By Shriram Venkatraman, on 17 January 2014
When I first came to the field site in India, Panchagrami, I had a lot of questions about access to social media and its use by lower socio-economic groups. Particularly, cost of access, literacy rate, social control, and a host of other varied but significant factors I hoped to study in detail. However, literacy and its impact on the use of social media became a recurring thought. Does social media require a textual language and/or a script for communication? Were there people with very poor educational backgrounds or early school dropouts who could not read/write, and in some cases, read only in Tamil (this does not imply that they can type or write in Tamil) on Social Media, and if yes, what was their preferred media? Also, what do they do there and how do they access it? All of these questions were put to rest by what I saw in the last couple of months in my field site. I came across at least four users of social media (YouTube and Facebook specifically), who had no formal education and in a couple of cases did not know how to even read/write and could be termed as illiterates in general sense. Yet they communicated on Facebook, they “Liked” and “Shared”, but did not “Comment”. What came as a surprise was that they were on Facebook and YouTube every single day and even renewed their pre-paid internet connection on time. Their frequency of Facebook usage even stumped some of the other literate users. Though they did not know how to read texts, they viewed everything as pictures and symbols. So, access to YouTube/Facebook and the activities they performed within it (including Liking and Sharing) were guided by a visual/pictorial understanding of it rather than a textual understanding.
Their access to these platforms was through an understanding of pictures, where YouTube and Facebook are represented by their logos. Further, their mediation inside these platforms was also through pictures and not through texts. Similarly, their contribution in these sites took the form of clicking on a picture that has a “Thumbs Up” sign which means “Like”. Similar is the case with “Share” for forwards/sharing pictures/video clips that have been shared by someone else, where they clicked on a button at the end of the three button section with a sign. In a way, they become forwarding agents and not producers of content. However, with the access to Smart Phones and the features that smart phones offer, some actually assume the role of content creators. A classic case is that of Nathan.
Nathan, 26 years, is a bachelor and works as a mineral water supplier. He dropped out of school after his kindergarten due to family issues and economic troubles that these issues created. His network of friends from his neighbourhood included dropouts like him, high school (12th grade) graduates and college graduates. His friends often referred to Nathan as having an inferiority complex specifically with respect to his illiteracy. Though friendly, his demeanour showed that he was a bit reserved and shy. Getting him to even talk was tough to start with, but slowly he opened up about his understanding and use of social media. Until about a year ago he had no phone, not even a simple feature phone. A few of his friends, who had started using smart phones talked him into buying a Samsung Galaxy smart phone with the help of their economic contribution. They introduced him to internet access through smart phones and as a cinema buff, his first brush with the internet was YouTube. He started watching movies and clips (specifically songs and comedies from Tamil movies) by clicking on the links that his friends sent him. He has never searched for anything on YouTube. His friends taught him on how to access his messages, so that he can click on the YouTube links that they sent him through messages. He had the YouTube app installed on his smart phone and accesses it regularly. Now, he understands that the YouTube logo represents YouTube and clicks on it when he wants to browse through it. He looks at the still picture that gets displayed for each video and clicks on it, as YouTube and other such sites recommend videos based on the user generated information such as geographical location, history of videos viewed etc. So, given this set of clips recommended for him to watch, Nathan feels comfortable clicking on new videos and especially if he sees his favourite South Indian cinema stars featured on it. He normally asks his friends to use his phone to watch videos of their favourite songs and films, so that Youtube recommends videos automatically and he doesn’t need to search for anything. However, as YouTube does not require him to contribute anything, he is a passive but a faithful and continuous user of YouTube.
After YouTube, he was introduced to Facebook almost four months ago. His friends helped him create a Facebook account and he exactly followed what his friends had taught him about accessing Facebook and learnt through observation. His illiteracy means he doesn’t understand the text on Facebook, but he understands the pictures and symbols. So, once the Facebook app was downloaded, his friends made sure that he was always signed into Facebook and he makes sure to recharge his pre-paid internet connection so that he doesn’t get logged out of Facebook. Currently, his normal exercise of accessing Facebook and activities on Facebook can be split into two types: one when he is alone and the other when he is with his friends. His independent access to Facebook takes the following form of activities:
Step 1: Click on Facebook logo.
Step 2: He swipes vertically through the screen to browse posts.
Step 3: If he sees a picture and likes the picture then he clicks on the ‘thumbs up’ sign.
Step 4: If he wants to share that picture with his network then he clicks on the forward arrow and once again clicks on the last picture on top of the screen and does not type anything. This is also how he shares video clips over Facebook.
He limits his activities on Facebook to the four listed above when he is alone. However, his activities increase when in a group. He allows his friends to access Facebook and YouTube from his phone. He identifies people through their profile pictures and his friends help him friend others from his neighbourhood (by searching) whom he knows offline. Often his friends will read out what they see on others’ profiles and Nathan will orally comment on it; but he never has his friends write comments on others’ profiles, since every friend on Facebook is from his neighbourhood and knows he can’t read or write. Once he shares a picture/video, he asks his friends to ‘Like It’ or comment on it and to let him know their comment over voice, which normally happens face to face. He is now learning how to upload clips/pictures and soon will have a few pictures that he has taken on his smart phone uploaded to his profile on Facebook.
His friends have added and subscribed him to a few Facebook groups that have its members posting video clips of Tamil movie comedies, so that he can have more access to such videos and need not wait for his friends to send him links. Similarly, they subscribed him to a group which posts pictures of pets, so he would be able to access these pictures directly on his profile and need not search for them.
Expert manoeuvring of such maze-like online platforms with pictures as road signs is still possible for people with illiteracy issues like Nathan: after all isn’t a Picture worth a thousand words?