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Normativity and social visibility

By Jolynna Sinanan, on 14 October 2015

image courtesy of sneugle, creative commons

It has been exactly a year since finishing 15 months of fieldwork in Trinidad. Stories for this blog have moved further and further away from cool stuff that was coming out of the field and living in Trinidad, to the far less exciting but far more intense process of endlessly thinking and rethinking the material and drafting and redrafting articles, book chapters, and books (yes, all plural) from three years of research.

So it’s kind of like experiencing the weather from the ground, how it looks and what it feels like, and then looking at the weather from the sky and how the movement of clouds influences what is happening below. This is what moving from the field to writing feels like, moving from experience and observation to the more abstract.

I have been drawing on my field work in Trinidad for, among other things, edited book chapters on different topics, from emotions and technology to social networks in small communities to social media and ethnography. What has been most striking about working on these condensed pieces of writing and stories from the field is the focus of on the everyday, what is normal in the places we lived and what people in those places take for granted. When we started this project in 2012, we didn’t want to look at isolated, spectacular social media events that seemed to be the thing at the moment, whether it was the Kony 2012 campaign or the Ice Bucket Challenge, although these sort of one off things did appear throughout the research. We were far more interested in normal social media practices and if something came up that everybody talked about, shared or commented on, we were able to contextualise it in everyday relations.

Yet, it is these types of spectacular social media events that attract the most attention. It’s like reading about media in media, which reminds me more of the anxieties of post-modernism and post-post-modernism of the 1990s, where social phenomena is likened to simulacra. From the comparative studies of nine societies (a lot of people) one of our key conclusions is that the use of social media can be generalised as being generally unspectacular. There is a previous blog post on how memes can be a visual means to reinforce social norms and morally acceptable behaviour. Humorous memes also provide a safe and popular way for people to express their views without coming across as too self-righteous or taking oneself too seriously.

Memes are just one example of visual posts, others that show food, outfits, places and events again show the everyday. The more exciting or idealised aspects of the everyday, but the everyday nonetheless. And when the idealised aspects of the everyday are shown, they usually conform to a shared sense of what living the good life means, around consumption and lifestyle, which is particularly important given that for several research participants, especially in the Brazilian, Chinese, Indian and Trinidadian field sites, upward mobility is a genuine aspiration. Again, not surprising that aspirations around lifestyle would be more obvious in the sites in countries that are commonly called ‘developing’ or in ‘the global south’.

The other half of posting (at least visual posts) around social norms is that the audience for these posts are one’s social peers and networks, social media simply makes these forms of expression more visible. Prior to social media, normativity and social visibility have had a long interrelationship and was explored with much more depth by thinkers such as Georg Simmel and more recently Agnes Heller. One of our findings summed up in once sentence is that people care what other people think and say about them, especially if they are from small towns where more people know each other and live alongside one another. There might be social media events that capture participants’ attention for a short time, but by and large, social media usage is, well, normal.

Surveying Social Relationships

By Daniel Miller, on 2 October 2015

One of the chapters of our forthcoming book How the World Changed Social Media, which will be published as an Open Access book by UCL Press in February 2016, describes a survey consisting of 43 questions we asked 1199 respondents (mainly around 100 per fieldsite).

Just occasionally this survey produced results which were commensurate with our general ethnographic data, for example, this chart showing the average number of friends is well matched by what our informants say about how generally sociable they feel people are in the place where they live.

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Similarly this figure of whether people use social media to develop new relationships makes sense to us. In some places such as Brazil or Trinidad it is because prior to social media people typically developed friendships through the mechanism of becoming friends with the friends of already established friends or relatives, and this is something that social media lends itself to. By contrast the issue in industrial China is that factory workers, who are constantly shifting from place to place, grow to rely on their online connections as the place for developing friendship, partly because opportunities are quite limited for friendship offline.

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But in other cases the results of this survey are clearly incompatible with what we know from our ethnographies, and we will always favour the authority of 15 months living with a community over a mere survey. It will not be hard for you to spot the problem in the next figure. This is the high number of people in our rural Chinese site who mention siblings as the people who most often post on their walls. The problem is, of course, that given the one family per child policy, most of these young people don’t have siblings. McDonald suggests this is a combination of two factors. Firstly those who do have siblings perhaps share a very close relationship with them. But, this figure also represents a practice in China where it is common to refer to one’s cousins as siblings. It was just one of many examples where we found that our survey could be very misleading unless you had the ethnographic background to understand how and why people had interpreted our questions in a particular and often unpredicted way.

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What’s special about social media in small places?

By Razvan Nicolescu, on 19 September 2015

'Normal friend: 'Wow, how beautiful you are!' / Bestt friend: It's Shrek at the phone says he wants back his face.' Meme shared on Facebook by Comix

‘Normal friend: ‘Wow, how beautiful you are!’ / Best friend: It’s Shrek on the phone, says he wants his face back.’ Meme shared on Facebook by Comix

From the beginning of my fieldwork I kept thinking about why social media seems to be used so differently in my fieldsite – the Italian town of Grano – compared to other places, such as Rome or Milan. Maybe the most immediate answer is that Grano is a small place!

Indeed, with less than 20,000 inhabitants the town is far smaller than many metropolitan place, and here social relations could be much different than elsewhere. But what does this mean exactly? At the same time, social media is known to be a global technology which promises equal chances to access and utilize online resources to all its users. So, what is the implication of this to the existing social relations? To attempt to answer this, I will given a real-life example from my research.

Salvatore is person who is aware of the immense power he has because of social media, but sometimes he is annoyed that he cannot express himself online in the way that he would like. For example, he would never post  photos on Facebook which were taken at parties after drinking too much or behaving ‘stupidly.’ His close friends know this, and they too, would never tag Salvatore in a photo they know he wouldn’t like to be published online. On the other hand, Salvatore equally cannot promote himself on Facebook with a nice photo or accomplishment without his friends mocking him for taking himself too seriously.

Salvatore works as an IT consultant for a medium-sized company in Lecce and is renown as a quiet and refined person. In this context, both situations described above would challenge the image people in his hometown have constructed of him. In contrast, he feels that in Lecce he can be a ‘different person’ (un’altra persona) as people there actually encourage this kind of diversity. He commutes to work everyday and sometimes spends whole weekends in the city staying with friends. However, Salvatore is more interested in taking care that Facebook corresponds to the image he has in his hometown, rather than the one he constructs in the city.

What this story points to is how most people in southeast Italy use public-facing social media so that it reflects the relationships and image they have in their home communities. The problem, then, is that this image may vary significantly with social behavior between rural places, small and medium-sized towns and metropolitan places. Writing on these kinds of differences at the turn of the 20th century, sociologist Georg Simmel shows why that what varies essentially is the balance between ‘the objective spirit’ and ‘the subjective spirit.’ That is, in metropolitan places people have to cope with an avalanche of essentially objective issues, from money economy and commerce to mass-produced commodities, which places emphasis on individuality and rationality. In contrast, people living in rural areas, with the slower more habitual, and fewer flows of life, are closer to the ‘spirit’ (or Geist) of people and objects, and, among other things, this allows for more space for subjectivity in social relations.

My ethnographic material cannot really engage with this theoretical proposition as my research was done in a small place. However, what I can agree with is that people in Grano build relationships based on traditions and institutions which incorporate time, a certain predictability and more opportunities to share this ‘spirit’ that are simply unavailable in bigger places. In this context, most people in Grano sense that social media should reflect these very specific local values exactly because they are quintessentially subjective and thus recognizable, before any global forms and tastes.

Aspiring Politician? Try Facebook to build your personal brand.

By Shriram Venkatraman, on 8 September 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What ordinary Chinese people post on social media after the Tianjin Blast

By Xin Yuan Wang, on 24 August 2015

For two days, my WeChat news feeds has been awash with all kinds of articles and images about the Tianjin blast. But after merely two days, the routine on social media came back, food photos, holiday photos, kids photos, articles teaching you how to deal with the relationship between you and your mother-in-law all came back. People seemed to forget about the disaster already.

A week after the appalling blast in Tianjin, China on 12th August, Zhou, a free-lance journalist and photographer, who I got to know when I was doing field work in Southeast China last year, told me her feelings concerning Chinese social media reaction to this event. She could not hide her disappointment.

Zhou’s remark accords with my own observations of my informants’ posts on both QQ and WeChat, the two Chinese dominant social media platforms. And like Zhou, I heard the news for first time from my personal WeChat. Social media has become the main (if not the first) channel for access to various kinds of information. But unlike traditional channels, social media presents these different kinds of information from news to a whole range of personal conversation together without curation. This clearly contributes to Zhou’s feelings about information fragmentation on social media where significant news becomes diluted by the huge amount of the ‘daily life’ content on social media.

But what exactly ordinary Chinese people post on their personal social media profiles vis-a-vis the blast? After the completion of  15 months fieldwork, I continued to follow two groups on social media on a daily basis. One comprise the rural migrants in a factory town where I did most of my field work (50 persons), and the other one a control group with whom I conducted in-depth interviews in Shanghai (30 persons). The table below shows how remarkably different the Tianjin blast related social media performance are of these two groups of people (All the people in Shanghai use WeChat, and the majority of rural migrants remain with QQ). Taking the four days following the blast (from 13 August to 17th August), on all 80 social media profiles, 44% of postings (42 postings out of 95) were related to the blast, of which almost 53% were posted the day after the blast. In general, there are five themes: News about the blast (36%), Prayers for Tianjin (26%), Hero stories (20%), in-depth analysis (9%), and patriotism postings (9%).

chart_blast

 

The News postings were straightforward, usually news reports with photos and very simply comments by people who shared it, such as “It’s shocking!”, “How terrible!” or “I am so sorry for Tianjin”. 60% of those news-based stories shared on social media came from people in Shanghai.

The ‘Prayers for Tianjin’ postings are those memes with text like ‘pray for Tianjin’  (see screenshots below). Some postings shared on people’s profiles went even moralized by claiming “Tonight we are all from Tianjin and suffer the same suffering, if you are Chinese please share this!”, a bit like “We are Charlie”. The majority (64%) of those memes come from rural migrants.

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The ‘hero stories’ are also widely shared on people’s social media profiles where both people from Shanghai (50%) and rural migrants (50%) seems to show similar interests in stories like how firemen sacrificed their own lives, running into the fire when everybody was fleeting away; or how sniffer dogs worked day and night in order to save human beings.

屏幕快照 2015-08-19 上午11.09.00

In-depth analysis refers to editorials focusing on the cause of the accident. Articles of this kind were only shared only by people from Shanghai, who had education at master-level and above. In one of the articles the government and disaster relief system is strongly challenged. There is explicit criticism of the way that after a disaster people only share ‘pray for ***’ memes on social media, rather than really asking for the truth behind the disaster.

In contrast to the situation of ‘in-depth analysis’, rural migrants contributed all the ‘patriotism’ postings.  One typical ‘patriotism’ (see screenshots below) started with a list of Chinese celebrities and companies who had donated money for the disaster relief, followed by the list of foreign celebrities and companies (such as south Korean stars, Samsung and Apple) who didn’t donate any money for this Tianjin blast. In the end of the article, it was urged that Chinese people should love the state since only the Chinese army can protect them and people who are big fans of foreign stars and foreign products should feel ashamed of themselves. Though I happen to know that one such person, a factory worker, had just spent on whole month salary on a iPhone prior to a blind date with a girl arranged by one of his fellow villages,

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A close inspection of this pattern of posting on social media is revealing then not just about reactions to a disaster, but also key issues in contemporary China, such as the differences created by education and the appeal of nationalist ideology.

Ropa americana online: the local market for used clothing

By Nell Haynes, on 15 August 2015

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A Facebook announcement from an online shop in northern Chile announces “Jackets, Vests, and Sweatshirts”

Ebay, Etsy, Alibaba, and Taobao have changed the way many people around the world shop. Now, you can get virtually any product from anywhere, delivered right to your door. Tom McDonald has even observed companies that have sprung up to make this possible in rural China where even courier services does not deliver (also see his blog about business Facebook pages). But in northern Chile, people aren’t really all that concerned with getting interesting things from far off places. To them, ropa americana [American clothing, code for used goods] is the cheapest and least impressive form of dressing. If one is looking for style, the department stores in the larger cities will do just fine.

But this doesn’t mean that there’s no market for these goods online. Many people, particularly older women, have developed “shops” through Facebook in order to sell used clothing. Just like their counterparts who operate physical used clothing shops in the semi-formal markets around the city, these women buy used clothes in bulk, and sell it to individual consumers. But instead of renting a stall, they take pictures of the individual items to upload to Facebook accounts that they have just for that purpose. When a potential buyer likes and item, they will negotiate a price (usually about $4 for a tshirt, a bit more for jeans or a dress, up to $20 for a coat), and a time and place to meet for the exchange. While new customers may simply ask the price as a comment on the picture, or send a private message through Facebook to arrange a drop-off, regular customers will send WhatsApp messages asking about specific items, hoping to get the best of the best before they even make it to the Facebook page.

Paola, who sells clothes mostly for men told me that a miner requested she meet him as he got off the bus, coming home from his shift at the mine. He had ripped his coat while at work, and was afraid of being very cold between the bus drop off and walking a few blocks home. Paola agreed to meet him at midnight at the bus, for just a few extra dollars.

So while in many ways social media has the ability to expand consumption options globally and allow people access to cosmopolitan goods they might not have imagined a decade ago, it can also take on a form that is distinctly local and personal. Like Paola meeting the miner at his bus, this is just one way that social media can truly strengthen the community bonds that people feel in their local place.

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

By Daniel Miller, on 6 August 2015

Indian teenager using smartphone

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Facebook as a window: managing online appearance

By Razvan Nicolescu, on 31 July 2015

Shop window in Grano

Shop window in Grano (Photograph by Razvan Nicolescu)

A particularly common way that many people in the Italian field site thought about Facebook was by comparing it to a shop window (vetrina in Italian). Some did not exactly like the fact that, like a window, ‘everybody can see your personal stuff.’ In contrast, others used this new kind of visibility as an opportunity to actively promote different aspects of their interests. Out of this latter category, teenagers and some local entrepreneurs were by far the most active in this way, followed by artisans, artists, and a few local politicians.

In my forthcoming book, I explain how much of this region’s history explains why people are very concerned with the way social visibility reflects their social status. For example, families have always demonstrated their core moral values by keeping a clean and tidy house. Equally, most women spend considerable time beautifying themselves, selecting their clothes, making sure their outfits are neat and that their family is equally well dressed before they are willing to leave their own home. Dressing reflects the social and economic status people believe they have, even though their actual economic position could be somewhat different (for example, because of the massive unemployment in the region).

So how is this reflected on Facebook? Just as people put all this time and effort into their offline appearance, now many are extremely careful in curating their Facebook page. They do so by being extremely careful in selecting and editing the photos they upload, showing their support for online friends with comments and ‘Likes’ and in general trying to make sure their appearance on Facebook is consistent with how others would see them ‘offline.’ Facebook is considered a very public platform, and therefore people are very considered in how they post.

Among other things, the role if Facebook here is to actually make sure that there are no major differences between how people appear to others ‘offline’ and ‘online,’ for example, by offering adjustments or justifications when this may seem to some that this is not the case. Recently, a friend of mine in the field site had to post a long message on his own timeline to reply to an accusation from one of his online friends (which remained unnamed) who accused him of not being a proper ecologist. This remark was triggered by some of my friend’s recent postings in which he vaguely displayed some sort of sympathy for mass consumption practices.

Similarly, people are increasing aware that when they dress to go out, some of their friends might take a photo of them and upload it on Facebook. Therefore, that particular photo will have an implication beyond the transience of the particular event they have attended to.

In all these cases, the consequence is that Facebook works as a window that opens up a view both towards an exterior appearance of the individual which also reflects on the social norms existing in the local community, and the interior of moral values or domestic family. For both, people follow clear guides to the type and level of visibility they are expected to reach.

Job opportunity: Can you help the world discover our findings?

By Tom McDonald, on 30 July 2015

Construction site

Can you help us build our dissemination materials? (Photo by MF)

As part of our project’s ambitious dissemination plans we are currently seeking to recruit a content manager to assist our research team in creating a new website (named ‘Why We Post’), an online course and a series of social media channels to share our research findings with a broad and global audience.

In addition the person holding this post would assist in the organisation of the project including copy editing English, co-ordinating translations, research analysis and in promoting the project to the media and within education.

This is an incredible opportunity to join our team and be part of an exciting project aiming to change the way anthropological research is presented and shared.

Full information on the position is available via the UCL Jobs website. The closing date for applications is 12 August 2015.

Using storytelling to build online courses

By Tom McDonald, on 21 July 2015

The project team filming a video for our online course

The project team filming a video for our online course

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

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

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

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