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Archive for the 'India' Category

Apple and the Smartphone market in India

By Shriram Venkatraman, on 6 May 2016

Photo Courtesy: CC: Wikimedia Commons: Kārlis Dambrāns from Latvia

Photo Courtesy: CC: Wikimedia Commons: Kārlis Dambrāns from Latvia

Less than a fifth of the Indian population might own a smart phone, but India is now the second largest smart phone market in the world. The large phone manufacturers see immense potential in the buying power of the Indian population. While the international brand Samsung dominates the smart phone market in India (with phones manufactured for the south asian market), the Indian brand Micromax has its own set of customers as well. Reports suggest close to 150 smartphone brands in India and estimate the market to grow with the Make in India/Digital India drive. Each of these brands have varied price points and customise their mobile handsets to the Indian consumer market.

While this has generally been the case with India, companies such as Apple have been trying to engage with  the mobile consumer market, though their market share has been low, their revenue share has been high. Suggestions to increase its market share have been to invest on either innovation and market to the brand conscious (which would mean high end consumers) or contextualise its price differentials and compete with the low cost players in the Indian market, which can be a never ending game.

Suggestions for market penetration for brands such as Apple, also speak of contextualising and understanding the socio-cultural aspects of a society and play to it. However, the smartphone penetration in India has a long way to go. Even with initiatives such as Digital India, their optimistic estimation of the smart phone consumer market in India seems to be exaggerated, since they leave out the crucial aspect of infrastructural development (electricity/internet data) needed for the smart phone market. For now, all such strategies seem to be around the urban market or promising second tier Indian cities.

Large segments of the rural markets not only have socio-economic constraints but also have major issues with infrastructure. Even with all the monthly instalment schemes on offer by phone retailers, it seems doubtful that even the rich in the rural areas might opt for a costlier branded phone, since it has no use other than voice communication in a rural set up, which even a cheaper smart phone/feature phone can offer. Hence, a high-end brand like Apple might not even work for major sections of Indian population.

For any growth to take place in the Indian phone market, manufacturers have to realise that this is an eco-system, which is based on several aspects including infrastructure (electricity, internet data etc.) and socio-economic factors (caste, access to phones for women etc.) instead of just concentrating on an exaggerated idea of smart phone market in India.

So, for now, looking at the emerging urban middle class in India, the best bet for brands such as Apple would be to optimise the price and offer a product line playing to the brand conscious urban middle class, since their buying decisions are based on a combination of functionality, price and brand (which is used to differentiate from their peer group).

Build Karma Points on Social Media

By Shriram Venkatraman, on 22 February 2016

Goodkarmameme

Everyday salutations such as ‘Good Morning’, ‘Good Afternoon’, ‘Good Evening’ etc. are common social media interactions of the people of Panchagrami, used to keep in touch with an already established group of friends. Interviews with informants revealed that once they have an established group of Facebook or WhatsApp friends, maintaining engagement with everyone becomes important. Otherwise, people are troubled by the question of what to do with an accumulated capital of friends on social media. In order to circumvent this, everyday salutations are a way to keep their friends list actively engaged in a positive and non-confrontational way.

However, these kinds of messages are not only seen as a practice of building sociality and maintaining touch with an accumulated group of friends. They are also used for accruing positive karma points, which have a religious connotation. Several middle-aged informants from Panchagrami participate in religious activities on Facebook and even if they don’t categorise this as activity related to religion, it is always related to building good Karma, stemming from a Hindu belief that what goes around comes around and that good actions lead to good outcomes. Participation can range from posting pictures of Gods, posting religious messages as a positive message for self development, sharing inspirational poems, stories etc. as a way of giving positive reinforcement to society, which can then build good Karma for the giver/poster. People even follow this as an everyday routine, as in the case  of one of my informants, Vidya Shankar.

Vidya Shankar, a 47-year-old architect, feels that since most of his social circle is on Facebook, he can use his social circle as a set of ready audience to build good Karma for himself. He maintains a routine of posting an image of a Hindu god (mostly that of Krishna or Ganesha) on Facebook before 6 AM everyday.

Fig 1: Vidyashankar’s image of Lord Krishna

Krishna

Vidya Shankar sticks to this routine, since he knows that most of his middle-aged Facebook friends will check Facebook when they wake up every morning. So, in order to ensure that they wake up to an auspicious symbol, he makes sure to post an image of a Hindu god on his Timeline just a little before 6 AM.

Vidya Shankar says: “I know people have checked it when I start receiving ‘Likes’ immediately after I post…its mostly the same set of around 40 to 45 friends of mine, but receiving immediate feedback is effective, since I know that I have built the necessary good Karma for the day and I am sure that as they “Share” it with others, it will not only help build their Karma, but also mine, as I help build theirs”.

Sudhasri, a 39-year-old housewife, builds her Karma points by posting positive messages every morning on a WhatsApp group with about 35 members. She posts a positive saying adapted from a religious book along with a “Good Morning” message to this group. Sudhasri says: “My messages can help people start their day on a positive note, since even getting up in the morning is a miracle and I don’t want people to waste their god given day…a positive start can help have a joyous day…I have done something good for the day then”.

Fig 2: Sudhasri’s prayer on WhatsApp group

Prayer

Vidya Shankar and Sudhasri aren’t alone, as several informants believe that routinely participating in giving goodness to society (their immediate social circle on social media), can help reap good Karma.

“Free Basics” – does it really matter to the poor in Panchagrami?

By Shriram Venkatraman, on 27 December 2015

Image Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons: Facebook

Image Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons: Facebook

The launch of Facebook’s ‘Free Basics’, a rebranding of internet.org, has been a hot topic in India for the past few months as Facebook tries to grow its second largest user base (over 130 million), slightly more than a quarter of all the people who are online in India. By providing free internet through the Free Basics package, Facebook are aiming to get around 1 billion people online in a march towards digital equality. However, the service has been criticised as it will only promote select sites, thus compromising net neutrality.

This past week, Free Basics has been in the news again since the TRAI (Telecom Regulatory Authority of India), has asked Facebook’s Indian partner, Reliance Communications, to put the roll-out of Free Basics on hold until it reviews the service.

While Free Basics is designed for people who can’t afford an internet connection, does the delay actually matter to the poor in our Indian fieldsite, Panchagrami*? The issues surrounding Free Basics have made the news in India, however this post explores the topic from the perspective of the poor in Panchagrami and is not an argument either for Free Basics or for net neutrality.

A significant discovery to arise from our fieldwork across nine different fieldsites in eight countries was that digital equality does not necessarily mean offline social equality. Instead, we found that both influence each other and are complexly interwoven. So, while web companies may see technology or access to the internet as a panacea for all social evils, they unfortunately often don’t consider wider complexities or see how social issues like gender equality and illiteracy are actually integral to digital equality.

Taking into consideration discoveries from our fieldwork, here are five reasons why the launch of Free Basics might not matter to the poor in Panchagrami:

Illiteracy: On average, a poor household in Panchagrami might possess one, or a maximum of two, used non-smart (feature) phones, whose primary purpose is voice communication. This limited use of mobile technology is not only down to more advanced communication tools being inaccessible, but also due to the illiteracy of users. In our fieldwork we came across many cases where a text message had to be read by someone other than the phone’s owner (especially when the owner was a woman). Although literacy among younger generations seems to be on the rise (with people often staying in education until the 5th grade), literacy still needs to improve for people to be able to send text messages, let alone use the internet.

Women and PhonesCaste issues and strict social surveillance of young unmarried women often makes it difficult for them to access phones, let alone use the internet.  There is a prevalent social notion that access to phones might endanger a woman’s chastity. Unmarried young women with school education have the highest potential to access the internet of all the people in our fieldsite, but are cut off from tools to gain such access. Once married they may gain the right to own a phone, yet access to the internet might still be guarded by their in-laws.

News and SocialityAccess to news/information is quoted as an important features of the Free Basics scheme. However, for the poor in Panchagrami access to information and news are generally through a set of entirely different channels. While news pertaining to people’s everyday needs is often passed through word of mouth, access to news for men is often through the “corner tea shop culture” that has long existed in Tamil Nadu, where people meet to drink tea, read newspapers, and partake in informal debates about daily news. Listening to such debates forms an important learning culture for the illiterate poor men in Panchagrami. Further, people still do rely on Panchayat offices (local village council offices) to pass on policy news that affects them. Aural learning assumes more importance than textual learning for this group.

Entertainment: People in Panchagrami normally combat boredom by listening to songs from films and watching television (freely provided by the government). Film songs are typically bought cheaply from phone recharge booths by an individual and then shared with others. Since the latest and the best songs are bought and shared this way, people do not need to access the internet to enjoy their favoured forms of entertainment. Even if they did, the Free Basics package does not provide them with a site to download such songs.

Infrastructure: Reliance Communications is not a popular telecom provider in Panchagrami. Competitors such as Airtel, Aircel, and Vodafone occupy the biggest share of telecom services used by the poor in Panchagrami. Hence, offering the Free Basics package on Reliance won’t necessarily reach the poor, as they don’t use this provider.

In conclusion, the Free Basics scheme might have an affect on India’s telecom policies, but its intended benefits for the really poor warrant further study, since currently it does not seem to make a difference to their lives, at least for people in Panchagrami.

* Panchagrami is the pseudonym of a peri-urban site located just outside the limits of Chennai, Tamil Nadu, where the author spent fifteen months studying the impact of social media on the lives of people.

Aspiring Politician? Try Facebook to build your personal brand.

By Shriram Venkatraman, on 8 September 2015

Image Courtesy: @mkstalin and image shared on Saravanan's Facebook profile

Image Courtesy: @mkstalin and image shared on Saravanan’s Facebook profile

Personal brand building through social media requires a strategically planned presentation of oneself to a general audience. This is by no means new within Indian politics. Consider the way Mahatma Gandhi first wore suits, and then other forms of dress before ending up with the well known hand-spun garments of an ascetic. In contemporary India, Twitter seems to be the most popular choice of medium for such an exercise, as exemplified by the current Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, who is active both on Twitter and Weibo and is even hailed as an Indian social media superstar with 14.8 Million followers on Twitter. However, in my own fieldsite at Panchagrami, the aspiring Politicians who are likely to be school dropouts find that Twitter requires a level of English that is intimidating. For them, the architecture of Facebook offers more possibilities, and the greater importance of visuals makes this a more appropriate tool for them and their followers.

Saravanan, aged 28 years, is an eighth grade school dropout and now works as a water supplier for a local village governing council (called ‘Panchayat’ in India). He also assists the president of this council in matters relating to the area. Saravanan, is an active member of the current major opposition party in Tamil Nadu and an arch rival of the ruling state party to which the Panchayat president belongs, though, personally they get on well with each other.

Wanting to establish himself as a politician, he had little by way of funds, but realised that the current local politicians had failed to forge links with the new middle class migrants to the area. He recognised that social media would be the best tool to help bridge this gap. Further, it would also help link with the increasing numbers of locals from the lower middle classes who were using Facebook.

What stands out in his profile is that it is very visually oriented and has very little text. He posts pictures that show him as a person who is always working for other people and demonstrating his devotion to public service. He always wears a white shirt with a black pant, an accepted professional dress code for politicians, he regularly posts pictures of himself in party meetings with atleast 500 to 600 members in attendance and some of the the well-known party high command in view.

Saravanan is pretty active in friending young people and the new middle class using Facebook to develop his social circle. A final advantage of this strategy is that by working through these visual associations and not overtly projecting himself he is less likely to antagonize the present members of the board. For him the effective use of social media is to use visual means to create and cultivate his image as that of “a common man” always in the service of people.

Why do young men from lower socio-economic classes prefer shopping online?

By Shriram Venkatraman, on 3 July 2015

Shopping1

Photo by Shriram Venkatraman

Most of us on social media have noticed the static advertisements that are displayed on the side panels or the advertisements that intrude upon the videos we watch on Youtube. While some choose to ignore them some view them as an irritating factor that impinges on their personal space/time, and while some see them as distracting to say the least, for others they may be informative. The views are as myriad as the advertisements themselves, and are relative to the social context of the viewer.

However, this post is not about the different kinds of advertisements that get displayed on social media, nor is it about any kind of advertising strategy. My aim is simply to illustrate a finding, namely how advertisements on social media can transform the norms of consumption and shopping for the lower socio-economic classes in some societies by acting as a gateway to online shopping.

Let’s explore the case of how advertisements on Facebook have driven young men from the lower socio- economic classes in Panchagrami, South India, to explore the world of online shopping, and thus escape from subtle discrimination and embarrassment they sometimes face in shopping malls.

The young men of lower socio-economic classes in my field site have a fascination with online shopping. Though, most of them are school dropouts, one investment in particular that appeals to them is a smart phone with a 3G data pack. Access to Facebook or WhatsApp isn’t too far for these youth, as this becomes a natural extension of a 3G connection.

Other than socializing on Facebook, another significant aspect of their activity on Facebook is clicking on the different advertisements, specifically those which display colourful clothes, shoes or hi-tech phones. While at the beginning most did not know how to buy from these e-shopping sites, they didn’t have to look far to find informal tutors to advise them. Most of these tutors were educated IT employees who hailed from the same area and were childhood friends of theirs.

While it may seem as though their shopping on these portals is just a natural extension of them being on the internet or on social media, this turn to online shopping has much deeper facets that require attention.

Why Online Shopping?

While most online shopping still requires plastic money (credit/debit card), the Indian e-shopping portals offer a cash payment model known as ‘cash on delivery’ which perfectly fits the cash economy that dominates this demographic. They don’t have credit cards and some don’t even have a bank account. This model lets them choose and buy products online, then pay in cash only when they receive the products at their doorstep. This service gives them access to things from t-shirts to trousers to slippers etc. through these portals, without the hassle of owning a credit card.

Using e-shopping portals gives them an opportunity to experience better service and feel important. This was of particular importance because of the way they were treated by salesmen in malls who would look down at them when they asked too many questions, or if they asked for choices before they had made a selection. They also felt that, because of their skin colour, salesmen assumed that they could use their power and expertise to force products that they would never have chosen.

They very often said that they felt helpless and like fools when they walked out of a store. They also often felt too intimidated and embarrassed to visit upscale showrooms, and often felt out of place. The salesmen often just assumed that they weren’t worth his or her time because they didn’t see them as a potential sale. So, when they would ask questions, the salesman would obfuscate rather than waste their time.

However, this didn’t happen on e-shopping portals. It patiently showcased anything they wanted or even aspired for. Even though they had enough cash, a salesman always got irritated with them, but e-shopping portals didn’t.

Further, anything you asked for came to your doorstep rather than having to go out looking for it. In addition to convenience, this service has allowed them to showcase their power and status in ways that they previously could not.

The availability of cheaper products on these portals also allows them to consume products specifically intending to give them as gifts to their kins. This gift giving through buying things online automatically builds status among their social circles as well.

However, when it came to buying electronics, like smart phones, they preferred a showroom environment so that they could feel the phone before investing in it. They still used the e-shopping portals to compare models, before going to a showroom. Let’s suppose they want a Sony or HTC phone, first they go to the e-shopping portal and compare the visual features, then ask their IT friends to help them with the features, then they compare prices and look for other models and the associated visuals and features, then, finally, go to Youtube to watch videos of how the phone works. They go back to evaluate the number of stars (gold stars) the phone has received on the e-shopping portal. Finally, they decide on the model they want and go to a showroom in Chennai to get the phone.

Given that they are now equipped with knowledge regarding their intended product for purchase, they are more confident when it comes to shopping in mall showrooms and don’t feel intimidated with either the ambience or the salesmen. They often felt that they knew more than the salesmen after this process of acquiring knowledge about the phone through social media.

In other words the collective social knowledge that social media offers, transforms their shopping experience itself, from just being a passive buyer to an assertive consumer, who wouldn’t be put down so easily.

Such experiences have led them to click on more advertisements, as they realize that it was these advertisements that actually offered them a window to a new shopping experience.

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.

Women Entrepreneurs and WhatsApp

By Shriram Venkatraman, on 17 April 2015

Image Courtesy Bhupinder Nayyar (Creative Commons)

Image Courtesy Bhupinder Nayyar (Creative Commons)

 

A few educated young mothers (aged 35 years or below) at Panchagrami terminate their well paying corporate careers to cater to the needs of their families. These family needs mostly fall under two major categories, namely children and/or in-law issues (specifically mother-in-law). Only a few quote other reasons, such as genuinely wanting to take a break from work, office politics, bad bosses etc., for terminating their careers.

While some return back to work after a couple of years, many don’t. Once they take a break, returning back to their corporate careers is the lowest priority. Continuing family issues, or even concerns such as not getting the right upward mobility in their careers if they were to go back, discourage them from returning to their corporate careers.

A survey of this group at Panchagrami revealed that while 55% or so chose to remain homemakers, the rest decided to change careers. While a few take up online work from home, many decide to take up teaching in private schools where their kids study (this option is a favorite among young mothers, who have a few years of corporate experience).

However, those educated housewives who aren’t able to take up full-time employment, sometimes turn into part time entrepreneurs due to restrictions placed on them for a variety of reasons. By becoming part time entrepreneurs they run small businesses from home, these could be product or service oriented and in several cases it might seem like hobbies that have turned into businesses. Their endeavors could range from catering freshly prepared snacks to producing colorful fancy jewelry or even providing home based tuition for children, music/dance lessons, language lessons etc.

Although becoming an entrepreneur is though, living in large apartment complexes comes in handy. They don’t go in search of customers as, in several cases, their neighbors become their customers. They don’t have any online services, but use communication tools such as WhatsApp to advertise their products and services. Becoming a member of a community based WhatsApp group helps these entrepreneurs to tap into their personal network rather than an open market. They advertise products and services in these groups to a ready consumer base, who prefer to buy from their neighbors for a variety of reasons. While need, price and distance become the major variables, personal trust, supporting the community and mutual understanding are also a few significant.

For example: In making/producing snacks, one of the strategies used is appealing to the needs of their neighbors. Many middle class Indian homes feed their children with a snack at tea time when they return back from school at around 4 PM. An advertisement for an affordable home made snack at around 2:30 PM on a community based WhatsApp group, attracts a lot of customers, several of them being loyal and repeat customers. Similarly, an advertisement for snacks at 6 PM is for the tired spouse who is back from work. Sometimes these snacks are even home delivered within the apartment complex for those who might not be able to pick it up.

Similar is the case of providing music/dance lessons. As several middle class parents at Panchagrami now want their children to be occupied once they are back from school, music/dance classes provide an opportunity for this, while also helping their child build a skill.

All advertisements for products and services are done through WhatsApp rather than any other medium.While there are several factors which contribute to understanding why a particular social media becomes a preferred media by a certain group of people over another media, in this case, the speed of response (though asynchronic – its almost assumed to be synchronic), ease of access to the media (over mobile devices), and economy of using it are a few significant variables which speak to this preference for WhatsApp.

The products/services of these women entrepreneurs are mostly targeted at women consumers and families with children. What is of particular interest here is the strategy of turning a community based personal network on WhatsApp into an asset for coordinating their entrepreneurial activities.

“I’m Feeling …” – Status Messages on Social Media

By Shriram Venkatraman, on 25 February 2015

Photo by Sean MacEntee (Creative Commons)

Photo by Sean MacEntee (Creative Commons)

 

“Smiling :)”

“Happy !!!!!!!”

“Feeling Sad…”

“Irritated!”

Do the above look like private messages that one sends? More often than not at Panchagrami, they end up as Status messages on Facebook or WhatsApp groups.

Though these messages might authentically represent a person’s state of mind at a given point of time, there is no denying that such status messages receive much more responses (As Likes or Comments on Facebook or as questions on WhatsApp) at a rate faster than other posts. These kinds of messages normally occur with higher frequency among the young people  (less than 30 years old) at Panchagrami.
Status messages such as these tend to have a sense of mystery attached to them and would never reveal the whereabouts of the person (home/office/college or at a shopping center – where does he/she post this message from?) or if this message is related to ones personal or professional life or just something they encountered.

For example: A message such as “Pissed Off!” normally tends to have responses that could be put into several categories,

it could be serious —– “Sorry for you…What happened?”
it could be sarcastic —– “Once again?” or “Me Too!”
it could be an advice —- “Take a walk bro…things would be alright”
or offering immediate support —- ” Call me at +9199******08″
or it could be a joke —- “Take a leak” or “Don’t do it on your chair”

and for no reason a message such as this can attract two dozen Likes on Facebook – now this cannot be categorized under anything.

A message such as “I am smiling” can have responses such as

“I know why”

“What’s brewing?”

“Its good to smile. Smile often”

“hmmmm… hmmmm…”

A look at these messages leads one to reason out the ready support system that a person might have, though one cannot deny that there is a
level of performance associated with this as well. However, letting your ready audience know of a state of mind that one is in has its own strong and weak points. While several point out that channeling your frustration with your boss at work onto WhatsApp/Facebook as a status message and attracting a few soothing responses might calm your nerves, several also believe that people tend to overuse this platform for venting out their day to day frustrations, a few even criticize the neediness of the people who post such messages.

However, interviewing college students at Panchagrami revealed that authenticity of such messages in itself needs to be questioned at times.
Observing that such messages now attract a lot more responses, a few use it to their strategic advantage in order to receive more Likes and comments on their profile.

Now…”I’m Amused!”

A talk at Oxford Internet Institute

By Xin Yuan Wang, on 18 November 2014

by Shriram and Xinyuan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s OK to send my boss a WhatsApp message!

By Shriram Venkatraman, on 25 July 2014

Image Courtesy Bhupinder Nayyar (Creative Commons)

Image Courtesy Bhupinder Nayyar (Creative Commons)

Mahesh, 28, an ITES (Information Technology Enabled Services) professional met with me for lunch in one of Chennai’s well-known vegetarian restaurants. He works three days a week from his company’s branch office located in the Indian field site – Panchagrami – and two days from the company’s Chennai office located close to this restaurant.

Over special vegetarian Thali meals, we discussed his life, his ambitions, his family, his presence on social media etc. When I called him up to schedule an interview, he arranged for us to meet for lunch before his work shift that started at 2 PM. Though we met at around 12:30 PM, he seemed pretty relaxed and unrushed and the lunch interview kept going until around 1:45 PM, when he excused himself to let his boss know that he would be running late for work by approximately 30 minutes. He got his smart phone, a Samsung Galaxy out of his pocket and typed something into it and sent out a communication in less than 20 seconds. I was pretty surprised because, it normally takes at least a minute for an official communication to be typed and sent over an official email server with all the salutations normally required in an official communication. So, wondering if he had already typed an email to his boss, I asked him what he let his boss know, to which he replied that he just sent a WhatsApp message to his boss letting him know that he was delayed over a meeting and would report in shortly. This triggered a conversation that was extremely informative. I asked him why he didn’t email his boss and why did he choose to operate and communicate over WhatsApp.

Soon, it became extremely clear that WhatsApp was fine enough for communicating mundane official matters such as informing that one was running late to the office or to a meeting or to meet at lunch etc. and that it was replacing what Short Messaging Service (SMS) did originally. However, important official communication always happened through official email. But, communicating to one’s immediate boss on mundane official matters now moved from text messages to WhatsApp messages. So, why did this happen? Because everyone is now on WhatsApp, almost all have a smart phone connected to the internet with WhatsApp as an application, which people would keep checking on a constant basis compared to SMS and WhatsApp is free to use. These factors led to people using WhatsApp messages more often than SMS.

Naturally, the next question was geared towards Facebook (FB). I asked him if his boss was his friend on Facebook and were they on FB messenger on an always signed-in mode. He replied ‘yes’. So, why did he still choose to communicate over WhatsApp rather than Facebook? He considered WhatsApp more official compared to Facebook. It seems like one of his teammates had actually sent a message to his boss over FB and was frowned upon, as somehow FB just didn’t seem official enough and equated everyone to a being just a ‘friend’, thus breaking hierarchies, while hierarchy was still maintained over WhatsApp. So, did people in his team ever communicate with their boss over FB? They did for more for personal communication such as ‘liking’ something, forwarding a moral message, spreading the word about an office party or get together etc. but nothing related to an official one-to-one or one-to-many sort of communication. He made sure to add that he would never communicate to his boss’s boss over WhatsApp, it had to always be over an email. The vertical span of use of media seemed extremely interesting.

I was immediately reminded of the concept of polymedia, termed by Madianou and Miller, 2012 and also on how an important person in a network influences others in the network to choose media through which people communicate to him. In this case, Mahesh had three ways of communicating with his boss – over email, over SMS or over WhatsApp (in this case was influenced by the boss, who was fine with communication over WhatsApp and had added it to the list of official communication tools).

This soon became an important question, and interviews with several other IT/ITES professionals revealed something similar. So, why are certain media perceived to retain hierarchy while others don’t? Stay tuned to find out…