Tag Archives: New Media

On Facebook, Death and Memorialisation

Over at the UCL Social Networking Sites and Social Sciences Project, Danny Miller writes about his research at a London hospice where he has been exploring the resonance of new media at the end of life:

Alongside my ethnographic research in The Glades I have now been working for over a year alongside The Hospice of St Francis. When I am in the UK I try to spend a day a week interviewing their patients who are mainly terminal cancer patients. I was delighted to hear this winter that the wonderful hospice director Dr Ros Taylor was awarded an MBE in this year’s honours list. My intention in working for the Hospice was a concern that a project of this size should also have an applied or welfare aspect where we could see the direct benefit. The initial work was simply an attempt to see how the hospice could benefit from new media. The report was published on my website, but once I was working with them I realised that in a way the hospice was the clearest example of what the whole team have endeavoured to demonstrate through this blog.

The hospice movement represents no kind of technical or medical advancement. It is entirely the product of a transformation in collective consciousness. Previously it was assumed that when people knew they were dying this was tantamount to a stage in merely their withdrawal from the world. We talk about ‘investing in our children’ as though there were long-term financial assets. The same logic would condemn the dying as of limited value. The Hospice movement was all about saying that knowing someone is terminal should be seen as an opportunity. It is no longer a medical issue, they will not be cured, instead we can concentrate on their quality of life and make this stage of life, since that is what it is, as enjoyable and fulfilling as it could be. Everything that Dr Taylor says and does demonstrates this, as does my colleague in this research Kimberley McLaughlin a senior manager of the hospice.

On reflection this is perhaps our single most important finding also as anthropologists of social media. People become fixated on the technological advances of new media. What each device can now be capable of – the latest app or smartphone or platform. These certainly feature throughout our work. But the vast majority of our blog posts are not about that. Instead they describe changes in the same collective consciousness: the social uses that people creatively imagine for these media as part of their lives.

The two issues come together in my observations of Facebook in relation to death and memorialisation. One of my early informants was a woman who felt that she wanted to use the experience of terminal cancer to help educate the wider world about her experience. A subject people tend to avoid but need to gain a better understanding of. I last saw her six days before she died and she was quite clear that using Facebook as almost a daily blog had enabled her to do just that. I am hoping (if I obtain the funding) to make a film based on her and other patients who have used Facebook in this manner.

I would be equally positive about the ways people have found to use Facebook in memorialisation and grief. Previously we have tended to use highly formal and religious institutionalised frames for dealing with death. As I argued in my book Tales From Facebook, this was out of synch with changes in our notion of the authenticity of the individual. Where once we took formal posed pictures, now we like to capture images that seem spontaneous, informal and thereby more ‘real’ to us. Similarly we needed a form of memorialisation that contained this element of personalisation and immediacy. People on Facebook can put both serious and jokey memories and do so at a time of their choosing. I find these sites poignant and effective. I don’t find other social media sites, such as Twitter or Instagram, as having the same potential, so I hope we retain this capacity of Facebook.

But the point is that the inventors of Facebook were certainly not thinking about its relationship to death or memorialisation. Rather, as in the case of the invention of the hospice movement, this reflects a change in our collective imagination in what we could potentially do in relation to death and grief. This is why we argue it is anthropology rather than more tech-driven studies of new media that are most suited to understanding what social media actually become. Most of these reports reflect not the technological potential, but the imaginative realisation of social media.




Together Again: the link between transnational ties and photo archiving among Ghanaian families

Elad Ben Elul, Department of Anthropology, UCL


Photos from Ghanaian family reunions are distributed through Facebook. The elders are often recorded telling family tales.

Recent debates around the motivations for taking digital photos ask whether people document for memory or as tools for communication (Dijck 2008:58). However, this debate tends to dichotomise memory and communication while romanticising digitisation as a revolutionary force brought from beyond the cultural landscape. Moreover, digital archiving destabilizes traditional divides between storing and sharing and creates new forms of memory through ‘distributed storage’.

During my research with diasporic Ghanaian families living in London and their digital archives, it was essential to put photos and videos in their wider context of transnational communication and new media. Rather than focusing on the content of the archive and working my way out, I started by exploring the choices of where and how to store photos, while illustrating how these choices emerge from existing socio-cultural understanding of family, photography and digital communication. Just as domestic cameras allowed Ghanaians to step out of photographic studios and document family festivities (Wendl, 1998), the arrival of digital communication meant Ghanaians in the diaspora could finally recreate their extended familial intimacy, which was threatened in the West.

Lets take Nana Mensah’s family FaceBook page as an example. Migrating to London from Ghana, in the mid 1980s, Nana says she did not pay “enough” attention to photos or genealogy in the past but after losing some elderly family members, including her father, she felt something must be done to keep the family together. She explains:

In Ghana we all used to live in one large household. Other family members lived nearby and gatherings were more frequent. We are now spread and struggle to squeeze everyone in our small British houses. We call them chicken coops.

For the Mensahs, family bonds are not simply kept for pleasure but are essential for the biological, financial and cultural systems around them. For example, Nana is planning to build a large block of flats on ancestral land in Ghana; the communal building will be equally divided between Mensah siblings or their descendants. The planned building symbolises a dream of return and reunion, a recreation of familial intimacy after transnational separation, but until everyone is geographically united, family ties must be preserved. How is this done?

Apart from annual family reunions, relatives meet at engagement parties, birthday celebrations, funerals and ‘naming’ of new-borns. However, these are only special occasions and throughout the year it is digital technologies that maintain transnational bonds.

Emails, Skype sessions and phone calls are not half as important as the archiving and sharing of photos. Four years ago Nana and her cousins opened a Facebook page titled: “Mensah Family Worldwide’. The page has 85 members and helped Nana meet relatives she never knew, who turn to her with questions on family history and genealogy. Announcements on reunions, funerals and weddings, as well as questions and stories about distant relatives, appear as wall posts. Photo albums from reunions are posted via the page, alongside pictures of family celebrations and funerals from across the world. The archive is a tool for communicating, updating and filling the absent/present gap (in oppose to remembering). This post, for example, shows how the page became a living archive of familial memories:

I recently got a text message and the sender wanted to know the location of Florence Mensah (her father was a police officer)… Kindly post all information here if you know Florence (Facebook page)

While the socially aware family archive aims to contribute to the keeping of ties through communicating text and photos, it also hopes to be a platform for the practising and documenting of oral culture. In fact, the first target of the page (as stated in its introduction) is to draw a detailed family tree that ‘will enable us to know and identify each other, acknowledge anniversaries, and provide the data for allocation of monies for funding education and health’ (FaceBook page).

Growing up with  vicar as a father, who also worked in the Colonial Civil Service, Nana absorbed many values on modernity that included ideas on photography and archiving. Like her cousins she sees oral culture from a Western perspective, as something to be archived/materialised. Family members record speeches and stories of elders during gatherings and upload the videos or transcriptions to the communal FaceBook archive. The last two surviving sons of the ‘first’  Mensah, are especially respected and considered a living repository of knowledge that must be materially documented before it is too late.

In my study I witnessed repeating dual relations towards oral traditions: Nana wishes her culture had been documented more but she also hopes storytelling will remain alive. Regarding future generations she says:

I believe the second generation will continue the tradition of oral culture but they will combine it with more documenting, probably less through writing and more through photos or videos.

The choice of archiving platform, as discussed, sets the tone of the archived material and reflects the approach towards it (Derrida, 1998). Storing photos in FaceBook, then, allows a communal experience with multiple participants, even more valued than one on one communication. The FaceBook family page, with its timeline, photos, videos and notes, plays a part in storing what is not yet lost; it negotiates the recording and practising of oral culture and maintains family ties that are vital for future reunions and financial support.

To recap, like the block of flats in Ghana or the crammed living room in England, FaceBook in its Ghanaian context is a place for being a family. As one of the keepers of the archive, Nana (and her co-administrators) becomes the conductor of global kinship, which she sees as a major responsibility. She shared a quote on the page saying: ‘Like branches on a tree, our lives may grow in different directions yet our roots remain as one.’

Other families interviewed for this research used different digital platforms for similar goals;- building a digital family tree through MyHeritage, exchanging photos via Google or simply screening slideshows through a portable hard drive. The main point was that although in the Ghanaian case photos are perceived as objects of communication more so than objects of memory, this was not created by digitisation but existed in previous understanding of family, oral culture and photography.

Call for essays: The “Newness” of New Media

Special themed issue of
Culture Theory and Critique
Editors Ilana Gershon, Indiana University (igershon@indiana.edu) and Joshua A. Bell, NMNH, Smithsonian Institution (bellja@si.edu)
Outside of the West, communities have traditionally innovated and engaged different forms of media, whether using textiles, dog’s teeth, valuables or abacus. These myriad forms remain integral to the networks of communications and relations. Today the new media technologies of the Internet, mobile phones and social networking sites provide another venue for innovation and continuity. Within the Western context, historians of media have demonstrated how new media sparks exaggerated fears that intimate connections will be harmed when a technology is introduced. Thus part of the “newness” of new media is an often-repeated expectation that new forms of representation will disrupt established social organization.
In this special issue, we hope to explore how the “newness” of new media is experienced outside of Euro-America, ranging from how communities have and are responding to the introduction of writing to the introduction of mobile phones and social networking sites. This has a strong historical component; many of our questions arise from the aftermath of colonial encounters. Two themes guide these ethnographic explorations: the “newness” of new media for dialogue and the “newness” of new media for representation.

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