Daniel Miller, UCL
I have always been drawn to anthropological research I never intended to undertake, but just couldn’t help myself. I am writing this towards the end of a period of fieldwork in Trinidad. I am here with Mirca Madianou to study the way new media impact upon transnational relationships in comparison with research undertaken last year in the Philippines which we are working up as a book, probably to be called Distant Parenting. But I just know that I wont be able to stop myself writing at least some papers if not a book about Facebook in Trinidad, because the country seems in the grip of something like a Facebook frenzy which I seem to have been increasingly researching as the fieldwork progresses. To be `Fas’ in Trinidad is to be too quickly into someone else’s business another related word is Maco, that is to view others peoples private business and Facebook is also called Maco book. Since this is seen as a national characteristic leading to the disorder of bacchanal there is a general feeling that Facebook was invented to exacerbate the very nature of being Trinidadian. Indeed as consistent with my previous work I now see Facebook as something invented by Trinidadians. As it happens the word Friending or to Friend is also a common traditional expression in Trinidad unfortunately it meant to have sex with, I am not quite sure about the implications of that particular semantic juxtaposition.
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. As such the given literature on the social networks which tended to presume that their early use, mainly for student sociality, was also their given property, is only a very partial insight into the nature of Facebook as it establishes itself as a global phenomenon. Actually the topic had already arisen in our previous work in the Philippines and we had submitted a journal publication called `Should you accept a mother’s friends request?’ which looks at the clash between two networks that, of kinship and peergroup, (not yet heard if this was accepted). But already it is evident that Facebook is becoming so much more than networking.
Let me end with one particular characteristic of Facebook that demonstrates its particular relevance to material and visual culture. In the previous paper we hasd discussed the issue of making relationships visible as an extension of theoretical discussion by Marilyn Strathern. I had also been made aware of the consequences of relationship breakup for deactivation in research work by the anthropologist Ilana Gershon. But here in Trinidad the concern is not only with the consequences of breakup but with the way the very visibility of one’s partners other relationships makes it harder to sustain relationships. For example in an interview yesterday a young woman talked of four of her friends relationships she was convinced had ended almost entirely because of this effect of being on Facebook. This is just one of many instances where at least Trinidadians are convinced that the technology in and of itself is changing what it means to be Trinidadian. Something I am hoping to give time to think about more deeply over the next few months.
Daniel Miller, UCL