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The man who nearly broke Facebook

Tuesday, January 21, 2014
Anthropologist Danny Miller who caused a storm with his analysis of Facebook’s future. PHOTO: ROBERTO CODALLO

He’s been described as a rock’n’roll anthropologist and it’s not hard to see why. With the title of professor of anthropology at UCL (University College, London), you might expect a stuffy, beard-stroking man, boring students to tears with theories on social kinship in Polynesia. Danny Miller is nothing of the sort. 


Right now he is in the eye of an international media storm after comments he made about Facebook being “dead, finished, kaput, over,” for teenagers. The Economist reported his comments—written in a UCL blog post in November—and it went viral. 


Within two weeks he’d been contacted by over 200 news organisations and Web sites until the media interest became too intense to manage. Instead he wrote a follow-up blog post clarifying his position and detailing the research that led him to the conclusion that many had already noticed. Pew research had published a similar report and the general public knew it to be true: Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat are where teenagers hang out now. Facebook is for adults with mature, boring lives to share family photos, post links to articles and amuse each other with witty repartee dissecting current zeitgeists. 


He unapologetically stands by his comments, based on nine months of research from his current five-year project, funded by a grant from the European Research Council, called the Global Social Media Impact Study. It will be completed in 2017 and involves nine researchers in eight countries for 15 months carrying out in-depth interviews and participant observation in communities in Trinidad, UK, China, Turkey, Brazil, India, Italy and Chile. 


Some journalists, he feels, missed his point about Facebook and the furore around the blog post, titled What Will We Learn From The Fall Of Facebook?, came about because business analysts felt it could affect the company’s share value. 


He says the blog was written flippantly in order to entertain. His approach to writing anthropology has always been to use simple terms and his writing is certainly more fun to read than the likes of Levi-Strauss, Bourdieu or Foucault.


“If we’re precise, pedantic and careful, we’re boring, and nobody is going to read a word,” he says. “Blogs should be popular.”


As a scholar he has always been drawn to exciting ethnographic projects. He has spent 25 years doing research in Trinidad (to the envy of his compatriots) and other research has included blue denim jeans in China, au pairs in London, Coca-Cola, high-street shopping and the internet. He appears in the news and on BBC radio programmes and, despite taking extensive sabbaticals, the odd lectures he gives to students are the highlight of their academic year. 


In person Miller is a blur of constant movement. He wears vintage Carnival T-shirts and leather sandals and his hands gesticulate animatedly, a knowing smile across his face, eyes scanning his surroundings behind scholarly glasses. 


Outside the Normandie Hotel for his interview, he’s calm and relaxed. At the Fantasy fete later in the week his persona changes. As he wines to Machel’s earsplitting performance, you realise he is not your average academic. 


Miller will come back to Trinidad every year for the foreseeable future, ostensibly for work, but surely for pleasure too. His one regret this time around is that he won’t be here for Carnival. 



Why Trinidad? Modernity, Rudder and going brave



Miller not only loves Trinidad, he sees it as the ideal place to do anthropological research about contemporary material culture (the things we make and use on a daily basis). He is about to publish his fifth book on Trinidad, called Webcams, on the subject of using Skype.


But why did he first come to Trinidad? 


“I wanted to study a consumer society and in those days (1988), Trinidad had gone from being a not-so-well-off country to having an oil boom, then a decline, so there was more consciousness of what people had and didn’t have (than in the UK). The head of department of anthropology at UCL was a Jamaican called MG Smith and he fostered fieldwork in the Caribbean and he suggested Trinidad to me. 


“But the deciding factor was David Rudder. When I first heard Calypso Music by David Rudder I just thought, wow! He was at his height and it was a great time.”


When they first arrived, in 1988, Miller’s wife, Rickie Burman (former director of the Jewish Museum, London, now working at the National Gallery) was six months pregnant with their first child. They had their baby here, a son who spent his first year growing up in Chaguanas.


Miller has looked at a range of subjects in Trinidad. His books and essays based here include Modernity, Capitalism (about transnational companies like ANSA McCAL and Neal & Massy), Coca-Cola: A black sweet drink from Trinidad (about the Trini obsession with “sweet drinks,”) Fashion and Ontology in Trinidad and Tales From Facebook, which looked at how Trinis use Facebook for everything from “horning” to connecting with the outside world if they are disabled, elderly or infirm. 


"The point I made in my first book, Modernity, came out of authors like CLR James in that there is a certain modernity (here) precisely because of the ruptures of indentured labour and slavery that actually brought it into being, which means it doesn't have this long historical trajectory that tends to slow things down. 


“I see Trinidad as the vanguard of modernity. Trinis are modern because they will take things and run with them, play with them, see what they can do with them. They're not scared of the modern. 


“The English are way more scared of being modern and modern things. The Trini expression is ‘go brave,’ and they do. Which makes it a very exciting place to do fieldwork."



How Trinis use Facebook




The follow-up to Tales From Facebook will come out later this year and is a direct comparison of Facebook users in Trinidad and England, looking at the things people post. He has discovered there are typical Trini posts that recur repeatedly and likewise typical English posts.


"Going through it systematically, we tried to make sense of the genres and we found (in Trinidad) religious postings, nationalistic postings, things that combine the two, and lots and lots of things there doesn't seem to be a term for, which I call homilies. Little moral messages, endless amounts of them. 


“And the majority of postings, if I was to try and quantify it, would be posts of Trinis trying to look sexy. 


“Whereas in England you will not find these. They do not post about religion, nationalist things and they never try to look sexy. Instead they express English values. The dominant thing in England is very straightforward: it's self-deprecation. A typical English post is all about ‘I'm an idiot, nobody is stupider than me, what a tw-t I am.’And any posts they might look sexy in they do their best to negate that by posting things in which they look really stupid."

“Facebook is a return to tradition”


Is Facebook, with its addictive qualities and virtuality, destroying life as we know it? Miller utterly rejects that idea. 


“You couldn’t have a stronger opponent of that way of thinking than me. I think it’s absolute nonsense, because those ideas are myth-making stories about the way things used to be. 


“There never was a pre-cultural society. Two ancient Australian aboriginals standing in the desert talking to each other were more virtual and constrained than Facebook is. Everything had to be done in a very esoteric cultural space defined by kinship rules and gender rules. It couldn’t have been more artificial. 


“Facebook is not one iota more artificial as a social interaction than those aboriginals. If anything, it is bringing us back to a more socialised world. We were becoming more detached from each other whereas Facebook is socially interactive. So it’s a return to tradition and the villages we once lived in. It’s a correction to the disruption and separation of people’s lives.”



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