Why We Post




What 'friends' on the screen may mean: social networking shaping the Filipino diaspora

Dr Deirdre McKay
Senior Lecturer, Geography
Keele University

William Smith Building
Keele University
Staffordshire UK ST5 5NA


My current project studies social networking platforms as one locus among several in an ethnographic multisite in the broader Filipino diaspora. I've come to social networking as both site and research methodology because of my interest in much older forms of social organization - village and region - and my curiousity about the ways these forms persist and are being reinvigorated or transformed by polymedia and digital technologies. My recent book, Global Filipinos (2012) tracks migrants' use of mobile phones as this new-to-respondents technology reshapes the intimate field of the village and its households.  But this material is already history, with many of my current research participants having moved from texting home to their kids to 'Facebooking' them, combining webcam with chat and an image/video grab feed.  As might be expected, it's been my mobile and tech-savvy Filipino migrant respondents - including Ruel Bimuyag (photo 1) - who have motivated me to move my work on-line, not the other way around.  My work on social networking is thus embedded in what are questions of intimacy, indigenous identities and distance - the ways people think and feel about themselves in and through a digitally-mediated world. 

Because this research project is situated in what is already a well-characterized social field - the Kankana-ey 'ili' or village and regional Igorot cultures - I'm able to use my findings to challenge what are some persistent preconceptions about social networking by showing some of the various ways it may be taken up and appropriated to a cultural field characterized by long-established translocal connections.  For example, I have shown that social networking is not simply 'networked individualism' but able to express and recompose forms of Filpino extended personhood that persist from the pre-colonial era (McKay, 2011). I've made this argument by analysing the appropriation of historical images as profile photographs.  I have found such images on 'friends' lists that largely capture ties of kinship and propinquity, recreating a sense of village-ness for migrants now scattered across a number of receiving nations. Yet networks also work against these ties.  I've been exploring the ways social networks facilitate the activities of 'cutting the network' (Strathern, 1996), excluding individuals from these same exchange relations, kin or community groups while also documenting new affiliations with churches or host nationals instead. While the temptation to read networks as open and expansive persists, analyzing practices of image posting and tagging reveals how digital platforms are now being used to give clear messages about belonging and its limits.  Digital exclusions - the cropping of photographs and not-tagging of their subjects - is a powerful tool for shaping relationship and a public disciplinary strategy, amenable to practices of translocal surveillance.  Increasingly, important ritual and life-course events are hosted digitally and are framed as 'global' in the village or regional sense only if they are evidently networked across village members posting comments from two or three different migrant-receiving nations and being 'tagged' to show not only those present, but to name those absent and indicate where they ought to be in the image.  Finally, I've just started to examine the ways social networking platforms are being utilized for entrepreneurial activity, largely by young women who curate and resell second-hand clothes, some of which are sourced for them and sent 'home' by migrants working overseas (image 2).

Key Publications:

McKay, Deirdre. (2012) Global Filipinos: Migrants' Lives in the Virtual Village (Bloomington: Indiana University Press.) (Expected 19/6/2012)

McKay, Deirdre. (2011) On the Face of Facebook: Historical Images and Personhood in Filipino Social Networking. History and Anthropology 21, 4, 483-502.

Johnson, J.M. and McKay, D. (2011) Mediated Diasporas: Material Translations of the Philippines in a Globalized World. Southeast Asian Research 19(2). (introduction to a Special Issue).

Further papers on cutting the network and faith in diaspora, on 'empty' tags and the politics of absence and ghosts, and on Facebook entrepreneurs are in progress for 2012 conferences and will appear in my forthcoming book, Archipelago of Care (Indiana, 2014, under contract.)