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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.

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.

Women Entrepreneurs and WhatsApp

By Shriram Venkatraman, on 17 April 2015

Image Courtesy Bhupinder Nayyar (Creative Commons)

Image Courtesy Bhupinder Nayyar (Creative Commons)

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

The in-group influence

By Shriram Venkatraman, on 13 March 2013

Photo by epSos.de (Creative Commons)

Photo by epSos.de (Creative Commons)

Several cross-cultural strategy consultants stress that, in some countries, people are influenced by their “in-group/inner circle”, which mainly comprises of friends and relatives. They advise new companies to go through this in-group circle when attempting to influence their target sector. This can also be understood as “friends” influencing the target sector more than any other group. Facebook’s strategy on giving users recommendations of things/products or websites by “friends” has seen an amplified effect/impact with their revenue generation. Further, with brands and applications posting on behalf of a user who maybe an influential in-group personality for some, the strategy seems to be a marketable option generalising the impact of friends in all countries and specifically in those where an in-group effect is maximum. An aspect to look out for might be to check if these in-group influencing economies are digitally driven and use social networking sites. Furthermore, it looks like a lot more needs to be written and researched on how recommendations of “friends” (as in-groups) work for online companies and their associated products.

New-Age Spiritual Gurus and Social Media

By Shriram Venkatraman, on 13 February 2013

It is not rare to see the social media presence of new-age spiritual Gurus in India. They have a steady following on several social networking sites. From Facebook fan pages and groups to Twitter to Youtube channels, you name it and they have it!

Transcendent and immanent omnipresence, a spiritual nature of the soul in Indian philosophy, now finds itself rightly expressed through social media. With such high intense publicity, it seems like several such Gurus are driven by an incessant need to achieve the dream of several beauty pageant participants – namely ‘world peace’.

Though there is nothing wrong in the branding that they wish to achieve in order to either bring in more followers or maintain their supportes – in other words an e-spiritual capital (or call it the i-spiritual capital, or prefix any other vowel that denotes the digital medium) that they build through their social media presence – it doesn’t take long to figure out the conversion of this e/i-Spiritual capital to an economic capital on the digital arena.  Most of their presence on social media are followed by links to their websites which more or less advertises the Guru and does an awesome spiritual marketing, pitching in their e-shops and souvenir items that was until recently only traded in US dollars.

Rituals on the Facebook pages range from chanting (typing) the Guru’s name every morning, noon and night to expressing how an ideal life should be led on this earth. The pages cater to mostly the devotees and followers who are not residents in India. The digital medium is thus used to build memories of the Guru across space and time. Some of the best personal branding social media presence run by volunteers is that of these new-age spiritual Gurus. No wonder that they now advise CEOs and corporate entities on how to run businesses!