Ask an anthropologist a question and they’ll tell you a story. In this case, you didn’t ask, but I’m going to tell. During the fall of 2012, I was perusing my Facebook feed before bedtime, imagining myself to be reconnecting with old friends and keeping up with their lives through their links, posts and various photos. I was ruminating on the continually tweaked feed algorithms that always seemed to send friends into the foreground and others out of view. One old friend in particular and his regular kid photos were strangely absent, so I flicked open the side panel of Facebook’s iOS client and began searching for his name. Nothing turned up in the auto-complete, which was strange… At which point I quickly realized it meant that I had been un-friended. Indeed an actual search yielded his profile, which offered me the friendly blue-button “Add Friend.” At which point I pondered, “I thought we were.”
Here was a guy who I shouldn’t have been friends with. He was a football player and I was a geek. I played video games and took Computer Science classes (and Women’s Studies classes). He was a Physics Major and jock. But, we lived next door to one another and after a particularly extensive round of playing Quake on my PowerBook 3400 I had stepped into the hallway of my dorm to be greeted with the sound of retching next door. I dropped in and asked, “hows it going?” (Incidentally, probably one of my de facto ethnographic questions.) We ended up chatting for a few hours (it was his roomate, not him having difficulty) until the worst seemed over and I eventually retired to my room.
A few years later, he was still a football player, but also a Mathematics and Computer Science Major, similar to myself. We worked together on a project team during our senior-level software engineering course. We cajoled one another through a particularly horrific experience with a probability course. We even managed to get snowed into a computer lab while crunching at the end of our senior project. Once we graduated, like most college kids, everyone went their separate ways. A decade later (or more, now that I think about it) when I received a friend request from him on Facebook, I was happy to accept and seemingly catch up.
A different story: I started playing with Facebook’s Developer APIs a couple of years ago, teaching them as part of summer courses at the University of Georgia in the New Media Institute. An early prototype was a Facebook “App” that displayed a leader-board of users who had authorized the app according to those with the most friends. In other words, it would show a top ten list of those with the most friends of the users who had authorized the app. It was a sample bit of code for students, but also a moment to get them to reflect on how many “friends” on Facebook they had and what that meant.
After my un-friending experience I returned to the Facebook social graph. I built a prototype app that would, when you visited the app, let you know who your new friends and un-friends were since your last visit. Relatively easy. I suspect that is what some of the available systems do right now. Some even do it for Twitter.
But, I was reluctant to do anything with the app (in particular release it). It seemed too much like “friend” surveillance, and we have more than enough of that already without each and every person on Facebook self-surveilling one another. There was also the issue of resources. If I did something like this well, I knew it would get use. Did I really want to offer tribute to the god of Amazon Web Services (AWS) just to allow people to know when they’d been un-friended? Because scale is a very real issue here.
When I queried the Facebook Oracle on the idea, even my network of friends were interested/apprehensive/dubious/worried. But why did I care? I was interested because I had been moved by my own un-friending. I never followed up on it. I never talked about it until nearly two months later with my partner and nearly eight months later on Facebook. But even now, it gives me great pause when thinking about social-media, technology and the ethnographic perspective.
Thus, I now wonder, what would a meaningful (or even playful) experience of un-friending be? How might it serve to convince people to think about their friends on Facebook or the nature of friendship in general? How might it explore surveillance and algorithmic culture? How might it be done ethnographically?
The Point, Really
The point, really, is that as someone interested in and capable of building these things, I often wonder if I should. There will be innumerable IRB issues associated with the building of such a thing if I wish to make research use of it. There are numerous ethical issues involved with its design and a hundred technical issues. Should I do it? What would it be? What is the potential for good and for harm?
Thus, this is partially a query to the CASTAC community. I can imagine numerous ways to take “Un-Friend Stories,” which is my unofficial name for the project. Initially I imagined that the “penance” that one must pay for surveilling their new and un-friends would be an occasional request for a story. It could be ignored. All stories would be curated (by evil old me). People would likely suppress the feed posts it would offer, but I’d be able to sleep at night.
Now, however, I don’t think that’s enough. Maybe I present the user with a variety of voices in their current network, presented graphically as will-o’-the-wisps perhaps, and it’s up to the user to explore why a voice is or isn’t present. Maybe, just maybe one of those voices is gone for good, but it’s up to the user to reflect on that absence.
My experience forced me to think about my friends and Facebook’s algorithmic presentation of (and, yes, I know I can pick between top and newest posts) information to me. I had to take a journey and think about friendship.
If I can do that for others, is it still good? Or is it still just another brick in the surveillance wall?
I suspect that the initial response of most anthropologists to this kind of comparative study will be negative. Our model of work is incredibly specific, insisting upon the integrity, even the holism, of a fieldsite. It is almost as though we try to deny the often almost arbitrary nature of that particular village or town as our selected place of study, by the sheer devotion we have to the integrity of this place – which can become an account of ‘how my people do things’. It’s a bit like marriage, where, in truth there are thousands of people we might have married, but once we are married we create a relationship that is as though it is impossible to imagine that it could have ever been anyone but the beloved spouse. The idea of a comparative anthropological study can also feel like a betrayal of anthropology itself, and of our relationship to ethnography.
So it is important to assert that we intend to confront this prejudice. That we do not intend simply to do eight ethnographies that are just eight times a single piece of work. That would be a betrayal of a different kind. It means that we would be failing to recognise that it is almost unheard of to get the kind of funding that allows for eight simultaneous ethnographies. If this is a most unusual opportunity then we have responsibility to understand what kind of opportunity this in fact is. Elisa in an earlier blog post talks about the excitement of sharing discussion at this early stage. Here I want to refer rather to the potential for analysis at the later stage.
So let’s start from the other end. What can an eight-fold ethnography do that a single ethnography cannot? A blog is not the space to unfold this in any detail but let’s try one example. We will all be studying social network sites, and a core question anyone engaged in such studies must ask themselves, is to what degree the particular usage we observe is a product of the nature of the fieldsite where they work, or the social network site that they also observe. Is this because it is Brazil or because it is Facebook? The problem is that a single ethnography can only surmise on the basis of the evidence of that site which is always a conflation of these two (and of course many more) facets.
By contrast, when eight sites are being studied simulteneously, the individual who is working in Brazil knows far more than just what a Brazilian is doing on Twitter. At pretty much exactly the same time they will know that people in five other places are doing pretty much the exact same thing on Twitter. Or they will know that people in five other places are doing someting rather different on Twitter. Now we are hopefully too sophisticated to simply draw mechanical conclusions. It is possible there is another factor: a common sense of modernity says that all sites share, which prevents us from merely assuming that commonality means we look for a more technological foundation for this behaviour. Nevertheless the way in which our evidence is cited comparatively means that the level of discussion and analysis can start from a significantly higher level than if we were an isolated study with no idea of how our work related to similar investigations in other places.
Furthermore, this situation precisely fits the difference between our project and most traditional projects in that our core focus is on something that, in its infrastructure, does not vary other than the contrast between QQ in China and Facebook which conveniently gives us another way of trying to decide what is because of Facebook itself and what from other factors. So a study that looks at this simultaneously in eight sites works particularly for something that has been introduced across the whole world within a very short time period. All this would at least suggest that a comparative study can actually deepen rather than take away from each individual ethnography. You are not betraying your fieldsite you are actually giving it a much greater significance than it otherwise might have had. At least that’s the idea….
(Cross posted with permission from the UCL Blog: