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Archive for the 'Anthropology' Category

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’

What’s the point of ethnographic fieldwork?

By Tom McDonald, on 28 August 2014

Learning from each other in the North China fieldsite (Photo: Tom McDonald)

Learning from each other in the North China fieldsite (Photo: Tom McDonald)

Being an anthropologist is one of the strangest jobs in the world.

For the last 15 months, I’ve been living in a small rural town in North China, where I have been doing ethnographic fieldwork on the impact of social media in the town. In a few days time I will say a final farewell to my friends here, and head back to London.

This is not the kind of job where you can clock-off and go home at 5pm. There are no weekends. Instead it’s a job that demands that we, as ethnographers, join our lives with the people that we study. This means living, eating, talking, playing, exercising, laughing, showering (yes… showering) and doing everything else together. By getting close to people in the fieldsite I hope that I can understand more than if I had solely relied on questionnaires or interviews (although I’ve done plenty of those too).

But these experiences also require something else: sometimes it’s necessary to give up a little bit of yourself to get closer to people who are different to you. Ethnography demands a kind of flexibility, an ability to accommodate those who differ from ourselves in order to try to understand why these differences exist in the first place. In the past 15 months I have often found myself doing things I would rather not do, eating things I’d rather not eat, and drinking things I’d rather not drink. However being able to set aside some of my own self-imposed limits, limits that make me the person that I am, is something that has definitely helped me to make friends here. Also, doing so has let me to explore other possibilities of being human that I never before knew were possible.

This character of accommodating difference has not been a one-way thing. The people of my fieldsite have been overwhelmingly generous in letting me into their lives, and eager to ask questions about my own life. Furthermore, during this time I’ve often made many social slip-ups that might have upset people, maybe said things I didn’t know people would take offence at, or perhaps asked questions that pry a little too much. Throughout, people have been incredibly understanding and patient with me as I slowly learn more about how they do things here. This spirit of mutual understanding has helped me learn so much about people’s lives and what is important to them here in rural China, and in the coming year I’ll share more of these findings. However for now I just want to concentrate on why we need ethnography.

Despite the many scientific and technological advances of the last century, it is obvious to me that we still live in a world that is largely governed by misunderstanding and fear. When we see people who are different from us, it scares us because their presence raises the possibility that our own way of doing things might not necessarily be the best, or even the correct way.

I firmly believe that if we are to hope to solve so many of the challenges facing today’s world, then our best chance is through mutual conversation, dialogue and learning. And although on one hand it may seem entirely superfluous to send a researcher to live in a rural town in China in order to study social media use, the question we need to ask ourselves should not be whether we can afford to do such ethnographic fieldwork, but rather whether we can afford not to?

This blog post is dedicated, with thanks, to the people of the North China fieldsite.

What is an anthropological global generalisaion?

By Daniel Miller, on 17 August 2014

Image courtesy of Lindsay Campbell, Creative Commons

Image courtesy of Lindsay Campbell, Creative Commons

Perhaps the biggest problem of our entire project is that every time anyone asks us a question we have nine different answers, which is not what the person asking the question wants to hear. As our project becomes better known we are all constantly asked for the ‘results’ of our study in the form of  ‘does social media do this?’ or ‘is Facebook having that impact?’ With very few exceptions people want and expect a simple and clear answer. But any answer we give that fitted such questions would be in effect an ‘anthropological global generalisation’ and it’s not clear what such a thing could be. As a recent blog post noted, Chinese social media are not even the same platforms and so can be constantly rendered peripheral by answers in the form of ‘Facebook does this – but not in China’.

We also recently posted a study of how the World Cup appeared on social media in all nine sites. We have no evidence that this was used as ‘news’ by others, although we felt the results were fascinating. We might publish an academic paper using this information but other people find it difficult to know what to do with nine different answers. Of course, for us the single most important academic result should be an insistence on acknowledging these differences. Not because it suits us as anthropologists but because it is the truth about social media. They are different in each site. But endless reiteration of this point reduces us to being never more than the critics of psychologists, economists and pundits generally. This is important and we now have a vast amount of evidence that they are wrong in pretty much everything they say, to the degree that they ignore such differences. But this isn’t the only thing we want to say. Furthermore it is empirically evident from our study that there are many ‘sort-of’ generalisations we could and should make. We too are interested to find out that some things are more generalisable than others, often unexpectedly so.

When we met for a month in May we attempted an initial solution to this problem. We sat together, proposed, argued and discussed our findings to see what generalisations we could come up with. In the end we tentatively suggested around 30. Since that time I have put many of them up on my own twitter account at @DannyAnth. As Tweets they are both succinct and wildly over generalised. But at least this forces us to confront the issue. What we discovered was that there might be a solution as long as we are prepared to make certain compromises and this might be worthwhile in order for our work to be actually taken up and used. Even for educational purposes people want something other than nine different answers. We felt it will be safe to make generalisations partly because there will be nine books with enough detail to show how there exists another finer level of detail available to anyone who wants a more honest account of our findings. Secondly we found a mode of expressing ourselves of the ‘Yes-But’ variety.

What transpired was that we had no generalisations at all that didn’t require caveats. Even if something seemed generally the case for most of us, there would be one site, often in Turkey or rural China where this was conspicuously not the case. So the compromise was to have a mode that linked each generalisation to its caveat, that is a footnote that could slightly expand on this point and take note of which places this generalisation did not hold in. In May these took the following form:-

5) Social media should not be viewed as a simple extension of prior uses of the Internet.

Footnote: For example, prior uses of the internet caused concerns about anonymity, while with social media concern has shifted more to privacy. Though with exceptions, for instance we find Facebook used to create anonymity in India and Turkey.

6) Social science has tended to see modern life as an inexorable movement from communal living to more individualism. Social media, by contrast, may lead to re-connections between people or entirely novel connections.

Footnote: In our South China site we find the more conventional movement largely from communal to more autonomous life through social media. The meaning of individualism also varies from site to site.

7) Our studies suggest that in some areas groups continue to be the key units of social media usage. For example the family in Italy and low income Brazil, the caste in India and the tribe in South-East Turkey. 

Footnote: For example, the acceptance of friending depends on groups beyond the individual. In China QQ organises friends lists and most people have one dedicated to the family. Trinidad and England seem to accord better with the notion of ego-centred networking. In Turkey we see both group control and also the creation of ego-centred networks through anonymous profiles.

Even here we have the additional problem that, of course, we didn’t study ‘Turkey’ or ‘England’ but just sites of around 25k in each case. To use national tags is itself problematic. But without them we once again fall into the trap of being ‘correct’ but useless to non-anthropologists. When we complete our fieldwork we will return to this issue. Whatever we do will require compromise all of which will lead us to be criticised, not least by other anthropologists. There will inevitably be different levels of dissemination from the full and detailed expression of our differences to the over generalised statements without which we will never transcend our anthropological audience. In practice even a book of 80k words feels like an overgeneralised account when you have done 15 months fieldwork.

We believe this exercise is important not only for our project but for the future of anthropology more generally. Help and suggestions, for example of good precedents in making anthropological global generalisations, would be very welcome.

On death and desserts: Mourning heroes on Facebook

By Nell Haynes, on 11 August 2014

chumbeque

Photo courtesy of Creative Commons

On 5 December 2013, Nelson Mandela died. At the time, I was reviewing about 50 different Facebook accounts of people living in my Northern Chile fieldsite to see in a systematic way, what exactly they posted about on Facebook. I noted that only a few posted about Nelson Mandela. Those that did made funny ironic references to actor Morgan Freeman, who portrayed the South African politician in a film biography, while more politically socialist users posted old photos of the politician alongside their hero Fidel Castro. Yet these posts represented only 6 of the 50 users I was concentrating on, or 12%.

That same week Paul Walker, a film actor of The Fast and the Furious fame, also died. More than 20 of the users whose activity I was observing posted about his death on Facebook. As with Mandela’s death, no one linked to obituaries or news articles, but instead posted photos of the actor, or at times posted photos of their own cars with quotes from The Fast and the Furious or other commentary suggesting that the films had inspired their love of automobiles.

From this, along with Presidential elections which had just taken place in Chile, I got a sense that people were much more likely to post something on Facebook when they felt personally affected by it. While people recognized the significant contributions of Mandela to peace and humanitarian efforts, he had not affected Chileans’ daily lives, while Walker had been an important hero for many people. One young man posted about both. On the day of Mandela’s death he simply wrote “QDEP Morgan Freeman” [Rest in Peace Morgan Freeman] in an ironic and humorous attempt to conflate the politician with the actor who had portrayed him. A few days later, when news of Walker broke, he wrote, “I’m watching The Fast and the Furious on TNT (television channel)…in honor of the movies that inspired my Honda, and more importantly in memory of Paul Walker.” Clearly this user had reserved the more sincere and personal message for Walker who he characterized as an inspiration.

My insight that personal connection was more important than world impact has been put to the test again with the unfortunate death of a local celebrity. Arturo Mejía Koo, the son of Chinese immigrants to the region, was locally known as the authority on chembeques—a kind of pastry made of corn flour and honey. Though chembeques can be found in almost any outdoor market in the region, Koo’s shop was something of a pilgrimage point for those who love the dessert. Perhaps then, it’s not surprising that Facebook has been littered with homages to Koo. At the time of this writing, about 1/5 of the posts that appear on my Facebook timeline are related to Koo’s death. People post links to the local paper’s story with a simple comment of a frowning face, or no comment at all. Others post links with the comment “Noooooooooooooooo!!!” Responses are lacking in eloquence, but the sheer number of them is impressive.

Among my highly educated, urban, middle-class friends in the United States, posting about the death of a highly iconic politician such as Mandela was an act of both proclaiming political stance and being “in the know.” Yet in Chile, it is much more important to be “in the know” about local events. While in both places I see memes that circulate with text such as “If you didn’t eat/watch/play [insert local favorite], you didn’t grow up in [insert local area],” Northern Chileans take to heart this mentality. They experience the death of world icons with a grain of irony, likely owing to the distance they perceive between that person’s life and their own. Yet a local hero’s death is experienced as a personal heartfelt loss.

This makes clear that for most Northern Chileans, Facebook is an outlet for performing personal and local affiliations, rather than a platform for interacting with global discourses. Mandela’s death was noteworthy for a few because he was a world figure. Yet lacking in a personal connection, emotions were expressed through irony or affiliations with other more regionally relevant politicians. Walker’s death was important for some because he had been a Hollywood hero, yet was still expressed at a distance through reference to his film roles. But in the instance of Koo’s death huge numbers of people in the region feel personally affected because eating his pastries had been an important part of local belonging. Facebook then was an appropriate place to express the very simple emotions of sadness and disbelief that emerged from the loss that felt so personal. The outpouring of public response to Koo’s death then demonstrates the ways that Facebook may reflect local affiliations much more strongly than global awareness.

What does poverty look like on social media?

By Razvan Nicolescu, on 2 August 2014

Teenager from a low income family using Facebook (Photograph by Razvan Nicolescu)

Teenager from a low income family using Facebook (Photograph by Razvan Nicolescu)

This blog post is part of a much larger theme of the impact of social media on low income populations. This is most debated among social media theorists and activists and is also one of the research objectives of the Global Social Media Impact Study. I will give just a few insights on this issue from the Italian fieldsite.

First, we should keep in mind that low income is not necessarily related to poverty in Grano.  I will briefly explain why. Indeed, the unemployment figures for the local population seem to be close to recent ones for the southern Italy: that is unemployment of almost 22%, with unemployment among youth at 61%. However, relatively much less people believe they are poor. This is related to a rewarding combination of the following mechanisms: closer kin relations, which also imply efficient redistribution of material goods and possessions within the nuclear family; alternative sources of income, such as from subsistence agriculture; and the possibility to dramatically reduce the costs of living with no direct impact on social status. I will not detail these here, but I’ll give a typical example: let’s take a family of a middle-aged couple with two children where only one parent is employed on a part-time basis. The family could either own their house or live in the same house with their own parents; the grandmother is cooking for the entire family and at least one other parent or sibling can contribute fresh vegetables from their campagna (a small house and agricultural lot outside the city) or produce their own olive oil for the entire year. The costs for education and healthcare could be decreased and the family can afford to send their children on a weekly basis to private courses of English Language or football. Such a family would normally not consider themselves poor and will always point to other people who have a lower standard of life than their own.

In this post I will refer to people from this latter category, who normally agree they have outstanding economic difficulties. It is this group of people for whom at least one of the first two mechanisms described above does not exist or does not function for different reasons. Regarding the use of social media, the first thing that blatantly differentiates them from other people in the town is the cost of technology. Most people living in difficult economic conditions simply cannot afford to pay for an Internet connection (which is at least 20 EURO/month), a cheap second-hand laptop (around 60-80 EURO), and do not have any interest in acquiring a Smartphone. Instead, just a few of them use free Internet services offered by the public library or the local employment office.

Then, it is interesting how this situation changes for the couples with children and especially when the children turn 12-13 years old. It is this period when parents start to realise they have to buy their children a Smartphone and allow them to be present on Facebook with the majority of their school colleagues. Moreover, most of the parents encourage their children to use social media as they see this as an imperative alignment with their peers. It is then when one of the parents – usually the mother – might start to also use Facebook.

I could not see any major difference in the use of social media among teenagers coming from different economic backgrounds. However, for parents who normally have a much more limited set of peers, social classes seem to have daunting barriers in the online environment. In this context, for the families living in difficult economic conditions adults’ online presence never takes-off and is definitely much more restricted than for other people in the same age group.

It is interesting that young adults (e.g. early 20-year olds) coming from impoverished backgrounds continue to use social media in a way that aims to level off the social differences within their peers. At the same time, this offers their younger siblings and families more convincing grounds to cover up these differences when it is their turn. In this context, what does poverty on social media look like? The short answer is that poverty is portrayed in most cases as a more or less distant and ‘third-party’ issue in which the implication of the self is vaguely hinted at: poverty in different parts of the world, poverty in Italy, poverty as driven by politicians or egotistic economic systems. It is interesting to think why most of these postings and comments do not belong to people who are actually under difficult economic conditions.

It is also interesting to think about the absence of talking about and showing one’s own poverty online. Among teenagers and young people to reveal in any way how poor they actually are is perceived as seriously affecting their prospects to venture up the social scale and out of poverty.

Note on the above photo: Giorgia is a 16 years old girl, she lives with her parents and her five brothers in a modest council house in the centre of Grano. Nobody in her family has a stable job and they depend on weekly help from the church. She is friends on Facebook with both her parents and her three older brothers. None of them ever suggested on Facebook they were poor; their close friends just know that and they see no reason why they would bring this up online.