Surveying Social Relationships

By Daniel Miller, on 2 October 2015

One of the chapters of our forthcoming book How the World Changed Social Media, which will be published as an Open Access book by UCL Press in February 2016, describes a survey consisting of 43 questions we asked 1199 respondents (mainly around 100 per fieldsite).

Just occasionally this survey produced results which were commensurate with our general ethnographic data, for example, this chart showing the average number of friends is well matched by what our informants say about how generally sociable they feel people are in the place where they live.

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Similarly this figure of whether people use social media to develop new relationships makes sense to us. In some places such as Brazil or Trinidad it is because prior to social media people typically developed friendships through the mechanism of becoming friends with the friends of already established friends or relatives, and this is something that social media lends itself to. By contrast the issue in industrial China is that factory workers, who are constantly shifting from place to place, grow to rely on their online connections as the place for developing friendship, partly because opportunities are quite limited for friendship offline.

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But in other cases the results of this survey are clearly incompatible with what we know from our ethnographies, and we will always favour the authority of 15 months living with a community over a mere survey. It will not be hard for you to spot the problem in the next figure. This is the high number of people in our rural Chinese site who mention siblings as the people who most often post on their walls. The problem is, of course, that given the one family per child policy, most of these young people don’t have siblings. McDonald suggests this is a combination of two factors. Firstly those who do have siblings perhaps share a very close relationship with them. But, this figure also represents a practice in China where it is common to refer to one’s cousins as siblings. It was just one of many examples where we found that our survey could be very misleading unless you had the ethnographic background to understand how and why people had interpreted our questions in a particular and often unpredicted way.

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Opening doors: Rural Chinese business promotion on social media

By Tom McDonald, on 28 May 2015

A typical shopfront in the North China fieldsite (Photo: Gillian Bolsover)

A typical shopfront in the North China fieldsite (Photo: Gillian Bolsover)

One surprising feature of QQ – the most popular social media platform in the rural Chinese town where I conducted research – is its lack of dedicated ‘business’ profile pages, such as those offered on Facebook.

WeChat, the second most popular social media platform in the town, does allow business owners to set up an official ‘public account’ (gongzhong hao), although registration requires users to submit details and a scanned copy of their business licence, which is enough of a hassle to deter most people I knew from signing up.

An additional cultural explanation also exists for why dedicated business profiles are less common on social media pages: townsfolk operate a far less regimented division between work and leisure.

The town’s shops, restaurants and small businesses are often run by family members. Even owners of larger businesses (like factories) in the town prefer to employ family or close friends wherever possible.

Given the choice, people would rather carry out transactions with friends instead of complete strangers. As such, outsiders coming to the town to conduct business often find themselves spending considerable amounts of time and money establishing friendly relationships with townsfolk before any business agreements can be made.

These factors mean that owners of small businesses in the town are far more willing to operate their business and personal affairs from a single social media account. This is also reflected in the fact that some owners of these businesses use their shop name as their screen-name, and an image of the facade of the shop as their profile picture.

Aside from identifying the store, the convention of including an image of a shopfront also has important symbolic meaning that points to the family. Anthropologist Charles Stafford has noted how doors in China are understood to be important mediating spaces between households and the outside, and that these entrances are also seen to represent the family itself.

All this suggests that rather than Chinese social media lacking a business feature, the platform instead reflects very different cultural understandings of the relationship between commerce and kinship, and is actually rather well suited to the rural Chinese preference that business, family and friendship should be closely intertwined.

Password sharing: I get by on QQ with a little help from my friends

By Tom McDonald, on 17 February 2015

Group of Chinese schoolchildren

Friendship is only a shared password away. (Photo by Athena Lao, CC BY 2.0)

One of the surprising features of my conversations with primary and middle school students in our rural fieldsite in the north of China was the number who said that the pressures of schoolwork meant they didn’t have any time to ‘care for’ (zhaogu) their social media profiles. Many spoke of the importance of needing to ‘invest time’ (touru shijian) and ‘invest money’ (touru qian) in their QQ account or QQ online games in order to achieve high levels or status on these platform.

For this reason, a number of people that I spoke to, particularly middle school students, told me that they would ask their friends to ‘look after’ their account, or various parts of the games that they played.

Having somebody else responsible for looking after one’s QQ account constituted a very significant indicator of trust, and this seemed especially so in the case of school children. A high proportion of middle school students told me they shared their social media passwords with other people, most often their close friends.

Often when I asked middle school students who it was that they shared their QQ password with, a considerable number of male students would use the term ‘senior male fellow student’ (shixiong) which often indicates incredibly close relationships (similar to ‘best buddies’ or ‘best mates’); whereas for female middle school students, it was often the case that they said the person they shared their social media password with was a female best friend (guimi). In both cases, it seemed that if QQ passwords were shared with friends then it was far more likely that these people were of the same gender as the people doing the sharing.

This not only highlights a different attitude towards privacy on social media, but it also speaks to how platforms can be used to cement long-lasting friendships for young people.

Does Facebook produce reality?

By Elisabetta Costa, on 31 December 2014

Facebook meme

Facebook meme

Researchers of the Global Social Media Impact Study are currently writing a chapter about the visual material posted on social media. For this reason I’ve been carefully observing my friends’ Facebook profiles and I counted an incredibly high number of memes citing famous writers, poets, and philosophers. Differently from the Italian field-site (see Razvan’s last blog post) where highly educated people use Facebook to express their knowledge and abilities when these can’t be used in other ways, in Mardin young adults use Facebook to construct a well-educated, moral and virtuous self and make it visible to the others. As I’ve been told by many local friends, people in Mardin want to appear literate, wisdom, religious and moral, and they use social media to achieve this goal. In fact Facebook is also criticized for being used to construct an-ideal self that is quite different from the offline self. The discrepancy between the online and the offline was a discussed topic in Mardin, and it also emerged from my ethnographic observation.

On the public Facebook wall, people consciously post what they know is going to be under the gaze of others. The public Facebook wall in Mardin is a place to be observed and to be looked at. Young adults and and middle aged people don’t simply stage a successful character in that specific social context, but they perform a self that is imagined as continuously monitored, controlled and judged. In Mardin social media are spaces under surveillance, and people more or less consciously perceive themselves under the control and the gaze of others and of the State institutions.

In a region that has experienced decades of political violence and inter-ethnic conflicts, people’s traumatic experiences have led to the production of fears and suspicion towards the ‘other’, whether this is embodied by the State or by the social body, and whether the threat is real or not. These two levels, the State and the society, blend and reinforce each other. As result people tend to be aware of privacy settings, to be cautious about the material they share, and to post only what strictly confirms to dominant social norms. Surveillance is a productive force that generates specific performances and production of selves.

But probably the most interesting consequence of surveillance is that it makes the visible real. When the visible is monitored by the society and by its authorities, and for this reason it’s imagined as having real consequences, then it’s intended as real. It’s in this context of surveillance that the visible on Facebook becomes real. And this explains why many people in Mardin spend a lot of time and energy to accurately construct their idealized self on Facebook. In 1928 the two sociologists W.I. Thomas and D.S. Thomas formulated this theorem: “When men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences”. But we may also say that when one level of appearance is imagined as having consequences (and it does have consequences) then it becomes as real.

Social media Goldilocks: Keeping friendship at a distance

By Daniel Miller, on 9 December 2014

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

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.


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.

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!”