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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I suggest that it's possible to simultaneously view Facebook as a medium, as a "place", as something social, and as material culture, without any of these positions causing an inherent conflict in analysis. We can then draw on pertinent aspects of communications, linguistic theory, spatial theory, technology, Kula, religion, etc to make sense of it. I find that sometimes it is place-like, other times it is more thing-like, but for many users, it's simply a way of keeping in touch. We needn't pigeon-hole SNS or our approach to new media in order to figure out (or at least to think about) what Facebook is, to whom, and under which conditions. I'm grateful to Daniel for expanding our conceptual horizons here and to Illana and Amiria for testing the boundaries. I think we are finding that Facebook is exceptionally "good to think with".

PS. Nikos, I write Facebook with a capital F because it's a proper noun. Nothing more exciting, I'm afraid.



M Izabel said:
Facebook is really something.
It was funny how, at work while baking soufflé, Amiria’s “fetishizing the social” bothered me not the vanilla I over-poured. It made me think whether I am just fetishizing, imagining, and idealizing Facebook. My idea of de-virtualization has assured me that, as far as I’m concerned, it is not the case.

Facebook as a fetish is an interesting subject but not challenging. Simply, it does not tickle my mind. I find the subject limiting and overdone. If fetishizing Facebook is my intention, I will not shy away from quoting Baudrillard’s concepts of simulation, mediation, and communication through technology” or Mcluhan’s famous statement that“the medium is the message,” or Barthe’s ideas about texts and their creators. Also, I will not hesitate to bring in the leftovers of my Philosophy of the Mind graduate course where my eccentric professor babbled a lot about how imagination was understood and used by his favorites: Kant, Hume, and Spinoza. I may also add what I know about fantasy, perception, and transference. I consciously avoid using all of those because I suspect Facebook is as real as California.

I also do not want to philosophize and resort to analogies or psychoanalyze because I believe anthropology is enough to de-virtualize Facebook. As I said earlier, real crimes do happen on facebook. The prostitures who flaunt their sexuality and sell their allure are real. Members selling bottles of perfume, dresses made in China, and crocodile leather shoes are real entrepreneurs. Professors expounding theories in groups are not bullshitting. Ex-boyfriends posting naked images of their ex-girlfriends are as real as mothers berating their sons for being stubborn all on Facebook. However I look at it, there is no fantasy or fetish involved. Even the add-on games such as Mafia, Farmville, etc. are entertainment to me not make-believe realities. Offline or in real life, people play computer games, Wii, and the likes.

It is not enough that we know Facebook is a space, domain, geography, or ecology. Like what John said, knowing that it is is just the beginning. Maybe what Daniel’s informant said about identity, authenticity, and mask should be our next step. In visually analyzing Facebook, we can ask, for example, whether Photoshop-altered photos of Facebook members are deceptive fake images or real representations of what Facebook members want themselves to be.

We can also check Daniel’s proposition that Facebook complements offline communities. I can argue that it is not always the case. Facebook can exist by its own as a community of communities (metacommunity). If a natural disaster hits and flattens our town and the entire population moves all over the Philippines, we can create a community on Facebook peopled by the same population.

The truth is that there are situations on Facebook that do not exist or cannot be situated in offline or real-life communities. For example, I can join in a discussion about globalization in one group, in a debate about the existence of Satan in a religious group, and in a group chat about Lady Gaga all in one seating on Facebook. I cannot do all those three all at once offline or in real life. I would be going back-and-forth between or among groups if I would try it in my present community or I would need three cell phones and put two of my friends on hold as I discussed, debated, and chatted with one of them.

If we limit our understanding of Facebook within its materiality and its being a product of technology, we will be treating it as a mere archive of texts, media, and images. Photos we see on Facebook will not be dealt with as parents, friends, relatives, children, etc. of Facebook members but as strange images or portraits without souls—or humanness, in case "soul" is a problematic concept.

A province in the Philippines posts wanted criminals on its page. If we treat those images as artifacts without considering what we know about community and network, those photos are no different to what we see on FBI's most wanted list. The fact is that those are not just portrait photographs or visual artifacts but real criminals with real friends, relatives, acquaintances, families, etc. on Facebook.
M Izabel said:
We can also check Daniel’s proposition that Facebook complements offline communities. I can argue that it is not always the case. Facebook can exist by its own as a community of communities (metacommunity). If a natural disaster hits and flattens our town and the entire population moves all over the Philippines, we can create a community on Facebook peopled by the same population.


I do not disagree that some aspects of Facebook and relationships developed there can be detached from the physical location of participants (e.g. encountering new people from various countries or even some whose offline location you are unaware of). But, in this hypothetical example you give, is it not equally dependent upon offline geography? A meta-community wholly constituted by persons linked together because they were originally inhabitants of the same town? Is it Facebook that binds them, or does it simply depend upon/mimic existing ties? Can what follows on Facebook in this hypothetical scenario ever be understood without the context of the geographic origins of those people? What originally looks like wholly online activity often has some connection to offline places, attachments, etc.
Corrected typo errors: Barthes' and " and the like"

But, in this hypothetical example you give, is it not equally dependent upon offline geography?

No, because the physical community is gone. What remains is the abstract relationship that binds us. If the people in our town move all over the Philippines, they will be joining communities new to them. If we all have accounts on Facebook we can create a new community based on our past relationship not on the non-existent geography. We will be talking about our new lives away from the town we will be leaving behind.

So, If I am in California, and I tell the group about the awful state of its secondary public education, I don't think the group members can relate since they have different offline communities and realities now different to mine. What happens in California has nothing to do with them. If I tell them about the cheapest pair of shoes sold by one of our friends on Facebook, we can all relate and talk about it because the subject is within and local to our community on Facebook that exists independently. Simply, outside of Facebook, our community does not exist, and we are only a community if we are on it. What is a community then? I think of it as a space, physical or abstract, where people populating it interact with each other.

A real good example is my set of friends in high school. We now live all over the globe. We have a group page on Facebook. Our messages and conversations are mostly about media, texts, and images we find and tag on facebook. We share stuff about our families, jobs, and relationships. We give tips, comments, and advices. Where we currently live do not influence our interaction on Facebook. What we do on Facebook do not complement our current offline communities.
Sorry I'll double post.

What's up with the bashing of anything social such as social networks, social interactions, social relationship by those who are into material culture study? Even in my Museulogy class before, my stubborn professor gave me a C because I would not analyze an artifact without going into how it became an artifact in the first place. She wanted to limit my intellectualizing and analysis within the artifact as a subject. The artifact happened to be an old dress. I guess she wanted me to count its buttons and check how dark the red was. I found it to be a useless intellectual undertaking. I think scholars like her shun the sociality of an artifact so their field, which is material culture study, will have an identity different to the material culture studied in archaeology. I also think their analytical method is limiting and limited. Yes, I got my only C in college because of this statement:

"How can we deny the sociality of an artifiact when all cultural artifacts or materials are products of social networks, social structures, social interactions, and social relationships in which they are created, valued, and utilized."

A Ming vase, for, example, could be a collaborative work or effort of many Chinese artisans and traders during the Ming period, before it ended up a shard in 2000 under the coconut tree in my grandfather's orchard. The old dress our professor showed us became a finished product and eventually, a cultural artifact or material in a university museum because of the people who formed the buttons, who made the thread, who wove the fabric, who sharpened the needle, who designed and sewed the dress, who washed and ironed it, who sold it, and who bought and wore it. How could I deny the network of people, the interaction in labor that happened in order to create it from start to finish, and the relationship in their simple economic activity that were involved before the said dress, a cultural artifact or material now, could exist?

I don't know if a meaningful and thorough analysis is possible if the sociality of Facebook is rejected but its materiality. Please educate me, so I could move on from that C. To relate this to Facebook, you can also answer the following:

If you see a photo of a woman on facebook with a caption below that says, "Married to Dr Mat Cult,"

1) How are you going to treat the photo as a cultural artifact or material?
2) how about the materiality of the text and its meaning?
3) Is the text just a bunch of typographic symbols with color, size, font, and type?
4) Are texts artifacts or narratives?

Do you find this kind of intellectual exercise on the materiality of Facebook interesting? I surely don't. It sounds like a simple visual analysis in an introductory Art Studies course. That's the reason why associating materiality to Facebook does not really interest me.
I would like to thank our newcomers for injecting a new spirit into our discussions as well as new lines of questioning. I think a lot about the terms of entry into our discussion and how any barriers to participation might be reduced. We have now accumulated quite a long thread and I was struck by Ilana's confession that she had spent some hours reading Danny's paper and the contributions so far before posting hers. If that is widely perceived as a condition for making a comment, it would not be surprising that few would make the effort. So I ask myself what the conditions for speaking up are in a normal academic seminar or workshop. There too it is expected that people should have read the paper if it is precirculated and should turn up on time and stay the course. But there are exceptions which depend to some extent on the confidence or status of the person making an intervention. You must be able to bring to mind some of these: I arrived late, so what I am about to say may go over ground covered already... I am sorry I was not able to read the paper, but I would like to respond to what X just said...and so on. We should be able to adapt some of these moves to our present situation, especially since we are spinning it out over a fortnight, not one and a half hours. As chair, I would like to open up discussion to members who may not have read the paper fully and may not have the time to plough through all previous comments, but who have something to say triggered by whatever they have read.

We are also now entering the weekend and over the years I have noticed some marked differences in cultural habits between North America and Europe for example. These trends are not absolute, but I would say that Americans often catch up on their email and online business at weekends, while many Europeans use them to switch off the internet altogether. Certainly traffic on the OAC usually falls off quite sharply despite Americans being by far the largest group of our members. I will try to sum up some of the points to have emerged from the latest batch of comments, but I have a house guest and my first priority is to look after him. The offline constraints on online activity are powerful.
I'd like to highlight one aspect of Daniel's argument that we have been all around but only partially addressed:

This idea that making a relationship visible also creates that relationship can extend to the self. Facebook is a place where you discover who you are by seeing a visible objectification of yourself. Central to Trinidadian cosmology, as found in Carnival, is the belief that a mask or outward appearance
is not a disguise. As something you have crafted or chosen and not merely been born with, the mask is
a better indication of the actual person than your unmasked face. This is why one of my informants
states that the true person is the one you meet on Facebook, not the person you meet face-to-face. It
follows that the truth about yourself is revealed to you by what you post on Facebook. On Facebook
you find out who you are.

What does everyone think about this, either as anthropologist and/or participant: are you more "you" on Facebook or just the person you want others to think you are?

For fun and to perhaps inspire some lurkers to post, I'll share this amusing infographic that's floating around the web:

I meant to post this on the forum, but was unable to do so earlier on because I was not a member of the 'Co-op'.

Some thoughts on software and materiality.

Facebook as a utility like electricity, water, gas? Oh my god... that's too much.
Facebook as a utility like electricity, water, gas? Oh my god... that's too much.

Chill out girl. It's only anthropology. And it's Saturday night. I am off to the blues bar. Gotta have a life offline.
I said "That's too much" not in a mocking way. Meaning, too much to handle for me. Lucky you, it's a boring saturday afternoon here in Orange Country, CA. Have fun.
Nicely observed. But, of course, it could be turned around. We could focus on the people and lose sight of the cloth, the needles, the threads, the dyes, the sewing machines, the hangers, the shipping containers, the material stuff that comprises and surrounds the dress. This thought leads me to wonder if our academic habit of attacking different perspectives doesn't come down at the end of the day to the blind men insisting that the parts of the elephant are the whole. Could we use a bit more of the Sufi judge: "Yes" and "Yes" and "Yes," then trying to figure out how the parts fit together?

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