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."

Sport
Brazilian fans watch the match for third place between Brazil and Netherlands
world cup 2014Brazil 0 Netherlands 3: Dutch pile on the misery in third place playoff
Sport
Robin van Persie hands his third-place medal to a supporter
Van Persie gives bronze medal to eccentric fan moments after being handed it by Blatter
Arts and Entertainment
books The follow-up documentary that has got locals worried
News
Ian Thorpe had Rio 2016 in his sights
people
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebookA wonderful selection of salads, starters and mains featuring venison, grouse and other game
Arts and Entertainment
Original Netflix series such as Orange Is The New Black are to benefit from a 'substantial' increase in investment
TVHoax announcement had caused outrage
Life and Style
Swimsuit, £245, by Agent Provocateur
fashion

Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes

News
Monkey business: Serkis is the king of the non-human character performance
peopleFirst Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Arts and Entertainment
Blackman: Landscape of children’s literature does not reflect the cultural diversity of young people
booksMalorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
News
One Direction star Harry Styles who says he has no plans to follow his pal Cara Delevingne down the catwalk.
peopleManagement confirms rumours singer is going it alone are false
Voices
Mrs Brown's Boy: D'Movie has been a huge commercial success
voicesWhen it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
Arts and Entertainment
Curtain calls: Madani Younis
theatreMadani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
Life and Style
Douglas McMaster says the food industry is ‘traumatised’
food + drinkSilo in Brighton will have just six staple dishes on the menu every day, including one meat option, one fish, one vegan, and one 'wild card'
Sport
Mario Balotelli, Divock Origi, Loic Remy, Wilfried Bony and Karim Benzema
transfersBony, Benzema and the other transfer targets
Life and Style
Once a month, waistline watcher Suran steps into a 3D body scanner that maps his body shape and records measurements with pinpoint accuracy
techFrom heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
News
Soft power: Matthew Barzun
peopleThe US Ambassador to London, Matthew Barzun, holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence. He says it's all part of the job
Sport
Joe Root and James Anderson celebrate their record-beaking partnership
cricketEngland's last-wicket stand against India rewrites the history books
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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

    C# Developer (HTML5, JavaScript, ASP.NET, Mathematics, Entity)

    £30000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Developer (...

    C# Integration Developer (.NET, Tibco EMS, SQL 2008/2012, XML)

    £60000 - £80000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Integration...

    PHP Web Developer (HTML5, CSS3, Jenkins, Vagrant, MySQL)

    £40000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: PHP Web Develo...

    JavaScript Developer (Angular, Web Forms, HTML5, Ext JS,CSS3)

    £40000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: JavaScript Dev...

    Day In a Page

    Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

    How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

    A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
    The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

    The evolution of Andy Serkis

    First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

    Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
    Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

    Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

    Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
    Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

    Blackest is the new black

    Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
    Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

    Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

    From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
    Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
    Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy: Was the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?

    Otter man Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy

    The aristocrat's eccentric devotion to his pets inspired a generation. But our greatest living nature writer believes his legacy has been quite toxic
    Joanna Rowsell: The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia

    Joanna Rowsell: 'I wear my wig to look normal'

    The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef gives raw ingredients a lift with his quick marinades

    Bill Granger's quick and delicious marinades

    Our chef's marinades are great for weekend barbecuing, but are also a delicious way of injecting flavour into, and breaking the monotony of, weekday meals
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014 preview: Why Brazilians don't love their neighbours Argentina any more

    Anyone but Argentina – why Brazilians don’t love their neighbours any more

    The hosts will be supporting Germany in today's World Cup final, reports Alex Bellos
    The Open 2014: Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?

    The Open 2014

    Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?