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What does social media tell us about sociality in Grano?

By Razvan Nicolescu, on 15 February 2016

Buon_giorno

‘Good morning’ message received on WhatsApp [double-click on the image to see the video].

So, what does the ethnography of social media use in southeast Italy tells us? In my forthcoming book I argue that people use social media to craft themselves and carry out ideal behaviours that are otherwise expressed through conventional institutions and practices. In particular, Facebook is responsible for the public nature of social relations and WhatsApp for the more private and intimate one. Facebook is neither a reflection of relationships and nor of a person in their totality, but of one core element of what a person decides to be. In the entire region where I worked people start from a highly socialised familiarity to each other and instead of repeating this on Facebook, they use social media mainly to add additional components to this sociality.

Most people in Grano do not need Facebook to reflect, reproduce or strengthen relationships, because the entire society is already doing this. Rather, intimate relations are expressed online in more subtle ways: for example, two spouses rarely post on each other’s Facebook wall but complement each other in their online postings in similar ways they complement each other offline. Or, by keeping to largely accepted genres, such as moral memes, people do not risk being criticised while at the same time the most important audience, family and close friends, can still decipher deeper meanings in public postings.

In this setting, people use WhatsApp as well as conventional dyadic communication media, such as the mobile phone and Skype, to express social relations within the nuclear family and close relationships. WhatsApp became very popular in Grano in a relatively short period of time (winter 2013 – summer 2014) because people realised that this service is extremely versatile in expressing a multitude of intimate relationships: by promptly answering your mother in precise moments of the day, chatting continuously with your fiancée, or having passionate discussions with your male friends each weekend around the Italian football championship, people realised that WhatsApp could be as complex and delicate as personal relationships are. The fact that this service is free and easy to use reflects the direct character of these relationships, as opposed to the more elaborated visual content on public-facing social media.

It is the well-defended, anxious, and often tempestuous private media that actually allows for the more calm and attractive public facing social media to exist. But overall, people use this basic complementarity between various social media to express the dual nature of their sociality. A simple ‘Good morning’ message sent only to loved ones is a subtle way to reflect a relationship.

 

 

What’s our conclusion? Introducing ‘scalable sociality’

By Daniel Miller, on 16 June 2015

Scalable Sociality Infographic

Scalable Sociality

Right now we are finishing the last of our eleven volumes from this project, a book which will be called How the World Changed Social Media. Not surprisingly, people are starting to ask about our conclusions. There are of course many of these, and the website will also showcase these ‘discoveries’, but as anthropologists our primary concern is to determine the consequences of social media (or what used to be called social networking sites) for our own core concern which is sociality – the study of how people associate with each other.

We have concluded that the key to understanding this question is through what we will call ‘scalable sociality.’ Prior to social media, we mainly had private and public media.

Social networking sites started with platforms such as Friendster, QZone and then Facebook as a kind of broadcasting to a defined group rather than to the general public, in a sense scaling downwards from public broadcast.

By contrast some of the recent social media such as WhatsApp and WeChat are taking private communications such as telephones and messaging services that were mainly one-to-one and scaling upwards. Often these now also form groups, though generally smaller ones. Also these are generally not a single person’s network. All members of the group can post equally to all the others.

If we imagine two parameters – one consisting of the scale from private to public and the other from the smallest group of two up to the biggest group of public broadcast – then as new platforms are continually being invented they encourage the filling of niches and gaps along these two scales. As a result, we can now have greater choice over the degree of privacy or size of group we may wish to communicate with or interact with. This is what we mean by scalable sociality.

However this is just an abstract possibility. What people actually do is always a result of local norms and factors. In each society where we conducted fieldwork, we saw entirely different configurations of these scales as suits that area.

In our South Indian site these mainly reflect traditional groups such as caste and family. In our factory China site an entirely new society of floating workers create largely new norms of group interactivity including their first experience of true privacy. While in our rural Chinese site the main difference is that it is possible to now include strangers on the one hand and to extend various social ‘circles’ on the other. In our English site people specialise in the exact calibration of sociality that is neither too close, nor too distant.

Nonetheless, all of these are variants that can be understood as exploiting this new potential given by social media for an unprecedented scalable sociality.

How much hate is there on Facebook?

By Razvan Nicolescu, on 2 March 2015

One of the 10 best memes of 2013 according to wired.com

One of the 10 best memes of 2013 according to wired.com

This blog post was inspired by one question Sonia Livingstone asked the Global Social Media Impact Study team after our joint presentation at SOAS. The question was addressing the relation between emotions and social media and in particular to what extent we agree with the stereotypical image that sees social media as the default display for negative comments and interventions.

In the first part of my answer, I was arguing that seldom ‘the negative’ is already in the gaze of many observers of social media. Sometimes, negative news, heated discourses, and reports of intolerance are so poignant and invite to instantly share that they gain a kind of momentum that clearly stands apart from any other type of information. Then, everyday online conversations could allude to the ‘theme of the day’ as it were.

But, after 15 month of fieldwork in southeast Italy I cannot really say that ‘the negative’ dominates social media. By contrary, if we take a look at the Facebook pages of people in Grano in any given day and apply some simple statistics, we will see that most of the times the negative comments represent less than 10% of the total number of comments, while sometimes they are negligible, hatred is virtually absent! Instead, people really prefer irony and wittiness to express their various disappointments and discontents on a daily basis.

This points to the issue that in what regards news, social media behaves quite similar to a classical broadcast medium such as TV; the main differences rest in its real-time, broadness, and reproductive nature, as well as in the possibilities of (usually) horizontal interaction using the same environment. But then, most people prefer to use social media to engage with the mundane, the personal. In this context, most accusations of social media as being shallow and negative come from the fact that both the public and the private are conflated in the same platform. As I showed elsewhere, in southeast Italy most people have solved this tense situation by finding alternative spaces where they could really be private: such as mobile messaging and WhatsApp.

This points to the second part of my response, which is about the different layers of intimacy people in Grano actually construct by means of social media. I have discussed this elsewhere, but, we can just think of somebody who uses mostly text messages to communicate with her fidanzato, phone calls with her parents, WhatsApp with her best friends, and share Facebook statuses and comments to everybody else. These different layers of intimacy suppose different sets of emotions that could be better expressed by different media. The mechanism by which people use different media to objectify the particular kinds of relations they have or want has been described in the theory of Polymedia.

Therefore, I suggest that most of the stereotypical allegations around social media are informed by a stereotypical understanding of media as a homogenous and consistent environment with well-defined purposes. And it is also true that most people I worked with see Facebook as imposed from the exterior, by some higher social and economic forces, and maybe this is why most of them do not see any problem if someday it will simply disappear.

Things that never appear on Facebook

By Juliano Andrade Spyer, on 4 October 2013

2013-08-20 17.42.01

Photo by Juliano Spyer

On one morning, towards the end of last year, my research assistant here in Baldoíno (our Brazilian fieldsite) a 25 year old college student, was approached by a friend who asked if she had heard of ‘the murder’. About one hour earlier the body of the murderer had been found and taken out of the river. He was the father of four children, a quiet man who killed his wife due to jealousy and shortly after committed suicide. My assistant told me this story as an example of the types of information that spread quicker through face-to-face contact than through digital media – which, here, translates to Facebook. But this story eventually arrived on Facebook and was openly discussed.

I started thinking about the speed at which information is transmitted at the beginning of my fieldwork when another young informant mentioned how surprised she was at the knowledge her mother had about things that happened in the community. ‘I’m the one who’s on Facebook’, she told me, ‘but she knows much more that I do’. Everything her mother hears come from her trusted network of friends and family members. I want to argue that my initial ethnographic evidence suggests that face-to-face communication is more efficient because there are certain types of information that does not arrive at Facebook at all (or at least not to its public spaces of communication).

About a month ago, a truck had been improperly parked in Baldoíno’s main street. While the driver was unloading goods, the vehicle started to roll down the road and hit two children. Both were taken to the hospital with severe injuries. One of them, a nine year old girl, lost part of her arm as a consequence of the accident. This happened in the early morning while children and teenagers were walking to school. Teens are the most active users of technology here and one of the things they love doing is taking photos and recording videos. On that day, the village looked like a contained but tense swarm of bees as people formed small groups on the streets to exchange information about the accident, what caused it and who was responsible for it. But surprisingly, not one bit of this event made it to Facebook.

So, how come certain events arrive at Facebook and others don’t?

The day of the accident with the truck, I passed by a store where a trusted research participant works. The moment I came in, a police officer and the truck driver were leaving the store after discussing with her about what she had witnessed. After they left, she told me: ‘It is true, I wasn’t here at the time of the accident, but even if I had been, I would’ve said the same thing, that I didn’t see anything that happened.’ Then she developed her argument explaining she knew the driver, and that he is from the village and is friends with “dangerous people”. She does not feel that the police will protect here. The police won’t prevent a criminal from attacking her or someone from her family out of vengeance, so ‘we must know when to be quiet’, she concluded.

The logic about the spreading of information is that potentially hazardous news must be kept in the domain of verbal conversation (which likely includes some direct chatting on Facebook using it’s ‘messages’ function). This solution allows the person to participate on the network of communication without leaving traces of the exact information or opinion she or he shared. Things that are not threatening but equally violent such as a passionate murder can be used openly on Facebook because the subject is of collective interest and will increase the attention given by peers and other people from the same community.

Facebook and prohibited communication

By Elisabetta Costa, on 17 April 2013

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Photo by gypsy in moda (creative commons)

I arrived in my fieldsite in south-east Turkey two weeks ago and I am in the process of settling into the town. As I am really at the early stage of the research, whenever I go shopping, to the hairdresser, to the internet café or to the Locanda for lunch, I aim to get in touch with the locals.

I have been casually asking around what people think about social media, whether they use it or not, and for which reasons.

One middle-aged Kurdish man tolf me that he doesn’t have a Facebook Page because he doesn’t want to upset his wife. “My wife is going to kill me if I start using Facebook”.

Then young women do not say that they use the social media openly in front of their relatives. They just confess it to me privately.

Again the head of an Arab family with whom I am spending most of my time once told me: “Facebook is used only to communicate with people of other sex! We do not like it and we do not use it!”

It would seem that here Facebook is used mainly as a channel to look for prohibited friendships, partners and mistresses.

One of the initial hypothesis of my research was that the overall consequences of SNS on family was profoundly contradictory: Facebook is used by subordinate subjects – women and young people – to challenge old hierarchies, to promote a greater role of the individual against “traditional” forms of authority (Hofheinz 2011 , Salvatore 2011) and to question gendered habitus. But at the same time Facebook is used as a way to keep alive “traditional” family relations in the face of dispersed family and of the failure of welfare state projects. Indeed transformations produced by forces such as the state, economy, migration and cultural flows overlap with the idea of the family as a primary resource of identity and self-security that is rarely questioned (Joseph 2010).

After the first ten days of fieldwork it seems even more worth investigating how Facebook is challenging traditional family and traditional relationships by creating new space of actions and new freedom, and consequently new constraints and restrictions.

References

Hofehinz, A. 2011. “Nextopia? Beyond Revolution 2.0” International Journal of Communication. 5 (2011).

Salvatore, A. 2011. “Before (and After) the ‘Arab Spring’: From Connectedness to Mobilization in the Public Sphere” Oriente Moderno, 1 (2011).

Joseph, S. 2010. “Framings: Rethinking Arab Family Projects” Rethinking Arab Family Projects.