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Social Media – Just stop that and behave.

By Daniel Miller, on 30 October 2014

Image courtesy of Sally Anscombe, Creative Commons

Image courtesy of Sally Anscombe, Creative Commons

I am just finishing a chapter of my monograph on social media in England in parallel with the other eight team members who are simultaneously writing theirs. At the moment the biggest problem I am finding with writing about social media is perhaps not surprisingly the social media themselves. They just refuse to behave decently, by which I mean in ways conducive to being written about in an academic text.

The chapter I have just finished has been trying to explore the impact of the wide variety of platforms that are currently available to people in The Glades. That in and of itself is not a problem. The theory of polymedia comes in handy because it was devised to deal with a situation where, instead of a single or a dominant media, we have many potential platforms such as Snapchat and Tinder and Tumblr and Twitter. These start to express social differences, moral choices, differentiated relationships and so forth – thus polymedia. The next stage would be for academics to explain why people might prefer this or that social media for some particular purpose. For such explanations we are indebted to some excellent writings, of which the clearest is probably Nancy Baym’s book on Personal Communication in The Digital Age.

This work depends upon the concept of an ‘affordance’ which means more or less, that which a particular platform would seem naturally best suited to do. So we can suggest that Facebook is better for the storage of photos, while Twitter seems good at spreading information. Some media demand simultaneous presence, others are asynchronic, some anonymous and others anything but private. What usually happens is that we assume a platform is `naturally’ that which we have found most people use it for and then look at these various affordances in order to account for that dominant usage.

This is fine for a while, but then as we observe these social media more closely and for a longer period of time, they start to behave not just badly but really quite outrageously. They start to be used for all the things we claimed they were useless for, or for the exact opposite of that which they were doing previously. I look at the data and think `Whoopsadaisy’ that is NOT what is supposed to be happening. To take a very simple example, my generation used email as the breakthrough media in destroying a century of attempts by industry and commerce to separate work from leisure, and I could write happily about the affordances of email that explain this consequence. The trouble is that today young people use email to scrupulously divide their personal communication from work and commercial usage – the exact opposite of what I do with it.

Historically in both Trinidad and England BBM, the Blackberry messenger service, was the place teenagers used to be nasty to each other. I could give a whole list of features as to why BBM was good for this purpose. In Trinidad this genre of usage moved from BBM to WhatsApp which is fine, since WhatsApp is basically a copy of BBM. But in England the genre migrated lock, stock and barrel to Twitter which in several important respects is exactly the opposite of BBM. Twitter is very public, BBM was heavily encrypted etc etc. I read loads of articles about how Twitter is naturally about information or Facebook is ideally suited to the young. Only to find that Twitter is used by other groups simply to banter and Facebook is now mainly used to keep connected with older family members. In fact the entirely different `Twitters’ I have discovered operating just within just The Glades is ridiculously diverse. At which point you realise no, it isn’t especially good for information dissemination. It’s just a short text platform that can, and now is, used for pretty much anything. This is just within The Glades. Once you start comparing our nine sites then it is really hard to claim any kind of consistent behaviour at all. Social media are such an undisciplined and unruly bunch of creatures that they would challenge a zoo let alone a poor academic.

The theory of polymedia and the study of affordances remain essential tools of analysis, and often work perfectly well. But there are clearly a whole lot of others things going on, which my chapter attempts to explain and explore. I think this can be done, and basically has to be done, because we do no one any favours if we ignore the variability of actual usage which is precisely what anthropology is built to discover and acknowledge. But sometimes in this study of social media I just want to teach the little bastards a bit of discipline.

It’s OK to send my boss a WhatsApp message!

By Shriram Venkatraman, on 25 July 2014

Image Courtesy Bhupinder Nayyar (Creative Commons)

Image Courtesy Bhupinder Nayyar (Creative Commons)

Mahesh, 28, an ITES (Information Technology Enabled Services) professional met with me for lunch in one of Chennai’s well-known vegetarian restaurants. He works three days a week from his company’s branch office located in the Indian field site – Panchagrami – and two days from the company’s Chennai office located close to this restaurant.

Over special vegetarian Thali meals, we discussed his life, his ambitions, his family, his presence on social media etc. When I called him up to schedule an interview, he arranged for us to meet for lunch before his work shift that started at 2 PM. Though we met at around 12:30 PM, he seemed pretty relaxed and unrushed and the lunch interview kept going until around 1:45 PM, when he excused himself to let his boss know that he would be running late for work by approximately 30 minutes. He got his smart phone, a Samsung Galaxy out of his pocket and typed something into it and sent out a communication in less than 20 seconds. I was pretty surprised because, it normally takes at least a minute for an official communication to be typed and sent over an official email server with all the salutations normally required in an official communication. So, wondering if he had already typed an email to his boss, I asked him what he let his boss know, to which he replied that he just sent a WhatsApp message to his boss letting him know that he was delayed over a meeting and would report in shortly. This triggered a conversation that was extremely informative. I asked him why he didn’t email his boss and why did he choose to operate and communicate over WhatsApp.

Soon, it became extremely clear that WhatsApp was fine enough for communicating mundane official matters such as informing that one was running late to the office or to a meeting or to meet at lunch etc. and that it was replacing what Short Messaging Service (SMS) did originally. However, important official communication always happened through official email. But, communicating to one’s immediate boss on mundane official matters now moved from text messages to WhatsApp messages. So, why did this happen? Because everyone is now on WhatsApp, almost all have a smart phone connected to the internet with WhatsApp as an application, which people would keep checking on a constant basis compared to SMS and WhatsApp is free to use. These factors led to people using WhatsApp messages more often than SMS.

Naturally, the next question was geared towards Facebook (FB). I asked him if his boss was his friend on Facebook and were they on FB messenger on an always signed-in mode. He replied ‘yes’. So, why did he still choose to communicate over WhatsApp rather than Facebook? He considered WhatsApp more official compared to Facebook. It seems like one of his teammates had actually sent a message to his boss over FB and was frowned upon, as somehow FB just didn’t seem official enough and equated everyone to a being just a ‘friend’, thus breaking hierarchies, while hierarchy was still maintained over WhatsApp. So, did people in his team ever communicate with their boss over FB? They did for more for personal communication such as ‘liking’ something, forwarding a moral message, spreading the word about an office party or get together etc. but nothing related to an official one-to-one or one-to-many sort of communication. He made sure to add that he would never communicate to his boss’s boss over WhatsApp, it had to always be over an email. The vertical span of use of media seemed extremely interesting.

I was immediately reminded of the concept of polymedia, termed by Madianou and Miller, 2012 and also on how an important person in a network influences others in the network to choose media through which people communicate to him. In this case, Mahesh had three ways of communicating with his boss – over email, over SMS or over WhatsApp (in this case was influenced by the boss, who was fine with communication over WhatsApp and had added it to the list of official communication tools).

This soon became an important question, and interviews with several other IT/ITES professionals revealed something similar. So, why are certain media perceived to retain hierarchy while others don’t? Stay tuned to find out…

Child in India? Sorry! No Facebook then!

By Shriram Venkatraman, on 20 May 2013

The Delhi High Court had questioned the Union Government of India on why minors (children below 18 years of age) were on Facebook and Google. This was in response to a case filed by an ideologue of a major political party in India. The issue they wanted explained was how someone under the age of 18 years could enter into a contract with a company as according to the Indian laws, this cannot be done by any minor in India.

Facebook allows user registration with an email address, so when creating an email address, one again needs to electronically sign a contract ticking the acceptance of terms and services of the service provider, so would signing up for an email addresses also be blocked and not available for anyone under the age of 18? Or would it be fine if the students let their parents know that they are signing up for email address, so that they have now received their parents consent? But, according to the law, wouldn’t that also be wrong, as these services require the user to enter into a contract and not their parents or guardians? So should these service providers now create consent forms to be signed in by the parents of these children rather than by the children themselves? What would then happen to the first generation learners in India? Several schools and educational institutions would then be in the wrong as they now ask their students to have email addresses and sign in to educational groups. Several summer camps, hobby groups for children and children’s clubs might be contravening the law, as they really haven’t enlightened the law to their child members nor have they followed it.

Similar is the case with educational e-applications now selling (downloading) like hot cakes on smart phones and tablets, they all require the user to “Agree and Install”. It seems like several of these need to be looked into now. Similar is the case with multi user online games, which are pretty popular among children in India.

Wouldn’t this mean that any child, who owns a laptop, should not install any legal applications (even an update), because they ask the user to enter into a contract with them – where the user needs to tick the box that he/she understands the terms under which the application is installed in his/her system. Should this also require the consent of the parents then?

So, is the intent on the online security of these children when they get into such social networking sites? Or is it just blindly following a law that states no one under the age of 18 can enter into agreement or sign a contract? If so, wouldn’t this apply to all avenues of one’s life, rather than just to Facebook or Google alone, why target just these companies alone? If the intent is on child security online, then shouldn’t the base of this case filing itself be different? The question of why have the court and/or India woken up to this after such a long time still persists? If children are said to be creating fake profiles and if such faking is punishable with imprisonment by law, it also may seem as if several Indian children would have to be placed in juvenile homes.

It seems like Facebook as a company had let the US authorities know that almost 80 million Facebook accounts were fake, as there was no user verification. Statistics show only people aged above 18 years on Facebook, however, it is evident that this might not necessarily be the case. Would Facebook consider removing these 80 million fake profiles?

It would definitely be interesting to wait and watch at the proceedings in this case and how the law of the land unfolds itself in due course.

Refs:

http://www.indianexpress.com/news/explain-how-children-open-facebook-other-accounts-delhi-high-court-to-govt/1107592/

http://www.hindustantimes.com/India-news/NewDelhi/Explain-how-kids-below-18-open-FB-google-accounts-HC-to-Centre/Article1-1050425.aspx

 

Who built the internet?

By Juliano Andrade Spyer, on 31 January 2013

Photo by quinn anya (Creative Commons)

Photo by quinn anya (Creative Commons)

A debate sparkled recently after president Barack Obama said the internet was the result of a government project. Analysts from mainstream media shared their perspectives suggesting that corporations, some intelligent people, everyone or indeed the government should claim responsibility for starting this communication revolution and the topic became a series of posts at the anthropological blog Savage Minds. But amid these conflicting views there is room left for at least one more position: that no one invented the internet.

Yes, the US government paid for Arpanet, the “Eve” of computer networks, but it was not meant to be a communication device for people. As Kevin Kelly has argued earlier, nobody predicted the arrival of the internet and actually, he adds, until quite recently many people doubted that a form of entertainment based on typing would convince more than a handful of enthusiasts to give up TV.

One of the ways of conceiving the internet is as a tool for group communication. Shirky* explains that networked computer communication combines the interactivity of telephones and the reach of television or radio to provide a solution for many people to interact with each other. And this particular element – the possibility of group conversations – was brought to Arpanet by chance as one of the computer engineers installed extra officially a program for email.

The point is that, until then, this email-like program allowed people sharing the same computer to leave messages to one another (computers were quite expensive in the 1960s). As Arpanet connected various computers, this service opened unforeseen possibilities. Suddenly people living apart in different cities could communicate in an interesting fashion: not just it was possible to have more than two participants, they did not have to be simultaneously connected.

As the story about the internet is reviewed, one particular bit seems to always be present: after the installation of this first email program, email quickly became the primary reason for people using the network. It is said that in less than two years, ¾ of the data circulating through connected computers consisted of this kind of text messages meant for humans to use. I feel that what makes this minimal bit of historic data relevant is that it portrays our own surprise with this new communication tool. In other words, what is surprising here is that Arpanet ostensibly belonged to the military, but was quietly re-purposed to serve a different function without anybody even knowing about it.

This argument is similar but significantly different from Steven Johnson’s, who defended the internet as a product of a collective effort. The difference is that for him there is an intention attracting the multiple collaborators working together – as in projects like Linux – whereas through this new perspective, there wasn’t one or not the same kind of intention.

So maybe the argument here is that the internet, in similarity to cities, languages and cultures, resulted not from our abity to gaze at the future and forge new scientific miracles, but rather from something everyone has and is very parochial and simple: our drive for social interaction.

* Shirky, Clay. Here Comes Everybody: How change happens when people come together. Penguin, 2009.