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Personal and public aesthetics: What I learned from my own visceral reactions in the field

By Nell Haynes, on 25 June 2015

jair selfie

Photo by Nell Hayes

At first, I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but over the first several months in my fieldsite in northern Chile I began to realize that one of the reasons I never quite felt totally at home was that the aesthetics of the place never quite fit with my own sense of aesthetics. By aesthetics, I mean the effort and thought that people put into the way things look. In my fieldsite, a city of 100,000 inhabitants, I noticed this in public parks and municipal buildings, in both the inside and outside of homes, and in the way people dressed. It was not only an intellectual exercise, but a visceral feeling. If I wore the clothes that I was used to wearing, perhaps a dress or a fitted button down shirt, I felt as if everyone was staring at me because I was dressed with too much care. Perhaps they were right. There wasn’t really anywhere to go looking smart. The only bar in the city had cement floors, cinderblock walls, and heavy metal bands playing live every weekend.

Over time I thought more about the sense of aesthetics in Alto Hospicio, and realized that while I had considered it entirely utilitarian at first, there was something more particular about it. The aesthetic was very much a part of the accessibility and normativity that prevailed in the city. The predominant aesthetic was not nonexistent, nor did it always privilege form above function or the “choice of the necessary” as Bourdieu calls the working class aesthetic. While many people clearly could afford to redecorate their homes or buy expensive clothing from the department stores in the nearby port city, their aesthetic choices leaned toward an appearance that was not too assuming. They didn’t flaunt or show off in any way. It was an aesthetic that was presented as if it were not one, because aspiring to a particular aesthetic would be performing something; a certain kind of pretension. Yet the aesthetic relies on deliberate choices to not be pretentious or striking; to be modest; to be unassuming. This aesthetic then not only predominated in the material world, but also online. Unlike in Brazil, where young people would never post a selfie in front of an unfinished wall, this was precisely the type of place youth in northern Chile might pose. While in Brazil this would associate the person with backwardness that contradicts the type of upward mobility they hope to present, in northern Chile this type of backdrop would add a sense of authenticity to the person and their unassuming lifestyle.

So, in the end, what began as a visceral feeling of discomfort in the field site, actually led to a very important insight. As I told academic friends many times during my fieldwork, “This place is a great site for research, but not at all a great site for living.” Fortunately, even some of the “not at all great” parts of about living in northern Chile helped my research more than I realized at first.

 

Reference

Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste. Richard Nice, trans. New York: Routledge (1984), pp 41, 372, 376.

 

It’s not just about Chinese migrant workers

By Xin Yuan Wang, on 22 June 2015

Chinese female migrant workers working in a local reflective vest workshop. Photo by Xinyuan Wang

Chinese female migrant workers working in a local reflective vest workshop. Photo by Xinyuan Wang

A question always strikes me as I write up ethnography and prepare for talks based on my 15 months of fieldwork among Chinese factory workers in southeastern China: what will people learn from Chinese migrant workers’ use of social media? Of course these stories may sound ‘exotic’, but I will see it as a total failure if they are nothing more than novel and exotic in peoples’ eyes.

Ethnography in a way is a storytelling of others’ lives. This technique is also widely used in novel writing, film making, and all forms of the narrative of ‘otherness’. Recently a film came out called Still Alice, a touching film telling the story of an extremely intelligent female linguistic, Alice, in her 50s who suffers from Alzheimer’s. In the film Alice is not only gradually losing all of the professional knowledge she acquired after many years of education and research, but also all the memories of her life, of being a mother, a wife, a woman, even a human being.  My colleagues and friends who watched the film shared the same thought, how lucky we are to still have those memories which, from time to time, we take for granted. And some of them, including myself, even became a bit panicked when we would forget something all of the sudden – OMG, is that an early sign of Alzheimer’s?! Whether being grateful, thoughtful, or even panicked, all of these reactions come from the fact that we are placing ourselves in the story and imagining ourselves living her life. Empathy is the word we use to describe these experiences that bridge other’s stories and our own.

And ‘empathy’ is key for the ethnographer. I still recall the days when I felt desperate about the state of my filedwork, that I had nothing to do but watch ‘stupid’ videos on people’s smartphones with the factory workers or just stare at people’s repetitive movements on the assembly line for hours. All the boredom drove me bananas and I howled to Danny that I couldn’t bear such a dreadful life anymore. What Danny said not only calmed me down but also woke me up: “Don’t forget, if you have enough, you can easily walk out in the near future, but for them, it’s their whole life.

The most unforgettable thing I learned from my fieldwork was not the material I took away for my research, but the personal experience of being able to live those migrant workers’ lives. Through this experience I developed an empathetic respect for other people’s lives and motivations which, in turn, has allowed me to reflect upon, and be grateful for, my own life. However, not everybody has the ‘luxury’ to experience others’ lives like ethnographers do. This further highlights the importance of our research, that we have the opportunity to bring an empathetic understanding of ‘others’ to the public when they read or listen to our research.

People constantly gain knowledge of themselves through understanding others: how we are different from the others, how we are similar to the others, why we are different or similar, these inquiries help us to depict the outline of the ‘self’. This is the main reason for the importance of learning other’s stories, because they allow us to gain perspective on our own lives, to think and feel differently. A good novel or a good film achieves this, so why not ethnography? One could argue that ethnography can do this even better, given its holistic knowledge of the given population and society.

The empathy and thought evoked from an anthropological study of ‘others’ can be very powerful, one of the most famous cases comes from Margaret Mead’s fieldwork in Samoa. Mead’s book Coming of Age in Samoa has sparked years of ongoing and intense debate on various issues such as society, community, social norms, and gender. For example, Mead described how gender is constructed by the local community, in this case one totally different from American society, and argued that masculine and feminine characteristics are based mostly on cultural conditioning. This argument actually influenced the 1960s ‘sexual revolution’ when people in the West started to rethink gender.That’s the real strength of ethnography.

This bares a question for all anthropologists, in what way is your research relevant to an audience who may not necessarily be interested in the specific group or society that is the focus of your research? The knowledge drawn from fieldwork should not be parochial. As we can see in Mead’s case, ethnography about a group of people which seems to bear very limited relevance to people in the West is capable of inspiring people by evoking reflection of the ‘self’, culture, and society.

In some of my talks, as well as at the end of the ethnography I am writing, I always try to remind people that it is not just about Chinese rural migrants. Yes, they are the human faces behind ‘Made in China’, they are said to be part of the biggest migration in human history. However, it is more than that. For example, understanding the ways migrant workers experience social media as the place where real daily life takes place in the context of their appalling offline situation pushes us to think about the complex relationship between online and offline, which is one of the core issues about social media use worldwide. The fantasy images on the social media profiles of Chinese rural migrants may look totally bizarre to you, but the logic of applying imagination to guide, explain, fulfill or strike a balance in daily life is as old as human history – dreams, sexual fantasy, folktale, religion…you name it. So a study of how people play out their fantasies about life with the help of social media and how such experiences impacts people’s lives may not just be relevant in that given population and society. It is not just about Chinese rural migrants, it’s about understanding them as well as gaining understanding of ourselves.

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.

Quantitative data: Our figures take shape

By Daniel Miller, on 13 April 2015

Student in maths class

Getting to grips with the numbers (Photo by woodleywonderworks CC BY 2.0)

There is sometimes an assumption that while anthropology represents a unique commitment to qualitative research, with all our studies consisting of 15 months fieldwork, we somehow have an antipathy to quantitative data. Yet the very reason we spend so long in the field is testimony to our commitment to the highest level of scholarship and the sheer determination to accurately portray that population. For which purpose all information that helps us towards these goals is welcome, and most anthropologists do collect some quantitative materials.

But in a way the accusation is correct. We generally feel that quantitative data alone is deficient. Partly because the answers people give to survey questions may not reflect what they actually do. More because figures need to be interpreted in order for us to properly understand what they mean. Without that deeper knowledge of context they may mislead rather than illuminate. So we are suspicious of quantitative ‘news’ which often takes the form of correlations (for example, a population’s weight or life expectancy set against one aspect of their behaviour). Often this could be the result of dozens of different ’causes’ or combinations of behaviours other than the one claimed. We prefer to use quantitative data which comes from within ethnographic study, where we can hope to make an informed interpretation.

All our projects included three types of quantitative material: an initial survey of at least one hundred people at the beginning of fieldwork (Questionnaire A), a second survey of a different minimum one hundred people at the end (Questionnaire B), and whatever additional surveys each researcher found useful. Because of the importance of context, we will release our quantitative results alongside our eleven volumes of qualitative reports on 4 February 2016. But currently we are looking at the integration of these results. What follows is a sample of the kinds of results we will eventually publish.

In the case of my study of our English site – The Glades – my main additional survey was one of 2,496 school pupils at four secondary schools in the area. One of the intentions was simply to find out what which social media platforms these pupils were present on (see Table ‘Top of the class’). It was striking that these six stood out, with no other platforms emerging at above 10% overall.

 

Since this was also a response to my earlier blog post suggesting English schoolchildren were using Facebook, but that it was no longer ‘cool’, we also asked students what their three favourite platforms were. We found only 12.7% picked Facebook as their favourite social media, 8.4% as their 2nd favourite and 9.7% as their 3rd favourite.

Questionnaire B, by contrast, will be mainly released as a comparison across all of our nine sites.

These are illustrations of what is to come. Generally though, we would rather be patient and consider these in relation to our qualitative findings before we formally publish them.

Normativity on social media in Northern Chile

By Nell Haynes, on 7 January 2015

As many entries in the blog affirm, local cultural aspects are often reflected or made even more visual on social media. As I have written before of my fieldsite, there is a certain normativity that pervades social life. Material goods such as homes, clothing, electronics, and even food all fall within an “acceptable” range of normality. No one is trying to keep up with Joneses, because there’s no need. Instead the Joneses and the Smiths and the Rodriguezes and the Correas all outwardly exhibit pretty much the same level of consumerism. Work and salary similarly fall within a circumscribed set of opportunities, and because there is little market for advanced degrees, technical education or a 2 year post-secondary degree is usually the highest one will achieve academically. This acceptance of normativity is apparent on social media as well.

One particularly amusing example of this type of acceptance is especially apparent from a certain style of meme that overwhelmed Facebook in October of 2014. These “Rana René” (Kermit the Frog, in English) memes expressed a sense of abandoned aspirations. In these memes, the frog expresses desire for something—a better physique, nicer material goods, a better family- or love-life—but concludes that it is unlikely to happen, and that “se me pasa,” “I get over it.”

Screen Shot 2015-01-07 at 6.52.19 PM

Similarly, during June and July of 2013 a common form of meme contrasted the expected with reality. The example below demonstrates the “expected” man at the beach—one who looks like a model, with a fit body, tan skin, and picturesque background. The “reality” shows a man who is out of shape, lighter skinned, and on a beach populated by other people and structures. It does not portray the sort of serene, dreamlike setting of the “expected.” In others, the “expected” would portray equally “ideal” settings, people, clothing, parties, architecture, or romantic situations. The reality would always humorously demonstrate something more mundane, or even disastrous. These memes became so ubiquitous that they were even used as inspiration for advertising, as for the dessert brand below.

Screen Shot 2015-01-07 at 6.55.50 PM

For me, these correspondences between social media and social life reinforce the assertion by the Global Social Media Impact Study that this type of research must combine online work with grounded ethnography in the fieldsite. These posts could have caught my eye had I never set foot in northern Chile, but knowing what I know about what the place and people look like, how they act, and what the desires and aspirations are for individuals, I understand the importance of these posts as expressing the normativity that is so important to the social fabric of the community.

WhatsApp: A pain in the arse

By Juliano Andrade Spyer, on 4 January 2015

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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.

 

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.

It’s all in the comments: the sociality behind social media

By Nell Haynes, on 2 December 2014

autoconstrucion boys

boys in the fieldsite hang out after school and look at Facebook on a mobile phone

As I begin to write my book about social media in Northern Chile, it’s great to see little insights emerge. One of the first of these insights is that interaction is essential to the ways people in my fieldsite use social networking sites. Facebook and Twitter are the most widely used, with 95% of people using Facebook (82% daily), and 77% using Whatsapp with frequency. But with other sites or applications, use falls off drastically. The next two most popular forms of social media are Twitter and Instagram which are used by 30% and 22% of those surveyed respectively.

So what makes Facebook so popular but not Twitter? My first reaction was that Twitter doesn’t have the visual component that Facebook does. This was partially based on the fact that many of my informants told me that they find Twitter boring. Yet Instagram is even less well-used than Twitter. And as I began looking more closely at the specific ways people use Facebook and Twitter, I began to see why they feel this way.

People use Facebook most frequently because they are most likely to get a response on that platform. In fact, this forms a sort of feedback loop in which people perceive that others use it more, so when they want the most feedback they use Facebook, which in turn keeps others coming back as well. As this cycle continues, people know that if they want their friends, family, colleagues, acquaintances, and even enemies to see something, Facebook is the place to put it. This is also what attracts older generations to use Facebook—if they want to see what is going on with younger generations, they join. But as their age-peers join for the same reasoning, they begin interacting with them as well. In essence, Facebook is the most truly social of the social media for people living in Alto Hospicio.

This desire for interaction is exemplified by the fact that far more important than writing statuses, or even posting photographs, memes, videos, or links to websites of interest, is the commenting in which people engage. It is not unusual to find a single sentence status update that has more than twenty comments. Many comments are positive and supportive. When a young woman posts a new profile picture, it will usually receive more than ten comments essentially expressing the same thing: “Oh [daughter/niece/ friend/cousin] you look so pretty and happy!” When someone expresses a complaint, like neighbours playing music too loudly, comments usually range from “How annoying!” to “Do you want to borrow my big speakers so you can show them your music is better?” These comments generally serve a function of staying in contact and supporting friends and family by simply reminding them that you are paying attention and care about them.

This type of cohesion has impacts beyond social media as well. Many friends of friends actually get to know one another through such comments on social media, so that by the time they end up meeting in person at a party or group outing, they are already familiar with one another, friendly, and if they’ve interacted enough on the same posts, may have already added one another as friends on Facebook. Thus, Facebook is not only a space for interacting with old friends, but making new ones as well.

Aside from helping me to understand how important sociality is to people in my fieldsite, this realization also serves as an excellent example of the ways quantitative and qualitative research support one another. Quantitative data from my survey alerted me to the fact that Facebook was popular not just for it’s visual uses. But I had to go back to my qualitative research to find out why exactly this might be. As I continue to analyze and write, I find that I keep bouncing between the two, reassuring me that without both aspects, this project would not have been complete.

For more on the confluence of qualitative and quantitative data, here are examples from England and Brazil.

Kurds, ISIS and internet censorship in Turkey

By Elisabetta Costa, on 7 November 2014

Facebook profile picture from south-east Turkey

Facebook profile picture from south-east Turkey

Kurds living in Mardin tend to not use social media for political expression when it involves a direct critique of the Turkish State, Turkish authorities or the Turkish nation. Social media has been described by many Kurds as a powerful tool for political control, as a new form of torture, as a weapon to scare people and prevent them from being politically active. In Turkey’s Kurdistan, the internet and digital technologies are immediately associated with control and persecution by the State. In the last couple of years, the Turkish government has banned and shut down several pages of political parties (see also this international campaign against the Facebook Company). Internet censorship in Turkey has become internationally known, when the ex-Prime Minister Erdogan banned YouTube and Twitter before and after the local election in March 2014.

The tight control over the internet has produced an efficient self-censorship mechanism in Mardin and elsewhere in the region; people tend to not criticize the Turkish government too openly in order to not be prosecuted. However, many Kurds have been using social media to express their support for the Kurdish cause by claiming solidarity with the Kurds living in other countries in the Middle-East. In the last two years, many people have been using an image with the word ‘Rojava’, the Kurdish name for the Siryan Kurdistan, the region inside Syria that started to achieve its autonomy in 2012, as their Facebook profile picture. Within the same period, the region has been under attack several times by Islamic groups, and more recently by ISIS. When ISIS attacked Kobane and PKK/ YPG fighters retaliated by showing resistance, news from independent news sources were circulated on social media, presenting different views on what was occurring. Before then, in the summer of 2014 during ISIS’ invasion of Sinjar in Iraq, many Kurds, together with unions, political parties and local charities, actively used Facebook to organize solidarity campaigns to collect clothes and money for the Yezidi refugees after the attack.

Over the past few months, social media has become a very important source of news for the Kurds living in Turkey. They want to know about ISIS’ attack on Kurds in Syria and Iraq; and Facebook in particular has become the main platform to organize solidarity campaign and to express support towards the Kurds in these two countries.

I don’t want to describe here the complexity of the crisis that is going on now in the Middle-East, but rather, I want to highlight the way Kurds in Turkey use social media. They continuously mediate between what they would like to share freely online, and what they know could be detrimental to them because of the draconian censorship enacted in Turkey. Far from being  the results of rational calculation every time, people have internalised a set of rules which influences what they can share publicly, what they can share on fake profiles and what they can read but not share at all. It’s only by adopting these implicit set of rules that a Kurdish “public sphere under restriction” is continuously created and recreated by social media users, with several consequences. One of these is that on social media the Kurds in Turkey tend to sustain the Kurdish nationalistic cause by expressing support towards the Kurds living in Syria (and Iraq), and they more rarely address the political situation inside Turkey.

‘Writing up': social media, disconnection and writing ethnography

By Tom McDonald, on 26 October 2014

Villagers from the township taking part in a local festival (Photo: Tom McDonald)

Villagers from the township taking part in a local festival (Photo: Tom McDonald)

Our entire team have now returned from the field and are already stuck into the process of turning our research into books, which we plan to publish in January 2016.

For me it’s an enormously strange to transition to go from the excitement of village life to the relative sedateness of a life spent largely in the company of Microsoft Word everyday.

You could be forgiven for thinking that living in a rural Chinese town would be a positively tranquil experience, but looking back on my 15 months of fieldwork in the town from afar, it all seems to condense into one single blur. My friends in the town seemed to always be unexpectedly arriving at my door, endlessly calling me on the phone, inviting me out to impromptu dinners, or for walks around the countryside, trips to places, or to join in at local events and festivals. By contrast, life in London is comparatively tranquil: with more time to finally concentrate on writing articles and publications, combined with the familiar rhythm of academic life in the department.

But it’s not that all my friends from the town have disappeared completely. My phone receives a constant trickle of messages from my friends in the town. Contrast this with the early days of anthropology, where leaving the fieldsite really meant leaving the fieldsite, and anthropologists would bid farewell to the tribe the had been studying in some far-flung corner of the world and had little expectation (or indeed way) of remaining in touch. Even if I wanted to cut myself of from my fieldsite, social media makes it difficult to do so. Keeping in touch with my participants and hearing from them the latest news about their lives, relationships, exam successes, etc., means that there is always more information to be added to the ethnographies, and also speaks volumes with regards how much social media is fundamentally changing the experience of anthropological fieldwork itself.