You are here
Facebook’s other cheek
Some months ago, Yahoo’s news service reported on a Facebook page put up by Israelis with a message to Iranians. It read: “We love you” and “We will never bomb your country.” The Iranians reciprocated. Apparently they love the Israelis too. A wonderful moment, a zephyr from the Arab Spring, and another endorsement of its enabler, social-media technology.
But Facebook has another cheek: from which issues messages like “Ah put meh socks in meh jockey shorts draw—LOL,” or “Ah jes eat ah pig tail”—each with 1,000 “likes.” That cheek also has wrinkles where haters (or, as they call themselves, “concerned citizens”) congregate, and from where they occasionally erupt, like the celebrated Granny Quila, into public view.
In fact, inspirational anomalies aside, these seem to be what Facebook is largely used for in Trinidad and elsewhere: a cyber trampoline for unedited ignorance. (I’m not on FB, btw.) But I might be wrong. Maybe. According to anthropologist Daniel Miller, a professor at University College, London, FB in Trinidad is a fascinating and transformative phenomenon.
Miller has been doing fieldwork here for decades, and has written sharp essays and a book on the Internet, soap operas, Coca-Cola, wining (and other things) in Trinidad. His most recent work is a book entitled Tales from Facebook, based on Trinidad’s experience with it.
An initial observation is Trinis’ reappropriating and rechristening FB as “Fas’book” or “Macobook,” a technological extension of the national propensity for bacchanal and perversity—FB has broken up marriages and ruined lives. But it’s done much more than that, much of it surprisingly encouraging.
Miller chronicles the lives of a dozen users, ranging from the single mother on the east-west corridor, the inhabitant of the little village, the arts doyenne from San Fernando, the church-going techie, the business executive, the public figure who is featured on a sex tape, and the uprooted peasant in a concrete jungle. Through the narratives, a small detail from the national mosaic emerges. (How representative it is of the whole is another question.)
I was a little leery for the first 50 pages or so. I found Miller a little too cheerful, in fact, downright Pollyannaish. His descriptions seem to oversimplify Trini complexities, and airbrush its many malevolent bits. But little by little, I had to admit, he doesn’t leave anything out.
His Indian informant (Arvind) used FarmVille, Miller said, partially as a way of experiencing his agrarian roots, from which he was cut off. The reason for the cutting off was the industrialisation of the society, thanks to the “zeal” of Eric Williams, whom Miller professed to admire for his anti-colonial stance and whatnot—a prop- agandised characterisation of Williams. But on the next page, Miller reports that the destruction of agriculture was not so much policy necessity as vindictiveness on Williams’ part (p54).
It’s a small observation, but a crucial one, and there are many such. Miller’s appreciation of the subtleties of Trini society confirms the integrity of his observations about FB. And what becomes clear in the unfolding of the work is the endless creativity of Trinis in defining and inventing themselves, in apparent defiance of the “official” culture, which they verbally endorse as they ontologically subvert it.
The official culture, of course, is Carnival, which, if the media, university and government are to be believed, occupies every waking moment of the Trini subject. You’d never guess Trinis have more satisfyingly complex, unstable, and evolving definitions of themselves.
For example, Vishala, the single mother who uses FB to create an online identity which she fleshes out with carefully chosen pictures, posts, and calibrated interactions with her many friends. For Vishala, FB is “the book of truth” which reveals the knife-edged reality beneath social dross. She then uses this knife-edge to carve out a space in the real world.
Similarly, Aaron, the high-school student from Enterprise, uses FB the way teenagers use a mall, or a dancehall—to chat up chicks, test his moves, and polish himself to a smoothness that will get him what he wants in the real world. For the artsy Ajani, FB is a cyber-salon, the late 18th-century French salon redux, and she is its Mme de Stael. She posts about art, books, people, shows, and events. She discusses weighty subjects, and enables interaction and connections among arts enthusiasts and artists.
Also for Ajani, FB is a perfect medium for her personality, which is a little strange. It allows intense interaction, and also the sudden shut-offs she sometimes needs. But the desire and practice of becoming someone else online is not new. What is new is the Elijah Centre, a church which sees the Internet, and technology generally, as God-sent gifts which they are obligated to use to proselytise. As Miller puts it: his informant, “Michael, is God’s geek.”
And there’s a chapter on doubles on FB. Apparently Trinis’ feelings about doubles are interesting. In sum, Miller’s book is praiseworthy, but with a complication. Any research is subject to further research, counter-interpretations, and so on, to arrive at a larger picture of the issue.
But there appears to be no other research on FB here. Given that more than 450,000 Trinis are on FB—more people than voted in the Government—that we know almost nothing about its social impact isn’t just strange, it’s crimi- nal, considering that people (communications and cultural studies department at UWI) are exceedingly well-paid to do such research.
Trinidad is lucky to have the attention of a scholar of the quality of Daniel Miller. If he didn’t think that nearly half the population’s being on Facebook was worthy of attention, well, we might know nothing about it. But we would know how great Carnival is, and how bad slavery was.
User comments posted on this website are the sole views and opinions of the comment writer and are not representative of Guardian Media Limited or its staff. Guardian Media Limited accepts no liability and will not be held accountable for user comments.
Please help us keep out site clean from inappropriate comments by using the flag option.
Guardian Media Limited reserves the right to remove, to edit or to censor any comments. Any content which is considered unsuitable, unlawful or offensive, includes personal details, advertises or promotes products, services or websites or repeats previous comments will be removed.