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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.

Regulating the body in Chilean cyberspace

By Nell Haynes, on 22 September 2014

no desnudes

Last week, a friend here in Northern Chile posted on his Facebook wall a stylized drawing of a woman’s body with the words: “Don’t show your naked body on social networking sites. Gain the admiration and respect of your contacts and friends by showing your qualities as a person. What makes you sexy and beautiful is not your body, but your personality. Women and girls deserve respect.”

This was not the first time I had seen such a post. I have seen such memes circulating for several months, posted by grandmothers, mothers, and young men and women. But this post made me pause because my friend Miguel was the one who posted it. A few months into my fieldwork, Miguel was showing me a funny meme his friend had posted. As he scrolled down on his Facebook feed, he passed a post from Playboy Magazine that showed two women in bikinis. “Oh, those are my ugly cousins!” he joked. As he scrolled down there were several other posts from Playboy and he told me “My cousins post pictures of themselves a lot.”

Since the subject had been breached, he seemed to feel comfortable discussing semi-pornographic posts with me and I took advantage of the situation by continuing to ask questions. He told me all about “the new thing” of pictures of the underside of women’s breasts rather than their cleavage. He switched to Whatsapp and clicked a link a friend had sent him to demonstrate. There I saw “50 of the Best Underboob Shots on the Internet,” mostly taken selfie-style either in the mirror, or up one’s own shirt. I wasn’t sure whether to be offended or confused.

With this previous discussion in mind, in which, quite openly he discussed how he enjoyed seeing overtly sexy pictures that women take of their bodies, it seemed strange that he would post such a meme chastising women for doing this very thing.

Of course, there is a big difference between the women who are likely the intended recipients of his message and the women who are displayed on Playboy’s Facebook page. That is: he expects his female friends to read his Facebook wall. He does not expect Playboy models, or even the women whose reverse cleavage pictures are floating around the internet to be his followers on Facebook. In essence, his Facebook activity is revealing of something anthropologists have long known; we treat friends and acquaintances differently than we treat strangers (for example see Simmel’s essay on The Stranger and our own blog about chatting to Strangers in China). In this case it is acceptable to objectify the bodies of strangers, but he hopes that the women he knows personally will not openly contribute to their own objectification.

In looking through my own female Facebook friends from Northern Chile, I don’t see any pictures that are overtly sexual and show body parts that one wouldn’t reveal on a hot summer day. However, in my “you might know…” suggestions, I do see several such profile pictures for accounts based in this city. Miguel, along with other friends—both male and female—assured me that these profiles were fake (see also controversies of fake profiles in India and Turkey). “They say they’re from here but I’ve never met any of these women. They’re definitely fake profiles.”

To me this suggests two related points about the ways the regulation of bodies and nudity are happening online. The first is simply that these “Don’t show your naked body” memes represent a way of surveilling and controlling what others do with their bodies. They use straw-women as a warning, suggesting that showing too much body on social media will result in people losing respect. This strategy seems to have worked as well. Young women in northern Chile shy away from showing their bodies in contexts connected to their public personality. Yet the pictures still appear in the form of anonymous or fake profiles. Using fake names and profile pictures, they still post faceless photos exposing body parts fit only for a very liberal beach.

While this in some ways may be seen as a victory for young women’s self-worth based on traits not connected to their sexuality or bodies’ likenesses to those featured in the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue, the surveillance and judgment of their online activity represents another issue—regulation that denies young women agency over the representation of their own bodies. This is one thing when coming from mothers and aunts, but young men like Miguel present a double standard in which their social networking activity elevates the bodies of strangers—from swimsuit models to unknown women taking risqué selfies, while condemning their own peers for similar self-representations. It’s not hard to imagine then why fake profiles might be a good option for young women trying to find self esteem about their bodies and their own ways to fit into the world of social networking.

In the end, what this tells us about social networking sites in this context, is that they are still very closely connected to the body. The internet is not a haven for free-floating identity, disconnected from our physical form, but is a place where bodies may still be seen as a representation of an individual, may still be regulated, and may still be a site of agency or repression. Rather than actually showing the respect that “women and girls deserve,” these memes further regulate women. Much as catcalls on the street regulate women’s bodies in physical space, memes that tell women what is acceptable for their bodies do so in the space of the internet.

If you are interested in themes of surveillance and control, see also Caste Related Profiles on Facebook in India, Facebook and the Vulnerability of the Self and Love is… in Turkey, and Social Media and the Sense of Autonomy in Italy.

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.

The World Cup on social media worldwide

By Nell Haynes, on 27 June 2014

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Photo by Jolynna Sinanan

In these weeks, many of the world’s eyes are trained on the new football stadiums in towns around Brazil as one of the great global sports spectacles unfolds in its most recent manifestation. Of course not all are watching just to cheer on their national team or see who wins. Many are curious (and critical) about the ways the global football federation, FIFA, has commodified the event. Some are hoping for a glimpse of why so many people discuss the art of Messi and Ronaldo rather than being bothered with the details of the offside rule. Still others are attentive to news about human rights abuses that have targeted poor urban neighbourhoods, sex workers, and workers in informal economies, especially given local protests aimed at government spending on the event. Some have a new appreciation of Brazilian music as a result of programmes dedicated to the event. But these groups are not mutually exclusive. Many people who love football are also interested in this wider context, both cheering their ream and reading biting critiques (or indeed, critiques about biting). What is new is the degree to which we can directly listen into these conversations on social media

Many of us are inspired by the ideal that football is becoming a truly global game, spanning continents, class, race, religion and, outside the world cup, even gender. Sadly the evidence found by the Global Social Media Impact study does not support such a lofty transformation. We also find little to suggest that football is an aspect of a growing homogenization of the world. These reports make clear that cultural differences are reflected even in the ways people experience the World Cup. For example, in south-eastern Italy, watching football is a private family event held in the home, while in Trinidad, known for Carnival and spectacle, World Cup viewing is indeed a social event. In Chile, no matter how you watch the match, showing your national pride by wearing a red shirt and yelling local slang is practically a law while the English are relatively sedate.

Our primary focus, however, is on the coverage within social media. This shows that given the time difference with Brazil, World Cup viewing in China is often solitary, with friends only able to chat through social media messaging. Indian fathers use the World Cup as a chance to bond with children over YouTube videos of players’ techniques. And working class Brazilians use social media to celebrate their upward mobility as individuals and a nation, and great pride that the event is happening in their own nation, even if they could never dream of being able to attend a game.

In most cases there is little to suggest that people transcend local interest to celebrate this as a global event. Rather we see how sport becomes an expression for intense nationalism. In Turkey lack of local representation results in apathy. On the other hand while Chinese migrant factory workers may not engage, some men in the more settled village population of China do seem to use football to connect with the wider world, and in several of our sites football does provide an opportunity for local social bonding and enjoyment. This may not correspond to what has now often referred to as the “beautiful game,” although in compensation most sporting enthusiasts have found the level of football itself is much more open and exciting than in the previous World Cup. And indeed our reports positively suggest that watching how people discuss the World Cup on social media is actually a rather good way of understanding how the world around us is changing if always in terms of these constellations of local concerns.

THE WORLD CUP ON SOCIAL MEDIA WORLDWIDE

This article is part of a special series of blog posts profiling how social media is affecting how ordinary people from communities across the planet experience the 2014 World Cup.

‘We are more united for the World Cup than for Christmas!’: the World Cup in Italy

By Razvan Nicolescu, on 27 June 2014

Photograph by Razvan Nicolescu

Photograph by Razvan Nicolescu

To start writing a blog post how people in the Italian fieldsite watch the World Cup and how the competition is reflected on social media, I started off on the streets of Grano looking for a place to watch Italy’s opening game in the competition.

The town seemed to be much less concerned with the game than I expected. I counted just three Italian flags, one adorned by a young tifoso on his balcony and the other two guarding a van that was selling hot-dogs and hot panini near the railway station. The game was scheduled at midnight local time, when basically all cafés and a few bars where the game could have been screened were closed. I think that in the entire town, there were less than half a dozen public places where you could watch the game.

I chose a place where the biggest crowd in the town might have gathered. Most people knew each other quite well, being either family, friends, or neighbours. The audience of around 30 people was split in two. Half were men above forty years old who watched the game sitting in comfortable armchairs in front of the biggest screen in the bar. The other half were much younger and included two women; they were standing around the bar and watched the game on a normal flat screen, which hanged on the wall opposing the big screen. The two groups of people were literally watching the game back-to-back. All throughout the game, some six to eight women were sitting in the inner court of the bar waiting for their partners while a few kids were excitedly running everywhere.

The main explanation for the relatively few public places where the World Cup could be watched is that people really prefer to watch it at home. This has a lot to do with the fact that they always have, and the World Cup doesn’t seem to be the best time to change. Then, there are the credenze (beliefs, superstitions). A good friend of mine in her mid-thirties explained to me that she had to watch Italy’s opening game at her parents’ house because that is where they have been watching the World Cup since 1994. Each of her family members had to occupy more or less the exact places as when Italy played at the previous World Cup. This time, her younger sister had no boyfriend, so she had to call a friend and ask him to come and sit where her boyfriend four years ago used to sit: on the coach between herself and her mother. Despite the late hour of night, my friend’s father did not allow her to go to sleep or to have some fresh air on the balcony from time to time. Finally, she managed to find a moment when she could sneak out and go home straight to bed. When her partner came home after the match asked him in her sleep who had won. She exclaimed in a quite frustrated way that her family is more united during the World Cup than during Christmas. Actually, the World Cup has more to do with the house and family than I would have expected.

In this context, maybe is not unusual that there were so little posts about World Cup on social media among the people I am working with. Even those who are otherwise quite active football supporters did not post much on Facebook. In the first days of the competition when Italy played two games I took a brief look over more than 100 Facebook profiles and I counted only around 20 posts about the World Cup. Almost all were about the Italian national team: half of the posts were uploaded in the actual days of the games and expressed in different ways the famous supporting slogan ‘Forza Azzurri!’ The other half were comments on the games, which varied from enthusiastic ones celebrating the victory against England to rather negative ones after the defeat against Costa Rica. If the first were serious and posted by ‘experts,’ usually men, the second posts were more humorous and provocative, where women were relatively well represented. A female teenager commented that the end-of-school examination in mathematics was as ‘disgusting’ as Italy’s defeat against Costa Rica.

This is the moment I noticed the first posts against Italy’s national team. By the time of the third game where Italy competed, there were already half a dozen people who were either mocking the national team or were supporting their opponents. These people were known among their peers as being in different ways anti-mainstream.

On the day of the decisive game against Uruguay, I counted around 20 supporting phrases, that is around twice more than was in the first two games added together. After Italy lost the game, a small avalanche of posting about the game was uploaded on Facebook. In two days I counted a total of 30 posts related to the game, out of which 21 were status messages, 4 edited photos, 4 not edited photos, and one film – all shared from Internet. The three main themes of these postings were: 9 referring to the moment when the Uruguayan striker Luis Suárez bit one Italian defender, 8 about the game itself and 6 negative comments about the Italian team. ‘The bite’ scene seemed to be more present as 7 of the 9 posts were photos. Even though it looked like people were active about the World Cup in Facebook, the 30 posts were posted by less than twelve people, with three most active, uploading 8, 7, and 4 postings respectively.

Some of the memes circulated on Facebook

Some of the memes circulated on Facebook

I don’t have the scope to discuss it here, but it is interesting to mention that if mainstream media in Italy discussed the relative high impact of the games on social media it was mainly because of how the main commentators tweets* were shared and commented on by the same mainstream media (a technique also used in the case of celebrities and politicians). However, as I wrote in a previous blog post, the penetration of Twitter in Grano is extremely low. This is just an example of the difference between what media claims that ‘happens on social media’ and what actually happens.

At the same time, it seems that not many WhatsApp messages regarding the World Cup were sent as in many cases most of the people such messages would have been sent to, have been watching the game together anyway.

A few questions rise from this short investigation into how the World Cup is represented on social media: how, when and to what extent is the private represented online? What is the relation and why is there such a big difference between mainstream media, which in this case is saturated with World Cup, and the way people use social media? What kind of sociality and individual acting is social media currently constructing?

Note
* The controversial tweet of the Italian striker Mario Balotelli before the game with Costa Rica is a good example for the impact of celebrity tweets on media. According to reports, this allegedly made the Italian manager Cesare Prandelli ask to his players: ‘Less social networking and more goals’.

Interesting statistics on the number of tweets during the game Italy vs. Uruguay can be found on an article in the main Italian sport journal Gazzetta dello Sport (methodology explained in Italian).

THE WORLD CUP ON SOCIAL MEDIA WORLDWIDE
This article is part of a special series of blog posts profiling how social media is affecting how ordinary people from communities across the planet experience the 2014 World Cup.

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!”

Visibility in the society pages of social media

By Jolynna Sinanan, on 19 March 2014

Photo by Jolynna Sinanan

Photo by Jolynna Sinanan

I have passed the 10 month point in fieldwork where I am perhaps getting a bit too comfortable with being in Trinidad. Like hundreds of thousands of Trinidadians this month, all my responsibilities and commitments have come second to the greatest show on earth: Carnival. Although Carnival is the height of the Trinidadian calendar year, it is experienced by Trinidadians is different ways. The parades of people you see on the streets in bikinis, beads and feathers (‘pretty mas’, or ‘pretty masquerade’) that resemble Brazilian Carnival, is a transformed version of Carnival that emerged in the 1980s as part of the state strategy to attract more tourism. It’s a strategy that has worked, thousands of tourists come each year paying up to £6000 to ‘play’ mas with the biggest and most popular groups, or as they’re locally known, bands. Prior to the 1980s, playing mas was a uniquely Trinidadian event that resembled the mix of the callalloo* nation. There were elements of theatre, Amerindian ritual and African dancing and drumbeats and costumes were embodiments of political commentary that mocked upper classes or foreign influences such as American seamen who were based in Trinidad in the Second World War. Many people tend to agree that mas had political potential and social commentary. But what of it today?

February has been a rich month for fieldwork as everybody has an opinion on Carnival. Common discourse and normative values emphasise that contemporary Carnival is vulgar, it’s not really Trinidadian, all the wining (a dance where the main movement is gyrating the hips) and carrying on is indecent. A lot of women agree with this view, but it is undeniable that each year, hundreds of thousands of Trinidadian women play mas. I have been discussing this with Dr Dylan Kerrigan at the University of the West Indies, a fellow anthropologist who has expertise on gender, masculinities and Carnival. We agree that Carnival has retained fractions of its potential for political subversion, perhaps now, not along the lines of race and class, but along the lines of gender. Carnival is the month of the year when a woman of any background, age and race can be extremely scantily clad, dance with whoever she likes and you don’t hear a peep from male onlookers or spectators. Yet, purchasing the space for freedom has an explicit economic dimension, paying for the pre-Carnival parties (fetes) and to play mas with big bands with their own food, drinks, portable bathrooms and security is an investment for a fun (safe) time. The demarcation of expensive fetes and bands makes sure that people of certain levels of society remain in their respective groupings. The one big contradiction to the prestige of going to expensive fetes and playing with big bands is that at this time of year, banks give special loans just for Carnival. People save money over a year (or two) or take out loans to visibly occupy spaces they don’t the rest of the year. Which brings me back to the ongoing theme of visibility.

I thought that if so much money is being spent on parties and costumes, surely this is the time of year Facebook would be inundated with selfies and mirror shots. Carnival is the pinnacle of the year to be seen by others. With the prestige of fetes and bands, comes with being photographed. Danny Miller is currently doing an in depth study of one such photography company that takes photos in fetes and uploads them to social media and their own website, reminiscent of the society pages in newspapers and magazines. Trinidad is a small society with few print magazine publications. The biggest and most expensive bands publish their own magazines after Carnival, displaying photos of masqueraders on Carnival Monday or Tuesday. Anybody who plays mas with these bands could be potentially snapped for the magazine. The photos I have seen on Facebook of masqueraders have mostly been tagged by others. The extreme few selfies have been ‘before going out’ shots. I saw many people with camera phones on the day, but there is an etiquette of visibility that photos of you are posted by others. What is the point of being the show and being the spectacle for your own gaze, otherwise?

Contemporary society pages are now the pages of social media. Four major social photography companies regularly post photos of events they have photographed on Facebook and people can tag themselves. The brands of photographers and the brands of fetes and bands is another aspect of how Facebook is made Trinidadian, through emulating the society pages of print magazines.

*Callalloo: a local dish made of mixed vegetables and cooked together, but also a local idiom for the mixed culture of Trinidad.

The continuum of visibility

By Jolynna Sinanan, on 17 February 2014

Photo by Jolynna Sinanan

Photo by Jolynna Sinanan

If Facebook is a visual platform-one where people can show aspects of themselves through words in posts, or what was status updates or comments and in photos that they have taken themselves or photos taken of them in posts, uploads and albums, or share something made by someone else in memes, clips, audio and video-then we also have to think about how people engage with each other through visibility.

Since returning to field work in Trinidad last week, I have been continuing working with Dr Gabrielle Hosein at the University of the West Indies on spectacular politics, work which started when I documented the hunger strike of Dr Wayne Kublalsingh last year.

Now, we are thinking about how people engage with each other though the Facebook tools: Like, Comment, Post and Share. What can these things say about how social life plays out on Facebook? Trinidad is well versed and have a language for degrees of visibility. The most extreme, the spectacle, is played out for four days of the year, culminating on Carnival Tuesday. Playing Mas is about being the spectacle and being the show, ‘playing yourself’, externalising a true self that can’t be enacted the rest of the year, on the festival of disruption and inversion of the usual social order. The literature on Carnival speaks to how people come to exist through visibility, being seen and being in stage, whether or not one is being seen as themselves, or through a mask (Lovelace, 1979, Birth, 2008, Mason, 1998, Franco, 1998).

As Carnival has specific understandings within Trinidadian culture, the cultural understanding of the usage of Facebook is less about Facebook, than an enactment of a cultural world that is Trinidad (Miller, 2011, Miller and Sinanan, 2014). So what can ‘likes’, ‘comments’, ‘posts’ and ‘shares’ tell us about the degrees of visibility? The first very important factor to note is the research that is informing this pre-theorising is based in a small town. El Mirador has all the ideals and frustrations of small town life. It’s a town that is considered to hold ‘traditional’ family and community values and most people know each other or at least know of each other and each other’s families. El Mirador can be too social, where everybody knows everybody’s business.

We’re starting to ask people when and how they use ‘likes’, ‘comments’, ‘posts’ and ‘shares’ and we are finding there is a distinct correlation to ‘offline’ social life. ‘Like’ represents the benign sociality of the local idiom of ‘liming’, hanging around, gentle acknowledgement and visible presence, and the other end of the spectrum is ‘post’, which is really putting yourself out there, on show. The majority of posts are sharing of moods, what people are doing, where they have been, holidays, family events, parties etc, there is very little political comment or commentary. When asked when they would not engage with something someone has posted, that is when they ‘do nothing’, the majority respond around ‘TMI: too much information’- when people are too visible. ‘Sharing’ is directed to specific groups or individuals, there is less sharing on an individual’s wall, but more general sharing that would resonate with certain individuals or groups. ‘Commenting’ is more personal, it is one degree down from posting, people comment when they feel strongly about something: ‘if it affect me’.

If usage of Facebook is embedded in existing social relations and spaces, it is worth unpacking the nuances of what ‘posts’, ‘comments’, ‘shares’ and ‘likes’ connote. The hazards of becoming too visible, even through online engagement on Facebook invites controversy and invites attacks on the self, whereas gentle acknowledgement, hanging around and being present is, in this context, more socially acceptable.

 

References:

Birth, Kevin, 2008, Bacchanalian Sentiments: Musical Experiences and Political Counterpoints in Trinidad, Durham and London: Duke University Press

Franco, Pamela, 1998, ‘Dressing Up and Looking Good: Afro-Creole Female Maskers in Trinidad Carnival’, African Arts, Vol. 31, Iss. 2, pp. 62-67

Lovelace, Earl (1979), The Dragon Can’t Dance, London: Longman

Mason, Peter, 1998, Bacchanal! The Carnival Culture of Trinidad, London: Latin America Bureau (Research and Action) Ltd

Miller, Daniel (2011) Tales From Facebook, Cambridge: Polity

Miller, Daniel and Sinanan, Jolynna (2014) Webcam, Cambridge: Polity

 

 

Public and private: space and media

By Nell Haynes, on 10 February 2014

Photo by Nell Haynes

Photo by Nell Haynes

When Daniel Miller came to visit my fieldsite in Northern Chile a few weeks ago, I took him on a walking tour of the city. He had just arrived from his own fieldsite in Trinidad, and as we walked he kept remarked that two places are quite different. They share certain aspects: warmth, nearby beaches, revealing clothing, and gated homes. Yet, he told me that compared to the razor wire or broken glass-topped fences in Trinidad, these just didn’t seem as intimidating. Similarly, we discussed the ubiquity of car alarms as the continuously sounded that evening as we sat in my apartment. “Are they really protecting anything if one goes off every three minutes?” I asked.

A few days after Danny left, I was having coffee with a Catholic priest in a nearby neighborhood. Telling me about his perceptions of the town after living here 6 years, he lamented the lack of “confianza” or trust between neighbors. “Neighbors like each other, but there’s not much trust between them.” He suggested this is a product of the fact that the city is new. It has only been incorporated for a decade. None of the adults who live here grew up in these neighborhoods. The fences are high but there is no neighborhood watch group here.

In a lot of ways this explains the ways I have been warned about safety here. People just don’t seem to trust what might happen in public space. The fences around houses may in fact be a way of delimiting the private from the public in a way that leaves no questions as to where the boundaries lie. And by claiming the space as private rather than public, perhaps that makes it a little safer.

One thing I noticed right away upon arriving here is that people rarely use their phones in public. Not in the plaza, on the bus, or while waiting in line at the supermarket. When Danny and I visited the local market near the municipal gymnasium, we asked a group of vendors about this. One woman, who has a clothing stall in the market told us people never have their phones out in public because they are afraid someone will come by and swipe it. The most recent statistics I could find were from 2008, when 1,236 non-violent robberies (the type that might result in having their cell phone stolen from their hands as they sit in the plaza, or their pocket in a busy market). This is not particularly high, roughly matching national statistics, yet I am given pause that perhaps many such thefts go unreported. About a year ago, online security company ESET reported almost 60% of Latin American residents have had at least one cellular phone stolen. The Catholic priest also told me that the most recent statistics he has seen suggests that about 40% of Alto Hospicio residents have had some personal effect stolen in the last year. “Probably because their billfold or phone is sticking out of their pocket in a public place.” While statistics like “40%” and “1,236 reported” might not necessarily reveal much, I do sense that cellular phone theft is quite common and the vendedora is correct: people know this and protect themselves by not using their phone in public.

So, I wonder then, if there is a certain “privateness” to the cell phone. And perhaps to the internet in general. Though one may interact with their friends though social media, that is generally something done while in private space. Even the local call center/internet café provides patrons with rather large cubicles while they use the computers. Though you might be airing your dirty laundry on facebook for all of your friends, the person physically next to you wouldn’t (or shouldn’t) know.

So these walls, these fences, these car alarms, and these cubicles provide a sense of delineation. A car alarm may be tripped just as easily by someone doing a bad parking job or a ball thrown amiss as by someone trying to steal it. Fences can be jumped. Cubicles can be peeked around (at least one young man quickly turned off his pornographic video as Danny and I walked by in the internet center). But that is not the point. The point, perhaps, is to say this is mine, and this is private. If you touch this, walk past it, or look at my screen, you are transgressing a boundary. So however social, social media might be, for these Northern Chilean users, it ideally retains a sense of the private.