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.

Screen Shot 2015-10-02 at 12.23.23

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.

Screen Shot 2015-10-02 at 12.23.50

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.


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.

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.

Social media Goldilocks: Keeping friendship at a distance

By Daniel Miller, on 9 December 2014

Many people seem to think that social media such as Facebook are principally a means to find and to develop relationships such as friendship. Clearly those people don’t try to study the English. I have just finished a chapter of my book on Social Media in an English Village and it has become increasingly clear that the primary purpose of some social media, such as Facebook, is rather more to keep people at a distance. But that needs to be the correct distance. Goldilocks is the ideal middle-class English story. Whether it comes to porridge or beds we, the English, don’t want the things that are too hot or too cold or too short or too long. We want the things in the middle that feel just right. So it is with many relationships.

Yes, after Friends Reunited the early social media were often used to re-connect with people one had lost contact with. But as I heard many times this was also something one could regret, since often enough one was reminded of the reasons one hadn’t kept in touch in the first place. But that’s ok. If they become friends on Facebook you don’t actually have to see them. On the other hand you can satisfy your curiosity about what has subsequently happened in their lives as an entirely passive Facebook friend. Or if that feels a bit too cold you can add a little warm water to your bath with the occasional `like’.

When it first developed academics and journalists used to claim that the trouble with Facebook was that users couldn’t tell a real friend from a Facebook friend. Actually long before Facebook came into existence people would sit in pubs with one friend endlessly dissecting the last three encounters with a third party to decide whether that third party was or was not a `real’ friend. In fact the beauty of social media is that there are so many ways of adjusting the temperature of friendship. You can like or comment, you can have them in a WhatsApp group, you can private message them, you can send them a Snapchat, you can follow them on Twitter, you can acknowledge them in their professional capacity on LinkedIn, all on top of whether or not you phone, email and visit them.

Some of the best insights into the nuances of positioning come from discussions about the use of social media after a divorce, which might be your parents or relatives or again friends. Suddenly everyone is aware of what shouldn’t be shared with whom, and who might take offence if you are warmer to this side than you are with that side. Even in England we do sometimes actually make friends, but we then spend decades calibrating the right distance, judging exactly how much of a friend we want them to be and social media is just a wonderful way of getting things just right.

Digital photo albums in south-east Turkey

By Elisabetta Costa, on 10 July 2014

Photo by Elisabetta Costa

Photo by Elisabetta Costa

Anytime I become close to a family after having visited them at least a couple of times, my new friends usually show me their family photo albums. So far this has happened in every house I’ve been to. After talking, eating and drinking tea together, they ask me if I want to have a look at their family pictures. Then they usually bring me one, two or more boxes containing different albums and many scattered photos. I’ve seen many pictures taken from the ‘60 until recently. These boxes usually contain both formal photos taken during weddings and then edited in the studio, and more informal pictures from daily life. Showing family photo albums and family photos to guests is a very common practice here in Mardin. It’s a way to communicate to new friends what the family looks like, and to highlight to me (a new friend) who the family members are and were in the past.


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.

Facebook and the vulnerability of the self

By Elisabetta Costa, on 7 February 2014

Photo by Elisabetta Costa

Photo by Elisabetta Costa

A social panic surrounding Facebook has arisen in my field-site in south-east Turkey: nasty cheaters use hacker applications to steal Facebook user names and passwords in order to damage people’s reputation!

The practice of stealing Facebook passwords to post shameful images and video, and swear words on other people’s walls seems to be quite common among young adults. Apparently the town is full of hacking applications that allows spiteful people to enter other Facebook pages and make unpleasant jokes. I met several people whose Facebook profile has been stolen and used to post nasty surprises that ruin their honour. And many young people are really afraid that such a thing can happen to them as well: “Facebook can be very dangerous” I’ve been told several times. I don’t know if hacking applications are really effective here in Dry Rock Town. But surely people continuously share common computers and smartphones, and probably forget to log out from their accounts, giving the opportunity to strangers and perfidious friends to commit these offences.

One of the most prevalent fears people have is that of losing control of their public image that can bring public disapproval. The public image on the Facebook wall can be seen as an extension of the person, but this in turn makes the person more vulnerable. Photos, images, thoughts, and private talks are all significant parts of the self that are “out there” and can be easily violated by others. A simple joke can indelibly violate the self: everybody in the large network of friends and acquaintances can potentially become a threat to the self by entering into its boundaries after having stolen a password. In the age of Facebook the borders of the self are extended, but at the same time more fragile and vulnerable. And when these borders of the self are vulnerable, honour can be shattered.

This moral panic surrounding Facebook reflects the anxiety related to the vulnerability of the self that Facebook has made more apparent. I really believe that traditional codes of honour and shame are given new life in the age of social media.