Generalisations simplify knowledge, transforming intricate research into checklists, bullet points and consultancy-ready PowerPoint presentations. Provocative and troubling intellectual detours and culs-de-sac are crushed, compacted and bituminised to build smooth, commodifiable outcomes.
Courageous and quirky studies are rare. However, a new monograph series, Why We Post – drawing on a project involving nine anthropologists looking at the same topics simultaneously around the world – embraces the idiosyncratic and denies the simple convenience of a predictable scholarly motorway. The books use standardised chapter headings, but focus on specific local studies. In a valuable critique of the “Cultural studies for dummies”, plug-in-and-play theories of digitisation and identity, Daniel Miller, one of the nine researchers, observes: “Most studies of the internet and social media are based on research methods that assume we can generalize across different groups. We look at tweets in one place and write about ‘Twitter’. We conduct tests about social media and friendship in one population, and then write on this topic as if friendship means the same thing for all populations.”
Social Media in an English Village, the first of the location-specific Why We Post titles, develops innovative interpretations from rich ethnographic data. Miller does not allow “the English” to remain an unmarked sign. Similarly, online life is not separated from analogue life; he shows the free and fluid meshing of bytes and blood.
What makes this English study distinct from the others in the series is that Miller shadows an intricate dance between public and private. Social media are the spaces where those contradictions are revealed and negotiated. Indeed, his conclusion is that “the English have subsequently re-purposed social media into more of a tool for keeping people apart or at a distance”.
Inverting Marshall McLuhan, Miller does not focus on the medium, such as Facebook or Instagram. Instead, he tracks the mobility and migration of content to understand its role in creating public and private identities for specific audiences. While this is a welcome intervention, the specificity of social media is underplayed. Platforms – and their limitations – do matter. Try to communicate on Twitter with more than 140 characters. Attempt to connect with others on Instagram or Pinterest without photographs. The medium is not the message. Instead, the platform is a frame for normative expectations that link a user with an audience.
This fine study is located in anthropology, and there will therefore be some jarring interpretations for scholars in internet, media, communication and cultural studies. This disciplinary dissonance is productive and potent. The concept of “polymedia” proposed throughout the book will hold a currency far beyond this monograph and series. This concept describes how a network of social media platforms is used to build a communication system. Further, the key and under-recognised change in social media in the past five years – the intensification of visuality in social media through Instagram and Snapchat – is handled well. Miller also captures the social function of mobile phone cameras: “Taking a photograph has become rather like holding a drink – a key mode by which everyone acknowledges how much fun they are having.”
Delicately textured case studies entwine around this local study, such as the use of social media for people with terminal illnesses and resident in hospices. Patients can continue conversations with family and friends, particularly with the use of a webcam to offer (digital) face to (digital) face support. Miller’s rich research unearths how the local use of digital media reveals opportunities, strategies and challenges for guarding and freeing the spaces between public and private communication.
Tara Brabazon is dean of graduate research and professor of cultural studies at Flinders University, Australia, and author, most recently, of Play: A Theory of Learning and Change (2016).
Social Media in an English Village
By Daniel Miller
UCL Press, 234pp, £35.00, £15.00 and £5.99
ISBN 9781910634424, 4431, 4455 (e-book), 4448 (open access)
Published 29 February 2016