Facebook: Divine or Mundane?

An intriguing discussion is underway right now (Nov 1-12) over at the Open Anthropology Cooperative, in response to Daniel Miller's working paper An Extreme Reading of Facebook. For archival purposes, I'll paste my contributions here. This is actually the first time in a long time that I have discussed some of the things in my PhD thesis (submission in under 2 weeks!). I will expand on a lot of these ideas soon, but I present a few thoughts here in line with Miller's three "extreme" propositions about Facebook:

1) That Facebook radically transforms the premise and direction of social science.
2) That Facebook is a medium for developing a relationship to god.
3) That Facebook, like Kula, is an ideal foundation for a theory of culture mainly because Facebook and Kula are practically the same thing.

What do you think? Don't forget to visit the discussion forum to see the intervening posts and to add your own two cents.

My posts:

Daniel, thanks for your thought-provoking paper and for embracing our relaxed forum by advancing these new and relatively extreme propositions.

I want to stay with the idea of community for the time being and offer some fodder for comparison. From 2007-9, I conducted fieldwork on Internet use in a small town in northern Catalonia. Facebook was rather sparse on the ground there when I arrived, but became more relevant towards the end of my research and I focus on several case studies of Facebook usage patterns in my PhD thesis (Urban Firewalls: place, space and new technologies in Figueres, Catalonia). I am planning to share much of this elsewhere on this site in the near future, so what follows is merely cursory.

In particular, I'd like to address the contention that Facebook (or Facebook-related behavior) may be responsible for a resurrection of classical ideas of community; or at least, that Facebook may be bundled up with a resurrection of "community" via it and other mediated channels that offer enhanced networking capabilities. I share your and Postill’s (p.4) assessment that care must be used by analysts when referring to the slippery concept of "community" and the related semantic nightmare, so I appreciate your trying to move beyond it. You use Alana as a localized example of what community can mean, and I think this is where we can continue to find importance in the concept.

In Catalonia, I found a great deal of discussion about community and, especially, a perceived lack of "community" sentiment among residents in the city of Figueres. The main cause, people argued, was recent immigration (an increase from 7 to 27% of the population made up of foreign migrants in less than 8 years) and a concurrent decline in public sociality, which they linked together alongside a general feeling of fragmentation and disengagement. This fear over a potential or ongoing loss of community by the majority Catalan population was in some ways greater than the evidence to support it, but in other ways, it simply fulfilled its own prophecy.

In connection with this, people often used Facebook and other web forums as a platform to argue that something needed to be done to fix the situation; to bring community back to the city. In my thesis, I address how attempts were made to mobilize Facebook members to these ends via various forms of local activism that traversed online and offline channels. More significant in my view is that in discussing local community on/via Facebook, city residents were literally confirming, debating and re-writing what it means to have community and how to resurrect it.

Of course, young people depicted small town life there as oppressive and old-fashioned (not unlike Alana), whereas older people saw it losing integrity and values. This is nothing new anywhere. But both young and old(er) participants online and younger and older residents in the city were all saying virtually the same thing about this lack of community. Facebook turned out to be an ideal platform for people to talk about these things and to maintain ties with others with whom they already shared a sense of closeness (family and friends).

Meanwhile, only a tiny minority of the city as a whole actually had Facebook accounts, but parallel and identical conversations about community were taking place in my offline interviews, on the street and in offices and schools and pubs. This has led me instead to the conclusion that Facebook is not so extreme as to be likened to a deity or a model for culture itself; rather Facebook is another (contiguous) place. Sometimes it's a town hall meeting, sometimes it's a party, or a political rally, or an after-school hangout, etc. So can Facebook resurrect community? Its potential to do so is contingent upon localized understandings not only of what community is, but how to achieve it, and who gets included/excluded. Viewed from specific places, Facebook is only one part of the story.

Daniel, In Keith's review of your book Stuff, he notes that your recent work has drawn on data from throughout your career to shed light on new debates. I recall that both the dynamics of Kula and of religion appeared in another context in The Internet: An Ethnographic Approach (with D. Slater) and it seems like a natural progression to take them further now, given the confluence of many new channels available on the web at present, usefully encapsulated in Facebook as archetype.

Religion (like Kula, as Keith also notes) is fairly analogous to many parts of online social behavior that combine elements of the unknown, the transcendental, and a public presentation of the self via Facebook, Twitter, blogs and other avenues for self-flagellation that more and more come to resemble a "confessional". During my fieldwork, I definitely understood among my informants a sense of needing to constitute oneself "as a moral being" (according to local and cultural norms) on Facebook and the web in general. Although this was unanimously a-religious, it was often imbued with other symbolic forms of worship, like nationalism and sport.

The key features of the web itself – its openness, ease and multiple channels of communication, speed of sharing news and data, and general in-between-ness of place and time – lends itself to being co-opted for religious-like activities. It is therefore no surprise that Facebook does the same. (As an aside, I once wrote a paper as an undergrad comparing the Internet to millenarianism. It was mostly in fun, but all the tell-tale signs were there.)

One area which seems to be getting some attention now is funerary and mourning rituals online, with Facebook and other social media accounts of the deceased converted into sites of prolonged mourning or shrines. In life, SNS users construct elaborate reflections of their corporeal selves in their profiles, and these live on, preserved, as an open channel after death. For many, continuing to post to a Facebook profile of a dead friend or relative is no more or less efficacious than leaving flowers or saying a prayer beside a tombstone. (See here and here for more).

Fame, audience, friendship, mourning – none of these are new on the web any more than they are new to people. What follows may seem to be an extreme assertion in itself, but Facebook doesn't really do anything especially new or especially better than its earlier and contemporaneous incarnations on the web, it just does it all at once and perhaps faster/with less effort. It's a combination of email, instant messaging, chat, photo-sharing, status updating, presence-casting, life-streaming, gaming, etc. Once we see Facebook for what it is – mundane rather than special – we can better understand how it morphs into interesting things well beyond its technical parameters.


johnpostill said...

Hi Fran. Thanks for posting these thoughts.

I'm surprised to hear that the notion of community is so prominent in everyday discourse in Figueres (Catalonia). What were the actual Catalan terms used? When peopled decried the loss of community, what was the actual language they employed? Surely the semantic field of community in the US, Britain, Eire, etc, differs substantially from that of 'comunitat' in Catalonia?

Fran Barone said...

Hi John,

Thanks for your questions. I would agree that the semantic field of community in the US, etc, is different to that in Spain/Catalonia/Figueres. What I glossed as a sense of "community" on the OAC forum was communicated to me in two main ways. The first was in terms of "convivència" or peaceful coexistence (or I suppose more broadly construed as social integration or community life). The consensus in Figueres was/is that at present there is "mala convivència". An example: "m'agradaria saber quin és el principal causant d'aquesta mala convivència que es respira a Figueres …" When breaking these ideas down further, other terms used by informants were "sentido de comunidad" / "sentit de comunitat", in the sense of "vivir juntos" as opposed to "separadas". The term "comunitat"/"comunidad" is also used in other ways to describe groups of people, but it was this feeling of community (or a loss thereof) that stood out.

The second way it was put was in terms of being open or closed. Both the people and the city itself were described as "closed" for various reasons (that I explore in my thesis). Some examples: "cada vez es mas extraña en cuanto a las gentes y eso si, mas cerrada en la interrelacion social, es una ciudad poco alegre y siempre lo ha sido"; "creo que hay una mentalidad muy cerrada aqui". Another memorable exchange: “¿Qué piensas de Figueres? cerrada ¿Te gusta vivir en Figueres? no mucho....gente muy cerrada”. This closed mentality is seen as both a cause and product of a generally fragmented existence, with different types of people living separate lives and no real communal investment. Again, a "mala convivència". Meanwhile, in British/American terms, the small town proximity and everyone generally following what everyone else is doing would map onto a strong semblance of community life, at least as Daniel portrays it in his example.

Since I don't play with the word "community" in English that much, I'm not sure if this would satisfy community theorists, but I felt that this was the most direct translation in Daniel’s context.

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