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'm jumping in late, having read the paper and most of the conversation quickly. Please excuse me if I repeat points already made: I want to offer an ethnographic case that I feel picks up several themes mentioned but not explored in depth so far.

I'm completing research among journalists in the eastern Indian state of Odisha (formerly Orissa), and in the last six months Facebook has suddenly become important. Prior to this, young people used Orkut, and many young people still prefer that, but now some of the most respected and established local journalists use FB daily. This has totally blindsided me, as I was interested in "old" media rather than "new" and frankly unprepared for studying online social networking -- and when I began my research in 2007 it was irrelevant anyhow. As a grudging user of the social network format myself, I have been overwhelmed by the sophisticated techniques for manipulating publicity or visibility these journalists employ (sophisticated to me, I should add), especially the method of "tagging" people in photos of articles they've written, so that those people get a message that there is a new photo of them, as well as an alert with every subsequent comment. Many journalists maintain new portfolios of their work in this way, ensuring their articles/editorials a circulation among a select group of other local movers and shakers. This can lead to long chains of comments, often with a surprising amount of controversy and debate.

In one case a couple months ago, during an outbreak of cholera in the state, the discussion in the comments led to several Oriyas living outside the state, in Delhi and Mumbai, joining together to create their own activist group -- over the subsequent month they collected donations (via FB and a website) and sent their own doctors (friends) to the region to provide care. The group is currently taking on a second project of school improvement in another poor rural district; their successes have been lauded by several traditional publications in the state, which also circulated on FB.

So I would argue that the distinction between "virtual" and "real" is not felt strongly among these FB users. To the contrary, they are savvy users of FB in the context of their non-FB lives. Several times I've been privvy to gossipy conversations over tea that include discussions of FB postings -- and these postings are important because of their non-FB ramifications. In one case a controversy started on a mobile phone conversation, moved to FB, continued over tea, involved a confrontation at the home of another journalist, continued on FB, and then I got the full post-mortem over tea! Thus, while I do suspect the abstract "others" of FB are important, situations like this and the frequent tagging of long lists of individuals' names suggest that for these users there is a particular, desireable shape to visibility/publicity.

This is interesting to me esp. because FB use here in Orissa necessitates some social adjustments. In Orissa, as for most in India, most people are not "friends" -- they are elders or juniors, relatives or potential spouses, bosses or underlings, class cohorts or potential employers. Aside from school cohorts (a powerful but understudied social category in India) and intimate, same-aged friends, there is little expectation of equality, and relations must be marked in stratified space with each interaction. Moreover, this is especially true among journalists where seniority, success, and moral authority play a tremendous role. So I have been trying to track how these relations get transposed into the apparently egalitarian world of FB. Much of it is done through honorifics, but it seems to be performed also through the organization of who posts comments on whose updates. For instance, some very high placed journalists rarely comment anywhere except for the occasional remark on another high-ranking person's status (though of course it is hard to judge if this is actual motivated by status or if it just ends up looking like it).

I don't want to overplay the status card -- there are also a surprising number of public personal statements on FB, and especially younger users seem to be very informal across the board (I think the rise of personal poetry blogs among young adults may be a related trend). I also feel like there is something important going on in the public performance of egalitarian-like friendships among non-intimates, perhaps because they index global/American/elite -- the emergence of a new kind of status (that is about egalitarianism)? One friend in Orissa recently remarked to me that FB is "more academic" (his word choice in English) whereas Orkut is "more for friendship" -- and this has me wondering if he was referring to the potential professional/status implications of FB. Based on this small field experience, I would say that here in Orissa the interaction between FB and non-FB life or, put differently, the use of FB as a medium in social relations, is one way into the political-economy of FB use. Perhaps on my next research trip, if FB is still in use, I'll get a chance to explore that fully.
Nice ethnographic observations, Katherine. More please. Hehehehe

This one below is particularly interesting as it suggests the continuum of space and movement where Facebook is as real as someone's home and a conversation on Facebook is no different to having a gossipy talk over tea.

"In one case a controversy started on a mobile phone conversation, moved to FB, continued over tea, involved a confrontation at the home of another journalist, continued on FB, and then I got the full post-mortem over tea!"

I wonder if the Muslim versus Hindu versus Christian rhetorical conflict offline is also continued on FB. I have observed the same conflict on Indian Express and expressed anonymously. They just love bashing the Christian and Italian Sonia Gandhi in those news sites. Can they do the same on FB where anything done in anonymity is not really given importance? I read about that Orkut incident where a member was sent to jail for bashing Sonia Gandhi. I wonder if Indian journalists can freely write on FB criticizing larger-than-life politicians.

I'm glad you enjoyed the story, M. But I think I should clarify: FB may be "just as real" but that doesn't mean that it's the same as someone's home. The evidence is strong that it is important as a specific kind of medium or space, with different affordances of visibility/publicity than any tea shop. It's powerful for these journalists because it's a mix of publication forum and socializing space which doesn't exist elsewhere, at least that I can think of. I should have also mentioned, in the story quoted below, the parts of the controversy that took place on FB were posted on the author's own "wall", not private exchanges -- I believe it was the publicness that ramped up the controversy and led to the face-to-face confrontation. To achieve that degree of tension without FB, there would either have to be a LOT of rumors flying around or a publication -- but I feel like even those would have different effects. For instance, rumors here are about secrets, or at least the deniability of intended circulation -- you can't deny a "wall" post; publication of this criticism would have necessitated it being a lot more explicit and developed, and might have actually prevented future face-to-face meetings -- and the journalist who was criticized would probably have responded in a publication himself. Perhaps I'm trying to define Orissa's Facebook effect here. It's also interesting that during the two conversations I had about that controversy, I was each time referred back to the FB posting ("look at it at home tonight"), suggesting something about (semi)permanence is also key to FB's form of publicity.

As for complaints about politicians, that is indeed a major feature of postings. I haven't heard anything about that working against people -- but then people in Orissa already complain about politicians freely, and it sells a lot of newspapers. Complaint is one thing; I think actual sensitive information about politicians is not circulated on FB, or hasn't been yet. (Stay tuned...) More interesting to me is the way people come down fighting or supporting big corporate mining projects (Vedanta, Posco), which divide Orissa's elite. Though I see a lot of postings arguing both positions (pro and con), I haven't seen one direct confrontation between these posters.

I haven't seen anything against any religious group -- but then I'm talking about a pretty progressive and elite group of writers in an area where religious violence is against Christians, not Muslims. And the people I've known seem to easily agree that burning churches down is a bad idea.

M Izabel said:

This one below is particularly interesting as it suggests the continuum of space and movement where Facebook is as real as someone's home and a conversation on Facebook is no different to having a gossipy talk over tea.

"In one case a controversy started on a mobile phone conversation, moved to FB, continued over tea, involved a confrontation at the home of another journalist, continued on FB, and then I got the full post-mortem over tea!"
First for Huon the quick answer is NO. I have worked in Trinidad for over twenty years and published at least a thousand pages of ethnography and project after project shows that although divisions such as ethnicity are hugely important, perhaps increasingly important, for politics, they are not the primary fault lines for cultural diversity for the topics I mainly study. Trini’s are fearsomely Trini and I am more comfortable using the word Trini than I would be say Italian or German. The people you have listened to are just feeding divisive politicisation.

For Izabel I stand with witnessing and oracle, but clearly `searching out the other’ is a dominant Facebook theme, in fact in my work and in Illana’s work (she has looked at this more extensively than I have) I think the term stalking is entirely reasonable, especially the love life of one’s ex (not that I am suggesting that’s what you were dong!).
There is a vast amount of literature on how important masking is and how different is is from your assumptions and anecdotes. Rather than an academic text just try the Trinidadian novelist Earl Lovelace’s novel The Dragon Cant Dance to get a sense of its actual profundity, for him all Trinidadian life is masking.

For Katherine I think the importance of this discussion is that your observations can be repeated for most places in the word over the last year or so, it is extraordinary this impact and we have to deal with it. But actually there is no reason to presume that Facebook is intrinsically egalitarian, I don’t think I see any evidence that people mistake a Facebook `friend’ for a friend. I presume it will be adapted to a wide range of local contexts as it spreads, and it is entirely possible to create hierarchy, for example, between the people who mainly post and the people who mainly remain passive and just `like’ postings. In most cases Facebook itself starts from an elite position relative to established networks such as Orkut. Nor is Facebook a home, as you are all saying, it is its own thing, which will come to mediate religious difference, political activism, sexual relations, or whatever it is used for wherever it is used. As I have argued in the past for coca-cola and soap opera, apparent cultural homogenisation is often actually the vehicle for expanding cultural heterogeneity. Finally in Trinidad and also in the Philippines where I also study Facebook it IS used for highly sensitive and critical political comment – in fact its quickly become the main site for such criticisms.
I'm joining this discussion rather late, but have had a very nice afternoon reading through the (fantastic) paper and all the comments, I really like the way of viewing Facebook in the same way as Kula.

For me Facebook has always semmed to distort real life, rather than to represent it. For example, identity doesn't exist in the same way, Facebook users don't have gender, class or race - you don't have to specify these and you don't have to supply a picture of yourself. Also, whilst our identities, whether as a group or an individual are performed and evolve constantly, on Facebook this happens when you update your status or post a comment or a photo. I know that people have touched upon the idea of Facebook identities being truer because you can craft an image of yourself and I agree with this up to a point but I also think that identity on Facebook is static and so unreal.

I'm not sure if I worded this very well, but I have to go to a non-online seminar so don't have time to rewrite it.
Thanks, Daniel. First off, Im not sharing my ideas about Facebook to convince you to rethink your position. I just want to add to the conversation.

I don't think searching or exploring on Facebook is stalking. I searched James Dean and Tom Waits too, and that was after typing in Jesus Christ and Buddha.

I can understand Lovelace's generalization that all Trinidian life is masking. It's not science. I can say the same thing about Filipino life being going away using fictional novels of our famous writers about diaspora.

My quick reading of the synopsis of "The Dragon Can't Dance" gave me an impression that the author used the dragon costume as a colonial artifact that covered a confused identity. His was a postcolonial literature. It was about a man in search of a history and culture he could relate. The costume was a metaphor for the temporal layer of the self.

Facebook members are not searching for a culture or a history they can imbibe. They are exposing what they have with pride and even nostalgia for those in diaspora. Some create and make their own cultures and histories to rebel against the hegemonic mainstream.

I wish I knew someone from Trinidad. It would be helpful if someone, who could be both an outsider and an insider, would look at his own culture with multiple lenses and find out if Trinidian culture is just a temporal show.
In response to Daniel: Thanks for the responses on the fieldwork situation. I still feel that there are certain assumptions built into FB that make egalitarianism seem like the default position, even if none of the users accept that assumption uncritically: as Steph describes above, everyone is the same *kind*, and status differentiations take creative work of various sorts to establish. I feel this is a strong contrast to a social space that presumes individuals are of different kinds and must interact with reference to routines for those kinds. Now I say that, but then I think of the people who have fan pages rather than FB accounts, so perhaps I need to think more about that question of kinds. This is interesting to me precisely because of the point you make -- it's happening everywhere, and everyone may be resolving it differently. I'd like to understand what are the features of FB that shape their resolutions.

The idea that people are creating hierarchy through degrees and kinds of participation is great! I can't figure out which would be the higher role in the hierarchy though -- the person who refrains from participating or the person who participates enthusiastically? Perhaps that negotiation is what makes posting on Facebook so much fun? Because there is a game in that, and there is risk and success and failure, and it does take skill and timing. That would make for some great conversations I bet, completely in the Goffman line of getting people to describe how they interpret other people's self-positionings through those people's participation choices.

I also have a question for Daniel: I just reread the section of the paper on witnessing, following rereading some of the discussion here. I'd like to better understand how strong an argument for a particular regime of witnessing you're making in the communicative-cultural "surplus" that makes FB so fascinating for us. Are you suggesting that witnessing becomes a part of the FB experience regardless of the assumptions brought by the users? That there is some set of assumptions about witnessing (and perhaps also about that [other/meta-friend/god/public] that is doing the witnessing) brought about through the particular features of FB? Or were you confining that observation to Trinidad? I actually quite like the strong argument, even if I don't know if I buy it, because I think it could move us away from the questions of homogenization etc to questions of how and why certain cultural practices emerge in different places. Interesting to think this through the research materials in India because of the elaborate development of darshan (vision) as a religious-cultural practice -- a practice which places agency for vision in the viewee (the idol) rather than the viewer (the devotee).

I'm not trying to move us toward a recapitulation of the literacy debates transported to social networking. But I am interested in the kind of semiotic routines produced by the full package of Facebook -- whether witnessing, masking, hiding, revealing, stalking etc. -- and the degree to which those routines (and their social roles) come along with FB use anywhere, by anyone. (Again, I'm really not concerned with homogeneity)

Thanks to all the participants, as this has given me a lot to think about.
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.

I am spending a few days in Nirox, an estate near Johannesburg, a lush 18th century English garden built in an African semi-desert a few years ago at unimaginable ecological and financial cost. We are a group of University of Pretoria academics meeting with journalists to discuss how to become a public intellectual. One of the latter is Chris Roper, editor of the Mail & Guardian online, South Africa's leading liberal newspaper. Chris was handicapped in giving his talk by the almost total absence of electronic media in our meeting room. But he posted his lecture, The intellectual and social media, on his own website anyway.

He features in it a 4-minute YouTube clip, Is social media a fad? I wanted to embed it in this comment, as he did in his blog post, but all I can do is provide the link. Your eyes probably glaze over by now when exposed to yet another statistical soundbite about the speed of the social networking revolution. But I never tire of this stuff (taken from the video).

“By population, Facebook is the third biggest country in the world, after India, with well over half a billion users (and it’s not even a player in China, where QQ and Renren dominate). And 200 million people access Facebook on their mobile phones. Twitter has around 160 million users”.

“Radio took 38 years to reach 50 million users.

“TV took 13 years.

“Internet 4 years.

“iPod 3 years.

“Facebook added 200 million users in less than a year.

“iPod application downloads hit 1 billion in 9 months."

The OAC has gained over 4,000 members worldwide in a year and half, a minute figure, but that makes us already the second largest association around for anthropologists, their students and sympathizers.

I wrote a memoir of my own history in relation to all this, "An anthropologist in the world revolution" for Anthropology Today a year ago (attached). I attach it here not to advertize myself, but to bring home the fact that these SNS and related apps take us at amazing speed nearer towards the possiblility of full participation in world society. Google only really got going less than a decade ago, SNS are a feature of the last five years and so on. At last humanity is developing universal means of communication adequate to express universal ideas. The book did its best, print media even more in less time. But who knows where we will all be in another five years?

I would not knock Hegel for pointing out that looking back on the known past is the surest way of lending conceptual form to how we envisage an unknowable future. But we should not overdo reassuring an uncertain public that what we are experiencing is readily familiar in terms of what they and we knew before. The only way to ride this revolution is to insert yourself into it actively, to learn as you go; and academics have many ways of resisting that (see my opening).

Above all, each of us brings a bundle of personal advantages and drawbacks to this fast-moving scene. It is our task to make the most of the former and minimize the latter. Fortunately for people like me, the trend is overwhelmingly to make participation easier without having to master much in way of the technical skills. What excites me about Facebook and the other SNS that have emerged in this Web 2.0 phase is that social skills, constructive knowledge of social relations, along with writing and the other creative arts, hold the key to making the best use of what is unfolding before our eyes.

At least here, in this dedicated medium, the universal idea linking our deliberations ought to be how anthropology might be the answer to the questions posed by a world recreating itself through Facebook and the other elements shaping this revolution. I am profoundly grateful to Danny Miller for having posed and answered that question in his own way, launching in the process such an exhilarating conversation here at the OAC. We will surely build on that in future

And now I must go back to learning how to get my stuff into the print media which is still the gateway to radio which still pulls in the largest audiences in Africa and many other places....
Hello, I am a late comer in this conversation, almost too late to cover it all, ingest and digest it, and reply significantly. What struck me - among all other things discussed - is the fact that a lot of the conversation takes place around meanings, contents, hierachies established through these, etc. and less about the physical modality in which access to FB takes place. I would be very interested to know for example what is the influence that the mode of accessing the network has on the subject position of users, and on the process of subjectivation that extents beyond the network itself. For example, in Japan the time constraints for urban dwellers and the way they move through the city makes them access FB almost exclusively from the phone; many probably would not be able to do it from a computer... The interaction between the biological and the technological in this case forms in my opinion a new type of "politics of friendship" and I wold be very interesting if you have any thoughts on the role of this mediator (if any) in understanding friendship. As always, one of the underlying question for me is "what kind of self/individual/persona" emerges, and how its characteristics are equally constructed and distributed both in virtual space and in the real space of subjectivation through interaction with the objects that facilitate that subjectivation.

Thank you for all the interesting exchange; I hope it stays online .
Congrats to Keith Hart and the OAC team for this terrific session! Like Alexandru, I'm a latecomer. I was hoping to post earlier but haven't been able to until now.

In a review article for the JRAI of four recent anthropological works on the internet, all completed or published in 2008 (Postill 2010), I reached the following conclusion:

what all four studies capture is not a totalising ephocal ‘logic’ but rather ever more differentiated Internet ‘technologies, practices, contexts’ ([Miller and Slater] 2000: 3). The evidence provided in the reviewed texts strongly suggests that the Internet – and indeed the world – is becoming ever more plural and that no universal ‘logic of practice’ ... is gaining ascendancy at the expense of all other logics. Second Life has found its own niche within an Internet ecology that is expanding dramatically as millions of new users join and myriad new tools and practices are fashioned every year. This is an Internet niche that attracts, like all niches, certain kinds of people but not others. As someone who suffers from acute time poverty, I for one could only become an active Second Life resident if I turned such participation into a research project.

I would argue that Facebook, like Second Life, occupies its own niche within a still expanding internet, and that we should refrain from making epochal claims about its significance. It may be a big player platform, but it's still one among many old and new games in town.


Miller, D. and Slater D. 2000 The Internet: An Ethnographic Approach. Oxford: Berg.

Postill, J. 2010. ‘Researching the Internet’, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 16 (3), 646–650. Pre-publication version here.
I appreciate that for many Trinidad is not well known terrain so I hope I can be forgiven to reference my three previous volumes, Modernity: an ethnographic approach, Capitalism: an ethnographic approach and (with D Slater) The Internet: an ethnographic approach, though the point about masking and the temporality of being, is made most fully in a paper called Style and Ontology (from a book Consumption and Identity ed, J Friedman). Of course plenty of Trinis and other anthropologists working in the island would contest my views.

With regard to Katherine on witnessing. This is not a term I have ever heard from a Trini (or anyone else), nor do I think it relates to any intention of the makers of Facebook. It is an analytical conclusion based on my attempt to explain what people actually do on Facebook, that rests in turn on a theorisation of the very nature of morality in society. In other words observations about Facebook have led me to consider this as a much wider phenomenon. As such it has perhaps almost universal resonance, but at the same time it will be experienced locally according to local idioms, which is why I would imagine if a Trini discussed the issue it would probably be in reference to Pentecostal concepts of witnessing even if they were Hindu or Muslim because Pentecostalism has now such a strong presence in Trini cultural life. While as you imply in India the idiom for even discussing this would be different. The evidence itself comes from what we might think of as surplus practice, ie that which remains to be explained when other aspects of practice seem accounted for by less grandiose claims. Which of course means that you can ignore Trinidad if you like and consider whether you think the ideas have resonance for the place you yourself come from and live in. Because although I am using a Trini example I would be prepared to suggest that morality constituted by witnessing would also hold for British usage of Facebook, based on my own experience here.

I fully acknowledge that my ideas may on reflection seem entirely misguided and mistaken even to me, but the reason why this matters is given by Keith. Facebook may have arisen amazing fast but I do think it is profoundly significant and as Keith notes the mere fact that we now take for granted that we can have this debate on an anthropological social networking site (which is one reason why Keith’s invitation was so welcome and appropriate) is symptomatic of this. I would also insist that even though we spend a year in fieldwork there is nothing to stop anthropologists in being quick off the mark in engaging in the kind of serious debate about changes we recognise as of this importance, often before other disciplines seem to have woken up. Finally this engages with John’s point. As he knows I have always argued that apparently homogenising forms have heterogenising consequences, and that is why I study Facebook as Trinidadian. But that does not mean we should avoid epochal statements about Facebook of the kind Keith has just made, or indeed of the internet. The point of anthropology is to retain both respect for parochial difference and engage in general theory about humanity and the forms we live through. Which is what this discussion of witnessing attempts to do.

Finally Alex is of course right that access and `practice' of Facebook use is an important issue in its own right, and one that is discussed more in my book where for example Blackberry is starting to replace computers as the preferred mode of access, just as this may have certain resonances in Japan, I would argue it also links to specific preferences in Trinidad for immediacy as foundation for subjectivity which brings me back to the first point about masking

Daniel Miller said:
the fact that we now take for granted that we can have this debate on an anthropological social networking site

I'll tell you what, Danny, I will never take this stuff for granted. Maybe it's growing up in a world before TV, but it's all a bloody miracle to me. I have to pinch myself: chairing a seminar given by UCL's finest while rubbing shoulders with South Africa's top journalists... It gets more fantastic all the time. I can never treat any of it as being merely familiar. Yet that is what a lot of it becomes quite soon. Automatic, unconscious. Amazing!



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