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Our panel at the American Anthropological Association Meeting

By Tom McDonald, on 28 November 2014

aaa-annual-meeting

The Global Social Media Impact Study will be presenting a special Invited Panel entitled Global Social Media and Global Social Anthropology at the American Anthropological Association Meeting at Washington D.C.

Panel time: Thursday, December 4, 2014: 6:30 PM–8:15 PM
Panel location: Marriott Balcony A (Marriott Wardman Park)

Full details of the panel can be viewed on the AAA website. It will be a great opportunity to hear more about findings from our unique comparative research project.

We are incredibly fortunate to have the panel chaired by Heather A Horst (Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology). We will also be joined by Faye Ginsburg (New York University) and George E Marcus (University of California Irvine) who will be leading discussion of the panel.

We look forward to meeting many of you there!

A talk at Oxford Internet Institute

By Xin Yuan Wang, on 18 November 2014

by Shriram and Xinyuan

Our research Shriram and Xinyuan giving an talk about social media in India and China at Oxford Internet Institution

Our research Shriram and Xinyuan giving an talk about social media in India and China at Oxford Internet Institute

It is always good practice to exchange knowledge and ideas with scholars from other fields, as it adds immense value and vision to the research at hand. New Media and Social Media are fields that attract scholars from various other areas of study. The bridging of interdisciplinary ideas that this area of research induces is phenomenal. For example, while social media can be approached from an anthropological point of view, it can at the same time also be approached from a Big Data perspective. In a previous blog post Xinyuan talked about the difference between ‘Big Data’ and digital ethnography.

A couple of weeks ago, two of our researchers (Shriram and Xinyuan) were invited by Professor Ralph Schroeder, a Big Data theorist, from the Oxford Internet Institute (OII) to give a talk on social media in China and India, from an anthropological perspective. This opportunity, which is one of our earliest since our return from our intense 15 months of fieldwork provided great value in understanding and evaluating aspects related to disseminating our research results.

One of our first significant points of contribution was to address the need to study social media in a more traditional anthropological way. This also flowed from the strength of ethnographic evidence that the nine field sites generated over the last 15 months. Ethnographic evidence needs to be presented in a context based ‘thick description’, which anthropology does, allowing researchers present the field site in a rich descriptive and detailed format. This allows the readers/audience understand the situation/context better. The process of communicating such detailed description also brought us another opportunity to transition to a multimedia based approach. Xinyuan showed a 4.5 mins documentary film clip about her field site, Good Path town, a small factory town in southeastern China and the way she did ethnography among Chinese rural migrants who work and live in the factory town as factory workers. The result of using a visual platform to describe one’s field site was extremely positive. When the audience really saw the population and the field in the short clip, the subject no longer stayed as alienated or abstract but became far more humanized and engaging. The positive feedback received has also further encouraged us in our long-term dissemination plan for the project, which also involves a multimedia approach to report on our analyses and findings.

The discussion section was also inspiring. The questions varied from censorship in China to the influence of gender in the use of social media in India; and a few questions touched the very core issue of this comparative project, which was on how to draw conclusions from the ethnography of nine different sites.

Even from the two field sites (India and China), let alone the total nine field sites of the whole project, our audience had already strongly acknowledged the huge differences in the way people use social media as well as the impact of social media usage in local peoples’ daily life. Though the presentations were not intended to be comparative, the format in which they were delivered played a role in giving rise to a few interesting questions that leaned towards a comparison of general issues between China and India. For example: after listening to our presentations, students found that the use of social media in India was strongly influenced by the reality of offline life, however in China among Chinese rural migrants, social media offered a platform where people can simply set up a new world where they can enjoy an ideal life where their offline lives (including their social status are largely irrelevant. Although it’s always risky to over-generalize claims of totally different uses of social media by lower socio-economic groups in India and China, the ethnographic evidence gathered from our 15 months field research allowed our study to showcase the diversity of social media usage in different cultures and societies. Social media itself is by no means a unified or universal concept and its meanings are way more diverse than we can imagine. In short, this opportunity helped both the parties (OII and GSMIS scholars) to explore and understand social media in a much deeper context through an anthropological perspective that is contextually and fieldwork based.

Kurds, ISIS and internet censorship in Turkey

By Elisabetta Costa, on 7 November 2014

Facebook profile picture from south-east Turkey

Facebook profile picture from south-east Turkey

Kurds living in Mardin tend to not use social media for political expression when it involves a direct critique of the Turkish State, Turkish authorities or the Turkish nation. Social media has been described by many Kurds as a powerful tool for political control, as a new form of torture, as a weapon to scare people and prevent them from being politically active. In Turkey’s Kurdistan, the internet and digital technologies are immediately associated with control and persecution by the State. In the last couple of years, the Turkish government has banned and shut down several pages of political parties (see also this international campaign against the Facebook Company). Internet censorship in Turkey has become internationally known, when the ex-Prime Minister Erdogan banned YouTube and Twitter before and after the local election in March 2014.

The tight control over the internet has produced an efficient self-censorship mechanism in Mardin and elsewhere in the region; people tend to not criticize the Turkish government too openly in order to not be prosecuted. However, many Kurds have been using social media to express their support for the Kurdish cause by claiming solidarity with the Kurds living in other countries in the Middle-East. In the last two years, many people have been using an image with the word ‘Rojava’, the Kurdish name for the Siryan Kurdistan, the region inside Syria that started to achieve its autonomy in 2012, as their Facebook profile picture. Within the same period, the region has been under attack several times by Islamic groups, and more recently by ISIS. When ISIS attacked Kobane and PKK/ YPG fighters retaliated by showing resistance, news from independent news sources were circulated on social media, presenting different views on what was occurring. Before then, in the summer of 2014 during ISIS’ invasion of Sinjar in Iraq, many Kurds, together with unions, political parties and local charities, actively used Facebook to organize solidarity campaigns to collect clothes and money for the Yezidi refugees after the attack.

Over the past few months, social media has become a very important source of news for the Kurds living in Turkey. They want to know about ISIS’ attack on Kurds in Syria and Iraq; and Facebook in particular has become the main platform to organize solidarity campaign and to express support towards the Kurds in these two countries.

I don’t want to describe here the complexity of the crisis that is going on now in the Middle-East, but rather, I want to highlight the way Kurds in Turkey use social media. They continuously mediate between what they would like to share freely online, and what they know could be detrimental to them because of the draconian censorship enacted in Turkey. Far from being  the results of rational calculation every time, people have internalised a set of rules which influences what they can share publicly, what they can share on fake profiles and what they can read but not share at all. It’s only by adopting these implicit set of rules that a Kurdish “public sphere under restriction” is continuously created and recreated by social media users, with several consequences. One of these is that on social media the Kurds in Turkey tend to sustain the Kurdish nationalistic cause by expressing support towards the Kurds living in Syria (and Iraq), and they more rarely address the political situation inside Turkey.

On doing anthropology on activism and social media

By Jolynna Sinanan, on 4 November 2014

Image by Jolynna Sinanan

Image by Jolynna Sinanan

Although I left my field site in Trinidad on August 29, I have only just returned to Melbourne in the last week after nearly a year of being away. Last year, a large portion of field work was following the national issue of the large scale development project of the construction of a highway in the south of the country and the disputed section which will connect the areas of Debe to Mon Desir. My involvement started with covering the hunger strike of University of the West Indies lecturer Dr Kublalsingh, which lasted for 21 days. I watched this unfold by going to where Dr Kublalsingh was protesting, in front of the Prime Minister’s office, by following it on social media and by discussing it with informants in my field site, some 100kms away from where the highway is being constructed. Dr Kublalsingh ended his hunger strike when the Prime Minister agreed to reassess the decision to build that part of the highway and the Joint Constitutive Council (JCC) was funded by the government to review all the documents and agendas for and against constructing the section of the highway that would culminate in the Armstrong Report.

My involvement then deepened to the level of contributing to this state-sponsored review. I conducted a preliminary social impact assessment in the area and reviewed the reports from when the decision was made to go ahead with construction (in 2006) which I submitted to the Council. I concluded that no adequate social impact assessment had been conducted at the time and one should be, not just for that area, but for any area in which a large scale development project such as the construction of a highway is to take place. The JCC included at least five of my quotes in their final report.

Back in my field site, a town I have given the fictional name of El Mirador to protect the identities of the people who participated in my research, I was looking at how people were engaging with the issue on social media. Through my work with Dr Gabrielle Hosein, also from the University of the West Indies, we concluded that for those who aren’t in more ‘typical’ activist circles, of university students, musicians, artists and other urbanites, and more so, for those in country towns, being visibly, politically active and seriously engaging in national issues has social consequences of ridicule and alienation. It is very unusual for your average person in El Mirador to be politically active on Facebook.

Today, at the time of writing this blog entry, in Trinidad, Dr Kublalsingh is bedridden on day 47 of his second hunger strike, which he began on September 17. His reasons for this hunger strike is that the Prime Minister has not upheld her promise to adhere to the findings of the JCC report, undermining the council she assisted in founding and thereby undermining the efforts to build good governance in Trinidad. I have seen nothing on social media about Dr Kublalsingh or his second hunger strike on social media, apart from posts by the activist group he represents, the Highway Reroute Movement.

This situation is consistent with mine and Dr Hosein’s second insight that came out of the events of last year. A hunger strike is spectacular action, which makes the body a spectacle as an extreme form of resistance. But the power of the spectacle is in its transience, it holds power for only a short amount of time, a finite amount of time in which it disrupts the normal order. Similarly, Facebook is a spectacular space, a place to make things hyper visible. How many social media spectacles of causes gone viral can we name? Kony 2012? That video about sexual harassment? But the life of posts on social media are also finite. Sure, they exist in digital space forever, but people only care about them for a short amount of time. This obviously has bleak implications for Dr Kublalsingh’s actions.

A few members of the activist group have contacted me and implored my continued support. A few informants in El Mirador are wondering why I have kept silent this last month, when they know I have worked with and am friends with Dr Kublalsingh. My silence has been a mixture of having commitments to our project, which requires me to distance myself in order to adhere to the task of writing about the field and of having my immediate reality ruptured from being in Trinidad to being in Melbourne again.

The position of any anthropological researcher is not without contradiction (Sanford, 2006: 8). If we choose to take up Bourgois’ challenge ‘to venture into the ‘real world’ not just to ‘interview’ people but to actually participate in their daily life and to partake of their social and cultural reality’ (1990:45, quoted by Sanford, 2006: 6), we return with a mess of realities and experiences to come to terms with; our own and those of others. I will probably not see Dr Kublalsingh again. I feel an ethical obligation to uphold my integrity to the research in El Mirador but also to uphold my contribution to the Armstrong Report. This blog post has been a messy and inadequate attempt to do both.

 

References:

Bourgois, Philippe. 1990. ‘Confronting Anthropological Ethics: Ethnographic Lessons from Central America’, Journal of Peace Research, 27.1: 43-54.

Sanford, Victoria and Angel-Ajani, Asale (eds). 2006. Engaged Observer: Anthropology, Advocacy and Activism, New Brunswick, New Jersey and London: Rutgers University Press

Social Media – Just stop that and behave.

By Daniel Miller, on 30 October 2014

Image courtesy of Sally Anscombe, Creative Commons

Image courtesy of Sally Anscombe, Creative Commons

I am just finishing a chapter of my monograph on social media in England in parallel with the other eight team members who are simultaneously writing theirs. At the moment the biggest problem I am finding with writing about social media is perhaps not surprisingly the social media themselves. They just refuse to behave decently, by which I mean in ways conducive to being written about in an academic text.

The chapter I have just finished has been trying to explore the impact of the wide variety of platforms that are currently available to people in The Glades. That in and of itself is not a problem. The theory of polymedia comes in handy because it was devised to deal with a situation where, instead of a single or a dominant media, we have many potential platforms such as Snapchat and Tinder and Tumblr and Twitter. These start to express social differences, moral choices, differentiated relationships and so forth – thus polymedia. The next stage would be for academics to explain why people might prefer this or that social media for some particular purpose. For such explanations we are indebted to some excellent writings, of which the clearest is probably Nancy Baym’s book on Personal Communication in The Digital Age.

This work depends upon the concept of an ‘affordance’ which means more or less, that which a particular platform would seem naturally best suited to do. So we can suggest that Facebook is better for the storage of photos, while Twitter seems good at spreading information. Some media demand simultaneous presence, others are asynchronic, some anonymous and others anything but private. What usually happens is that we assume a platform is `naturally’ that which we have found most people use it for and then look at these various affordances in order to account for that dominant usage.

This is fine for a while, but then as we observe these social media more closely and for a longer period of time, they start to behave not just badly but really quite outrageously. They start to be used for all the things we claimed they were useless for, or for the exact opposite of that which they were doing previously. I look at the data and think `Whoopsadaisy’ that is NOT what is supposed to be happening. To take a very simple example, my generation used email as the breakthrough media in destroying a century of attempts by industry and commerce to separate work from leisure, and I could write happily about the affordances of email that explain this consequence. The trouble is that today young people use email to scrupulously divide their personal communication from work and commercial usage – the exact opposite of what I do with it.

Historically in both Trinidad and England BBM, the Blackberry messenger service, was the place teenagers used to be nasty to each other. I could give a whole list of features as to why BBM was good for this purpose. In Trinidad this genre of usage moved from BBM to WhatsApp which is fine, since WhatsApp is basically a copy of BBM. But in England the genre migrated lock, stock and barrel to Twitter which in several important respects is exactly the opposite of BBM. Twitter is very public, BBM was heavily encrypted etc etc. I read loads of articles about how Twitter is naturally about information or Facebook is ideally suited to the young. Only to find that Twitter is used by other groups simply to banter and Facebook is now mainly used to keep connected with older family members. In fact the entirely different `Twitters’ I have discovered operating just within just The Glades is ridiculously diverse. At which point you realise no, it isn’t especially good for information dissemination. It’s just a short text platform that can, and now is, used for pretty much anything. This is just within The Glades. Once you start comparing our nine sites then it is really hard to claim any kind of consistent behaviour at all. Social media are such an undisciplined and unruly bunch of creatures that they would challenge a zoo let alone a poor academic.

The theory of polymedia and the study of affordances remain essential tools of analysis, and often work perfectly well. But there are clearly a whole lot of others things going on, which my chapter attempts to explain and explore. I think this can be done, and basically has to be done, because we do no one any favours if we ignore the variability of actual usage which is precisely what anthropology is built to discover and acknowledge. But sometimes in this study of social media I just want to teach the little bastards a bit of discipline.

‘Writing up': social media, disconnection and writing ethnography

By Tom McDonald, on 26 October 2014

Villagers from the township taking part in a local festival (Photo: Tom McDonald)

Villagers from the township taking part in a local festival (Photo: Tom McDonald)

Our entire team have now returned from the field and are already stuck into the process of turning our research into books, which we plan to publish in January 2016.

For me it’s an enormously strange to transition to go from the excitement of village life to the relative sedateness of a life spent largely in the company of Microsoft Word everyday.

You could be forgiven for thinking that living in a rural Chinese town would be a positively tranquil experience, but looking back on my 15 months of fieldwork in the town from afar, it all seems to condense into one single blur. My friends in the town seemed to always be unexpectedly arriving at my door, endlessly calling me on the phone, inviting me out to impromptu dinners, or for walks around the countryside, trips to places, or to join in at local events and festivals. By contrast, life in London is comparatively tranquil: with more time to finally concentrate on writing articles and publications, combined with the familiar rhythm of academic life in the department.

But it’s not that all my friends from the town have disappeared completely. My phone receives a constant trickle of messages from my friends in the town. Contrast this with the early days of anthropology, where leaving the fieldsite really meant leaving the fieldsite, and anthropologists would bid farewell to the tribe the had been studying in some far-flung corner of the world and had little expectation (or indeed way) of remaining in touch. Even if I wanted to cut myself of from my fieldsite, social media makes it difficult to do so. Keeping in touch with my participants and hearing from them the latest news about their lives, relationships, exam successes, etc., means that there is always more information to be added to the ethnographies, and also speaks volumes with regards how much social media is fundamentally changing the experience of anthropological fieldwork itself.

Thank you, people from Grano!

By Razvan Nicolescu, on 14 October 2014

A newly-wed couple from Grano preparing for a photo session at the steps of the church

A newly-wed couple from Grano preparing for a photo session on the steps of the church (Photograph by Razvan Nicolescu)

I have been living for 15 months in a beautiful place in southeast Italy in the region of Apulia in the southernmost part of Salento and almost a year of that time was with my family. I have been conducting ethnographic research for the Global Social Media Impact Study, which also consists of making dozens of close friendships, participating in local life quite intensively and listening to hundreds of stories.

My wife Gabriela, who is an anthropologist too, started to look into the absorbing world of migrant care workers, my elder son ended up speaking Italian much better than myself as a result of a fruitful combination of thorough nursery training and random football playing and my small daughter developed a special evening relationship with pizza calzone, saving her first words for when we returned to London.

Some days, I worked on the project for just a few hours in the evening and other days, I worked continuously for 20 hours or so. After the first few months in Grano I noticed that my daily cups of tea were replaced by more than a few cups of coffee, breakfasts became smaller and smaller, and dinners slowly migrated towards midnight hours, especially during summer. We are not the same after fieldwork and we definitely do not see the world as we used to.

It is impossible to really thank to all people who helped me with this research. In my writing, the simple fact that for ethical reasons I will have to anonymise the place and individuals makes any attempt for acknowledgement somewhat useless outside the community I worked in. However, I sense that one way I can accomplish some of this enormous task is by writing the amazing stories I have collected in my field work in a truthful and unpretentious way, so that others may understand Grano the way that I did. The fact that our group is committed to open access, to the systematic use of colloquial language for more accessible reading, to popular multimedia content, as well as to the translation of most of the material in local languages represents just a small reassurance that whatever we will publish will be available to larger audiences, and most importantly, the communities we worked with.

However, here is a brief list of the people to whom I am most indebted to for their help during my stay there: Agnese B, Agnese D, Alessandra, Alfredo D, Alfredo E, Alfredo P, Analisa, Anna, Anna Lena, Antonella, Barbara, Biagino, Bruno, Cosimo, Daniela, Eira, Emilia, Flavia, Gabriele, Gianluca, Giuliana, Manuela, Maria Grazia, Maria Luisa, Marina, Mary, Luana, Nunzia, Ornella, Paolo, Pina, Raffaella, Rolando, Santo, Vito and their wonderful families. With them as with many other friends from Grano, I am happy to share the belief that friendship is more about sharing than about debt.

I should also say thank you to the hundreds of other people who contributed to this research, in a variety of different ways, even with short conversations that seemed at the time to be completely off-topic, but eventually have added-up to my understanding of Grano.

But for now, I should continue writing so I can start to pay off some of my debts…

Regulating the body in Chilean cyberspace

By Nell Haynes, on 22 September 2014

no desnudes

Last week, a friend here in Northern Chile posted on his Facebook wall a stylized drawing of a woman’s body with the words: “Don’t show your naked body on social networking sites. Gain the admiration and respect of your contacts and friends by showing your qualities as a person. What makes you sexy and beautiful is not your body, but your personality. Women and girls deserve respect.”

This was not the first time I had seen such a post. I have seen such memes circulating for several months, posted by grandmothers, mothers, and young men and women. But this post made me pause because my friend Miguel was the one who posted it. A few months into my fieldwork, Miguel was showing me a funny meme his friend had posted. As he scrolled down on his Facebook feed, he passed a post from Playboy Magazine that showed two women in bikinis. “Oh, those are my ugly cousins!” he joked. As he scrolled down there were several other posts from Playboy and he told me “My cousins post pictures of themselves a lot.”

Since the subject had been breached, he seemed to feel comfortable discussing semi-pornographic posts with me and I took advantage of the situation by continuing to ask questions. He told me all about “the new thing” of pictures of the underside of women’s breasts rather than their cleavage. He switched to Whatsapp and clicked a link a friend had sent him to demonstrate. There I saw “50 of the Best Underboob Shots on the Internet,” mostly taken selfie-style either in the mirror, or up one’s own shirt. I wasn’t sure whether to be offended or confused.

With this previous discussion in mind, in which, quite openly he discussed how he enjoyed seeing overtly sexy pictures that women take of their bodies, it seemed strange that he would post such a meme chastising women for doing this very thing.

Of course, there is a big difference between the women who are likely the intended recipients of his message and the women who are displayed on Playboy’s Facebook page. That is: he expects his female friends to read his Facebook wall. He does not expect Playboy models, or even the women whose reverse cleavage pictures are floating around the internet to be his followers on Facebook. In essence, his Facebook activity is revealing of something anthropologists have long known; we treat friends and acquaintances differently than we treat strangers (for example see Simmel’s essay on The Stranger and our own blog about chatting to Strangers in China). In this case it is acceptable to objectify the bodies of strangers, but he hopes that the women he knows personally will not openly contribute to their own objectification.

In looking through my own female Facebook friends from Northern Chile, I don’t see any pictures that are overtly sexual and show body parts that one wouldn’t reveal on a hot summer day. However, in my “you might know…” suggestions, I do see several such profile pictures for accounts based in this city. Miguel, along with other friends—both male and female—assured me that these profiles were fake (see also controversies of fake profiles in India and Turkey). “They say they’re from here but I’ve never met any of these women. They’re definitely fake profiles.”

To me this suggests two related points about the ways the regulation of bodies and nudity are happening online. The first is simply that these “Don’t show your naked body” memes represent a way of surveilling and controlling what others do with their bodies. They use straw-women as a warning, suggesting that showing too much body on social media will result in people losing respect. This strategy seems to have worked as well. Young women in northern Chile shy away from showing their bodies in contexts connected to their public personality. Yet the pictures still appear in the form of anonymous or fake profiles. Using fake names and profile pictures, they still post faceless photos exposing body parts fit only for a very liberal beach.

While this in some ways may be seen as a victory for young women’s self-worth based on traits not connected to their sexuality or bodies’ likenesses to those featured in the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue, the surveillance and judgment of their online activity represents another issue—regulation that denies young women agency over the representation of their own bodies. This is one thing when coming from mothers and aunts, but young men like Miguel present a double standard in which their social networking activity elevates the bodies of strangers—from swimsuit models to unknown women taking risqué selfies, while condemning their own peers for similar self-representations. It’s not hard to imagine then why fake profiles might be a good option for young women trying to find self esteem about their bodies and their own ways to fit into the world of social networking.

In the end, what this tells us about social networking sites in this context, is that they are still very closely connected to the body. The internet is not a haven for free-floating identity, disconnected from our physical form, but is a place where bodies may still be seen as a representation of an individual, may still be regulated, and may still be a site of agency or repression. Rather than actually showing the respect that “women and girls deserve,” these memes further regulate women. Much as catcalls on the street regulate women’s bodies in physical space, memes that tell women what is acceptable for their bodies do so in the space of the internet.

If you are interested in themes of surveillance and control, see also Caste Related Profiles on Facebook in India, Facebook and the Vulnerability of the Self and Love is… in Turkey, and Social Media and the Sense of Autonomy in Italy.

On not resolving an issue with statistics

By Ciara Green, on 10 September 2014

By Ciara Green and Daniel Miller

Image by Giselle, Creative Commons

Image by Giselle, Creative Commons

For 18 months, we have worked together on the ethnography of The Glades. As part of this, we intend to write a joint paper focusing on the research we did within four local secondary schools on sixth formers aged 16-18. This will be concerned with the precise impact of new social media on relationships between school pupils, rather than schooling itself. It particular, we will examine relationships that have been discussed in terms of ‘cyber bullying.’ Much of this is dictated by policy concerns and as a result, tends to classify pupils, for example, into victims and bullies. By contrast, we want to situate such issues within the more general and now ubiquitous use of social media amongst this population, without diminishing our concern with the impact of such behaviour, including the potential for suicide. Our method will be to respect the way the pupils themselves discuss these issues, which suggests a much more ubiquitous culture of quarrelling such as the occurrence of what the school pupils refer to as ‘Twitter Beef’ within which many people play varying roles at different times. Our main contribution will be to try and isolate changes which seems unequivocally related to the specifics of social media, such as the use of ‘indirects’, the expansion of communication from within school to potentially 24 hour access, and the idea that people are more inclined to problematic communication when ‘hiding behind a screen’.

We cannot, however, ignore a huge popular debate on whether social media makes the lives of these pupils in some ways better or worse. In particular, there are more sensationalist newspaper articles that imply a massive increase in cyber bullying with major consequences for pupils. In response to this we found we had different perspectives. Ciara is of the generation that experienced this activity and was subsequently more inclined to see social media as exacerbating problems and wants to ensure we don’t detract from this experience of harm. Danny, considering the ubiquity of such issues in periods prior to social media, was more conservative. We both, of course, recognise that the term cause is too simplistic and social media is part of much wider contexts. We will see changes that some regard as negative such as indirects and ubiquity and also ones the pupils regard as positive such as increased access to social support.

Nevertheless, we felt as good scholars we should supplement our interpretation of our pupil interviews with any other data that might be relevant. It seemed worth knowing, for example, whether the period of social media adoption coincided with any change in incidence in behaviour such as teenage suicide, eating disorders, cutting and self-harm. After spending a considerable amount of time on this issue and consulting with a statistician we soon found that good intentions were not enough. We find the statistical data is inconsistent and sometimes related to factors such as reporting self-harm which may not be the same as incidence. The academic papers based on such data are themselves constantly divided in the negative and positive gloss they put on such figures. Meanwhile, accounts in mainstream media tend to use such data to make eye-catching claims, such that the more ‘objective’ the data, the less objectively it seems to be used.

In turn, we have our own ambivalence about our qualitative data. Danny would see teachers’ suggestions that things were just as bad before social media as confirmation of his position, while Ciara sees it as confirmation that teachers are less close to the actual experience of pupils than they think. So where does that leave us? In practice, it leads us back to our starting point. What we can do is write clearly about which specific factors the pupils themselves believe has exacerbated negative consequences. We can also provide an important corrective to the policy directed classifications by using the pupils’ descriptions to give greater nuance that is usually found in terms such as ‘cyber bullying’. We can hope that precisely because we have differing perspectives we can, in combination, provide a fair reading of our extensive findings. Our discussions were not in fact enlightened by this wider enquiry. But, after all, even if the statistics had been clear as to trends, we would still have had plenty to debate around any assumption as to whether the material from our study accounts for any statistical correlation as opposed to many other possible factors. But then no one said academic writing is easy.

Pin down the questions

By Xin Yuan Wang, on 5 September 2014

Construction site

Xinyuan asking questions on a construction site among workers (photo by MF)

You should know that the majority of PhD students feel some regret that they didn’t ask enough questions when they came back from the field.

Danny advised so when we walked past a beautiful bamboo forest last year in October when he came to visit my field site.
At that time, after five-months of fieldwork I was frustrated about the situation that on the one hand, I felt as if I was mining hard on poor ground- there was nothing (no longer) new under the sun! On the other hand, I somehow felt it’s very awkward to ask ‘formal’ questions to the informants who treat  me as a friend and I didn’t want to lose the relaxed atmosphere which I believe allows people to show the ‘true self’.

Well, I see, but I still need some time to figure out HOW” I curled my lip and said.

It is really not easy to ask questions, even though the pre-fieldwork project meeting prepared well HOW to do this. Now, at the last phase of my fieldwork, when I look back and ask myself whether I feel any regrets about ‘asking questions’ during my fieldwork, I think the answer is NO, but with several footnotes.

First, useful questions do not necessarilyhave to be asked in a interview-like formal way or even with a question mark. My strategy is to follow people’s organic conversation flow and ‘harness’ the topic by relevant detailed inquiries or directional claim. That means most of the time my inquiries are impromptu. However, such improvisation is not as random as some laid back chic-chat among friends, it has to point towards the impact of social media. In practice, asking questions in a contextual way to address a research question is a mind-taxing and thought-racing process.

For instance, a factory worker informant of mine used to complain about her boyfriend (who is now her husband) in front of me, in such a situation, as a friend, I am supposed to be a compassionate ally who shares the same bitter hatred, rather than a ‘keep-one’s-nose-clean’ researcher who only takes interest in the phenomenon of ‘men keeping ex-girlfriends’ photos on social media’. I had to control my academic inclinations and insert my ‘questions’ patiently among her unrestricted criticism. As a result my questions output is like:

  • Oh gosh, how come? that’s totally outrageous, I just can’t believe it. but..hey you are great, how can you know his password? my boyfriend never told me his!
  • Really?! so…which means he knew you looked at these photos? I don’t get it, what’s wrong with men? why do they think we can accept those ex- bitches…with a big smile?! I just don’t get it!
  • Relax, you are strong, and I hope he will learn a lesson. By the way, did you give him any warning or at least a hint about this?

Framing questions in this way allows people to relate to the topic and express their own opinions. Look at the contrast to more direct research questions:

  • Do you have your partner’s social media password, if so, could you tell me why and how do you get it?
  • Will you remove your ex partner’s photos on social media profile? if so why? and why do you think some people keep their ex partner’s photos on social media?
  • How do you deal with your partner’s ex-partner’s photos on social media?

Furthermore, all my roundabout inquiries are actually aiming to put pieces together of a bigger puzzle, which is the relationship between intimacy and social media usage. Nevertheless, I am not suggesting that such theatrical questioning can be applied in every case- it works only when a researcher has a relatively comprehensive knowledge of his/her informant as well as the circumstance during the conversation.

The funny thing is after just one month when I came back to the same informant and tried to go through some more interview-like questions she appeared slightly uncomfortable and confused about my question with regards to the intimacy and the usage of social media, and asked me why I was interested in those ‘useless’ things and what for. Clearly she forget that’s the reason I was in my field site and I was a researcher which I had told her one-year ago. Her attitude is understandable as for people who have limited education (like many of her fellow workers in the factory she is a middle-school drop-out) and living experience with academic research, words like ‘research’, ‘questionnaire’, ‘interview’, etc are more often than not very alien and sometimes even horrific. Thus it is safe to say the way to ask questions is as important as, if not more, the questions per se.

Secondly, at the closing phase of my field site I started to ‘push the boundary’ and pin down some questions I did not want to ask for the reasons I just mentioned above. The efforts were not in vain. Even though my informants appeared unsurprisingly uncomfortable and couldn’t give me a articulate answer in many cases. They still gave me some valuable information I couldn’t have gotten just by chatting with them, such as do they visit pornographic websites or describe their social media usage situation in the past five years.

Meanwhile, I spent almost one month in Shanghai to do comparative study among urban and rural (or rural migrant) population. Jingwen Fan, a Shanghai-based artist and media researcher, worked with me to conduct interviews among Shanghainese people. Given that we didn’t have enough time to carry out proper anthropological participant-observation, which I was doing among rural migrants in my field site, our interviews targeted personal friends and relatives of Jingwen Fan and I, with whom we have established strong mutual trust and understanding.

The interviews have been ongoing for more than a month and most of the interviews were filmed with consent. We have a list of 24 questions for the interviews (I will post the list of the questions in my next blog posting), which according to my one-year ‘questioning’ experience will lead to some active interaction and valuable data.  So far, the interviews went very well even though I was slightly worried about what Margaret Mead said, ‘What people say, what people do, and what they say they do are entirely different things’.

We appreciate that most of all of our informants trust us a great deal and actively interact with us by showing us their social media profiles and sharing with us their personal stories without hesitation. And on top of it, the people we interviewed not only expressed themselves very well but also discussed different issues with us passionately. Some of them started an answer by saying “You know what, actually I thought about exactly the same question recently and I also discussed it with my friends…” More often than not, a filmed interview took around three hours.

It is safe to say the difference between the urban and rural population’s performance in formal interviews is mainly due to the difference in educational background and living experience. The average education level among factory workers/ rural migrants in my field site is below middle school, and the average among Shanghai-based informants is university. Given the huge information consumption on a daily basis and the diversity of urban life, the urban population appeared much more confident, open-minded and articulate in talking about the society and themselves. Thus, after conducting the study among different groups of people in China for almost 15 months, I am ready to say that the point of ‘pin down the question’ is not only about ‘asking enough questions’ as Danny advised, but also about ‘asking tailored questions for different informants’