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Talking to the BBC about social media in China

By Tom McDonald, on 14 March 2017

Earlier this month, I was very fortunate to be interviewed by the BBC on my research onto the use of technology in China. The article that was published as a result of the interview is a good example of ‘public anthropology’, showing how the discipline’s research can made relevant to a wider audience.

This commitment to engaging with the public through anthropology is something that is also mirrored in two books that I published last year: Social Media in Rural China and How the World Changed Social Media (the latter is co-authored with the rest of the Why We Post team). Both of these volumes tried to respond to the immense interest in social media from the general public, by writing in an accessible and open style. We chose to keep all citations and the discussion of wider academic issues to endnotes. Many readers seem to have enjoyed this style of easy-to-understand writing.

Photo: Gillian Bolsover

Photo: Gillian Bolsover

A central aim of the book Social Media in Rural China was to try and help non-Chinese audiences, who have limited experience of Chinese social media and find it hard to imagine what they are like, to understand the nature of these platforms and the kind of social effects they are bringing to a small rural community in China.

Given this, it’s also been surprising to see how the book has been received in Hong Kong and Mainland China. I’ve gained a lot from discussing sections of the book with undergraduate and postgraduate students—most of whom are Chinese—in my Local Cultures, Global Markets and New Media and Digital Culture courses. Readers are often interested to understand a “foreigner’s” reflections on contemporary rural China.

Photo: Gillian Bolsover

Photo: Gillian Bolsover

This feedback will be particularly useful as I put together articles for academic journals over the coming months. In this way, I am extremely fortunate to have the opportunity to balance two quite different forms of writing: academic writing aimed at fellow researchers in universities, and a more accessible writing for a general public which can also inspire articles such as the one that appeared on the BBC.

Visualising Facebook by Daniel Miller and Jolynna Sinanan

By Daniel Miller, on 7 March 2017

Screenshot 2017-03-07 15.43.28

Today marks the publication of a new book called Visualising Facebook, which I have written with Dr Jolynna Sinanan. It is available as a free download from UCL Press and also for purchase in physical form. One of the key arguments from the larger Why We Post project, of which this book is one out of eleven volumes, is that human communication has fundamentally changed. Where previously it consisted almost entirely of either oral or textual forms, today, thanks to social media, it is equally visual. Think literally of Snapchat. So, it is a pity that when you look at the journals and most of the books about social media, they often contain either no, or precious few, actual visual illustrations from social media itself. One of the joys of digital publication is that it is possible to reproduce hundreds of images. So, our book is stuffed to the gills with photographs and memes taken directly from Facebook, which is, after all, our evidence.

For example, as academics, we might suggest that the way women respond to becoming new mothers in Trinidad, is entirely different from what you would find in England. In the book, we can reproduce examples from hundreds of cases, where it is apparent that when an English woman becomes a mother she, in effect, replaces herself on Facebook with images of her new infant. Indeed, these often become her own profile picture for quite some time. By contrast, one can see postings by new mothers in Trinidad, where they are clearly trying to show that they still look young and sexy or glamorous, precisely because they do not want people to feel that these attributes have been lost, merely because they are now new mothers.

In writing this book we examined over 20,000 images. These provide the evidence for many generalisations, such as that Trinidadians seem to care a good deal about what they are wearing when they post images of themselves on Facebook. While, by and large, English people do not. But this becomes much clearer when you can see the actual images themselves. Or we might suggest that English people are given to self-deprecating humour, while Trinidadians are not. Or that in England gender may create a highly repetitive association between males and generic beer, as against women with generic wine. In every case, you can now see exactly what we mean. We also have a long discussion about the importance of memes and why we call them `the moral police of the Internet’. How memes help to establish what people regard as good and bad values. This makes much more sense when you are examining typical memes with that question in your head.

To conclude, given the sheer proportion of social media posting that now consists of visual images, it would seem a real pity to look this gift horse in the mouth. Firstly, it has now become really quite simple to look at tens of thousands of such images in order to come to scholarly conclusions. But equally, it is now much easier to also include hundreds of such images in your publications to help readers have a much better sense of what exactly those conclusions mean and whether they agree with them.

 

This post was originally published on the #NSMNSS blog here.

“The Value of Social Media” at the AAA conference

By Nell Haynes, on 10 December 2016

Daniel Miller talking at the AAA conference. Photo by Nell Haynes.

Daniel Miller talking at the AAA conference. Photo by Nell Haynes.

From the Why We Post Team, Nell Haynes, Tom McDonald, and Daniel Miller attended the American Anthropological Association conference in snowy Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA at the end of November. All participated in a session organized by Heather Horst, and Robert Foster, titled “The Value of Social Media.” The session explored the use and meaning of social media through anthropological conceptions of value, which have advanced our understanding of practices that are meaningful to people and the worlds they inhabit. 

Danny began the session with his talk on how social media may be used to create anthropological value. He related his ideas to those of Nancy Munn’s early anthropological research on the Trobriand Islands in which she suggested that social relations expanded an individual’s or group’s status, while something like witchcraft shrinks it. Indeed, the idea of anthropology is to expand knowledge, but there exist “witches” that work in contrast. He suggested these witches include obfuscating language, the tendency of anthropologists to be very individually focused, and the idea of criticism and critique without regard for actual solutions. But, he suggested that social media is a key way in which anthropologists might find value in their work. Both as a topic and as a medium for reaching wide student audiences, social media may actually demonstrate that anthropology helps us to understand the contemporary world, as well as become the means through which students from across the world can connect to other students, engage in discussions about anthropology, on platforms like FutureLearn and UCLeXtend, where the Why We Post Project’s online courses are based.

Nell Haynes used her fieldwork in Northern Chile to explore ideas of value that are not necessarily based in economics and currency. Looking at adult women who sell used clothing and home items through Facebook pages, Nell explained that the motivation for these women was not increased income, but social connections with other women that they create through their commercial activity. In essence, social media has opened not only new spaces for economic activity, but has given opportunities to women whose social worlds were once more confined to the family. For these older women, the “value” of their economic pursuits on social media do not correspond to the exchange value of the goods they sell, but rather the value of the social relationships gained, sustained, and strengthened through selling.

Tom McDonald talking at the AAA conference. Photo by Nell Haynes.

Tom McDonald talking at the AAA conference. Photo by Nell Haynes.

Tom presented on his research in Rural China, examining how hierarchies become overtly expressed on China’s most popular social media platform – QQ – in the form of level status conferred upon users through collecting points and virtual currency. He discussed the changing attitude of rural Chinese townsfolk towards these levels, showing how desires to accumulate levels influence their practices of internet use in everyday life, giving a cultural explanation for the appeal of these systems. In fact, users’ accounts of level accumulation cross between emphasizing honest effort and intentional distortion, and in so doing place value on the practice’s aspect of self-cultivation. Tom argued that individual internet users are able to transform social media use from a wasteful habit that incurs the disapproval of other family members into a virtuous activity.

The session was well-attended and inspired rousing discussion about a topics ranging from the role of critique in anthropology, to the ways that algorithms may influence social media users. Later in the day, with an equally exciting crowd, Danny presented on the project as a whole and the ways in which the anthropology of social media contributes to broader understandings of the discipline as well as understanding what it means to be human. In his talk, the keynote address for DANG or the Digital ANthropology Group of AAA, he focused on the “theory of attainment,” which posits that rather than suggesting, with each technological advancement we decry “the end of humanity” or entering a “post-human state,” instead what we define as human must take technological advancement into account. As such a definition of humanity takes into consideration human’s persistent ability to attain new advancement.

Overall, it was a productive and informative conference. Tom, Nell, and Danny only wished that more of the team could have been there with them.

Why We Post is “the biggest, most ambitious project of its sort”, says The Economist

By Laura Haapio-Kirk, on 14 March 2016

How the world changed social media

Since our launch on the 29th February, the first three open access books in the Why We Post series have been downloaded over 6,000 times! 6,000 downloads in just two weeks makes for a very happy team. The entire series of 11 volumes will continue to be released by UCL Press over the coming year, so keep your eyes peeled.

News has spread far and wide of our project and its ambitious public dissemination strategy comprising not only of our books, but a free e-course and a website with films and stories from our nine fieldsites. In the past two weeks we’ve enjoyed global media coverage and have been thrilled with the response from learners on our course who come from all over the world.

Press round-up (29/02/2016 – 14/03/2016):

 

The medium is the messengers

 

English:

The Economist (05/03/2016  print and online): The Medium is the Messengers: A global study reveals how people fit social media into their lives

“These fly-on-the-wall perspectives refute much received wisdom… ‘Why We Post’ thus challenges the idea that the adoption of social media follows a single and predictable trajectory.”

The Economist – (02/03/2016  online): Babbage Podcast: From headers to footies (from 06:33)

“(Why We Post is) the biggest, most ambitious project of its sort.”

BBC World Service – (29/02/2016 radio): World Business Report (from 4:13)

BBC Click (02/03/2016 radio): What is the Point of Posting on Social Media 

“… a global snapshot of our relationship with the social media… This is a nuanced picture of a world coming to terms with a rapidly evolving way of connecting, or even disconnecting, with something unexpected pretty much everywhere the researchers looked.”

“What’s really heartening about this study and the research is you see people taking the technology seriously, looking at the things it makes possible, the things that it interferes with, the new forms of social exchange that become feasible when you have smart phones and internet and social networks, actually looking at how it affects us as people. It’s really vital that this work continues… It’s a sense of a discipline emerging, or rather that the discipline of anthropology is properly embracing social media as an important part of human society… What they’re doing is identifying core principles, like the fact that social media can help create privacy. It’s a really important insight and that’s not going to change, even if it’s no longer Facebook, it’s something new.” – Bill Thompson, BBC Technology writer

CBBC Newsround (29/03/2016 TV): Two mentions of ‘footies’ on the morning and afternoon programmes.

BBC World Service – (29/02/2016 radio): World Update (from 8:51)

BBC Radio 4  (29/02/2016 radio): Today Programme (from 2:54:32)

Spanish:

BBC Mundo (05/03/2016 online): De “Footies” en Chile a “uglies” en Inglaterra, cómo el mundo cambió las redes

BBC Mundo (09/03/2016 online): La artista argentina de Instagram que engañó a miles de personas

Portuguese:

O Globo (07/03/2016 online and print): Pesquisa mostra diversidade do uso das redes sociais pelo mundo

 

Learners on our course come from all over the world.

Learners on our course come from all over the world.

 

And here are selected comments from learners on our course:

“Thank you for this course. Although I am a journalist and social media user I now have an understanding of the cross-cultural realities of social media… how it is used differently across different cultures.”

“Fantastic course. This has been a great introduction and it seems like it’s almost limitless as to where one could further go from here in these studies.”

“Really enjoyed the course. I found it extremely interesting with edifying discussions! I hope social media evolves into something truly radical rather than merely, ‘a look at me peep show for the digitally besotted’ (John Pilger)”.

The course has just entered its third week, and it’s not too late to sign up! Join the course in English on FutureLearn and in Portuguese, Tamil, Hindi, Spanish, Chinese, Turkish, and Italian on UCLeXtend.

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!

They flirt, they share porn and they gossip

By Juliano Andrade Spyer, on 5 February 2016

Image courtesy:  thegillinator.

Image courtesy:
thegillinator.

The last four months of 2015 were tough. I was locking myself in a claustrophobic student carrel every day, spending 9 hours staring at a computer screen but not being able to finish the final draft of my book. I began having trouble sleeping and pictured a clock ticking everywhere I went. But the source of this anxiety – as I realized later – was a prolonged and unconscious struggle to say something about my research while the evidence was pointing the other way. I wanted very badly to conclude on my book saying that this poor settlement in Brazil had a lot of problems, but that because of social media things are changing for the better. But they aren’t.

This realization came after a long conversation with a friend that kindly took the time to read a previous draft of my book. The last chapter is about the effects of social media on relationships between people that are not relatives or friends. I did not notice this before, but I ordered the cases in a way to construct an argument that social media was empowering locals to protest against injustices. But this friend summarized her impression of that chapter saying that despite all this fuss about social mobility in Brazil, people are still living as second rate citizens. If a relative is murdered, not just they have to accept that the police will not investigate: they also have to keep quiet or risk being subjected to more violence.

The internet and particularly social media is everywhere in this settlement. Teenagers and young people are crazy about it but adults and older folks also share the excitement. There is the enchantment with the new possibilities of being in touch with people and also the pride related to having a computer and to be able to use it. It shows that they are not as “ignorant” [illiterate] as others might have thought and the PC looks good in the living-room next to the flat screen TV. But how much of this represents real change and how much is – as my friend’s commentary indicates –just an appearance of change?

In short, I wanted to sympathise with “the oppressed” and also show the internet is empowering. And in order to claim that, I denied the basic evidence of what they do with social media. It is not about learning, though that happens. (For instance, they are much more interested in reading and writing in order to better use things like Facebook and WhatsApp.) However, their reason for wanting to be on social media is mostly to flirt, to share some (very) gruesome videos and to spy on one another and gossip about it.

Evangelic Christianity is much more clearly responsible for “positive” change there than the internet or social media: the protestant ideology promotes literacy and education, helps people get and keep their jobs, reduces the incidences of alcoholism and family violence. Social media, on the other hand, is usually not for opening and expanding the access to information and to new relationships, but to restore and strengthen local networks. Facebook and WhatsApp are in some cases a possibility for young people to harness the desire to study and move beyond their subordinate position in society, but it is also intensely used for social control – i.e. for spying and spreading rumours attacking people who want to challenge conformity.

The picture I have now is not as neat and “positive”. But perhaps the best contribution an anthropological research has to offer is just that: to challenge generalizations and expose how contradictory human relations can be.

What is the difference between a generalisation and a stereotype?

By Daniel Miller, on 5 January 2016

Screen Shot 2016-01-05 at 18.36.57

All anthropologists would agree that stereotypes cause harm and should be avoided. Yet anthropology mainly consists of generalisations about groups of people: the Nuer do this, the Trobriand Islanders do that, women do something more than men, Norwegians less than the French etc. But today any generalisation may be accused of perpetuating stereotypes. Saying that women do more washing up perpetuates the stereotype that women are associated with domestic labour. Saying that Irish people like Guinness or tell good jokes is said to perpetuate stereotypes.

We may not agree on the meaning of ‘truth’, but anthropology must have integrity, and report all observable generalisations irrespective of how the consequences are regarded. If we try to censor these in order to fit our own politics and values, we would rightly lose any credibility for our scholarship.

For this to be acceptable depends on two key differences between a generalisation and a stereotype. The first is called ‘essentialism’. A stereotype implies that the observation is based on an essential quality of that population, for example that women are ‘naturally’ more suited to washing up, the ‘Irish genes’ makes them funny. By contrast, we as anthropologists are responsible for investigating the historical and cultural reasons for the observed association. If Jews were associated with moneylending, it was not the result of Jewish ‘genes’ but historical prohibitions on Jewish landowning and Christians earning interest. Secondly, a generalisation must never become an assumption about any particular individual. A qualitative observation, as also a statistic, bears on some, but not all, of a population. It may be entirely untrue of that person and so should not be assumed of them.

The Why We Post project is comparative at its core, involving nine anthropologists looking at the same topics simultaneously around the world. In our forthcoming book, ‘How the World Changed Social Media’, we compare individual fieldsites which, for brevity, we refer to by their respective country names. When we say we are comparing our Turkish fieldsite with the Italian one we actually mean a site in southeast Turkey, mainly inhabited by Kurds and Arabs from many different backgrounds, is being compared with a site in the very south of Italy that has little in common with a place such as Milan. This comparative approach allowed us to appreciate the nuances of each fieldsite more fully, both while conducting fieldwork and during analysis.

We often describe things as typical or normative, but we always know that a) even the next town will be different, let alone a separate country b) each fieldsite contains internal differences by gender, income etc., c) even if we then specify a female, middle-class, well-educated English category, a particular individual within that category may show none of the associated traits.

But having established those caveats, we should not flinch from documenting the observable and comparative generalisations that we encounter, and thereby reject the argument that we should not be generalising in case it perpetuates a stereotype. Otherwise we will be unable to contribute to acknowledging, understanding and explaining cultural difference, which is our primary contribution as anthropologists.

Nostalgia for a field Christmas

By Jolynna Sinanan, on 21 December 2015

Image courtesy of shanzmataz

Image courtesy of shanzmataz.

It’s the first time I’ve been away from Christmas in Trinidad since I started fieldwork there in 2011 (oh wait, I was home briefly in 2013). December to February is about the slowest three months of the year for working in Trinidad in the lead up to Christmas and the lead up to Carnival, but it’s the best time of the year for an anthropologist whose job it is to hang out with people and do what they do, meet all the people who are important to them and do what they enjoy.

Christmas is a more than a religious festival to many Trinidadians. It’s celebrated by most people in the town, regardless of religious background, as a time to invest in the family and the home as a project. By contrast to living in Melbourne where there a mad rush for shopping for presents and preparing elaborate meals, in addition to these in Trinidad, there’s staying up for most of the night to scrub walls with sugar soap, apply a fresh coat of paint and change curtains. Of course, all of this is done with several relatives dropping in and out between their own home projects so the accompanying food and socialising turns Christmas day into a month of festivities.

When the house is spotless and could pass for a new home with freshly painted walls, the decorations go up. The tree is only the beginning: there are table runners, wall hangings, figurines and plenty of multi-coloured twinkling lights. The many philanthropic organisations in the town collect food and clothes for hampers for older people and those who are less well-off in the community. Home is not only the immediate house that a family lives in, home is also the greater town to be just as cultivated and taken care of.

Social media profiles are adorned in the same way in December. From wearing a pair of earrings shaped like Christmas wreaths to playing Santa in the local church or primary school, several profile photos from my fieldsite are of people in Christmas-themed outfits. Prior to Facebook, the circulation of Christmas cards was a time consuming activity, but now instead of sending Hallmark cards people populate the profiles of their loved ones by sharing photo collages with candy-cane or angel embellishments or posting memes.  

For those who can’t be home for Christmas, it’s becoming more common to Skype in and sit, propped up in a common space such as in the kitchen or the dining table through a tablet or smartphone over Christmas day, into the evening. I hope this year I might be the disembodied head, beamed in through webcam to enjoy Trini Christmas from afar. 

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 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.