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Daniel Miller on Facebook in Trinidad

8 February, 2010

Over at Material World Daniel Miller has just posted an interesting riff on his current (somewhat unintentional) research on Facebook in Trinidad.  In explaining the attraction of Facebook, he writes:

What makes Facebook a natural topic of enquiry is its ubiquity in the country resonating with the anthropological sensibility towards the holistic. It has been important in galvanising the response to the recent catastrophe of fellow Caribbeans in Haiti, as well as in more local politics. It is at the heart of our intended topic of transnational relationships but equally in the reinvigorisation of specifically Trinidadian identity. It provides considerable insights into traditional topics such as the nature of community and family, with a marked effect on both. It may be used for religious expression, and is a common way to conduct business and economic transactions.

Miller gives a sense of how the use of Facebook in Trinidad challenges assumptions about its primary uses and users, and how the technology intersects with local cultural idioms and understandings of national identity, and national anxiety.  For example, “fas” means to be something like a busybody, deemed to be a national characteristic and source of national disorder. Therefore, writes Miller,”there is a general feeling that Facebook was invented to exacerbate the very nature of being Trinidadian”.   The uneasy localisation of Facebook can be seen in the different levels of visibility of relationships produced, which some users as having a direct impact on their ability to maintain a stable relationship.

It sounds like interesting research.  I particularly like thinking about national identity through the lens of attitudes towards public/private distinctions and the anxieties associated with overflowing these distinctions.  I think the post is also a good example of anthropology blogging, which can highlight a fascinating cultural situation in a couple of hundred words without succumbing to oversimplification.  It does the work of making us think twice about the familiar, while giving a foretaste of richness and complexity to come.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Jaap Timmer permalink
    11 February, 2010 9:18 am

    Slightly related is a recent review of a study on Facebook in the New York Review of Books: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/23651, concluding that

    It’s true that Facebook can lead to a false sense of connection to faraway friends, since few members post about the true difficulties of their lives. But most of us still know, despite Facebook’s abuse of what should be the holiest word in the language, that a News Feed full of constantly updating “friends,” like a room full of chattering people, is no substitute for a conversation. Indeed, so much of what has made Facebook worthwhile comes from the site’s provisions for both hiding and sharing. It is not hard to draw the conclusion that some things shouldn’t be “shared” at all, but rather said, whether through e-mail, instant message, text message, Facebook’s own “private message” system, or over the phone, or with a cup of coffee, or beside a pitcher of beer. All of these “technologies,” however laconic or verbose, can express an intimacy reserved for one alone.

  2. 11 February, 2010 5:47 pm

    Thanks for sharing the article Jaap. It was a good read with a lot of interesting background on Facebook’s development. I had no idea, for example, about its origins at Harvard, though I was aware that it was limited to university students for some time. I was also interested by the details about the “suburban” nature of FB and the way it assumed/reinforced a conservative nuclear family model, e.g.:

    One little-reported effect of the latest settings, for instance, was their ability to effectively deal with divorce. In the past, many estranged parents, who perhaps hadn’t communicated in years, often found their comments yoked together in a “conversation” beneath a child’s posts. Now, in what might be taken for a sign that the site has moved beyond its early “suburban period,” it has become possible for users to effectively break a family into groups, each receiving different pictures and posts.

    I have to admit, as someone whose divorced parents haven’t been interested in communicating with each other, I have always found the “family” category problematic as a means for creating specific domains of intimacy.

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