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Social media and new rewards in learning

By Elisabetta Costa, on 19 June 2015

Photo by Elisabetta Costa

Photo by Elisabetta Costa

 

Education has become an important topic of investigation in our comparative research. Last May we also explored and presented our findings in a workshop held at UCL. In Mardin, similarly to field-sites in rural China and Brazil, parents and kids tend to see social media as a dangerous threat to formal education. The education system in Turkey is built around examination preparation, and examination results can chart the course of a person’s life. In this context social media is deemed by students and parents as responsible for worsening exam results, as it takes time away from books. For this reason students preparing for important examinations often close their Facebook or Twitter accounts for a few weeks or months. Whereas social media seems not to be beneficial to the preparation of multiple choices exams, in other situations it emerged to be quite helpful in the learning process.

This is the case for University students attending the English preparatory class at Mardin Artuklu University. Instructors of English highlighted a general lack of motivation among students, who were more interested in passing the exam than learning the language. Also, students used mnemonic approaches that led them to memorise grammar rules, rather than actively engage with the new language. In this context, social media has contributed to creating new motivations and rewards where the formal education system has failed. Students, indeed, were practicing English on social media in four different ways:

  • Male students used Facebook to secretly flirt and communicate with foreign women.
  • Students often wrote quotations or uploaded their status in English, they wanted to be seen by teachers, friends and peers as proficient English speakers.
  • Students joined English language political groups dealing with the Kurdish issues.
  • Students listened to English songs on YouTube.

Love, fame, politics and music became four new rewards which drove students to learn a foreign language. In a formal education system where the main concern of the students is the acquisition of a diploma, social media has created new rewards that positively influence learning motivations.

How did we choose our field sites?

By Tom McDonald, on 18 June 2015

Our project field site locations

Our project field site locations

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s our conclusion? Introducing ‘scalable sociality’

By Daniel Miller, on 16 June 2015

Scalable Sociality Infographic

Scalable Sociality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A methodological case of comparative anthropology

By Juliano Andrade Spyer, on 8 June 2015

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Image Courtesy Quinn Dombrowski (Creative Commons)

I hear from colleagues in our department that completing a PhD can often be a solitary experience. Anthropologists tend to accept the fact that social lives are so particular and rich that comparison becomes a dangerous affair. Doctorate students typically have such specific topics of research (such as boredom in rural Romania or wrestling in Bolivia) that it is hard to attract a general interest and they often have to rely on favours from peers to get feedback on their work.

By contrast the research team involved in our study of social media did not experience such academic loneliness. This post summarises the methodology we used to study the impact of social media on our nine field sites around the world. It also shows a possible alternative way of conducting anthropological research that benefits from regular and ongoing feedback and comparison between researchers collecting similar material from very different field sites.

Two broader choices led our team to come to four main decisions regarding how to conduct our qualitative comparative research.

The broad choices were:

  1. All the researchers worked on the same topic. In our case, the impact of social media in each field site.
  2. However, the actual research maintained the importance of long term participant observation. Each researcher immersed themselves in the social life of their field site, where they lived for 15 months.

The consequences of these guiding principles then became the following practices:

  1. During the preparation of each one’s project proposals, we read and discussed collectively the literature about social media. We incorporated the results in the individual projects that included a literature review of specific aspects for each field site.
  2. During the preparation, we also scheduled common themes (e.g. politics, gender) for the reports we agreed to write during each month of fieldwork and a survey questionnaire to be applied collectively during the same period.
  3. We read each other’s reports throughout fieldwork. Since returning from the field we have continued to read each others’ book chapters. Each person receives detailed feedback from at least one other colleague (though often several).
  4. These readings then provide the context for monthly meetings: initially through video conferencing, but now in person.

In our case, social media was the link to very different realities and places. It gave us a shared point of departure in terms of bibliography and of research questions. But anthropology also enhanced collaboration as our impressions from the field often arrived framed in terms of gender relations, politics, kinship, etc.

The result of this routine will be eleven books to be launched during 2016. Two will be comparative and the other nine will be monographs that are interconnected both by this practice of collaboration and by a common structure – each book will have the same chapter  themes but are based on each particular ethnography.

Though many assume that giving our time to others’ work means less time and especially less attention to our own work, the collaboration in this project taught us the opposite. Often, seeing what the others were doing and thinking helped us to individually experience particular aspects of each field sites, in addition to deepening our engagement with our own.

Nell, our researcher in Chile, summed this up rather well in a recent conversation, when she remarked: “Reading the other chapters is sometimes even better than getting comments on my own chapter. Those are constructive, but reading the other chapters gives me creative inspiration. And it makes me realize important things I’ve left out.”

Opening doors: Rural Chinese business promotion on social media

By Tom McDonald, on 28 May 2015

A typical shopfront in the North China fieldsite (Photo: Gillian Bolsover)

A typical shopfront in the North China fieldsite (Photo: Gillian Bolsover)

One surprising feature of QQ – the most popular social media platform in the rural Chinese town where I conducted research – is its lack of dedicated ‘business’ profile pages, such as those offered on Facebook.

WeChat, the second most popular social media platform in the town, does allow business owners to set up an official ‘public account’ (gongzhong hao), although registration requires users to submit details and a scanned copy of their business licence, which is enough of a hassle to deter most people I knew from signing up.

An additional cultural explanation also exists for why dedicated business profiles are less common on social media pages: townsfolk operate a far less regimented division between work and leisure.

The town’s shops, restaurants and small businesses are often run by family members. Even owners of larger businesses (like factories) in the town prefer to employ family or close friends wherever possible.

Given the choice, people would rather carry out transactions with friends instead of complete strangers. As such, outsiders coming to the town to conduct business often find themselves spending considerable amounts of time and money establishing friendly relationships with townsfolk before any business agreements can be made.

These factors mean that owners of small businesses in the town are far more willing to operate their business and personal affairs from a single social media account. This is also reflected in the fact that some owners of these businesses use their shop name as their screen-name, and an image of the facade of the shop as their profile picture.

Aside from identifying the store, the convention of including an image of a shopfront also has important symbolic meaning that points to the family. Anthropologist Charles Stafford has noted how doors in China are understood to be important mediating spaces between households and the outside, and that these entrances are also seen to represent the family itself.

All this suggests that rather than Chinese social media lacking a business feature, the platform instead reflects very different cultural understandings of the relationship between commerce and kinship, and is actually rather well suited to the rural Chinese preference that business, family and friendship should be closely intertwined.

The immigrants ‘crisis’ and the limits of Facebook

By Razvan Nicolescu, on 18 May 2015

Photomontage realised by Vento Rebelle and posted on their Facebook page on the 20 April 2015.

Photomontage realised by Vento Ribelle and posted on their Facebook page on the 20 April 2015 and shared by left-wing individuals in Grano.

This post is prompted by the continuous tragedy represented by the immigration from North Africa on the shores of south Europe. Data shows that over 23,000 people have died since the turn of the millennium in attempting to reach Europe, most of whom drowned in the Mediterranean Sea. This is about 50% more than the official estimations.

The most dangerous route is the one between North Africa and South Italy (mainly the Isle of Lampedusa) estimated to have seen almost 8,000 deaths in this time interval, followed by the Eastern Mediterranean route (between Greece and Turkey), and the West Mediterranean one (between Canary Islands and Spain).

In Italian media, the most common term used to describe this phenomenon is ‘tragedy’, and the Mediterranean Sea is deplored as a ‘cemetery’ or ‘battle camp’. The Italian authorities are undertaking the enormous effort to save the lives of immigrants and direct them to the overpopulated reception centres. Very recenlty the Italian Navy saved 4,000 migrants from the Strait of Sicily and one migrant woman gave birth to a baby girl on an Italian warship. In 2014 the operation ‘Mare Nostrum’ operated by the Italian authorities cost 144 mil EUR and was estimated to save more than 150,000 people in 421 sea interventions. According to the Italian officials, the number of people in Italian reception centres is currently almost 70,000, out of which 14,000 are unaccompanied children.

Since I started fieldwork in April 2013, the issue of immigration on the southern Italian shores was a central concern in Italian media. This was equally reflected on Facebook: each time a tragedy happened people used to share news and moving photos from mainstream journals on the platform. Most people who posted personal comments were deploring the existing situation and accused the larger international context of not taking appropriate action. The political left accused the immorality of Western world that did nothing to reduce poverty, inequality, and stop the numerous conflicts in Africa and Middle East, while the political right accused Europe of virtually leaving the southern countries of the continent alone in their fight to stop the death toll caused by illegal immigration.

Some directed their criticisms towards European Union and officials who did not recognize this as a European crisis and left some of the most impoverished countries, such as Italy, Spain, and Greece to solve it by themselves. Others accused the politicization of the crisis, as they saw that most political interventions, especially those from outside Italy, do not focus on the reasons of this crisis, but on ways to reduce immigration and requests for asylum.

But overall, most people in Grano had a profound sense of helplessness when confronted with the press reports on the never-ending tragedies. The general sense was that this was a humanitarian crisis that nobody really had control over; Italian authorities were simply obligated to react promptly and save lives.

This is one example when public social media mirrors the mainstream media. Both average people in Grano and leading editors in national journals share the sense that their voices are not heard by policy makers and that there is little will from the international community to solve some of the issues that cause migration in the first place.

In this context, the problem raised by this post is the inefficiency of social media to really influence the international agendas in the short term. The fact that people can act extremely fast on social media gave many the idea that their governments and international players should also act more promptly than they used to. And when they see this is not happening, many are disillusioned. They see that higher political forces simply disregard their concerns as expressed on social media.

Many people in Grano contrast this to the efficiency of some transnational agencies and influential social activists that use social media to sustain and promote their respective projects, whether these are political or humanitarian. The frustration comes from the fact that a media that is announced as being global and effective in nature, proves to be extremely limited and ineffective for most people.

This is reflected in one of the findings of the Global Social Media Impact Study that argues that most of the time, rather than representing global forms of socialization and information, social media is extremely local and specific.

In Grano, Facebook encompasses a strong emphasis on the local through photography of local sea and landscape, food, and traditions, and opens to broader issues through memes with moral implications, anecdotal content, and criticisms of the (usually) national politics. In this equation, the wave of people seeking a better life in Europe is seen as a ‘crisis’ and social media reflects the inertia of conventional media and European society at large.

Note: This seems to be the biggest social and humanitarian problem in contemporary Europe; it seems to be a response to the process of self-closure that sociologists and historians have remarked Europe has undergone in the last century. In this sense, it is a revolution. One main difference to the anti-governmental movements in recent years is that the migrants’ revolution is not promoted on social media, maybe because it does not have leaders, but there are common people who want to tell us something. The first step is to listen to them.

Memes: The internet’s moral police

By Daniel Miller, on 12 May 2015

On the face of it memes and religion would seem unlikely bedfellows, or even worthy of mention in the same discussion. Religions come to us from centuries of tradition and are defined by the continuity of custom and belief, and would be generally considered deep and spiritual. By contrast most people associates memes with funny looking cats, terrible puns and representing the latest phase of the superficiality and transience of the internet.

Despite that, if we look across our nine fieldsites there is certainly an argument to be made that memes have occupied the place in social media we might have anticipated being colonised by religion. Firstly memes are in fact the primary way most people do post explicitly religious imagery. In our book Visualising Facebook (forthcoming), which directly compared the visual posts of our fieldsites in England and Trinidad, this is something common to both.

A meme celebrating the religious festival of Diwali (Original author unknown)

A meme celebrating the religious festival of Diwali (Original author unknown)

But relatively few memes are actually religious in content. By contrast, a very high proportion of memes could now be said to represent the ‘moral policing’ of the internet. Memes have become the way people post visuals that express their values. In some of our fieldsites it is clear that people with less power or less confidence and who would be shy of posting their opinions directly or as text, are much more comfortable posting such memes.

An example values-based meme (original author unknown)

A values-based meme (Original author unknown)

But the notion of moral policing suggests that this amounts to more than simply the declaration of values. It is also about establishing what values are (or are not) acceptable for online postings. This might range from the support of gay rights, to accusing males of hypocrisy in their relationships with women, or even asserting the right not to care about football.

A humorous meme accusing males of hypocrisy in their relationships with women (Original author unknown)

A humorous meme accusing males of hypocrisy in their relationships with women (Original author unknown)

A meme directed against posts regarding football (Original author unknown)

A meme directed against posts regarding football (Original author unknown)

Perhaps the strongest argument for this idea of memes as moral policing comes from what might seem to be the counter instance, which is that the vast number of memes are devoted to humour. But when examined more closely actually a great number of these funny memes are humorous at the expense of some position of behaviour of which they disapprove. Or alternatively they are a way of allowing licence for behaviour of which they do approve but might not have been accepted. So in these instances women are all making fun around stereotypes about women, but also establishing a position with regard to that characterisation, though humour. This policing is as much about making freedom for values as for suppressing unacceptable ones.

A humour based meme (Original author unknown)

A humour based meme (Original author unknown)

A humour based meme (Original author unknown)

A humour based meme (Original author unknown)

Looking across the nine fieldsites in our study, this use of moralising memes seems common to all. Which is very helpful to our study, since one of our conclusions is that in each site there is considerable conformity and repetition. To explain this we need to understand the mechanisms that keep people in line. Moral memes may well be ones of these.

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.

Social media as hyper-visibility

By Jolynna Sinanan, on 7 May 2015

Image courtesy of Kris A, Creative Commons

Image courtesy of Kris A, Creative Commons

 

After an intensive few months of hiding away finishing our books (and neglecting this blog), we have come back together to work on our comparative book. With nine people already having written a book each on social media, surely taking the lead on one chapter should be a more manageable task. But with nine countries and one book that deals with the big-picture impacts of social media, on education, on commerce and on humanity, among other themes, this book is also becoming an epic compendium.

If social media has provided (just) one form of unprecedented social change, it is that people can now self-craft, self-present and disseminate on a large scale, in real time. That observation is not new, these anxieties are revealed in conversations almost every day with “Did you see what so and so posted” and “I shared this really interesting thing” are all to do with the consequences of extended social visibility. A sociology of social media as hyper-visibility has come from doing more classical anthropological study through ethnography. From a small place, we can perhaps make wider generalisations.

We have been fortunate enough to give presentations and papers on our findings from our individual field sites now, and I usually start my presentations by talking about Trinidadian Carnival. Audiences tend to assume that Carnival is a fascinating and exotic event with little importance elsewhere outside Trinidad. But the point to emphasise is that, although Carnival is beads, feathers and bikinis, it is a festival that was born out of resistance to slavery- where people were physically oppressed from having the means to express their identities and values through bodily freedom. Although Carnival has transformed today, to varying degrees the logics of visibility from Carnival are resonant in Trinidadian society all year round.

Which brings me to social media, it is difficult to study any aspect of Trinidadian society without considering social visibility. It then seems inevitable, when looking at social media in Trinidad, to link its uses to the logics of Carnival and applying a term such as hyper-visibility. Carnival is about showing the truth of who you are on the body through masquerade and performance- it is a time and space to amplify how you see yourself. Trinidadians have a well understood vocabulary around appearance and its implications, so much so that the rest of the world is perhaps only catching up. The concern with what we show on social media and what it says about us is parallel to what Trinidadians have always understood about visibility: it is how we cultivate truth that makes us subject to the judgement of others. The multiple judgments of others then reinforces norms and acceptable values.

On Facebook in Trinidad, you are what you show, whether that is lifestyle through food posts, ideology through political postings or moral commentary through sharing memes. You can show yourself as very global through posts of holidays or opinions on Game of Thrones, or very local, with humour that only Trinidadians would understand. Throughout the 3-year study, there was a general decline in the usage of Facebook by individuals for showing themselves, although it is still the dominant social media platform in Trinidad. Because of the consequences of being hyper-visible, individuals are starting to curate themselves more to cultivate an exact and consistent image by which they want to be seen.

Chinese low-end smartphone market: the era of ‘shanzhai’ has passed, budget smartphones dominate

By Xin Yuan Wang, on 6 May 2015

Budget smartphones on sale at a local mobile phone shop in a small factory town ( Southeastern China).

Budget smartphones on sale at a local mobile phone shop in a small factory town ( Southeastern China).

My individual project began with one general inquiry about the social media use among Chinese rural migrants in a small factory town in southeast China. Eventually this led to the acknowledgement of the significance of the budget smartphone, as the ‘mega digital terminal’ in those low-income people’s daily life.

The number of Chinese mobile Internet users has reached 527 million, making mobile phones the most common device for accessing the Internet in China. Such figures become even more impressive in my fieldsite where most people cannot afford a PC or other digital devices. Smartphones have become their first private access to the internet. Budget smartphones dominate the market, the average price for a smartphone is around 500 RMB ($80). The average monthly cost is around 100 RMB ($16). According to a survey conducted among 520 persons in the fieldsite, 91.5% of people, the majority of them are rural migrants, use smartphones to get access to the internet, and only 10% use laptops, and 19.5 % desktop computers as internet devices (see chart below).

 

The situation of internet access, infographic by Xinyuan Wang

According to the local mobile phone dealers, shanzhai mobile phone, the knock-off low-priced mobile phone, used to be very popular. Usually, the price of a Shanzhai is 1/5 to 1/10 of the ‘real brand’. However, since the end of year 2012, the shanzhai mobile phones have started to shift in terms of sales strategy. Previously they just copied famous brand names. Now some shanzhai mobile phone manufacturers have set up their own brand-name phones and newly designed budget smartphone brands like ‘XiaoMi’ (Mi-One). Also, major Chinese telecom companies have started to invest in qianyuan ji market (Smartphones with a price lower than 150 dollars) and launched a few heyue ji (contract mobile phone) packages together with Chinese local mobile phone manufacturers such as HuaWei. With 10 to 15 dollars monthly fixed baodi xiaofei (guaranteed consumption), one can get a smartphone for around 50 dollars or even for ‘free’. These inexpensive smartphones quickly captured the low-end smartphone market by offering similar price points along with better quality devices, and after-sale service than their shanzhai competitors. As a result the shanzhai era of Chinese low-end mobile phone market has already passed.

It was the young rural migrant who drove the local budget smartphone market. The majority (80%) of young rural migrants (age 17- 35) already own a smartphone, and 70% of smartphones that people currently use are their first, and 1/3 of people reported that they wanted to have a smartphone with ‘good brand’ (hao paizi) in two years time when they have saved up enough money. A ‘good brand’ (such as iPhone and Samsung) is regarded as a symbol of social status.

For most rural migrants who still cannot afford a ‘good brand’ smartphone, budget models may not bring them an elevated social status, but will definitely make a lot of changes in their daily lives.  The smartphones actually created a  ‘media convergence’. Their smartphone is not supplemented by a landline, and their are used as their first camera, first music player, the first video player, and the first game machine. Researchers in other developing field sites, such as India, Chile and Brazil all find the similar trend of budget smartphone usage among low-income population. Such phenomena mean the study of smartphones is more than just looking at the mobile phone as a single communicative channel, but about analysing the whole-package media solution and the holistic media environment which we call ‘polymedia‘ in the age of smartphone.