Daniel Miller: «Most of our discoveries were represented in the form of cat memes»

The British anthropologist on why it’s good when your hypotheses fail and how to popularise knowledge the modern way.

Photo by Alexander Karnyukhin

On November 6 British anthropologist and one of the most renowned researchers of social media Daniel Miller delivered his lecture as a part of the “NOW. Constructing Contemporaneity” festival organised by Colta.ru, the Heinrich Böll Foundation and the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art. His early works focused more on the anthropology of consumption, but since the 2000s Miller has been studying emerging communication technologies and the ways in which they affect culture and society. His work includes a co-authored book on the anthropology of cellphones, the monograph Tales of Facebook and an in-depth exploration of the webcam phenom enon. For many years Daniel has been working at University College London where he founded the Centre for Digital Anthropology.

During his lecture, “Why we post on social media?”, Miller talked about his most recent large-scale project Why W e Post, which demonstrated a new approach to the study of social media. Most researchers prefer to analyse social media online sitting in front of their computers, but Daniel chose a different path, gathering a big team of young anthropologists and sending them to nine different locations scattered around the globe. For fifteen months these researchers spent time with Chilean miners, Chinese villagers, Indian IT specialists and school students from rural British towns. Via participant observation they collected data on how people use social media; for example, whether or not spouses in a particular community share their account passwords with each other. This large comparative study allowed the analysis of the differences and similarities in social media use that exist in various cultures and to come up with, among other things, a n international classification of selfie genres.

Source: ucl.ac.uk

Deputy head of the Centre for Urban Anthropology at Strelka KB Darya Radchenko talked with Miller about his research, how qualitative data compares to big data and what makes anthropology’s contribution to the study of social media so unique.

— How did you come up with the idea for the Why We Post project? What were your initial goals?

— The reason we felt we had to do this is because there were endless claims being made about the consequences of social media with respect to almost any issue you can name: religious matters, the crisis of political dialogue, and even more globally the effects the internet has produced on our brain and consequently our behaviour. But there are two important issues to consider here.

First of all, do we have any evidence for these claims? And if yes, what kind of evidence is it? Studying social media is never straightforward — a lot of it is still very private. So, when those claims are being made, I don’t believe most people are showing those researchers their private social media. Therefore, it would be wrong to say that these researchers are studying social media as a whole; they are simply studying one or two platforms that happen to be publicly available.

«If the point we’re making is that these are overgeneralized statements, then we cannot confront them with just one study that is different from the one that they’ve done. And it has to be comparative»

The second problem is that those researchers tend to be talking only about particular groups that they know. For example, there’s a lot of internet research in the US focusing on college undergraduates and on which many of these claims are based. Now, for an anthropologist this is kind of insane, because I’m not sure that the experience of a peasant in rural China is really comparable to the life of a US college student. How can you be making any generalised judgements about social media if you are working with just one particular user group?

After considering these issues, we felt a responsibility to enter into this field of research. But in order to do that, we needed to collect a lot of our own evidence. And in anthropology a small experiment will not suffice, you must undertake a fully-fledged fifteen months-long ethnography. If the point we’re making is that these are overgeneralized statements, then we cannot confront them with just one study that is different from the one that they’ve done. And it has to be comparative. People want to see the bigger picture and understand whether the world is becoming more homogenized or, on the contrary, are new forms of cultural diversity being created.

So, I felt that really the only way to have a voice in this kind of debate is by carrying out these comparative ethnographies on a big scale. And, fortunately, we had received the funding to do that and managed to complete nine simultaneous studies.

Source: ucl.ac.uk

— And how did the project change over time along with some of your hypotheses?

— It changed all the time. It was a team project, so we collectively decided what to focus on. So for example, one of our original proposals was to look at older people, but halfway through the process the team realised: “Hey, actually we need to focus more on education because the circulation of scientific knowledge is important”. And so in the next country we concentrated on education.

One of the major factors of change was that in every single case the individual field worker didn’t get what they wanted. For example,  Elisabetta Costa, who is a political anthropologist, picked a site right on the border of Syria and Turkey, expecting there to be a lot of political activity on social media, including Kurdish separatism and other issues. Quite surprisingly she found out that there was much less politics, but a lot of content on gender issues, and so she focused on that instead.

Shriram Venkataraman chose a site in the south of India, planning to compare social media use among the rural inhabitants and among two hundred thousand IT workers who are being commuted into this new area as it is being transformed into an Indian Silicon Valley. He expected to observe radical differences but found very little evidence of that.

«Working in the digital field means not just studying digital usage, but also finding new ways of applying research materials and new opportunities for research dissemination that didn’t exist before»

Nell Haynes was actually funded to study, in particular, indigenous identity amongst the native peoples of Northern Chile, but it turned out that on social media they do not ever come out as indigenous! And so that also failed.  Xinyuan Wang went to work with factory workers in China because she wanted to see how they keep in touch with their families. And it turned out that they don’t.

Pretty much every project we undertook failed more or less completely and, of course, that made us very happy. The strength of ethnography, I feel, is that you don’t necessarily want to find what you are looking for — you want to learn. Discovering something unexpected is much more important than simply advancing in your career.

The project has developed a lot in terms of its orientation, in terms of what people found. It’s quite unprecedented to have a project of this scale in anthropology. Working in the digital field means not just studying digital usage, but also finding new ways of applying research materials and new opportunities for research dissemination that didn’t exist before.

And sometimes it’s really quite specific. One of the things that we found out while studying how digital technologies change education was that the most popular way to learn today is by watching Youtube videos of under 5 minutes. There’s a short video for everything — from makeup tutorials to car repair lessons or explanations of various aspects of chemistry.

And so, when we came to thinking about how we would use our material, we said, “Right, we are going to make Youtube videos under 5 minutes!”. And actually we’ve made 130 so far. And we also have a  free university course that we do three times a year.

— And who do you consider your target audience?

— Well, that’s the point. If you are doing a video about some particular aspect of the 16th-century culture your audience is pretty small. But if you think you have the best answers to the question of what is social media, then who isn’t your audience? There’s nobody who’s not interested in knowing that better. And I think that we have then the responsibility in anthropology to do things differently, not just to talk to other anthropologists or other academics but to create material that speaks to this audience. No one would ever want to read a journal article unless they have to, right? Usually, it’s just some academic commenting on the work of other academics, it’s boring.

Even when it came to writing books ‒ and we have eleven books, seven already out ‒ we also agreed to do it unconventionally. All academic discussions are in the footnotes so that anybody who is not an academic and just wants to find out what we discovered finds it easy to read those books. I mean, there are academic books that you would pick up and you wouldn’t be able to put down until you finish that book. That’s exactly the kind of monograph we wanted to write.

Everything we make is free and open access. Our first book has been out only a short time and we already have 25,000 downloads from 172 countries! Now, with a traditional academic book, if you sell a thousand, you’re happy.

But we go beyond even that. We have this web-site with all our films translated into all the languages of all our field sites, so that the people of those populations could get direct access to the materials. The website is actually very popular. We’ve also compiled and published a list of all our discoveries. To a traditional anthropologist this would seem like a very populist way of representing the results of one’s research. But if you want to win bigger audiences, this is what you do. And because we study social media, most of our discoveries can be encountered in the form of cat memes. Cat memes is about as populist as any academic could ever go but I have no problem with it. We study social media, so we should be able to respond to what we find.

Source: ucl.ac.uk

— Have any of your informants visited the website or left any comments? The Chilean miners, for example?

— We tend to deal with low-income populations — people who are not very likely to take something like an online university course, even if it’s for free. But we have taken some measures. For example, Nell Haynes actually went to the site with the films, showed them to the local population, and they really enjoyed watching them.

And similarly, to give an example from my own experience: I was working with schoolchildren and one of the things I studied was something called “twitter beef” — an online quarrel. And these schoolchildren can be pretty nasty to each other. It’s closely related to the role of social media in things like anorexia, cutting and a lot of other teenage issues. So, I dedicated one of my films to this topic and the school asked me if I would go back and show the film to the pupils to help start a discussion. And it went really well, we had a real discussion. Often teachers are not aware of what is really happening on social media, so for them seeing it together with the students without causing any revelations or any harm to anyone was a great opportunity to gain a better understanding. The schoolchildren also said that they were happy to take part in making it. So we are very enthusiastic about using our films as something that could come back to the communities.

«But another important goal for me is to actually influence the educational system»

I also did some directly applied work. One day a week I worked for a hospice because they wanted advice on how to use media for patients with terminal illness.

But another important goal for me is to actually influence the educational system. I would like the study of social media based on our research to become a part of the advanced school curriculum in England. So, that way we’d be able to reach much bigger audiences. And higher education, obviously: our free university course is accessible to anyone, including those who can’t afford to go to university. We can see every country that is downloading our books and there’s an evident interest coming both from Russia specifically and from pretty much everywhere in the world.

Source: ucl.ac.uk

— So you were not planning for your project to become applied?

— No, the only intentionally applied aspect was my work in the hospice that I was asked to do by their director. But this experience was actually crucial in the more analytical and theoretical concerns and some of the non-applied work turned out to be useful for the applied purpose. When you’re an anthropologist you cannot make any differentiation between the applied and the non-applied work. You’re just trying to understand the subject and then hopefully it becomes useful to just about anybody.

— Have any software and smartphone producers or social network owners approached you requesting to share your research or to integrate their inquiries into your study?

— I do from time to time get inquiries for doing things like metrics or analyses of social media. People come to me and ask how much would it cost them to use our materials. And then I say to them “Well, actually everything we do is free”. And so they go away.

I’ve never done any commercial consultancy in my life, even though I get approached for this very often. I work in education and I would not want to be influenced by taking money from commercial sources. I’m happy to share the fruits of my work for free.

When I came to China, after one of my lectures I was approached by this media company Tencent who wanted to work with us in their research facilities. And as long as I’m not being paid for it I will do it.

Source: ucl.ac.uk

— Let’s return to the results of your project, Why We Post. In your opinion, what does our choice of one social network over another depend on? Why, in some regions of Russia, do users prefer WhatsApp or Instagram, and in other regions, they choose Facebook or its Russian equivalent, Vkontakte?

— If you come out of Internet studies it is common to assume that the explanation must have something to do with the properties of the social media, that they have what academics call “affordances” — “it has shorter text” or “it’s more synchronic” or something like that. So, if you want to explain why people use a particular media, you have to understand that particular media.

But our data contradicts that. What we find is that the same kind of content happily migrates to different kinds of media. To me, it seems clear that explaining the usage of media cannot be done by explaining the nature of the media itself. One of the reports that I made from my project kind of went viral a couple of years ago: I claimed in it that Facebook was no longer cool for young people. I made an announcement and it went into newspapers everywhere around the world. At first, people didn’t believe me but now I think everyone recognizes that yes, there has been a transformation. Facebook is still being used by young people, but the pivotal moment comes when your mother or your boss asks to friend you. Because you wouldn’t want them to see all those party pictures.

«The obvious ways in which you would explain these platforms don’t seem to work»

Facebook is seen as one of the most powerful companies in the world that makes vast amounts of money and has young people as its target audience. And so the fact that they are actually losing this audience is very indicative. It turns out even they don’t have absolute power over what their own platform is or becomes.

We have developed some terminology to try and explain what is going on: one is polymedia” — the nature of media doesn’t explain the use of media — and the other is “scalable sociology” — this is when you pick a particular platform because it’s either more private or less private. For example: Twitter for a bigger group and WhatsApp for a smaller group. You can follow a certain logic here, but it should never become deterministic. Sometimes choosing a particular network is pure chance, sometimes it’s following a fashion. By using analytical terms like “scalable sociology” and “polymedia,” you can investigate this field and each time come up with new results. The obvious ways in which you would explain these platforms don’t seem to work. It’s not cost and access anymore, it’s not simply the nature of the technology itself that is determinant and it’s not the corporations that own them. Which is great if you’re an anthropologist because the only people then who really can explain what’s going on are the people in the field who actually understand the populations and the reasons why people would want to use a platform in a particular way.

— You have previously written a lot about using big data in digital anthropology. Did you try to integrate big data into this research?

— It is certainly true that with the rise of big data people tend to have these interesting correlations, but a lot of the time they don’t actually know why they have what they have. Sometimes it’s because they aggregated completely different things together that don’t make sense anyway, and sometimes it is something that you could investigate and look into. But, to give you short answer: no, we have not as yet really involved ourselves in collaboration with people who work with big data.

Our next research is going to be related to the issue of health, and for that, of course, we are going to use big data. If you are concerned with things like developing health apps, then you’re very likely to be working with data coming from very large-scale patterns covering a large demographic base — things like mobility statistics, for example. And we are perfectly comfortable trying to integrate that kind of material.

And similarly, I think that we are comfortable with the idea that our own conclusions will be tested via large-scale social surveys. But it’s not our expertise. We are always ready to collaborate with developers and sociologists on an interdisciplinary level, but I don’t see any point in us trying to do this work ourselves.

— Could you tell us a little bit more about the research into health that you’ve mentioned earlier?

— The Why We Post project proved that a large-scale comparative ethnographic project can be enormously successful in helping us understand the dynamics in the modern world, in this case, social media. And obviously, I feel that the project we’ve already done is vital for education, even at the level of school children learning about social media. But we wanted to go beyond that and work with other social problems.

So, we put together a proposal that looks at three transformations and the relationship between them. The first of them is how people understand age. Most researchers who study age look either at youth or at the elderly. But we felt that to better understand how people experience age we should focus on the 45 to 70 age group instead — people who clearly cannot call themselves young but don’t want to be thought of as elderly either.

«20-30 years ago if you had a symptom you went to a doctor. Now you google it. And in a few years’ time, there will be an app for that»

So, that’s the first component. The second component is we want to look at smartphones. It was really interesting to study social media but, to be honest, I think the smartphone is even bigger than that. Social media are increasingly becoming apps and the device is really what defines the configuration and brings them all together. Furthermore, it is the smartphone that reaches out to low-income populations. Older people might have been resistant to social media, but they have an experience of using phones and are therefore more likely to accept what is essentially just a slightly more sophisticated version. And this reach, this ubiquity is what makes it a fascinating transformation in its own right. So the second part of our research is the anthropology of smartphone use.

It works in relation to this particular age group, because, on the one hand, they can use smartphones to re-orientate themselves to the youth by having a Spotify playlist with all the rock bands they knew when they were young or by using apps to start dating again. But at the same time, as they get older there is a different kind of use of the smartphone and hence the development of health apps.

20-30 years ago if you had a symptom you went to a doctor. Now you google it. And in a few years’ time, there will be an app for that. Currently the health authorities are very excited about the possibilities and they are making a profusion of new apps. But most of them fail at the pilot stage because the developers don’t know the populations that they’re working with. They are not considering the context — for example, religious sensitivities or issues of gender, or simply who controls the phone. And these are actually the determinants of whether the health app will be used or will not be used.

So, the idea of my next project is really to do the traditional ethnography ‒ the same thing for three months but then towards the end increasingly tailor it to a long-term participatory design project that would bring together engineers and developers with the kinds of populations that they are seeking to become the users of their apps. That way we will have a really genuine engagement and the anthropologists will become moderators enabling this process and, hopefully, bringing positive change to the health sector.

For me there’s almost an inevitability that people will come to realize that because of the complexity of these contextual issues, you have no choice — you’re going to have to turn to anthropologists. We’re the only people who can give you this kind of intimacy and knowledge, a private understanding of the diversity of those populations. Only we possess the empathetic engagement that allows you to be sensitive to the problems involved. So that’s the plan for the next five years. The only thing left to do is to secure funding. 

Author: Darya Radchenko

Translation: Alexandra Tumarkina

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