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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All the early work on this subject in our discipline was based on graph theory whose basic assumptions are atomism, synchronicity or stasis and randomness.

Keith, can you source this for us? I ask because, while I've been engaged with this stuff for about three years now and have read a lot of introductions to network analysis, this is the first time I have seen graph theory described in this way.

The current party line is that graph theory is a branch of mathematics that applies to any phenomenon representable as nodes (vertices) and edges (which, if directed, are called arcs). Conceptualizing phenomena in terms of graph theory is presented as antithetical to the random sampling assumptions of conventional statistical analysis, since the presence of the edges implies that the nodes are not independent cases.
I think that once again that is why one wants to be fighting at the same time on the coal face of intimate and personal ethnography and at the widest possible theoretical frame for Digital Anthropology as a whole.

There is also, is there not, room for mid-range explorations. For example, since I have a presentation to give day after tomorrow at the annual meeting of the Anthropology of Japan in Japan group, I have handy a brief description of my current research project, tentatively titled "Winners' Circles: Social Network Analysis-Driven Ethnography of Top Tokyo Advertising Creatives."

The basic research design is as follows.

1. Use available data (create a database of the credits attached to each ad that appears in the Tokyo Copywriters Club Copy Annual; my Filemaker Pro database currently includes the data from the 1981, 1986, 1991, 1996, 2001, 2006 and 2007 annuals).

2. Analyze said data using social network analysis software (the software in question is Pajek; the output includes whole networks for each year; subnetworks broken down by medium, industry and agency; and ego-centered networks for central figures in the whole and subnetworks.)

3. Collect and read writing by and about the central figures identified via the social network analysis (currently underway, lots and lots and lots to read, slowly and carefully, in Japanese).

4. Discuss what I have found through steps 1, 2, and 3 with those of the central figures who will grant me an interview (The last month has seen some major breakthroughs in this phase of the project. I now have nearly six hours of recordings of interviews with three of the most successful makers of TV commercials in recent decades and, having interviewed these guys, being able to mention their names is going to make getting additional interviews much, much easier.)

All of this is by way of trying to figure out and demonstrate how the style of ethnography I learned from Victor Turner can be implemented on a larger scale than Turner's Ndembu research: start from examination of social structure, add observation of behavior and artifacts, then talk about what you have seen and concluded with local experts. My "tribe" is the elite creatives sub-tribe of the Japanese advertising industry. The behavior I know a bit about from having worked in the belly of the beast, and the number of artifacts, pieces of broadcast and print advertising and commentaries written by and about my local experts is overwhelming (I used to describe research in this field to my students, back when I had students, as standing in front of a fire hose and trying to pick out significant drops of water).

Thus, I will argue in my presentation, we cultural anthropologists need to become more like archeologists, willing to use scientific tools to sample and analyze the contexts in which we do our ethnography.

We can then have something interesting to show and say to the local experts we interview, which, this month has proven to me, is a wonderful way to get them to open up and talk freely about how they see themselves, what they do, and why they do it. They have never seen anyone map their careers in the way that I now can. That grabs their interest. When I also demonstrate familiarity with the campaigns that made them industry stars, the memories start flowing.

In retrospect, I think of how much I owe to Frank Cancian's methods seminar at Cornell. It was Frank who taught me that the key to successful rapport is to demonstrate a sincere and serious interest in what people do. The scientific tools I use don't just bring me to the coal face of personal and intimate ethnography. They and the desk research that adds to the preparation implement Frank's advice. Extending your metaphor, they provide the drills that open rich veins of remembrance and meaning.
For graph theory and social network and on the pioneering works of Cartwright and Harary, this one is a good start... http://www.analytictech.com/mb119/chap2b.htm

Per Hage and Harold Conklin interestingly used graph theory in their social and cultural analyses, but I cannot find their papers/books Online. Personally, I like how the theory is particularly useful in kinship studies and clan/family conflicts by going into structures of webs and networks and sorting out negative and positive relationships. Yes, it's very undegraduate an exercise. Again, it's all about models.
In that world, and to my mind, Douglas White is the man.


M Izabel said:
For graph theory and social network and on the pioneering works of Cartwright and Harary, this one is a good start... http://www.analytictech.com/mb119/chap2b.htm

Per Hage and Harold Conklin interestingly used graph theory in their social and cultural analyses, but I cannot find their papers/books Online. Personally, I like how the theory is particularly useful in kinship studies and clan/family conflicts by sorting out negative and positive relationships. Again, it's all about models.
Yes, Jacob, his works on social cohesion and social groups are particularly interesting, but I don't think he pioneered the use of graph theory in anthropology or in social science in general.
I have been spending a wonderful few hours this afternoon reading Danny's invigorating extreme reading of Facebook, and people's sophisticated responses. But I am a bit confused at what isn't being said about "what Facebook is" analytically in addition to all that has been said - -Facebook is a place, Facebook is an ecology, Facebook is a new Kula ring, Facebook is a mega-best friend. But no one seems to be saying that Facebook is a medium. It is a medium that combines aspects of previous media that aren't often combined -- you can have one-on-one "private" conversations as well as broadcast information to a public (or selected group of profiles). But as a medium, you get to ask all sorts of interesting questions about Facebook analytically -- how is it as a medium understood in contrast to all other media people happen to be using or actively choosing not to use? How do people's beliefs, attitudes and strategies about Facebook's structure and use shape the way they use Facebook? And how and when will their beliefs about how Facebook should be used manage to conflict with the ways it is actually used? Facebook often seems to resist the ways people want to use it, or create unexpected dilemmas for people when it does things they don’t expect, like so many designed objects.

If you begin with Facebook as a medium, you also get to ask about the materiality of Facebook versus other media. And I am so confused that I am about to ask this question of Danny, I must be really missing something in his piece. You have convinced me that the Kula ring is a medium, that the food, shell armbands and shell necklaces that people circulate carries messages/embodies relationships and can be intriguingly compared with how Gawans understand what language accomplishes. But doesn't the very materiality of the food exchanged matter? Isn't the durability of what is exchanged in the kula in sharp contrast with what is exchanged on Facebook? Aren't people's understandings of how to exchange and the consequences of these exchanges in the Kula fundamentally different than how Trinidadians exchange using Facebook? So I know that this is an odd question to ask of you, but in your extreme reading of Facebook, how does the materiality of Facebook matter?
That's a nice observation, Ilana. What if we treat Facebook as a mere medium for communication? I think we will end up treating Facebook members as message senders and receivers no different to those who use e-mails. We will focus more on the messages not on the senders and recipients of messages who are real people with cultures they express and expose on Facebook.

Facebook has evolved from being a medium to a "place" where people group themselves and form networks.

I used to hear people say "post it on Facebook," "check his photo on Facebook," or "add me on Facebook".

Now, Facebook members say "let's meet on facebook," "I saw your friend on Facebook," or "She said something on facebook."

I've never heard someone use "through Facebook" the way we use "through the Internet." Facebook, indeed, has become not just a medium for communication.
ok i shouldnt have gone back to the computer. I really like Illana's question because it gives me a wonderful opportunity to temporarily repudiate my main academic posture. I think of myself as a material culture person, but of course the kula is usually taught in social anthropology together with Mauss as an example of exchange, which then creates social relationships, in this case a big inter island exchange with big inter island relationships such as Argonauts. That is the level of my analogy with Facebook and at that level it really doenst matter if the exchange is pigs, photos of being drunk, wives or necklaces (actually on reflection exchanging wives on Facebook is probably not a good idea - so lets remember its only an analogy).. Since the fundamental point of how this expands inersubjective space time works in both cases and how it shrinks, I stick to my guns and the reason for making the analogy. But at the level of material stuff, and what is actually exchanged i really can tell the difference between a pig and a picture, and of course no one would suggest that Kula is actually Facebook, at that level materiality matters hugely and we have to look at things like language, and photos and postings and stalking, the partticular social relations where US teenagers dont look a whole lot like Trobriand Islanders, and the rest of it to see all the other things that Facebook is and can be. But just because i do material culture doesn't mean i cant occasionally agree with the social anthropologists and say this is exchange creating relationships as a cultural practice within an expanding (and sometimes shrinking) universe.
Hmm, I wonder if when I say "medium" it means something different than when you say it. I don't know that Facebook is a "mere" medium, and so I would love to know how calling something a medium diminishes it, makes it "mere".

I don't think that calling Facebook a medium means that one doesn't focus on the senders or receivers, quite the opposite. If this really is a clear consequence, I would not want to call Facebook a medium. I do very much want to study how people communicate using particular channels, where the emphasis isn't on the channel as much as it is on people's practices and understandings. And I would hate to see Facebook communication interpreted simply in terms of a sender and a receiver, there are publics involved here, and intricate ways in which utterances have multiple authors, and circulate in ways you probably need offline interviews to understand.

You are absolutely right to point out that I think we should analyze Facebook as a medium whether or not that is how people on the ground talk about it. I think doing so gives us access to already established useful analytical tools (for me, in linguistic anthropology) to understand how utterances communicated online through Facebook have significant impact on what people do offline. But this is an analytical call that is a matter of taste. Maybe for other people, thinking about Facebook as a place allows them to use all sorts of interesting theory coming out of geography.



M Izabel said:
That's a nice observation, Ilana. What if we treat Facebook as a mere medium for communication? I think we will end up treating Facebook members as message senders and receivers no different to those who use e-mails. We will focus more on the messages not on the senders and recipients of messages who are real people with cultures they express and expose on Facebook.

Facebook has evolved from being a medium to a "place" where people group themselves and form networks.

I used to hear people say "post it on Facebook," "check his photo on Facebook," or "add me on Facebook".

Now, Facebook members say "let's meet on facebook," "I saw your friend on Facebook," or "She said something on facebook."

I've never heard someone use "through Facebook" the way we use "through the Internet." Facebook, indeed, has become not just a medium for communication.
Sorry for the delayed response, Ilana. The definition of "medium" I always like to use is that it is more of a vehicle, which is a tool, rather than an avenue, which is a space. If we see Facebook as a medium, our discourse will be limited within how it is being a technology and its materiality. We will be asking about the function and the dysfunction of such technology. To do so, we have to scrutinize its cause and effect to what it is made for, which is for communication and for exchange of messages.

We will then expound our ideas of Facebook as a form of technology, touching issues such as assured privacy, impersonal communication, and distant relationship that are all connected to messages and the way messages is sent or received. Although Facebook's goal is to establish networks among groups, networking is not its direct function but messaging. On Facebook, sending messages does not necessarily mean that the sender is already part of the network in which the receiver belongs. Network or group membership on Facebook is not automatic.

I think, deep down, I have been influenced by how I see "medium" in a ritual. A message from a spirit or a god a medium receives is more important than the participants of a ritual or even the medium himself. Of course, it is not the case in the eyes of an anthropologist doing participant-observation. I'm playing the role of an insider or real participant here.

Facebook is an abstract form of technology. It has a history. It's not too much to say that it's an evolution of earlier concepts and practices of exchanging messages or establishing networks. Maybe the time has come for archaeology to start studying abstract forms that are obviously social and cultural in nature. Maybe a different kind of archaeologist can check if Facebook, in itself, is a technology separate from a computer since there are other alternatives Facebook members can use to log on. Maybe he can also check if paging or using pagers is one of the precursors to how Facebook has become a medium for communicating and eventually networking.

Facebook is really something.
Daniel Miller said:
In studying Facebook we need to resist the idea that it is a `thing'….

Wow! - this is not the kind of discussion I expected to flow out of a paper by Danny Miller. Talk about fetishizing the social!

Sorry, Danny, I’m a big fan, but what happened to the revolution? One of the dangers of online seminars is that it’s pretty easy for people to quote your work back at you. In Materiality (2005: 36) you launched a scathing attack on the social sciences (and particularly anthropology), noting how, via Durkheim, they became:

‘devoted to the study of all phenomena that stand for what we now call society, social relations, or indeed simply the subject. By whichever name, these are the terms that describe the contents of the coffin we are about to bury’ (Miller 2005: 36).

On the same theme in 1994 (Artefacts and the meaning of things: 416) you noted:

‘Thus whatever cultural domain was being investigated was ultimately treated as symbolic of underlying social relations. The meanings of artefacts were always seen to lie in their positioning within such symbolic systems.

Yet...
Ilana Gershon said:
in your extreme reading of Facebook, how does the materiality of Facebook matter?
Daniel Miller said:
the kula is usually taught in social anthropology together with Mauss as an example of exchange, which then creates social relationships.... That is the level of my analogy with Facebook and at that level it really doenst matter if the exchange is pigs, photos of being drunk, wives or necklaces... the fundamental point of how this expands inersubjective space time works in both cases.... just because i do material culture doesn't mean i cant occasionally agree with the social anthropologists and say this is exchange creating relationships....

Isn’t this a bit of a cop-out, in response to Ilana’s important question? Can we not develop an analogy between Facebook and Kula that is more than symbolic or metaphorical – more than just about ‘exchange’, ‘communication’ and ‘social relations’ (things that, like culture in Tim Ingold’s terms, are often ‘conceived to hover over the material world but not to permeate it’ (Perception of the Environment 2000: 340).)

Enough fluffing around – how about some discipline, here ; ) Given that we all seem to agree Facebook is just as ‘real’ as any other sphere of social action, and that the commonly-invoked distinction between the ‘virtual’ and the ‘real’ worlds, while ethnographically interesting, is analytically problematic, we must surely treat Facebook, like any ‘cultural domain’, as something that cannot be usefully segregated out from its artefacts, and the various forms in which they appear.

Why then this aversion to tackling Facebook’s ‘thinginess’, or indeed, in Ilana’s terms, its ‘materiality’? Let’s even allow Ingold to chime in (virtually!), to ask: what about its ‘materials’?

I’m asking this not in an attempt to suggest that your scholarship is (or should be) solely concerned with ‘material culture’, but because you’ve persistently argued that ‘culture’ and ‘social relations’ themselves cannot be understood without recognizing the dialectical way in which ‘the specific character of people emerges from their interaction with the material world through practice' (‘Stone Age or Plastic Age?’ 2007). Why make an exception for Facebook?
M Izabel said:
Facebook is really something.
Amiria - don't fret this is not some fundamental betrayal, my primary interest will always be with material culture and I am essentially in support of Illana's call to work on the materiality of Facebook although the more linguistic side of this is something she has the competency in while I certainly do not.
So I would make two points - the first is that I did not in fact contradict my earlier critique. I am not here joining in some fetishism of society, the social or social relations, the level of my analogy with Kula is essentially insistence on the status of FB as culture in the same we see Kula as culture, that is an expanding or shrinking frame within which exchange create, not just relationships but also Fame, scandal, cosmology and many different things, it was the emphasis upon exchange that i draw from Social Anthropology, I never suggested Facebook is a mere representation of `true' social relations.
But the second point is that I dont want to feel that either we have to talk about this materiality, when as in that case, the level of analogy was more abtract and in relation to exchange, or that to do so detracts from or negates the many pieces of work we might want to conduct on the things being exchanged or indeed the material of facebook itself. For example in the book where i have a more extended discussion of the analogy with Munn another section examines her theory of qualisigns, which is all about trying to think about the substance of what is exchanged and I look at things such as humour as an integral part of this and the photos that people post. Which I hope would be a useful complement to what Illana is suggesting with regard to linguistic analysis, which I hope people like her do, because as I just mentioned, I know I cant. In fact both of us, in other work, have recently been looking at the specifics of media and the way they work in tandem with each other, which is another aspect of this materiality, as also the issue in the book about whether facebook comes through the computer or the phone. But i dont think that all discussions can and should try and be about all things. I dont therefore feel guilty if the section in this particular paper on exchange and inter-subjective space time is only obliquely about materiality, i would not wish to see material culture as a box one can get boxed into. I also cant see any reason at all to reduce this to materials, i am not a fan of Ingold here, i dont care what my iphone is made of, i care that i can get facebook without having to go back to a computer - it is the mobility that makes the material difference
Hope your happy again ?

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