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Public anthropology: urgent yet undervalued

By Laura Haapio-Kirk, on 17 November 2016

An education in anthropology encourages us to ask deep questions and look beneath the surface.

An education in anthropology encourages us to look beyond cultural assumptions.

In the days following the results of the US presidential election, there has allegedly been a wave of racist attacks and hate crime across the States against Muslims, hispanic Americans, black people, ethnic minorities, and the LGBT community. At the root of such behaviour is deep cultural ignorance and education is one of the most powerful weapons we have against intolerance and fear of the ‘other’. The humanistic sensibilities that an education in anthropology fosters can be paradigm-changing. It seems apparent that a commitment to an engaged public anthropology has never mattered more, or been more feasible in this digitally connected age. Many anthropologists, including the Why We Post team, feel the moral and political imperative to bring anthropology to a wider audience than was previously possible with traditional modes of research dissemination. But as anthropologists situated within today’s hyper-competitive academic job market, how can we navigate the often tenuous balance between public and academic output?

How can we manage to produce high-quality public content at the same time as managing the responsibilities that come with being professional anthropologists working within the demands of the academic job market? This was a question put to me by Alisse Waterston, the president of the American Anthropological Association, after a talk I gave at the IUAES in Dubrovnik back in May. The theme of IUAES this year was ‘world anthropologies and privatisation of knowledge: engaging anthropology in public’, yet my panel was the only one with the explicit theme of how to bring anthropology to the public. The panel convenors, Jenny Ingridsdotter and Kim Kallenberg from Södertörn University in Sweden, explained the difficult balancing act inherent in their academic lives: “In order to pursue an academic career we are encouraged to write peer reviewed articles and engage with research communities. Yet little time is left to engage socially and interactively with local communities or communicate important results to public spheres. As young scholars it might be even more complicated to legitimise designation of time to public output. Still we feel it is really important and at the core at what we do as ethnographers.”

The Why We Post course on FutureLearn runs three times per year.

The Why We Post course on FutureLearn runs three times per year.

I believe that there are several factors that enabled our team to successfully produce large amounts of public output at the same time as writing up their research, publishing, and applying for jobs (all of the 5 post docs have now secured academic employment). Firstly I think it’s important that public engagement shouldn’t be an afterthought to research, but like with Why We Post, should begin from a project’s inception if it is to be successful. Partly this is because the writing skills necessary for communicating to a general public take time to hone, and also because it’s important for researchers to understand early on in their work the kind of field material (video, photographic, textual) they need to record in order to produce engaging content that will appeal to non-anthropologists.

Given our topic of research is the uses and consequences of social media, our project was conceived as having a broad appeal from the outset; with selfies and memes we might be able to bring people to anthropology who otherwise might overlook it. Project leader Daniel Miller envisaged a spectrum of dissemination/engagement methods including open access books, an e-course, and a public-facing website, all of which was made possible by a generous ERC advanced grant which funded the project and has covered my salary as a public engagement fellow and research assistant. I was hired at the three-and-a-half-year mark when the team were in the process of writing up. Working with these talented researchers to produce our public content I saw how it was often difficult for them to juggle the academic and public output, even with the support of a team. The more conversations I had with them, the clearer it became: public engagement in anthropology is currently institutionally undervalued and needs greater recognition within the established modes of evaluation that researchers are subject to. I think that projects with more limited resources than ours would struggle to produce the same range of public output, despite the best intentions of individual researchers to reach beyond the ivory tower.

Can we draw people to anthropology through analysis of popular culture such as the selfie?

Can we draw people to anthropology through analysis of popular culture such as the selfie?

In addition to writing 11 open access books (aimed at both academics and lay readers, with jargon-free text and references kept to footnotes), the Why We Post team agree that producing visual and textual material for the online course was the most time-intensive of our initiatives, taking longer than expected. One of our researchers, Shriram Venkatraman believes that this was mainly down our high production values coupled with our lack of experience in creating such material – and a lack of existing models to follow. We were the first UCL course on FutureLearn and the first comparative anthropological online course of this scale. The sheer amount of material coming from our project also posed a challenge – how do you condense insights from a total of 135 months of ethnographic fieldwork across nine fieldsites into a concise course aimed at a general audience? The answer: a combination of Googledocs, tracked edits, miles of emails, and a lot of good will and humour. Support also came from UCL’s Digital Education team whose expertise in online learning was pivotal in developing a successful course.

Despite the time-intensive nature of scripting and filming course content, Jolynna Sinanan commented that the skills she gained were invaluable: “The time pressure was immense but the skills we learned in filming, writing, developing and translating content for the course were very valuable, especially when gaining public exposure for our research is becoming more important. We are also competing within an academic climate that values producing a high level of quality as well as quantity, so we need to display virtuosity as well as accessibility with our research outputs, from being able to write journal articles to making short films for YouTube.” The skills developed in public engagement can also benefit traditional academic output, as Xinyuan Wang explained: “producing the course actually helped my academic writing as in the course I needed to describe and discuss things in a straightforward and engaging way (which is actually more difficult in many ways than composing an academic paper). After working on the course, my own arguments actually became clearer and better constructed, which is definitely very helpful in my future writing and actually saved time rather than wasted time in the long-run.”

While the process of transforming research findings into public education was both challenging and rewarding, once the team’s contracts were nearing completion and they launched into job searches they faced a new challenge: the academic job market currently does not value online learning in the same way as offline learning. Dr Nell Haynes, our team member who conducted her fieldwork in Northern Chile explained: “The online course is not at all considered to be equal to teaching in-person courses, despite the fact that it actually took much much more time, revision, and creative thinking than preparation for a traditional lecture course. And while there has for some time been a strong movement by anthropologists to have administrations grant more weight (in tenure review and other institutionalised forms of evaluation) to public work, it certainly seems that search committees are often reproducing these very biases. Based on conversations with other job applicants this does seem to be a systemic trend.”

Our course is available in the 7 languages of our fieldsites on UCLeXtend.

Our course is available in the 7 languages of our fieldsites on UCLeXtend.

If we as a discipline do not value public anthropology highly enough, is it any surprise that the public generally have little time for anthropology? How can it be that a discipline which claims to be global and encompassing in outlook is so limited in its output, often failing to give back to the very communities that it draws knowledge from? We decided to make our e-course and website (including 130 films) available in the seven languages of our fieldsites, and we are in the process of arranging translations of our open access books. The hope is that as public awareness of anthropology grows through such efforts, that there will be more demand for the discipline. As Shriram Venkatraman commented: “our effort is just the start of something big. When there is more recognition from within the field for public outreach and the social impact we can create, this will hopefully encourage many more such efforts which will increase the standing of Anthropology in the eyes of the general public.”

It is heartening to see other efforts towards quality and sustained public anthropology, such as the founding of the Public Anthropology Institute (PAI) at Wesleyan University, and we hope that such initiatives garner wide praise among anthropologists. We have a duty to promote the kind of cultural sensitivity that anthropologists take for granted to as broad an audience as possible, so that people who see cultural difference as a potential source of anxiety, might come to appreciate, and even delight in, the multitude of ways there are to be human.

 


Thanks to the Why We Post team for sharing their experiences of the public engagement balancing act. Also thanks to our lively panel at IUAES (Berna Yazici, Laura Korčulanin, Miha Poredoš, Aivita Putnina, Branko Banović, Margarita Barrera, Helleka Koppel, and Pascale Hancart Petitet) who continued conversations with me beyond the conference, and who are involved in projects ranging from public art installations of golden excrement in the ‘Give a Sh*t’ project, to an anthropological radio show in Laos.

Taking Why We Post to China

By Daniel Miller, on 11 October 2016

IMG_9212

Although the Why We Post project is primarily an attempt to study the use and consequences of social media, there were other broader aims. Particularly, the hope that the project would show that while the discipline of anthropology might have originally developed for the study of tribal peoples or ethnic minorities, it is also the most effective means of understanding a global, contemporary and highly dynamic phenomenon such as social media. This would be an especially important message for the largest population of the world, China, where anthropology retains a rather conservative position within the university systems and there is a real chance that it will not survive let alone take its proper position as an effective and vanguard approach to the contemporary world.

As it happens, it is hard to think of two more effective means of making this point than our two books on social media in China. In particular, Tom McDonald’s study in rural China has a consistent narrative about how even such small rural towns are actually thoroughly imbued with digital transformations and tend to have better connectivity today than the village he comes from in Yorkshire. It is a still clearer point for Xinyuan Wang who effectively demolishes most stereotypes about Chinese society – for example the commitment to education and kin – by showing the distinctive nature of not some small exception, but the 250 million Chinese represented by her study of new factory workers. The comparison between these two books, Social Media in Rural China and Social Media in Industrial China, showcases the diversity of contemporary Chinese society and how can we better grasp the nuance and depth of a changing society through a contextualised understanding of the evolving nature of Chinese social media.

Daniel Miller at the People's Press who are publishing Chinese versions of the books.

Daniel Miller at the People’s Press who are publishing Chinese versions of the books.

To share our findings we organised a trip to four major centres (Hong Kong, Guangzhou, Beijing, and Shanghai) and nine separate institutions. At a major anthropology and sociology department such as in Hong Kong University, Sun Ya-sen University in Guangzhou, and the Chinese Academy of Social Science in Beijing we could highlight our key point about this potential for anthropology itself in working with dynamic and shifting new media. But it was equally important to talk to Communication Departments such as at the Baptist University of Hong Kong, the Chinese University of HongKong, and the Communication University of China in Beijing so that students in that discipline were exposed to the potentials of ethnographic fieldwork. Our audiences ranged from arts and humanities at NYU in Shanghai, to philosophy students in Fudan University of Shanghai. We also visited the People’s Press who had published Xinyuan’s translation of the Digital Anthropology book and where I realised that my fellow authors included both the present and all the past presidents of China.

Tom McDonald

Tom McDonald delivers his talk on social media in rural China.

We carried out a live online book launch from Hong Kong (which you can watch again here) and opened an exhibition about the project at Hong Kong University where Tom now teaches. We also made sure that all the films on the Chinese version of our website were stored on UCL servers, rather than on YouTube which is blocked in China, so that students in mainland China could access them. Our trip attracted interest from Chinese local media including two of the largest Chinese online news agents, PengPai news and Tencent News, as well as the most popular English TV channel in Shanghai, Shanghai ICS, helping our message to reach more than ten thousand Chinese people within a few days.

Xinyuan Wang explain the dual migration from rural to urban and from offline to online.

Xinyuan Wang explains the dual migration from rural to urban and from offline to online in industrial China.

On a more personal level there were two striking responses. One was the delight of audiences when they realised that Tom would be lecturing in Chinese which was important to convince them that he could be an effective fieldworker in China. The other was the way young female students were clearly inspired by the elegant and articulate but also poignant presentation by Xinyuan and they made clear that they didn’t just want to emulate our way of working, but saw her as a model for what women in China could become in the future.

Why We Post Tour of Chinese Universities

By Xin Yuan Wang, on 12 September 2016

Daniel Miller China Tour

Between 12th-24th September 2016, Professor Daniel Miller and two researchers on the Why We Post project, Tom McDonald and Xinyuan Wang, will give a series of talks about the findings of the project at nine top universities in HongKong, Guangzhou, Beijing, and Shanghai. This China tour also include the launch (13th September) of the two newly released open-access books: Social Media in Industrial China (Wang, 2016) and Social Media in Rural China (McDonald, 2016). If you can’t be with us in Hong Kong, do join our live-streamed launch and put your questions to the authors.

China was the only country in the Why We Post project with two research sites. One of the reasons for this was because China maintains a greater degree of separation and autonomy in their use of popular digital media when compared to the rest of the world, therefore a global comparative study of social media required close scrutiny of particularly Chinese forms of social media such as QQ, WeChat, and Weibo.

The project includes a considerable amount of material on China such as the two newly released open-access books by UCL Press; one of the five weeks of the Anthropology of Social Media e-course; and a series of films set in the Chinese fieldsites. All of our short films (more than 100) about the uses of social media from our nine field sites have Chinese subtitles, and our website and e-course are both available in Chinese. Bringing an anthropological understanding of Chinese social media in the context of a comparative study back to China is a big commitment the project’s ultimate goal of turning global research into free global education.

Despite there being Chinese universities that teach anthropology, they have tended to see anthropology as a discipline that deals mainly with minority populations. We believe that the more a population becomes modern and urban and indeed digital, the more we need anthropology. This is because most of life now happens in the private sphere. In a little village perhaps it’s easier to see what’s going on from a surface glance. In a modern city where everyone goes to their own private home after work it is much more difficult. So you need research that is not afraid to follow people into the places where they actually live, which may be inside their smartphones, their social media profiles, as well as inside their homes. Otherwise we will not understand the modern world at all. Asking people questions via superficial surveys is not enough. Anthropologists spend many months living with people in order to be sure they understand what is really going on.

We believe that digital technologies including social media may be more formative of life in China than in almost any other country. While China has great and honourable traditions, the development of what we think of as modern China is relatively recent and relatively fast, taking place at the exact same time that new digital technologies are becoming an integral part of people’s lives. So whether we’re talking about the infrastructure of new cities or the spread of inexpensive smartphones, digital technologies are ubiquitous to the new China, and this means it is particularly important to understand their use and their consequences from a deep and engaged anthropological approach.

We hope that this China tour will introduce digital anthropology as a research tool to the Chinese academy. It is also hoped that the debates and talks will help to formulate key questions for future study within Chinese anthropology. We hope that China will play a key role in these future studies commensurate with its importance as a modern population that is embracing every form of new digital technology, and hopefully also embracing anthropology as the best means for observing and understanding their consequences.

The table below contains details of the talks in this China tour. For further updated information (in Chinese) please see here: http://uclwhywepost.isitestar.vip

巡回演讲安排 Brief Schedule of the China Tour

Emergent Brazilians comment the impeachment of the president

By Juliano Andrade Spyer, on 2 September 2016

obama

This is one of the memes circulating among low income Brazilians in reference to the impeachment of President Dilma. The top comment says: “Gosh, is this true?” Below the image it reads: “‘I do not recognise the new Brazilian government’, says Obama, threatening to close the American embassy…

One of the latest hot topics of research in Brazilian social sciences is the extreme polarisation of opinions in the country. Social media was at the centre of the street protests of June 2013. The impression then that the internet was unityfing Brazilians against corrupt politicians. However, only a few months later online communication apparently helped to intensify tensions between groups in society. In my (educated middle class) circle, for example, almost everyone (if not everyone) has experienced “unfriending” or being “unfriended” on Facebook because of different political views. (If you are not following the news about the political crisis in Brazil, read about it here.)

But I wonder how lower income Brazilians were perceiving the same events and how they viewed the Senate’s decision to impeach the president. Thanks to WhatsApp, it was easy to contact them and quickly get some answers, which I translated and added below. Similarly to the educated middle class, these emergent Brazilians are also following closely this debate, partially because of the television coverage, but also independently via social media through the exchange of memes – see images at the top and at the end of the post. They are also divided in regards to supporting or not the Senate’s final decision, but three out of the four informants considered the impeachment unfair. More interestingly, though, is to note how the intensity of debates has enriched their understanding of government politics.

Opinion 1: “Fair? The condemnation did not have plausible arguments and just to have peace of conscience they did not take away her political rights”, which should be the legal outcome of an impeached president.

Opinion 2: “My son cannot take a test in his (public) school because they don’t have paper and the privately hired staff are 3 months without receiving salaries. I am against the government because of the matter of education. In the last few years my son has had only one or two classes per week. Both the governor and the mayor are from the Worker’s Party [same as the president], and they have been in charge for the past 12 years. I think the impeachment was unfair for the particular reason presented, but fair for the overall situation. I have many friends that are unemployed.”

Opinion 3: “In my opinion it was not fair because it was the people who elected her. To be honest, I wanted her to leave, but I would like to choose who would replace her. To some Brazilians like me, it is as if we have no voice and the only thing we can do is to wait for the country to fall to pieces, and we are the country. I feel sad because instead of advancing we are going backwards. Public education is weak, health services are worst and I do not need to comment about violence.”

Opinion 4: “I feel things will get worst. I am worried. The new government did not receive the votes from the people and they will govern wrongly. ‘We will have to pay the price in the future.’”

Below, some of the memes they are circulating.

meme bahia

It says: “In the Senate, Bahia is the only state that voted unanimously against the impeachment…”

meme temer

It says: “In his speech, Temer [the new president] says he will not tolerate to be called a coup leader”.

meme golpe

It says: “Gleisi: Be strong, Dilma. She is facing the second coup of her life today.”

meme

It says from top left: “Home of the mayor, home of the city councilmen, home of the secretary. HOME OF THE VOTERS.”

Expanding beyond our project – kinship in the light of social media

By Daniel Miller, on 26 July 2016

The recent meeting of the European Association of Social Anthropologists in Milan was the first time we have engaged in a collaborative consideration of a topic linking our team’s research with that of others working in similar research areas. The chosen topic was kinship in the light of social media. From our own team, Elisa spoke about the use of social media for reconstituting tribal identity amongst Kurds, Tom spoke about how rural Chinese actually seek out strangers using social media, Xinyuan discussed the use of social media to re-orientate from kin to other forms of socialisation and Razvan discussed how people in South Italy re-constitute kin within wider relationships. My own paper was on the development of ‘fictive friendship’, i.e. how kinship is increasingly modelled upon friendship.

But for us the most interesting development was seeing our work in juxtaposition with the work of others. Gabriele de Seta of Academia Sinica Taiwan presented the aesthetics of visual posts by older Chinese users of social media and how these are strongly differentiated from those that had been established amongst younger users. Giovanna Bacciddu of Pontifica Universiad Catolica Chile, explored the use of social media to connect Chilean birth parents with their children who had been adopted in Italy. Gulay Taltekin Guzel and Alev Kuruoglu of Bilkent University Turkey, showed how religious Muslim newlyweds in Turkey establish a site to discuss the moral and other norms of married life. Finally, Roger Canals of the University of Barcelona looked at how kinship and religious ideals are interwoven in the aesthetic of social media representations of the cult of Maria Lionza in Venezuela.

Taken as a whole the session, which produced a very lively and engaged discussion, showed why this will always be a central topic within the anthropological study of social media. It is not simply that the family is one of the foundations for so much usage of social media, including new platforms such as WhatsApp. Nor even that social media is often important in itself for helping people create new relationships with kin which may include the repair of ruptures in the family thanks to migration, but it can also mean creating new distance from kin in favour of other forms of sociality. Above all it became evident that we cannot understand the development of social media itself, except through seeing it in part as a reflection and manifestation of wider changes in kinship relations and the rise of other relationships models such as the stranger or friendship. Fortunately, the study of kinship is perhaps the single best established tradition in anthropological scholarship and it seems a very productive means to re-engage this traditional scholarship with an entirely new medium.

 

Social Media and Brexit

By Daniel Miller, on 27 June 2016

Screen Shot 2016-06-27 at 14.22.03

One of the common claims made about social media is that it has facilitated a new form of political intervention aligned with the practices and inclinations of the young. Last week I attended the launch of an extremely good book by Henry Jenkins and his colleagues called By Any Media Necessary which documents how young people use social and other media to become politically involved, demonstrating that this is real politics not merely ‘slacktivism’, a mere substitute for such political involvement.

And yet, currently I am seeing social media buzzing with young people advocating a petition to revoke the Brexit vote, which only highlights the absence of a similar ‘buzz’ prior to the vote. I await more scholarly studies in confirmation, but my impression is that we did not see the kind of massive activist campaign by young people to prevent Brexit that we saw with campaigns behind Bernie Sanders in the US and Jeremy Corbyn in the UK.

The failure to create an attractive activist-led mass social media campaign to get young people to vote for Remain is reflected in the figures; although 18-24 year-olds were the most favourable segment towards Remain, only 36% of this group actually voted at all. As such, Brexit represents a catastrophic failure in young people’s social media, from which we need to learn. Being based in ethnography, our Why We Post project argued that we need to study the absence of politics in ordinary people’s social media as much as focusing on when it does appear. But the key lesson is surely that just because social media can facilitate young people’s involvement in politics doesn’t mean it will, even when that politics impacts upon the young.

One possibility is that social media favours a more radical idealistic agenda. By contrast, even though the impact of Brexit might be greater and more tangible, the remain campaign was led by a conservative prime minister, backing a Europe associate with bureaucracy and corporate interest, and was a messy grouping of people with different ideological perspectives, that made it perhaps less susceptible to the social media mechanisms of aggregated sharing.

At the same time I would claim that our work can help us to understand the result. My own book Social Media in an English Village is centred on the way English people re-purposed social media as a mechanism for keeping ‘others’, and above all one’s neighbours, at a distance. I cannot demonstrate this but I would argue that by supporting Brexit the English were doing in politics at a much larger scale exactly what my book claims they were doing to their neighbours at a local level: expressing a sense that ‘others’ were getting too close and too intrusive and needed to be pushed back to some more appropriate distance. And it is this rationale which may now have devastated the prospects for young people in England.

Hear Daniel Miller talk about social media and politics in this Why We Post podcast.

Why We Post is “the biggest, most ambitious project of its sort”, says The Economist

By Laura Haapio-Kirk, on 14 March 2016

How the world changed social media

Since our launch on the 29th February, the first three open access books in the Why We Post series have been downloaded over 6,000 times! 6,000 downloads in just two weeks makes for a very happy team. The entire series of 11 volumes will continue to be released by UCL Press over the coming year, so keep your eyes peeled.

News has spread far and wide of our project and its ambitious public dissemination strategy comprising not only of our books, but a free e-course and a website with films and stories from our nine fieldsites. In the past two weeks we’ve enjoyed global media coverage and have been thrilled with the response from learners on our course who come from all over the world.

Press round-up (29/02/2016 – 14/03/2016):

 

The medium is the messengers

 

English:

The Economist (05/03/2016  print and online): The Medium is the Messengers: A global study reveals how people fit social media into their lives

“These fly-on-the-wall perspectives refute much received wisdom… ‘Why We Post’ thus challenges the idea that the adoption of social media follows a single and predictable trajectory.”

The Economist – (02/03/2016  online): Babbage Podcast: From headers to footies (from 06:33)

“(Why We Post is) the biggest, most ambitious project of its sort.”

BBC World Service – (29/02/2016 radio): World Business Report (from 4:13)

BBC Click (02/03/2016 radio): What is the Point of Posting on Social Media 

“… a global snapshot of our relationship with the social media… This is a nuanced picture of a world coming to terms with a rapidly evolving way of connecting, or even disconnecting, with something unexpected pretty much everywhere the researchers looked.”

“What’s really heartening about this study and the research is you see people taking the technology seriously, looking at the things it makes possible, the things that it interferes with, the new forms of social exchange that become feasible when you have smart phones and internet and social networks, actually looking at how it affects us as people. It’s really vital that this work continues… It’s a sense of a discipline emerging, or rather that the discipline of anthropology is properly embracing social media as an important part of human society… What they’re doing is identifying core principles, like the fact that social media can help create privacy. It’s a really important insight and that’s not going to change, even if it’s no longer Facebook, it’s something new.” – Bill Thompson, BBC Technology writer

CBBC Newsround (29/03/2016 TV): Two mentions of ‘footies’ on the morning and afternoon programmes.

BBC World Service – (29/02/2016 radio): World Update (from 8:51)

BBC Radio 4  (29/02/2016 radio): Today Programme (from 2:54:32)

Spanish:

BBC Mundo (05/03/2016 online): De “Footies” en Chile a “uglies” en Inglaterra, cómo el mundo cambió las redes

BBC Mundo (09/03/2016 online): La artista argentina de Instagram que engañó a miles de personas

Portuguese:

O Globo (07/03/2016 online and print): Pesquisa mostra diversidade do uso das redes sociais pelo mundo

 

Learners on our course come from all over the world.

Learners on our course come from all over the world.

 

And here are selected comments from learners on our course:

“Thank you for this course. Although I am a journalist and social media user I now have an understanding of the cross-cultural realities of social media… how it is used differently across different cultures.”

“Fantastic course. This has been a great introduction and it seems like it’s almost limitless as to where one could further go from here in these studies.”

“Really enjoyed the course. I found it extremely interesting with edifying discussions! I hope social media evolves into something truly radical rather than merely, ‘a look at me peep show for the digitally besotted’ (John Pilger)”.

The course has just entered its third week, and it’s not too late to sign up! Join the course in English on FutureLearn and in Portuguese, Tamil, Hindi, Spanish, Chinese, Turkish, and Italian on UCLeXtend.

Build Karma Points on Social Media

By Shriram Venkatraman, on 22 February 2016

Goodkarmameme

Everyday salutations such as ‘Good Morning’, ‘Good Afternoon’, ‘Good Evening’ etc. are common social media interactions of the people of Panchagrami, used to keep in touch with an already established group of friends. Interviews with informants revealed that once they have an established group of Facebook or WhatsApp friends, maintaining engagement with everyone becomes important. Otherwise, people are troubled by the question of what to do with an accumulated capital of friends on social media. In order to circumvent this, everyday salutations are a way to keep their friends list actively engaged in a positive and non-confrontational way.

However, these kinds of messages are not only seen as a practice of building sociality and maintaining touch with an accumulated group of friends. They are also used for accruing positive karma points, which have a religious connotation. Several middle-aged informants from Panchagrami participate in religious activities on Facebook and even if they don’t categorise this as activity related to religion, it is always related to building good Karma, stemming from a Hindu belief that what goes around comes around and that good actions lead to good outcomes. Participation can range from posting pictures of Gods, posting religious messages as a positive message for self development, sharing inspirational poems, stories etc. as a way of giving positive reinforcement to society, which can then build good Karma for the giver/poster. People even follow this as an everyday routine, as in the case  of one of my informants, Vidya Shankar.

Vidya Shankar, a 47-year-old architect, feels that since most of his social circle is on Facebook, he can use his social circle as a set of ready audience to build good Karma for himself. He maintains a routine of posting an image of a Hindu god (mostly that of Krishna or Ganesha) on Facebook before 6 AM everyday.

Fig 1: Vidyashankar’s image of Lord Krishna

Krishna

Vidya Shankar sticks to this routine, since he knows that most of his middle-aged Facebook friends will check Facebook when they wake up every morning. So, in order to ensure that they wake up to an auspicious symbol, he makes sure to post an image of a Hindu god on his Timeline just a little before 6 AM.

Vidya Shankar says: “I know people have checked it when I start receiving ‘Likes’ immediately after I post…its mostly the same set of around 40 to 45 friends of mine, but receiving immediate feedback is effective, since I know that I have built the necessary good Karma for the day and I am sure that as they “Share” it with others, it will not only help build their Karma, but also mine, as I help build theirs”.

Sudhasri, a 39-year-old housewife, builds her Karma points by posting positive messages every morning on a WhatsApp group with about 35 members. She posts a positive saying adapted from a religious book along with a “Good Morning” message to this group. Sudhasri says: “My messages can help people start their day on a positive note, since even getting up in the morning is a miracle and I don’t want people to waste their god given day…a positive start can help have a joyous day…I have done something good for the day then”.

Fig 2: Sudhasri’s prayer on WhatsApp group

Prayer

Vidya Shankar and Sudhasri aren’t alone, as several informants believe that routinely participating in giving goodness to society (their immediate social circle on social media), can help reap good Karma.

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.

 

 

A close-up look at Chinese social media platforms

By Tom McDonald, on 11 February 2016

Tom McDonald and Xinyuan Wang introduce China's social media platforms

Tom McDonald and Xinyuan Wang introduce China’s social media platforms

Chinese social media is remarkable because despite extensive media coverage and academic research, these platforms remain something of an enigma to many non-Chinese people.

While internet censorship within China prevents Chinese users from accessing non-Chinese social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, by contrast the extensive use of Chinese language on Chinese social media is perhaps the main barrier stopping many non-Chinese people seeing what goes on in these spaces.

We think that any informed discussion of the impacts of Chinese social media needs to start with helping people learn about what these platforms are really like. So we made a film introducing the key social media platforms in China, which will appear on our new free online course on the anthropology of social media, launching on 29 February 2016.

In the video, Xinyuan Wang and I introduce the wide variety of social media platforms in China, including QQ, QZone, WeChat, and Sina Weibo. Our description give an idea of the varied functionality of the different platforms: allowing users to instant message their fiends as well as post their thoughts and feelings.

The video also shows some unusual aspects of the same platforms that make Chinese social media especially distinctive: the ability to decorate one’s profile page with fantastic themes, add friends by shaking one’s phone, and also celebrity culture on Weibo.

We also talk about which of these platforms are popular in each of our industrial and rural field sites in China (where we each lived for 15 months conducting research) and we explain some of the reasons that account for this.

We will be exploring these reasons in even greater depth in the free online course and our new free book How The World Changed Social Media, both of which will be released on 29 February, and which you can register to receive reminders for today!