What does social media tell us about sociality in Grano?

By Razvan Nicolescu, on 15 February 2016


‘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.



“Free Basics” – does it really matter to the poor in Panchagrami?

By Shriram Venkatraman, on 27 December 2015

Image Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons: Facebook

Image Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons: Facebook

The launch of Facebook’s ‘Free Basics’, a rebranding of internet.org, has been a hot topic in India for the past few months as Facebook tries to grow its second largest user base (over 130 million), slightly more than a quarter of all the people who are online in India. By providing free internet through the Free Basics package, Facebook are aiming to get around 1 billion people online in a march towards digital equality. However, the service has been criticised as it will only promote select sites, thus compromising net neutrality.

This past week, Free Basics has been in the news again since the TRAI (Telecom Regulatory Authority of India), has asked Facebook’s Indian partner, Reliance Communications, to put the roll-out of Free Basics on hold until it reviews the service.

While Free Basics is designed for people who can’t afford an internet connection, does the delay actually matter to the poor in our Indian fieldsite, Panchagrami*? The issues surrounding Free Basics have made the news in India, however this post explores the topic from the perspective of the poor in Panchagrami and is not an argument either for Free Basics or for net neutrality.

A significant discovery to arise from our fieldwork across nine different fieldsites in eight countries was that digital equality does not necessarily mean offline social equality. Instead, we found that both influence each other and are complexly interwoven. So, while web companies may see technology or access to the internet as a panacea for all social evils, they unfortunately often don’t consider wider complexities or see how social issues like gender equality and illiteracy are actually integral to digital equality.

Taking into consideration discoveries from our fieldwork, here are five reasons why the launch of Free Basics might not matter to the poor in Panchagrami:

Illiteracy: On average, a poor household in Panchagrami might possess one, or a maximum of two, used non-smart (feature) phones, whose primary purpose is voice communication. This limited use of mobile technology is not only down to more advanced communication tools being inaccessible, but also due to the illiteracy of users. In our fieldwork we came across many cases where a text message had to be read by someone other than the phone’s owner (especially when the owner was a woman). Although literacy among younger generations seems to be on the rise (with people often staying in education until the 5th grade), literacy still needs to improve for people to be able to send text messages, let alone use the internet.

Women and PhonesCaste issues and strict social surveillance of young unmarried women often makes it difficult for them to access phones, let alone use the internet.  There is a prevalent social notion that access to phones might endanger a woman’s chastity. Unmarried young women with school education have the highest potential to access the internet of all the people in our fieldsite, but are cut off from tools to gain such access. Once married they may gain the right to own a phone, yet access to the internet might still be guarded by their in-laws.

News and SocialityAccess to news/information is quoted as an important features of the Free Basics scheme. However, for the poor in Panchagrami access to information and news are generally through a set of entirely different channels. While news pertaining to people’s everyday needs is often passed through word of mouth, access to news for men is often through the “corner tea shop culture” that has long existed in Tamil Nadu, where people meet to drink tea, read newspapers, and partake in informal debates about daily news. Listening to such debates forms an important learning culture for the illiterate poor men in Panchagrami. Further, people still do rely on Panchayat offices (local village council offices) to pass on policy news that affects them. Aural learning assumes more importance than textual learning for this group.

Entertainment: People in Panchagrami normally combat boredom by listening to songs from films and watching television (freely provided by the government). Film songs are typically bought cheaply from phone recharge booths by an individual and then shared with others. Since the latest and the best songs are bought and shared this way, people do not need to access the internet to enjoy their favoured forms of entertainment. Even if they did, the Free Basics package does not provide them with a site to download such songs.

Infrastructure: Reliance Communications is not a popular telecom provider in Panchagrami. Competitors such as Airtel, Aircel, and Vodafone occupy the biggest share of telecom services used by the poor in Panchagrami. Hence, offering the Free Basics package on Reliance won’t necessarily reach the poor, as they don’t use this provider.

In conclusion, the Free Basics scheme might have an affect on India’s telecom policies, but its intended benefits for the really poor warrant further study, since currently it does not seem to make a difference to their lives, at least for people in Panchagrami.

* Panchagrami is the pseudonym of a peri-urban site located just outside the limits of Chennai, Tamil Nadu, where the author spent fifteen months studying the impact of social media on the lives of people.

Social media, social distance, and inconsistency

By Razvan Nicolescu, on 22 January 2014

Photo by Razvan Nicolescu.

Photo by Razvan Nicolescu.

This post is about what people in the Italian fieldsite feel their peers should not do on social media.

Here is a fragment from an interview with a 18 year old student on an issue that was mentioned in different ways by most of the teenagers I talked to:

‘What I don’t like [about Facebook] is… these guys who pretend [on Facebook] they are completely different than how they really are [in realtà]. For example, there are some who [at school] don’t talk to anybody, they are all alone (…) and on Facebook they talk a lot, they talk a lot about themselves, how nice they are, they friend up with many people, they ‘Like’ so many things (…) and in reality they don’t even say ‘hello’… there is this girl, she just passes along without saying anything to you…’

These teenagers are not necessarily complaining about either of these two contrasting attitudes of the person, but rather the difference between the two attitudes. Most of the teenagers I talked to think that the most annoying issues they are exposed to on social media are related to a sort of inconsistency between online and offline presence. They seem to not mind if some of their peers are distant or not very social offline, and not even if some are ‘over-social’ and extremely creative online; rather, they sense an inadequacy whenever they see contrasting behaviours in each of the two worlds, that are not justified or explained somehow. At the same time, the attitude of some teenagers and young people to refuse joining any social media seems to be accepted and sometimes even appreciated.

To give this discussion more context, it is important to note that among teenagers and young people in the Italian fieldsite, Facebook is by far the most used social networking site and WhatsApp is by far the most used mobile app. The two platforms rather complete each other: young people think Facebook is a more resilient tool to present oneself and to communicate with a larger set of peers, while WhatsApp is thought as being appropriate for more transient communication within smaller and more intimate peer-groups such as family and close friends. Additionally, there are several other Internet sites and applications which provide these platforms with multimedia content, most notably YouTube and online photo editors such as PicMonkey, iPiccy, or piZap.

The quote above expresses the common thought that people should be true to their peers on social media, or at least not confuse them too much. But it is also true that teenagers expect confusion and excitement on social media. But they feel that this kind of confusion should come from people who also adopt these attitudes in the classroom or on the streets. Most of the users of social media explore the myriad of options available online and their own creativity in order to strengthen various parts of their personalities. Very often social media is not an extension, but an enabler, or a way of promoting the self that is considered acceptable in each particular community. This is the reason why, for example, when a couple breaks up the most violent manifestations are happening online rather than offline. By removing an ex-lover from the list of online friends and thoroughly reconsidering each of their mutual friends one has to objectify the split in ways that in the offline world are considered either unnecessary or ‘natural’. In another post I will write about the effort people put in translating the ‘natural’, and what this means, into the online environment. For now, my point is simply that while on one hand this process is admired in different ways, on the other, people who appear online in ways that seem to have no equivalent or justification in the offline word are highly sanctioned.

This also represents a critique to the sort of literature and public discourses that judge changes brought by social media in terms of fundamental shifts from a pre-existing cultural logic. This kind of discourse was repeated in different ways for the advent of mobile telephony, the Internet, web-based applications and services, and indeed for describing other similar ‘revolutions’ such as the invention of the printing press, modern public transportation, or television. At least from this ethnography it seems that people just do not fit too easy into this model.

Why we still need an Anthropology of Europe

By Daniel Miller, on 1 October 2013

(By Daniel Miller and Razvan Nicolescu)

Cake – Grano style

Cake – Grano style (Photo by Daniel Miller)

One of the advantages of visiting other field sites is exposure to the incredible contrasts between them. Although Italy and England are both part of the European Union there is almost nothing in common between our respective sites. Both Leeglade (our UK fieldsite) and Grano (our Italian fieldsite) are approximately 16,000 in population. But Leeglade is in every respect a village. There is just one small high street of basic shops. By contrast Grano is clearly a town with many different streets full of shops, probably hundreds of shops in total. There is no manufacturing in Leeglade, while artisanal work is common in Grano.

Most people in Grano live in extended families and own land. Indeed most people in Grano are self-sufficient in home grown olive oil. We have never met a landowner in Leeglade and almost everyone lives in nuclear families or on their own. Furthermore many people in Grano also own empty properties they envisage one day will be occupied by their children, this too is unknown in Leeglade.

Perhaps the biggest contrast is an economic activity and what the money is used for. The owners of most shops in Grano work in their own premises. Shops seem to exist more as places to establish the social position of the owner and an opportunity for them to socialise, rather than as a mechanism for the maximisation of profits. Indeed most things that go on here, including online activity, are really ways to facilitate offline social networking. Partly as a result most people’s incomes are considerably lower than those of the inhabitants of Leeglade. Although in Grano property prices are low, transport and food are cheap so one needs much less to live. By contrast, most of the clothing shops in Grano consist only of extremely expensive clothes, that one would have imagined as well beyond the means of the people who live there. In Leeglade property prices are very high and there are no clothing shops at all.

In Grano people will rarely spend money on a drink outside of the home, saving for items such as very expensive sunglasses and accessories. One reason is that in the summer especially the whole town socialises in the public squares. In Grano between 1 o’clock and 5 o’clock in the afternoon you can hear a pin drop. The shops are closed and no one is moving around the town. In Leeglade this is prime working time. In Grano people are very often invited to somebody else’s house for dinner. In Leeglade people spend a good deal on drinking and entertainment outside of the home, but it is very rare for them to have another person from the village invited to dinner inside the home.

Overall we would suggest that the degree of differences between the two sites are pretty much as they might have been a hundred or two hundred years ago. Some things were once in common but have disappeared. A 90 year-old in Leeglade recalls how, as a child, he saw men literally doff their cap when a carriage with local landowners passed by. The same might have been true in Grano. Today both sites are witnessing an increase in home-based IT work.  But in general a person from Grano would find almost everything about Leeglade astonishing and inexplicable. People in Leeglade would find Grano wonderful as a tourist destination but would have no idea how people live like that whole year. Though the view each has of the other has changed dramatically. Not so long ago people who were studying English were considered to be gaining an entry to a land of bowler hats and conformity, perhaps the most formal place in Europe. Today adverts in Grano for English classes portray England as the land of quirky individualism, the most informal place in Europe, in contrast to the strong social conformity of Grano.

One of the main reasons for insisting upon an ‘Anthropology of Europe’ is that when we experience these differences we also realise the importance of anthropology as a critique of other disciplines with their tendency to extrapolate into universals of human behaviour. The writings of economists and psychologists are likely to fit much more easily with the norms of Leeglade than of Grano, probably because so much of that academic writing takes place in places such as the UK and the US, amounting to a kind of academic imperialism of human norms. Indeed Razvan regards an important contribution of his work as a critique of assumptions in political economy.

We don’t want to make the same mistake in our understanding of social media. Having our nine sites means we are much less likely to privilege any one place as the basis for claims about cognitive or economic imperatives that pertain to overly abstract notions of ‘the Internet’ or even Facebook. Here we can see generalisations at the level of Europe are problematic, but as other blogposts have shown the differences between our two Chinese sites may be even more striking. Sometimes people think that anthropology is just being obtuse or ‘difficult’ because we eschew easy generalisation, and seem to be deliberately siting ourselves as flies in the academic ointments that are proffered to our understanding the world. But comparing our sites we would say quite the opposite. We do not choose to be difficult and relativist. We simply acknowledge the world as we know it to be, and refuse the dishonesty and blindness that wants to wish away these realities because they make academic life harder and make anthropology less popular than ‘science’. We will still strive for generality, theory and analysis, but we do not apologise for the fact that we are really going to struggle to achieve these things, because the integrity of our discipline says that this has to incorporate and not exile the diversity that simply is our contemporary world.