Tales of a Digital Anthropologist
Interview by Sheba Mohammid.
As the first in her series on Human Behaviour and the Internet, Sheba Mohammid interviews Leading Digital Anthropologist and Tales from Facebook Author, Dr. Daniel Miller on Studying the Social Side of the Internet.
Sheba Mohammid (SM): WHAT IS THE CURRENT STATE OF INTERNET STUDIES?
Dr. Daniel Miller (DM): Up to now it has seemed sensible to talk about the internet and the effect this is having on our lives. But there is a problem with this today. The field of social media has become so diversified that it is really hard to generalise at all. The separation of internet and phone no longer works since in many countries most internet access is through the phone. Perhaps more importantly there does not seem to be any consistency between these various media. This is evident in the comparison between my study of the impact of the internet in Trinidad in 1999 compared to a subsequent study of the impact of Facebook in Trinidad in 2010. Most people assume that Social Network Sites are simply the latest form of internet activity. But my studies reveal that in most important respects these two show entirely contradictory consequences.
The internet initially appeared to expand the field of anonymity, which meant people could explore new forms of identity, shift identity or secure multi identities with relative freedom. Recall the 1993 New Yorker cartoon which has one dog saying to another `On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog`. By contrast Facebook has been associated with not just the loss of anonymity but as a threat to all aspects of privacy, as even people who don’t take part may be tagged in photos online. As a second example the internet facilitated people with identities that were unusual in their immediate setting, such as a passion for organic meat or extreme sado-masochistic sex. Such people could network online and find virtual `communities’ based on this single shared identity as separated out networks. By contrast Facebook started with student friendships but these were then joined by families, work colleagues and others, which in effect put what had been separated out identities all within the same muddled online space. These are two of many examples that suggest `The Internet’ and Facebook so far from having a consistent impact upon identity are in most important respects diametrically opposite to each other. But this is just two of the media. Most people today are using many different platforms. The situation is still more complicated by other online platforms. The most common forms include:-
1) Social Network Sites such as Facebook,
2) blogs and blogging, an avatar, such as in games,
3) a twitter account,
4) membership of an internet group associated with particular interests,
5) gaming such as Farmville or World of Warcraft
6) default online identity – The aggregate effect of identities constructed by commercial, governmental and others institutions such as Wikipedia is evident in the ubiquitous idea that one can `Google’ someone, an online identity that may be almost entirely constructed by others and in that respect quite different from the personal webpage.
If we lump these together as the Internet we cause confusion. Almost every online platform contains contradictions within itself, such as private v public blogging. They also contradict each other. While Facebook is closed, Twitter is open. They change radically over time, socialised gaming replacing individualistic gaming, while smartphones negates the impact of the computer as separated from the person. In response to this a colleague Mirca Madianou and myself developed the concept of Polymedia. This recognises that most people use a portfolio of different media. Polymedia also recognises that since costs and access become less of a factor once you have paid for internet access and have a phone plan, people may be judged for which media they select which changes our relationship to these media.
SM: WHAT IMPACT DO YOU THINK THE INTERNET IS HAVING ON SOCIETY?
DM: The consequences of these various media are themselves diverse. There are many clearly benign changes. One of the most significant observations of the consequences of online identity is for populations who feel that they only achieved real identity online. Ginsburg discusses various forms of disability including autism and muscular dystrophy where typing or having an avatar are the first time the person is seen by others as an articulate human being (see also Ellis and Kent 2011). Less extreme, but probably much more common, is the experience of the internet as allowing people to realise their identity, for example people who have been shy or lonely or feel less attractive discover they can more successfully socialise and be themselves on line. But equally common are consequences people regard as negative. People often consider internet use to be other than `real life’. This seems mainly an issue of conservatism, as older people unused to the latest devices assume that online identities are more superficial or less socialised. Recently Sherry Turkle’s in her book Alone Together, echoes these fears which one often sees in journalism. The most common genre is fear projected onto children’s usage. But Sonia Livingstone who represents the most sustained scholarly study of children’s online identity suggests a variety of forms of identity construction, changing as they become teenagers. Parents fear of children’s orientation to online appears to reflect a more general concern with their loss of control over children. There is no good evidence that online identity raises particularly different issues from offline with respect to domains such as gender, ethnicity or class. It provides a place for experiment, but these exist offline. Liberal hopes that online identities would diminish prejudice, but equally fears that this would exacerbate them, can be found in very specific cases, but have not been demonstrated as a common or major consequence. It has been shown that the separation of online forums from offline public debate means that more extreme views can become acceptable and general within those isolated contexts. But this was also true of isolated spaces of debate in offline settings. But each area that one explores, politics, social relationships or education leads to different ideas about the impact of digital media.
SM: WHAT PLACE THEN DO YOU SEE GEOGRAPHY AND LOCAL CONTEXT HAVING IN AFFECTING INTERNET USE? ARE THERE COMMON DENOMINATORS THAT ARE TRANSCENDING “PLACE” AND GEOGRAPHICAL BARRIERS?
DM: The spread of global platforms such as Facebook might be regarded as axiomatically a reduction in global diversity and cultural specificity in terms of identity. But my work shows that this is not the case. There is no evidence that Facebook has made Trinidadians less parochial or nationalistic. If anything when the internet first developed Trinidadians were shocked to find themselves talking with someone from say Latvia who may never have heard of Trinidad. In response a flood of Trinidad websites appeared with national anthems and recipes for local foods. With each new internet platform, Trinidadians find ways to transform these into localised genres. So Facebook become Maco or Fas book associated with local concepts of being nosy or interested in the lives of others. This reflects regional differences in the use of particular genres such as avatars in East Asia or texting in the Philippines. But there are some effects on locality. For example we used to think of these media as connecting people living in different places. But in my work some people find that they live much more within the media than in any other place. A figure called Dr Karamath in my book Tales from Facebook lives in Trinidad but is disabled so he never leaves the home for `Trinidad’ he really just lives online. Couples who use `always-on’ webcam may live in different countries, but they live together online.
SM: YOU HAVE DONE WORK IN TRINIDAD AND TOBAGO, AMONG OTHER COUNTRIES, AND ARE CURRENTLY DOING A COMPARATIVE STUDY. CAN YOU TELL US SOME MORE ABOUT YOUR BOOK AND YOUR NEW STUDY?
DM: Currently I am writing my third book about social media in Trinidad. The first called The Internet: An ethnographic approach, written with Don Slater came out in 2000. Perhaps because it was the first study of the impact of the internet on one place it was quite influential with over a thousand academic citations. The more recent book Tales From Facebook is a less academic work based mainly on portraits of individual Trinidadians. This has also done well being translated into German and soon also Portuguese. Currently I am writing a book on Skype/Webcam with Jolynna Sinanan whose family come from Trinidad. My new project which is funded by the European Research Council, is a comparison of the impact of social media on seven countries including Trinidad. This will take place over the next five years. Jolynna and myself will be coming back several times to Trinidad to carry out further research and we hope our work will mean that many people will think of Trinidad as the foundational place for learning about how these media impact upon society today.
Sheba Mohammid is interested in multi-disciplinary and tranformative strategies for ICT4D. Her work is focused on Digital Inclusion in Small Island Developing States. She is a research expert on the Internet Governance Africa, Caribbean and Pacific Programme, a Commonwealth Fellow and ACP Fellow to the IGf where she has presented and moderated panels on Media Literacy and ICT4D. Sheba continues to research human behaviour on the internet, Youth use of social media and futuristic deployment of ICT as a catalyst for development.
Sheba currently works in Trinidad where she is ICT policy specialist at the National ICT Company Ltd. In this capacity she is responsible for major considerations in creating an enabling policy and legislative environment. Her work has spanned issues of an emerging knowledge society such as ICT strategies, ICT governance, A2K, eWaste, Multichannel service delivery, data protection and eTransactions.