I use Facebook, but I don’t study Facebook in great depth. I was intrigued, however, by the online discussion taking place on Open Anthropology Cooperative, “Daniel Miller An Extreme Reading of Facebook”.
Naturally, my attention is focused not on Facebook itself, but on the topic of the ‘materiality’ of Facebook.
Prof Miller, who is behind the Material Culture division at our Department of Anthropology, University College London (UCL), stated on the forum: “In studying Facebook we need to resist the idea that it is a ‘thing’ with properties we are trying to discover and categorize. Mark Zukerberg intended it to be more like a utility e.g. like water or electricity, something ubiquitous in the background, and maybe he was not far wrong.”
To this, a poster responded: “Daniel Miller said: ‘In studying Facebook we need to resist the idea that it is a ‘thing’… Wow! – this is not the kind of discussion I expected to flow out of a paper by Danny Miller. Talk about fetishizing the social!
“Yet… Ilana Gershon said: ‘in your extreme reading of Facebook, how does the materiality of Facebook matter?”. This person went on to ask: “Why then this aversion to tackling Facebook’s ‘thinginess’, or indeed, in Ilana’s terms, its ‘materiality’? Let’s even allow Ingold to chime in (virtually!), to ask: what about its ‘materials’?”
Is software “material”? Rephrase the question, please
On 26 October 2010, our Digital Culture Reading & Research Group, organised by the Department of Anthropology, UCL, discussed Paul M Leonardi’s 2010 paper, Digital materiality: How artifacts without matter, matter. The session was chaired by our tutor, Dr Lane DeNicola.
The observations we arrived at with regards to the ‘materiality’ of the software:
1. You cannot judge ‘software’ in the matter / non-matter dichotomy, or in the conventional material / immaterial perimeter. That works for ceramics and chairs, but for software, it is limiting.
2. ‘Utility’ must be considered when looking at a software application.
3. Whilst it is problematic to approach the software using the matter / non-matter lens, this Design approach works: What makes something non-matter like a website a “design object”, as much as a chair that is created by a product designer? It’s the ‘objective’ behind the creation. If it has a purpose, it is a “design object” whether it’s software or hardware. Nope, this is not an anthropological theory, folks.
4. The similarity between Skype, a software application, and a table, a material artifact, is that both create “habits” in the user who uses both objects.
5. It is the way the software application is used that makes it material.
Insights inspired by the reading were made by our tutor, the MSc Digital Anthropology students (10/11), and other postgrad students at University College London. No, these insights are not fleshed out in essays yet, nor are they backed by empirical evidence and peer-reviewed, but just want to tell you guys these were the ideas that the group arrived at, and will no doubt continue to develop throughout our studies here at UCL.
It helped that some of the students involved in the discussion come from not only from pure social science backgrounds, but also from design, computer science and humanities.
I was particularly impressed by Observation No 4, made by Ian, one of my coursemates, who is also a product designer. See, you have to be an object maker to explain the object with conviction.
I think Prof Miller cottoned on to something there with regards to Facebook and ‘utility’. But I’ll leave the Facebook investigation to him, as that is not my area of digital expertise.