In separate incidents in early 2010 two children in Queensland Australia met untimely and violent deaths. In an increasingly common response, relatives, friends and strangers used social media to express grief, angst, solidarity, intimacy, and community, and to remember, mourn and share condolences for the young lives that had been lost. Social media is increasingly used for these kinds of expressions. However, social media is also often used for expressions of hatred, alienation and sociopathy. Within hours, the online commemorations for both children were defaced with abuse of the deceased and the bereaved, with links to pornographic sites, and with images that showed scenes of murder, race-hate and bestiality. Outrage ensued. Virulent condemnation of these so-called ‘RIP-Trolls’ flooded both social and mass media. The Australian Prime Minister commented; the Queensland Police Commissioner promised prosecution; and the Queensland State Premier demanded an apology from Facebook. The RIP-Trolls justified their actions as critique of the vacuous and vicarious expressions of sentiment manifested in ‘click-through grieving’ by strangers; while their adversaries called for respect for the dead, the preservation of the sacred, and emotional care of the friends and family of the deceased (Kohn et al., 2012; Phillips 2011).
Hundreds of millions of people socialize in significant ways using digital media, and each year millions of these people die. As people lead more of their lives online, interactions with the living are increasingly accompanied by encounters with the deceased. These encounters can take at least two forms. First, for many people social media such as Facebook has become a significant part of their social presence in the lives of others. When users of social media die, their digital traces continue and tend to linger on. Through these persistent bodies of data, the dead retain their presence and can continue to play social roles in the lives of those left behind. Secondly, they can be encountered through the emerging, and now wide-spread, practices of digital commemoration. Individuals in increasing numbers are deploying the resources of social networking sites, crowd-sourced informal gatherings, websites, digital video streams, game sites, YouTube clips, Tweets, Flickr collections and the like, to commemorate the deceased, or indeed, to prepare for their own memorialization.
Digital practices associated with ‘death, dying and disposal’ are significant in both personal and public terms but, as the incidents above illustrate, such practices are still evolving and lack established social conventions, and so are also a source of public and personal disquiet, punctuated by occasional outbreaks of moral panic. This confluence of changing digital technologies and the refiguring of contemporary practices and rituals associated with death, dying and disposal is an extraordinarily fertile field for research, and one that should be of immediate interest to many CASTAC readers.
In May of this year Connor Graham, Lanfranco Aceti and I published a dedicated special issue of The Information Society on the ‘Death, Afterlife and Immortality of Bodies and Data’ (see the TOC below). Through eight single and co-authored contributions, the special issue considers how current, emerging and future rituals and practices associated with death, dying and disposal are being refigured by digital media.
A common theme (one of many) running through all the contributions to this special issue is a concern with, not so much the immorality or resurrection of the dead, but the persistence of the dead in social life that is enabled through social media. If, in the Victorian era the dominant trope for representing and talking about the dead was one of solemn rest and peaceful sleep (Hallam and Hockey 2001), then the dead no longer slumber. Rather, they are becoming a decidedly more boisterous, lively (if you’ll excuse the pun) and continuing presence in people’s lives through ongoing engagement in social media that does not readily forget.
In this vein, Alexandra Sherlock in her contribution to the special issue discusses the ‘symbolic immortality’ of popular media figures who have died yet continue to have a social presence in lives of everyday people and suggests that new digital media offers ironic possibilities for the re-enchantment of contemporary society.
Grant David Bollmer examines contemporary discussions of the effects and possibilities of ‘information remainders’ that persist after death and shows how they are constructed in this discourse as both an ‘authentic duplication of identity’ and a ‘threat to personal identity that must be managed’.
Jed Brubaker and his co-authors examine the use of Facebook as a site for public mourning to take place and argue that rather than disrupting public mourning Facebook is used in ways that lead to its temporal, spatial and social expansion.
Similarly, Scott Church examines the practices and rituals associated with internet memorials, or ‘digital gavescapes’. He discusses an interesting mode of engagement often found on these sites: people directly and publicly addressing the dead in the second person. He suggests these public performances can strengthen communal experiences even though people are not directly addressing each other with their digital utterances.
Jessa Lingel looks at the online, public debates that have surrounded Facebook’s policies for the pages of people who have died. From these rancorous discussions she argues that ‘in the context of online grief, Facebook pages become a contested site of ownership, meaning making, and social ties.’ (p.194) She concludes that the norms and protocols associated with online grief remain unsettled and evolving with significant implications for individual and collective identities and rituals.
On a more speculative note, Denisa Kera examines recent posthumanist experimentation in the fields of art and design that poses significant questions for our notions of burial and disposal, memorialization and archiving, mortality and immortality.
Bill Bainbridge’s contribution is a provocative account of his experiences with creating what he calls ancestor veneration avatars. Using MMORPGs and Virtual Worlds he has created characters that represent and are used to enact aspects of the lived lives, as well as the hopes and dreams, of long dead members of his family.
And finally, in our introduction to the special issues we discuss the refiguring of the rituals and practices associated with grieving and memorialization. We examine how notions of personhood are extended over time and space and thus transformed through the circulation, repetition and re-contextualization of bodies and associated data through new media with implications for future forms of remembrance.
Contributions to the special issue, Death, Afterlife and Immortality of Bodies and Data, of the Information Society (29/3) include:
“Introduction to the Special Issue on the Death, Afterlife, and Immortality of Bodies and Data” Connor Graham, Martin Gibbs and Lanfranco Aceti
“Millions Now Living Will Never Die: Cultural Anxieties About the Afterlife of Information” Grant David Bollmer
“Beyond the Grave: Facebook as a Site for the Expansion of Death and Mourning” Jed R. Brubaker, Gillian R. Hayes & Paul Dourish
“Larger Than Life: Digital Resurrection and the Re-Enchantment of Society” Alexandra Sherlock
“Designing for Death and Apocalypse: Theodicy of Networks and Uncanny Archives” Denisa Kera
“Digital Gravescapes: Digital Memorializing on Facebook” Scott H. Church
“The Digital Remains: Social Media and Practices of Online Grief” Jessa Lingel
“Perspectives on Virtual Veneration” William Sims Bainbridge
Hallam, E. and Hockey J. (2001) Death, Memory and Material Culture. Oxford: Berg.
Kohn, T., Gibbs, M., Arnold, M., and Nansen. B. (2012) Facebook and the Other: Administering to and Caring for the Dead Online, in Hage, G (Ed.), Responsibility. Melbourne: University of Melbourne Press, 128-141.
Phillips, W. (2011) LOLing at Tragedy: Facebook Trolls, Memorial Pages and Resistance to Grief Online, First Monday [Online], 16(12) (28 November)
Scale has been a recent buzzword in discussions of social and digital media, as our editor Patricia G. Lange traced out in her January retrospective post. From MOOCs to Big Data, emerging communication technologies are making possible (and visible) large-scale interactions that have been attracting attention from many quarters, including anthropology. I want to revisit this conversation by discussing further what scale means in the context of networked media, especially social and mobile technologies.
Is scale the new global?
On the cusp of the new millennium in the late 1990s, there was a lot of buzz over the global reach of the Internet, linked to broader interest in how new communication technologies were entwined with globalizing processes. The World Wide Web itself was envisioned as spanning the globe, while globalism infected the popular imagination. Nearly twenty years on, the Internet has yet to bring about global equality or democracy, though it is playing a central role in many protest movements and political upheavals.
Part of the challenge for anthropologists and others studying networked and digital communications lies in grappling with the changes new technologies make possible, even as we recognize that technology never solely determines events in one direction. Social media, in the sense of networked communication platforms that articulate social ties and depend on user-created content, have certainly fostered new forms of mass protest and organization (as Victoria Barassi recently chronicled). But at the same time, technologies often become popular because they operate according to—and reproduce—existing cultural norms.
In my work, I look specifically at how social and mobile technologies are transforming everyday experiences of space and place. Though scale can refer to the size or scope of digital communications, it can also mean the geographic or spatial level of social relations, connections, and interactions. The global stands out as one such scale, as does the local or the national. Many cultural geographers have argued, however, that geographic scales are socially produced means of organizing social space, such as national borders, international trade agreements, or urban infrastructure (see for example Brenner 1998, 2001; Marston 2000; Massey 1993; and many others). The way scales are organized, moreover, reflects the circulation of capital and its unequal distribution of power.
Digital media, such as the Internet, are sometimes described as allowing place-less interactions and connections, with the Internet creating its own spaces (e.g. chat rooms or virtual worlds). Rethinking geographic scales as culturally constructed calls attention to how both the “local” and the “global” entail different kinds of place-making practices (but which often happen in the same physical places, as Doreen Massey has pointed out). As the debate shifts away from questions of local versus global (or the ungainly neologism “glocal”), perhaps the concept of scale, and scalemaking, is more helpful in understanding space and place online.
Ethnography of scale making
Binaries such as local/global can of course be useful, but can also distract from other distinctions, such as other kinds of place and place-making. In my work in Berlin, for example, I found that small groups of friends used social media to connect and interact with friends and contacts at multiple geographic levels. This included local friendships that took place in central districts of Berlin, regional ties to friends and family, especially to rural regions in eastern Germany, national reading publics consuming the same news media online, and transnational or translocal communities of music fans. Translocal connections in this sense took place across multiple locales, comprising a music scene that existed simultaneously in different places without necessarily being transnational.
Thinking about scale draws attention to how these levels themselves—local, regional, national, transnational—are constructed and reordered through everyday practice. Users, for example, moved through multiple publics and audiences online, often by employing language practices such as code switching. Among the circles of friends I studied, users often posted in English to address an audience envisioned as global or cosmopolitan. Using English also located events in Berlin in transnational cultural circuits, while German was often reserved for discussing topics German-speakers viewed as relevant to other co-nationalists, such as national German news stories. Switching between English and standard German made it possible to move between co-nationalists and transnational audiences in the same online spaces. Social media like Facebook further facilitated bringing together relationships at multiple scales, including local friendships, regional German ties, and transnational networks, generating new scales in the process. The globalness of online communications may therefore owe not to global or transnational connections but to a multiplicity of place-making activities.
Along with geographic binaries like local/global, social and mobile media are further complicating distinctions between online and offline. Numerous anthropologists have challenged the utility of this division, arguing that Internet media are already socially embedded, that is, the product of existing social relations, and can constitute real social spaces (e.g. Miller and Slater 2000:6). Tom Boellstorff (2008) has contended that virtual worlds like Second Life are no more or less culturally constructed than offline “real” worlds. From this perspective, “face-to-face” or “real life” communication is as mediated as computer-mediated interactions (through, for example, language, gesture, sartorial style, and other forms of embodied habitus).
Whose social media?
Social and mobile media, however, are more ubiquitous and integrated into daily practice than many earlier Internet platforms. Though many experience the Internet as a separate space of communication, those I studied described digital communications as “continuous” rather than discrete, such as chatting over instant messenger on and off throughout the day. Scholars of social media are finding it more helpful to analyze diverse communication practices on Facebook, Twitter, or mobile phones, for example, in terms of “connection strategies” users employ in different contexts (Ellison et al. 2011; Subrahmanyam 2008). Users I studied, for example, simultaneously interacted with close friends on Facebook while connecting to friends-of-friends with shared music interests or to new acquaintances met at events in Berlin. Most users also reserved some technologies for a smaller circle of friends and family, especially instant and text messaging, Skype, and email (as well as voice calls). The question then becomes not whether people are interacting online or offline, but how they are using different platforms and with whom. How do social and mobile media shape ways of making sense of space and place as interactions and relationships take place across multiple technologies?
This approach echoes work being done on the materiality of digital media, in which scholars like Katherine Hayles (2004) advocate a “media-specific analysis” to recognize the materiality of digital and analog encodings alike. Hayles argues that both digital and print texts, for example, exist in materially specific instantiations, but that their materiality differs in ways that affect how they are produced and experienced. In my forthcoming article (Kraemer n.d.) on Facebook friendship in Germany, I take up these questions to investigate how implicitly American interactional norms structure social relations among friend networks at multiple scales in Berlin and Europe. Although German and other European users successfully negotiated gaps between their and Facebook’s construction of friendship, further work needs to address how the “social” of social media represents a culturally (and geographically) specific understanding of social life.
Boellstorff, T. 2008. Coming of Age in Second Life: An anthropologist explores the virtually human. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Brenner, N. 1998. Between fixity and motion: accumulation, territorial organization and the historical geography of spatial scales. Environment and Planning D, 16: 459–481. http://www.envplan.com/abstract.cgi?id=d160459
Ellison, N. B., Steinfield, C. and Lampe, C. 2011. Connection strategies: Social capital implications of Facebook-enabled communication practices. New Media and Society, 13(6): 873–892. http://nms.sagepub.com/content/13/6/873
Hayles, N. K. 2004. Print Is Flat, Code Is Deep: The importance of media-specific analysis. Poetics Today, 25(1), 67–90. http://poeticstoday.dukejournals.org/content/25/1/67.abstract
Kraemer, J. (n.d.). Friend or Freund: Social media and transnational connections in Berlin, Special Issue on Transnational HCI. Human-Computer Interaction. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/07370024.2013.823821
Massey, D. 1993. “Power geometry and a progressive sense of place.”. In Mapping the futures: Local cultures, global change Edited by: Bird, J., Curtis, B., Putnam, T., Robertson, G. and Tickner, L. 59–69. Routledge.
Miller, D., & Slater, D. 2000. The Internet: an ethnographic approach. Oxford, New York: Berg Publishers.
Subrahmanyam, K., Reich, S. M., Waechter, N. and Espinoza, G. 2008. Online and offline social networks: Use of social networking sites by emerging adults. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 29(6): 420–433. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0193397308000713
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: