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.

The cost of an internet connection when there is none available

By Juliano Andrade Spyer, on 10 November 2013

Pots, pans, and an antenna on the left. Photo by Juliano Spyer.

Pots, pans, and an antenna on the left (Photo by Juliano Spyer)

Carcará is one of the songs that was popular among politically engaged youth of Brazil in the 1960s. Caetano Veloso’s recording of this song starts with the comment: “It is funny [to see] the force that things appear to have when they need to happen.”

The song describes how a small predatory bird that lives in the northeast of the country survives during the dry winter time by biting the bellybutton of young calves, consequently resulting in their death. The song is a sort of suggestive tribute to the bestial survival strength shared by the millions of illiterate migrants originally from that region.

I thought of this song the other day as I was visiting the home of a friend that is the president of the association of the residents of a squatter area in Baldoíno, my field site. Land invasions take a lot of effort to be legalised, and people must hang in there without official services such as electricity and running water while the government processes the claims and, if that is approved, make the new ownership official and distribute the documentation among the squatters. It usually takes many years to happen, but despite the odds, my friend was showing me his internet connected computer, which was the first of its kind in the neighbourhood.

You can see how important the internet is just by looking at the excitement of the family around the computer screen. But the process of connecting that computer was rather costly and involved ingenuity both from my friend and from the person that is providing him with the radio connection.  First, it was necessary to understand that there are products such as surge protectors that must be bought and installed in order to prevent the computer’s hardware from burning due to the instability of electricity supply. Additionally, a person – a friend of my friend – had the idea of re-selling internet connection and he found that it was possible to subscribe to a broadband service and transmit it by radio signal to places far away. He first studied this through YouTube videos and was then successfully testing the experiment by supplying our friend with his much desired internet connection.

I think the point of this post is self-explanatory: “It is funny [to see] the force that things appear to have when they need to happen.” Teenagers at my field site are crazy about the internet. It serves as a marker of distinction and as a place that is mostly exclusive for them to use in relation to their (normally illiterate) parents and adults in general. Parents seem to mostly feel favorably toward the attention their kids devote to using the internet, because then kids will stay at home rather than spending time outside the home unsupervised. They also will be doing something that  at least appears to be intellectual or related to the acquisition of knowledge. These are some of the reasons  the poorest people in my field site are pushing to find alternative ways to bring this service to their homes, especially in the case of squatting areas.

How are numbers important?

By Razvan Nicolescu, on 30 September 2013

Photo by Gabriela Nicolescu

Young people in the Italy fieldsite using mobile phones (Photo by Gabriela Nicolescu)

This blog post is about some of the significances of the huge difference in the usage of social media between teenagers and other people in the Italian fieldsite. If we are looking at the average usage of social media, we could easily identify a few groups that are corresponding to different age groups. The first group is constituted by teenagers aged up to 16-18 year old who use social media, and especially Facebook, quite intensively. This means that most of them have around 1,000 online connections and if they are not always-connected through a smartphone than they may spend a few hours a day or every few days on different social media.

This definitely contrasts with the rest of age groups. Young people between say 20 and 30 year old use social media in a more nuanced way. Even their subscription to the service is more unpredictable. If most of the young people who use some sort of social media have on average around 200-300 online connections, there are individuals, like the ones described in my previous post, who near 1,000 connections and have very precise strategies for online communication. At the other end of the spectrum around 20% of young users who have a few tens of connections and engage sporadically in any social networking activity. The way these people think about online media is actually very close to the way young people who refuse to subscribe to any social media at all motivate their resistance. At the same time, the way young people use Facebook or Twitter is much more heterogeneous than in the case of teenagers: it ranges from a few minutes a week to a few hours a day and from random to constancy. It is interesting that most of the time this usage is quite consistent for any given individual and does not necessarily depend on the time of the year or on the work schedule.

Then, for adult population figures drop dramatically, from around 30-40% of young adults who are active on at least one social media to around 20% in the case of adults. Old people use social media rarely, and usually in relation to some younger relatives who live elsewhere and actively encourage this usage. Most of the time this media is skype, that seems to respond better to the exigencies of this particular kind of distant relationship. The reasons are many, from its synchronous character, the possibility of high quality video conversations, to the ease of its usage which is a highly important issue for old people who usually have relatively poor computer expertise.

Therefore, we have this highly unequal distribution of knowledge and practice in relation to social media across the town population. As most of the literature in this area focused on teenagers and different affluent, and influent, people or social groups, our project objectives aim to cover other segments of population as well as some particularly overlooked social issues. However, before doing that we need to understand the important differences in terms of penetration and usage that seem to exist in most of the sites in this project.

The questions that have arisen from the preliminary survey on the usage of social media that we undertook in the Italian fieldsite are many. I will discuss here just one aspect: the very different numbers and intensity of usage in relation to social media among the various age groups together with the complex social relations between people belonging to these age groups seem to indicate the fact that it would be completely meaningless to focus exclusively on social media. That is, social media could not account but for a particular part of the society and the relationships that are at work here. At the same time, social media seems to be a very helpful lens through which we, as anthropologists, could make sense of these relationships exactly because they are objectified in a very transparent and accessible medium. In particular, I suggest that the numbers presented in this post point not to an inequality between different age groups, but rather to a very specific mutual completion of these.

Some of the ways society understands to use the numbers related to social media are more obvious: for instance, the educational systems’ inefficient attempts to adapt themselves to the impressive request and consumption of new technology and media. These attempts seldom imply massive public spending on initiatives that are at least questionable, such as the new-technology-for-the-disadvantaged or the ones promising the migration of sensitive schooling processes on different IT infrastructures. These are examples of ‘big numbers’ taken ad litteram, with little, if any, attempts of critical interpretation. As fieldwork shows, whenever ‘big numbers’ are judged independently from ‘small numbers,’ important misunderstandings happen. The simple reason is that either one of these two groups could easily be irrelevant when not considered in relation with the other or when this relation is taken for granted.

Strategies of scarcity and supply: water and bandwidth

By Tom McDonald, on 24 July 2013

The water tankered makes a delivery (Photo: Tom McDonald)

The water tankered makes a delivery (Photo: Tom McDonald)

Fieldwork normally involves bearing some hardships, however I never thought that at the start of my research in China that water would have been an issue of concern here. Nor did I consider that it might be able to tell us something about social networking use.

I was surprised, then, when I found out that the urban town area of the fieldsite has not had a piped water supply for the past year.

This situation is slightly ridiculous when one considers that there is a large, well-stocked reservoir two kilometres distance from the town.


According to some local residents, the problems started last year when workmen dug up the pipe in order to lay the new, wide asphalt road that runs north-south through the town.

For the past year, the town’s government have been paying for two water bowsers and four people to collect water from the neighbouring town and deliver it here once every two days. The only perk to the current situation is that because the service is so poor, the government provides the water free of charge.

Not having a regular water service makes life really tough. Limitations in water supply provoke people to clearly prioritise the things that they must do against the things that they would perhaps like to do. People’s houses are awash with buckets and tankards for storing water. Water for cooking or for dinking tends to come before, say, washing clothes or having a shower. Similar coping mechanisms and prioritizing seem to exist for internet use.

I think the case of the limited water supply is also useful for thinking about the way some people experience social media and the internet seen here in China. I was really drawn to the paper Blanchette gave at the UCL Department of Anthropology a couple of years ago where he outlined A Material History of Bits, making very clear the physical limitations of the digital, in contradiciton to how we sometimes assume it to be a potentially ‘unlimited’ object. I would say this is made almost even more clear in the China North fieldsite where the actual amount of bandwidth available becomes patently obvious for people in the same way as water does.

The internet does have it’s specificities though: one of the clear things that is coming out of our surveys is the significance of different modes of access and I think there are analogies to be made between the ways villagers cope with limitations imposed upon them in terms of various resources and their often incredibly lofty aspirations of what they wish to achieve.

The vast majority of our informants (over three-quarters) were China Mobile customers. While those who travelled regularly with work and business tended to have packages that afforded larger bandwidth allowances, and roaming outside of the province, the remaining half of these customers had packages that severely limited the mobile access that they had to the internet. These were normally packages that varied in cost between 10–20 RMB per month, offering between 30–70 megabyte bandwidth allowance respectively.

How was this experienced in people’s everyday lives? Just like with water, people developed clear and intelligent strategies in order to prioritise which things they believed to be essential. One lady in a village, explained that she had the 30 megabyte bandwidth package for 5 RMB a month said that she tended to only use QQ on her phone, because if she used both QQ and WeChat she would go over her limit, and all her friends were on QQ.

Others sometimes failed to understand the concept that there were distinct limits to the amount of bandwidth and resources available. A young man working in the town explained that he once watched a streamed movie with his girlfriend using his phone, without realizing that doing that would push him over the bandwidth limit. He had to pay 200RMB for the single month’s bill. He explained to me that he didn’t know about it, and wondered why he hadn’t just paid for his girlfriend to go to the cinema with him, at least that way he wouldn’t have strained his neck, he joked.

For others, they developed ways to get around such restrictions using their existing connections. One of the town’s young male hairdressers, joked to his friend that he willing to allow his assistant to pay his own phone bill in order to remove the block on his phone. The manager of a photocopying shop in the town used his connections in China Unicom (he was an authorized reseller/top-up point) to get a very low-cost 2G phone card (around 10RMB per month) that allowed him virtually free nationwide calls, and then relied on the broadband internet connection in his shop, which he spent most of every day in anyway.

While readers in the west are typically used to very generous bandwidth allowances offered by telecoms companies, it is important to remember that here in China, economic constraints such as bandwidth remain a very real barrier to social networking use for many. In this sense, we can see links with Shriram’s previous blog post where he mention’s electricity cuts as a major challenge facing people in his fieldsite. These regimes of shortages create economies where peoople may have to make difficult decisions about who they will communicate with, and how they will communicate with them.

The mystery of the young man without a QQ number: accounting for non-users

By Tom McDonald, on 24 May 2013

Photo: Tom McDonald

Photo: Tom McDonald

At 5:30am yesterday I was stood on the side of the road in my fieldsite, a small town in Shandong, waiting for the bus. Next to me was a grandmother sat on the side of the road selling cherries. A young man, probably in his early twenties, approached me and politely asked if it was alright to take a picture of us together, a common experience that most foreigners in China will be familiar with.

The man was dressed in cotton cloth trousers, black cotton shoes, and a white T-shirt. He had a slightly unkempt bowl-haircut. It was obvious that he was from the countryside. Indeed, he confirmed that he was from one of the nearby villages and worked in one of the local factories as a labourer.

He pulled out an old, white telephone. The telephone was an affordable Chinese-branded device with a basic colour screen and a cheap built-in camera.

The young man asked the cherry-seller if she would take the photo of us. The cherry-seller tried, but it was apparent that this elderly lady had very limited experience of either operating the phone or photography, so after three failed attempts, and fearing the bus would arrive at any moment I instead proposed “let’s use my phone to take the picture and I’ll send it to you”. I pulled out my iPhone, flipped the screen and took three picture of together. Then I asked him what his QQ number was. He said “I don’t have one”. I asked about Weixin. “None” he replied.

I was momentarily stunned.

I had previously thought that for young labourers such as this were perhaps the most avid users of QQ (in fact Jack Qiu suggests that Chinese social networking is particularly important for the working class in society). And yet, here, in front of me, was a living, breathing exception.

The story ended happily, as on the final attempt the sage grandmother got the hang of the young man’s phone and managed to take a satisfactory picture of the two of us standing next to each other. However, the young man left before I had a chance to ask him why he didn’t have a QQ number. A friend in Beijing offered an explanation when I showed them his photo “this man is very honest,” one proffered, “you can tell by the shape of his nose [referring to Chinese face-reading]. It could be that some people from the countryside think that QQ is a bad thing”.

Is my Beijing friend right? Is there really a moral discourse surrounding the Internet that is enough to keep some young people from using it? Are there more non-users like this young man? And if so, why haven’t Tencent or Sina’s offerings been able to penetrate this part of the market?

One of the benefits of long-term anthropological fieldwork in a normal small town like this is that it offers a chance to uncover groups of people, user experiences and human behaviours that might otherwise go undiscovered if we were to instead use other social science or market research methods. By the end of our fieldwork I hope to have more answers.

Brazil’s internal class struggle over the internet

By Juliano Andrade Spyer, on 30 October 2012

An ‘instagram-med’ image that has been reposted in an attempt to expose the ‘lack of taste’ of the new middle class

“Orkutization”. Such a weird sounding word. Unless you are a middle class Brazilian who spends a lot of time online. Then that should be part of your daily vocabulary.

Orkut was to Brazil what AOL represented to the United States: the first opportunity for a lot of people to experience online communication and sociability. Orkut is a social networking site named after its creator, a turkish software engineer from Stanford working at the time for Google. It was released in 2004, a month before Zuckerberg launched Facebook. In similar to Facebook among US college students, Orkut initially imposed a restriction that limited participation to those who had an invitation. For different reasons, Brazilians joined massively and soon became its largest group.

Orkut arrived in Brazil at the same time as the country experimented with a process of rapid internal social change. In the past 20 years, around 50 million Brazilians – roughly 25% of the country’s population – moved out of poverty and started consuming goods.

As computers became more affordable, these new consumers started appearing on Orkut. And as their presence grew, it gradually drove away the early adopters who felt annoyed by the new comer’s boisterous behavior and “lack of manners”.
The same process happened in 2008 with Twitter: its early adopters made it a cool place to be, which, in turn, brought in loads of users from Brazil’s “new middle class”. It was then that term “orkutization” was coined and began circulating.

As it should be clear now, “orkutization” is a derogatory term. It describes the massive arrival of these new users to an online space originally occupied by the wealthier online elite. After Twitter, it happened to Facebook and more recently to Instagram.

An ‘instagram-med’ image that has been reposted in an attempt to expose the ‘lack of taste’ of the new middle class

Claims that an online destination was “orkutizatized” spreads together with collections of examples of the newcomers’ claimed lack of manners. These collections could have, for instance, a list of spelling mistakes or over-sexualized photos.

It is important to notice, though, that such collections are carefully prepared to exaggerate certain aspects and ignore others. Its purpose is to ridicule by implying this exaggeration is true.