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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.

The qualitative insights we get from applying questionnaires

By Juliano Andrade Spyer, on 31 August 2014

After our team gathered in London this past May, we came back to the field with four main tasks, one of which is to apply a new questionnaire to one hundred participants. Now that this mission is nearly accomplished, I am surprised by what I learned from the questions that, for various reasons, did not work and also by the ones that did. The application of a questionnaire forced me to contact people outside the groups I am closer to and provided a valuable opportunity to check if the generalizations I have made so far are correct. At the end, the questionnaire showed how quantitative methods could be misleading as people either don’t understand or differently evaluate the questions they are faced with. But they can and should be used in the context of long-term qualitative research as the researcher is then able to learn not just by the responses, but also mainly by the information that is offered beyond what the questionnaire requests.

On this blog post I will present some of the qualitative insights the application of this questionnaire has provided.

Right at the beginning of the conversation we ask the informant how many friends she or he has on their preferred social networking site. My expectation was that teenagers would have thousands of friends while everyone else would have about a few hundred or less. This has been the case among some participants, but as I applied the questionnaire often I heard the following intriguing reply by everyone including teens: – “Oh, I have loads of friends there. About 60…” There are quite a few things that can be unpacked from this answer. One is that I realized my teenage informants were heavy users and they were not representative of the entire group of people in their age group. Besides that, it is intriguing that having 60, 80 or 120 can be perceived as being a great number and I can now ask around to find out why is that so.

Some questions confirmed perceptions the ethnography uncovered. Later on in the questionnaire, we ask how many of the person’s friends on social networking sites the informant has never met face to face. Although I am Brazilian like my informants, their notion of what a Facebook contact should be is clearly different from mine. A “friend” here is everyone you can know, which is a group that includes the people that knows the people each one knows (friends of friends). Very few of my respondents answered that they knew personally everyone from their network. The typical reply was that loads of those they were friends with on Facebook they had added because, among other reasons, they had friends in common. So through sites like Facebook we see that my informants understanding of an acquaintance is much wider and flexible than that of people with my urban middle class background.

My informants have not understood the question that helped me realize this previous observation. Originally our research team wanted to know if informants asked the permission of friends or of family members before adding people to their network of contacts. As I read this question to informants, they replied to it quite quickly and confidently so it was not until almost finishing this task that I saw they had understood something very different from our original intention. They usually answered that they consulted friends before adding new contacts, but they were actually saying that when they receive a request from someone they haven’t met and don’t know, they go to this person’s profile and browse around to find out, among other things, who these people are friends with. Having friends in common is an important aspect in the decision of accepting friendship requests.

Some questions worked out incredibly well. One of these asked: do you feel that the opportunity of interacting with people through the Internet has become a headache? This was clearly understood by everyone and it will be interesting to see after we process the data if there are specific demographic groups that replied affirmatively to it. For example: young married people apparently both enjoy meeting more people and are bothered by having their lives more closely monitored by their partners. Others said that Facebook mixes up together different groups of people and it has become a burden to deal with frequent tensions inside one’s network.

We ask informants whether they think social networking sites are good or bad for education and for work. Although some replied Facebook was bad for education because it captures the attention of students out of their schoolwork, several parents consider it positive for exposing their children to information and knowledge. The answers were even more emphatic about work. As Baldoíno is a working class village, many of my informants here work in hotels, are private security guards or have small businesses and having the possibility of communicating with peers and with business partners easily and without paying is very helpful.

On the whole, my informants could not say whether they had “liked” businesses on Facebook. It is unclear to almost all what the difference is between, for instance, a soap opera and a company, and notions such as “local”, “national” and “international” in regard to the businesses they “liked” were confusing to them. Why shouldn’t Coca Cola be local or national if its products are available locally and their adverts are running on national TV channels? Some informants answered that they have purchased items from the businesses they follow, but what they mean is not that the purchase happened as a consequence of them “liking” the business. They like the product and they express this by “liking” them on Facebook and buying products.

I was surprised to see how the people here understand the Facebook timeline. In my private use of Facebook, friends rarely publish stuff on my timeline; as a whole, we share the understanding that one’s timeline is a private place that should not be used by others unless on specific occasions such as birthdays. Here in Baldoíno leaving messages of all sorts in someone else’s timeline is part of the way Facebook is used and the word “timeline” has become part of the vocabulary people use to talk about social networking online.

The questionnaire ends with two questions about politics and the answers I collected are revealing of the particularities about this place. I think all but one person said she or he had unfriended someone because of political differences. Many said that they have unfriended people because of quarrels motivated by other reasons, but not because of politics. These answers reveal the physical distance that in fact exists between them and local representatives. Politics is a topic not worth quarreling about because there is nothing to gain from it. Government type of politics represent a burden that has to be dealt with every two years during elections and politicians are very present during that time but afterwards they disappear.

Although informants consistently said they didn’t care about politics, most said confidently that social networking sites have made them more politically active. They were very sure about both answers so I started asking what they understood about being politically active. Initially I suspected they meant Facebook allowed them to be more active in their community as they are now able to complain publicly about things they don’t like, but this was not what many were trying to say. By being more active politically they are saying they are better informed about what happens beyond the daily life in their locality. Facebook is a place that disseminates information so they learn about more things that are interesting to them that they don’t get through other media such as the television.

There is a lot more to say about this experience and about how quantitative methods can be a valuable tool to acquire qualitative data, but hopefully the examples offer possibilities for this subject to be discussed further. I am curious to learn how the experience has been for my research colleagues and hope they blog about it here as well.

What does poverty look like on social media?

By Razvan Nicolescu, on 2 August 2014

Teenager from a low income family using Facebook (Photograph by Razvan Nicolescu)

Teenager from a low income family using Facebook (Photograph by Razvan Nicolescu)

This blog post is part of a much larger theme of the impact of social media on low income populations. This is most debated among social media theorists and activists and is also one of the research objectives of the Global Social Media Impact Study. I will give just a few insights on this issue from the Italian fieldsite.

First, we should keep in mind that low income is not necessarily related to poverty in Grano.  I will briefly explain why. Indeed, the unemployment figures for the local population seem to be close to recent ones for the southern Italy: that is unemployment of almost 22%, with unemployment among youth at 61%. However, relatively much less people believe they are poor. This is related to a rewarding combination of the following mechanisms: closer kin relations, which also imply efficient redistribution of material goods and possessions within the nuclear family; alternative sources of income, such as from subsistence agriculture; and the possibility to dramatically reduce the costs of living with no direct impact on social status. I will not detail these here, but I will give a typical example: let’s take a family formed of a middle-aged couple with two children where only one adult is employed on a part-time basis. The family could either own their house or live in the same house with some of their own parents; the grandmother is cooking for the entire family and at least one other parent or sibling can contribute fresh vegetables from their campagna (a small house and agricultural lot outside the city) or produce their own olive oil for the entire year. The costs for education and healthcare is minimal and the family can afford to send their children on a weekly basis to private courses of English Language or football. Such a family would normally not consider themselves poor and will always point to other people who have a lower standard of life than their own.

In this post I will refer to people from this latter category, who normally agree they have outstanding economic difficulties. It is this group of people for whom at least one of the first two mechanisms described above does not exist or does not function for different reasons. Regarding the use of social media, the first thing that blatantly differentiates them from other people in the town is related to the cost of technology. Most people living in difficult economic conditions simply cannot afford to pay for an Internet connection (which is at least 20 EURO/month), a cheap second-hand laptop (around 60-80 EURO), and do not have any interest in acquiring a smartphone. Indeed, just a few people in Grano use the free Internet services offered by the public library or the local employment office.

Then, it is interesting how this situation changes for the couples with children and especially when the children turn 12-13 years old. It is this period when parents start to realize they have to buy their children a smartphone and allow them to be present on Facebook as the majority of their school colleagues do. Moreover, most of the parents encourage their children to use social media as they see this as an imperative alignment with their peers. It is then when one of the parents – usually the mother – might also start to use Facebook.

I could not see any major difference in the use of social media among teenagers coming from different economic backgrounds. However, for parents who normally have a much more limited set of peers, social classes seem to draw daunting barriers in the online environment. In this context, for the families living in difficult economic conditions adults’ online presence never takes-off and is definitely much more restricted than for better-off people in the same age group.

It is interesting that young adults (e.g. early 20-year olds) coming from impoverished backgrounds continue to use social media in a way that aims to level off the social differences within their peers. At the same time, this offers their younger siblings and families more convincing grounds to cover up these differences when it is their turn. In this context, what does poverty on social media look like? The short answer is that poverty is portrayed in most cases as a more or less distant and ‘third-party’ issue in which the implication of the self is vaguely hinted at: poverty in different parts of the world, poverty in Italy, poverty as driven by politicians or egotistic economic systems. It is interesting to think why most of these postings and comments do not belong to people who are actually under difficult economic conditions.

It is also interesting to think about the striking absence of any reference to, or display of, one’s own poverty in the online environment. In particular, among teenagers and young people to reveal in any way how poor they actually are is perceived, among other things, as seriously affecting their prospects to venture up the social scale and out of poverty.

Note on the above photo: Giorgia is a 16 years old girl who lives with her parents and her five brothers in a modest council house in the center of Grano. Nobody in her family has a stable job and they depend on weekly help from the church. She is friends on Facebook with both her parents and her three older brothers. None of them ever suggested on Facebook they were poor; their close friends just know that and Giorgia and her family see no reason why they would bring this up online.

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.

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Teens are obsessed about spell checking thanks to Facebook

By Juliano Andrade Spyer, on 2 July 2014

Photo by Juliano Spyer

Photo by Juliano Spyer

Schoolteachers and staff in Baldoíno have a common perspective about the impact of social media on education. For them, Facebook and similar services are bad because they make students even less interested in what happens during classes. The argument tends to be that the Internet in general is a good thing, but young people avoid the “good internet” to devote a lot of time to socialization. The typical example of the “good internet” here is Google because it’s where one can learn things. Google fits into the image of a sort of oracle of knowledge that fits well with the idea of what a teacher is while Facebook is the playground and the understanding is that children have nothing good to teach each other.

If you ask a staff member of a school to give an example of the consequences of using the “bad side of the internet”, they may talk about how poorly students are writing because of the lingo they use to communicate through social networking sites. They say that kids are now happy to misspell words because they all like to type in this way. But this is actually very far from what the evidence from fieldwork shows. I am confident to claim that, at least here in my field site, Facebook has made spelling-checks an obsession among younger users and they are constantly improving their writing skills for that reason.

Here is a bit of my own pre-theorizing about the way things work here in terms of social mobility. Displaying economic progress is an important part of life, hence the effort made to show off this progress through actions such as buying branded clothes or a being a strong speaker through which the neighbors can evaluate the technical quality of your investment in education. Teenagers appear to have been given a central role in this arena: they are the main embodiments of display for family wealth and that may be a heavy burden to bear. These kids are intensely comparing what they have to what others around them have to look for signs of  a“lack of conditions”. And a serious indicator of poor economic means shows itself through writing.

I have systematically asked teens about different topics related to technology and almost all of them are highly concerned about not misspelling words on Facebook’s public areas. Some have newer phones that have spellcheckers and these are sought after technologies. Others with less powerful smartphones get into the habit of using Google to check the words they are not sure about. And as a consequence they all claim that their writing skills have improved as they fell more confident about writing.

I like this example because it shows how an assumption about the effects of the Internet may be wrong and yet remain as the truth, at least to a certain group. The perspective of school staff reveals less about what happens in terms of learning and possibly more about another important topic related to the internet here: how it has deepened the generation gap. We are talking about parents that are functionally illiterate in terms of reading, but also in terms of operating a computer. So young people have the whole World Wide Web to live their lives away from the sight of adults.

Seeing red: watching the World Cup in Northern Chile

By Nell Haynes, on 27 June 2014

kids marea roja

Neighborhood children celebrate Chile’s victory. Photo by Nell Haynes

The very first night I spent in my fieldsite in Northern Chile, the national team qualified for the World Cup. I had no TV, no radio, and internet only through my smartphone. But I knew every time the team scored. Horns honked, dogs barked, whistles cut through the evening air, a dull roar of shouts bouncing off one another between the small homes, and six floor apartment buildings hung around the city like the fog that rolls in every afternoon from the Pacific Ocean. When the opposing team scored, you could hear the low rumble of grumbling viewers. By the game’s end, the horns were honking again, fireworks were being set off, and I ventured to my balcony to see people waving large flags in the street.

After nine months in this working class city of 100,000 people, football is back, and it is everywhere. Though advertising in general is limited, people find individual ways to visibly express their excitement about World Cup. The single bar in the city has no signs outside or inside advertising that they will be open for games. Restaurants have no specials. This is possibly because people tend to watch at home with friends and family, grilling meat, and drinking beer, rather than watch in in a more public place. Or perhaps people feel inclined to watch from home because there is no incentive to watch in a public place. Either way, the result is clear. When I watched one afternoon game at the bar, I was one of only 5 patrons (all the others being 20-30 something men who seemed to know the bartender on duty). In fact, the family and friends joining together in each private home usually outnumbered those gathered in the bar.

anita futbol

A small crowd watches Chile vs. Netherlands in the local bar. Photo by Jair Correa.

The few instances of businesses advertising World Cup specials were limited to interntional companies. The hardware store (owned by US company Home Depot), and one supermarket (owned by Walmart) had special giveaways advertised, and of course the Coca Cola and Becker beer cans on sale throughout the country are decorated with football themed designs. But on a local level nothing commercialized about the World Cup. Instead, people have individually created visible practices associated with supporting their national team—wearing red football jerseys, setting off fireworks, and posting a great deal on social networking sites. These posts began about a week before the World Cup began, in anticipation.

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A World Cup themed display in Sodimac Homecenter. Photo by Nell Haynes

Many of the Facebook posts were typically Chilean in style, in that they were humorous memes. Some compared the team’s coach, Jorge Sampaoli, who is bald, to bald reggaetón singer Pitbull. Others, in anticipation of a match against the Australian team, featured pictures of kangaroos in compromising positions. Others posted sarcastic cartoons about the blindness with which Chileans follow football, or “Survival Guides” for those uninterested in the games. Politically involved young people often posted links to articles about the protests in Brazil, often followed by an image supporting the Chilean team, and commenting on their sense of feeling torn between the game they love and the capitalist exploitations behind the event. “Vamos Chile…..a pesar que el trasfondo del mundial es una mierda no pueden negar que el futbol es hermoso sobretodo cuando gana chile” [Let’s go Chile…..it’s a shame that the transformation of the World Cup is shitty, but they can’t negate that football is beautiful and above all when chile wins”

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A popular meme circulating before and during the Chile vs. Australia match.

On the day of the game, posts turned more personal. Young men and middle-aged mothers alike post on Facebook invitations to friends to watch the game in their homes, often enticing them with photos of beer or food accompanied by a Chilean flag or football. Local businesses such as Chinese restaurants suggest customers should “put their orders in now to go along with The Red” (the nickname for the national team).

The experience of watching the games was captured in photos posted on Facebook and Instagram. These usually consist of people wearing red football jerseys, red, white, and blue wigs, hats that look like footballs, and other variations on festive attire, while standing next to a large television displaying a match. Others display the meats being grilled while watching the game. Even those stuck at work during games. Posted selfies at their desk while draped in the national flag. The large percentage of men working in mining operations several hours outside of the city were not left out. A few hours later, after they’ve finished their twelve hour shift, workers in the nearby copper mines post their cell phone videos of hundreds of their coworkers erupting as they watch a goal being scored from the company dining hall.

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An Instagram photo shared during the Chile vs. Spain game.

But more telling than these orchestrated photos and videos were the immediate reactions to the game that were posted in simple messages on Facebook. When there was something to cheer about, my Facebook feed instantly filled with simple statements of “conchetumare” (a somewhat all-purpose expletive), “weon!” (somewhat equivalent to ‘dude’), “vamos chile mierda” [let’s go chile. shit!], and  of course, “goooollllll” after every score.

After the games, Instagram and Facebook again filled with photos of people celebrating in the streets. Huge crowds gathered in plazas to set off fireworks, sing fight songs, and generally continue the party. People posted videos of the national hymn being sung at the start of the game. These were not just young people, but grandparents and mothers carrying young children. Of course, the posts stopped about two hours after the game ended, but I could still hear the singing and fireworks through my closed window late into the night.

And then, the next day, in further, but subdued celebration, memes reappeared teasing opponents who lost, or chastising referees blamed for a Chilean loss. After defeating current world champion, Spain, a photo of an airplane bearing the Spanish flag, with “gentlemen, start your engines” was shared by many people.

Overall, on non-game days, about 20% of posts are related to the world cup. On game days, this rises slowly until they peak during the actual game the make up more than 60% of posts from the 90 people I follow on Facebook. Similarly, among Instagram users from my fieldsite, about 80% of photos posted during game time have something to do with the game. Clearly, for many people, life stopped in order to watch the game. Yet, in order to actively participate in a community of fans, social networking provided an outlet for humor, pride, predictions, and even gut reactions to plays. This may have something to do with the fact that people are watching in small groups in private spaces, rather than large numbers gathering in the local bar. While family members got up to dance and toot horns after each goal scored when I watched from friends’ homes, they seemed to want a more collective experience. This desire was summed up by my friend’s uncle, who after Chile’s win over Spain quickly declared, “Let’s all go outside and see what’s going on in the streets. If there’s a party happening we need to be a part of it.”

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A mashup of photos of people literally partying in the street after the Chilean team beat Spain, posted on both Instagram and Facebook.

It is also worth noting that the number of posts on either social media site that reference support for a team other than Chile is almost non-existent. There is a somewhat large population of Colombian immigrants in the fieldsite, and thus, the Colombian team has had a few posts in it’s support. By overwhelmingly, the posts reference the team of the poster’s home nation. The World Cup is not about the world, but about Chile’s place in it, and Facebook, rather than acting as a window to a “global civil society” (Tomlinson and Young 2006:1) rather functions much as Anderson described early national newspapers as foundational to a sense of community as a nation. In fact the simultaneity he described (1983:37) has gone into warp speed as people have moved from reading the same daily news items, to being able to immediately comment on an acquaintance’s “conchatumadre” just seconds after a Chilean player scores. This Saturday, Chile will battle home team Brazil in the second round of the tournament, and might be eliminated. If that happens it will be interesting to see if excitement and Facebook posts continue, as people in my fieldsite cheer on other South American teams, or if the exit of the Chilean team will mean an absence of attention to the World Cup both in media consumption, and social media curation. Then again, maybe predictions will be right and we’ll never get a chance to know, because Chile will win it all!

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A widely shared image of how Chile could pass through the rounds to win the World Cup.

References

Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities. London: Verso, 1983.

Tomlinson, Alan, and Christopher Young, eds. National identity and global sports events: Culture, politics, and spectacle in the Olympics and the football World Cup. SUNY Press, 2006.

THE WORLD CUP ON SOCIAL MEDIA WORLDWIDE
This article is part of a special series of blog posts profiling how social media is affecting how ordinary people from communities across the planet experience the 2014 World Cup.

The ‘too much information’ paradox

By Nell Haynes, on 22 March 2014

Photo by Nell Haynes

Photo by Nell Haynes

Here in Northern Chile, Facebook still reigns among social networking sites. Particularly for people over 25, programs like Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitter are rarely used. And through interviews and surveys, as well as actually observing what people here do online, I’m finding that people feel far more comfortable ‘liking’ and commenting on posts rather than creating their own new content.

During an interview just last night, a man in his late 20s who I will call Sebastian told me he thinks sometimes people post too much information. “I see everything but I don’t write anything… If my friend writes ‘I’m angry’ I just don’t see the point. Why tell everyone? For me I like reading what my friends post, but I hardly ever post anything.” He then made fun of his sister-in-law who was also present for sometimes writing ‘Goodmorning’ or ‘Goodnight’ on Facebook. “It’s just silly. Why do you have to tell everyone something so basic? And sometimes—not you Celia, but others, it’s just annoying when my Facebook is filled with all these pointless posts and I can’t see the interesting things posted about films I want to see or friends in Argentina.” This sentiment has been echoed many times by both men and women from their early 20s to late 60s. In fact, when looking closely at around 50 different Facebook profiles from Northern Chileans, the average person only created a new status message 4 or 5 times in 2 weeks.

Yet this is not because they are absent from Facebook. The number of comments and likes on status messages and shared links are often in the dozens. So while many people may not ‘see the point’ as Sebastian said, they are still commenting and liking these posts. Why? As Sebastian explained later, “I want my friends to know that I’m paying attention. Some live far away and I don’t call or write them. But I click like on their post and they know I’m here.” I found similar reasoning—appearing to be paying attention—for sharing memes about politics, as I wrote about here.

But even this explanation leaves a paradox: If everyone is content to simply comment or like posts, who is creating content that they are commenting upon? In my research I have met two of these people who count themselves in the ‘very small percentage’ of people who post regularly, and admittedly, sometimes ‘too much information’. When I asked Alex, a man in his 30s, if most of his friends post as much as him, he told me, “Only about 20%. The others only post what is necessary, and many more only look and hit ‘like’.”

A few days later he posted a cartoon meme with the text “We all have that friend that posts everything they do all day,” with the comment “That’s me!” The post received 42 likes and no comments. Alex was proud that he posted so much “because I make my friends laugh and I give them something to comment on.” So even though Alex realizes that he is sometimes that annoying friend that everyone complains about posting too much information, he sees it as something of a public service, giving his friends pleasure and something to comment upon. “I mean, what’s the point of Facebook if no one ever writes anything!”

Social media and mass media: the CCTV Chinese New Year’s Gala

By Tom McDonald, on 23 February 2014

Poetic couplets hung on the door of a village house in preparation for Chinese NewYear (Photo: Tom McDonald)

Poetic couplets hung on the door of a village house in preparation for Chinese New Year (Photo: Tom McDonald)

I passed the recent Chinese New Year in my fieldsite in North China with the Wang family in their rented shopfront-cum-home on the small rural town’s commercial street, with Mr Wang, his wife and son, 16 year old Little Wang, who had just finished his term at the high school in the nearby county-town, and was back home for the school holidays.

One of the most interesting elements of the festival is social media’s relationship with the mass media event of the day (and probably the year), which is the CCTV New Year’s Gala programme produced by China Central Television. The programme is basically a variety show. But at the same time it is the most difficult variety show on the planet to get right, because its 700 million–1000 million viewers (53-76% of the country’s population) are comprised of every generation of Chinese families, who watch the show together as they eat they ‘reunion meal’. As such, the programme makers have to attempt to appeal to all these drastically different audiences. No mean feat when we are talking about elderly people who grew up in the Republican-era, witnessed the Sino-Japanese war, and the founding of the People’s Republic; or middle aged people who were children during the hardships of the cultural revolution, and then saw the enormous transformations bought by the reform-and-opening period; or China’s youth, those born in the 80’s, 90s, and 00’s, often single children, many of whom have grown up with a material aspirations on par with western society. So you end up with a variety show that is a bizarre and wizardly mix of revolutionary songs, trapeze artists, dancers performing to happy hardcore music, magicians, ‘hip’ youth TV hosts, recognised family performers and national pop stars. The show traverses the utterly naff and absolutely incredible. One cannot help but feel that the show tries so hard to appeal to everybody that it is perhaps doomed to failure.

At the Wang’s house we watched and chatted as the show went on, slowly devouring the dinner while Mr Wang and I knocked back baijiu, a fiery Chinese liquour. I soon noticed that Little Wang’s attention had waned, however, and after eating a little food, he left us and moved into the shop area of their house, where the computer is located. Soon after I followed him into the room. I noticed that he was alternating between browsing QZone, and chatting on the QQ Instant Messaging client. He was using the QQ IM client to send New Year’s ‘blessings’ (zhufu) to his classmates, while browsing his QZone. Many of the status updates from his friends were related to the television show. For example, one of the features of the show was a young girl dressed in a flowing white dress who was introduced by the presenters at the start of the programme. The presenters explained that she would spin around on the spot up until midnight (4 hours) to symbolise the changing seasons of the year. Indeed she managed to do this quite successfully. One of Little Wang’s friends had forwarded a meme of a photo of the girl asking ‘spinning girl, have you eaten Xuanmai chewing gum?’. Xuanmai chewing gum recently ran an advertising campaign with the tagline ‘Xuanmai chewing gum, unable to stop’ (xuanmai kouxiangtang, tingbu xialai). The advert featured a young man singing, with powerful sound waves coming out of his mouth, and he was challenged to see how long he could sustain the singing. After eating the chewing gum it seemed to give the man somewhat cosmic powers to continue with his crooning. What is interesting about this case is we can kind of see the spillover from a mass media event onto social media, so while people do not seem to be happy posting about news or other big events, the Spring Festival Evening Party seems to be prime fodder for discussion of QQ, but especially among young people.

There is precedent for this, as traditionally the show is something people often talk about and critique for days after, even offline. But in addition to young people talking about the New Year’s Gala online, I got a feeling during the evening that young people were having a kind of separate New Year’s Eve party on QQ with all their friends. Chinese New Year is a key moment of reunion for Chinese families, and I get a feeling that even this moment of togetherness is being affected by social media as young people are living a large part of their spring festival online with their classmates.

Does this mean that the ‘traditional’ Chinese New Year is at risk? I want to get away from the idea that social media’s presence in the spring festival necessarily has to be good or bad, or even assume that social media is ‘transforming’ the Chinese New Year (anymore than the Chinese New Year is transforming social media). It is not that Little Wang’s practices are heralding the decay of the Chinese New Year, but rather I think it is signalling the importance of classmates being part of that reunion. It seems to be an acknowledgement that family ties are not the only thing that matters, and the deliberate decision for classmates to include each other in their spring festival reunion meals suggests a willingness to apply family ideals to educational peers.

When suspension becomes a status symbol

By Shriram Venkatraman, on 13 February 2014

Photo By Vince - uvw916a (Creative Commons)

Photo By Vince – uvw916a (Creative Commons)

The best part of a longitudinal Anthropological study is being a witness to the changes that happens in the mindset of the people you study over a period of time, in my case just 10 months. When I first came into Panchagrami, there was a group of five young men who had just signed up for a Facebook membership. They were all first generation learners from a rural background. As with most new young Facebook members, I witnessed their constant competition in making and grabbing as many friends as possible on Facebook. The first step they always seemed to take was to friend everyone they knew offline by searching for their names on Facebook. Then they went ahead and friended people who were Friends of Friends and mutual members of a group or a page that they Liked.

But, this seemed to take a turn a couple of months ago, when one of my informants from this group, casually stated that he was banned from Facebook, meaning that his account was suspended for a couple of days. This was pretty strange and when further probed, he stated that he was thrown out because he had sent Friends request to strangers (read “foreign women”, specifically Caucasians) and Facebook had his account suspended as he seemed to be spamming Friend Requests to people he just didn’t know and who in no way shared any mutual friends with him. This was not the first time this happened to him. In fact, the first time Facebook had his account temporarily suspended he didn’t even know why his account was banned. But, he seemed to understand from the trend of account suspensions, that whenever he sent out numerous friends request to people (women) he didn’t know, his account was automatically suspended, or at least this was what he attributed his temporary account suspension to.

In a few weeks’ time when hanging out with this group, the others in the group also started boasting of this trend. Each one was boasting about how many times they had their account temporarily suspended in the past one month and the story that went with why their account was suspended. Each of them saw this as a game they played; the more number of times their account was temporarily suspended and the number of days their account got suspended with the story of why their account was suspended earned them brownie points within the group. When asked the reason they did this, they just seemed to want to turn the table on Facebook by changing the “punishment of temporary suspension” for trying to make genuine friends abroad, to merit badges. So, now the yardstick for heroism had shifted from the number of friends they made to the number of times they rebelled and were suspended for trying to make (read “spam”) friends.

It is also interesting that a couple of these informants have now created a second profile on Facebook just to spam Friend Requests and get their account suspended temporarily in order to increase  status among within their peer group. They also maintain a separate genuine Facebook profile.

Honor, fame and networked photography

By Elisabetta Costa, on 14 January 2014

Photo by Elisabetta Costa

Photo by Elisabetta Costa

Social media photography in my field site in south-east Turkey is extremely self-oriented. I have recently been asking friends and informants why people post specific images, and the answer has always been the same: “They want to become popular!” For example food is a very common image on Facebook and it is always represented in similar ways: in special occasions during dinner with friends or family, as soon as the wonderful food is ready and put on the table or on the floor someone takes the picture and posts it on Facebook. In few cases I had to wait up to twenty minutes before eating because everybody wanted to take a picture and upload it on Facebook, or keep it on their phones to show it to friends. When people organise dinner with friends or extended family and the food is particularly good-looking, taking a picture and making it public is a must. As everybody told me, the main goal is to appear awesome and become popular. On Facebook there are not pictures of ordinary food during ordinary dinner, or pictures with amazing food eaten with ordinary family members. It’s always a combination of good food and good people, the best way to impress the public. Even when the picture portrays a group of friends or family members, the picture is more oriented toward increasing the popularity of the person than to strengthening social ties with others.

In Dry Rock Town people spend hours looking at the Facebook walls of acquaintances and gossiping about them. This activity is socially accepted, and usually done together with friends or relatives. Women especially enjoy their time together in front of a smartphone or preferably a laptop, commenting about other people’s life as based on what they see on their Facebook walls: “She became fat…He got married to that beautiful woman…He is still single…She always wears beautiful clothes…He has a good job…He became rich…She always goes to the hairdresser…etc, etc, etc.” People gossip in particular about acquaintances or distant family members with whom they don’t have daily interactions, and that are Facebook friends of friends. In a town of 80,000 inhabitants where everybody knows all of the families in the town (and consequently everybody recognizes everybody as a member of a family), Facebook is the best way to get updates and have fresh information about other people’s lives. Because of gossiping, chats, and rumors, the content Facebook walls often ends up being what people know about a certain person. For this reason Facebook visual material is accurately chosen and updated in order to improve self-images, increase respectability and honor. Facebook is used as an identity card to present the self to friends of friends, and friends of friends of friends, and eventually the whole town and the extended family.

People are continuously involved in the practice of updating new pictures that can increase their social reputation. Thus the very practice of posting photos of amazing dinners and holiday trips is one of the main pleasures derived from these activities. It surely increases the their social fame within the town, and with friends and relatives.