Science of the social network

Forget the scare stories, what effect is Facebook really having on how we interact with each other? Nick Harding gets an anthropological insight

Anyone for a spot of Facebook bashing?

Thanks to questionable horror stories and half-baked research it is easy to believe that when Mark Zuckerberg sent his brainchild live in 2004, he unleashed a monster that has been wreaking havoc on society ever since.

For example, according to some unnamed American psychologists, over half of Facebook users now suffer Facebook Addiction Disorder, or FAD, characterised by withdrawal anxiety and wasted hours spent posting updates and poking friends. According to another survey, when they do get their fix, Facebook junkies risk destroying personal relationships.

Then there was the "Facebook cancer threat" – based on a review that's since been widely discredited. The NHS advised: "People who use social-networking sites should not be concerned."

As well as becoming the world's second-biggest website, Facebook has achieved the honour of becoming the most divisive presence in cyberspace. Millions couldn't live without it, others believe it is the devil's work.

No matter your view, it has over 500 million users who spend on average an hour a day scrutinising some of its 60 million daily updates and it has changed the way humans interact.

Until recently, the anthropological impact of Facebook had never been seriously studied. Consequently, scare stories abound and there has been little informed debate on the role it plays in society and few accurate predictions of how it may develop.

Earlier this year, Daniel Miller, Professor of anthropology at University College London, finalised a year-long study into the phenomenon which forms the basis of the book, Tales From Facebook. The research has been used to predict how the site will evolve and the evidence suggests that for Facebook, the future is grey.

Miller says: "We assume that Facebook is something we should associate with the young, but my evidence suggests that this is entirely mistaken.

If there is one obvious constituency for whom Facebook is absolutely the right technology, it is the elderly. It allows them to keep closely involved in the lives of people they care about when, for one reason or another, face-to-face contact becomes difficult... Its origins are with the young but the elderly are its future."

Previous research into Facebook tended to fall into the pop-psychology bracket or concentrated on specific subjects. One study by Ilana Gershon, of Indiana University, detailed Facebook's role in the structure of relationship breakdowns.

Miller's study was wide-ranging and followed the intimate Facebook habits of up to 200 people, logging the way they used the site and the impact it had on their wider relationships. He says: "It is the first anthropological study of Facebook and the first large-scale study of how it affects people. To really understand the impact of a phenomenon like Facebook you need to spend at least a year interacting with people and trying to see how it fits into the broader context of their lives.

"Facebook has become such an integral part of modern life that anthropologists have to take it seriously. It is impacting on the core thing we study, which is social relations."

He argues that Facebook is now so deeply entrenched in the routine of its users that if it were to disappear, it would cause serious problems.

For many, Facebook has become more than a web portal, he says. He defines it as a "meta-friend", a place where users log on to feel some form of engagement with a wider social life and where the relationship with the site is becoming less about the "friends" users have and more about their links to the site itself.

Rather than survey users in an established Western city such as London, Paris or New York, the study group was based in the Caribbean state of Trinidad and Tobago, a location that was chosen because traditionally Trinidadians have been shown to adopt new technology quickly and confidently without the "shock-of-the-new" reaction more traditional societies display in the face of change.

Miller also says Trinidadians are expert at adapting to new technology and are often ahead of the curve when it comes to finding new uses for it.

Also, taking Facebook users as a proportion of the total population with internet access, Trinidad has the second-highest Facebook penetration in the world after Panama.

The study overturns many myths, not least that the form of social contact promoted on the site devalues "authentic" friendships. Miller found that Facebook helped strengthen them.

The study also debunks the myth that Facebook is a home-wrecker. Inevitably, the site fuels the temptation for some people to contact former lovers or childhood sweethearts, in the main its transparent network structure means that it is difficult for users to keep secrets on Facebook. Evidence suggests Facebook actually reduces affairs.

Miller found that users were more wary of becoming involved in covert relationships because the chances of being exposed or found out by a Facebook friend were deemed too great. In fact, in relation to privacy, Facebook has had a redefining effect on the concept of public and private space. Although there are legitimate concerns about the degree to which Facebook has eroded personal privacy, on the whole, users are aware of the implications of giving themselves a public profile and judge that the benefits of being involved in the Facebook community outweigh the negatives of being excluded.

Miller says: "Facebook marks a radical change in the way we use the terms 'private' and 'public'. In the past 'private' meant talking to someone one-to-one and the public domain meant broadcasting out to an audience. What Facebook does is put all the private relationships into one place, which is neither private nor public."

As Facebook transforms our relationship with public and private, it also updates the notion of community, becoming a simulacrum of the neighbourhoods lost in the West over the past 50 years – a place where people can keep abreast of the lives of their online neighbours. It has facilitated the cultural shift described by social-network academic Barry Wellman as the change in perception from "spatially defined communities to relationally defined communities".

Miller argues that the Facebook-led community revival has also reacquainted users with the negative attributes of close-knit networks. "There are criticisms of modern life – that we have become too individualistic, too isolated and that because of this people are more likely to get lonely," he says.

"Politics says we are deprived of wider community so it's not surprising that when people have Facebook they are using it to get involved with people more widely.

"However, there is also a strong negative side. In the communities of the old days everyone knew each other's business and people lost privacy. Now, because Facebook allows for closer relationships, what comes with that inevitably is a similar loss of privacy and loss of personal autonomy."

So what will Facebook become? The evidence suggests it will evolve into a benign social facilitator. Its early promise as a mechanism for social change and political activism will, Miller says, remain largely unrealised because it is predominantly used on an intimate social level. Most of his study group showed no interest in activism and avoided political discussions on Facebook.

The real revolutions will occur on a small scale. An example is the way Facebook has affected how we mourn. Prior to Facebook, death was dealt with in a formal religious way. Facebook now allows an informal platform where users are not bound by convention and can leave varied and individual responses to a person's death.

As Miller says: "This is the kind of area where Facebook is very important and where it will develop. We will look for things which are missing or which do not fit in with modern sensibilities and use the site to fill in the gaps."

Life and Style
love + sex A new study has revealed the average size - but does that leave men outside the 'normal' range being thought of as 'abnormal'?
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Voices
The Palace of Westminster is falling down, according to John Bercow
voices..says Matthew Norman
Sport
Steve Bruce and Gus Poyet clash
football
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
News
Graham Norton said Irish broadcaster RTE’s decision to settle was ‘moronic’
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Jake and Dinos Chapman were motivated by revenge to make 'Bring me the Head of Franco Toselli! '
arts + ents Shapero Modern Gallery to show explicit Chapman Brothers film
Arts and Entertainment
Kurt Cobain performing for 'MTV Unplugged' in New York, shortly before his death
music Brett Morgen's 'Cobain: Montage of Heck' debunks many of the myths
Life and Style
life
Sport
Brendan Rodgers
football The Liverpool manager will be the first option after Pep Guardiola
News
Amazon misled consumers about subscription fees, the ASA has ruled
news
Arts and Entertainment
Myanna Buring, Julian Rhind-Tutt and Russell Tovey in 'Banished'
TV Jimmy McGovern tackles 18th-century crime and punishment
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Whitehouse as Herbert
arts + ents
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Gadgets & Tech

    Recruitment Genius: Infrastructure Architect

    £35000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Infrastructure Architect is ...

    Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

    £28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity has ari...

    Recruitment Genius: 1st Line Support - Helpdesk Analyst

    £18000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is a customer focu...

    Recruitment Genius: Business Development Executive

    £16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Business Development Executiv...

    Day In a Page

    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
    Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

    Poldark star Heida Reed

    'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

    Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

    Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
    Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
    With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

    Money, corruption and drugs

    The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
    America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

    150 years after it was outlawed...

    ... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
    Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

    You won't believe your eyes

    Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
    Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn