By Jordi Bok As anthropologist Daniel Miller takes place behind the microphone to start his lecture, a whistle blows through the lecture room. It is not a starting signal, but the noise of a WhatsApp-notification. Some people laugh, some look annoyed and others just ignore it. Slightly embarrassed, the girl sitting next to me quickly checks her phone to see who contacted her at this inconvenient moment. This perfectly sets the stage for what prof. Daniel Miller is going to talk about today, 12 February 2016, as part of the Amsterdam Anthropology Lectures at VU University: social media.
A situation like this is probably recognizable to anyone who has recently attended a gathering of people anywhere in the world, whether it was a birthday party in Japan, a graduation ceremony in Brazil or a university lecture in Amsterdam. Social media have changed our lives. They pervade our daily practices, or have become a daily practice in themselves. We even bring them to class with us – for as far as you can still speak of social media as separate of us, rather than as an extension of our lifeworlds.
From my personal experience, as a premaster student in anthropology at VU University, I keep in touch with my fellow students using a Facebook group. It seems a perfect platform to discuss assignments, share articles and let each other know if there is an interesting lecture coming up. However, if we had been a few years younger, chances would be that we would choose a different medium for such activities. “No matter how functional Facebook might be, many young people stop using it, simply because older people are now on Facebook as well,” Daniel Miller argues.
According to him, the example mentioned above illustrates that the reasons why people use certain social media do not necessarily have anything to do with the “affordances” of the medium itself. “It has to do with the meaning that people attach to it,” Miller explains. This also explains why we are now witnessing “content migration” – a shifting of genre of content and modes of communication between platforms of social media, regardless of the qualities of the platform or the original intention with which it was created. He claims that the reason why people use a certain medium for a certain purpose in a certain way can only be revealed by studying the people themselves – rather than the medium. “As anthropologists, we can study the meanings social media have in the lives of people.”
According to a large-scale comparative research project on social media that Miller is conducting together with eight other anthropologists (for more information: Why We Post website), these meanings vary strongly. They are conducting research in nine different places all over the world, from Chilean copper mines to rural Chinese villages. Miller states: “We see that people in these areas might use the same digital platforms, but the ways in which they are used are often completely different.”
Miller illustrates this by comparing his own research in a British village to the research of a fellow researcher in Trinidad. Whereas British people seem to have a sense of irony when it comes to Facebook, Trinidadians take it very serious as a way to express themselves. British people might post ugly selfies and just laugh about it. Trinidadians, however, post updates with motivating and religious meanings you would rarely come across in the UK. Miller argues that “when embedded in such different societies, these are actually different Facebooks.”
Social media is not only shaping the world; the world shapes social media just as much. “These developments occur in many different ways around the world”, Miller concludes an hour and fifteen minutes after the WhatsApp whistle. After applause and a short discussion, people start packing their bags. I see the girl next to me putting her phone back in her purse, it reminds me to check if I missed any updates in the premaster Facebook group. It now makes me feel a bit old…
Jordi Bok is a premaster student of Cultural Anthropology at the VU.