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A close-up look at Chinese social media platforms

By Tom McDonald, on 11 February 2016

Tom McDonald and Xinyuan Wang introduce China's social media platforms

Tom McDonald and Xinyuan Wang introduce China’s social media platforms

Chinese social media is remarkable because despite extensive media coverage and academic research, these platforms remain something of an enigma to many non-Chinese people.

While internet censorship within China prevents Chinese users from accessing non-Chinese social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, by contrast the extensive use of Chinese language on Chinese social media is perhaps the main barrier stopping many non-Chinese people seeing what goes on in these spaces.

We think that any informed discussion of the impacts of Chinese social media needs to start with helping people learn about what these platforms are really like. So we made a film introducing the key social media platforms in China, which will appear on our new free online course on the anthropology of social media, launching on 29 February 2016.

In the video, Xinyuan Wang and I introduce the wide variety of social media platforms in China, including QQ, QZone, WeChat, and Sina Weibo. Our description give an idea of the varied functionality of the different platforms: allowing users to instant message their fiends as well as post their thoughts and feelings.

The video also shows some unusual aspects of the same platforms that make Chinese social media especially distinctive: the ability to decorate one’s profile page with fantastic themes, add friends by shaking one’s phone, and also celebrity culture on Weibo.

We also talk about which of these platforms are popular in each of our industrial and rural field sites in China (where we each lived for 15 months conducting research) and we explain some of the reasons that account for this.

We will be exploring these reasons in even greater depth in the free online course and our new free book How The World Changed Social Media, both of which will be released on 29 February, and which you can register to receive reminders for today!

WhatsApp ban in Brazil: the word on the ground

By Laura Haapio-Kirk, on 18 December 2015

 

The text above the image reads: 'me without WhatsApp'.

The text above the image reads: ‘me without WhatsApp’.

 

In this post Juliano Spyer suggests that the vocal backlash against the recent blocking of WhatsApp in Brazil would have been even stronger if the voices of poor Brazilians who depend on the service were heard.

“For poor people in Brazil, WhatsApp is essential for communication, and has defined a personal sense of internet use,” says Juliano. During his 15 months’ fieldwork in a working-class neighbourhood north of Salvador, WhatsApp went from being unheard of to being the predominant mode of online communication. “WhatsApp has become such an important tool that it has generated a shift from desktop to mobile internet use in Brazil.”

Back in 2013, people in Juliano’s fieldsite who had smartphones tended not to use them to access the internet. Rather, smartphones were more of a status item, used for playing music and taking photos. People hardly used mobile internet because Facebook was the primary reason for going online, which was felt to be better suited to desktop access. As the price of Android phones dropped, people instantly recognised WhatsApp’s value as a low-cost communication tool, and in the course of 6 months, between 2013-2014, Juliano witnessed the app becoming the dominant messaging platform in his fieldsite. A man who owned the main local mobile phone repair booth told Juliano that “nine out of ten” smartphones he serviced had WhatsApp installed.

With the rise of WhatsApp and the necessary uptake of mobile internet, people experienced a shift from more communal modes of internet access, such as in internet cafes and in the family living room on a home PC, to more private and personal access. The smartphone became, in effect, people’s first experience of private computing, with both positive and negative consequences for their lives. For example, in Juliano’s fieldsite people reported that WhatsApp made it easier to forge business opportunities, but its private nature also meant that it intensified tensions and jealousy between couples.

The recent quick reinstatement of WhatsApp after it was blocked in Brazil was largely down to the public outcry over the ban, both in Brazil and internationally. Brazilians took to Twitter to express their frustration, but Juliano suggests that the Brazilian backlash mostly came from the schooled middle-classes who use a combination of WhatsApp, Skype, and email for communication. For poor Brazilians who depend on WhatsApp as their primary mode of communication, the reaction was even stronger yet we just didn’t hear it. “The overall impact of the WhatsApp ban on Brazilians was underestimated as the voice of poor people is generally not heard. Because of this under-representation, while the reaction to the WhatsApp ban appeared large, in actual fact it was unimaginably larger,” says Juliano.


 

Co-authored by Juliano Spyer and Laura Haapio-Kirk.

Why popular anthropology?

By Elisabetta Costa, on 27 November 2015

IMG_0052

 

The core mission of anthropology is the understanding of human behaviour in a world full of cultural and historical diversity. The anthropological commitment to this immense plurality of human and social experiences constitutes a great appreciation and valorisation of diversity. Yet, different cultures, identities and behaviours are organised around hierarchies, and the institutions that shape anthropology and other academic disciplines often reproduce and reinforce them. For example, in the UK, most universities tend to be attended by a minority of privileged students, whereas groups that are historically marginalised tend to be excluded from the process of production and fruition of academic knowledge. Anthropological content is read by few academics, and only very rarely does it reach a wider audience all around the world.

Anthropologists have, at different points in the history of the discipline, investigated the anthropological involvement in the reinforcement of social hierarchies. They have examined how systems of power shape ethnographic practices, the role of the ethnographer in the field, and processes of anthropological writing. However, efforts to extend the accessibility of anthropological knowledge have been too modest so far. Anthropology continues to be an intellectual practice accessible to a small group of academics, largely from a privileged background. The conversation on the diversity of human beings – the ultimate goal of anthropology – is carried out by those who are awarded privileges by this hierarchical system of differences. Unprivileged groups in terms of social classes, gender, sexuality, geographic origins, and ethnic backgrounds are not only often excluded from the production of anthropological knowledge, but also from the fruition of it. The result of this is the reinforcement of social hierarchies that exclude groups that have been historically marginalised.

In this context, a commitment to a wider dissemination of anthropological understanding constitutes a small but significant step towards a more inclusive society, where marginalised groups can also enjoy the opportunities afforded by anthropological knowledge. Digital technologies give unprecedented potential to expand human conversation about humanity, bringing it outside the academic sphere and placing it within the immense flow of information on the internet. Anthropologists can decide to participate in this unbounded exchange, or continue in the safe and protected space of academia. Our commitment to the former is the reason why we are publishing all of our research as open access volumes, why we have launched a free e-course, why we are in the process of building an interactive website featuring films and stories about the people who participated in our research, and why all of the above will be available in the eight languages of our fieldsites. We hope that others will decide to join us on this mission of democratising access to anthropology!

Why We Post: The Anthropology of Social Media

By Laura Haapio-Kirk, on 25 November 2015

 

The Why We Post project is now moving into its final stages at full speed, gearing up for our public launch on February 29th 2016. On this date we will release the first three of eleven open access books, a free e-course, and an interactive website. You can now register for our course on FutureLearn (English language version) and on UCLeXtend (in Chinese, Hindi, Tamil, Spanish, Italian, Turkish, and Portuguese).

Over 4,300 people have signed up to the course within the first week, sparking discussions around the research which are absolutely fascinating and encouraging to see. Students come from all over the world and range from having a general interest in social media, to being professionally invested in it, from people who have never heard of anthropology, to those who are doing PhDs in the subject. The breadth of learner backgrounds is extraordinary and will no doubt contribute to the vibrancy of the course.

The course consists of a range of learning materials including texts, images, video lectures, and video discussions. There are further materials on our website for learners who want to dig even deeper, including around a hundred films made in the fieldsites and many stories which bring our research to life.

If you want to help us transform global research into global education, then spread the word. Follow the project on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, and tweet with the hashtag #whywepost.

Sign up for the free e-course Why We Post: The Anthropology of Social Media. We can’t wait to meet you!


 

Promotional film by Cassie Quarless.

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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Social media and new rewards in learning

By Elisabetta Costa, on 19 June 2015

Photo by Elisabetta Costa

Photo by Elisabetta Costa

 

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

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

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

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

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.

Facebook and the State: propaganda memes in Turkey

By Elisabetta Costa, on 27 February 2015

Propaganda meme that has widely circulated on social media during the protest of March 2014

Propaganda meme that has widely circulated on social media during the protest of March 2014

The academic and journalistic accounts on the political uses of social media have mainly emphasized the practices of activists and dissidents, or alternatively the control and censorship by States, but I believe that one area of research has been largely overlooked: the government’s production and distribution of social media outputs for propaganda purposes.

After having observed the political uses of social media in Mardin for a long time, I was struck by the wide circulation of videos, memes and news supporting the government and the ruling party AKP. Most of this material was produced and originally shared by institutional sources or other informal groups whenever some significant events occurred. For example, in March 2014 anti-government protests erupted all around the country when a 15 years old boy died after having been in a coma for 269 days, the boy had been hit by tear gas while he was going to buy bread during the Gezi Park protest in Istanbul. In March 2014 the social media sphere in Mardin was populated by memes that were reproducing the government discourses and minimising accusations of police brutality. The image posted above is only one example of the several memes of this kind, the caption says: “This is not the way to buy bread/This is.”
The Turkish government’s engagement with social media was also documented by few journalists, and it was reported that in September 2013 the governing AKP party created a team of 6000 social media users to help influence public opinion. However, I have never come across any detailed report or research about this crucial and important topic.

In Mardin the active usage of social media by the government and the ruling party AKP, is also interlinked with State’s control and surveillance, as a consequence of these two factors, government opponents were not very active online. All this leads me to argue that social media in my field-site, far from creating a democratic public space, have rather reproduced and reinforced existing inequalities and exclusions of political and ethnic minorities.

Does Facebook produce reality?

By Elisabetta Costa, on 31 December 2014

Facebook meme

Facebook meme

Researchers of the Global Social Media Impact Study are currently writing a chapter about the visual material posted on social media. For this reason I’ve been carefully observing my friends’ Facebook profiles and I counted an incredibly high number of memes citing famous writers, poets, and philosophers. Differently from the Italian field-site (see Razvan’s last blog post) where highly educated people use Facebook to express their knowledge and abilities when these can’t be used in other ways, in Mardin young adults use Facebook to construct a well-educated, moral and virtuous self and make it visible to the others. As I’ve been told by many local friends, people in Mardin want to appear literate, wisdom, religious and moral, and they use social media to achieve this goal. In fact Facebook is also criticized for being used to construct an-ideal self that is quite different from the offline self. The discrepancy between the online and the offline was a discussed topic in Mardin, and it also emerged from my ethnographic observation.

On the public Facebook wall, people consciously post what they know is going to be under the gaze of others. The public Facebook wall in Mardin is a place to be observed and to be looked at. Young adults and and middle aged people don’t simply stage a successful character in that specific social context, but they perform a self that is imagined as continuously monitored, controlled and judged. In Mardin social media are spaces under surveillance, and people more or less consciously perceive themselves under the control and the gaze of others and of the State institutions.

In a region that has experienced decades of political violence and inter-ethnic conflicts, people’s traumatic experiences have led to the production of fears and suspicion towards the ‘other’, whether this is embodied by the State or by the social body, and whether the threat is real or not. These two levels, the State and the society, blend and reinforce each other. As result people tend to be aware of privacy settings, to be cautious about the material they share, and to post only what strictly confirms to dominant social norms. Surveillance is a productive force that generates specific performances and production of selves.

But probably the most interesting consequence of surveillance is that it makes the visible real. When the visible is monitored by the society and by its authorities, and for this reason it’s imagined as having real consequences, then it’s intended as real. It’s in this context of surveillance that the visible on Facebook becomes real. And this explains why many people in Mardin spend a lot of time and energy to accurately construct their idealized self on Facebook. In 1928 the two sociologists W.I. Thomas and D.S. Thomas formulated this theorem: “When men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences”. But we may also say that when one level of appearance is imagined as having consequences (and it does have consequences) then it becomes as real.