A A A

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.

* These 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.

References

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.

WhatsApp: A pain in the arse

By Juliano Andrade Spyer, on 4 January 2015

3063220201_29035044d1_o

Image courtesy of Josh Stocco, Creative Commons

It is not uncommon for the people of Balduino to discuss sex. Even my least talkative informants enjoyed telling me about their love affairs outside their official relationships. So it is not surprising that loads of sex clips circulated through my informant’s smart phones’ WhatsApp exchanges. Yet I did not understand that a trusted female informant – that agreed to share her personal communication with me – constantly forwarded me clips of heterosexual anal penetration.

Most of the videos she sent me depicting sex had in common one element: they were low budged videos that displayed painful anal sex penetration.

Since I cannot show you those clips because of the nature of the content, I will briefly describe what is particular about them.

One clip shows the moment the male actor mistakenly misses the actresses’ vagina and penetrates her anus abruptly. The video is edited comically using slow motion to depict the ferocious reaction of the woman as she breaks from that predictable porn performance and, screaming, begins to attack her partner on that scene. There are also clips in which the women try to hide the pain by screaming in as if she was having an orgasm.

All these videos indicate that the women are putting up with those scenes for reasons that are not related to pleasure. They accept it, most likely because they are being paid as porn actresses, but they do not like it.

Why would adult heterosexual women be sharing this kind of content if it is not because it turns them on – as it clearly doesn’t?

My informant and her friends laugh at these scenes. For them, it is humouring the only channel that allows this kind of subject to be brought up. Laughing about these videos is a way to talk about the sudden change in gender relations in the village.

It was only in the past two decades that most women there began having the opportunity of developing a career and becoming financially independent from their male partners.

Men are no longer needed as before to provide money and protection for the family. In fact, women have become better adapted to the formal job market; they have studied more and are more productive than men according to various sources I spoke with. This change raises discomfort among men.

An informant told me her partner took away her birth control pills when she refused having sex late in the night (as she had to work early in the morning) as a way to punish her. As a mother she would again have to stay home and accept her dependence on him. Looking from this angle, the sharing of these painful anal clips exposes how difficult it has been for women and for men to negotiate new roles.

The conclusion may seem too obvious; but showing painful anal penetration clips may be just a way of agreeing that the men in Balduino are a big pain in their arses.

 

Facebook for children?

By Elisabetta Costa, on 14 March 2014

Photo by Elisabetta Costa

Youth taking photos at a wedding in the Turkey fieldsite (Photo by Elisabetta Costa)

In common with many of our other fieldsites, here in south-east Turkey the sentiment is that Facebook is also not as ‘cool’ as it was before among teenagers. However, as Amber explained in her blog post, the increasing use of other social networking sites does not necessarily mean that Facebook is used less than before. This is a trend in common with findings in our fieldsites in other countries, as UK and Brazil, but the reasons of the change are specific to each field-site. Here people aged between 16 and 19 are telling me that Facebook is not so cool anymore because it is used more and more by younger children. According to the data emerging from my in-depth interviews Facebook is used by a large majority of students (age 6-10) in primary schools to play games and chat with school friends. And it’s used by almost every student (age 11-13) in middle schools. Also in the streets of the town it’s very common to see groups of  primary school aged children talking about Facebook, and playing games on Facebook using the smartphone of some older brother or cousin. Adults and parents often describe Facebook as a tool more appropriate to children than adults. And assumptions about Facebook as a media appropriate to play games, to have fun, and not to discuss serious topics or to read news are very common here.

Then, the massive diffusion of Facebook among children is also explained by a positive attitude towards technology in the generation of parents in their twenties and thirties, an attitude that is completely absent among parents in their forties and above. The latter, especially women, are rarely users of social media. Mothers of teenagers are usually ‘digitally illiterate’ housewives with a  low level of education. While parents in their twenties and thirties are more educated, they are users of internet and digital media and they do have a more positive attitude towards new technologies. The significant generational gap between the generation of parents in their twenties and thirties, and those in their forties reflects the big economic boom and  massive growth of public education experienced by Turkey in the last ten and fifteen years. The evidence emerging from my ethnography is confirmed also by some simple quantitative data: according to data from the Turkish Statistical Institute in the province where my fieldsite is situated, the number of women with a university degree in the age of 30-34 is six times higher (1933) than those in the age of 40-44 (337).

It seems that increased wealth and  familiarity with digital technology causes young parents to support the use of social media by their kids. Not only this: the use of smartphone and computers by children play an important role in the affirmation of middle-class status of their family. In this growing consuming economy, the presence of digital technologies in the family plays a very important role within the new hierarchy of taste, in the sense given by Bourdieu (1984).

Thus, in front of the increasing usage of Facebook by children, teen-agers are starting to explore new social media platforms such as WhatsApp and Twitter that are seen as more stylish and trendy, and are used mainly by a narrower group of peer-friends. But Facebook still remains the favourite media to have access to a wider audience, to achieve more popularity, to play games and to communicate with strangers.

Photography in the age of Snapchat

By Daniel Miller, on 2 February 2014

Photo by Island Photography

Photo by Island Capture Photography (Creative Commons)

I want to suggest that conventionally when we consider the role of the photograph in society, we see this as a kind of three stage movement. First there is the practice of photography itself. We have assumed that this was merely the requisite technology, largely the handmaiden to the desire to have a photograph. Then there is the object, the photograph, and that was assumed in turn to be the handmaiden to the ultimate aim, which was to record something. The photograph was there to serve as an object of memory, a technical facility to retain an image beyond the relatively poor ability of the brain to accurately retain images of the past. It could be as an art, but it was more often a wedding or holiday.

Today most photographs are taken for their use in social media. Figures quoted online vary but it is suggested around 350 million photos are shared per day on Facebook, 55 million on Instagram, 400 million on WhatsApp and 450 million on Snapchat.

I want to suggest that as a result, we need to completely turn on its head our conventional understanding of photography. Memory has been reduced merely to the legitimation of having a photograph, but the photograph itself has lost its position as the aim of the exercise since mostly the photo is merely the excuse for what now takes centre stage which is the act of taking a photograph. Photography as an activity has moved from background to foreground. Fortunately we can see this sequence more clearly because it corresponds to the development of three social media sites in sequence. The movement from Facebook to Instagram to Snapchat/WhatsApp.

Photography on Facebook
Facebook now appears as the convenient bridge between more traditional photography and the more recent social media. Facebook places considerable importance on the photo album and the collecting of images. Everything shared whether tagged or not is also stored. One of the reasons Facebook’s long term future is likely to be older people, is that it is very effective in this role, certainly compared to conventional photograph album and the analogue photo. As Xinyuan recently noted you can turn to QQ to see yourself as you looked ten years ago when you first joined QQ, soon this will be common on Facebook.

Photography on Instagram
Photography on Instagram has a much more transient feel than Facebook. In working with young people I find that Instagram gives them a kind of creative project. All day they can think about what would make a good photograph? (similarly, what would make a clever tweet?). If they don’t see anything else, they can always take a Selfie. This gives purpose to the day and becomes a bulwark against the constant concern with being bored. As such, where once we framed the photograph, now we use photography to frame experience. Here we see the reversed sequence. Storing the photo, as in Facebook, is exposed as mere excuse for having a photo, which in turn is mere excuse for the real purpose, which is the project enacted by the act of photography itself.

Photography on Snapchat/WhatsApp
It was Snapchat that bludgeoned to death our conventional view of photography. If the photo can only last for a maximum of ten seconds, then we can’t even pretend it’s about memory or even about the image. The point about Instagram is now made explicit. It can only be the act of taking that matters. Except that on Snapchat/WhatsApp we realise that this is not just individual experience it is a social act, we take pictures in order to share, and to see the response to our sharing. We have to take the word ‘Snapchat’ literally – the photograph is just a form of chat, saying Hi, a more interesting emoticon. WhatsApp is a bit less violent a repudiation of the photograph, but still highly transient. Clearly we may work with all three of these social media and all three of these relationships to photography.

As I will argue in a more extended paper, the mistake is to think this makes photography more superficial, actually I will argue this makes photography more profound.

The normativity of social media

By Razvan Nicolescu, on 26 December 2013

Blackboard after a class of communication in one of the local High Schools. Photographed by Razvan Nicolescu.

Blackboard after a class of communication in one of the local High Schools. Photographed by Razvan Nicolescu.

The questionnaires we applied this summer in our Italian fieldsite showed that around 40% of respondents who were on Facebook had never changed their privacy settings, which means their profiles were public. At the same time, more than 80% responded they were not concerned or did not care if an individual or an organization would use their personal data available on the platform. These percentages were much higher than I expected, and seemed relatively high when compared to similar data collected from other fieldsites in the project. They suggested that in general Italians are quite relaxed about their online appearance as well as about the content they post or produce online. Further investigation into the usage of social media suggested that Italians’ online presence is characterized by a strong sense of normativity. This sense seems to be the result of the juxtaposition of two different forces: on the one hand there is a strong sense that society is characterized by a particular order and predictability that should not be contradicted, not even online. This is expressed, for example, through a high concern on what one should post, how one should behave, what one should ‘Like,’ and so on. The second force is expressed through a high concern about the performative (in Goffman‘s terms). This is again normative, as most individuals try to present themselves online the way they think society is expecting them to. In other words, there is a great consistency between the way people present themselves online and what they think society thinks about them. For example, with the notable exception of teenagers, the very few histrionic or ‘inconsistent’ online profiles belong to highly educated people who also have some sort of privileged access to different forms of cultural capital. At the same time, people use other media, such as mobile phones, including mobile phone Apps, Skype, or photography, for their most private issues. This seems to be related to the fact that these media are used to communicate in more private spaces, in smaller groups, or in one-to-one fashion .However, most of the content of this relatively private communication will be made public sooner or later, including via social media. It seems that most of the time the information that is considered sensitive goes through a series of more private filters until it can be safely displayed in such an accessible space as, say, Facebook. Therefore, the information is normally displayed on Facebook after losing a few layers: it could lose much of its novelty, it could lose or disguise most of its private character, some of its specificity, and so on. At the same time, the loss in novelty could be compensated through actions of close friends such as ‘Likes’ or a lively series of comments. The loss of privacy could be balanced out by a gain in audience, and the loss in specificity could be offset by the personal creativity and the capacity to relate to other issues that are more public and popular for a certain audience.

People I work with continue to tell me in different ways how online they constantly dress and undress information following this pattern. Usually, they aim to find a way, even if eccentric or innovative, to fit in at least one definition of normativity. This brief discussion suggests a few things. First, social media could help us to understand the bigger social system of which it is a part, if we think of social media as a place where people delegate and work out different parts of their sociality. It is the aggregate of these delegations that we hope will tell something about people and the society in which they live. Much of this ethos is condensed in terms such as Polymedia or Digital Anthropology. This  project also aims to identify other common expressions of diversity. Secondly, in the Italian fieldsite it seems that social media works not towards change – of society, notions of individuality and connectedness, and so on – but rather as a conservative force that tends to strengthen the conventional social relations and to reify society as Italians enjoy and recognize it. The normativity of the online presence seems to be just one expression of this process.

How teenagers communicate with publicly private messages

By Juliano Andrade Spyer, on 30 November 2013

2013-11-01 12.57.36

Teens may use different characters to add layers of information to a name. (Photo by Juliano Spyer)

Through the process of “gutting” profiles I had the opportunity to pay attention to a kind of posting I see often but did not recognize as a type of coded communication. Many of the female young adults and teenagers I friended publish regularly moralizing content that they themselves write. At first sight they are rather uninteresting, looking like an amateurish exercise on writing self-help prose, but a trusted local showed me that there was more to it than I had grasped at first. Lange’s (2007) notions of privately public and publicly private have been helpful to study this phenomenon.

First, let me show you what it is that I am talking about. Here are examples of the content these informants may share at any time and any day:

“When all seems lost, give glory to God”.

“The pain will pass just like the smile will arrive”.

“Today’s tip: ignore offensive words because poison only does you harm if you swallow it”.

“The size of my deception is the size of the trust I gave. There are people that don’t think of others, they only see their own bellybutton.”

“Sometimes change must come from within”.

“To be happy is not to have a perfect life. But to use your tears to irrigate tolerance. Use the losses to refine patience. Use the mistakes to carve serenity. Use pain to lapidate the pleasure. Use the obstacles to cultivate intelligence”.

I arrived at this topic–codes teenagers and young adults use to speak privately in public areas such as Facebook–as my research assistant told me about a recent experience she had related to the use of social media. The story involves her close friend who is 16 years old, that for the purpose of anonymity I will call G16. G16 liked a boy that had a reputation of being a lady-killer. The information reached G16’s mother, who is overly-concerned that her daughter will not sacrifice her future because of an unplanned pregnancy. As G16 refused to friend her mom on Facebook, the mother decided she had the obligation to spy on her daughter. She did so by convincing my assistant’s mother to request that my assistant show them the content G16 posts on Facebook.

This story will make better sense if you have an idea of what Baldoíno, our Brazilian field site, is like. This used to be a fishing village about half century ago. It has steadily grown and has became a sort of working class neighborhood for the manual labor hired by the touristic industry nearby. Students in general are not very interested in studying, but are under the spell of digital communication devices and services. This passion started with Orkut and Messenger, and has now materialized in Facebook. Of course, as Professor Daniel Miller recently pointed out in his blog post, Facebook  is becoming less cool for younger generations.  In Baldoíno, young people are  quickly migrating to the new cool thing: WhatsApp. And my hypothesis is that the absolute fascination with these products is partially about looking cool, but mainly about having the possibility of communicating among themselves and, as much as possible, away from adults like teachers and parents. This sort of privately-public communication is possible partly because older people here are not well trained in reading, writing, using keyboard and mouse, and navigating through computer screens. That is the case of the mothers of G16’s and my assistant. It takes a long time for them to read and even longer to type.

As the mothers pressed my assistant to expose her friend and to break the confidence they have on each other, my assistant decided to cooperate but not to volunteer information either about G16’s life or about how to use Facebook and the local codes of usage. And as expected, the mothers did not spend much time looking at the girl’s timeline as it was much too crowded with written stuff. Instead, they asked to look at G16’s photos. The logic of the request was that, if G16 was dating this guy, they should have photos of each other as a couple. But, as my assistant explained, G16 knew that a picture of that kind would find a way of reaching her mom the same way the gossip about her secret affair did, so she would never expose herself like that.

The attempted spying failed and G16’s mother was then convinced that it was a better strategy to have an honest conversation with her daughter.But the story would have been somehow different if my assistant had been as helpful to the mothers as she was to me. You first need to know that the extensive amount of generic moralizing content was disguised communication. Secondly, you would need to be part of G16’s group of trusted companions to know through face to face communication what was going on in her life. Under such circumstances I could see that there was a lot G16 was saying about her romance on recent postings.

Here are examples of her coded messages (which have been re-written for anonymizing purposes):

“Don’t ever ignore someone that loves, worries about you and misses you. Because maybe one day you may wake up and find out you have missed the moon while counting the stars”.

“I matured a lot recently and learned to acknowledged myself. As new people came to my life, I also decided to let go others that did not add to my well-being. – feeling bothered”

According to my interpreter, the first message was a warning to the boyfriend. She was telling him and others that know him that she was not happy with the little attention he is offering her and telling him she would not tolerate that much longer. The following message suggests that she had decided to let go of him even if his actions do not please her. My assistant speculated that G16’s conversation with her mom had a positive outcome. So writing is a way of hiding things from the older generations here. Together with writing one hides hints of what is going on under the look of a prosaic or philosophic reflection that makes no reference to specific people, places or events. Had it not been for the help and trust of my assistant, I would have never guessed the true meaning.

Reference

Lange, P. G. (2007), Publicly Private and Privately Public: Social Networking on YouTube. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 13: 361–380. doi: 10.1111/j.1083-6101.2007.00400.x

The Facebook wall as expression of traditional values

By Elisabetta Costa, on 11 November 2013

Photo by Elisabetta Costa

Photo by Elisabetta Costa

The inhabitants of Dry Rock Town in south-east Turkey have a mix of social, economic, geographical and ethnic backgrounds. The composition of the town is complex, beginning with a heterogeneous population that has lived here for decades and centuries. Additionally, different groups of rural and urban Kurds, Turks and Arabs came to live in the town more recently for different reasons, contributing to the expansion of the city. At the moment the main social differences of the inhabitants can be explained mainly as a consequence of different levels of urbanization. In fact we can see the people now living in Dry Rock Town as distributed along a continuum from more rural to more urban.

In the last weeks I have worked on the visual analysis of my informants Facebook posts and what has struck me most has been the homogeneity of their Facebook profiles. Although the differences existing in  real life between rural and urban people are evident, their Facebook visual materials look quite similar. It doesn’t matter if a woman or a man has grown up in the main city of the region or in a small village, and they have completely different life-styles. Their Facebook profiles have many things in common and their visual materials are not so different from each other. Traditional values of family, honour and women’s modesty are overtly represented.

For example, H. is a young Kurdish woman who works in a highly professional environment, grew up in a big city in southeast Turkey, has male friends, drinks alcohol in restaurants, and eventually will freely choose the person she marries. Her Facebook wall is not so different from the one of S., a woman in her early thirties who grew up in a small town, has very few relationships with non-family members, and that is married to a man who was chosen by her family. In both cases, relatives, family members and traditional habits surface as the main objects of the visual materials that appear on their Facebook walls. Pictures of weddings and family gatherings, and self-portraits with relatives are the most represented images.

The Facebook social network reproduces the social space of the village where there is no space for anonymity. On Facebook everybody is very careful to not damage their own reputation and that of the family because on Facebook everybody knows each other. The practices learned in the anonymous spaces of the big city disappear in the self-representation played out on Facebook. I refer specifically to habits and customs of urban women, such as hanging out with friends, coming home late at night, drinking alcohol, smoking cigarettes, and having intimate relationships before marriage, which are not represented at all on the Facebook wall.

But as written in a previous post, in contrast with the normativity of the public space, the private chats and the private messages of Facebook are exactly the opposite. People do secretly what they can’t do in the offline world: chatting with girls and boys, flirting, finding lovers, new friends and partners, getting in touch with foreigners, playing games, and being politically active.

Facebook and the body aesthetic in south-east Turkey

By Elisabetta Costa, on 9 October 2013

Female mannequin in shop in Turkey fieldsite

Female mannequin in shop in Turkey fieldsite

I have been looking at the Facebook photos of my friends in Dry Rock Town in south-east Turkey and I found very few pictures of overweight women, despite the fact that there are many in town. I can’t reduce the explanation of this fact simply to the presence of an ideal form of the thin body, because this exists in many other parts of the world where people post their pictures of fat bodies on Facebook.

As a way to meet new people and to do some exercise I started to go to one of the three local gyms of the neighborhood where I live. I discovered that the gym is a perfect place to understand the new social aesthetic norms of female and male bodies. Indeed in Dry Rock Town sport is usually portrayed as a way to shape the body, rather than being something worthy in itself. Women go to the gym only to lose weight, while men usually go the gym to do body-building and increase their muscles. I have been asked innumerable times why I was going to the gym as I was not fat, and I had the feeling that my answer “I like doing sport” has never really been understood.

In Dry Rock Town, as with many other parts of the world, the ideal body of the women has changed quite a lot in recent years. As many older men in my fieldsite told me, until few decades ago fatter women were appreciated and searched out by men, because they believed that such women could be more fertile and make more children. But now men are attracted by thin women and young women are obsessed with slim bodies and diet. I had a conversation with a sport trainer who displayed a particularly aggressive attitude towards fat women:

“I really hate fat women! They have never done any exercise during all their life; they just seat, cook and eat. And then all of a sudden they want to lose weight without any effort. I hate them!”

Another friend, a young Kurdish man, is used to making fun of Arab women because they are fat:

“They just know how to cook and eat. The stay at home all day, they clean, they make food and they eat! When they are 35 years old you can’t look at them anymore.”

In Dry Rock Town there are many overweight women as a consequence of a life style that restricts their opportunities to move freely and  have healthy life. In most cases, women sit at home, clean the house, cook, eat, look after the children and, sometimes, they go to work. But if in the past their daily-life habits were fitting the aesthetic social norms, now there is a clear discrepancy between these habits and the shape they tend to achieve, with the effect of creating deep fears and complexes among young women.

But being fat is not only about a physical appearance that does not correspond to the social norms. Being fat is associated with a “traditional” life-style, with old-fashioned habits, with backwardness. Here overweight women are the antithesis of modernity; in somehow they embed exactly what young men and women want to escape from. Facebook users in Dry Rock Town are usually the first generation of educated people, with high school or university degree, and they look towards a different life-style from those of their less educated and more “traditional” parents.

This aversion against the values embedded by weight happens in a place where Facebook is highly normative because it reflects the powerful normativity of a “traditional” Muslim society where people have to strictly follow specific social norms that define every single aspect of the daily life. But now Facebook extends this normativity to new domains: the strict normativity of the way people portray them online where specific aesthetic codes are followed with very few exceptions.

Communicating death in an Indian village

By Shriram Venkatraman, on 14 August 2013

Photo by Matt Zimmerman (Creative Commons)

Photo by Matt Zimmerman (Creative Commons)

Communicating the occurence of a life event to one’s social group (relatives, friends, colleagues etc.) is something that is seen in most societies around the world. However, the patterns and processes of communicating such events differ between societies. It is not a rarity to find extensive use of Facebook and other social networking sites as major platforms to communicate major life events such as the birth of a child, birthdays (where now reminders from the social networking sites now help to prompt the sending of messages), wedding anniversaries, deaths and so on. Exploring instances of how life events such as news of the death of a close relative or someone important are communicated becomes very interesting and given that one of the areas of focus for the project is to also explore death and memorialization, it definitely becomes an area worth observing.

The death of one of my informant’s grandfather occurred a couple of days ago, right at a time when there was a yearly religious village carnival going on in my field site. This was unexpected, though the village elder who had passed away was paralysed and had been “suffering” for almost a year now. He was 82 years old. The death was now viewed as pollution (theetu) as it had happened right in the middle of a sacred week. Further, given that a lot of money had already been spent on preparing for the celebrations, the idea was to cremate the “dead body” as soon as possible and to go on with the celebrations without cancelling any of the planned events.

Within an hour’s of the death people from at least five to six neighbouring villages and also from the closest city had gathered there to offer their respects to this village elder who had passed away. It was fascinating to see how so many people (between 1500–2000) had assembled within such a short span of time. As it was the death of the head of a lineage (Thala Kattu), the ceremony had to have all the regalia and the ceremonial and ritualistic arrangements befitting the status of the dead person and all this had to be prepared in a very short time. Normally, a dead person’s body is kept in state for at least a day or two so that everyone around the area gets a chance to come  and pay their last respects. Further, the day is also used to make arrangements for the cremation. However, this time it was different, the body had to be taken off from the area as soon as possible as it would halt the religious ceremony. What normally happens over 48 hours happened in just five to six hours. The speed at which communication worked and the news spread was something worth observing/exploring. The reason was very clearly discernible – it was use of mobile technology – cell phone at its best.

The original classical method of spreading the message of someone’s death in this village was to send people in all the four directions to convey the message to their kin in other villages and let the neighbouring village heads know of this, so people could come in to offer their last respects to the dead. Though this was still followed as a ritualistic process in order to maintain their age old practice, the urgency which the situation demanded seemed to be negotiated with the help of cell phones. It was clear that it was a mix of both voice and text that seemed to accomplish things. However, there was a clear distinction of purposes to which the use of voice and/or text was assigned. Communicating the news of death in person to the very senior elderly people and the head of the villages was considered respect and was a formalized unwritten protocol and that was still followed. However, communicating the message of death to middle aged and other elderly people always ensured a voice communication through cell phones as it was once again considered respect to use one’s voice to communicate such messages while text seemed fine with the younger generation. Logistical requirements and their arrangements like flowers, fireworks etc. happened over voice communication on cell phones.

Although an unsaid prohibition of not taking pictures of the dead body was followed, it was pretty much evident that there were a few youngsters (relatives of the now dead village elder) taking pictures of the dead body on their mobile phones. A casual chat revealed that they were planning on sending picture messages to their relatives and friends who were not able to make it to the ceremony. However, they were certain that they would not put it up on their Facebook or other social networking sites as they were only interested in sending this to people to whom this mattered. Putting this news on Facebook or other SNS would be seen as insulting the dead person, in short they were trying to focus their communication to reach the target audience (though marketers use this all the time, but have more of “brand pages” which was not the case here). Further, they did joke that some of their friends would “Like” the picture post, or sometimes even send in unwanted comments and if someone from the family saw that, then it would result in unwanted issues. Further, not all their counterparts or kin used social networking sites, but they had cell phones. The events as they unfolded very clearly revealed the power of technology; however, they also revealed that constant negotiation with the type of technology to use, the purpose of using them and how they were used even during a single event differed widely.

There was an urge to understand if such communication during death worked the same way when telephones found a place in this society too. The idea that communication of a message of death might have changed first when telephones came in which in a way is a gradual process of upgrading from manual news carriers to telephones and then to cell phones is something that most think as being true, as these steps seem to be the logical order. However, very soon it was revealed that most of them in the village here never had a telephone, as telephones (specifically from the government) were pretty hard to secure and their names in the waiting list seemed to have a permanent fixed position, thereby ensuring that most households in the village never had a telephone. The process was a movement from manual carriers directly to cell phones, bypassing the era of telephones. So how did they communicate messages of death to their social circle living in far off places? –  Telegrams. They came in very handy when telephones were not available to the common masses as cell phones are now spread out.

Telegraps were the text messages and forerunner of the today’s text messaging. Telegraphs did have their own lingo as the messages now do, as charges incurred depended on the number of words. It was called “Thandhi” in Tamil. Most villages/small towns in India, as in my fieldsite did associate “Thandhi” with death. They assumed that such urgent messages meant the death of someone they knew, though telegraphic services did carry countless other messages too. But, it was symbolically associated with the announcement of death. This was prevalent in my fieldsite too. However, last month the Indian Telegraphic Service closed shop after 162 years and the idea of symbolically associating it to death had its death then.