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The age of the amateur?

By Jolynna Sinanan, on 3 January 2014

cooking

Image courtesy of Chris Zielecki, Creative Commons

Well into the thick of looking at what people post, there are the obvious recurrences of photos of family, friends, selfies or being seen somewhere, like a club, event or on holiday. There is also another genre that I think begins with photos of food. There are lots of posts of food at restaurants, but there are also lots of photos of self-prepared food. In Trinidad, there is definitely a sense of photos being posted because they are a ‘Trini’ dish, but what of cakes and cupcake decorating for example, that aren’t particularly Trini? Especially being the last week of the year and Christmas week, there are more photos of ‘things I have made’ than usual. The ‘things I have made’ genre also extends to parties, weddings and baby showers- social gatherings, where trinkets on tables, flower arrangements, gifts for guests are also the products of assemblage by individuals and not commercially bought as finished products (which, I suppose would be ‘things I have bought’.)

We have started asking informants what they think of things posted by others. Sandra, an admin assistant in her late twenties, mostly posts photos of things she has cooked or baked. Another informant looked at images only of her posts and described her dishes as cosmopolitan and therefore, Sandra must be or aspires to be a cosmopolitan person. One of Sandra’s friends posted origami Christmas decorations to her wall with paper that Sandra had bought her for her birthday. Another friend volunteers to make party trinkets and decorations for their friends and posts them on her own timeline, so following the chain of associations by following one friend’s post to another friend’s timeline, we can start to assume that this is a crafty bunch of friends that have a shared interest in DIY.

Razvan and Danny discussed some time ago what Facebook might mean for commercial photography and for professions such as the wedding photographer. With camera phones and quick filter apps such as Instagram, any photo can look good and is instantly available at no cost. Instagram is not big in my fieldsite in Trinidad, but photography for the social pages of newspapers and Facebook are. Photographers go to fetes, events and parties, photograph people and post them, so individuals don’t have to pay anyone for professional photos to be taken. Some of these photographers are amateurs themselves who build their profile by branding images and posting them on Facebook.

The two weddings I was invited to during my last period of fieldwork also had invitations made, not from a commercial design firm, but through a Photoshop savvy relative who simply printed the invitations at the local office shop (and one of the couples posted photos of the invitation on Facebook). Printed Christmas cards are also a long standing tradition in Trinidad, and this week, I have seen a flood of posts of Christmas images and photos of people modified by an editing app that surrounds the image with Christmas-themed borders and decorations.

Of course, like any observation, I would need to systematically investigate the genre of DIY and ‘things I have made’ further, and its relevance to social media. The town of El Mirador is still a place where brands and the amount spent on commercial goods are indicators of status, but there are also conversations around ethical consumption, waste, and environmentalism that are resulting in a small DIY subculture. It also a town where DIY has been valued for at least two generations, with the building and modification of homes; painting, renovation, and adding extensions (where men and their relatives do this rather than hiring work men). The key difference is that for the previous generation, such forms of DIY weren’t able to be shared and catalogued through a platform like Facebook. Homes had to be visited in order to be appreciated. But now, I don’t have to eat one of Sandra’s magnificent cupcakes to appreciate the time, creativity and labour she has put into it.

I’m dreaming of a QQ Christmas

By Tom McDonald, on 25 December 2013

Tencent's QZone wishes its users a Merry Christmas in a most unusual style (Image: Tencent)

Tencent’s QZone wishes its users a Merry Christmas in a most unusual style. Chinese reads: “Playing the mobile phone version is even more fun! Try it.”, “Play again” and “Share your scores” (Image: Tencent)

Being an anthropologist is an incredible adventure, and one that I am really fortunate to be having. I am enormously privileged to be spending large amounts of time in a culture radically unalike my own, making friends with people who hold completely different views on the world, and, in the process learning a lot about both myself, and also about what makes us human (which is, after all, the point of anthropology).

However, living in a village in North China also has its difficulties: irregular water supplies, substandard housing and extreme climates, to name but a few. But the thing that really affects me at times is the solitary nature of fieldwork. Being a lone researcher far away from your family and friends is difficult, and especially so on Christmas Day when you know that those you love are at home celebrating together.

So what is Christmas like in the Chinese countryside? While urban Chinese shopping malls are increasingly adopting lavish Christmas decorations, in my rural Chinese fieldsite it is largely just a normal day. The only material sign of Christmas was a couple of subdued Santa decorations affixed to the door of  a shop that sells snacks to local school children.

Imagine my delight, then, when I visited QZone (QQ‘s version of Facebook) this morning to be greeted by an image of Santa wearing nothing but a bobble-hat and a pair of underpants. A speech bubble next to the jolly old fellow pleaded “help my find clothes!”

Clicking on Santa bought me to an arcade-style game where I controlled the semi-dressed Father Christmas with the arrow keys directing him to catch falling snowflakes, baubles and candy canes. Capturing this yuletide precipitation resulted in Santa gradually accumulating both points and items of clothing. At the end of the game these points could be exchanged for a virtual ‘Christmas gift': snowmen, santa hats, Christmas trees, etc., that could be posted with a comment onto the QZone page of a friend. Real stuffed santa gifts were also available for purchase to be delivered to a recipient of one’s choice.

Over the course of Christmas Day, I have also received many Christmas greetings, or ‘blessings’ (zhufu) from my informants via QQ and WeChat. Many of these greeting were memes featuring dancing Santas, Christmas trees and other festive images. Even QQ’s login pages and mobile app had special Christmas-themed landing pages and QZone skins for one’s homepage.

It struck me that, in many ways, Christmas as experienced on QQ is even more lively than that on Facebook, which retains it’s sombre blue-and-white page over the festive season. I think this can be partly explained by the fact that many of my informants understand Christmas to be, as they explain to me, ‘your Chinese New Year’ (nimen de guonian). One of the key features of Chinese New Year is a ‘hot and noisy’ (re’nao) atmosphere, when public places fill with people wearing bright new clothes, visiting relatives, setting off firecrackers. The Christmas that appears in Chinese social media seems to be a Christmas that emphasises this ‘hot and noisy’ atmosphere – one full of fun, games, gifting and pleasure.

It is exciting to see the Chinese appropriating Christmas, and making meaning out of it within their own culture. And for me, at the very least, being able to spending Christmas with a half-naked Santa certainly eases the homesickness.

The ‘true meaning’ of Christmas

By Tom McDonald, on 24 December 2012

The sacred and the profane double juxtaposed in a Facebook post (Source: GodVine/Unknown)

Complaining about the excessive consumerism of Christmas seems to have become as traditional a past-time as putting up one’s christmas tree, or stuffing the turkey. Christmas and materialism have always seemed somehow opposed to each other, Christmas was supposed to be a celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, which somehow seemed diluted by the fact that people in Western societies appeared more concerned with rounds of shopping and what appeared to be excessive consumption on gifts, crackers, and shiny sparkly things.

And yet, it cannot be ignored that this is how people actually seem to be concerned with experiencing Christmas. In his essay on the rituals of Christmas giving, James Carrier (1993: 55-74) looked at how people wrapped and gifted presents. He argues that the wrapping of the present was an act that appropriated an otherwise commercial gift, and made it something of the gift-giver’s own. This transformed the gift from a material good to something with a capacity to express love and care between human beings, and thus appropriate for a fundamental aspect of human behaviour: gift exchange (see Mauss 1967).

On the face of it, God and social networking appear to have similarly little in common. The rituals and rites associated with the former are anthropology’s bread-and-butter; whilst the latter is frequently derided as being mundane and of little consequence, inherently unsuitable for anthropological research. And yet, we similarly cannot ignore the fact that this is, for many, an important space where connections with the sacred are contemplated, enacted and observed. And in this sense I do not necessarily mean those events that gain mass-media coverage, such as Pope Benedict’s twitter feed.

Instead, I am more interested in something like religious memes, religious messages that normal people themselves encounter and share through their online networks (see the example above). These are occasions where user-generated religious themed messages might be created, posted or shared. At the moment, I have little idea what these things mean. But when we start our 15 month period of fieldwork researching the effect social networking is having in seven different countries next year, I think it would be reasonable to expect that this phenomena (either from Christianity or other forms of religious expressions) is something we might encounter and want to understand more deeply.

I think anthropology carries with it a pledge: that we take people’s opinions, expressions and beliefs seriously, regardless of what these may be, try to live inside these opinions and understand them for what they are. We do this by living closely with people, and sharing their life for a prolonged period of time. This is not just in order to execute an act of scientific analysis, but is also, first and foremost, a duty that we owe to our research participants.

Whatever your beliefs, I hope you have a very happy Christmas, New Year and holiday period.

References

Carrier, J (1993) The rituals of Christmas giving In: Miller, D (ed.) Unwrapping Christmas. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Mauss, M. (1967 [1928]). The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies (I. Cunnison, Trans.). New York: W. W. Norton & Company.