The reporting was supposedly based on findings of anthropologist Daniel Miller and his 8-member team undertaking the Global Social Media Impact Study (www.gsmis.org): a European-funded research project where nine anthropologists in eight countries (including Trinidad) over a 15-month period collect data on the use of social media.
Now the thing is Professor Miller – who over the last 30 years has published much anthropological research on T&T including studies of our consumption of goods including coca-cola, US soap operas, the internet, and yes Facebook – did not actually say what NBC and other outlets implied he said.
This can happen with academic research. In both the media’s and the researcher’s desire for mass appeal sometimes the weight of findings are lost in translation. Usually meaning the media overstates the research findings – although social scientists can do this too.
What did Professor Miller actually say? Simply that from his initial observations, conversations and participant research amongst a sample of 40 school pupils aged 16-18 just north of London, that privacy on Facebook wasn’t the key issue amongst them using or not using the social media, but rather that the mass-use of Facebook by older people made Facebook less “cool” to these late teens.
Or put more succinctly in anthropology speak: the research, so far, suggests there is a subtle shift in the cultural meaning of Facebook amongst these 40 students. This initial finding was never offered as empirical fact for the world, or as the end of Facebook by Miller but rather a direction the research would investigate further to learn more about how meaning and behaviour around social media can change.
Now the difference between “news” and “science” is large. They are not the same beast. The former is best served in short summaries around what’s new, with sprinklings of exaggeration and over-generalisation. The latter is invested in thoroughness, being well informed, and its interpretations are shaped by deep immersion in the topic and context.
As John Rennie, former editor of Scientific American notes, “Most categories of news are built around discrete events. A building burns down; a law is passed; a sports team wins a match: these things happen once and they cannot unhappen. News media race to inform the public quickly about these events and the consequences that unspool from them…There is rarely a distinct moment when a finding or theory comes to be accepted as canon by a consensus of scientists.”
In this meeting between mainstream news and long term social science research, a small blogpost authored by Professor Miller about ongoing research got promoted into a more substantial online space at online content provider The Conversation, and from there it exploded virally into the global news-scape.
The mainstream media understood the publication of the small post as a confirmed, newsworthy, and validating event because that is what they look for. Yet the researcher never claimed his observations as conclusive.
Behind all this kerfuffle lies a suggestion about how we as a public come to know what we know. As the world, time, and our labour have all come to be marked economically, so a false-security in the certainty of numbers and measurement as the best way to understand humanity has come to define the world and research.
Time is money. A country’s wealth and destiny is tied to GDP. Crime is fought by increasing police officers, their toys and jails. Work related performance across professions is tied to formulaic production criteria, be it articles, ideas, jobs, products or other. In many ways knowledge is represented purely as something to be quantified.
Yet this is a failure of understanding. Not all knowledge-making is deductive and top-down. Some forms of knowledge require depth and time. They provide insight rather than measurement. They are inductive and bottom-up. Findings can emerge over time. Results are neither always readily observable nor generalisable.
Some journalists (and some social scientists too) miss the nuance between inductive and deductive reasoning. For them the conclusion from Miller’s research is simple and deductive. Youngsters find Facebook uncool, this means they are turning away from Facebook, and heralds a decline in Facebook usership.
When more accurately the research suggests: some British school children find Facebook uncool, but still use it, and this possible insight and its significance needs further exploration and understanding before any trend can be plotted and measured.
So no, Facebook isn’t dead and buried.