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They flirt, they share porn and they gossip

By Juliano Andrade Spyer, on 5 February 2016

Image courtesy:  thegillinator.

Image courtesy:
thegillinator.

The last four months of 2015 were tough. I was locking myself in a claustrophobic student carrel every day, spending 9 hours staring at a computer screen but not being able to finish the final draft of my book. I began having trouble sleeping and pictured a clock ticking everywhere I went. But the source of this anxiety – as I realized later – was a prolonged and unconscious struggle to say something about my research while the evidence was pointing the other way. I wanted very badly to conclude on my book saying that this poor settlement in Brazil had a lot of problems, but that because of social media things are changing for the better. But they aren’t.

This realization came after a long conversation with a friend that kindly took the time to read a previous draft of my book. The last chapter is about the effects of social media on relationships between people that are not relatives or friends. I did not notice this before, but I ordered the cases in a way to construct an argument that social media was empowering locals to protest against injustices. But this friend summarized her impression of that chapter saying that despite all this fuss about social mobility in Brazil, people are still living as second rate citizens. If a relative is murdered, not just they have to accept that the police will not investigate: they also have to keep quiet or risk being subjected to more violence.

The internet and particularly social media is everywhere in this settlement. Teenagers and young people are crazy about it but adults and older folks also share the excitement. There is the enchantment with the new possibilities of being in touch with people and also the pride related to having a computer and to be able to use it. It shows that they are not as “ignorant” [illiterate] as others might have thought and the PC looks good in the living-room next to the flat screen TV. But how much of this represents real change and how much is – as my friend’s commentary indicates –just an appearance of change?

In short, I wanted to sympathise with “the oppressed” and also show the internet is empowering. And in order to claim that, I denied the basic evidence of what they do with social media. It is not about learning, though that happens. (For instance, they are much more interested in reading and writing in order to better use things like Facebook and WhatsApp.) However, their reason for wanting to be on social media is mostly to flirt, to share some (very) gruesome videos and to spy on one another and gossip about it.

Evangelic Christianity is much more clearly responsible for “positive” change there than the internet or social media: the protestant ideology promotes literacy and education, helps people get and keep their jobs, reduces the incidences of alcoholism and family violence. Social media, on the other hand, is usually not for opening and expanding the access to information and to new relationships, but to restore and strengthen local networks. Facebook and WhatsApp are in some cases a possibility for young people to harness the desire to study and move beyond their subordinate position in society, but it is also intensely used for social control – i.e. for spying and spreading rumours attacking people who want to challenge conformity.

The picture I have now is not as neat and “positive”. But perhaps the best contribution an anthropological research has to offer is just that: to challenge generalizations and expose how contradictory human relations can be.

What is the difference between a generalisation and a stereotype?

By Daniel Miller, on 5 January 2016

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All anthropologists would agree that stereotypes cause harm and should be avoided. Yet anthropology mainly consists of generalisations about groups of people: the Nuer do this, the Trobriand Islanders do that, women do something more than men, Norwegians less than the French etc. But today any generalisation may be accused of perpetuating stereotypes. Saying that women do more washing up perpetuates the stereotype that women are associated with domestic labour. Saying that Irish people like Guinness or tell good jokes is said to perpetuate stereotypes.

We may not agree on the meaning of ‘truth’, but anthropology must have integrity, and report all observable generalisations irrespective of how the consequences are regarded. If we try to censor these in order to fit our own politics and values, we would rightly lose any credibility for our scholarship.

For this to be acceptable depends on two key differences between a generalisation and a stereotype. The first is called ‘essentialism’. A stereotype implies that the observation is based on an essential quality of that population, for example that women are ‘naturally’ more suited to washing up, the ‘Irish genes’ makes them funny. By contrast, we as anthropologists are responsible for investigating the historical and cultural reasons for the observed association. If Jews were associated with moneylending, it was not the result of Jewish ‘genes’ but historical prohibitions on Jewish landowning and Christians earning interest. Secondly, a generalisation must never become an assumption about any particular individual. A qualitative observation, as also a statistic, bears on some, but not all, of a population. It may be entirely untrue of that person and so should not be assumed of them.

The Why We Post project is comparative at its core, involving nine anthropologists looking at the same topics simultaneously around the world. In our forthcoming book, ‘How the World Changed Social Media’, we compare individual fieldsites which, for brevity, we refer to by their respective country names. When we say we are comparing our Turkish fieldsite with the Italian one we actually mean a site in southeast Turkey, mainly inhabited by Kurds and Arabs from many different backgrounds, is being compared with a site in the very south of Italy that has little in common with a place such as Milan. This comparative approach allowed us to appreciate the nuances of each fieldsite more fully, both while conducting fieldwork and during analysis.

We often describe things as typical or normative, but we always know that a) even the next town will be different, let alone a separate country b) each fieldsite contains internal differences by gender, income etc., c) even if we then specify a female, middle-class, well-educated English category, a particular individual within that category may show none of the associated traits.

But having established those caveats, we should not flinch from documenting the observable and comparative generalisations that we encounter, and thereby reject the argument that we should not be generalising in case it perpetuates a stereotype. Otherwise we will be unable to contribute to acknowledging, understanding and explaining cultural difference, which is our primary contribution as anthropologists.

Nostalgia for a field Christmas

By Jolynna Sinanan, on 21 December 2015

Image courtesy of shanzmataz

Image courtesy of shanzmataz.

It’s the first time I’ve been away from Christmas in Trinidad since I started fieldwork there in 2011 (oh wait, I was home briefly in 2013). December to February is about the slowest three months of the year for working in Trinidad in the lead up to Christmas and the lead up to Carnival, but it’s the best time of the year for an anthropologist whose job it is to hang out with people and do what they do, meet all the people who are important to them and do what they enjoy.

Christmas is a more than a religious festival to many Trinidadians. It’s celebrated by most people in the town, regardless of religious background, as a time to invest in the family and the home as a project. By contrast to living in Melbourne where there a mad rush for shopping for presents and preparing elaborate meals, in addition to these in Trinidad, there’s staying up for most of the night to scrub walls with sugar soap, apply a fresh coat of paint and change curtains. Of course, all of this is done with several relatives dropping in and out between their own home projects so the accompanying food and socialising turns Christmas day into a month of festivities.

When the house is spotless and could pass for a new home with freshly painted walls, the decorations go up. The tree is only the beginning: there are table runners, wall hangings, figurines and plenty of multi-coloured twinkling lights. The many philanthropic organisations in the town collect food and clothes for hampers for older people and those who are less well-off in the community. Home is not only the immediate house that a family lives in, home is also the greater town to be just as cultivated and taken care of.

Social media profiles are adorned in the same way in December. From wearing a pair of earrings shaped like Christmas wreaths to playing Santa in the local church or primary school, several profile photos from my fieldsite are of people in Christmas-themed outfits. Prior to Facebook, the circulation of Christmas cards was a time consuming activity, but now instead of sending Hallmark cards people populate the profiles of their loved ones by sharing photo collages with candy-cane or angel embellishments or posting memes.  

For those who can’t be home for Christmas, it’s becoming more common to Skype in and sit, propped up in a common space such as in the kitchen or the dining table through a tablet or smartphone over Christmas day, into the evening. I hope this year I might be the disembodied head, beamed in through webcam to enjoy Trini Christmas from afar. 

WhatsApp ban in Brazil: the word on the ground

By Laura Haapio-Kirk, on 18 December 2015

 

The text above the image reads: 'me without WhatsApp'.

The text above the image reads: ‘me without WhatsApp’.

 

In this post Juliano Spyer suggests that the vocal backlash against the recent blocking of WhatsApp in Brazil would have been even stronger if the voices of poor Brazilians who depend on the service were heard.

“For poor people in Brazil, WhatsApp is essential for communication, and has defined a personal sense of internet use,” says Juliano. During his 15 months’ fieldwork in a working-class neighbourhood north of Salvador, WhatsApp went from being unheard of to being the predominant mode of online communication. “WhatsApp has become such an important tool that it has generated a shift from desktop to mobile internet use in Brazil.”

Back in 2013, people in Juliano’s fieldsite who had smartphones tended not to use them to access the internet. Rather, smartphones were more of a status item, used for playing music and taking photos. People hardly used mobile internet because Facebook was the primary reason for going online, which was felt to be better suited to desktop access. As the price of Android phones dropped, people instantly recognised WhatsApp’s value as a low-cost communication tool, and in the course of 6 months, between 2013-2014, Juliano witnessed the app becoming the dominant messaging platform in his fieldsite. A man who owned the main local mobile phone repair booth told Juliano that “nine out of ten” smartphones he serviced had WhatsApp installed.

With the rise of WhatsApp and the necessary uptake of mobile internet, people experienced a shift from more communal modes of internet access, such as in internet cafes and in the family living room on a home PC, to more private and personal access. The smartphone became, in effect, people’s first experience of private computing, with both positive and negative consequences for their lives. For example, in Juliano’s fieldsite people reported that WhatsApp made it easier to forge business opportunities, but its private nature also meant that it intensified tensions and jealousy between couples.

The recent quick reinstatement of WhatsApp after it was blocked in Brazil was largely down to the public outcry over the ban, both in Brazil and internationally. Brazilians took to Twitter to express their frustration, but Juliano suggests that the Brazilian backlash mostly came from the schooled middle-classes who use a combination of WhatsApp, Skype, and email for communication. For poor Brazilians who depend on WhatsApp as their primary mode of communication, the reaction was even stronger yet we just didn’t hear it. “The overall impact of the WhatsApp ban on Brazilians was underestimated as the voice of poor people is generally not heard. Because of this under-representation, while the reaction to the WhatsApp ban appeared large, in actual fact it was unimaginably larger,” says Juliano.


 

Co-authored by Juliano Spyer and Laura Haapio-Kirk.

Teenagers on social media in southeast Italy – quantitative data

By Razvan Nicolescu, on 14 December 2015

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In this blog post I will take a look to the quantitative data from my fieldwork, discussing some findings from a questionnaire I conducted with students in their final two years of secondary school in Grano. 539 students participated, mostly aged between 17-19 years old.

More than 90% of respondents were actively using Facebook and 80% WhatsApp. These impressive numbers reflect that in Grano the two services were seen as two complementary facets of sociality: the former being extremely public and the latter more private and personal.

In contrast, most young people did not have a clear idea about what to use Instagram and Twitter for: relatively more students used Twitter primarily to be in contact with friends than to follow celebrities (45 vs. 30%) and many used it to talk to their colleagues, family members, and partners (22%). While Instagram was more clearly used to establish relationships based on shared interests, still many used it primarily to stay in contact with school colleagues (18%) and friends from their hometown (14%). For example, those who were commuting to study in Grano used Instagram to share images from their hometown with school friends and share image from school and Grano with friends from their hometown. Most of the parents and older relatives did not even bother to ask their children what they did on Twitter or Instagram, even less to actually try and log in to these platforms.

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86% of students owned a smartphone and 99% owned or shared at least one computer with their family: 83% owned some sort of mobile computer as opposed to only 16% who owned only a desktop. These figures correspond to a recent OECD report that shows that 65% of Italian families with at least one child have a computer at home, while on average there are just six PCs for every 100 students in Italian schools. In my forthcoming book, I explain how these figures reflect the particular importance of home education in Grano.

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Most children receive their first smartphone at 10-12 years old and parents try to resist decreasing this age further. This is the age when many children also start to use social media, including more controversial platforms such as ask.fm. Throughout their adolescence their mobile use and online presence is constantly diversified as their universe continuously expands: many participate in secondary education away from their hometowns, start romantic relationships, and gain increased autonomy from their families. In a separate questionnaire on the use of social media, 82% of respondents felt that that children should only start using social media after the age of 14 years old, the main reason being that younger children are not considered to be adequately mature to establish relationships in such a public environment.

In contrast, my ethnographic qualitative data suggests that despite the relative unease of parents and teachers regarding their children’s use of mobile phones and social media, they actually encourage this use as many see it as compulsory for assuring young people a good future. This is a good example of how quantitative data was balanced by ethnographic insights in the Why We Post project.

Note: Thanks to Shriram Venkatraman for helping with statistics and graphs.

Why popular anthropology?

By Elisabetta Costa, on 27 November 2015

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The core mission of anthropology is the understanding of human behaviour in a world full of cultural and historical diversity. The anthropological commitment to this immense plurality of human and social experiences constitutes a great appreciation and valorisation of diversity. Yet, different cultures, identities and behaviours are organised around hierarchies, and the institutions that shape anthropology and other academic disciplines often reproduce and reinforce them. For example, in the UK, most universities tend to be attended by a minority of privileged students, whereas groups that are historically marginalised tend to be excluded from the process of production and fruition of academic knowledge. Anthropological content is read by few academics, and only very rarely does it reach a wider audience all around the world.

Anthropologists have, at different points in the history of the discipline, investigated the anthropological involvement in the reinforcement of social hierarchies. They have examined how systems of power shape ethnographic practices, the role of the ethnographer in the field, and processes of anthropological writing. However, efforts to extend the accessibility of anthropological knowledge have been too modest so far. Anthropology continues to be an intellectual practice accessible to a small group of academics, largely from a privileged background. The conversation on the diversity of human beings – the ultimate goal of anthropology – is carried out by those who are awarded privileges by this hierarchical system of differences. Unprivileged groups in terms of social classes, gender, sexuality, geographic origins, and ethnic backgrounds are not only often excluded from the production of anthropological knowledge, but also from the fruition of it. The result of this is the reinforcement of social hierarchies that exclude groups that have been historically marginalised.

In this context, a commitment to a wider dissemination of anthropological understanding constitutes a small but significant step towards a more inclusive society, where marginalised groups can also enjoy the opportunities afforded by anthropological knowledge. Digital technologies give unprecedented potential to expand human conversation about humanity, bringing it outside the academic sphere and placing it within the immense flow of information on the internet. Anthropologists can decide to participate in this unbounded exchange, or continue in the safe and protected space of academia. Our commitment to the former is the reason why we are publishing all of our research as open access volumes, why we have launched a free e-course, why we are in the process of building an interactive website featuring films and stories about the people who participated in our research, and why all of the above will be available in the eight languages of our fieldsites. We hope that others will decide to join us on this mission of democratising access to anthropology!

Why We Post: The Anthropology of Social Media

By Laura Haapio-Kirk, on 25 November 2015

 

The Why We Post project is now moving into its final stages at full speed, gearing up for our public launch on February 29th 2016. On this date we will release the first three of eleven open access books, a free e-course, and an interactive website. You can now register for our course on FutureLearn (English language version) and on UCLeXtend (in Chinese, Hindi, Tamil, Spanish, Italian, Turkish, and Portuguese).

Over 4,300 people have signed up to the course within the first week, sparking discussions around the research which are absolutely fascinating and encouraging to see. Students come from all over the world and range from having a general interest in social media, to being professionally invested in it, from people who have never heard of anthropology, to those who are doing PhDs in the subject. The breadth of learner backgrounds is extraordinary and will no doubt contribute to the vibrancy of the course.

The course consists of a range of learning materials including texts, images, video lectures, and video discussions. There are further materials on our website for learners who want to dig even deeper, including around a hundred films made in the fieldsites and many stories which bring our research to life.

If you want to help us transform global research into global education, then spread the word. Follow the project on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, and tweet with the hashtag #whywepost.

Sign up for the free e-course Why We Post: The Anthropology of Social Media. We can’t wait to meet you!


 

Promotional film by Cassie Quarless.

Fieldwork is haunting me, thanks to WhatsApp

By Juliano Andrade Spyer, on 3 November 2015

When is the end of fieldwork? (Photo: Merlijn Hoek CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

When is the end of fieldwork? (Photo:
Merlijn Hoek CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

When is it that fieldwork finishes? Thanks to social media, the separation between being in the fieldsite and being in the library is becoming ever more blurred. This is true for anthropologists in general, not just those who study social media, because in many societies platforms like Facebook and WhatsApp have become an important channel of interaction during fieldwork.

In a way, I have carried my fieldsite in Brazil with me back to London. I mostly keep contact through regular exchange of messages with friends from the field. But there is one case that draws me back to the position of fieldworker.

It took me a long time and a lot of effort to be trusted in the village so that people were happy to show me the content that circulates through direct or group messages on WhatsApp. I was particularly happy when one adult woman, who appeared to understood the purpose our research project and resolved to help the research by forwarding the messages she received via WhatsApp to me.

These messages allowed me a glimpse into what this part of Brazilian society – the people now called “the new middle class” – is privately talking about. However, the subjects of the videos exchanged are often distressing. In short, there is a lot of amateur sex and violence (also the subject of this previous post); things that are often not fun to see and that can also carry legal consequences. For instance: the recording of students violently bullying someone is a proof of a crime. This is the kind of material that can land on my phone.

While I could easily tell this informant to stop sending me this content, as a researcher, I feel it would be a pity to close this channel because I am now – thanks to informants like her – in touch with this very private social world. However the constant communication from the fieldsite does pose challenges when it comes to writing-up.

Yesterday I was considering buying a second mobile, so I can leave this one at home and only check the new content every now and then. This way I would be able to distance myself and have more control over this flow of distracting (and occasionally) disturbing content. A new phone would also assure I would retain the many textual conversations and exchanges I had with informants during field work.

But this is just an idea and I am sharing this story here also hoping to hear what others think I should do about this situation. In case you do have something to say, please use the comment area below this blog post.

Many thanks!

Online relationships with strangers can be ‘purer’ than with offline friends

By Xin Yuan Wang, on 26 October 2015

“Internet dog” by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia.

As illustrated in the cartoon ‘On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog’, published by The New Yorker in 1993, the anonymity afforded by online communication raises interesting questions about authenticity and trust. I encountered such concerns at a media workshop where I talked about the high levels of anonymity on Chinese social media platform QQ. One member of the audience asked: “Don’t you think, in a highly mediated and anonymous environment, people are worried about the authenticity of communication?”

From what I can gather from my research, the answer is no.

To address her question I quoted a migrant factory worker called Feige who lived in the factory town where I conducted my fieldwork:

They [online friends] like you and talk with you because they really like you being you, not because you are rich so that they can borrow money from you, or you are powerful so that they can get a job from you. Here [online] everything is much purer, without power and money involved.

Feige is a member of many QQ groups and has his own fans who like to hear his opinions on everything. He sees entirely online friendships as ‘purer’ (chun) relationships, since they do not necessitate pragmatic concerns that often feature heavily in offline relationships. For Chinese migrant factory workers like Feige who are often frustrated by their position in society, social media provides new possibilities of sociality which are free from social hierarchy and social discrimination.

Curiously, strangers online also boast a preferable situation in some factory owners’ eyes. Billionaire factory owners in my field site sometimes avoided attending school reunions in fear of requests for financial help from their old classmates but some were happy to talk with online strangers on WeChat to release the stress which they believed could not be displayed to their subordinates and family members.

Ms. Cheng, a wealthy factory owner, told me:

I feel that nowadays society is very pragmatic. Sometimes I feel very confused and frustrated. Everyone says that the relationship between old classmates is the purest because there are no benefits or interests involved. But in my case, this was not true. After my middle school reunion I had at least six or seven phone calls from people who attended asking for money or other various kinds of help.

Ms. Cheng dared not attend any further school reunions after her unpleasant experience. However, she found a supportive community by joining a WeChat group where mothers share their experience of raising children. Here she could share her struggles of dealing with her two teenage children. This was a huge support which she felt she could not obtain from her family.

At home everybody is busy with the factory stuff…but there (WeChat mothers’ group) I am just a mother, not a factory owner. I show my weakness and get a lot of comfort…I don’t know exactly who they are, but I know they are all mothers like me who share the same problems.

Chinese migrant workers and factory owners probably lie at the two extremes of the wealth spectrum in the industrial China field site, however both appear to be similarly willing to befriend and communicate with strangers online. Here we can witness how relationships which are mediated by technology turn out to be the more ‘authentic’ compared to offline relationships which in many cases are highly mediated (or ‘polluted’ as people say) by factors such as wealth and social status. The cases from China provide us with a new perspective on online relationships. Here ‘anonymity’ by no means refers to the opposite of ‘authenticity’, just as ‘mediation’ by no means suggests less or more ‘authenticity’.

Normativity and social visibility

By Jolynna Sinanan, on 14 October 2015

image courtesy of sneugle, creative commons

It has been exactly a year since finishing 15 months of fieldwork in Trinidad. Stories for this blog have moved further and further away from cool stuff that was coming out of the field and living in Trinidad, to the far less exciting but far more intense process of endlessly thinking and rethinking the material and drafting and redrafting articles, book chapters, and books (yes, all plural) from three years of research.

So it’s kind of like experiencing the weather from the ground, how it looks and what it feels like, and then looking at the weather from the sky and how the movement of clouds influences what is happening below. This is what moving from the field to writing feels like, moving from experience and observation to the more abstract.

I have been drawing on my field work in Trinidad for, among other things, edited book chapters on different topics, from emotions and technology to social networks in small communities to social media and ethnography. What has been most striking about working on these condensed pieces of writing and stories from the field is the focus of on the everyday, what is normal in the places we lived and what people in those places take for granted. When we started this project in 2012, we didn’t want to look at isolated, spectacular social media events that seemed to be the thing at the moment, whether it was the Kony 2012 campaign or the Ice Bucket Challenge, although these sort of one off things did appear throughout the research. We were far more interested in normal social media practices and if something came up that everybody talked about, shared or commented on, we were able to contextualise it in everyday relations.

Yet, it is these types of spectacular social media events that attract the most attention. It’s like reading about media in media, which reminds me more of the anxieties of post-modernism and post-post-modernism of the 1990s, where social phenomena is likened to simulacra. From the comparative studies of nine societies (a lot of people) one of our key conclusions is that the use of social media can be generalised as being generally unspectacular. There is a previous blog post on how memes can be a visual means to reinforce social norms and morally acceptable behaviour. Humorous memes also provide a safe and popular way for people to express their views without coming across as too self-righteous or taking oneself too seriously.

Memes are just one example of visual posts, others that show food, outfits, places and events again show the everyday. The more exciting or idealised aspects of the everyday, but the everyday nonetheless. And when the idealised aspects of the everyday are shown, they usually conform to a shared sense of what living the good life means, around consumption and lifestyle, which is particularly important given that for several research participants, especially in the Brazilian, Chinese, Indian and Trinidadian field sites, upward mobility is a genuine aspiration. Again, not surprising that aspirations around lifestyle would be more obvious in the sites in countries that are commonly called ‘developing’ or in ‘the global south’.

The other half of posting (at least visual posts) around social norms is that the audience for these posts are one’s social peers and networks, social media simply makes these forms of expression more visible. Prior to social media, normativity and social visibility have had a long interrelationship and was explored with much more depth by thinkers such as Georg Simmel and more recently Agnes Heller. One of our findings summed up in once sentence is that people care what other people think and say about them, especially if they are from small towns where more people know each other and live alongside one another. There might be social media events that capture participants’ attention for a short time, but by and large, social media usage is, well, normal.