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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

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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.

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.

Teenagers on social media in southeast Italy – quantitative data

By Razvan Nicolescu, on 14 December 2015

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In this blog post I will take a look to the quantitative data from my fieldwork, discussing some findings from a questionnaire I conducted with students in their final two years of secondary school in Grano. 539 students participated, mostly aged between 17-19 years old.

More than 90% of respondents were actively using Facebook and 80% WhatsApp. These impressive numbers reflect that in Grano the two services were seen as two complementary facets of sociality: the former being extremely public and the latter more private and personal.

In contrast, most young people did not have a clear idea about what to use Instagram and Twitter for: relatively more students used Twitter primarily to be in contact with friends than to follow celebrities (45 vs. 30%) and many used it to talk to their colleagues, family members, and partners (22%). While Instagram was more clearly used to establish relationships based on shared interests, still many used it primarily to stay in contact with school colleagues (18%) and friends from their hometown (14%). For example, those who were commuting to study in Grano used Instagram to share images from their hometown with school friends and share image from school and Grano with friends from their hometown. Most of the parents and older relatives did not even bother to ask their children what they did on Twitter or Instagram, even less to actually try and log in to these platforms.

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86% of students owned a smartphone and 99% owned or shared at least one computer with their family: 83% owned some sort of mobile computer as opposed to only 16% who owned only a desktop. These figures correspond to a recent OECD report that shows that 65% of Italian families with at least one child have a computer at home, while on average there are just six PCs for every 100 students in Italian schools. In my forthcoming book, I explain how these figures reflect the particular importance of home education in Grano.

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Most children receive their first smartphone at 10-12 years old and parents try to resist decreasing this age further. This is the age when many children also start to use social media, including more controversial platforms such as ask.fm. Throughout their adolescence their mobile use and online presence is constantly diversified as their universe continuously expands: many participate in secondary education away from their hometowns, start romantic relationships, and gain increased autonomy from their families. In a separate questionnaire on the use of social media, 82% of respondents felt that that children should only start using social media after the age of 14 years old, the main reason being that younger children are not considered to be adequately mature to establish relationships in such a public environment.

In contrast, my ethnographic qualitative data suggests that despite the relative unease of parents and teachers regarding their children’s use of mobile phones and social media, they actually encourage this use as many see it as compulsory for assuring young people a good future. This is a good example of how quantitative data was balanced by ethnographic insights in the Why We Post project.

Note: Thanks to Shriram Venkatraman for helping with statistics and graphs.

Why popular anthropology?

By Elisabetta Costa, on 27 November 2015

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The core mission of anthropology is the understanding of human behaviour in a world full of cultural and historical diversity. The anthropological commitment to this immense plurality of human and social experiences constitutes a great appreciation and valorisation of diversity. Yet, different cultures, identities and behaviours are organised around hierarchies, and the institutions that shape anthropology and other academic disciplines often reproduce and reinforce them. For example, in the UK, most universities tend to be attended by a minority of privileged students, whereas groups that are historically marginalised tend to be excluded from the process of production and fruition of academic knowledge. Anthropological content is read by few academics, and only very rarely does it reach a wider audience all around the world.

Anthropologists have, at different points in the history of the discipline, investigated the anthropological involvement in the reinforcement of social hierarchies. They have examined how systems of power shape ethnographic practices, the role of the ethnographer in the field, and processes of anthropological writing. However, efforts to extend the accessibility of anthropological knowledge have been too modest so far. Anthropology continues to be an intellectual practice accessible to a small group of academics, largely from a privileged background. The conversation on the diversity of human beings – the ultimate goal of anthropology – is carried out by those who are awarded privileges by this hierarchical system of differences. Unprivileged groups in terms of social classes, gender, sexuality, geographic origins, and ethnic backgrounds are not only often excluded from the production of anthropological knowledge, but also from the fruition of it. The result of this is the reinforcement of social hierarchies that exclude groups that have been historically marginalised.

In this context, a commitment to a wider dissemination of anthropological understanding constitutes a small but significant step towards a more inclusive society, where marginalised groups can also enjoy the opportunities afforded by anthropological knowledge. Digital technologies give unprecedented potential to expand human conversation about humanity, bringing it outside the academic sphere and placing it within the immense flow of information on the internet. Anthropologists can decide to participate in this unbounded exchange, or continue in the safe and protected space of academia. Our commitment to the former is the reason why we are publishing all of our research as open access volumes, why we have launched a free e-course, why we are in the process of building an interactive website featuring films and stories about the people who participated in our research, and why all of the above will be available in the eight languages of our fieldsites. We hope that others will decide to join us on this mission of democratising access to anthropology!

Normativity and social visibility

By Jolynna Sinanan, on 14 October 2015

image courtesy of sneugle, creative commons

It has been exactly a year since finishing 15 months of fieldwork in Trinidad. Stories for this blog have moved further and further away from cool stuff that was coming out of the field and living in Trinidad, to the far less exciting but far more intense process of endlessly thinking and rethinking the material and drafting and redrafting articles, book chapters, and books (yes, all plural) from three years of research.

So it’s kind of like experiencing the weather from the ground, how it looks and what it feels like, and then looking at the weather from the sky and how the movement of clouds influences what is happening below. This is what moving from the field to writing feels like, moving from experience and observation to the more abstract.

I have been drawing on my field work in Trinidad for, among other things, edited book chapters on different topics, from emotions and technology to social networks in small communities to social media and ethnography. What has been most striking about working on these condensed pieces of writing and stories from the field is the focus of on the everyday, what is normal in the places we lived and what people in those places take for granted. When we started this project in 2012, we didn’t want to look at isolated, spectacular social media events that seemed to be the thing at the moment, whether it was the Kony 2012 campaign or the Ice Bucket Challenge, although these sort of one off things did appear throughout the research. We were far more interested in normal social media practices and if something came up that everybody talked about, shared or commented on, we were able to contextualise it in everyday relations.

Yet, it is these types of spectacular social media events that attract the most attention. It’s like reading about media in media, which reminds me more of the anxieties of post-modernism and post-post-modernism of the 1990s, where social phenomena is likened to simulacra. From the comparative studies of nine societies (a lot of people) one of our key conclusions is that the use of social media can be generalised as being generally unspectacular. There is a previous blog post on how memes can be a visual means to reinforce social norms and morally acceptable behaviour. Humorous memes also provide a safe and popular way for people to express their views without coming across as too self-righteous or taking oneself too seriously.

Memes are just one example of visual posts, others that show food, outfits, places and events again show the everyday. The more exciting or idealised aspects of the everyday, but the everyday nonetheless. And when the idealised aspects of the everyday are shown, they usually conform to a shared sense of what living the good life means, around consumption and lifestyle, which is particularly important given that for several research participants, especially in the Brazilian, Chinese, Indian and Trinidadian field sites, upward mobility is a genuine aspiration. Again, not surprising that aspirations around lifestyle would be more obvious in the sites in countries that are commonly called ‘developing’ or in ‘the global south’.

The other half of posting (at least visual posts) around social norms is that the audience for these posts are one’s social peers and networks, social media simply makes these forms of expression more visible. Prior to social media, normativity and social visibility have had a long interrelationship and was explored with much more depth by thinkers such as Georg Simmel and more recently Agnes Heller. One of our findings summed up in once sentence is that people care what other people think and say about them, especially if they are from small towns where more people know each other and live alongside one another. There might be social media events that capture participants’ attention for a short time, but by and large, social media usage is, well, normal.

Ropa americana online: the local market for used clothing

By Nell Haynes, on 15 August 2015

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A Facebook announcement from an online shop in northern Chile announces “Jackets, Vests, and Sweatshirts”

Ebay, Etsy, Alibaba, and Taobao have changed the way many people around the world shop. Now, you can get virtually any product from anywhere, delivered right to your door. Tom McDonald has even observed companies that have sprung up to make this possible in rural China where even courier services does not deliver (also see his blog about business Facebook pages). But in northern Chile, people aren’t really all that concerned with getting interesting things from far off places. To them, ropa americana [American clothing, code for used goods] is the cheapest and least impressive form of dressing. If one is looking for style, the department stores in the larger cities will do just fine.

But this doesn’t mean that there’s no market for these goods online. Many people, particularly older women, have developed “shops” through Facebook in order to sell used clothing. Just like their counterparts who operate physical used clothing shops in the semi-formal markets around the city, these women buy used clothes in bulk, and sell it to individual consumers. But instead of renting a stall, they take pictures of the individual items to upload to Facebook accounts that they have just for that purpose. When a potential buyer likes and item, they will negotiate a price (usually about $4 for a tshirt, a bit more for jeans or a dress, up to $20 for a coat), and a time and place to meet for the exchange. While new customers may simply ask the price as a comment on the picture, or send a private message through Facebook to arrange a drop-off, regular customers will send WhatsApp messages asking about specific items, hoping to get the best of the best before they even make it to the Facebook page.

Paola, who sells clothes mostly for men told me that a miner requested she meet him as he got off the bus, coming home from his shift at the mine. He had ripped his coat while at work, and was afraid of being very cold between the bus drop off and walking a few blocks home. Paola agreed to meet him at midnight at the bus, for just a few extra dollars.

So while in many ways social media has the ability to expand consumption options globally and allow people access to cosmopolitan goods they might not have imagined a decade ago, it can also take on a form that is distinctly local and personal. Like Paola meeting the miner at his bus, this is just one way that social media can truly strengthen the community bonds that people feel in their local place.

What would happen if Facebook disappears tomorrow?

By Razvan Nicolescu, on 30 March 2015

Women explaining how she uses WhatsApp (Photograph by Razvan Nicolescu)

A friend explaining how she uses WhatsApp (Photograph by Razvan Nicolescu)

This quite obvious question kept coming up during my fieldwork in southeast Italy for different reasons. First, the transitory nature of Internet-based platforms and services is a big challenge for anthropologists; so we had to adapt our research methods and dissemination strategy to respond to this. Secondly, people in Grano themselves put this question in different ways as many recognized that Facebook started to be part of their everyday lives. Finally, many people were quite anxious about Facebook because they could not see any alternative to this service.

The vast majority of people I talked to agreed that the short answer to the question in the title is… ‘Nothing!’ – they would not be affected in any way if Facebook would disappear some day. This seems to also be supported by the second comparative questionnaire from the research. For example, 82% of the respondents answered the question: ‘Has using social media made you a) happier, b) less happy, c) no difference,’ by indicating variant (c).* Motivations for this option were usually related to the fact that Facebook was perceived as a nice and attractive gadget or accessory that could hardly be related to the sources of happiness or personal satisfaction with their lives. These sources were located in very precise places inside and outside the individual, unlike Facebook that few people had a clear idea of what really is and how it functions.

At the same time, only 34% of Facebook users think their use of the service is becoming less frequent, while almost 50% think their usage remained the same. The nature of our research could not identify trends, but the quantitative data confirms the key finding that even if most people in Grano do not see social media as too important and revealing, they nevertheless use it increasingly more. But the intensity of the usage is not limited to more frequent use or interaction on one single platform, such as Facebook, but mainly to continuously finding alternative platforms on the horizontal: such as WhatsApp, Instagram, or Twitter for example.

As I will detail in a future post, these platforms function so that each sustains or complements the use of the others so that there is actually no overlapping between platforms. And in particular, Facebook acts as a common kind of reference for all other social media. In this context, the ethnographic material suggests that not Facebook itself, but the kind of new public visibility that this service introduced is destined to not disappear. While Facebook could be replaced, outclassed, or rebranded it is what people have discovered about themselves by using Facebook that will stay there a little longer.

And this is why nobody in Grano would really mind if Facebook would disappear one day: they had already gained a new technology. This is established by the totality of social media people use and not by any one platform in particular.

P.S. – Facebook, as indeed all Internet giants, are already aware of this; and the way they fight their own ‘fear of disappearance’ is by continually transforming themselves and inventing new horizontal markets. This is simple marketing but what economic reality proves is that even these basic methods are extremely volatile in the Internet market. It is relatively easier to transform and invent in the domain of communications than when you are stuck in an Internet-based version of a conventional business, for example, and at least another 9 anthropologists who studied social media around the world also know why.

* This data is preliminary. Accurate data based on the quantitative questionnaires will be provided in June 2015.

Facebook and the State: propaganda memes in Turkey

By Elisabetta Costa, on 27 February 2015

Propaganda meme that has widely circulated on social media during the protest of March 2014

Propaganda meme that has widely circulated on social media during the protest of March 2014

The academic and journalistic accounts on the political uses of social media have mainly emphasized the practices of activists and dissidents, or alternatively the control and censorship by States, but I believe that one area of research has been largely overlooked: the government’s production and distribution of social media outputs for propaganda purposes.

After having observed the political uses of social media in Mardin for a long time, I was struck by the wide circulation of videos, memes and news supporting the government and the ruling party AKP. Most of this material was produced and originally shared by institutional sources or other informal groups whenever some significant events occurred. For example, in March 2014 anti-government protests erupted all around the country when a 15 years old boy died after having been in a coma for 269 days, the boy had been hit by tear gas while he was going to buy bread during the Gezi Park protest in Istanbul. In March 2014 the social media sphere in Mardin was populated by memes that were reproducing the government discourses and minimising accusations of police brutality. The image posted above is only one example of the several memes of this kind, the caption says: “This is not the way to buy bread/This is.”
The Turkish government’s engagement with social media was also documented by few journalists, and it was reported that in September 2013 the governing AKP party created a team of 6000 social media users to help influence public opinion. However, I have never come across any detailed report or research about this crucial and important topic.

In Mardin the active usage of social media by the government and the ruling party AKP, is also interlinked with State’s control and surveillance, as a consequence of these two factors, government opponents were not very active online. All this leads me to argue that social media in my field-site, far from creating a democratic public space, have rather reproduced and reinforced existing inequalities and exclusions of political and ethnic minorities.

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.