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Health, Sports & Psychology

Friendship on- and off-line: Facebook in Trinidad

Updated Wednesday 20th April 2011

Daniel Miller's study of  how Facebook is used in Trinidad raises many questions about whether it can be a community - and about privacy.

Laurie Taylor:
I remember Trinidad with great affection from the time when for a brief period I used to visit there as an external examiner for the University of the West Indies and most of all I remember the day I spent at Maracas Beach, where I joined the several hundred people of all ages and sizes who waded out to sea to wait for the big wave which would carry them back to land.

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We stood in a great long line, squinting over our shoulders, all waiting for the unspoken but collective recognition that this was the wave. And then when the moment came all hurling ourselves forward, arms outstretched as we tried to surf the foam, all thrown backwards and forwards and over and under each other until finally arriving, bruised and breathless and spitting water and gurgling with laughter, on the warm accommodating shore.

All in all it was a moment of quite extraordinary solidarity between young and old and fat and thin and white and black. And it came back to me well sometimes I have to say with slightly ironic cast as I read a new book about friendship in Trinidad called Tales from Facebook.

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Its author is Daniel Miller, who's professor of anthropology at University College, London and he now joins me in the studio, together with David Wall, cybercrime specialist and professor of criminology at Durham University.

Let's begin. Why particularly Trinidad, why did you decide there Danny?

Daniel Miller:
Well I felt as an anthropologist that there isn't actually such a thing as Facebook. Really different populations are going to use Facebook in different ways. There's going to be a Russian Facebook, there's going to be an Argentinian Facebook. So if I'd set it say in the US, or the UK, we take all that cultural background for granted but if you surprise people - if you say well Facebook is Trinidadian and let's see it as Trinidadian then you really have to sort of think about that kind of regional difference.

I mean it's also the fact that I think that Trinidadians, and I've worked there for quite a while, tend to be a bit ahead of the game actually when it comes to these new technologies - they're less sort of conservative in a way, they just say well here's something, what's it good for and let's kind of go for it. And I suppose finally, to be honest, I like working in Trinidad.

Laurie Taylor:
You don't have any idea really what percentage of people there are on Facebook do you?

Daniel Miller:
I really discuss the statistics heavily but when it comes to say the schools I was finding that at least three quarters get access one way or another but it's not about just having your computer, if you don't have it you're going to find a neighbour that has a computer or you're going to find some other way of access.

As you get older it decreases - not just in Trinidad; but generally the big increase in internet use and Facebook use is actually older people.

Laurie Taylor:
It is extraordinary, I mean 400 million active users, I mean all of these gathered in around about six years, three billion photographs posted a month, every day 60 million status updates - extraordinary figures.

But let's come back anyway to the specific context of Trinidad. I mean one of the anxieties people express about Facebook is the notion that all these online friendships really are leaching off real world communities, almost like a quantum theory of friendship - if your friends' online you're going to reduce your real face-to-face contact with other people.

What's your take on that in relation to a community like Trinidad?

Daniel Miller:
Well nobody lives entirely on Facebook, so the chances are that Facebook is going to be more a complement than a sort of reduction in social relations, it's how the two kind of work together. But I think the evidence is actually the more people become connected online the more they seem to connect offline.

The problem with social science is we spend a century bemoaning the fact that we're sort of losing touch with social relations, that somehow we're reduced to kind of individuals isolated in their homes watching TV and then suddenly along comes a thing called the social network site and people do use it for social networking.

I mean it brings you back all your kind of school friends, it brings you back the relatives that were abroad, you find you know much more, you keep up to date much more with other people. And so I think on the whole it's actually incremental, I think it advances your ability to have different kinds of friendship online and offline.

Laurie Taylor:
I mean - but you've got a nice contrast really between two sorts of communities - the offline and the online - in the case of one of the people that you spoke to - Alala, the occupational psychology masters student.

Tell me about that because here she's got - she lives in a small village, she's got the village there but she's also got her Facebook community.

Daniel Miller:
Well the point was, I mean if you really want to ask the question is Facebook like a traditional community then the best way to do it is go to somebody who lives in a traditional community and see how they find it.

And you can tell that she does because she doesn't have this kind of romantic notion of community, she sees the downside, I mean this is a place that is claustrophobic, with all the intrusive gossiping, with all the quarrelling that goes on from generations.

But at the same time she's somebody - she's spending a couple of hours a day on the farm with her cousins. At night her and her class all get up at midnight and they spend three hours a night together doing sort of classwork but also kind of gossiping.

So her take on this is, yes, actually I think it is like a community but maybe not quite as bad, not quite as intensive. She uses Facebook in a sense to get away from the intensity of those social relations.

But she recognises that most people do not live in little hamlets like her, they live in towns and they do feel the loss of neighbourhood and the loss of community, so for them it works the other way - Facebook seems a bit more intensive and a bit more like the kind of social relations and community that they feel they've lost.

Laurie Taylor:
Let me turn to David David Wall:
. We've always protested - goodness knows I've lost touch with how many times we've said - attacked the whole idea of community but we've got to be using here a little tiny bit haven't we because I suppose the Facebook does describe itself as a community. I mean do you think - would you want to use that word in a context like this or does it seem to you to be almost like a mock community?

David Wall:
I've thought about this quite a lot and I've sort of put together all the arguments against using community and then at the end of the day it's probably the most colloquially used term to describe this thing we're talking about, so let's use it and let's try and explore what we understand by it.

And I think - but I think what's very important is that Facebook is adding something to what we understand by community; it's helping bring people together. I mean, sociologically, it starts to allow us to explore some of those old alienation theses that some of the old sociologists will remember from the past.

I mean is it actually that ingredient which is connecting the local to the global, is it actually truly connecting people together on a sort of one to one basis without the mediation of a class system or a knowledge base - is it class revelling?

Daniel Miller:
I think one of the points is - I also - when the internet first developed I was very sceptical about the idea of community, that's because the networks people had on the internet tended to be very partial - hobbies and things like that.

The thing about Facebook is it brings together - when your mother friended you then suddenly your kinship was mixed with your friends, is mixed with your work and that is more like, I think, a natural community, they - confuses all these networks and they're all in the same place. So yes I'd say I'll use the word community.

David Wall:
But there is another thing as well which certainly comes out with many of the characters you describe - Alana and Asani? The tensions also that exist within community and Facebook allows members of communities to reconcile some of those tensions.

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Laurie Taylor:
Because I remember - I think the phrase that I think Richard said it used to describe - what was the phrase?

Daniel Miller:
Destructive gemeinschaft.

Laurie Taylor:
Destructive gemeinschaft - a way almost, a nice little paradoxical juxtaposition of words to say that here you had what seemed to be an extraordinary intimacy but in a way it was a slightly destructive intimacy really, because it was an exclusive intimacy.

You see when we're talking about does it constitute a community one of the things we look for is real reciprocity, isn't it, among the people who are participating in it and perhaps it's just what happens or it's a newspaper report but I read recently about a report in the Daily Telegraph of somebody who had 1,048 Facebook friends, she announced on her Facebook site that was getting enormously depressed and intended to commit suicide, nobody came to her aid, nobody - no real human being knocked on the door and did anything whatsoever, indeed there were very, very many comments posted on the site which were absolutely abusive.

David Wall:
I think the problem with the critique of Facebook is that we tend then to romanticise the world that existed beforehand as though we had these close social relations and people would come to our aid but look on the streets of London, I mean it's not that Facebook is starting from some kind of a wonderful base of your community and then it leaches from that.

The truth is that these things have been lost in some way some time ago and Facebook I think has become quite positive and perhaps a little bit repairing some of that loss.

Laurie Taylor:
Let's pick up another one, which - another issue which you tackle there - the issue of privacy. Now how much - imagine a traditional community like Trinidad for various reasons for preserving privacy, guarding yourself from public exposure - was this a big aspect among the people who were devotees of Facebook?

Daniel Miller:
Well I think - I talked about the way Facebook in a sense builds a relationship, we've also got to admit that Facebook destroys a relationship and it can destroy it precisely on this basis of privacy.

Somebody's got a fiancée but they're tagged on a photo dancing with somebody else, there's all sorts of scandals, there's all sorts of problems arise and that actually can lead to more quarrelling, to friendships breaking up, marriages breaking up etc.

Laurie Taylor:
You talk about carnival as well though don't you in Trinidad and the way in which this typically rests upon the fact that people do disguise themselves and so on and all of a sudden here is a way in which they can be exposed.

Daniel Miller:
Well it is a threat because there was always the lovely tradition in carnival and Trinidadians called it Go Brave in a sense, where you could be a bit more outrageous in your behaviour and kind of get away with it. Now if everyone's worried about the fact that you're going to be photographed and it's going to be posted etcetera, it definitely curbs the enthusiasm.

Laurie Taylor:
And you've got - was it Deshala, I think, you've got varying degrees to the extent to which people are prepared to expose themselves don't you. Here is one person who's prepared to expose herself all the time. I want to come to you David Wall just - I mean these selves which are being exposed to some extent they're fictional selves aren't they, they're not authentic selves?

David Wall:
Oh yes I mean we see this in the case of Ajani in Danny's book, presents two selves - the presentation of the self in everyday life in some ways. One is to her friends and the community, the other one is to the outside world and it's carefully groomed image - self-image - the avatar.

Laurie Taylor:
Because your students are doing some work on this, aren't they, with cybercrime, we were talking about the privacy violations on Facebook, the way in which distortions can be engineered on it, just tell us...

David Wall:
Absolutely yeah, I mean students - but more so my kids tell me about this, the concept of fraping. And hacking itself is now framed within the boundaries of Facebook, so the use of the word hack among...

Laurie Taylor:
Sorry what does fraping mean?

David Wall:
Fraping means - it's sort of Facebook rape, it's where people are getting on to someone else's site and sort of changing the different settings and...

Laurie Taylor:
Descriptions of themselves.

David Wall:
And descriptions of themselves.

Laurie Taylor:
And that's been done to you, did you say?

David Wall:
No, not to me, no, no, no. And it's something that's talked about a lot but a few of my students do actually say that's happened to them, I don't know how statistically.

Daniel Miller:
I'm just not sure whether I would necessarily then say the Facebook side of this is kind of the untrue side, I mean if you think about it if you meet somebody in the pub and they can say I'm a lawyer, I'm not married and it can be months before anybody actually finds out that's not true.

If that person put that on Facebook there's 200 people going to say well hold on a minute, I know this guy, excuse me, that's rubbish.

David Wall:
I agree with you.

Daniel Miller:
Which is why many Trinidadians actually would say that the thing you see on Facebook is if anything more true than the person you meet face to face.

David Wall:
I'm with you and the - and part of the problem is the transparency which this can give. But I mean in these cases of fraping, as they call it, it's something that can be got over and restored and it's the transparency which restores it.

Laurie Taylor:
I suppose one of the little - we're talking about strange words here but of course the Facebook term for someone - adding someone to your Facebook is friending and I learn from your book the same words the Caribbean term for enjoying casual sex - does this coincidence rather increase some of the anxieties over using Facebook?

Daniel Miller:
I think Trinidadians can sort of tell the difference between the old verb friending and having a friend on Facebook, which isn't to say that they might not play around a bit with the ambiguity from time to time.

Laurie Taylor:
And you've got a man called Marvin, I mean haven't you, you tell a story about how his marriage suffered as a result of Facebook?

Daniel Miller:
Well I think that's an important part of this kind of downside - the issue of privacy because there's a fair case to be made that actually Facebook destroyed his marriage, that here is somebody - I mean his wife knew that he had other women that he knew but the fact that it sort of puts these other women in your face, that every day he can see - oh he's got a new friend, well who is that friend, how does he know her, what's been going on? And it becomes - it's kind of a like a stalking almost sort of an obsessive following and it broke up her marriage.

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David Wall:
But he's also the architecture of his own fate though, isn't he, in some ways; I mean I think you point that out in the book, which is fascinating.

Laurie Taylor:
I've got to ask you both, this is a question about really where on earth are we going with Facebook, I mean are we going to keep on adding more and more millions of active users, are people going to spend more and more time on it, is it going to keep growing would you say, David Wall?

David Wall:
Yes, but Facebook itself is evolving with the different sort of functions and facilities that it has on it.

Daniel Miller:
Yes and I mean I think there's one story in the book which I think makes this very clear. He said we tend to think of Facebook as something to do with I don't know college students and school kids etc., but actually the natural affinity of Facebook is not that, it's just the way it evolved.

There's a figure called Dr Kallonath and he's an elderly gentleman, quite gregarious, but he gets disabled and has to now be at home and he loses all his capacity for social networking so he becomes the Facebook person.

It's people like the elderly, mothers who are left at home with kids, the shy - all these are the people who really need and want Facebook and I think that's the group it's going to go to.

Laurie Taylor:
Daniel Miller, David Wall, thank you very much.

This interview was originally broadcast as part of Thinking Allowed on BBC Radio 4, 13th April 2011.

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