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How much hate is there on Facebook?

By Razvan Nicolescu, on 2 March 2015

One of the 10 best memes of 2013 according to wired.com

One of the 10 best memes of 2013 according to wired.com

This blog post was inspired by one question Sonia Livingstone asked the Global Social Media Impact Study team after our joint presentation at SOAS. The question was addressing the relation between emotions and social media and in particular to what extent we agree with the stereotypical image that sees social media as the default display for negative comments and interventions.

In the first part of my answer, I was arguing that seldom ‘the negative’ is already in the gaze of many observers of social media. Sometimes, negative news, heated discourses, and reports of intolerance are so poignant and invite to instantly share that they gain a kind of momentum that clearly stands apart from any other type of information. Then, everyday online conversations could allude to the ‘theme of the day’ as it were.

But, after 15 month of fieldwork in southeast Italy I cannot really say that ‘the negative’ dominates social media. By contrary, if we take a look at the Facebook pages of people in Grano in any given day and apply some simple statistics, we will see that most of the times the negative comments represent less than 10% of the total number of comments, while sometimes they are negligible, hatred is virtually absent! Instead, people really prefer irony and wittiness to express their various disappointments and discontents on a daily basis.

This points to the issue that in what regards news, social media behaves quite similar to a classical broadcast medium such as TV; the main differences rest in its real-time, broadness, and reproductive nature, as well as in the possibilities of (usually) horizontal interaction using the same environment. But then, most people prefer to use social media to engage with the mundane, the personal. In this context, most accusations of social media as being shallow and negative come from the fact that both the public and the private are conflated in the same platform. As I showed elsewhere, in southeast Italy most people have solved this tense situation by finding alternative spaces where they could really be private: such as mobile messaging and WhatsApp.

This points to the second part of my response, which is about the different layers of intimacy people in Grano actually construct by means of social media. I have discussed this elsewhere, but, we can just think of somebody who uses mostly text messages to communicate with her fidanzato, phone calls with her parents, WhatsApp with her best friends, and share Facebook statuses and comments to everybody else. These different layers of intimacy suppose different sets of emotions that could be better expressed by different media. The mechanism by which people use different media to objectify the particular kinds of relations they have or want has been described in the theory of Polymedia.

Therefore, I suggest that most of the stereotypical allegations around social media are informed by a stereotypical understanding of media as a homogenous and consistent environment with well-defined purposes. And it is also true that most people I worked with see Facebook as imposed from the exterior, by some higher social and economic forces, and maybe this is why most of them do not see any problem if someday it will simply disappear.

My WhatsApp field trip

By Daniel Miller, on 14 February 2013

Trinidadian woman using mobile phone at a carnival (Photo by Daniel Miller)

Trinidadian woman using mobile phone at a carnival (Photo by Daniel Miller)

One of the advantages of working in Trinidad is that somehow it always manages to feel ahead of the game when it comes to the adoption of new communications. It thereby gives us some ideas about where these will go but also how far this is likely to be a universal shift or something more specific to this island. My recent research trip to Trinidad seemed to be defined as the ‘What’s App’ trip. When I left England I had the feeling that WhatsApp was something that was about to happen, people were just hearing about it and wondering if it could be useful or important. Within a week in Trinidad it was obvious that there was a very different situation here. Most young people seemed to have WhatsApp, assumed that most others would have it, and treated it a though it had always been here as an established presence within polymedia. There is every likelihood that this will become an established global phenomenon, but as so often happens, I found myself entranced by the very specific ways it fitted neatly into a quite specific Trinidadian niche. But this is worth highlighting since this tension between comparative generalisation and local specificity will be at the heart of our next five years venture with our eight simultaneous and comparative ethnographies.

The local particularities pertains to the established position of Blackberry. BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) – the platform’s internal messaging system has dominated Trinidadian communications for quite some years. The forthcoming book on Webcam (written with Jolynna Sinanan) includes an analysis of BBM and why it works so well in Trinidad. Amongst the other key points is that with BBM you know a) if the person has read your message b) if they are on their phones, i.e. could have picked up the message and yet for some reason didn’t, or could have replied and didn’t. This means that you can infer something immediately about the nature of your relationship which has not been the case with, for example, with Facebook (until very recently). There are also opportunities for group discussion, and the nature of the quick-fire response suits certain kinds of banter and ‘sexting’.

For most Trinidadians, What App is simply an extension of BBM into non-Blackberry phones. Those with Blackberry assume their first choice of communication is BBM and then if their friend has another smartphone What App and sometimes Facebook messaging is mentioned as a third choice. BBM/Whats App have certain properties of social networking. They allow for constant status updates and various levels of groups or options to message all of one’s BBM contacts. But there is a further dimension. In my writing about Trinidad I discuss a tension between egalitarian transience which seems to fit BBM, and status-conscious transcendence. Trinidadians who can afford it are very interested in the status of iPhones and Samsung Galaxy. So a key attraction of WhatApp is that it resolves this tension. They can have a higher status phone while retaining the sociality represented by BBM and WhatsApp. Whether this is all about the special nature of sociality in Trinidad or a trait that merely reflects the speed of Trinidadian adoption is something that will have to wait until we see what is happening in all the other countries. The difference that this project makes is usually one just ends with that sort of question. In our case we will get an answer.