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Apple and the Smartphone market in India

By Shriram Venkatraman, on 6 May 2016

Photo Courtesy: CC: Wikimedia Commons: Kārlis Dambrāns from Latvia

Photo Courtesy: CC: Wikimedia Commons: Kārlis Dambrāns from Latvia

Less than a fifth of the Indian population might own a smart phone, but India is now the second largest smart phone market in the world. The large phone manufacturers see immense potential in the buying power of the Indian population. While the international brand Samsung dominates the smart phone market in India (with phones manufactured for the south asian market), the Indian brand Micromax has its own set of customers as well. Reports suggest close to 150 smartphone brands in India and estimate the market to grow with the Make in India/Digital India drive. Each of these brands have varied price points and customise their mobile handsets to the Indian consumer market.

While this has generally been the case with India, companies such as Apple have been trying to engage with  the mobile consumer market, though their market share has been low, their revenue share has been high. Suggestions to increase its market share have been to invest on either innovation and market to the brand conscious (which would mean high end consumers) or contextualise its price differentials and compete with the low cost players in the Indian market, which can be a never ending game.

Suggestions for market penetration for brands such as Apple, also speak of contextualising and understanding the socio-cultural aspects of a society and play to it. However, the smartphone penetration in India has a long way to go. Even with initiatives such as Digital India, their optimistic estimation of the smart phone consumer market in India seems to be exaggerated, since they leave out the crucial aspect of infrastructural development (electricity/internet data) needed for the smart phone market. For now, all such strategies seem to be around the urban market or promising second tier Indian cities.

Large segments of the rural markets not only have socio-economic constraints but also have major issues with infrastructure. Even with all the monthly instalment schemes on offer by phone retailers, it seems doubtful that even the rich in the rural areas might opt for a costlier branded phone, since it has no use other than voice communication in a rural set up, which even a cheaper smart phone/feature phone can offer. Hence, a high-end brand like Apple might not even work for major sections of Indian population.

For any growth to take place in the Indian phone market, manufacturers have to realise that this is an eco-system, which is based on several aspects including infrastructure (electricity, internet data etc.) and socio-economic factors (caste, access to phones for women etc.) instead of just concentrating on an exaggerated idea of smart phone market in India.

So, for now, looking at the emerging urban middle class in India, the best bet for brands such as Apple would be to optimise the price and offer a product line playing to the brand conscious urban middle class, since their buying decisions are based on a combination of functionality, price and brand (which is used to differentiate from their peer group).

Chinese low-end smartphone market: the era of ‘shanzhai’ has passed, budget smartphones dominate

By Xin Yuan Wang, on 6 May 2015

Budget smartphones on sale at a local mobile phone shop in a small factory town ( Southeastern China).

Budget smartphones on sale at a local mobile phone shop in a small factory town ( Southeastern China).

My individual project began with one general inquiry about the social media use among Chinese rural migrants in a small factory town in southeast China. Eventually this led to the acknowledgement of the significance of the budget smartphone, as the ‘mega digital terminal’ in those low-income people’s daily life.

The number of Chinese mobile Internet users has reached 527 million, making mobile phones the most common device for accessing the Internet in China. Such figures become even more impressive in my fieldsite where most people cannot afford a PC or other digital devices. Smartphones have become their first private access to the internet. Budget smartphones dominate the market, the average price for a smartphone is around 500 RMB ($80). The average monthly cost is around 100 RMB ($16). According to a survey conducted among 520 persons in the fieldsite, 91.5% of people, the majority of them are rural migrants, use smartphones to get access to the internet, and only 10% use laptops, and 19.5 % desktop computers as internet devices (see chart below).

 

The situation of internet access, infographic by Xinyuan Wang

According to the local mobile phone dealers, shanzhai mobile phone, the knock-off low-priced mobile phone, used to be very popular. Usually, the price of a Shanzhai is 1/5 to 1/10 of the ‘real brand’. However, since the end of year 2012, the shanzhai mobile phones have started to shift in terms of sales strategy. Previously they just copied famous brand names. Now some shanzhai mobile phone manufacturers have set up their own brand-name phones and newly designed budget smartphone brands like ‘XiaoMi’ (Mi-One). Also, major Chinese telecom companies have started to invest in qianyuan ji market (Smartphones with a price lower than 150 dollars) and launched a few heyue ji (contract mobile phone) packages together with Chinese local mobile phone manufacturers such as HuaWei. With 10 to 15 dollars monthly fixed baodi xiaofei (guaranteed consumption), one can get a smartphone for around 50 dollars or even for ‘free’. These inexpensive smartphones quickly captured the low-end smartphone market by offering similar price points along with better quality devices, and after-sale service than their shanzhai competitors. As a result the shanzhai era of Chinese low-end mobile phone market has already passed.

It was the young rural migrant who drove the local budget smartphone market. The majority (80%) of young rural migrants (age 17- 35) already own a smartphone, and 70% of smartphones that people currently use are their first, and 1/3 of people reported that they wanted to have a smartphone with ‘good brand’ (hao paizi) in two years time when they have saved up enough money. A ‘good brand’ (such as iPhone and Samsung) is regarded as a symbol of social status.

For most rural migrants who still cannot afford a ‘good brand’ smartphone, budget models may not bring them an elevated social status, but will definitely make a lot of changes in their daily lives.  The smartphones actually created a  ‘media convergence’. Their smartphone is not supplemented by a landline, and their are used as their first camera, first music player, the first video player, and the first game machine. Researchers in other developing field sites, such as India, Chile and Brazil all find the similar trend of budget smartphone usage among low-income population. Such phenomena mean the study of smartphones is more than just looking at the mobile phone as a single communicative channel, but about analysing the whole-package media solution and the holistic media environment which we call ‘polymedia‘ in the age of smartphone.

Digital photo albums in south-east Turkey

By Elisabetta Costa, on 10 July 2014

Photo by Elisabetta Costa

Photo by Elisabetta Costa

Anytime I become close to a family after having visited them at least a couple of times, my new friends usually show me their family photo albums. So far this has happened in every house I’ve been to. After talking, eating and drinking tea together, they ask me if I want to have a look at their family pictures. Then they usually bring me one, two or more boxes containing different albums and many scattered photos. I’ve seen many pictures taken from the ‘60 until recently. These boxes usually contain both formal photos taken during weddings and then edited in the studio, and more informal pictures from daily life. Showing family photo albums and family photos to guests is a very common practice here in Mardin. It’s a way to communicate to new friends what the family looks like, and to highlight to me (a new friend) who the family members are and were in the past.

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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.

Photography in the age of Snapchat

By Daniel Miller, on 2 February 2014

Photo by Island Photography

Photo by Island Capture Photography (Creative Commons)

I want to suggest that conventionally when we consider the role of the photograph in society, we see this as a kind of three stage movement. First there is the practice of photography itself. We have assumed that this was merely the requisite technology, largely the handmaiden to the desire to have a photograph. Then there is the object, the photograph, and that was assumed in turn to be the handmaiden to the ultimate aim, which was to record something. The photograph was there to serve as an object of memory, a technical facility to retain an image beyond the relatively poor ability of the brain to accurately retain images of the past. It could be as an art, but it was more often a wedding or holiday.

Today most photographs are taken for their use in social media. Figures quoted online vary but it is suggested around 350 million photos are shared per day on Facebook, 55 million on Instagram, 400 million on WhatsApp and 450 million on Snapchat.

I want to suggest that as a result, we need to completely turn on its head our conventional understanding of photography. Memory has been reduced merely to the legitimation of having a photograph, but the photograph itself has lost its position as the aim of the exercise since mostly the photo is merely the excuse for what now takes centre stage which is the act of taking a photograph. Photography as an activity has moved from background to foreground. Fortunately we can see this sequence more clearly because it corresponds to the development of three social media sites in sequence. The movement from Facebook to Instagram to Snapchat/WhatsApp.

Photography on Facebook
Facebook now appears as the convenient bridge between more traditional photography and the more recent social media. Facebook places considerable importance on the photo album and the collecting of images. Everything shared whether tagged or not is also stored. One of the reasons Facebook’s long term future is likely to be older people, is that it is very effective in this role, certainly compared to conventional photograph album and the analogue photo. As Xinyuan recently noted you can turn to QQ to see yourself as you looked ten years ago when you first joined QQ, soon this will be common on Facebook.

Photography on Instagram
Photography on Instagram has a much more transient feel than Facebook. In working with young people I find that Instagram gives them a kind of creative project. All day they can think about what would make a good photograph? (similarly, what would make a clever tweet?). If they don’t see anything else, they can always take a Selfie. This gives purpose to the day and becomes a bulwark against the constant concern with being bored. As such, where once we framed the photograph, now we use photography to frame experience. Here we see the reversed sequence. Storing the photo, as in Facebook, is exposed as mere excuse for having a photo, which in turn is mere excuse for the real purpose, which is the project enacted by the act of photography itself.

Photography on Snapchat/WhatsApp
It was Snapchat that bludgeoned to death our conventional view of photography. If the photo can only last for a maximum of ten seconds, then we can’t even pretend it’s about memory or even about the image. The point about Instagram is now made explicit. It can only be the act of taking that matters. Except that on Snapchat/WhatsApp we realise that this is not just individual experience it is a social act, we take pictures in order to share, and to see the response to our sharing. We have to take the word ‘Snapchat’ literally – the photograph is just a form of chat, saying Hi, a more interesting emoticon. WhatsApp is a bit less violent a repudiation of the photograph, but still highly transient. Clearly we may work with all three of these social media and all three of these relationships to photography.

As I will argue in a more extended paper, the mistake is to think this makes photography more superficial, actually I will argue this makes photography more profound.

Social media in social spaces

By Nell Haynes, on 9 December 2013

Toasting to New Friends (Photo by Nell Haynes)

Toasting to New Friends (Photo by Nell Haynes)

The first time I was invited out by friends on a Friday night in my fieldsite in Northern Chile, I was surprised by the ways social media and technology permeated the evening’s events. My new friend Alex* sent me a message on Facebook asking if I would like to go out with he and his friends Andrea and Edith, who I had never met. When he got to my street to pick me up, he sent another Facebook message to let me know. As I walked down the stairs and to the parking lot of my apartment building, I knew I was looking for a Honda because he was constantly posting pictures of it on Facebook. He was standing leaning against the car looking at his Samsung phone. When I got to the car, he began to tell me a story of locking his keys in the car while at Edith’s house. I already knew most of the story though, because someone had made fun of him for locking the keys inside via his Facebook wall about an hour earlier.

We drove a few blocks to Edith’s house where she and Andrea were waiting, and they hopped in the back seat. We then drove to a karaoke bar where the music was so loud I could barely hear Andrea was make fun of Edith for constantly using Whatsapp. Edith retorted that Andrea was just jealous because she didn’t have Whatsapp on her phone. I looked around and all three of my companions were on their phones. I was about to pull out my own just to fit in when Alex passed me his. On the note app he had written, “”If you get bored let me know and we can leave.” I wrote back “I’m just happy to have friends to hang out with on the weekend!” He laughed and then pulled up an app called LED that made the phone into a scrolling sign of the type that shows stock market prices. He wrote “It’s too loud to talk” and showed everyone at the table. He handed the phone to me to write something and at a loss for anything creative wrote “I can’t hear anything!”

Shortly after, Alex told the three women we should pose for a picture, and the two others started posing, then switching places, posing again, standing up and posing, so that we ended up with about 10 photos of the three of us. A man Alex knew from work walked past and offered to take a photo of all 4 of us. Again, many pictures were taken with people standing, then sitting, then in a different order. We sat back down and Alex sent everyone the pictures from his phone via Facebook message. About five minutes later he passed his phone around to show the picture of the four of us that he had already put on Instagram. By the end of the night, I was Facebook friends with Edith and Andrea, and Alex and I had started following each other on Instagram.

While this may seem like just a mundane night out, I was struck by the amount and ways people in Northern Chile were using social media even in the physical presence of their friends. One great thing about starting this project in a new fieldsite is that even seemingly commonplace things surprise me. Among my friends in the United States it would be considered incredibly rude to spend so much time looking at a phone while with others. In my previous fieldsite in Bolivia, very few of my urban middle class friends had smartphones, so messaging would have been done via old-fashioned text messaging and photos would have been posted to Facebook several days later. Many people argue that the influx of social media into time spent physically together spells the demise of substantive relationships. But in this case social media allowed us to interact, overcoming the loud music, to communicate more effectively. Certainly social media is changing friendships, but I think this story demonstrates the ways these media are not separate from “the real world,” but are integrated into the ways people interact when physically present in social spaces.

*All names have been changed

Snapshots from the field: using social media in the Italian fieldsite

By Razvan Nicolescu, on 26 November 2013

People walking in the central square of a small town close to the fieldsite during a local feast. Photo by Razvan Nicolescu.

People walking in the central square of a small town close to the fieldsite during a local feast. Photo by Razvan Nicolescu.

Sandra is a 34 year old lawyer and considers herself to be quite successful. She lives with her parents in a big house near the centre of the town. She is expecting a baby sometime next year. When she found out she was pregnant, she and her fiancée decided to get married and build a ‘real’ family. At the same time, the two renounced using Facebook. This was quite simple as they were using the same Facebook account. The two enjoyed the fact they had no secrets between each other and could share the same friends and tastes. Therefore, they thought it would not make sense to use two separate Facebook profiles. However, when they decided to get married they also decided they would not need Facebook anymore. The main reason for this change was that people ‘gossip a lot’ and they do not need to see that online. They sensed that the intimacy of their couple was enough for them and they really had no intention to share this with people other than their closest friends.

Helena is a 28 year old shop assistant. About one year ago she split with her fiancée. This was a quite difficult moment for her as they were together for more than six years and she was still in love with him. The first thing she did when she realised they had really broken up was quit Facebook. She did not want to see her fiancée anymore and most of his male friends. Helena decided to dedicate her time to work. She also went out with her friends and sisters much more rarely than she used to do before. A few months ago she decided to create a new Facebook account. She thinks the new profile is ‘cleaner,’ mainly because she very carefully selected each person she friended. She actually decreased the number of friends from more than four hundred to just over two hundred. Helena thinks she is totally different on Facebook now than she used to be one year ago. She does not advertise much about herself and does not write too much text. However, she ‘shares’ a lot of content uploaded by other people and ‘likes’ up to 15 times a day. She is always connected on Facebook via her Smartphone and also spends a few hours each evening on this social media at her family’s computer.

Tony is an engineer for civil works. He just finished University and is unemployed. He used to collaborate on several small projects in his branch and accumulated some experience. He is trying to find some stable work although he recognizes this is very difficult. He does some volunteering work for one ecological association in the region. He finds Facebook useful for relating with his friends, but rather useless for the things he is most interested in, like finding a job and building a career. Most of his friends are unemployed too. Just around half of them have Smartphones. When they meet in a café or in the square they rarely check their phones for updates or messages. Tony agrees that Facebook is to be checked out at home, and not when you spend time with your friends.

Andy is an IT engineer. He works from home for a big Italian company and also develops software applications as a hobby. He is a technology enthusiast: he loves new IT gadgets, powerful cars, and pieces of software that he could re-assemble and use in complete new ways. Andy is well connected on several different social media: he consistently follows about a dozen blogs and he is quite active on Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram. He reads a few journals online and comments whenever he feels he should. He watches movies online, sometimes a few in a row without pause. He does so many things online that his girlfriend rarely sees him. They do not live together and she says it is difficult to get him out of the house after work any time other than when he is walking his dog. Andy seems quite happy and, as he told me, one important reason for this is the freedom he senses when he realizes he could do almost anything he wants from home.

And we, as anthropologists, should put all these together…

Love is… sending 400 texts to your girlfriend everyday

By Elisabetta Costa, on 19 September 2013

Photo by Knight 725 (Creative Commons)

Photo by Knight 725 (Creative Commons)

One of the most surprising pieces of data emerging from the 100 questionnaires I’ve submitted to my informants in our Turkish fielsite regarding their use of communication technologies is the number of text messages (SMS) that teenagers and young people send to their lovers. Indeed some mobile phone companies in Turkey sell SMS bundles for very cheap prices: for example, 12,000 texts for only 10 TL (around £3 GBP) a month. SMS is the most affordable communication channel for young people.

Sending 300-400 SMS a day to the same person is not an extraordinary practice among teenagers and youth who want to communicate with a lover and have to do it far from the gaze and ears of their family members. They write messages during every single moment of the day, while on the toilet, eating lunch, at school, before going to bed and as soon as they wake up in the morning. It seems that SMS is the most suitable communicative channel to have a secret love relationship in a society where premarital relationships are not allowed.

Below is part of a conversation I had with a 23 year-old hairdresser who confessed to me that he sends his girlfriend around 12,000 text messages a month:

Hairdresser: “We communicate all day long and all night long by SMS. I do not sleep so that I can speak with her! I love her too much.”
Me: “What do you write in 400 SMS in a day? Can you give me some example? It’s so difficult for me to imagine it.”
Hairdresser: “We write to each other about what we are doing and with whom we are spending our time. We write our feelings. We write everything. And if we do not have time during the day we send messages to each other during the night. This is love! Yes, this is love!”

There are specific local cultural reasons, beyond the growing romanticism, that explain why young lovers send each other so many messages: until few years ago, women were not allowed to go out, there were no internet and not mobile phones, and men could control women much more easily. Now women are more free, and are more often secretly engaging in romantic relationships with men. The point is that those same technologies  allow men to have intimate relationships with women, at the same time depriving them of the control they had in the past. The main fear of a young man having an illegitimate relationship with a woman is to be betrayed. As many young men told me, they are obsessively jealous. They want to control their girl-friends; they want to know where they are and what they do in every-single moment of the day, and SMS texting is the best way to do it. SMS texting is shaping new ideas of love where romanticism is entangled with new ways of performing masculinity.

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.

reservoir-lake

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.

Social media as ageist?

By Jolynna Sinanan, on 30 May 2013

Left- an old man is choosing an 'old people phone'; right- the interface of the 'old people phone'. Photo by Xin Yuan Wang

Left- an old man is choosing an ‘old people phone’; right- the interface of the ‘old people phone’. (Photo by Xin Yuan Wang)

By Jolynna Sinanan and Xin Yuan Wang

We had the opportunity to talk comparatively about what is coming out of our respective fieldwork, when Jolynna took a detour through China on her way home from her second round of fieldwork in Trinidad to visit Xin Yuan. We found a number of complimentary themes and parallels from our field sites and our discussions with our informants. Trinidad and the region of China where Xin Yuan is doing her fieldwork are similar in that there are large amount of intra-state migrants (in Xin Yuan’s field site, rural migrants amount to two thirds of the local total population), whose main social networks remain in their home towns. This suggests that these groups may need social media mostly in terms of developing social networks in their area of destination as well as for their contacts who remain in their home towns. Of course, it is too early at this stage to talk about the social consequences of the appropriation of social media among migrants, which we definitely aim to address at the end of the project.

However, some very obvious parallels did express themselves clearly enough in Jolynna’s short research visit, and pushed us to think WHY. For example, we both found that there are very few to no people over the age of 50 using social media, or even seem interested in using social media (in Xin Yuan’s case, she found so far, that nobody over the age of 45 is using social media and Jolynna has only one informant over 60 who uses Facebook). We discussed a couple of factors to why this is the case: A) illiteracy (especially in Xin Yuan’s case amongst older rural migrants in China); B) older people as being more  technophobic; and C) the dominance of face to face relations for older people. The first two factors are to do with people’s capability and willingness to use digital technologies, however the last reason has more to do with people’s perception of social life and the social normativity around the questions such as “which kind of social connection really matters in one’s everyday life”.

Firstly, in both of our field sites, older people are more invisible in the smartphone market. From her observations and discussions with informants, Xin Yuan has found that many older locals and migrants are illiterate and they are mostly interested in a phone that can meet the basic functions of making and receiving calls. They are generally not interested in smartphones because they ‘don’t see the need’. Their need for the main functions of making and receiving calls plus the extra need for easier usage is reflected in the phones, which is called the ‘old people phone’, available in the industrial town at a very low price (around 300 RMB, equals to 30 pounds). This kind of mobile phone is designed for easy usage, buttons and screens are larger, the screen itself is not cluttered with graphics, the phone also allows for two SIM cards, there is a clear SOS button, which calls the number of the person’s choosing if they need to reach them urgently and the incoming call alert is particularly loud (see figure above). The phone also doesn’t need to be charged as often as a regular phone, battery life can last up to a month as older people here tend to associate the phone with a landline telephone, which remains plugged in and doesn’t need to be charged. Yet, in Trinidad, there are very few phones especially for older people on offer. Landline phones with larger numbers can still be found, but mobile phone shops cater more for younger customers, they have all sorts of ‘fad’ phones on offer, of different colors and camera functions to upload photos directly onto SNSs and the newest iPhones, Samsung Galaxies and Blackberries dominate display cabinets.

More so, older people in Xin Yuan’s field site don’t seem to have the desire to make friends beyond their immediate living areas, where they keep mainly face-to-face communication. Xin Yuan suggests that this reflects the old saying that “yuanqin buru jinlin” (close neighbours are better than faraway relatives), perhaps because it is only their neighbors that they would turn to for day to day support, which they can’t rely on faraway relatives for. It is a very pragmatic attitude towards social relationships, since one can only survive within a stable social network where they can turn for help in a tough ‘real life’ situation.

It is no surprise to find that the social networks of older people are more or less shrinking in both Jolynna and Xin Yuan’s field sites. Like China, Trinidad is an extremely family-oriented society, but there is more of a pattern that the elderly are engaged more in face-to-face relations with their immediate and extended families, unless their relatives live abroad. Children of the elderly visit very often, everyday or once every two days if they live nearby and at least in El Mirador, sociality for older people still resolves more around the town market place, which is a bustling hub on the weekends.

This project sought to explore social media through an anthropological lens, where, as Daniel Miller emphasized in an earlier post, context is everything. So far, in our respective field sites of a semi-urban town in Trinidad and an industrial town in China that is a hub for rural migrant workers; older people aren’t using social media as much as we might have thought. Social media doesn’t seem to be a priority for a demographic of people whose relationships are predominantly face-to-face in closer and more immediate circles of neighbours and family, perhaps in the face of smaller, more localised social networks or a lack of the need or desire to make and keep new friends.