Archive for the 'Privacy' Category

What does social media tell us about sociality in Grano?

By Razvan Nicolescu, on 15 February 2016


‘Good morning’ message received on WhatsApp [double-click on the image to see the video].

So, what does the ethnography of social media use in southeast Italy tells us? In my forthcoming book I argue that people use social media to craft themselves and carry out ideal behaviours that are otherwise expressed through conventional institutions and practices. In particular, Facebook is responsible for the public nature of social relations and WhatsApp for the more private and intimate one. Facebook is neither a reflection of relationships and nor of a person in their totality, but of one core element of what a person decides to be. In the entire region where I worked people start from a highly socialised familiarity to each other and instead of repeating this on Facebook, they use social media mainly to add additional components to this sociality.

Most people in Grano do not need Facebook to reflect, reproduce or strengthen relationships, because the entire society is already doing this. Rather, intimate relations are expressed online in more subtle ways: for example, two spouses rarely post on each other’s Facebook wall but complement each other in their online postings in similar ways they complement each other offline. Or, by keeping to largely accepted genres, such as moral memes, people do not risk being criticised while at the same time the most important audience, family and close friends, can still decipher deeper meanings in public postings.

In this setting, people use WhatsApp as well as conventional dyadic communication media, such as the mobile phone and Skype, to express social relations within the nuclear family and close relationships. WhatsApp became very popular in Grano in a relatively short period of time (winter 2013 – summer 2014) because people realised that this service is extremely versatile in expressing a multitude of intimate relationships: by promptly answering your mother in precise moments of the day, chatting continuously with your fiancée, or having passionate discussions with your male friends each weekend around the Italian football championship, people realised that WhatsApp could be as complex and delicate as personal relationships are. The fact that this service is free and easy to use reflects the direct character of these relationships, as opposed to the more elaborated visual content on public-facing social media.

It is the well-defended, anxious, and often tempestuous private media that actually allows for the more calm and attractive public facing social media to exist. But overall, people use this basic complementarity between various social media to express the dual nature of their sociality. A simple ‘Good morning’ message sent only to loved ones is a subtle way to reflect a relationship.



WhatsApp ban in Brazil: the word on the ground

By Laura Haapio-Kirk, on 18 December 2015


The text above the image reads: 'me without WhatsApp'.

The text above the image reads: ‘me without WhatsApp’.


In this post Juliano Spyer suggests that the vocal backlash against the recent blocking of WhatsApp in Brazil would have been even stronger if the voices of poor Brazilians who depend on the service were heard.

“For poor people in Brazil, WhatsApp is essential for communication, and has defined a personal sense of internet use,” says Juliano. During his 15 months’ fieldwork in a working-class neighbourhood north of Salvador, WhatsApp went from being unheard of to being the predominant mode of online communication. “WhatsApp has become such an important tool that it has generated a shift from desktop to mobile internet use in Brazil.”

Back in 2013, people in Juliano’s fieldsite who had smartphones tended not to use them to access the internet. Rather, smartphones were more of a status item, used for playing music and taking photos. People hardly used mobile internet because Facebook was the primary reason for going online, which was felt to be better suited to desktop access. As the price of Android phones dropped, people instantly recognised WhatsApp’s value as a low-cost communication tool, and in the course of 6 months, between 2013-2014, Juliano witnessed the app becoming the dominant messaging platform in his fieldsite. A man who owned the main local mobile phone repair booth told Juliano that “nine out of ten” smartphones he serviced had WhatsApp installed.

With the rise of WhatsApp and the necessary uptake of mobile internet, people experienced a shift from more communal modes of internet access, such as in internet cafes and in the family living room on a home PC, to more private and personal access. The smartphone became, in effect, people’s first experience of private computing, with both positive and negative consequences for their lives. For example, in Juliano’s fieldsite people reported that WhatsApp made it easier to forge business opportunities, but its private nature also meant that it intensified tensions and jealousy between couples.

The recent quick reinstatement of WhatsApp after it was blocked in Brazil was largely down to the public outcry over the ban, both in Brazil and internationally. Brazilians took to Twitter to express their frustration, but Juliano suggests that the Brazilian backlash mostly came from the schooled middle-classes who use a combination of WhatsApp, Skype, and email for communication. For poor Brazilians who depend on WhatsApp as their primary mode of communication, the reaction was even stronger yet we just didn’t hear it. “The overall impact of the WhatsApp ban on Brazilians was underestimated as the voice of poor people is generally not heard. Because of this under-representation, while the reaction to the WhatsApp ban appeared large, in actual fact it was unimaginably larger,” says Juliano.


Co-authored by Juliano Spyer and Laura Haapio-Kirk.

Fieldwork is haunting me, thanks to WhatsApp

By Juliano Andrade Spyer, on 3 November 2015

When is the end of fieldwork? (Photo: Merlijn Hoek CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

When is the end of fieldwork? (Photo:
Merlijn Hoek CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

When is it that fieldwork finishes? Thanks to social media, the separation between being in the fieldsite and being in the library is becoming ever more blurred. This is true for anthropologists in general, not just those who study social media, because in many societies platforms like Facebook and WhatsApp have become an important channel of interaction during fieldwork.

In a way, I have carried my fieldsite in Brazil with me back to London. I mostly keep contact through regular exchange of messages with friends from the field. But there is one case that draws me back to the position of fieldworker.

It took me a long time and a lot of effort to be trusted in the village so that people were happy to show me the content that circulates through direct or group messages on WhatsApp. I was particularly happy when one adult woman, who appeared to understood the purpose our research project and resolved to help the research by forwarding the messages she received via WhatsApp to me.

These messages allowed me a glimpse into what this part of Brazilian society – the people now called “the new middle class” – is privately talking about. However, the subjects of the videos exchanged are often distressing. In short, there is a lot of amateur sex and violence (also the subject of this previous post); things that are often not fun to see and that can also carry legal consequences. For instance: the recording of students violently bullying someone is a proof of a crime. This is the kind of material that can land on my phone.

While I could easily tell this informant to stop sending me this content, as a researcher, I feel it would be a pity to close this channel because I am now – thanks to informants like her – in touch with this very private social world. However the constant communication from the fieldsite does pose challenges when it comes to writing-up.

Yesterday I was considering buying a second mobile, so I can leave this one at home and only check the new content every now and then. This way I would be able to distance myself and have more control over this flow of distracting (and occasionally) disturbing content. A new phone would also assure I would retain the many textual conversations and exchanges I had with informants during field work.

But this is just an idea and I am sharing this story here also hoping to hear what others think I should do about this situation. In case you do have something to say, please use the comment area below this blog post.

Many thanks!

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.

Is Weibo on the way out? For some in China, it was never in.

By Tom McDonald, on 11 May 2015

Weibo: share your thoughts with the word – assuming, of course, you want to. Photo by bfishadow (CC BY 2.0)

Weibo: share your thoughts with the world (assuming, of course, you actually want to). Photo: bfishadow (CC BY 2.0)

I read with interest Celia Hatton’s BBC News article published in February, which hinted that real-name registration on Chinese micro-blogging platform Sina Weibo may be the death knell for the social media platform, which Hatton claims was already losing popularity owing to increasing government control over the platform that was ‘once the only place to find vibrant sources of debate on the Chinese internet’.

Hatton’s argument is important and interesting, and it likely accurately reflects significant changes occurring in social media use in urban China. However based on my experience of carrying out 15 months ethnographic research on social media use in a small rural Chinese Town, it’s also worth bearing in mind that the situation in the Chinese countryside is very different from urban areas. China’s rural populations have tended to display little interest in Weibo.

While Weibo has dominated much media and academic analysis of China social media, in reality ‘most microblog users are mainly young, urban, and middle class, and geographically concentrated in the coastal regions’ as research from Lund University has noted. A separate study (in Chinese) showed that only 5% of microblog users in China live in the countryside, despite the fact that 27.9% of internet users are rural residents.

Why did Weibo never appeal to rural users in the first place? People in the rural town where I conducted my study explained that they preferred social media platforms such as QQ (and to a lesser extent, WeChat) over Weibo. These platforms were popular precisely because they were ‘closed’ platforms, where people could share things only with their friends – most of whom were people they knew in their hometown. For these people the thought of sharing their postings with the entire internet held no appeal whatsoever.

These findings are interesting because they appear to challenge assumptions that people – especially the those at the bottom of Chinese society – would naturally desire to use the internet to ‘express themselves’ to the rest of the world. Rather than presuming that social media are destined to be technologies of liberation, such accounts highlight the importance of also paying attention to how technologies are actually used by rural Chinese people within the context of their own lives, where they are often put to use towards achieving aims and aspirations that may differ greatly from those we expect of them.

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.

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

Social media and the shifting boundaries between private and public in a Muslim town

By Elisabetta Costa, on 26 March 2015

Photo posted on the Facebook profile of a research participant

Photo posted on the Facebook profile of a research participant

Facebook is designed to encourage people to reveal information about themselves, and the market model of Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg is based on sharing and radical transparency (Kirkpatrick, D. 2010).  Also, scholars have largely focused on the “disclosure effect” of Facebook, and have studied the ways this social media has led people to publicly display private information about their daily life.

In Mardin, however, people are really concerned about disclosing private information, facts and images. I’ve been told several times by my Mardinli friends, that the public display of photos portraying domestic spaces and moments of the family life was sinful (günâh) and shameful (ayıp). The variety of the visual material posted on Facebook in Mardin is, indeed, quite limited compared to what we are used to seeing on the profiles of social media users in other places, like London, Danny, Jo or Razvan’s fieldsite. For example when people in Mardin organise breakfast, lunch or dinner at their house, and invite family’s friends and relatives, they rarely post pictures portraying the faces or bodies of the participants at the feast. They rather prefer to show pictures of the good food. In this way they can reveal and show off their wealthy and rich social life, and at the same time protect the privacy of the people and of the domestic space. Yet, when images portraying people inside the domestic space are publicly displayed, these tend to be very formal and include mainly posed photography. By doing so, the aura of familiarity and intimacy is eliminated, and the pictures are more reminiscent of the formal images common in the pre-digital era.

Whereas in most of the cases people tend to follow online the same social norms regulating the boundaries between private and public offline, it’s also true that these boundaries have increasingly shifted. The desires of fame, notoriety and visibility is very strong among young people living in Mardin. For example, after posting a picture, it’s quite common to write private messages to friends asking them to “like” the image. I’ve also been told off a few times by my friends in their early twenty, for not having liked their pictures on Facebook. Facebook in Mardin is a place to show off, and to be admired by others. It’s the desire of popularity and fame that has led people to publicly display moments from their daily life that have traditionally belonged to the domestic private spaces. By doing so, the private space of the house has started to increasingly enter the public space of Facebook, despite limitations and concerns. Also the body and the face of religious headscarf wearing women have been widely shared on the public Facebook, apparently in contrast with religious norms. A friend told me: “Facebook brings people to behave in strange ways. A religious covered woman I am friends with, on Facebook posts the pictures with her husband hands by hands” This public display of the conjugal life contrasts with the normative ideas Muslims from Mardin have of the private and the public. Several other examples show that Facebook has led people to publicly display what has traditionally belonged to the domestic and private sphere.

In Mardin the culture of mahremiyet, the Islamic notion of privacy and intimacy (Sehlikoglu, S. 2015), continues to regulate the boundaries between the private and the public both online and offline, but with significant differences between the two.


Kirkpatrick, David. 2010. The Facebook effect. Simon and Schusters

Sehlikoglu, Sertaç. 2015. “The Daring Mahrem: Changing Dynamics of Public
Sexuality in Turkey.” In Gender and Sexuality in Muslim Cultures. Gul Ozyegin
(Ed), Ashgate.

Password sharing: I get by on QQ with a little help from my friends

By Tom McDonald, on 17 February 2015

Group of Chinese schoolchildren

Friendship is only a shared password away. (Photo by Athena Lao, CC BY 2.0)

One of the surprising features of my conversations with primary and middle school students in our rural fieldsite in the north of China was the number who said that the pressures of schoolwork meant they didn’t have any time to ‘care for’ (zhaogu) their social media profiles. Many spoke of the importance of needing to ‘invest time’ (touru shijian) and ‘invest money’ (touru qian) in their QQ account or QQ online games in order to achieve high levels or status on these platform.

For this reason, a number of people that I spoke to, particularly middle school students, told me that they would ask their friends to ‘look after’ their account, or various parts of the games that they played.

Having somebody else responsible for looking after one’s QQ account constituted a very significant indicator of trust, and this seemed especially so in the case of school children. A high proportion of middle school students told me they shared their social media passwords with other people, most often their close friends.

Often when I asked middle school students who it was that they shared their QQ password with, a considerable number of male students would use the term ‘senior male fellow student’ (shixiong) which often indicates incredibly close relationships (similar to ‘best buddies’ or ‘best mates’); whereas for female middle school students, it was often the case that they said the person they shared their social media password with was a female best friend (guimi). In both cases, it seemed that if QQ passwords were shared with friends then it was far more likely that these people were of the same gender as the people doing the sharing.

This not only highlights a different attitude towards privacy on social media, but it also speaks to how platforms can be used to cement long-lasting friendships for young people.

Does Targeted Advertising Work?

By Daniel Miller, on 5 February 2015

Photo by Mike Licht (creative commons)

Photo by Mike Licht (creative commons)

As Ethan Zuckerman noted in The Atlantic (14/08/2014) even though many groups and initiatives really didn’t want to go down that route, targeted advertising has become the default funding model for the internet, as people failed to find an alternative. A combination of developments such as big data and mining information from sources such as search engines and social network sites means that today it is possible for ads to be honed quite precisely to the interests of individuals as revealed by their online activity.

It is not at all surprising to find that English people who, as many of my blog posts have argued, are hugely concerned with privacy and keeping people away from their homes and intimate worlds, vociferously complain about the development of targeted advertising. The two most commonly quoted examples are Facebook and the supermarket chain Tesco. A typical complaint was ` Google will change your settings on your cursor, so that every time it goes back and tells them what you are using it for. Then they send you certain adverts….If you join Tescos, every time you go through the till it records everything you’ve brought. And suddenly they start sending you vouchers to buy meat… or this persons a drinker. Everything you do.’

In our project we anticipate cultural variation and it was interesting to read an article in the Financial Times recently (28/01/15) that suggested in China customers of WeChat felt personally insulted when they were not included in a targeted advert for BMW. This leaves us with at least two interesting possibilities. The first is that people say they resent the advertising but actually find them convenient and use them, which is why they continue to spread. Alternatively corporations tend to follow technological advances and do this simply `because they can’, even if in actuality these adverts did not in fact work. When I studied businesses (Miller, D. 1997 Capitalism: An Ethnographic Approach) I found that fear of what the competition might do was much more important than evidence for what customers actually do in understanding business practice around advertising. The academic work on the topic is still slight, and it is starting to look like targeted adverts in some combinations might actually be sending people away from companies rather than building their profits (e.g. Goldfarb, A., and C. Tucker. 2011 “Online Display Advertising: Targeting and Obtrusiveness.” Marketing Science 30.3 (2011): 389-404). In the meantime I have been faced with some of the most egregious examples of such advertising through my research with hospice patients. As one put it `I’ve joined the moving-on group now, since I’ve finished treatment, try and move on. Sometimes I get a lot of feeds and it does get a bit much. Don’t want it in your face all the time, keeps coming up, so I had to stop a lot of the feeds, otherwise every other thing was cancer cancer cancer and I’m not moving on. Think I’ll get rid of these off my Facebook.’

Does Facebook produce reality?

By Elisabetta Costa, on 31 December 2014

Facebook meme

Facebook meme

Researchers of the Global Social Media Impact Study are currently writing a chapter about the visual material posted on social media. For this reason I’ve been carefully observing my friends’ Facebook profiles and I counted an incredibly high number of memes citing famous writers, poets, and philosophers. Differently from the Italian field-site (see Razvan’s last blog post) where highly educated people use Facebook to express their knowledge and abilities when these can’t be used in other ways, in Mardin young adults use Facebook to construct a well-educated, moral and virtuous self and make it visible to the others. As I’ve been told by many local friends, people in Mardin want to appear literate, wisdom, religious and moral, and they use social media to achieve this goal. In fact Facebook is also criticized for being used to construct an-ideal self that is quite different from the offline self. The discrepancy between the online and the offline was a discussed topic in Mardin, and it also emerged from my ethnographic observation.

On the public Facebook wall, people consciously post what they know is going to be under the gaze of others. The public Facebook wall in Mardin is a place to be observed and to be looked at. Young adults and and middle aged people don’t simply stage a successful character in that specific social context, but they perform a self that is imagined as continuously monitored, controlled and judged. In Mardin social media are spaces under surveillance, and people more or less consciously perceive themselves under the control and the gaze of others and of the State institutions.

In a region that has experienced decades of political violence and inter-ethnic conflicts, people’s traumatic experiences have led to the production of fears and suspicion towards the ‘other’, whether this is embodied by the State or by the social body, and whether the threat is real or not. These two levels, the State and the society, blend and reinforce each other. As result people tend to be aware of privacy settings, to be cautious about the material they share, and to post only what strictly confirms to dominant social norms. Surveillance is a productive force that generates specific performances and production of selves.

But probably the most interesting consequence of surveillance is that it makes the visible real. When the visible is monitored by the society and by its authorities, and for this reason it’s imagined as having real consequences, then it’s intended as real. It’s in this context of surveillance that the visible on Facebook becomes real. And this explains why many people in Mardin spend a lot of time and energy to accurately construct their idealized self on Facebook. In 1928 the two sociologists W.I. Thomas and D.S. Thomas formulated this theorem: “When men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences”. But we may also say that when one level of appearance is imagined as having consequences (and it does have consequences) then it becomes as real.