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From Facebook to ‘fakebook’ – who controls the information on social media?

By Xin Yuan Wang, on 24 November 2016

A young Chinese factory worker reading on his smartphone

A young Chinese factory worker reading on his smartphone.

Mark Zuckerberg finally said that Facebook plans to have a more effective control of misinformation, which is a sharp reversal in tone from the comment he made immediately after the US election that the “the idea that fake news on Facebook…influenced the election in any way is a pretty crazy idea.” The fake news that circulated widely on Facebook is believed to have influenced the US election. It is reported that some fake news was created by teenagers in Macedonia who cashed in by catering fake news to demand, and many more were posted by ‘alt-right’ people who cooked up stories on platforms such as 8chan, 4chan, and social media.

The story of how fake news circulated on Facebook reminds me of what I have witnessed about the information consumption on social media among Chinese factory workers during my 15 months of field work in a small factory town in southeast China. Certainly, in many ways the two cases are incomparable, whereas the pattern of information dissemination seems to bear certain similarities.

For Chinese factory workers whose average education level is below middle school (most of them dropped out of school before the age of 17), social media has become the most important, if not the only, information resource. Therefore, social media actually plays an extremely important role in those less-educated people’s communication and (informal) education. What are the consequences of people being dependent on social media as their major information resource? Well, first of all, there will be a higher chance that the information people get will become unbalanced. For people who simultaneously consume news from other traditional media with ‘gatekeepers’, such as TV, newspapers, and magazines, social media is only one of the tools to get news.  Therefore, even if there are fake news stories on social media, the reliability of that news will be constantly tested in a more rounded information environment and any possible hazard of fake news will be diluted in a more balanced ‘informational ecology’ – just like natural purification. However, if social media has become the only or the major information resource, the risk of fake news can be amplified. Generally speaking, the higher education people receive, the lower the chance that social media will become their only or major information resource.

To add another layer to the problem. Unlike traditional media where information is distributed in a relatively neutral way, information on social media is not only filtered by customised algorithms based on users’ personal information, but is also filtered by people’s personal social network online – that is to say, each social media contact is a potential news agent who feeds you news on a daily basis. To give an example, as written in the book Social Media in Industrial China based on my research, a comparison of the shared postings on 145 social media profiles of factory workers and 55 profiles of middle-class Chinese in Shanghai shows that there is almost no information flow between two different social groups. Over a period of four months only one out of 6,000 articles (0.03 per cent) was found to have been shared in both groups, though 5.1 per cent of articles were shared within the factory workers group and 1.6 per cent within the Shanghai group. In the case of factory workers, the possibility of the same information being shared within the social group with similar social-economic status is 170 times higher than the possibility of it being shared across groups with different socio-economic statuses.

Also, the amount of fake news I encountered on factory workers’ social media profiles was much more than that on the  profiles of middle-class Chinese. Most of the fake news were sensational and dramatic stories about conspiracy, romance, or crime. Even though a few factory workers commented that they could imagine that there were certain ‘untruth’ elements in those news items, most people who shared the news believed the news was based on true stories and those who were not 100% sure certainly enjoyed the reading – as a kind of entertainment. “I would say there must be some truth in it (fake news) otherwise there won’t be so many people sharing it, right? Well, at least I feel for the story, that matters,” a 25-year-old male factory worker told me.

So while there is now the debate about how a social media company can take responsibility to control fake news on social media, for all intents and purposes one also has to acknowledge that in many cases, the most powerful information control comes from people’s sociality – on social media there is a certain truism: ‘who you know may decide what you know’. Among like-minded friends, on social media one receives news that is in most cases only confirming the beliefs shared by the social group one belongs to.

Public anthropology: urgent yet undervalued

By Laura Haapio-Kirk, on 17 November 2016

An education in anthropology encourages us to ask deep questions and look beneath the surface.

An education in anthropology encourages us to look beyond cultural assumptions.

In the days following the results of the US presidential election, there has allegedly been a wave of racist attacks and hate crime across the States against Muslims, hispanic Americans, black people, ethnic minorities, and the LGBT community. At the root of such behaviour is deep cultural ignorance and education is one of the most powerful weapons we have against intolerance and fear of the ‘other’. The humanistic sensibilities that an education in anthropology fosters can be paradigm-changing. It seems apparent that a commitment to an engaged public anthropology has never mattered more, or been more feasible in this digitally connected age. Many anthropologists, including the Why We Post team, feel the moral and political imperative to bring anthropology to a wider audience than was previously possible with traditional modes of research dissemination. But as anthropologists situated within today’s hyper-competitive academic job market, how can we navigate the often tenuous balance between public and academic output?

How can we manage to produce high-quality public content at the same time as managing the responsibilities that come with being professional anthropologists working within the demands of the academic job market? This was a question put to me by Alisse Waterston, the president of the American Anthropological Association, after a talk I gave at the IUAES in Dubrovnik back in May. The theme of IUAES this year was ‘world anthropologies and privatisation of knowledge: engaging anthropology in public’, yet my panel was the only one with the explicit theme of how to bring anthropology to the public. The panel convenors, Jenny Ingridsdotter and Kim Kallenberg from Södertörn University in Sweden, explained the difficult balancing act inherent in their academic lives: “In order to pursue an academic career we are encouraged to write peer reviewed articles and engage with research communities. Yet little time is left to engage socially and interactively with local communities or communicate important results to public spheres. As young scholars it might be even more complicated to legitimise designation of time to public output. Still we feel it is really important and at the core at what we do as ethnographers.”

The Why We Post course on FutureLearn runs three times per year.

The Why We Post course on FutureLearn runs three times per year.

I believe that there are several factors that enabled our team to successfully produce large amounts of public output at the same time as writing up their research, publishing, and applying for jobs (all of the 5 post docs have now secured academic employment). Firstly I think it’s important that public engagement shouldn’t be an afterthought to research, but like with Why We Post, should begin from a project’s inception if it is to be successful. Partly this is because the writing skills necessary for communicating to a general public take time to hone, and also because it’s important for researchers to understand early on in their work the kind of field material (video, photographic, textual) they need to record in order to produce engaging content that will appeal to non-anthropologists.

Given our topic of research is the uses and consequences of social media, our project was conceived as having a broad appeal from the outset; with selfies and memes we might be able to bring people to anthropology who otherwise might overlook it. Project leader Daniel Miller envisaged a spectrum of dissemination/engagement methods including open access books, an e-course, and a public-facing website, all of which was made possible by a generous ERC advanced grant which funded the project and has covered my salary as a public engagement fellow and research assistant. I was hired at the three-and-a-half-year mark when the team were in the process of writing up. Working with these talented researchers to produce our public content I saw how it was often difficult for them to juggle the academic and public output, even with the support of a team. The more conversations I had with them, the clearer it became: public engagement in anthropology is currently institutionally undervalued and needs greater recognition within the established modes of evaluation that researchers are subject to. I think that projects with more limited resources than ours would struggle to produce the same range of public output, despite the best intentions of individual researchers to reach beyond the ivory tower.

Can we draw people to anthropology through analysis of popular culture such as the selfie?

Can we draw people to anthropology through analysis of popular culture such as the selfie?

In addition to writing 11 open access books (aimed at both academics and lay readers, with jargon-free text and references kept to footnotes), the Why We Post team agree that producing visual and textual material for the online course was the most time-intensive of our initiatives, taking longer than expected. One of our researchers, Shriram Venkatraman believes that this was mainly down our high production values coupled with our lack of experience in creating such material – and a lack of existing models to follow. We were the first UCL course on FutureLearn and the first comparative anthropological online course of this scale. The sheer amount of material coming from our project also posed a challenge – how do you condense insights from a total of 135 months of ethnographic fieldwork across nine fieldsites into a concise course aimed at a general audience? The answer: a combination of Googledocs, tracked edits, miles of emails, and a lot of good will and humour. Support also came from UCL’s Digital Education team whose expertise in online learning was pivotal in developing a successful course.

Despite the time-intensive nature of scripting and filming course content, Jolynna Sinanan commented that the skills she gained were invaluable: “The time pressure was immense but the skills we learned in filming, writing, developing and translating content for the course were very valuable, especially when gaining public exposure for our research is becoming more important. We are also competing within an academic climate that values producing a high level of quality as well as quantity, so we need to display virtuosity as well as accessibility with our research outputs, from being able to write journal articles to making short films for YouTube.” The skills developed in public engagement can also benefit traditional academic output, as Xinyuan Wang explained: “producing the course actually helped my academic writing as in the course I needed to describe and discuss things in a straightforward and engaging way (which is actually more difficult in many ways than composing an academic paper). After working on the course, my own arguments actually became clearer and better constructed, which is definitely very helpful in my future writing and actually saved time rather than wasted time in the long-run.”

While the process of transforming research findings into public education was both challenging and rewarding, once the team’s contracts were nearing completion and they launched into job searches they faced a new challenge: the academic job market currently does not value online learning in the same way as offline learning. Dr Nell Haynes, our team member who conducted her fieldwork in Northern Chile explained: “The online course is not at all considered to be equal to teaching in-person courses, despite the fact that it actually took much much more time, revision, and creative thinking than preparation for a traditional lecture course. And while there has for some time been a strong movement by anthropologists to have administrations grant more weight (in tenure review and other institutionalised forms of evaluation) to public work, it certainly seems that search committees are often reproducing these very biases. Based on conversations with other job applicants this does seem to be a systemic trend.”

Our course is available in the 7 languages of our fieldsites on UCLeXtend.

Our course is available in the 7 languages of our fieldsites on UCLeXtend.

If we as a discipline do not value public anthropology highly enough, is it any surprise that the public generally have little time for anthropology? How can it be that a discipline which claims to be global and encompassing in outlook is so limited in its output, often failing to give back to the very communities that it draws knowledge from? We decided to make our e-course and website (including 130 films) available in the seven languages of our fieldsites, and we are in the process of arranging translations of our open access books. The hope is that as public awareness of anthropology grows through such efforts, that there will be more demand for the discipline. As Shriram Venkatraman commented: “our effort is just the start of something big. When there is more recognition from within the field for public outreach and the social impact we can create, this will hopefully encourage many more such efforts which will increase the standing of Anthropology in the eyes of the general public.”

It is heartening to see other efforts towards quality and sustained public anthropology, such as the founding of the Public Anthropology Institute (PAI) at Wesleyan University, and we hope that such initiatives garner wide praise among anthropologists. We have a duty to promote the kind of cultural sensitivity that anthropologists take for granted to as broad an audience as possible, so that people who see cultural difference as a potential source of anxiety, might come to appreciate, and even delight in, the multitude of ways there are to be human.

 


Thanks to the Why We Post team for sharing their experiences of the public engagement balancing act. Also thanks to our lively panel at IUAES (Berna Yazici, Laura Korčulanin, Miha Poredoš, Aivita Putnina, Branko Banović, Margarita Barrera, Helleka Koppel, and Pascale Hancart Petitet) who continued conversations with me beyond the conference, and who are involved in projects ranging from public art installations of golden excrement in the ‘Give a Sh*t’ project, to an anthropological radio show in Laos.

Taking Why We Post to China

By Daniel Miller, on 11 October 2016

IMG_9212

Although the Why We Post project is primarily an attempt to study the use and consequences of social media, there were other broader aims. Particularly, the hope that the project would show that while the discipline of anthropology might have originally developed for the study of tribal peoples or ethnic minorities, it is also the most effective means of understanding a global, contemporary and highly dynamic phenomenon such as social media. This would be an especially important message for the largest population of the world, China, where anthropology retains a rather conservative position within the university systems and there is a real chance that it will not survive let alone take its proper position as an effective and vanguard approach to the contemporary world.

As it happens, it is hard to think of two more effective means of making this point than our two books on social media in China. In particular, Tom McDonald’s study in rural China has a consistent narrative about how even such small rural towns are actually thoroughly imbued with digital transformations and tend to have better connectivity today than the village he comes from in Yorkshire. It is a still clearer point for Xinyuan Wang who effectively demolishes most stereotypes about Chinese society – for example the commitment to education and kin – by showing the distinctive nature of not some small exception, but the 250 million Chinese represented by her study of new factory workers. The comparison between these two books, Social Media in Rural China and Social Media in Industrial China, showcases the diversity of contemporary Chinese society and how can we better grasp the nuance and depth of a changing society through a contextualised understanding of the evolving nature of Chinese social media.

Daniel Miller at the People's Press who are publishing Chinese versions of the books.

Daniel Miller at the People’s Press who are publishing Chinese versions of the books.

To share our findings we organised a trip to four major centres (Hong Kong, Guangzhou, Beijing, and Shanghai) and nine separate institutions. At a major anthropology and sociology department such as in Hong Kong University, Sun Ya-sen University in Guangzhou, and the Chinese Academy of Social Science in Beijing we could highlight our key point about this potential for anthropology itself in working with dynamic and shifting new media. But it was equally important to talk to Communication Departments such as at the Baptist University of Hong Kong, the Chinese University of HongKong, and the Communication University of China in Beijing so that students in that discipline were exposed to the potentials of ethnographic fieldwork. Our audiences ranged from arts and humanities at NYU in Shanghai, to philosophy students in Fudan University of Shanghai. We also visited the People’s Press who had published Xinyuan’s translation of the Digital Anthropology book and where I realised that my fellow authors included both the present and all the past presidents of China.

Tom McDonald

Tom McDonald delivers his talk on social media in rural China.

We carried out a live online book launch from Hong Kong (which you can watch again here) and opened an exhibition about the project at Hong Kong University where Tom now teaches. We also made sure that all the films on the Chinese version of our website were stored on UCL servers, rather than on YouTube which is blocked in China, so that students in mainland China could access them. Our trip attracted interest from Chinese local media including two of the largest Chinese online news agents, PengPai news and Tencent News, as well as the most popular English TV channel in Shanghai, Shanghai ICS, helping our message to reach more than ten thousand Chinese people within a few days.

Xinyuan Wang explain the dual migration from rural to urban and from offline to online.

Xinyuan Wang explains the dual migration from rural to urban and from offline to online in industrial China.

On a more personal level there were two striking responses. One was the delight of audiences when they realised that Tom would be lecturing in Chinese which was important to convince them that he could be an effective fieldworker in China. The other was the way young female students were clearly inspired by the elegant and articulate but also poignant presentation by Xinyuan and they made clear that they didn’t just want to emulate our way of working, but saw her as a model for what women in China could become in the future.

Why We Post Tour of Chinese Universities

By Xin Yuan Wang, on 12 September 2016

Daniel Miller China Tour

Between 12th-24th September 2016, Professor Daniel Miller and two researchers on the Why We Post project, Tom McDonald and Xinyuan Wang, will give a series of talks about the findings of the project at nine top universities in HongKong, Guangzhou, Beijing, and Shanghai. This China tour also include the launch (13th September) of the two newly released open-access books: Social Media in Industrial China (Wang, 2016) and Social Media in Rural China (McDonald, 2016). If you can’t be with us in Hong Kong, do join our live-streamed launch and put your questions to the authors.

China was the only country in the Why We Post project with two research sites. One of the reasons for this was because China maintains a greater degree of separation and autonomy in their use of popular digital media when compared to the rest of the world, therefore a global comparative study of social media required close scrutiny of particularly Chinese forms of social media such as QQ, WeChat, and Weibo.

The project includes a considerable amount of material on China such as the two newly released open-access books by UCL Press; one of the five weeks of the Anthropology of Social Media e-course; and a series of films set in the Chinese fieldsites. All of our short films (more than 100) about the uses of social media from our nine field sites have Chinese subtitles, and our website and e-course are both available in Chinese. Bringing an anthropological understanding of Chinese social media in the context of a comparative study back to China is a big commitment the project’s ultimate goal of turning global research into free global education.

Despite there being Chinese universities that teach anthropology, they have tended to see anthropology as a discipline that deals mainly with minority populations. We believe that the more a population becomes modern and urban and indeed digital, the more we need anthropology. This is because most of life now happens in the private sphere. In a little village perhaps it’s easier to see what’s going on from a surface glance. In a modern city where everyone goes to their own private home after work it is much more difficult. So you need research that is not afraid to follow people into the places where they actually live, which may be inside their smartphones, their social media profiles, as well as inside their homes. Otherwise we will not understand the modern world at all. Asking people questions via superficial surveys is not enough. Anthropologists spend many months living with people in order to be sure they understand what is really going on.

We believe that digital technologies including social media may be more formative of life in China than in almost any other country. While China has great and honourable traditions, the development of what we think of as modern China is relatively recent and relatively fast, taking place at the exact same time that new digital technologies are becoming an integral part of people’s lives. So whether we’re talking about the infrastructure of new cities or the spread of inexpensive smartphones, digital technologies are ubiquitous to the new China, and this means it is particularly important to understand their use and their consequences from a deep and engaged anthropological approach.

We hope that this China tour will introduce digital anthropology as a research tool to the Chinese academy. It is also hoped that the debates and talks will help to formulate key questions for future study within Chinese anthropology. We hope that China will play a key role in these future studies commensurate with its importance as a modern population that is embracing every form of new digital technology, and hopefully also embracing anthropology as the best means for observing and understanding their consequences.

The table below contains details of the talks in this China tour. For further updated information (in Chinese) please see here: http://uclwhywepost.isitestar.vip

巡回演讲安排 Brief Schedule of the China Tour

Emergent Brazilians comment the impeachment of the president

By Juliano Andrade Spyer, on 2 September 2016

obama

This is one of the memes circulating among low income Brazilians in reference to the impeachment of President Dilma. The top comment says: “Gosh, is this true?” Below the image it reads: “‘I do not recognise the new Brazilian government’, says Obama, threatening to close the American embassy…

One of the latest hot topics of research in Brazilian social sciences is the extreme polarisation of opinions in the country. Social media was at the centre of the street protests of June 2013. The impression then that the internet was unityfing Brazilians against corrupt politicians. However, only a few months later online communication apparently helped to intensify tensions between groups in society. In my (educated middle class) circle, for example, almost everyone (if not everyone) has experienced “unfriending” or being “unfriended” on Facebook because of different political views. (If you are not following the news about the political crisis in Brazil, read about it here.)

But I wonder how lower income Brazilians were perceiving the same events and how they viewed the Senate’s decision to impeach the president. Thanks to WhatsApp, it was easy to contact them and quickly get some answers, which I translated and added below. Similarly to the educated middle class, these emergent Brazilians are also following closely this debate, partially because of the television coverage, but also independently via social media through the exchange of memes – see images at the top and at the end of the post. They are also divided in regards to supporting or not the Senate’s final decision, but three out of the four informants considered the impeachment unfair. More interestingly, though, is to note how the intensity of debates has enriched their understanding of government politics.

Opinion 1: “Fair? The condemnation did not have plausible arguments and just to have peace of conscience they did not take away her political rights”, which should be the legal outcome of an impeached president.

Opinion 2: “My son cannot take a test in his (public) school because they don’t have paper and the privately hired staff are 3 months without receiving salaries. I am against the government because of the matter of education. In the last few years my son has had only one or two classes per week. Both the governor and the mayor are from the Worker’s Party [same as the president], and they have been in charge for the past 12 years. I think the impeachment was unfair for the particular reason presented, but fair for the overall situation. I have many friends that are unemployed.”

Opinion 3: “In my opinion it was not fair because it was the people who elected her. To be honest, I wanted her to leave, but I would like to choose who would replace her. To some Brazilians like me, it is as if we have no voice and the only thing we can do is to wait for the country to fall to pieces, and we are the country. I feel sad because instead of advancing we are going backwards. Public education is weak, health services are worst and I do not need to comment about violence.”

Opinion 4: “I feel things will get worst. I am worried. The new government did not receive the votes from the people and they will govern wrongly. ‘We will have to pay the price in the future.’”

Below, some of the memes they are circulating.

meme bahia

It says: “In the Senate, Bahia is the only state that voted unanimously against the impeachment…”

meme temer

It says: “In his speech, Temer [the new president] says he will not tolerate to be called a coup leader”.

meme golpe

It says: “Gleisi: Be strong, Dilma. She is facing the second coup of her life today.”

meme

It says from top left: “Home of the mayor, home of the city councilmen, home of the secretary. HOME OF THE VOTERS.”

Memes that Brazilians are sharing about the Olympics

By Juliano Andrade Spyer, on 16 August 2016

One of the stars of the Olympic games in Rio has been the crowd itself. The liveliness of the crowd has attracted the attention of the foreign press (NYTimes, BBC), and particularly of athletes and their coaches. My personal favourite case has been how football fans yelled in chorus “zika” every time the US goalkeeper touched the ball during matches (learn why).

A lot could be said about Brazil and Brazilians based on these reactions so the point of the post is to show what low income Brazilians are sharing on social media in relation to the Olympics. This type of reaction can be considered as a form of long distance virtual cheering (or booing).

I will add the images below with translations and brief comments.

editado WhatsApp Image 2016-08-11 at 17.36.15

Sex is perhaps the subject I have written more often about in this blog so I guess it is not a coincidence that the image below is the meme I received more times from informants. The text at the bottom says: “Never complain again of when your sandals break.” (I added a patch to make it “decent” for all possible audiences, but I am sure the idea is clear.)

WhatsApp Image 2016-08-11 at 17.51.37

Violence and crime are also dealt with through humour. Above the title says: “ornamental assault”.

WhatsApp Image 2016-08-11 at 21.25.37

Above: “The violence is so great in Brazil that our first medal was on shooting.”

WhatsApp Image 2016-08-11 at 17.36.15(1)

There are some criticism about the idealization of the country. Above, the Brazilian replies: “You should come live here, then.”

WhatsApp Image 2016-08-11 at 17.38.03

There is humour about Brazilians, as in the banner above made to persuade Brazilian players to give their best: “Play like we drink.” The slogan at the top says: “The best about Brazil are the Brazilians.”

WhatsApp Image 2016-08-11 at 17.37.31

And at last but not at least, there is football. Some commentators say that the problem with the Brazilian crowd is that they behave as football fans in every sport modality. And I guess if Brazil only won a gold medal in (men’s) football, every other outcome would seem OK. Unfortunately, this is unlikely to happen, as the meme above shows, referring to star player Neymar: “Football lesson”.

Expanding beyond our project – kinship in the light of social media

By Daniel Miller, on 26 July 2016

The recent meeting of the European Association of Social Anthropologists in Milan was the first time we have engaged in a collaborative consideration of a topic linking our team’s research with that of others working in similar research areas. The chosen topic was kinship in the light of social media. From our own team, Elisa spoke about the use of social media for reconstituting tribal identity amongst Kurds, Tom spoke about how rural Chinese actually seek out strangers using social media, Xinyuan discussed the use of social media to re-orientate from kin to other forms of socialisation and Razvan discussed how people in South Italy re-constitute kin within wider relationships. My own paper was on the development of ‘fictive friendship’, i.e. how kinship is increasingly modelled upon friendship.

But for us the most interesting development was seeing our work in juxtaposition with the work of others. Gabriele de Seta of Academia Sinica Taiwan presented the aesthetics of visual posts by older Chinese users of social media and how these are strongly differentiated from those that had been established amongst younger users. Giovanna Bacciddu of Pontifica Universiad Catolica Chile, explored the use of social media to connect Chilean birth parents with their children who had been adopted in Italy. Gulay Taltekin Guzel and Alev Kuruoglu of Bilkent University Turkey, showed how religious Muslim newlyweds in Turkey establish a site to discuss the moral and other norms of married life. Finally, Roger Canals of the University of Barcelona looked at how kinship and religious ideals are interwoven in the aesthetic of social media representations of the cult of Maria Lionza in Venezuela.

Taken as a whole the session, which produced a very lively and engaged discussion, showed why this will always be a central topic within the anthropological study of social media. It is not simply that the family is one of the foundations for so much usage of social media, including new platforms such as WhatsApp. Nor even that social media is often important in itself for helping people create new relationships with kin which may include the repair of ruptures in the family thanks to migration, but it can also mean creating new distance from kin in favour of other forms of sociality. Above all it became evident that we cannot understand the development of social media itself, except through seeing it in part as a reflection and manifestation of wider changes in kinship relations and the rise of other relationships models such as the stranger or friendship. Fortunately, the study of kinship is perhaps the single best established tradition in anthropological scholarship and it seems a very productive means to re-engage this traditional scholarship with an entirely new medium.

 

Making a MOOC: Social Dynamics and Ecological Design

By Laura Haapio-Kirk, on 7 July 2016

Screen Shot 2016-07-07 at 09.57.01

Guest post by Sheba Mohammid, a fellow on the Why We Post project. Sheba is a PhD candidate at RMIT University in Digital Anthropology/ Media and Communications and was previously Coordinator of the National Knowledge Gateway of Trinidad and Tobago.

I recently had the opportunity to conduct an 18-month ethnographic study of digital media use and learning in Trinidad and Tobago. In the process of analysing the findings, the Why We Post Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) was also being designed. The Why We Post team at UCL had a genuine interest in making their research available to the widest possible audience in learner-centred ways. One of these approaches is the MOOC that is currently making its second run. The team also has a keen interest in improving the MOOC and also seeing where the MOOC fits in a menu of resources. MOOCs have been in mainstream discussion, garnering both praise and critique. As my research on out-of-school learning was wrapping up and the MOOC was being created, there was further opportunity for discussion on the challenges and opportunities in making an effective MOOC and what this could potentially mean. In following my participants, my research focused on a low-income community. Here I found learning being performed in complex and nuanced ways that resist simplistic pedagogization but still produce some probing questions for considering the multiple dimensions of MOOCS and how they fit into the ecosystemic learning practices I observed.

Participants interested in informal/non-formal learning in the community I studied practiced their knowledge creation, sharing and use in complex ecologies that incorporated multimodal resources, searching, finding and problem solving in online and offline contexts. The reality, though, is that they weren’t using MOOCs. Some were not aware of the courses available while others were not interested in signing up. This resistance was often blamed on time constraints but deeper discussion often revealed that there was a reluctance to take a course because of the pressure that they often associated with formal classes. This was often based on poor educational experience or attainment in their past formal schooling. These participants however did employ many strategies for learning in their day to day lives that often used video resources and interactions that were outside of a bounded course. This may, on one hand, lead to a debate between the virtues of xMOOCs and cMOOCs, but it also begs a deep consideration of where MOOCs fit in the ecosystemic approaches to learning that acknowledge that people traverse a variety of everyday terrains in their learning. Does the MOOC fit into a wider ecology of resources where people who want to view the videos separately, for instance, are free to do this while the people who want to take a structured course can sign up for it? Should the MOOC itself be resistant to being a replication of a classroom and start thinking of more fluid ways that encourage different approaches? For instance, my study participants often associated traditional education with a measure of shame-based learning where failure was very much maligned. The identity of the learner and his/her feelings of success were often tied to being able to demonstrate getting things “right” in very public ways.

In studying the social dynamics of informal learning among my participants, I observed that their practices involved deep negotiation of failure, experimentation and non-linear, iterative learning. A lot of normative discourse about the internet emphasises the potential of technology to promote collaboration. I found that the dynamics at play were more complex than this as people were also using the internet in their learning to navigate sociality in ways that allowed for privacy for their own experimentation. People who were learning crafting through YouTube videos often confessed that they had never saw themselves as creative nor felt comfortable in school settings unless they thought they were good at a particular subject. They were however willing to invest time in processes of trying, failing and experimenting using YouTube videos on their own. The internet was a resource that allowed them greater control of their privacy in learning. They were then able to negotiate when they would share their process for feedback within their communities. Collaboration is often emphasised as a key facet of learning in MOOCs. Does collaboration become forced, however, and a tyranny in itself that does not acknowledge the multifaceted ways that people learn through individual reflection, privacy, sharing and interaction?

The communities my participants were involved in often were not online or based on a shared subject interest but a mix of their everyday relationships. If the participants in Trinidad and Tobago were being measured on online participation such as uploading their own videos or comments, it would seem that they were not particularly active. When their learning practices were viewed in relation to the wide ecosystem of their everyday lives and the complex sociality therein, it became clear, however, that they were moving through a number of offline contexts sharing and constructing their knowledge. It was not only their competence in their expertise that affected their perceptions of performance. A dimension I saw as social confidence or confidence within and of their social contexts was as key a factor as subject content. These Trinis were navigating their learning, interactions based on feelings of social confidence as they were negotiating their social confidence itself.

MOOCs are often measured on collaboration and online participation. In considering the ecology of how learners practice informal learning, however, a series of questions can be posed:

  • How do we best conceptualise the MOOC as a resource and a space in a wider ecosystem of resources and spaces?
  • How do we factor for design that values the nuanced dynamics of an ecology of learning in which people have spaces for individual reflection and interaction?
  • How do we incorporate offline elements into MOOCs that leverage everyday communities and relationships?
  • How do we create spaces where people can build subject competence and social confidence?
  • How do we measure MOOC success on the intent of the people who are using it as a resource? Are completion rates the best measure or is utility to participants based on their criteria a better success factor?

MOOC architects, designers or users are still in the process of negotiating the answers to these themselves. But in starting with the participant’s perspectives and the complex dynamics of their practice, we are creating an agenda to improve learning in ecosystemic ways with MOOCs playing a role in this ecology.

Are you currently taking the Why We Post course on FutureLearn or have you previously taken other MOOCs? Where do you see the MOOC fitting in your wider learning? Was it a successful experience for you?

Social Media and Brexit

By Daniel Miller, on 27 June 2016

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One of the common claims made about social media is that it has facilitated a new form of political intervention aligned with the practices and inclinations of the young. Last week I attended the launch of an extremely good book by Henry Jenkins and his colleagues called By Any Media Necessary which documents how young people use social and other media to become politically involved, demonstrating that this is real politics not merely ‘slacktivism’, a mere substitute for such political involvement.

And yet, currently I am seeing social media buzzing with young people advocating a petition to revoke the Brexit vote, which only highlights the absence of a similar ‘buzz’ prior to the vote. I await more scholarly studies in confirmation, but my impression is that we did not see the kind of massive activist campaign by young people to prevent Brexit that we saw with campaigns behind Bernie Sanders in the US and Jeremy Corbyn in the UK.

The failure to create an attractive activist-led mass social media campaign to get young people to vote for Remain is reflected in the figures; although 18-24 year-olds were the most favourable segment towards Remain, only 36% of this group actually voted at all. As such, Brexit represents a catastrophic failure in young people’s social media, from which we need to learn. Being based in ethnography, our Why We Post project argued that we need to study the absence of politics in ordinary people’s social media as much as focusing on when it does appear. But the key lesson is surely that just because social media can facilitate young people’s involvement in politics doesn’t mean it will, even when that politics impacts upon the young.

One possibility is that social media favours a more radical idealistic agenda. By contrast, even though the impact of Brexit might be greater and more tangible, the remain campaign was led by a conservative prime minister, backing a Europe associate with bureaucracy and corporate interest, and was a messy grouping of people with different ideological perspectives, that made it perhaps less susceptible to the social media mechanisms of aggregated sharing.

At the same time I would claim that our work can help us to understand the result. My own book Social Media in an English Village is centred on the way English people re-purposed social media as a mechanism for keeping ‘others’, and above all one’s neighbours, at a distance. I cannot demonstrate this but I would argue that by supporting Brexit the English were doing in politics at a much larger scale exactly what my book claims they were doing to their neighbours at a local level: expressing a sense that ‘others’ were getting too close and too intrusive and needed to be pushed back to some more appropriate distance. And it is this rationale which may now have devastated the prospects for young people in England.

Hear Daniel Miller talk about social media and politics in this Why We Post podcast.

Un Manjar: Viral Chilean slang

By Nell Haynes, on 12 May 2016

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In Chile, “manjar” is a kind of sweet sauce, similar to dulce de leche or caramel. It’s often used as filling in layer cakes or atop pancakes. It is almost universally loved for its smooth rich flavour. But ‘manjar’ is also used in slang to mean ‘rich’ or ‘sweet’ in other contexts as well. One may refer to a delicious holiday meal as ‘un manjar’ or equally to their love interest.

I had heard these uses of the word in Chile, and also being a fan of the sweet sauce, it made sense that it stood in for something to be savored. Yet when I attended a concert by American rock band Faith No More in Santiago, I was bewildered by the crowd’s repeated chanting of ‘un manjar! un manjar!’. Sure, the music was good, something to be savoured in the moment, but the food metaphor just didn’t seem apt to me. And the fact that it was being chanted in unison by thousands rather than whispered with a wink as that especially attractive acquaintance passed by, puzzled me even more.

But then I realised it was simply the buzz word of the moment. And not because of some fluke, but because, as is usual these days, social media had set off the trend, much as I explained for the resurgence of The Rhythm of the Night in Chilean night clubs in 2015.

In this instance, ‘manjar’ was thrown into heavy circulation when a youtube video surfaced of a Chilean campesino [person from the countryside] taking a long swig of very cheap wine, and then in a slow gruffy voice, proclaiming ‘un manjarsh’. Because of his accent and stereotypical campesino look, the man’s drunken proclamation was hilarious to young youtube viewers and as the video was passed around, use of the word ‘manjar’ shifted from occasional to self-consciously inserted into any possible exchange. Not only in spoken language, but Whatsapp messages, Facebook posts, Tweets, .gifs, memes, and even parody videos flooded Chileans’ internet. After a week or two the joke subsided, though when casually used, even several months later, the word still conjures the video of the campesino and his wine.

So, sure, this is just another story in grand quantity about how a word, idea, or image goes viral, has a short-lived moment in the spotlight, then fades from memory. But in this case, it also tells us something about nationalism and popular culture. Because manjar is considered something of a staple food in Chile, to call a person, food, or drink ‘un manjar’ not only says that the object is desirable, but that the person speaking about it does so from a particular position of being a ‘true Chilean.’ In some ways, urban youth may be lampooning the campesino with wine, but they are also identifying a similarity between him and themselves as Chileans. And when shouting it at an international rock concert, it claims the space and music as Chilean, not foreign, appropriating such rock music into a ‘true Chilean’ repertoire. I suppose it would be something like Americans chanting ‘apple pie’ at a U2 concert, claiming them as their own.