of the immortality of God.
On a clearly related topic, see Adam Fish's current post on Savage Minds.
In Response to M Izabel and Gustaf Redemo:
WOW! I think you are going to develop a quite romantic view. I already apologize the provocation in the following comments. Please don't take them personal! I hope they can be taken as constructive criticism.


"Omniscience

Members are capable to know infinitely what there is to know on Facebook. Such power is infinite because people's stories on Facebook are never-ending and their number, it seems, is endless.

Omnipresence

They posses the ability to be everywhere they want to go on Facebook. They can be on a group populated by Indians talking about India becoming a superpower or a group of Californians who has marijuana legalization issue in their minds."


Well, is this really so “free” ? Isn't it also a question of whether groups are restricted or even secret or open to everyone and depends on other people accepting your friend request, let you post on their wall, whether they follow your invitation, join your groups – as it is manly in the offline world? Facebook is not the “heaven” where people might fly free and in peace and harmony but there are other things possible then offline. That is true.

"Omnipotence

They also have unlimited power to create, destroy, and manipulate. They can make a community or "unfriend" and delete members they disfavor. In our real world, only God and death can "delete" someone on the face of the earth."

Who is “god” and who is “death” then in your opinion...? How about man destroying lives, killing people and deciding about life (genetic selection, abortion, in vitro fertilisation)?

"Facebook members are lesser gods because they are ruled by Zuckerberg, the creator, and his team, a battalion of seraphs or saints or middle gods, perhaps. Zuckerberg, being the creator, is also the destroyer. He can press just one button and Facebook, a universe where the lesser gods rule and roam, will cease to exist."

By the way, he wouldn't do. And even if he (or let's say others) would, data saving systems are more complex and deleting is not just like emptying a bucket.


"This religious narrative is beautiful, but I don't think anthropologists should be doing the existentialist angst studied in philosophy. Let's not forget that anthropology is "the study of man." Let's study and focus on mortals, who are still trying to make sense of the immortality of God. "

If Facebook is a “god” and Zuckerberg can delete “her” with one button he must be the highest mortal god above. - Would adulate him a lot if he reads that... ;)
Wow, I thought it might be as ironic as the previous sarcastic comments of her... Hmmm, sarcasm might also be a criterion for exclusion, especially when it is posted in an open public blog but just understandable for people having such insider knowledge. Clear punishment for newbes and latecomers. But never mind, it's my fault - nevertheless amusing. ;D
You are right Gustaf, communication and interpretation are the most complex and difficult things to handle and manage for humans as social beings. It is always a challenge (at least should be seen as such) on how to frame it (Goffman) and how to judge it in terms of reliability.

So what am I able to put in to make my last comment reliable or somehow understandable in a proper way? Maybe I just wanted to underline that sarcasm, irony and cynicism are highly complex communicative codes and of cause, for all those, who don't have access to the required specific background knowledge but still dare to interact, will tap in darkness or be caught by the trap. Still, if M Izabel meant it sarcastic, I take it humanly easy! (And perhaps, if you would know me good, you would not have any doubts to believe that.)

As for addressing efficient communication here, maybe this is the reason why E-Seminars just work out efficiently in smaller restricted groups of people who know each other on a somehow average level. Whereas, open Seminars like this should be seen as chances for others to participate and enrich discussions to get a bigger pool of knowledge and new potentially great ideas hence, every chance is also a potential risk!
As for me being a student with a research interest on SNS, there is hardly anybody on my institute who could help me out with some expertise on research methods or theory about it. So hope this E-Seminar will be just a starting point of a discussion about “Facebook as an anthropological field”. I would be glad if this will be somehow extended. I would also help to develop this further. (Maybe in form of a blog or website especially for people who also like to continue discussing theses about Facebook).

@ Keith Hart, Daniel Miller, John Postill: What do you think about it?
Ok, well I will be off line from now on so this is my last response. Let me start therefore by thanking Keith very much indeed for facilitating this, which I hope has been a wide ranging, open and very engaged discussion, from which I have learnt a huge amount. I hope people haven’t minded when I have been combative and I welcome the fact that many of you have clear points of disagreement and taken issue with me. I can’t see any other way for academic debate to progress. But I think the final point is Keith’s awe at the sheer scale and speed of the world as represented by something like Facebook and our sheer excitement at the intellectual challenge of staying on board.

Briefly with respect to other comments. I fully take Vi’s point that for most people this is one group amongst many, though wonder if Facebook which overlaps often with core family and friends maybe more significant and community like than is implied by that. Also that these debates on privacy seem not just about individual security but represent bigger public discourses about modern morality , which is one of the reasons there may be interesting discrepancies between what people say and what they do on this issue. I don’t really go with journalistic comment that suggest people are too stupid or ignorant to protect themselves, after all witnessing helps explain why people might be ambivalent about privacy. I agree there are wider issues of the relationship with technology which comes up in our digital anthropology programme, but I don’t think my paper is of much use in that respect, this needs to be done elsewhere. Gustav notes the very common anecdote about ones info being abused, the trouble is that as an ethnographer I would like to see an instance of this coming from fieldwork before I really believe this is more than part of that public discourse on morality. I think many users follow Gustav in appreciating the opposite which is the sense of control over self-crafting, though aware that much of the result is inadvertent. Izabel is a bit omnivorous for my taste, but I could hardly complain that her image of Mark Z as the goddess Kali is extreme - given my title - in fact I am delighted that we are getting collectively extreme by the end of this discussion. In fact as Vi implies we are moving towards an ending where we all feel that - yes this is an established and important topic and we will all return to writing seriously about it in the future, and we are not complacent enough to think we have done more than scratch the surface, but at this point, after this amount of time, many of us feel like having a laugh and a drink together which seems to me an ideal way to end a virtual seminar.

Finally there is the germ of a group establishing on Facebook itself called `the anthropology of social networks’ with a few more members we could become a place where people post about anyone who is writing on this topic or where they are publishing, so for those who see this topic as a long term interest I suggest you join this group


Vi Baldauf said:
You are right Gustaf, communication and interpretation are the most complex and difficult things to handle and manage for humans as social beings. So hope this E-Seminar will be just a starting point of a discussion about “Facebook as an anthropological field”. I would be glad if this will be somehow extended. I would also help to develop this further. (Maybe in form of a blog or website especially for people who also like to continue discussing theses about Facebook).

@ Keith Hart, Daniel Miller, John Postill: What do you think about it?

Posted from O Tambo Airport Johannesburg while waiting for an overnight plane home. I could try to convey some of what the ambience is like, the acoustics, the TV a metre from my earhole, the third beer I am consuming, the effect of fierce sunshine in the countryside getting here. You get the picture.

I think communication is so difficult that it takes a huge amount of goodwill to pretend that thoughts pass from one brain to another in some continuous form. I think that writers never control what readers make of their writing in any medium. Reading is creative or perhaps out of control! I think this has been a hugely successful seminar and I want to go cold turkey on the anthropology of Facebook as from now. Those who want to carry on with it can set up a Group or some other vehicle here, if they want.

I am looking forward to the next one by David Graeber on 'The moral premises of economic relations'. I hope that some of our contributors to this one will return for that and for the others I have lined up.

We are exploring the possibility of making an e-book out of this discussion and perhaps that will involve a measure of editorial summary. But I have no particular interest in pushing my line on what it was all really about. We are not Reader's Digest.

The opportunity exists in this format to go away and do a bit of research then report on it or to report on your research or eventually to do research on this thread.

I know that some people will come to this thread later and would like to post on it. But my inclination is to close it after the weekend. What we have already is pretty unwieldy, even indigestible. There is little point beyond convenience for it to dribble on. If the conversation continues, let it take other forms. This one will be permanently available here and perhaps elsewhere. I am open to suggestions on these mechanics of organizing the seminar and its aftermath.

Danny is off somewhere over the weekend and is unlikely to be able or want to post further. So I will take this opportunity to thank him for animating our discussion in such a constructive and amiable way. It may not be as good as this all the time.

Thanks to to all of you for taking part. I think we can say our medium came of age here.
Vi, my "godliness" assertion, I think, is not the realm of anthropology. Check your questions. Don't they sound philosophical? Anyway, I'll respond.

Yes, there are members who are rejected, denied, or have no control over others. Isn't that analogous to Jesus Christ having no control over Hindus or Allah being denied by Christians or Buddha existing only outside the worldview of Muslims?

Your other questions can be answered by you yourself. In philosophy, any answer is correct as long as it is reasonable, and yes, logical.

Thank you, Daniel, for your paper. I hope my being omnivorous means I am open to all theoretical possibilities. If that was what you meant, you have one thing to blame, systems thinking, where I always try to make sense of everything served on the table. Thank you again for making me think.


Daniel Miller said:
Finally there is the germ of a group establishing on Facebook itself called `the anthropology of social networks’ with a few more members we could become a place where people post about anyone who is writing on this topic or where they are publishing, so for those who see this topic as a long term interest I suggest you join this group

Thank you Daniel for providing your paper as a basis of an open discussion. Although there have been a lot of voices weaving a quite wild jungle of criticism I hope you can still filter some constructive arguments in respect to your paper. I just can say it helped me a lot to organise my catalogue of questions and I will consider some of your hypotheses ( mentioned in my first comment) in my research work. Continuing this discussion on Facebook would definitely be a comfortable and easy way to do. But as for me not only thinking positive about FB it would be a little bit like sitting in a house of glass with some stones in hand... So would rather prefer an open source platform that provides some elaborate visibility settings. :)
"Although there have been a lot of voices weaving a quite wild jungle of criticism I hope you can still filter some constructive arguments in respect to your paper."

I doubt if you've read or understood the posted responses or even the paper of Danny. In case you don't know, I was the one who rejected the insertion of "God" or anything about it in relation to Facebook. It was not I who said Facebook was God or oracle, another symbolization.

My sarcastic philosophizing demonstrates that it's possible to be wild with our imaginations if we are not doing anthropology. As far as I know. OAC is about anthropology, the study of man not his immortalization.

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