Social Networking Sites
THE PARTICULAR SIGNIFICANCE OF SNS FOR ANTHROPOLOGY
The study of digital anthropology juxtaposes two terms. Anthropology is traditionally associated with the study of custom and tradition in small scale societies rather than with the cutting edge of modernity. Then there is the `digital’ which by contrast seems to ratchet up the speed of social change and represents the epitome of rapid transformation. It is no surprise that social networking sites (from now on SNS) the very latest of the major digital media seems also to have been the fastest also in terms of its ability to become a global infrastructure. The first mass usage of SNS was probably that of CyWorld in Korea in 2005, but the best known is the rise of Facebook from an instrument for connecting students at Harvard University to become, within six years, a site used by half a billion people with its recent growth areas in countries such as Indonesia and Turkey and heading towards older rather than younger persons.
If the rapidity of its development seems antithetical to anthropology, its substance seems to suggest close affinity. After all the very term `social networking’ could have been a definition of an anthropological perspective as against, for example, that of psychology. Anthropologists refused to study persons as mere individuals but, as in the study of kinship, an individual was regarded as a node in a set of relationships, a brother’s son or sister’s husband, where kinship is understood to be a social network. In contrast to anthropology, sociology was principally concerned with the consequences of an assumed decline from this condition as a result of industrialisation, capitalism and urbanism. Still today many of the most influential books in sociology such as Putnam’s (2001) Bowling Alone or Sennett’s (1977) Fall of Public Man, along with works by Giddens, Beck and Bauman remain clearly within this dominant trajectory. In all such work there is an assumption that older forms of tight social networking colloquially characterised by words such as community or neighbourhood are increasingly replaced by individualism.
Furthermore within sociology there has been an increasing interest in the idea that these individuals are best understood as networked. So the idea of social networking matched the developments in theory associated with Castells, Granovetter, and Wellman (though probably not Latour who uses the idea of a network for the rather different purpose of incorporating non-human agency). Castells made dramatic claims about the rise of the internet and how 'Our societies are increasingly structured around a bipolar opposition between the Net and the Self' (1996: 3). Over three volumes Castells (2000) presented what he termed The Network Society, though the main focus was on presumed linkages between new information technologies and new forms of political economy, governance, power and globalisation. Coming after the fashion for post-modernism in academic theory these were seen as further extensions of an assumed individualism and fragmentation in modern life.
The theorist who has done most to keep open the dialogue between online and offline forms of sociality has been Barry Wellman (Boase and Wellman 2006). In his case it is location based networking such as neighbourhoods and community that have been in some measure replaced by internet based networking. Research suggested that online networking may foster a renewal of some degree of offline sociality in new residential settlements (Hampton and Wellman 2003). A further influence was the work of Granovetter (1973) who suggested that sometimes people weaker and more distant ties could be highly significant and not just their immediate strong ties. This seemed important for internet communities which were often partial and transitory.
Postill (2008) provides an anthropological critique of this work (see also Woolgar Ed 2002 ), urging caution in using the older terminology of community and neighbourhood, but also noting the increasing fetishism of the term network arising from this new sociological sub-discipline of social network analysis. Instead (as in this volume) he favoured a more nuanced and contextualised ethnography of the many different social fields in which people engage on, for example, short term more activist related political collectives that emerged from his fieldwork in a Malaysian suburb. This view was supported by Miller and Slater (2001) who had criticised Castells, but also argued that internet based networks were too dispersed and partial to equate with these older forms of sociality.
The premise of this chapter, however, is that SNS correspond neither to the sociological work of Castells and Wellman on networks but nor to the critiques of Postill, Miller and Slater. Rather SNS have turned out to be something much closer to older traditions of anthropological study of social relations such as kinship studies. The critical points made by Postill and Miller and Slater followed evidence that internet networks tended to be specialist and partial associated with specific interests. By contrast SNS are in several important respects quite the opposite of the earlier internet. On Facebook peer to peer friendships were then joined by family and kin based networks, and in some cases also saw the dissolution of the distinctions between home and work (Broadbent 2011), thereby bringing together in one place what had been separate networks. As such SNS challenge the fundamental premise that separates sociology from anthropology. That the overlapping social relationships that were foundational to anthropological study inevitably decline towards the more separated out networks that are central to sociology.
A similar problem arises with the idea of networked individualism as fostered by Castells and Wellman. To pre-empt my second case study on usage by migrants, a recent paper by McKay (forthcoming) demonstrates the flaws in such arguments. McKay has been working for many years with people from the Northern Philippines and then increasingly with their dispersed migrant families. She notes how those that remain in the Philippines often juxtapose their presentation of themselves on SNS with old black and white historical photographs of kin. In addition they use photographs of old buildings from the local town or iconic photographs from collections made about the Philippines in older times. As such they recognise that when a family member in the diaspora comes onto their site, the have to represent not just an autonomous individual, but a node within an extended and ancestral family and site. She theorises these extensions using the work of Strathern (1996) and Melanesian concepts of personhood, which are premised on entirely different concepts of the person from the individualism presumed by Wellman.
From this evidence we may construct a larger argument. Instead of focusing on SNS as the vanguard of the new, and the rapidity of its global reach, it may well be that SNS are so quickly accepted in places as such as Indonesia and Turkey because their main impact is to redress some of the isolating and individualising impacts of other new technologies and allow people to return to certain kinds of intense and interwoven forms of social relationship that they otherwise feared were being lost. SNS have then an extraordinary ability to return the world back to the kinds of sociality that were the topic of traditional anthropological concern and as such are hugely important to contemporary anthropology and the future of the discipline. As suggested in the introduction to this volume we have most to learn from the normativity quickly imposed upon these technologies.
STUDIES OF SNS
The first attempt to create a more systematic engagement with SNS was probably that of danah boyd building on her initial thesis work on platforms such as Friendster. Her review (boyd and Ellison 2007) of the history and range of SNS has become still more important now that journalistic treatments (and the influential film The Social Network) seem to be simplifying that history as though there was some inevitable trajectory that led towards the current dominance of Facebook, based on the particular personality and vision of Mark Zukerberg. By contrast boyd shows that Facebook arose alongside a whole slew of SNS and much of what subsequently developed was more happenstance than intention. SNS could migrate quickly from their intended base and also their intended function. So a US site such as Orkut could end up as the main SNS of Brazil, and a dating site such as Friendster could evolve into a very different genres that dominated SNS usage in South East Asia. At least initially movement was rapid between SNS, most conspicuously in the rise and decline of MySpace, whose impact was less on sociality per. se., than on new ways of disseminating music to mass audiences. CyWorld was already almost ubiquitous amongst South Korean youth by 2005 and remains dominant there. So the triumph of Facebook may not reflect any particular superior functionality, but merely the overwhelming desire of everyone to be on the same site, combined with a unique ability to spread through emulation. Just as US colleges took to Facebook in emulation of its origins in Harvard, so I could observe over the course of 2009-10 how Facebook took over from Friendster in the Philippines, principally based on the prestige of early adoption in key Manila universities.
Recent anthropological work including boyd alongside Heather Horst and Mimi Ito (Ito et. al. 2010 ) looks at more general use within friendship circles of teenagers in the US while Gershon (2010) has documented the importance of Facebook in relationship breakup amongst US students. All such work contributes to what has probably become the single most sustained discussion of the implications of SNS which was predicted in the title of boyd’s paper (2008) Facebook's Privacy Trainwreck. The argument being that the ideology behind Facebook, where the default was complete openness, had led users into a level of public exposure that was both unintended and could have quite problematic consequences (especially for children, see Livingstone 2008, 2009). Questions arose as to whether individual’s relationships could be threatened by the evidence of who else they spent time with, or that having fun misbehaving at a party could lead them to being refused a job as employers inspected their site. With the ultimate threat of children exposed to sexual predation. As anthropologists have noted, SNS simply do not correspond to more traditional oppositions between a public sphere and the private (boyd, 2007, Gershon 2010). Rather SNS such as Facebook tend to reflect an aggregate of an individual’s private spheres, the previously dyadic contact with each friend or relative, co-present in the same space. This is not at all the same as broadcasting to a more general public, though the latter may be fostered in the more journalistic style of Twitter.
There is a singularly important trajectory from the work of anthropologists focused on issues of privacy and exposure in private and intimate life to the increasing concern with the same conundrum about exposure and privacy in respect to politics. The point is evident in the contrast between two recent high profile books about SNS. The first by Kirkpatrick (2010) called The Facebook Effect starts with a story about how a Facebook site became the catalyst for a popular movement in Columbia. Mobilising 10 million people in street demonstrations which curbed the violence and kidnapping by the FARC guerrilla movement. By contrast, Morozov (2011) in a book called The Net Delusion suggests that the claims made for Twitter and Facebook in facilitating the Green protests in Iran were wildly exaggerated. He suggests there is rather more evidence that these media represent documentation that can be used by repressive regimes for locating and suppressing dissent (see Postill, this volume).. Similar issues arise on the more development side of anthropological work where SNS have been noted as instrumental in relief efforts ranging from Typhoons in the Philippines to earthquakes in Haiti, but again we lack the ethnographic evidence to properly assess such claims.
CASE ONE: THE COMPARATIVE ANTHROPOLOGY OF SNS
One would expect that a major part of any anthropological contribution to the study of SNS would be that of cultural relativism, based on the assumption that different regions gradually appropriate SNS through processes of localisation to emerge as specific to the cultural concerns of that region. A classic argument of that kind, though not strictly related to SNS, was Humphrey’s (2009) study of Russian chat rooms. She notes how many users view their avatars and other aspects of their on-line presence in a singularly Russian manner. As one of her informants puts it `The avatar is not designed to demonstrate the person’s face. It should convey the inner state of the person, his soul, one might say, or the condition of his soul’. (40-1). The analogy, familiar from Russian literature, is that ordinary life is a suppression of the true inner being of the person which lies deep in the soul and which is both profound and expressive. Viewing these avatars as somehow closer to that inner being and capable of the more direct expression of powerful emotions, suggests that on-line activity accords with what has been taken as quintessentially Russian (compare Miller 2011:40-52 on the idea of Facebook as the book of truth) .
As already noted, notwithstanding all the current attention to Facebook, the first significance establishment of SNS was Cyworld which was ubiquitous amongst South Korea youth by 2005. Studies by Hjorth (2009, 2010) and others (e.g. Qiu 2009) suggest that there are many features of this and other East Asian SNS which closely reflect the underlying cultural priorities of those regions. For example, In Cyworld one’s friends and contacts are subject to a series of circles from the closest to the most distant. This seems to be modelled on the same idea of concentric circles as definition within Korean kinship. East Asian sites also tend to use a genre of the `cute,’ which is seen as a kind of warm domestication of what otherwise might be experienced as the colder edge of new technologies. SNS such as QQ in China show more concern with the development of an avatar rather than the mere representation of the user, and have tighter integration of gaming. Far more money tends to be spent on the `interior decoration’ of such sites, all of which suggest that there are elements which may be distinctly regional.
After using anthropological relativism to establish regional difference we are then in a position to engage in the comparative analysis of SNS. The potential is evident in the work of Stefana Broadbent (2011, also this volume), who has developed the concept of attention. Synchronous communication such as IM or phone calls demand immediate attention from one’s correspondent and this claim to attention raises various issues of power and control. By contrast Facebook is one of the least engaging and demanding channels. Being a semi public act a posting is not to anyone in particular and so doesn’t require or demand the attention of any other particular correspondent. The significance of her point becomes much clearer through her comparison between Facebook and Cyworld. If in Cyworld you agree to be a Cy-ilchon i.e. very close relation then you are socially bound by expectations of immediate reciprocity to comment on each other. Most people have less than 20 Cy-lichons. The point being that Cyworld comes with the demands for attention and the burdens of intense sociality that are what makes media such as email and IM feel a bit like work even when used for leisure communication. This is in clear contrast to Facebook.
This stage of comparative studies is based on noting the differences between regions with respect to their particular dominant SNS. But the possibility of making such comparisons might seem negated by the rise of Facebook at the expense of all other alternative SNS. Once Facebook becomes globally ubiquitous then the only way we can retain the insights of comparison is by focusing instead upon the regional differences within usage of Facebook. So, for example, we can still address Broadbent’s issue of attention by noting that in the Philippines there seems to be a much greater pressure to respond to postings by friends than in the UK.
At the same time there are dangers in any claim to localised difference. For example several commentators have suggested that Facebook is some kind of emanation or reflection of the neo-liberalism of the contemporary US political economy. Or that Happy Farm, the most popular SNS related game in China, differs from the Facebook equivalent of Farmville because stealing crops is an integral element in the former but not the latter. This is said to be because of the ambivalence felt in China towards capitalism as represented in the game. But it would be just as easy to argue that China today is far less ambivalent about capitalism than most other regions. Arguments about comparison and regional localism need to be based on more sustained analysis based on wider contexts of usage, rather than glib assertions that SNS must embody the entire political economy of their context.
In our earlier study of the Internet in Trinidad (Miller and Slater 2000) we argued for a larger dialectical analysis. Most studies at that time understood their brief as documenting processes of globalisation and localisation. So they might have written an account of what happens to the Internet when it becomes appropriated by Trinidadians. But we argued that there simply was no such thing as the internet per. se. Rather, the internet was that which people engaged in online in some particular place. We should not privilege US or UK usage as the internet, which could be equally exemplified by each and every place. With respect to any given region, we could only document what the internet is through its use by Trinidadians, or what Trinidadians had become thanks to the internet. A similar argument is implied by the very way Trinidadians talk about Facebook. Quite often the site is referred to as either Fasbook or Macobook. In Trinidadian dialect to be fas is to try and get to know another person rather too quickly, as compared to the accepted etiquette. To be maco is to be nosy, constantly trying to pry into other people’s private business. Since both of these terms are seen as particularly characteristic of Trinidadian behaviour, there seems to be a natural affinity between the propensity within the infrastructure of Facebook itself and the cultural inclination of Trinidadians. A leading historian of Trinidad told me a story about how, when the Caribbean islands were considering coming together in a united political entity in the late 1950s, they decided against making the Trinidadian capital of Port of Spain the base for the new federation for fear of the disruptive effect of the Trinidadian love of rumour and gossip. So this idea that Trinidadians are naturally Fas and Maco is nothing new.
In a previous paper (Miller 1992) I argued that the word bacchanal is perhaps the most common expression of what people feel it means to be distinctly Trinidadian and that this had been previously expressed through an attachment to an imported US soap opera, The Young and the Restless. Bacchanal in turn relies upon the central role of sex in Trinidad as an expression of the truth about what human beings in the end really are, and what they will inevitably end up doing despite themselves. Gender itself is constituted by a basic exchange relationship between sex and labour. Women, for example, are sceptical of formal marriage since their male partners may then take sex for granted, rather than it being dependent on men continuing to work on behalf of the wider family (Miller 1994: 168-201). All these concepts gain their most explicit expression in the annual festival of Carnival which celebrates the values of bacchanal.
In these studies I was attempting to map out the core values of Trinidadian life often in contrast with others such as ideals of respectability and religious ideals promulgated within Pentecostalism. In Tales from Facebook (Miller 2011) I examine in detail the degree to which it is Facebook that is now viewed as expressive of these core Trini values. There are many examples within that book which demonstrate why it feels as though Facebook was already predestined for Trinidad, notwithstanding its actual origins at Harvard University. For example the way Facebook with its technology of tagging photographs of people seen in public is found to lead to the exposure of individuals in the company of the wrong people, one of the main sources for the eruption of bacchanal in contemporary Trinidad.
The first of the portraits in Tales from Facebook is of a marriage breaking down because of Facebook. But this occurs not because of what the husband thinks people in general do with Facebook. It is because of what his partner can’t help but do, as a typical macotious Trini, constantly looking into the private world of every single woman her partner has any contact with on Facebook. It is less clear whether the evidence that in Trinidad there was already a verb ‘to friend’ which traditionally meant ‘to have sex with’ has a bearing on such cases. When a figure I call Vishala says that the truth of another person is more likely to be found in their Facebook profile than through meeting them face to face, this again implies a very Trinidadian concept of truth and authenticity as found in appearance as opposed to the deception which is found deep within a person. Similarly, when the business man Burton argues that, in order to understand Facebook, you need first to appreciate how people are themselves social networking sites, he frames this by what he regards as the particular way Trinis engage in business as opposed to business practices he witnessed working abroad. Even the particular Trinidadian version of Pentecostal and Apostolic churches manage to find ways to express their specific values and ideals through Facebook. Indeed the whole experience of using Facebook may be described using the term `liming’ which is how Trinidadians understand their particular mode of socialising. Originally associated with street corner life and hanging out with others, liming has gradually broadened in connotation to a more general hanging out with. But its significance here is that it is used to render Facebook once more as a specifically Trinidadian practice rather than as an imported infrastructure.
These arguments are crucial to contemporary anthropology. If the globalization of drinks such as Coca-Cola, or of digital instruments such as Facebook, indicate only global homogenization, then this implies a decline in cultural diversity and specificity, the core concerns of anthropological investigation. However, if these imported products then become subject to processes that make their regional appropriation distinctive, then they can become the source of new forms of cultural diversity. If, as I have argued above, they only ever exist in respect to the specific cultural practices of some particular population then there is really no difference from traditional anthropological apprehensions of cultural diversity. So anthropology is showing some self-interest here. It becomes a more relevant and necessary discipline to the degree that Facebook is transformed into Fasbook. Though to take this one stage further, the point is not that Facebook is localised, so much as that Fasbook is invented by Trinidadians at the same time as Trinidadians are dialectically changed through their use of Fasbook. For the anthropologist there is no such thing as Facebook there is only the aggregate of its particular usages by specific populations. The relativism of anthropology pertains then not just to the differences between Orkut, Twitter, QQ, Facebook and Cyworld it is also the heterogeneity of each SNS as made evident from what we may hope will soon be multiple ethnographic encounters.
CASE TWO : THE USE OF SNS BY MIGRANTS
The specific importance of the internet for migrant populations who are separated from their families has been clear for some time (e.g. Horst and Panagakos 2006). It is not surprising that this has become true in turn for the ability of SNS to both unite diaspora populations and facilitate their connections with their homeland. An example would be the study by Oosterbaan (2010a and 2010b) of the way Orkut has quickly established itself as a major point of reference and organisation for the Diaspora Brazilian populations of Europe, often based around virtual groups associated with particular cities such as Barcelona and Amsterdam. Similarly in Shenzhen, perhaps the world’s fastest growing modern city, a study of taxi drivers suggest that QQ is being used to bring together the new local social networks based around work with these migrants originally kin based networks. QQ is seen as more personal and less instrumental than telephone calls back to ones place of origin (Wei and Qian 2009:819). Other studies in China note how internal migrants also chat to strangers as another pool of sociality (Qui 2009:99), with mobile QQ dominating often for reasons of cost (Cheng 2011). In most regions SNS are generally used by migrants as part of a constellation of media. For example the Polish migrants in Ireland studied by Komito mainly use their own Polish based SNS called Nasza-Klasa in a relatively passive manner simply to keep up to date with their fellow Poles, while using other media for more active social engagement.
Over 2008-10 I carried out a research project with Mirca Madianou on Filipina migrant mothers and their left-behind children (Madianou and Miller 2011). Much of our research was in the UK but we also travelled to the Philippines to meet the actual children of the women we had worked with. At that time the most common social networking sites we encountered in the Philippines were Friendster, Facebook and Multiply. SNS are used alongside other media in retaining connections, for example, when someone finds that many of their school friends have now emigrated for work. Sometimes one SNS is used for more formal family connections including photographs of family events such as births and weddings, while another SNS is used for more informal postings. Many of the older women in the UK learnt to use such sites mainly for communication with kin.
In the Philippines, as elsewhere, a pivotal moment in the transformation of SNS was when individuals started to get friends requests from their mothers. This signalled a movement from college or peer linkages to the incorporation of core kinship networks. Some of these linkages were experienced as highly positive encounters. An example would be when children felt this combination of distance and intimacy allowed them to achieve a more adult relationship with their own parents. Their physical separation combined with easy communication had provided just the right degree of autonomy to facilitate this change in their relationship. In another case, however, a left behind child found his idealised imagination of his own mother shattered when he gained access to her Friendster account and could see the kinds of party pictures that women commonly post on SNS. SNS can also lead to closer surveillance, for example, over the use of remittances, meeting children’s boy and girlfriends and sometimes trying to compensate for absence by the high degrees of control imposed on left behind children.
The importance of this research is that it challenges the simple idea that migration leads to a loss of communication in relationships that is then repaired by the advent of new media. What we encountered was more complex and ambivalent, with at least some of the children claiming that the ease of communication with their mothers that came from new media made their lives worse rather than better, because of the overuse of such sites for surveillance or the way this increased media contact exposed the inability of absent parents to relate to their children as they had now become. Evident for example, in the way that parents they still sent them presents more suited to younger children than themselves. In the Philippines SNS are also the main place for blogging and here too there were issues when children blogged their private anxieties and resentments with regard to their absent parents (see also Rettberg 2008: 77-80) In some cases the highly public nature of posting could lead the entire diasporic extended family having to acknowledge disputes that otherwise would have been managed more privately. We also found that while the etiquette was to accept all friends requests within the Philippines, usage in the UK could reflect growing class divisions for examples between nurses and domestic workers (compare Hargittai 2007).
McKay’s (forthcoming) work on the use of Facebook amongst Filipino migrants in London reinforces this view of the ambiguous and sometimes negative consequences of SNS for migrants. She also brings us back to issues of politics and privacy and the way these connect the intimate with wider politics. These migrants mainly use Facebook so that they can follow each others social lives in detail. Where someone has visited, what they wore, who they were with and so forth. Mostly they belong to the same church network which itself runs a Facebook group, and they enthusiastically examine photos from church events. The bulk of photographs posted are essential domestic and quotidian. This is a population whose origin is in a Northern rural area where close kinship, ritual and trust are retained as aspects of community and these are exported to the new London environment.
But as I have argued with respect to the Trinidadian study (Miller 2011) real communities have always been subject to contradictory forces, including petty jealousies, long term quarrels and exclusions. Most of these migrants are illegal and at the extreme there is a constant fear that internal quarrels might lead to one person reporting another to the police with subsequent deportation. The problem is that they find it impossible to limit this Facebook openness, for reasons that McKay, (following Strathern 1996) argues are intrinsic to the way kinship and reciprocity tends to work within bilateral systems of kinship.
So Facebook can exacerbate quarrels and tensions, in this case leading to people being cropped out of photographs, or accused of witchcraft, all of which activity is as much followed by those who remain in the villages in the Philippines as those based now in London at this church. In short Facebook tends to up the ante on the critical tension between trust and risk that is bound to arise for a migrant community in a situation of semi-legal status in a foreign land. So far from distancing them from traditional contradictions of community it makes these `community’ like aspects of social life still more intense.
The initial literature on migration naturally focuses upon the use of SNS to recover and maintain links with the homeland. But it is also possible to take a more radical view of where SNS might lead in the future. Instead of regarding SNS as simply a means to communication between two given localities, it is perhaps also possible to start thinking about SNS as a site in which people in some sense actually live. A Filipina worker in London I know well makes no use any of the local facilities, never going out to pubs or films. Apart from working, sleeping and eating in London, she spends her time on SNS in the company of friends and kin. In Tales from Facebook (Miller 2011) we find the story of Dr. Karamath who is disabled and so never steps out of his house in Trinidad, living as much as possible within Facebook instead which is where he `works’ aggregating activist information on human rights, and `socialises’ with a group of new friends from the South Asian diaspora. It makes more sense to see such individuals as living inside the SNS rather than in the physical location in which they sleep and eat.
Viewing Facebook more as a kind of home than as a type of communication between homes also helps make sense of one of the key ways in which people use SNS, which is as a site for `interior decoration’. It helps explain how people tidy, decorate and adorn their sites. As Horst has shown it may be quite hard to distinguish between a US teenager decorating her bedroom and decorating her MySpace site. She may even deliberately choose a common colour scheme for both (Horst 2010). In Trinidad much of the time spent on Facebook is in uploading photographs or links that effectively create a personal aesthetic. Indeed the term interior decoration makes for a convenient pun, since it is even more evident on Facebook, than in room decoration, that what is emerging in the public space is a sense of the interior i.e. private space of the individual externalised onto this digital domain. This seems still more appropriate when we see that many of the exchanges taking place are trivial inconsequential items about the day’s events that are more like the communication between people who are co-present in the same home. So one ironic effect of the increasing transnationalism and cosmopolitanism of migration, is that SNS are also in the vanguard of creating a new form of domesticity, where such sites are emerging as places within which migrants could be said to live rather than merely technologies of communication. This linkage with the domestic is the subject of Horst’s chapter within this volume.
This chapter has focused narrowly on SNS but in the future it is likely that all such studies of specific digital media will have to take more account of the wider context of polymedia. Polymedia is a term developed by Madianou and myself to reflect a critical transformation in digital communicative media more generally (see also Baym 2010). Polymedia follows where a population has paid for computer usage or a smartphone. This means firstly that they have access to up to a dozen different ways of communicating, and secondly that the cost of an individual act of communication lies in the background expense of the infrastructure rather than the actual act of communication. Under such circumstance it is harder to assert that the reason for picking this or that media was one of either cost or access. Rather a person is held responsible for which media they choose to use. Gershon (2010) shows that when boyfriends and girlfriends are dumped the key question may be why they chose to do this by phone or text or email or Facebook and what that says about the person. Madianou and Miller argue (2011) that this in effect resocialises media use in general as we move from technological considerations to the new normativities that in any given society around the meaning of any particular media.
At the same time that we may contextualise SNS as one of many alternative media that are being used, we also see that SNS have themselves been transformed into instruments of polymedia, as they allow people to use IM or other forms of messaging within the SNS site. Similarly SNS are currently migrating from computer to smartphone increasing the sense that SNS are always-on media which can be checked incessantly. In conclusion one future direction of study is likely to be the subsuming of SNS within researching polymedia more generally.
A similar issue to that of Polymedia is an increasing appreciation of how SNS expand in their connectivity with many other topics within this volume. For example, to take Malaby’s contribution SNS may become linked to games such as World of Warcraft (e.g. Golub 2010). More than that, they may represent a fundamental change in gaming culture itself. Today the most important online games in global terms may have become those actually embedded within SNS such as Facebook and QQ. Hjorth (2010) points out that Happy Farm and Farmville look nothing like the teenage world of traditional hardcore gaming such as Halo and World of Warcraft. These are more likely to be dominated by an entirely different demographic, such as older women. Other growing links are with YouTube where the following of sites can lead to the development of particular networks Lange (2007) and the entire spectrum of digital media discussed in this volume.
Although some SNS such as Facebook are increasingly seen as global in both scope and reach there have also been a proliferation of more specialist and targeted SNS that pertain to more particular anthropological studies such as the elderly or various subcultures of sexual orientation, or music (Baym 2007, Madden 2010). For example gay men in the Philippines tend to retain links to SNS specifically associated with that subculture, while maintaining other links to family and so forth in Friendster and Facebook. Detailed study of such usage helps depose common stereotypes. In Australia not only do the elderly use the internet but a 70 year old may be quicker at turning such contacts into direct sexual activity than the young (Malta and Farquharson 2010). So the study of dominant and global SNS needs to be complemented by the continued importance of more specialist SNS. We are also likely to see more specialist anthropological analysis, for example, exploiting the evidence of such textual material for work in anthropological linguistics (e.g. Jones, G. and Schiefflin, B. 2009. Jones, G. Schiefllin, B. and Smith, R, 2011).
Anthropology is a discipline that balances its concern for the particular with more universal ambitions. In the last sections of Miller (2011) I have tried to indicate the potential for a much wider anthropological engagement with SNS, exploring issues of cosmology and theory. In studying Facebook it is soon apparent that it exhibits a surplus communicative economy in that people seem to do all sorts of things with it that are hard to reduce to some simply communicative need or any other form of instrumentalism. At one stage I turn the usual logic around and ask whether instead of seeing Facebook as a means to facilitate friendships between people, many of us use friendships between people to facilitate a relationship to Facebook itself? SNS could be then seen as a meta-best-friend who we could turn to when no one else wanted to be socially engaged with us, such as in the early morning when feeling lonely and unable to sleep.
This accounts for some but not all of the observable surplus communicative economy. It still doesn’t seem to explain the large number of SNS friends who are not part of any active SNS interaction and also the more recent trend at least in Trinidad to post quite revealing material that may not place the user in the most flattering light. Social networks also seem to generate their own compulsion to visibility. Just as people don’t feel they are actually on holiday unless they see photographs of themselves enjoying that holiday, so today some people don’t seem to feel they have had an experience of an event unless they have broadcast it through Facebook or Twitter. In Tales from Facebook I speculate about a cosmological aspect to SNS in which it acts as a point of `witnessing’ which allows us to view ourselves as moral beings whose actions are always subject to adjudication, something that traditionally we might have ascribed to the gaze of the divine, but here is rendered as a generic other consisting of that wide canopy of SNS friends beyond those we actually communicate with. In short it suggests that SNS are also a form of moral encompassment that gives them a cosmological significance.
The implication of such arguments is to bring SNS back to the terrain of anthropological theory and the wider ambitions of anthropology as a discipline for understanding the fundamental nature of society and culture. This is also the reason why Tales from Facebook ends with a detailed analogy drawn between the study of the Kula ring and that of SNS. The argument being that at least for Munn (1986) in her book The Fame of Gawa Kula served as emblematic of culture because it was an instrument for what she calls intersubjective spacetime: the scale of the world within which people can live and gain Fame. There are positive transformations that expand this spacetime and negative transformations that shrink it. My proposition is that Facebook acts to replace the immediate consumption of conversation just as Gawa forbids the immediate consumption of produce. These conversations must first be sent out into wider spheres where they create an expansion of spacetime, with a much greater range of people involved in that communication. But the same instruments that assist in this expansion of spacetime also retain the potential for destroying and diminishing spacetime such as bachannal in Trinidad or witchcraft in Gawa. These also operate as an important sanction which secures normative and moral usage of Facebook or Kula. So culture itself can grow or it can shrink and Facebook is analogous to Kula as an instrument for this growth and contraction. At this level SNS can contribute to the further development of core theory in Anthropology.
The sheer ubiquity of SNS means that they are likely to become an aspect of almost any area of anthropological study in the future; from economic life and religion through to development studies and medical anthropology. But the reason for focusing so tightly upon SNS within the more general realm of Digital Anthropology is that SNS possess qualities that seem to have a particular affinity with the discipline of anthropology itself. If my argument is correct, then the importance of SNS is not the unprecedented brave new world they open up, but their inherent conservatism, helping to bring back the intense social relationships and the interconnectedness between what had become separated out fields of sociality. Throughout this chapter I have argued that it is not just that anthropologists can study SNS it is that SNS may be bringing the world back closer to the premises of anthropological research.
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