Facebook: Divine or Mundane? (Part 2)

Some more highlights from the ongoing discussion with Daniel Miller at the OAC. These comments build on my previous entry with a focus on the use of Facebook and the web in memoriam.

See my previous blog post and read Daniel's reply for context.

I agree, Facebook can give rise to new social dramas and activities due to its efficacy on a number of levels, which does initially strike us as being brand new. But to me its "newness" is more because of the old things that it combines in new-ish ways.

This is still a fresh and only marginally constructed argument for me. Apologies if it appears disjointed, but I am taking advantage of this forum to float some new ideas. I certainly agree that the degree of change Facebook has fostered is worth sitting up and taking notice of. Yet I believe that there are two points of continuity - rather than disjuncture - worth keeping in mind to make sense of its novelty: first, its relationship to earlier (and lingering) manifestations on the web, and secondly, to offline sociality. I'll continue with the example of mourning to illustrate.

FB is not the first - and is presently not the only - site on the Internet where memorialization has taken(takes) place. Apparently, this is common now in Second Life and WoW, Myspace, etc, and I have memories of it from Livejournal, IRC and websites in the late 90s/early 2000s. I argued earlier that, overall, the web has characteristics that are ideal for co-optation for religious-like activities, including memorialization. Those features include potential permanence of text and imagery, speed and democratic access, design and aesthetics, ease of construction of memorials and pages that can be dynamic and amended by many. Other characteristics are particularly important for what they share with offline equivalents, like wakes, funerals, newspapers, scrapbooks and posters: co-presence, collaboration and record-keeping.

In the late 1990s, when people still made personal websites by entering basic HTML on Geocities and "guestbooks" were proto-Facebook "walls", scrawling personal messages, eulogies and obituaries in memoriam was fairly common behavior. "Web rings" linked individual pages to a broader network, where mourners could share their memorials. I remember a pet memorial web ring in particular from the late 1990s. Web rings never had Facebook's built in connectivity – this was enabled by evolved design infrastructure later on – but it shows that the early web (Web 1.0) was not merely comprised of people shouting into the dark all alone. People specifically sought to link up their individual creations to something bigger (back to Keith's post above), to give them lasting presence. This was especially the case with memorials.

Creating an interactive "page" (shrine or monument) to memorialize a loved one is therefore not new to the web. I made some when I was in school and, more recently, I saw a standalone page that a web designer had made dedicated to his baby daughter who died a year earlier. He had accumulated many images and messages from friends, family and other inspired international visitors sharing similar stories of loss. At the time, I noted that the timestamps on the messages revealed that once the father (who had designed the page) had added a link to his new Facebook profile, the condolences had mostly been ported to the new platform, but both the standard website and the Facebook page continue to co-exist, with bursts of activity around the anniversaries of the child’s birth and death.

This shift to Facebook – not just for mourning, but for a lot of activities – is where I find a great deal of significance. People have chosen to transport their extant activities to this new, and increasingly ubiquitous, platform. Mourning on Facebook adds one especially noteworthy element akin to, but well beyond web rings: Facebook comes with a built-in, active and captive audience. The barrier between participant and spectator is broken down even further.

Whereas I see the earlier and contemporaneous versions of memorials on single-author websites as personal micro-dramas, perhaps the key is that Facebook more easily turns them into macro-dramas. And, in line with Web 2.0 breaking down barriers to user participation by eliminating the need for specialist coding knowledge, more people can contribute without much effort. Nevertheless, it is still largely close friends and family who participate in the elaborate and ongoing memorialization.

Finally, that Facebook does all these things now doesn't obviate the need for the "old way" of doing it, even if it can heighten the intensity of the mourning. People regularly turn their homes, walls, bodies, clothes, towns and cities into memorials dotted with shrines, candles, imagery, midnight vigils, notes, messages. I risk repeating myself, but it would seem more unusual to me if humans did not avail themselves of every potential use of Facebook and the Internet to extend their mourning practices in meaningful ways in line with our emotional need to express our remorse and remembrance as we feel that our loved ones deserve. Facebook is not a place apart; it's a part of where many people live.

Update: New addition(s) after the jump.

My "nothing new about Facebook line" is probably better understood as Keith puts it: "everything is old and new, same and different in varying degree". I like that.

Daniel and I share a lot of common ground in both method and interpretation. I would say especially in the use of traditional ethnographic field methods combined with internet research. During my fieldwork, I likewise only looked at Facebook because it was important for the people I lived with. I also found features of their practices with/on Facebook and other SNS intriguing and surprising, which led me to make comparisons with other forms of sociality (including Kula, as a matter of fact) in my PhD. Based on his work that I've read, I almost always end up at the same conclusions as Daniel, but there are plenty of worthwhile contrasts thrown up by my own studies in the same vein.

I offer elements of my personal historiography of the web here to highlight the universality of Daniel's significant discoveries about Facebook - not to downplay them - and to provide a firm foundation for more comparative analysis in future. By highlighting the sameness and mundanity of Facebook, it's truly inventive and innovative facets can really stand out against the backdrop of an Internet that is continually evolving.

So much of the history of digital communications is recent history and we are all a part of it. Take Ning: we've been using it here for almost as long as the platform has existed. As it changes, the OAC changes with it; sometimes in profound ways and sometimes just in the background. And Ning only exists and looks and works like it does because of Facebook. No one would dispute that a comprehensive history of chosen geographic locales is essential for anthropological research, yet when it comes to the Internet, many forgo this very important step, or jump from ARPANET to Facebook in a single sentence. Internet history is more than that. Above all, it can be surprising "local" and is therefore essential for framing ethnographic research of this kind.


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