It’s one of those brilliant ideas that you kick yourself for not thinking of first. “Ok, so for my next trick project, I’m going to spend six months in Trinidad trying to understand the impact Facebook has had on the island’s culture.” Genius. But that’s precisely what UCL Anthropology Professor Daniel Miller has done  – and it’s not quite as random or self-indulgent as it might at first appear. Desptie the rather anodyne title, and the faintly ridiculous cover image, his book Tales from Facebook contains some very helpful and interesting insights into the effect of social networking.

But for all my jibes, Trinidad is actually quite a shrewd subject – it is relatively small and self-contained, it is non-western, and most significantly, has perhaps the second highest per capita proportion of Facebook users in the world (second only to Panama). So it does lend itself to this sort of study. And Facebook must be studied – for its growth from a privileged frat house site to a global phenomenon has made its mark on all our lives whether we’ve a facebook account or not.

Being largely ignorant of the disciplines of anthropology, I learned a fair amount – and in contrast to some of the things I’ve read on Facebook which are either a bit too pop-culture amateur, too generalised, or too moralistically luddite, this study at least had some sort of rigour and methodology to it. I didn’t always quite connect with the book’s style, and inevitably it is often anecdotal. But still, a number of helpful things resulted from this research. 3 interesting surprises, in particular, stood out for me, suggesting that Facebook’s most hostile detractors are mistaken, at least some of the time. So this is not so much a review as a reflection on some of his points.

The ‘Friend’ Phenomenon

I’ve heard many get all jumpy, overcritical, or just plain snooty (or all three) about the business of Facebook friends. Miller speaks sense here.

Much of the most tedious literature on Facebook concerns the question of whether a friend on Facebook is a real friend. This blithely ignores the vast spectrum of people we may choose to call friends in offline worlds. There is no one so stupid as to presume that all their 700 friends on Facebook are suddenly equivalent to close offline friends. One rather neat academic paper showed college students being impressed by peers whose Facebook friends numbered up to 302, but over this number the esteem in which they are held falls again. (p166)

As he continues, it is merely another medium for expressing friendship (with all the inevitable pitfalls and benefits that any new medium offers):

There is the fear that we are all becoming more superficial, that Facebook friends, represent a kind of inflation that diminishes the value of prior or true friendships. I see no evidence that this is the case: close friends are even more intensely in touch. (p167)

Miller gets to know various different people in Trinidad to see how it impacts their working and personal lives. They are unexpected people: From a previously active but now housebound professor in his sixties (whose interactions and relationships have been vasty deepened through FB) to a socially awkward dropout who finds that Farmville has actually enabled him to find real friends; from church leaders using facebook to get augment their ministries to those whose relationships have been seriously damaged by facebook obsessions. There is little doubt that real world lives and friendships are deeply affected by Facebook (for worse and actually for better). The evidence is on every page.

But Miller I think is right to point out that the wide range of online friendships merely reflects the wide range of offline friendships – from the very intimate to the passing acquaintance. This has certainly been my own experience. Where there is a difference though is the access to one’s personal and even inner life that the most tangentially connected now have. Thus people’s biggest concern with Facebook is of course privacy – both in terms of what we share, but also what gets shared about us by others.

The Privacy Problem

There is surely a need for care – as I’ve posted before, we can’t ever easily erase what we put online. Encouragements and training for responsible online activity are vital. But the surprise is that posting often and even personally doesn’t necessarily entail over-exposure or forfeited privacy. Miller takes the example of one, Ajani (not her real name), whom he rather delightfully calls a DJ of facebook posting (p71) because of the way she constantly mixes up the serious, trivial and personal in her posts. As he comments:

Within Facebook people largely live their lives as they have always done, but in real time they toss forth images and items that are evidence of that co-presence in the world, They are open to reciprocity, such as the exchange of comment or at least ticking the ‘like’ box attached to those comments. Mostly, they are people one also knows in offline worlds, though not necessarily. But Facebook thereby achieves something compared to which all previous media now seems mere simulacra – the relationship we feel through the co-presence of another person. (p74)

Ajani’s posts are an illustration of what he later goes on to describe:

There was something genuine and appealing about this modest bric-a-brac that was being shared: what has been termed ‘ambient intimacy’. (p128)

And then he concludes with this counter-intuitive suggestion:

A critical lesson Ajani has taught us about Facebook is how constant exposure through restless posting can enable rather than diminish a person’s privacy. Facebook has revealed an unexpected capacity to work with and on the heterogeneity and complexity of persons. (p77)

The reason is that Ajani is an intensely private person, who has a wide public profile – of which she is in total control. And that is the point – I suppose it means that she is a mini-celebrity in control of her profile. That has its acute dangers and so on – but it suggests that the shrewd and canny need not be over-exposed.

I wasn’t 100% convinced by this point (if i’ve got him right) – but it at least alerts us to the the more counter-intuitive aspects of FB.

The Community Potential

The most common objection that i’ve heard is that people will get so sucked in to social networks that they will retreat further from the offline into some sort of cyber-vortex. That was one of the cautionary themes of the now rather dated Sandra-Bullock-thriller The Net. But far from being something that detaches me from people, I’ve certainly found that FB (re)connects and cements offline relationships. This is also what Miller has found.

So, although the fear was often expressed, there was no evidence in Trinidad that people spent less time together as a result of Facebook. Rather, Facebook is assumed to be a facility people used to coordinate and organize offline events, from occasional family reunions to daily discussion of homework. (p183)

What was particularly interesting from a western perspective is how FB reflects (as well as influences) the prevailing culture of a society – and Miller argues that FB has great positive potential here:

By contrast, Facebook, as a form of social networking, is one of the most powerful challenges in quite some time to that individualism. (p198)

That is the polar opposite of what its many detractors suggest (namely that it merely serves to aggravate our individualism). So FB has a role to play in more corporate societies because:

A Trinidadian never meets another Trini as an individual; they always see them as a node within this larger network. Whether you take them seriously or not is going to depend much more on what you know about their family or group you think they might be part of, than anything about them as an individual personality. (p115)

And whether we individualistic westerners like it or not, we really ought to understand ourselves and each other through our corporate identity more than we do. Could FB have a role to play in this? It’s certainly possible. The inter-relationship between FB’s impact and a particularly cultural context is always going to be complex. So Miller picks up this striking contrast:

The use of Facebook often reflects pre-existing modes of normative control. The earliest established extensive social networking site was probably that of Cyworld in South Korea, a country often regarded as one of the most conformist societies in the world. Soon after its inception, there were reports of an intensification of social conformity through social networking. For example, a person who allowed their dog to foul the street was photographed on a mobile phone. This was then posted and quickly identified online, allowing almost the entire country to unite in condemnation of what was seen as anti-social behaviour. Trinidad is a land of comparative licence. It will take some time to determine whether Facebook independently increases or decreases the pressures of conformity. In all likelihood, we will find instances of both. (p198)

In Conclusion

All in all, there are some very helpful insights in this book. I don’t necessarily think it is something for everyone to go out and buy – but it is certainly important reading for any trying to grapple with our brave new cyberworld. Miller is refreshingly open to whatever he finds – despite his prejudices (which I share) against Farmville, for example, he was prepared to explore its appeal to see whether it had any potential benefit other. than being a total time waster! And his is an attitude that we would do well to emulate when trying to get our minds around the new-fangled or perplexing. As I’ve said, I wasn’t always convinced by the conclusions but I was for the most part stimulated and engaged.

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