01 Jun

George Miller interviews Danny Miller (no relation)

Posted By Politybooks

photo_miller07The text below is an edited transcript of a longer interview, which you can see on its full glory on YouTube.

George Miller:
When we met recently it was to discuss Danny’s new book, Tales from Facebook, which looks at the consequences of being a Facebook user on people’s lives. How is it changing our behaviour and modes of interaction, especially between men and women? What is it doing to our sense of ourselves and of time? Is it ultimately a disruptive or a conservative force?

Some of these questions we tackle in this interview. All of them you will find treated in more depth in the book itself.

For this study, you chose not to focus on Facebook users in London or New York or Sydney or wherever; you chose Trinidad.  Tell me why.

The main point of this kind of ethnographic research is to insist that there is no such thing as ‘Facebook’.  Facebook is what users do with it. So there is no alternative than to take a given population, and study how they use it.

One of the points about taking somewhere like Trinidad is nobody expects Trinidad to be the exemplification of what Facebook ‘really’ is. That allows people to recognize that the idea that US college kids showed us ‘the true Facebook’ doesn’t hold water, when Facebook is actually now seeing its main increases in places like Indonesia and Turkey. 

It might be interesting to talk a little bit in more detail about some of the pen portraits in the book.  Dr Karamath is an interesting example; he’s an older man in a particular phase of his life. So how’s he using Facebook?

Dr Karamath has effectively become disabled, so he’s to return to Trinidad, and really he’s just stuck in his house.  He used to be a very cosmopolitan international player, a human rights lawyer, and this could have been the end of everything that was worthwhile in his life. 

What’s fascinating is the way that he sees the potential for Facebook to give him his life back; he can go online for the whole of the day and find a particular role. Everybody is swamped by information these days, and so he aggregates information from, say, the human rights or environmental sector, he pares it down and he brings it to the attention of others.  So he feels that merely the fact that he’s got time to spend on Facebook gives him a new useful role.  He also develops a completely new social circuit with some diaspora Indians in New York, and London, which works very well for both him and for them.

Although we associate Facebook with university students and the young, because that’s where it came from, there’s every reason to feel that in the long term, the most important impacts of Facebook will probably be on the elderly.  The people who need it most will be those who suffer from restrictions, who find it harder to get out, yet want to retain their links with their family and wider social networks.  I think therefore Dr Karamath is a very important portrait, because he demonstrates one of the key futures of Facebook: the elderly and the disabled.

You were very honest in the book in saying that you thought that the Facebook game Farmville was a vain pursuit before you looked into it further.  Then after your encounter with a boy called Arvind, you rather revised that.  Tell me about his case.

Yes, it wasn’t just that it was a vain pursuit.  I just disliked Farmville.  The cartoon characters, the way it kind of operates; I found it very hard to warm to Farmville, until I met Arvind.  But Arvind was a very quiet, very gentle, and generally not very successful young man.   He’d tried at various things, but none of them went right for him, and things were looking rather hopeless. He got on a course to work as a carer, and most carers in Trinidad tend to be women – and of course Arvind is very shy with women. 

But it was those women that persuaded him to go onto Farmville in the first place, and he really got hooked and became an inveterate Farmville player and very good at it.  Because Farmville is a social game, you progress by helping each other. That brought him into interaction with his fellow students, and on that he could build a wider friendship group, so that now when he goes into college, he kind of can chat to all these women, and he feels much more confident. In this case, Farmville has been hugely enabling to somebody who was otherwise almost pathological in the difficulties he had in ordinary social relations. 

So you start to see that Farmville, which to be honest I tended to see as a waste of time – and also aesthetically I couldn’t stand the thing – you start to understand that people using Farmville have adapted it and found ways to make it actually a rather positive instrument. So you do have to have some respect for this thing.

You suggest that Facebook may ultimately be a conservative moral force, because it makes it much more difficult for people to have an illicit liaison, since who knows when they’ll pop up in the background of a picture?

I think that’s true.  I tend to veer away from simple technological determinism, but I had previously studied mobile phones.  That was in Jamaica, and it was clear that mobile phones led to an increase in illicit sexual relations.  It was just so easy to arrange to see somebody behind people’s backs. 

It’s curious that you have this one technology that leads to a change in sexual behaviour, and Facebook, which in some ways does precisely the opposite. People are starting to realize that before they were known on Facebook, they were relatively discreet.  They’d be in another town, say, when they were with what we’d call their mistress (in Trinidad, it’s “the deputy”, or “the outside woman”).  But now so many people can take photos from mobile phones, upload them onto Facebook, they get tagged, and suddenly everyone’s aware that you were with this person when you said you’d be somewhere else.

There’s an interesting opposition here between the impact of mobile phones and of Facebook.  And yes, I think I would go on the line and say that Facebook is actually going to lead to a decrease in adulterous relationships.

Do you see other conservative aspects to Facebook, in terms of community and cohesion and it drawing people together?

It’s better to regard Facebook as an essentially conservative media, rather than some vanguard of the new.  There have been many changes in modern life that have led to separation, led to people being say more transnational, led to a certain individualism, and to the decline of the more intensive forms of social relations. My overall argument is that people recognize these changes and actually regret that loss of community, but have found through Facebook a way to bring back many of the kinds of social relations that were becoming attenuated.

The internet previously had tended to lead us to have separate interest groups.  People called them communities, but they weren’t.  They were just different bodies of interest groups that formed their own network on the internet. 

But the whole point of Facebook is that it’s much more like an actual digital community, because it brings all these different social networks back into the same place.  So kinship is there, friendship is there, work colleagues are there, and they’re all in view of each other. 

That, I think, is very different from the previous impact of the internet; almost the reverse.  That’s why it’s best understood as conservative – people are looking back to the way social relations used to be, or the way they imagine social relations used to be, and using Facebook to resurrect them.

Daniel Miller is professor of anthropology at University College London, and the author of Tales from Facebook. His other books include The Comfort of Things, Au Pair and Stuff.