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Archive for the 'Comparison' Category

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.

The launch of Why We Post

By Tom McDonald, on 29 February 2016

Released today: 'How the World Changed Social Media'

Released today: ‘How the World Changed Social Media’

After years of work and planning, we have today launched Why We Post, which represents the results of our project.

This includes three books, as part of a series published by UCL Press, all of which are Open Access and completely free to download.

How The World Changed Social Media is a summary of the findings of our ethnographic research undertaken in eight countries around the world. This is complemented by two full-length monographs Social Media in an English Village and Social Media in Southeast Turkey. Monographs from our other field sites will be published in the coming months.

In addition to this, the results of our project are being unveiled on a new ‘Why We Post’ website, with over 100 videos on our dedicated YouTube channel, as well as via a free e-learning course in English on FutureLearn, at and in seven other languages at UCL Extend.

We’re delighted to get to this stage, and are excited to finally be able to open up the discussion of our research findings with the greater public.

What is the difference between a generalisation and a stereotype?

By Daniel Miller, on 5 January 2016

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All anthropologists would agree that stereotypes cause harm and should be avoided. Yet anthropology mainly consists of generalisations about groups of people: the Nuer do this, the Trobriand Islanders do that, women do something more than men, Norwegians less than the French etc. But today any generalisation may be accused of perpetuating stereotypes. Saying that women do more washing up perpetuates the stereotype that women are associated with domestic labour. Saying that Irish people like Guinness or tell good jokes is said to perpetuate stereotypes.

We may not agree on the meaning of ‘truth’, but anthropology must have integrity, and report all observable generalisations irrespective of how the consequences are regarded. If we try to censor these in order to fit our own politics and values, we would rightly lose any credibility for our scholarship.

For this to be acceptable depends on two key differences between a generalisation and a stereotype. The first is called ‘essentialism’. A stereotype implies that the observation is based on an essential quality of that population, for example that women are ‘naturally’ more suited to washing up, the ‘Irish genes’ makes them funny. By contrast, we as anthropologists are responsible for investigating the historical and cultural reasons for the observed association. If Jews were associated with moneylending, it was not the result of Jewish ‘genes’ but historical prohibitions on Jewish landowning and Christians earning interest. Secondly, a generalisation must never become an assumption about any particular individual. A qualitative observation, as also a statistic, bears on some, but not all, of a population. It may be entirely untrue of that person and so should not be assumed of them.

The Why We Post project is comparative at its core, involving nine anthropologists looking at the same topics simultaneously around the world. In our forthcoming book, ‘How the World Changed Social Media’, we compare individual fieldsites which, for brevity, we refer to by their respective country names. When we say we are comparing our Turkish fieldsite with the Italian one we actually mean a site in southeast Turkey, mainly inhabited by Kurds and Arabs from many different backgrounds, is being compared with a site in the very south of Italy that has little in common with a place such as Milan. This comparative approach allowed us to appreciate the nuances of each fieldsite more fully, both while conducting fieldwork and during analysis.

We often describe things as typical or normative, but we always know that a) even the next town will be different, let alone a separate country b) each fieldsite contains internal differences by gender, income etc., c) even if we then specify a female, middle-class, well-educated English category, a particular individual within that category may show none of the associated traits.

But having established those caveats, we should not flinch from documenting the observable and comparative generalisations that we encounter, and thereby reject the argument that we should not be generalising in case it perpetuates a stereotype. Otherwise we will be unable to contribute to acknowledging, understanding and explaining cultural difference, which is our primary contribution as anthropologists.

Why popular anthropology?

By Elisabetta Costa, on 27 November 2015

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The core mission of anthropology is the understanding of human behaviour in a world full of cultural and historical diversity. The anthropological commitment to this immense plurality of human and social experiences constitutes a great appreciation and valorisation of diversity. Yet, different cultures, identities and behaviours are organised around hierarchies, and the institutions that shape anthropology and other academic disciplines often reproduce and reinforce them. For example, in the UK, most universities tend to be attended by a minority of privileged students, whereas groups that are historically marginalised tend to be excluded from the process of production and fruition of academic knowledge. Anthropological content is read by few academics, and only very rarely does it reach a wider audience all around the world.

Anthropologists have, at different points in the history of the discipline, investigated the anthropological involvement in the reinforcement of social hierarchies. They have examined how systems of power shape ethnographic practices, the role of the ethnographer in the field, and processes of anthropological writing. However, efforts to extend the accessibility of anthropological knowledge have been too modest so far. Anthropology continues to be an intellectual practice accessible to a small group of academics, largely from a privileged background. The conversation on the diversity of human beings – the ultimate goal of anthropology – is carried out by those who are awarded privileges by this hierarchical system of differences. Unprivileged groups in terms of social classes, gender, sexuality, geographic origins, and ethnic backgrounds are not only often excluded from the production of anthropological knowledge, but also from the fruition of it. The result of this is the reinforcement of social hierarchies that exclude groups that have been historically marginalised.

In this context, a commitment to a wider dissemination of anthropological understanding constitutes a small but significant step towards a more inclusive society, where marginalised groups can also enjoy the opportunities afforded by anthropological knowledge. Digital technologies give unprecedented potential to expand human conversation about humanity, bringing it outside the academic sphere and placing it within the immense flow of information on the internet. Anthropologists can decide to participate in this unbounded exchange, or continue in the safe and protected space of academia. Our commitment to the former is the reason why we are publishing all of our research as open access volumes, why we have launched a free e-course, why we are in the process of building an interactive website featuring films and stories about the people who participated in our research, and why all of the above will be available in the eight languages of our fieldsites. We hope that others will decide to join us on this mission of democratising access to anthropology!

Sharing anthropological discoveries on social media: ‘marketing’ or ‘interactive learning’?

By Daniel Miller, on 6 August 2015

Indian teenager using smartphone

Social media and engaging anthropology? (Photo: Pabak Sarkar CC BY 2.0)

Over the last year, people have often asked us questions like “Surely you will market your project using social media?” or, “What exciting campaigns based on social media will make your project a success?”

Well the answer is that indeed we think we have learnt a good deal about social media. What it is useful for, but equally where claims are made that are not borne out by our evidence. We have concluded that this huge emphasis on marketing through social media has far more to do with the wishes and desires of the marketing industry for this to be the case than any sober assessment of what social media actually is.

Looking at our research as a whole, we find quite limited successful employment of social media as a form of mass marketing and promotion. Yes certainly in some cases, but in most of our field sites it’s force is quite limited.

Our primary theorisation of social media is instead as a form of sociality and the formation of small groups for internal discussion. It is not generally a means for trying to reach new or different people but rather for consolidating social groups that are largely known. Some platforms such as LinkedIn and Twitter clearly command a wider presence but even here, social media generally works best for groups that are linked by common interests such as devotees of Star Wars, rather than in reaching a generic audiences.

We are not alone in this. Fore example, even people in business are starting to appreciate that Twitter is not always effective in driving traffic in the direction that they would wish.

So yes, we do envisage a role for social media in the dissemination of our project findings but mainly other than as a tool for mass marketing. We see social media as an important instrument for interactive learning. So people who take our online course will be encouraged to form small groups in which they can discuss the material and make and receive comments about what they are learning.

People who cannot meet physically in class rooms can use social media for discussion. Social media can also harness one’s personal networks to disseminate information in limited ways, and much of the more successful commercial usage we observe in our field sites relates to businesses where personal interaction is also important.

What people seem to imagine is that a project that studies social media will – for that very reason – concentrate on using social media. But we have never been advocates for social media.

The point of our research is to remain open and cautious about our findings, and we are just as comfortable noting the limitations and negative effects of social media as its potentials.

Using storytelling to build online courses

By Tom McDonald, on 21 July 2015

The project team filming a video for our online course

The project team filming a video for our online course

Recently we have been filming a new online course on the anthropology of social media that will be available on a major online platform.

Putting together such an online course has been a real challenge. I am sure this would be the case for any such course, however it is especially so in the case of the our own offering, which will draw heavily on this research project.

Our initial attempts made us realise how difficult it is to combine findings from our nine different field sites and nine different researchers into a single coherent experience for learners.

The concept of learning through storytelling has been quite useful in this connection, helping us to think through how the individual points we hope to teach link together and build on each other throughout the course. In turn, this has helped us to decide which bits of our incredible range of discoveries and insights should be included or excluded.

Learning to write English

By Daniel Miller, on 30 June 2015

Image courtesy of Sharon and Nikki McCutcheon (Creative Commons)

Image courtesy of Sharon and Nikki McCutcheon (Creative Commons)

Our research team is made up of nine anthropologists, of whom less than half are native English speakers (two from England and one from the US), so one might not be blamed for imagining that the problem suggested by the title of this post relates to the other six researchers. Actually this is not the case. In fact this is an issue which relates to each and every member of the research team.

The problem is this – we are currently filming our MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) and creating the website for Why We Post which is the title we will use for publishing our research results. These are intended for audiences, very few of whom we anticipate will be anthropologists.  Therefore we want to ensure that all our findings are accessible to people who are, by any definition, not academic. This means that the language must be entirely colloquial and in the form of everyday speech. When you are trained as an academic,  it is very hard to refrain from using words in a manner that takes meaning from one’s own academic experience. It is not just that we need to avoid words that were invented as jargon,  such as positionality and precarity, but also terms that are used in everyday speech but take on new forms of meaning in an academic context, such as subaltern or even critical.

I actually don’t think I am able to write anymore (though I find I can speak) with this kind of English that everyone outside of academia uses pretty much all the time. Something about the act of writing automatically shifts my use of words back into academic usage. So we have decided to employ Laura Pountney, who recently wrote the text book on anthropology for schools and specialises in explaining anthropology for English school children and and  further education as well as writing textbooks on sociology level, to go through all our written texts and check them for accessibility.

I don’t believe this constitutes `dumbing down.’ After all, novelists often express complex and profound discussion and dilemmas using ordinary English to great effect, so we ought to be able to do the same thing. It is possible we have swung the pendulum too far. I noticed that we had a script which translated homogeneity and heterogeneity as sameness and difference, these are colloquial words and could get tedious for educated readers.

On the other hand, all of the text used on these sites will be translated into six languages.  This is despite the fact that many of the audiences we hope to reach also use English as a second language, such as regions of India and Africa. From the beginning of the project,  our commitment has been to have our findings fully accessible to the people in the regions where we conducted fieldwork. I have felt for some years that the debate on Open Access is partial if the focus is only on cost rather than genuine accessibility to people who, so far, we have excluded through the use of intimidating and obfuscating language. So perhaps we should aim to err on the side of greater accessibility. Having said this, the issue really is very much about trying to strike a balance.

Fortunately, I think the actual material we are presenting is fascinating and whatever is lost by simplifying language will be gained by the richness of what is being described. Since I am also starting to receive requests from schools to speak, for example about the work I did on social media and school banter, this is also a skill I think I need to develop and is perhaps something that all anthropologists should be encouraged to develop, especially the ones who assume, like myself, that we already know English.

It’s not just about Chinese migrant workers

By Xin Yuan Wang, on 22 June 2015

Chinese female migrant workers working in a local reflective vest workshop. Photo by Xinyuan Wang

Chinese female migrant workers working in a local reflective vest workshop. Photo by Xinyuan Wang

A question always strikes me as I write up ethnography and prepare for talks based on my 15 months of fieldwork among Chinese factory workers in southeastern China: what will people learn from Chinese migrant workers’ use of social media? Of course these stories may sound ‘exotic’, but I will see it as a total failure if they are nothing more than novel and exotic in peoples’ eyes.

Ethnography in a way is a storytelling of others’ lives. This technique is also widely used in novel writing, film making, and all forms of the narrative of ‘otherness’. Recently a film came out called Still Alice, a touching film telling the story of an extremely intelligent female linguistic, Alice, in her 50s who suffers from Alzheimer’s. In the film Alice is not only gradually losing all of the professional knowledge she acquired after many years of education and research, but also all the memories of her life, of being a mother, a wife, a woman, even a human being.  My colleagues and friends who watched the film shared the same thought, how lucky we are to still have those memories which, from time to time, we take for granted. And some of them, including myself, even became a bit panicked when we would forget something all of the sudden – OMG, is that an early sign of Alzheimer’s?! Whether being grateful, thoughtful, or even panicked, all of these reactions come from the fact that we are placing ourselves in the story and imagining ourselves living her life. Empathy is the word we use to describe these experiences that bridge other’s stories and our own.

And ‘empathy’ is key for the ethnographer. I still recall the days when I felt desperate about the state of my filedwork, that I had nothing to do but watch ‘stupid’ videos on people’s smartphones with the factory workers or just stare at people’s repetitive movements on the assembly line for hours. All the boredom drove me bananas and I howled to Danny that I couldn’t bear such a dreadful life anymore. What Danny said not only calmed me down but also woke me up: “Don’t forget, if you have enough, you can easily walk out in the near future, but for them, it’s their whole life.

The most unforgettable thing I learned from my fieldwork was not the material I took away for my research, but the personal experience of being able to live those migrant workers’ lives. Through this experience I developed an empathetic respect for other people’s lives and motivations which, in turn, has allowed me to reflect upon, and be grateful for, my own life. However, not everybody has the ‘luxury’ to experience others’ lives like ethnographers do. This further highlights the importance of our research, that we have the opportunity to bring an empathetic understanding of ‘others’ to the public when they read or listen to our research.

People constantly gain knowledge of themselves through understanding others: how we are different from the others, how we are similar to the others, why we are different or similar, these inquiries help us to depict the outline of the ‘self’. This is the main reason for the importance of learning other’s stories, because they allow us to gain perspective on our own lives, to think and feel differently. A good novel or a good film achieves this, so why not ethnography? One could argue that ethnography can do this even better, given its holistic knowledge of the given population and society.

The empathy and thought evoked from an anthropological study of ‘others’ can be very powerful, one of the most famous cases comes from Margaret Mead’s fieldwork in Samoa. Mead’s book Coming of Age in Samoa has sparked years of ongoing and intense debate on various issues such as society, community, social norms, and gender. For example, Mead described how gender is constructed by the local community, in this case one totally different from American society, and argued that masculine and feminine characteristics are based mostly on cultural conditioning. This argument actually influenced the 1960s ‘sexual revolution’ when people in the West started to rethink gender.That’s the real strength of ethnography.

This bares a question for all anthropologists, in what way is your research relevant to an audience who may not necessarily be interested in the specific group or society that is the focus of your research? The knowledge drawn from fieldwork should not be parochial. As we can see in Mead’s case, ethnography about a group of people which seems to bear very limited relevance to people in the West is capable of inspiring people by evoking reflection of the ‘self’, culture, and society.

In some of my talks, as well as at the end of the ethnography I am writing, I always try to remind people that it is not just about Chinese rural migrants. Yes, they are the human faces behind ‘Made in China’, they are said to be part of the biggest migration in human history. However, it is more than that. For example, understanding the ways migrant workers experience social media as the place where real daily life takes place in the context of their appalling offline situation pushes us to think about the complex relationship between online and offline, which is one of the core issues about social media use worldwide. The fantasy images on the social media profiles of Chinese rural migrants may look totally bizarre to you, but the logic of applying imagination to guide, explain, fulfill or strike a balance in daily life is as old as human history – dreams, sexual fantasy, folktale, religion…you name it. So a study of how people play out their fantasies about life with the help of social media and how such experiences impacts people’s lives may not just be relevant in that given population and society. It is not just about Chinese rural migrants, it’s about understanding them as well as gaining understanding of ourselves.

How did we choose our field sites?

By Tom McDonald, on 18 June 2015

Our project field site locations

Our project field site locations

A question we are often asked is how we selected our field sites for the project. Why these nine sites? Why are there no sites from Africa, or the ex-Soviet block or South East Asia?

We call this a global study, meaning that we include sites from all around the world, but clearly that does not mean it is a comprehensive study.

There was an initial desire to include the biggest populations and emergent economies such as Brazil, China and India. We never intended to work in North America simply because that area is already hugely overrepresented in the study of social media.

Beyond that, however, much of the selection had to depend on whether there were suitable people available to carry out this research. The initial proposal included a study in Africa but the person designated was not available. We could only employ people trained in anthropology who could also make a commitment to live in these field sites for 15 months and in a very specific timeframe. So logistics was a significant factor in determining the specific nine sites.

Another important factor is funding. Through the generosity of a government-funded research centre in Santiago and the Wenner-Gren foundation, we were able to include two additional team members beyond the original ERC funding, providing the project with one study in Chile and a second study in China.

That being said, this project has always been particularly open and collective in nature. We have gained much from learning about social media use in other parts of the world not covered by our study, and see collaboration as naturally extending beyond our own research team. As part of these efforts, we have also developed a project directory where academic researchers from any institution are able to list their own on-going research on social media in different global contexts.

What’s our conclusion? Introducing ‘scalable sociality’

By Daniel Miller, on 16 June 2015

Scalable Sociality Infographic

Scalable Sociality

Right now we are finishing the last of our eleven volumes from this project, a book which will be called How the World Changed Social Media. Not surprisingly, people are starting to ask about our conclusions. There are of course many of these, and the website will also showcase these ‘discoveries’, but as anthropologists our primary concern is to determine the consequences of social media (or what used to be called social networking sites) for our own core concern which is sociality – the study of how people associate with each other.

We have concluded that the key to understanding this question is through what we will call ‘scalable sociality.’ Prior to social media, we mainly had private and public media.

Social networking sites started with platforms such as Friendster, QZone and then Facebook as a kind of broadcasting to a defined group rather than to the general public, in a sense scaling downwards from public broadcast.

By contrast some of the recent social media such as WhatsApp and WeChat are taking private communications such as telephones and messaging services that were mainly one-to-one and scaling upwards. Often these now also form groups, though generally smaller ones. Also these are generally not a single person’s network. All members of the group can post equally to all the others.

If we imagine two parameters – one consisting of the scale from private to public and the other from the smallest group of two up to the biggest group of public broadcast – then as new platforms are continually being invented they encourage the filling of niches and gaps along these two scales. As a result, we can now have greater choice over the degree of privacy or size of group we may wish to communicate with or interact with. This is what we mean by scalable sociality.

However this is just an abstract possibility. What people actually do is always a result of local norms and factors. In each society where we conducted fieldwork, we saw entirely different configurations of these scales as suits that area.

In our South Indian site these mainly reflect traditional groups such as caste and family. In our factory China site an entirely new society of floating workers create largely new norms of group interactivity including their first experience of true privacy. While in our rural Chinese site the main difference is that it is possible to now include strangers on the one hand and to extend various social ‘circles’ on the other. In our English site people specialise in the exact calibration of sociality that is neither too close, nor too distant.

Nonetheless, all of these are variants that can be understood as exploiting this new potential given by social media for an unprecedented scalable sociality.