Facebook and the disambiguation of relationships

A little while ago I posted an opinion piece at Inside Higher Ed about “The Flaws of Facebook”:http://www.insidehighered.com/views/2009/02/03/golub that netted the usual motley assemblage of comments from IHE’s public sphere as well as from some “old acquaintances”:http://akma.disseminary.org/?p=1985. The feedback has led me to think quite a bit more about the claims raised in the piece in a way that has proven very fertile, which is great. As a result I’ve thought a lot about the varying degrees of publicity and the shadings of privacy and connection that come with being a teacher and scholar. But there is one part of the article which I think is particularly productive (for me at least) which hasn’t gotten a full airing that I wanted to bring up here.

One of the main claims of my piece is that our everyday face to face interactions with people are ambiguous, polysemous, and constantly being renarrated. We employ a vocabulary of cultural forms to understand who we and they are, and this vocabulary and those understandings vary widely in terms of how precise they are and how much we believe in them. Social Networking sites, on the other hand, describe a social network that is unambiguous, concrete, and univalent. Some people have objected to my piece by saying that Facebook has privacy features, or that more granular definitions of friends and permissions attached to those identities to, say, view restricted contact like personal photos could solve the problems I describe. But however elaborated such a system is, it is still a system in which identities are fixed in clearly defined and unambiguous ways. This is a difference in kind.

Facebook subsumes face-to-face relationships, in other words, in a way similar to the way that governments subsume indigenous identities. Or at least the identities of Papua New Guinean ‘landowners’ that I study. In both cases, an institution identified people as being unambiguously one type or another for the purposes of granting them access to resources and certain types of moral recognition. I think many of the criticisms that people have made of the deforming effects of state recognition on indigenous people could in principle be applied to people on Facebook — although of course the stakes are infinitely lower in the case of Facebook.

Radcliffe-Brown, of course, understood kinship systems as institutions: there were offices that office holders moved through, and lineage systems were hierarchical bureaucracies with ascending and descending units. When the structure-functionalist kool aid wore off, of course, we realized that this was not the case. ‘Tribes’ and ‘Clans’ looked like bureaucracies because they were in fact newly-solidified institutions designed to interface with the colonial forces which were themselves institutionalized and bureaucratic. A major — and not very new or controversial, I hope — claim of my own work is that people like the Ipili I lived with who lived largely without writing or formalized institutions with a separation of office and office holder had identities and relationships that were much more fluid than those of their colonial rulers. And this despite the fact that said colonial rulers believed themselves to be modern, changing, and progressive and believed the people they conquered to be static, unchanging, ossified, etc.

Insofar as indigenous critiques of pathological state systems of recognition are a particular example of a more general criticism of the way that living breathing lifeworlds are formalized — or rather, how the living and breathing world has little solidified models of itself drifting around within it in complexly reflective ways. We might start thinking about the performative nature of these identities: how a new occasion to classify people as friends suddenly makes us rethink not just whether someone is a friend, but what that category means. Perhaps there will someday be computers with databases so massive and logic so fuzzy they will be able to intuit that I want Jim to see photos of my weekend hike, but not Sarah. But in the meantime perhaps we need someone to write a critique of the corrosive bureaucratic imagining of friendship that Facebook promotes. Or perhaps we need an expose of the way that its mechanisms are constantly being detourned by the communities that are constantly appropriating it.


Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at rex@savageminds.org

15 thoughts on “Facebook and the disambiguation of relationships

  1. “Social Networking sites, on the other hand, describe a social network that is unambiguous, concrete, and univalent”

    I completely disagree, at many different levels. So when I go to a friends site, and see there 100, 200, 300 however many friends, I actually cannot judge who is a great friend, acquaintance, student, etc. There is not just that type of granularity.

    I know, in fact, that so much of what happens on facebook is self-consciously performative and/or random and chaotic. Take the status updates. Many folks will update their updates frequently for weeks and then vanish, totally, for weeks and for reasons that are totally unknown to the audience. Why/when/who/what happens on Facebook is totally partial, random, and opaque a dynamic that most users are aware of.

    I know and I bet many facebookers know that they are getting very incomplete, partial, and very crafted picture of people…

  2. On FB you can have secret groups. So you and Jim (and the other hikers) both join the group, share pictures there, and Sarah (and your other friends like her) will never know they existed. I think.

  3. (longtime reader, first time commenter, hi!)

    As mentioned above, there’s nothing univalent about Facebook – you can have multiple, overlapping and exclusive “friends lists” (including secret ones) with multiple privacy settings, So Facebook is attempting to deal with the ‘who sees which photographs’ issue. (see: Privacy Settings Every Facebook User Should Know: http://www.allfacebook.com/2009/02/facebook-privacy/) It doesn’t do that by intuiting, true, you have to make that decision. That, it seems to me, could mean that facebook sometimes does what you suggest we should do- require that we think about what “friendship” means. Certainly there is some research on how people use Facebook that suggests people do this.

    But although Facebook may never replicate the specificity of a single face to face interaction, neither do they replace that interaction, so I’m not sure how concerned to be about that aspect of it.

    More broadly, it seems to me that the parallel between colonial apparatus and Facebook only works as well as the equation of power relationships
    users::Facebook and (colonized) people::(colonizing) state.

    I’m not sure I understand how that works on Facebook.
    Facebook interacts with the state and corporate interests around user information shared on facebook, which is a concern I think is under-explored, but I don’t think that’s what you are raising..

    It sounds like your concern with Facebook (at least until the last line) relies on a pretty deterministic vision of the site – as if people comply fully with Facebook’s structures. again, absent the power relations inherent in the colonial relationship (which I would think were not total either), I don’t see how people could be forced to comply that way. In fact, the default settings (while problematic from a privacy standpoint) are so open as to be fluid indeed, aren’t they? Basically, I think it’s what Biella says above – people behave fluidly w/r/t to facebook and it doesn’t have so much power to force rigidity as suggested here.

    Maybe it’s going to far to suggest that looking to Facebook as an example of formal rules is akin to looking at kinship as an institution?

  4. The article someone really needs to write is about the relationships between fictional writing and blogging and anthropological writing and blogging. My working hypothesis is that the similarities come down to the blogger’s dream of advancing his work without the need to maintain personal relationships. Viz, Diablo Cody can get a screenwriting deal because a guy in the business had a stepchild who forwarded him a link to her blog (rather than having to sneak on set to pass around copies of her script) and the working anthropologist can get no strings attached feedback from el populacho (as opposed to, “Given that I’ve been in your class for four months now, might it be possible to get some substantive comments along with the letter grade on my term paper?”).

    That said, tribes and clans existed prior to colonialism just as friendship existed to Facebook. That some bureaucrat and academics have reduced these social institutions to non-contingent models suitable for cross-cultural comparison doesn’t mean the natives can’t tell the difference between the formalized version and the real world version (or that the formalized version didn’t have some effect upon the real world version). A little lexicography would go a long way here – is it more likely that when ‘Facebook friend’ finds its way into the dictionary that it gets entered as a sense under the headword **friend** or as its own entry?

    I have trouble seeing how your reflections upon Facebook are more than a professional academic’s version of my grandparents’ gripping about how drivers that use turn signals in parking lots complicate their lives. On the other hand, I think it contains a profound and important critique of the assumptions underpinning the methodology of social network analysis. Yeah, if you formalize human relationships to the extent that SNA does it really lends itself to validity in the hard science sense, but is that really the way that human relationships work?

  5. i think this needs more precision

    ambiguous: yes yes. This is the easiest to see. We always live with the question of whether or not that real person next to us is a friend or not, both when they are there and when they are not. In Facebook, we can have the anxiety, but we can only have one kind of status: friend/not friend. It’s true that we can gradate that status (friend who sees photos, friend who sees when I use X application) but the nature of these tools is that they are concrete, otherwise the automation of connection they enable would be impossible, or random, which amounts to the same thing. If facebook randomly scrambled my friends’ statuses for me, maybe we would have something like ambiguity.

    polysemous: yes and no. what friends say on facebook strikes me as no more or less polysemous than what they say in person, on blogs, on the phone or in writing. each of these media provides different axes of interpretation for the meaning of an interaction, which is why people sign msgs “sent from my iphone” and so forth 🙂 🙁 😮

    constantly renarrated: no no. It’s obvious to even a weak and intermittent user of Facebook like myself that relationships are constantly re-narrated, that’s the whole point of the status update business, isn’t it? Silence on my part renarrates my friendships as “doesn’t use Facebook very much”, while other people are busy gifting and updating and poking and whatever else it is they do in an effort to re-narrate everything from grade-school relationships to marriages.

    But more generally: do you think facebook is any more or less a disambiguation of relationships than virtual worlds like WoW and/or SL? Is it the mode of interaction that matters here or what? Along what axis should we compare WoW, Facebook, and Internet?

  6. bq. On the other hand, I think it contains a profound and important critique of the assumptions underpinning the methodology of social network analysis. Yeah, if you formalize human relationships to the extent that SNA does it really lends itself to validity in the hard science sense, but is that really the way that human relationships work?

    Is anyone here but me actually doing SNA? I ask because I am, analyzing the relationships that link the members of creative teams whose ads have made it into the Tokyo Copywriters Club Annual in 1981, 1986, 1991, 1996, 2001, 2006, and 2007. The data set includes 4542 ads with attributes including Agency, Industry and Medium, the names of 8578 individuals, and the 34,965 roles that link the individuals and the ads.

    Does the existence of these data or Pajek, the network analysis and visualization software that I am using to analyze them solve the structure-actor problem? Of course not. Human actors behave in all of the shifty, ambiguous ways that Rex describes so well. They are constantly making decisions that reflect their mental-emotional models/understandings of the situations in which they find themselves as well as the constraints and opportunities that the current state of their networks represents.

    Both networks and individuals are, moreover, affected by environmental factors as well. In the case of the networks I’m analyzing one such factor is the rise of TV, which captures a growing share of prize-winning ads during the 1980s and 90s and directly affects network properties by requiring teams that are, judging by the credits alone, nearly twice as big as those required to produce print advertising.

    The good news is that I am not forced to choose between SNA and social/symbolic/interpretive anthropology. I have on the one hand access to Japanese government and other public sources of quantitative data on, for example, national ad spend broken down by media. Other the other, I know that the key figures in the networks I am studying are often prolific authors or frequently interviewed by trade publications. There’s a lot of desk work to be done to learn what I can about their public pronouncements on creativity, forming and running creative teams, coming up with original ideas and making effective presentations. There may also be opportunities for depth interviews to follow up on this research.

    Where, then, does SNA fit in? Handcrafting the diagrams that the software I am using produces in seconds would take years of effort. Ditto for the statistics it generates on the fly. The visual patterns and statistics suggest important questions and point to possible answers. They are also, I have already discovered, marvelous stimulus material for interviews. One the one hand I can get beyond, “We know that some creators do work for multiple agencies” to “Multi-agency creators accounted for around 10% of all members of winning teams in 1981.” On the other, instead of just asking, “What was it like working on X in 1991?” I can show someone a diagram that shows all the winning projects they worked on and the other members of the winning teams and get them to talk about what the diagrams show.

    To me, then, SNA isn’t a panacea. It’s a new and very powerful tool that lets me do things that were literally unimaginable when I was a graduate student and the only realistic options were either hypothesis-testing with a few questions directed at large samples of subjects or exploratory fieldwork, with lots of questions to a few key informants–a great process for getting oriented and stumbling onto new insights but no proof at all that the insights would hold up to serious testing. The new SNA and data mining tools thus, to me at least, add a whole new dimension to exploratory research.

    Like any other tools, including the blarney-spinning knack I bring to interpretive work, they have their limitations. They remain, however, very useful for what they do very well, indeed.

  7. As I’ve written elsewhere, part of the problem with Facebook is that “friending” is mutual. I have to friend you if you want to be my friend. Even though it is true that different people use Facebook in different ways, and there are tools I can use to silence or ignore you if I want to, the system has a built-in bias towards treating all relationships equally.

    David Pogue’s piece on Twitter in today’s Times captures what makes Twitter different – it is much more flexible when it comes to how you define your relationships. Followers don’t need to be followed back the same way that friends need to be friended back. People in marketing might follow thousands of people and have only a few hundred followers, while celebrities might follow nobody and yet have tens of thousands of followers. (Unless they are Stephen Fry.)

  8. Kerim, among the many odd things about the discussion (go ahead and ask me…) is how un-ethnographic much of it has been. All these issues about friending equality are about the categories of friends one could engineer using the system (or the multiple avatars one could have). But how do people use it? Here Chris is right on the mark. The people who update all the time (Siva Vaidhyanathan, for instance) get lots of attention. At my office there are some people who regularly create little funny scenes that get lots of responses. I don’t go see what Chris is up to often, because (except for that short possession episode) it’s not much. All this is more like figuring out why some blogs get a lot more traffic than others, if you ask me. But asking people how they use facebook; how they see their friends, and who and what they attend to when they have a lot of them might be more productive than assuming that could be read from the architecture alone. To me the most interesting thing has been the way it transforms who I feel close to, and how that reorients my social imaginary both for those people and for friends who have opted out of being on facebook.

  9. Ken,

    The role of technology in social change was very well examined in debates over orality and literacy. My adviser, Niyi Akinnaso, made the observation that, yes, it is how people use the technologies. (Documenting, for instance, how Ifa divination in Nigeria replicated many of the institutions normally associated with literate society.) But at the same time, he also noted that the technologies have a facilitating influence (i.e. mass public education and nationalism seem to have been helped along by the arrival of the printing press).

    One could conceivably use Twitter the same way one uses Facebook, and vice-versa, but the technologies lend themselves to certain uses and so to simply dismiss technological comparisons on the basis of not being ethnographic and to assert that all that matters is the details of individual use patterns strikes me as giving up on the task of making sense of the phenomena before one has even started.

    Which isn’t to say that solid ethnographic research wouldn’t help us along, just that good ethnography still requires posing good questions.

  10. I recommend the work of blogger, Berkeley Ph.D., and now Microsoft Research scholar danah boyd (Apophenia) on social networks, including Facebook and MySpace, as well as the larger ethnographic project directed by Mimi Ito as part of MacArthur Foundation’s Digital Media and Learning Initiative. All of us who are part of the Foundation’s Initiative are trying, first, to do actual research rather than simply surmise what is going on; second, to understand both the pipes-and-content supporting the infrastructure of the technology and not assume that all technologies are inherently interchangeable in all their affordances, outcomes, and social impacts; and, third, to understand specific instances (such as Facebook) within quite precise socio-cultural impacts. Social media (I don’t need to tell this to anthropologists) have radically different uses and definitions for “appropriateness” in different contexts–Qatar’s Facebook practices are different, for example, than Dubai’s, and so are the age-related, class-related, gender-related (etc) practices various for social media in the U.S. (danah is often cited for her work on the class differences between Facebook and MySpace among youth.) I’m a historian rather than ethnographer of technology by training but, what history says, is there are continuities and discontinuities when one compares different technologies across time and place and then, looking at any one, there is far more to learn and know than ever seems at first glance. No surprise, that, but I am surprised at how often people comment on the technology of our own moment without remembering their own disciplinary principles! Great conversation, by the way.

  11. Random observations:

    –Just because someone doesn’t ‘update’ frequently doesn’t mean that that individual is not a heavy FB user. They could be messaging friends frequently in ‘private.’ They could be watching other people’s updates and making fun of them secretly with other friends (perhaps on chat, in real-time). Surely FB has its trolls. Surely people talk behind each other’s backs on FB, as in ‘real life.’

    –I know people who are surveilling others via FB, and not in a nice way.

    –A key variable is whether you are friends with co-workers (and your boss), and if you are in the kind of job where being around on FB is consistent with actually doing work.

    –Speaking of which, I can never tell whether or not it is appropriate to assume that the social space of my real life, here at work, or at home, or wherever, includes FB or not; this is true also for SM. Very few people I encounter in person mention explicitly anything that happens on FB or SM. It’s as though my life has two channels: one is online, and the other is offline; they exist in parallel and they rarely touch.

    –I think in structural terms the ‘univalent’ argument just doesn’t work, as Biella points out: as with any medium, FB gets worked over, stylized, personalized, renarrated, and so on. (If state systems are ideologically rigid, this doesn’t make them practically so; to the contrary, formalization may enable kinds of productive misrecognition: the idealized symmetry of their systems of misrecognition opening up cracks and fissures, or generating moments of friction or knotting. Don’t you keep repeating this Rex?) But in ethnographic terms, I do observe that FB seems really, well, fake; moreover, this fakeness seems ‘American’ to me; finally, it is a fakeness not unlike the class notes in alumni magazines (unsurprising, given the origins of the site). People seem mostly to talk about things they like, their personal accomplishments, and so on. It’s all about displaying oneself in a particular way, of course, and that way usually means conforming to a particular sort of successful personal story. I think. Mostly — but maybe this is just _my_ friend network. (Here are pics of my new house. Here are pics of our trip to St. Lucia. Here are pics of us smiling as a happy family. ‘You look so great! Love ya!’ ‘Congratulations on the new job!’ ‘That snarky thing you said about X was brilliant!’) So there is sort of a flatness about these relations, because they are going on in a kind of public.

    –For those of us who live far away from many of our friends, FB is a vital conduit for keeping up with folks. I wonder how it works for transnational relations versus local ones.

  12. Slightly off topic, but supportive of Kerim’s interest in the affordances provided by new technologies. Courtesy of Slashdot,

    bq. “On the 200th anniversary of his birth, President Abraham Lincoln’s popular image as a log-splitting bumpkin is being re-assessed as historians have discovered that Lincoln had an avid interest in cutting-edge technology and its applications. During the war, Lincoln haunted the telegraph office (which provided the instant-messaging of its day) for the latest news from the front; he encouraged weapons development and even tested some new rifles himself on the White House lawn; and he is the only US president to hold a patent (No. 6469, granted May 22, 1849). It was for a device to lift riverboats over shoals. ‘He not only created his own invention but had ideas for other inventions, such as an agricultural steam plow and a naval steam ram, [and] was fascinated by patent cases as an attorney and also by new innovations during the Civil War,’ says Jason Emerson, author of Lincoln the Inventor. But Lincoln’s greatest contribution to the war effort was his use of the telegraph. When Lincoln took office the White House had no telegraph connection. Lincoln ‘developed the modern electronic leadership model, says Tom Wheeler, author of Mr. Lincoln’s T-Mails: The Untold Story of How Abraham Lincoln Used the Telegraph To Win the Civil War. At a time when electricity was a vague scientific concept and sending signals through wires was ‘mind boggling,’ Lincoln was fascinated by the telegraph and developed it into a political and military tool that allowed him to project himself to the front to monitor and track what was going on. ‘If he were alive today, we’d call him an early adopter,’ says Wheeler.”

  13. I agree with Ken that this discussion looks more like philosophy (the essence of this structure is binary) than ethnographic. Which is surprising when even a lame outlet like the NYT picks up on the poetics of an incredibly narrow tool like the status update…

  14. Rex, the problem seems to be more, as others are suggesting here (Chris and Biella seem right on in their comments above), that privacy is privileged in your analysis as is the idea of “friendship”–it almost sounds like you are replaying the ‘RL vs VL’ debates from the 1990s–those kids surely don’t have “real” friendships like we did’….

    Why not unpack the notions of privacy and the protocols that animate them, as opposed to assuming that friending someone is somehow less ambiguous and performative than any other iteration of friendship in which we engage all day long.

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