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Archive for the 'Methodology' Category

What would happen if Facebook disappears tomorrow?

By Razvan Nicolescu, on 30 March 2015

Women explaining how she uses WhatsApp (Photograph by Razvan Nicolescu)

A friend explaining how she uses WhatsApp (Photograph by Razvan Nicolescu)

This quite obvious question kept coming up during my fieldwork in southeast Italy for different reasons. First, the transitory nature of Internet-based platforms and services is a big challenge for anthropologists; so we had to adapt our research methods and dissemination strategy to respond to this. Secondly, people in Grano themselves put this question in different ways as many recognized that Facebook started to be part of their everyday lives. Finally, many people were quite anxious about Facebook because they could not see any alternative to this service.

The vast majority of people I talked to agreed that the short answer to the question in the title is… ‘Nothing!’ – they would not be affected in any way if Facebook would disappear some day. This seems to also be supported by the second comparative questionnaire from the research. For example, 82% of the respondents answered the question: ‘Has using social media made you a) happier, b) less happy, c) no difference,’ by indicating variant (c).* Motivations for this option were usually related to the fact that Facebook was perceived as a nice and attractive gadget or accessory that could hardly be related to the sources of happiness or personal satisfaction with their lives. These sources were located in very precise places inside and outside the individual, unlike Facebook that few people had a clear idea of what really is and how it functions.

At the same time, only 34% of Facebook users think their use of the service is becoming less frequent, while almost 50% think their usage remained the same. The nature of our research could not identify trends, but the quantitative data confirms the key finding that even if most people in Grano do not see social media as too important and revealing, they nevertheless use it increasingly more. But the intensity of the usage is not limited to more frequent use or interaction on one single platform, such as Facebook, but mainly to continuously finding alternative platforms on the horizontal: such as WhatsApp, Instagram, or Twitter for example.

As I will detail in a future post, these platforms function so that each sustains or complements the use of the others so that there is actually no overlapping between platforms. And in particular, Facebook acts as a common kind of reference for all other social media. In this context, the ethnographic material suggests that not Facebook itself, but the kind of new public visibility that this service introduced is destined to not disappear. While Facebook could be replaced, outclassed, or rebranded it is what people have discovered about themselves by using Facebook that will stay there a little longer.

And this is why nobody in Grano would really mind if Facebook would disappear one day: they had already gained a new technology. This is established by the totality of social media people use and not by any one platform in particular.

 

P.S. Facebook, as indeed all Internet giants, are already aware of this; and the way they fight their own ‘fear of disappearance’ is by continually transforming themselves and inventing new horizontal markets. This is simple marketing but what economic reality proves is that even these basic methods are extremely volatile in the Internet market. It is relatively easier to transform and invent in the domain of communications than when you are stuck in an Internet-based version of a conventional business, for example, and at least another 9 anthropologists who studied social media around the world also know why.

 

* These data is preliminary. Accurate data based on the quantitative questionnaires will be provided in June 2015.

 

Cooking Soup Online and Being a Good Mother

By Xin Yuan Wang, on 9 March 2015

soup images on social media

Images of soup on Chinese social media

In order to analyze people’s postings on QQ or WeChat I had to spend a lot of time viewing and recording my informants’ online postings, especially the photos and other images they posted on their social media profiles, and then categorize different kinds of images into different genres.

Among all the images, ‘food’ photos turned out to be one of the major genres which people frequently post online. ‘You are what you eat’- food is such an important part of Chinese perceived cultural experience, the use of food to express sophisticated social norms is highly developed in China (1). As Kao Tzu, a Chinese ancient philosopher said, ‘Shi Se Xing Ye’ (the appetite for food and sex is human nature). And a Chinese saying goes ‘Min Yi Shi Wei Tian’ (Food is the paramount necessity of the people).The importance of food in everyday life is also reflected in greetings. For instance, instead of asking “How are you?” it is quite normal to ask “Have you eaten?” Division of a stove is symbolic of family division (2). One of the most insightful anthropological discussions of communal dining in China is Waston’s (1987) study on Sihkpuhn (to eat from the same pot) banquet in a Hong Kong village. As Waston argues, eating from the same pot serves to ‘legitimize a social transition’, for instance, a marriage without Sihkpuhn feast is not considered legitimate; the social birth of males and heir adoption are both marked and celebrated by Sihkpuhn feast. This is why the family reunion meal is so important for every family member, it is not only a time to enjoy delicious and various foods and drinks, but an occasion to unite a family together. Every family member in the reunion dinner, eating from the same pot, represents a family collectivity and is therefore “eating for others”. It also seems that, especially among rural migrants, food and the feeling of ‘being at home’ when one is working far away from one’s homeland is closely connected.

All the previous study on Chinese food as above seems to have provided the convincing reason of ‘why food postings are so popular among Chinese people on social media’. However, curiously, when I counted the ‘food’ photos and images I found there is one specific kind of Chinese food was most popular among young mothers, which is soup. Why soup? The answer seems go beyond the Chinese social norms about ‘food’ in general- there must be something more specifically about mothering.

During my field work, I found that one of the typical criteria of a ‘good mother’ among my informants is to ‘cook well’ as many of them put it. From time to time, people told me that the thing they miss most when working outside is their mother’s cooking. Here the social implication of mother-child bond through the image of mother’s cooking seems to go beyond the real taste of the food. It is widely believed that food is a kind of medicine which helps to strike the balance of the ‘Qi’ (air, vitality) of one’s body in daily life, according to the philosophy of Chinese cuisine. In addition, among all kinds of Chinese cuisine, soup is unquestionably regarded as the one which can nourish one’s ‘Qi’ best. In my field site, the best way people could treat, me as they believed, was to feed me a lot of homemade food in overwhelming and non-stop manner. And from time to time it felt extremely difficult to say no when women started their lines like “oh it took me the whole day/ whole afternoon to prepare and cook this soup, and you have to have some, very good for you body!” Cooking a decent soup usually requires a very long time, a lot of patience, delicate heat control and decent knowledge of food material.

In a way, the process of preparing and cooking a decent soup is similar to ‘mothering’ – it’s always time-consuming, and you need a lot of patience, understanding and good control of the ‘heat’ in the relationship. Thus the frequent sharing of soup photos seems to just reinforced the widely accepted image of a good mother.

It’s universal that women feel anxious about becoming a mother, and a wise strategy to deal with such anxiety among young mothers in my field site seems to be posting a lot of ‘soup’ photos on their social media profiles. That is to say, before they cook the ‘real’ soup for their kid, they have cooked the soup online to prepare to be a good mother.

Reference:

(1) Watson, James L. 1987. “From the Common Pot: Feasting with Equals in Chinese Society”, in Anthropos, 1987 (82): 389-401.

(2) Stafford, Charles. 1995. The Roads of Chinese Childhood: Learning and Identification in Angang. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p4

Comparative ethnography: Local and global levels

By Nell Haynes, on 12 February 2015

For the first year of my fieldwork, I lived in Alto Hospicio, Chile, a city considered marginal and home to the working poor (as the US class system would call them). I spent the year chatting with neighbors in my large apartment building, kicking balls back to children playing in the street, shopping at the local markets and grocery stores, buying completo hot dogs from food vendors, walking along the dusty streets, and taking the public bus to and from Iquique. Now, for my last few months of fieldwork, I am living in Iquique, the larger port city, just 10 km down the 600 m high hill that creates a barrier between the two cities.

iqq beach 1

Photo by Nell Haynes

This project is based on comparative ethnography, but usually this means comparison across continents, hemispheres, and language barriers, at least. Yet, I have learned a great deal from comparing Iquique and Alto Hospicio, even in just one short month. Iquique is more lively, with a US-style shopping mall, many bars and restaurants, more variety in terms of grocery stores, a beach, a casino, and the sort of variety of different jobs and services available in mid-sized cities across the world. By comparison Alto Hospicio seems bare, even barren. There are no billboards there advertising the latest Tommy Hilfiger perfume (available in the TH shop in the tax free import zone of the city). There are no Peruvian-Italian fusion restaurants, or even cuisines like vegetarian, Indian, Mexican, Thai, or Italian alone. There is no theater, no yearly film festival, and—perhaps most disappointing for me last year—bars with happy hour deals on mojitos.

But what I know of Alto Hospicio, is that while there is less investment in infrastructure and commercial activity (or even advertisement), it is still a lively place. Neighbors chat, people take Saturday trips to the beach with their family, and friends gather to pass time or celebrate special occasions. But in many ways the lack of commercial activity gives Alto Hospicio a homogeneity that one does not encounter in Iquique. As I’ve written before, from the very shape of the houses to the clothing people wear, the spectrum of aesthetics is limited. People work in mining, in service industries, or own small businesses such as a corner store. And everyone knows that for “once” (pronounced own-say), the evening tea, the table will be equipped with bread, margarine, sliced cheese, and sandwich meat to accompany the hot tea. And most people seem quite content to share these things in common with their neighbors.

aho mirador

Photo by Nell Haynes

I wrote last month that the acceptance and even pride surrounding normativity is reflected on social media. But in looking at the social media in Iquique this becomes even more apparent. Foreign newspaper and magazine links are much more prominent. People post pictures from events they attended or even displaying the new throw pillows they’ve purchased for their couch, while in Alto Hospicio photos taken inside the home are rarely are intended to demonstrate the interior decoration. And the percentage of funny memes is much much higher in Alto Hospicio.

None of this shocks me. Coming from a middle-class US background, Iquique feels more like home, and Facebook usage from those residing here looks much more like what my friends at home post. But what this reminds me of is the ways that homogeneity may be working as the world becomes more and more connected. Iquique begins to look and feel like the Midwest of North America (well, with the added bonus of a Pacific Ocean beach), while Alto Hospicio remains very locally focused. That is to say, perhaps certain places are more or less likely to be both homogenized by social media, and have that homogeneity reflected on social media, given their figurative proximity to the global centers (in terms of economics, aesthetics, consumption, services, education, and work opportunities). By looking across all 9 sites of the Global Social Media Impact Study, this may become more or less apparent. We may find that those places that remain on the global “periphery” remain peripheral on social media as well. There may only be a 10km highway separating Alto Hospicio from Iquique, but the differences seem continental.

Normativity on social media in Northern Chile

By Nell Haynes, on 7 January 2015

As many entries in the blog affirm, local cultural aspects are often reflected or made even more visual on social media. As I have written before of my fieldsite, there is a certain normativity that pervades social life. Material goods such as homes, clothing, electronics, and even food all fall within an “acceptable” range of normality. No one is trying to keep up with Joneses, because there’s no need. Instead the Joneses and the Smiths and the Rodriguezes and the Correas all outwardly exhibit pretty much the same level of consumerism. Work and salary similarly fall within a circumscribed set of opportunities, and because there is little market for advanced degrees, technical education or a 2 year post-secondary degree is usually the highest one will achieve academically. This acceptance of normativity is apparent on social media as well.

One particularly amusing example of this type of acceptance is especially apparent from a certain style of meme that overwhelmed Facebook in October of 2014. These “Rana René” (Kermit the Frog, in English) memes expressed a sense of abandoned aspirations. In these memes, the frog expresses desire for something—a better physique, nicer material goods, a better family- or love-life—but concludes that it is unlikely to happen, and that “se me pasa,” “I get over it.”

Screen Shot 2015-01-07 at 6.52.19 PM

Similarly, during June and July of 2013 a common form of meme contrasted the expected with reality. The example below demonstrates the “expected” man at the beach—one who looks like a model, with a fit body, tan skin, and picturesque background. The “reality” shows a man who is out of shape, lighter skinned, and on a beach populated by other people and structures. It does not portray the sort of serene, dreamlike setting of the “expected.” In others, the “expected” would portray equally “ideal” settings, people, clothing, parties, architecture, or romantic situations. The reality would always humorously demonstrate something more mundane, or even disastrous. These memes became so ubiquitous that they were even used as inspiration for advertising, as for the dessert brand below.

Screen Shot 2015-01-07 at 6.55.50 PM

For me, these correspondences between social media and social life reinforce the assertion by the Global Social Media Impact Study that this type of research must combine online work with grounded ethnography in the fieldsite. These posts could have caught my eye had I never set foot in northern Chile, but knowing what I know about what the place and people look like, how they act, and what the desires and aspirations are for individuals, I understand the importance of these posts as expressing the normativity that is so important to the social fabric of the community.

WhatsApp: A pain in the arse

By Juliano Andrade Spyer, on 4 January 2015

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Image courtesy of Josh Stocco, Creative Commons

It is not uncommon for the people of Balduino to discuss sex. Even my least talkative informants enjoyed telling me about their love affairs outside their official relationships. So it is not surprising that loads of sex clips circulated through my informant’s smart phones’ WhatsApp exchanges. Yet I did not understand that a trusted female informant – that agreed to share her personal communication with me – constantly forwarded me clips of heterosexual anal penetration.

Most of the videos she sent me depicting sex had in common one element: they were low budged videos that displayed painful anal sex penetration.

Since I cannot show you those clips because of the nature of the content, I will briefly describe what is particular about them.

One clip shows the moment the male actor mistakenly misses the actresses’ vagina and penetrates her anus abruptly. The video is edited comically using slow motion to depict the ferocious reaction of the woman as she breaks from that predictable porn performance and, screaming, begins to attack her partner on that scene. There are also clips in which the women try to hide the pain by screaming in as if she was having an orgasm.

All these videos indicate that the women are putting up with those scenes for reasons that are not related to pleasure. They accept it, most likely because they are being paid as porn actresses, but they do not like it.

Why would adult heterosexual women be sharing this kind of content if it is not because it turns them on – as it clearly doesn’t?

My informant and her friends laugh at these scenes. For them, it is humouring the only channel that allows this kind of subject to be brought up. Laughing about these videos is a way to talk about the sudden change in gender relations in the village.

It was only in the past two decades that most women there began having the opportunity of developing a career and becoming financially independent from their male partners.

Men are no longer needed as before to provide money and protection for the family. In fact, women have become better adapted to the formal job market; they have studied more and are more productive than men according to various sources I spoke with. This change raises discomfort among men.

An informant told me her partner took away her birth control pills when she refused having sex late in the night (as she had to work early in the morning) as a way to punish her. As a mother she would again have to stay home and accept her dependence on him. Looking from this angle, the sharing of these painful anal clips exposes how difficult it has been for women and for men to negotiate new roles.

The conclusion may seem too obvious; but showing painful anal penetration clips may be just a way of agreeing that the men in Balduino are a big pain in their arses.

 

It’s all in the comments: the sociality behind social media

By Nell Haynes, on 2 December 2014

autoconstrucion boys

boys in the fieldsite hang out after school and look at Facebook on a mobile phone

As I begin to write my book about social media in Northern Chile, it’s great to see little insights emerge. One of the first of these insights is that interaction is essential to the ways people in my fieldsite use social networking sites. Facebook and Twitter are the most widely used, with 95% of people using Facebook (82% daily), and 77% using Whatsapp with frequency. But with other sites or applications, use falls off drastically. The next two most popular forms of social media are Twitter and Instagram which are used by 30% and 22% of those surveyed respectively.

So what makes Facebook so popular but not Twitter? My first reaction was that Twitter doesn’t have the visual component that Facebook does. This was partially based on the fact that many of my informants told me that they find Twitter boring. Yet Instagram is even less well-used than Twitter. And as I began looking more closely at the specific ways people use Facebook and Twitter, I began to see why they feel this way.

People use Facebook most frequently because they are most likely to get a response on that platform. In fact, this forms a sort of feedback loop in which people perceive that others use it more, so when they want the most feedback they use Facebook, which in turn keeps others coming back as well. As this cycle continues, people know that if they want their friends, family, colleagues, acquaintances, and even enemies to see something, Facebook is the place to put it. This is also what attracts older generations to use Facebook—if they want to see what is going on with younger generations, they join. But as their age-peers join for the same reasoning, they begin interacting with them as well. In essence, Facebook is the most truly social of the social media for people living in Alto Hospicio.

This desire for interaction is exemplified by the fact that far more important than writing statuses, or even posting photographs, memes, videos, or links to websites of interest, is the commenting in which people engage. It is not unusual to find a single sentence status update that has more than twenty comments. Many comments are positive and supportive. When a young woman posts a new profile picture, it will usually receive more than ten comments essentially expressing the same thing: “Oh [daughter/niece/ friend/cousin] you look so pretty and happy!” When someone expresses a complaint, like neighbours playing music too loudly, comments usually range from “How annoying!” to “Do you want to borrow my big speakers so you can show them your music is better?” These comments generally serve a function of staying in contact and supporting friends and family by simply reminding them that you are paying attention and care about them.

This type of cohesion has impacts beyond social media as well. Many friends of friends actually get to know one another through such comments on social media, so that by the time they end up meeting in person at a party or group outing, they are already familiar with one another, friendly, and if they’ve interacted enough on the same posts, may have already added one another as friends on Facebook. Thus, Facebook is not only a space for interacting with old friends, but making new ones as well.

Aside from helping me to understand how important sociality is to people in my fieldsite, this realization also serves as an excellent example of the ways quantitative and qualitative research support one another. Quantitative data from my survey alerted me to the fact that Facebook was popular not just for it’s visual uses. But I had to go back to my qualitative research to find out why exactly this might be. As I continue to analyze and write, I find that I keep bouncing between the two, reassuring me that without both aspects, this project would not have been complete.

For more on the confluence of qualitative and quantitative data, here are examples from England and Brazil.

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.

On doing anthropology on activism and social media

By Jolynna Sinanan, on 4 November 2014

Image by Jolynna Sinanan

Image by Jolynna Sinanan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

References:

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

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

Social Media – Just stop that and behave.

By Daniel Miller, on 30 October 2014

Image courtesy of Sally Anscombe, Creative Commons

Image courtesy of Sally Anscombe, Creative Commons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Tom McDonald, on 26 October 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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