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Why do Young Men from Lower Socio-Economic Classes prefer Shopping Online?

By Shriram Venkatraman, on 3 July 2015

Shopping1

Photo by Shriram Venkatraman

 

Most of us on social media have noticed the static advertisements that are displayed on the side panels or the advertisements that intrude upon the videos we watch on Youtube. While some choose to ignore them some view them as an irritating factor that impinges on their personal space/time, and while some see them as distracting to say the least, for others they may be informative. The views are as myriad as the advertisements themselves, and are relative to the social context of the viewer.

However, this post is not about the different kinds of advertisements that get displayed on social media, nor is it about any kind of advertising strategy. My aim is simply to illustrate a finding, namely how advertisements on social media can transform the norms of consumption and shopping for the lower socio-economic classes in some societies by acting as a gateway to online shopping.

Let’s explore the case of how advertisements on Facebook have driven young men from the lower socio- economic classes in Panchagrami, South India, to explore the world of online shopping, and thus escape from subtle discrimination and embarrassment they sometimes face in shopping malls.

The young men of lower socio-economic classes in my field site have a fascination with online shopping. Though, most of them are school dropouts, one investment in particular that appeals to them is a smart phone with a 3G data pack. Access to Facebook or WhatsApp isn’t too far for these youth, as this becomes a natural extension of a 3G connection.

Other than socializing on Facebook, another significant aspect of their activity on Facebook is clicking on the different advertisements, specifically those which display colourful clothes, shoes or hi-tech phones. While at the beginning most did not know how to buy from these e-shopping sites, they didn’t have to look far to find informal tutors to advise them. Most of these tutors were educated IT employees who hailed from the same area and were childhood friends of theirs.

While it may seem as though their shopping on these portals is just a natural extension of them being on the internet or on social media, this turn to online shopping has much deeper facets that require attention.

Why Online Shopping?

While most online shopping still requires plastic money (credit/debit card), the Indian e-shopping portals offer a cash payment model known as ‘cash on delivery’ which perfectly fits the cash economy that dominates this demographic. They don’t have credit cards and some don’t even have a bank account. This model lets them choose and buy products online, then pay in cash only when they receive the products at their doorstep. This service gives them access to things from t-shirts to trousers to slippers etc. through these portals, without the hassle of owning a credit card.

Using e-shopping portals gives them an opportunity to experience better service and feel important. This was of particular importance because of the way they were treated by salesmen in malls who would look down at them when they asked too many questions, or if they asked for choices before they had made a selection. They also felt that, because of their skin colour, salesmen assumed that they could use their power and expertise to force products that they would never have chosen.

They very often said that they felt helpless and like fools when they walked out of a store. They also often felt too intimidated and embarrassed to visit upscale showrooms, and often felt out of place. The salesmen often just assumed that they weren’t worth his or her time because they didn’t see them as a potential sale. So, when they would ask questions, the salesman would obfuscate rather than waste their time.

However, this didn’t happen on e-shopping portals. It patiently showcased anything they wanted or even aspired for. Even though they had enough cash, a salesman always got irritated with them, but e-shopping portals didn’t.

Further, anything you asked for came to your doorstep rather than having to go out looking for it. In addition to convenience, this service has allowed them to showcase their power and status in ways that they previously could not.

The availability of cheaper products on these portals also allows them to consume products specifically intending to give them as gifts to their kins. This gift giving through buying things online automatically builds status among their social circles as well.

However, when it came to buying electronics, like smart phones, they preferred a showroom environment so that they could feel the phone before investing in it. They still used the e-shopping portals to compare models, before going to a showroom. Let’s suppose they want a Sony or HTC phone, first they go to the e-shopping portal and compare the visual features, then ask their IT friends to help them with the features, then they compare prices and look for other models and the associated visuals and features, then, finally, go to Youtube to watch videos of how the phone works. They go back to evaluate the number of stars (gold stars) the phone has received on the e-shopping portal. Finally, they decide on the model they want and go to a showroom in Chennai to get the phone.

Given that they are now equipped with knowledge regarding their intended product for purchase, they are more confident when it comes to shopping in mall showrooms and don’t feel intimidated with either the ambience or the salesmen. They often felt that they knew more than the salesmen after this process of acquiring knowledge about the phone through social media.

In other words the collective social knowledge that social media offers, transforms their shopping experience itself, from just being a passive buyer to an assertive consumer, who wouldn’t be put down so easily.

Such experiences have led them to click on more advertisements, as they realize that it was these advertisements that actually offered them a window to a new shopping experience.

Resurrecting and Remixing for Youtube Fame

By Nell Haynes, on 5 May 2014

Photo by Nell Haynes

Photo by Nell Haynes

The latest music craze here in Northern Chile is actually a song from 1993. Italian band Corona’s Rhythm of the Night has been stuck in the collective brain of young Chileans for the last two weeks. Though reading the song title or artist’s name might not immediately ring a bell for blog readers, the song reached number 11 on the US Billboard chart and number 2 on the UK singles chart for 18 weeks in the early 1990s. The song is admittedly catchy (to refresh your memory: the original music video on youtube ). But the circumstances of it’s recent popularity in Chile are both coincidental and very much due to a convergence of typically Chilean sociality and the ways social media functions in relation to Polymedia.

During the first week of April, a young man called into a radio station in the Dominican Republic and requested a song. In a classic misinterpretation of lyrics, he asked for a song with the lyrics “Esas son Reebok o son Nike” [Are those Reebok or Nike]. After a bit of back and forth discussion between the announcer and the caller, the disc jockey Brea realized he was referring to The Rhythm of the Night (though usually pronounced Nī-kē in English, most Spanish speakers pronounce the athletic brand Nīk), and happily played the song as he laughed at the misunderstanding.

Luckily some enterprising radio listener in the Dominican Republic was recording the interaction, and it quickly landed on Youtube. The “original” posting of the sound clip, accompanied by static graphic of Reebok and Nike logos, includes an explanation that the user received the sound file via Whatsapp and was so humored by it “I had to publish it” (hear the video). Hundreds of parody videos quickly appeared. From there it was picked up by Chilean radio stations, who began playing the sound clip along with the full version of the song. Chileans then did their own Youtube searches, which were quickly passed on through two popular Tumblr-like blog sites that generally publish links and photos pertaining to sex, drugs, drunkenness, humor, or some combination of the four. Among my over 100 Facebook friends in northern Chile, none published a link to the Youtube videos or sound files that circulated. Yet more subtle references popped up, such as the comment on a profile picture in which a pair of shoes is visible: “Esas son Reebok o son Nike?”

I didn’t understand these comments, and did not even notice them until April 10th, when I was invited to a cookout. As we waited for chorizo to heat on the grill, my friend Miguel asked if I had heard “Son Reebok o Son Nike.” Having no idea what he was talking about, a conversation equally as awkward as that between the radio announcer and caller ensued. But shortly, with his Samsung Galaxy phone in hand, Miguel played the radio clip for me. For the rest of the night, everyone was humming the tune. I found it the next day on Youtube and discovered it had almost 4 million views (compared to the original song’s less than 380,000 views). By the next weekend, when I went with some friends to a nightclub in Iquique, the entire dance floor erupted in screams of pleasure when the original song was played late in the night.

Clearly, this story illustrates the ways different forms of media, both online and offline, interact, and in fact depend upon one another to spread. The phenomenon started on the “traditional” media of radio, spread through personal Whatsapp message, was transferred to social broadcasting site Youtube, further spread through blog sites and word of mouth, and found it’s apex on a club dance floor. Rather than being eclipsed by Youtube or other online-based music platforms like Spotify or Soundcloud, music on the radio provides one way in which online music gains a hold. Users of Facebook and Youtube now take the place of radio disc jockeys in deciding what becomes popular. The content is both user-filtered and user-distributed. Yet, in taking on this role, comes the responsibility of being aware, and making others aware as well. If you don’t know why the song’s being played in the club on Saturday night, someone will be happy to tell you, and perhaps even show you the video, but not without a bit of social shame.

At the same time, there is something very Chilean about the importance of recognizing the song. Part of what’s being performed with screams of delight is not simply expressing that the song is good for dancing, but a performance of knowing why it is being played. A performance of being sufficiently socially connected, whether face to face (as I learned of the lyric misinterpretation) or via social networking, to sing along with “Son Reebok o son Nike” instead of “It’s the rhythm of the night.” Chances are, the song’s popularity will not last 18 weeks this time, but the song has found new exposure not only because it’s catchy, but because there is a story—and a funny one at that—that accompanies it.

 

Illiteracy and social media: a picture is worth a thousand words

By Shriram Venkatraman, on 17 January 2014

Photo by Frits Ahlefeldt-Laurvig – HikingArtist.com (Creative Commons)

Photo by Frits Ahlefeldt-Laurvig – HikingArtist.com (Creative Commons)

When I first came to the field site in India, Panchagrami, I had a lot of questions about access to social media and its use by lower socio-economic groups. Particularly, cost of access, literacy rate, social control, and a host of other varied but significant factors I hoped to study in detail. However, literacy and its impact on the use of social media became a recurring thought. Does social media require a textual language and/or a script for communication?  Were there people with very poor educational backgrounds or early school dropouts who could not read/write, and in some cases, read only in Tamil (this does not imply that they can type or write in Tamil) on Social Media, and if yes, what was their preferred media? Also, what do they do there and how do they access it? All of these questions were put to rest by what I saw in the last couple of months in my field site. I came across at least four users of social media (YouTube and Facebook specifically), who had no formal education and in a couple of cases did not know how to even read/write and could be termed as illiterates in general sense. Yet they communicated on Facebook, they “Liked” and “Shared”, but did not “Comment”. What came as a surprise was that they were on Facebook and YouTube every single day and even renewed their pre-paid internet connection on time. Their frequency of Facebook usage even stumped some of the other literate users. Though they did not know how to read texts, they viewed everything as pictures and symbols. So, access to YouTube/Facebook and the activities they performed within it (including Liking and Sharing) were guided by a visual/pictorial understanding of it rather than a textual understanding.

Key navigational symbols used by illiterate social media users in Indian fieldsite (Images: YouTube/Facebook)

Key navigational symbols used by illiterate social media users in Indian fieldsite (Images: YouTube/Facebook)

Their access to these platforms was through an understanding of pictures, where YouTube and Facebook are represented by their logos. Further, their mediation inside these platforms was also through pictures and not through texts. Similarly, their contribution in these sites took the form of clicking on a picture that has a “Thumbs Up” sign which means “Like”. Similar is the case with “Share” for forwards/sharing pictures/video clips that have been shared by someone else, where they clicked on a button at the end of the three button section with a sign. In a way, they become forwarding agents and not producers of content. However, with the access to Smart Phones and the features that smart phones offer, some actually assume the role of content creators. A classic case is that of Nathan.

Nathan, 26 years, is a bachelor and works as a mineral water supplier. He dropped out of school after his kindergarten due to family issues and economic troubles that these issues created. His network of friends from his neighbourhood included dropouts like him, high school (12th grade) graduates and college graduates. His friends often referred to Nathan as having an inferiority complex specifically with respect to his illiteracy. Though friendly, his demeanour showed that he was a bit reserved and shy. Getting him to even talk was tough to start with, but slowly he opened up about his understanding and use of social media. Until about a year ago he had no phone, not even a simple feature phone. A few of his friends, who had started using smart phones talked him into buying a Samsung Galaxy smart phone with the help of their economic contribution. They introduced him to internet access through smart phones and as a cinema buff, his first brush with the internet was YouTube. He started watching movies and clips (specifically songs and comedies from Tamil movies) by clicking on the links that his friends sent him. He has never searched for anything on YouTube. His friends taught him on how to access his messages, so that he can click on the YouTube links that they sent him through messages. He had the YouTube app installed on his smart phone and accesses it regularly. Now, he understands that the YouTube logo represents YouTube and clicks on it when he wants to browse through it. He looks at the still picture that gets displayed for each video and clicks on it, as YouTube and other such sites recommend videos based on the user generated information such as geographical location, history of videos viewed etc. So, given this set of clips recommended for him to watch, Nathan feels comfortable clicking on new videos and especially if he sees his favourite South Indian cinema stars featured on it. He normally asks his friends to use his phone to watch videos of their favourite songs and films, so that Youtube recommends videos automatically and he doesn’t need to search for anything. However, as YouTube does not require him to contribute anything, he is a passive but a faithful and continuous user of YouTube.

After YouTube, he was introduced to Facebook almost four months ago. His friends helped him create a Facebook account and he exactly followed what his friends had taught him about accessing Facebook and learnt through observation. His illiteracy means he doesn’t understand the text on Facebook, but he understands the pictures and symbols. So, once the Facebook app was downloaded, his friends made sure that he was always signed into Facebook and he makes sure to recharge his pre-paid internet connection so that he doesn’t get logged out of Facebook. Currently, his normal exercise of accessing Facebook and activities on Facebook can be split into two types: one when he is alone and the other when he is with his friends. His independent access to Facebook takes the following form of activities:

Step 1: Click on Facebook logo.

Step 2: He swipes vertically through the screen to browse posts.

Step 3: If he sees a picture and likes the picture then he clicks on the ‘thumbs up’ sign.

Step 4: If he wants to share that picture with his network then he clicks on the forward arrow and once again clicks on the last picture on top of the screen and does not type anything. This is also how he shares video clips over Facebook.

He limits his activities on Facebook to the four listed above when he is alone. However, his activities increase when in a group. He allows his friends to access Facebook and YouTube from his phone. He identifies people through their profile pictures and his friends help him friend others from his neighbourhood (by searching) whom he knows offline. Often his friends will read out what they see on others’ profiles and Nathan will orally comment on it; but he never has his friends write comments on others’ profiles, since every friend on Facebook is from his neighbourhood and knows he can’t read or write. Once he shares a picture/video, he asks his friends to ‘Like It’ or comment on it and to let him know their comment over voice, which normally happens face to face. He is now learning how to upload clips/pictures and soon will have a few pictures that he has taken on his smart phone uploaded to his profile on Facebook.

His friends have added and subscribed him to a few Facebook groups that have its members posting video clips of Tamil movie comedies, so that he can have more access to such videos and need not wait for his friends to send him links. Similarly, they subscribed him to a group which posts pictures of pets, so he would be able to access these pictures directly on his profile and need not search for them.

Expert manoeuvring of such maze-like online platforms with pictures as road signs is still possible for people with illiteracy issues like Nathan: after all isn’t a Picture worth a thousand words?

New-Age Spiritual Gurus and Social Media

By Shriram Venkatraman, on 13 February 2013

It is not rare to see the social media presence of new-age spiritual Gurus in India. They have a steady following on several social networking sites. From Facebook fan pages and groups to Twitter to Youtube channels, you name it and they have it!

Transcendent and immanent omnipresence, a spiritual nature of the soul in Indian philosophy, now finds itself rightly expressed through social media. With such high intense publicity, it seems like several such Gurus are driven by an incessant need to achieve the dream of several beauty pageant participants – namely ‘world peace’.

Though there is nothing wrong in the branding that they wish to achieve in order to either bring in more followers or maintain their supportes – in other words an e-spiritual capital (or call it the i-spiritual capital, or prefix any other vowel that denotes the digital medium) that they build through their social media presence – it doesn’t take long to figure out the conversion of this e/i-Spiritual capital to an economic capital on the digital arena.  Most of their presence on social media are followed by links to their websites which more or less advertises the Guru and does an awesome spiritual marketing, pitching in their e-shops and souvenir items that was until recently only traded in US dollars.

Rituals on the Facebook pages range from chanting (typing) the Guru’s name every morning, noon and night to expressing how an ideal life should be led on this earth. The pages cater to mostly the devotees and followers who are not residents in India. The digital medium is thus used to build memories of the Guru across space and time. Some of the best personal branding social media presence run by volunteers is that of these new-age spiritual Gurus. No wonder that they now advise CEOs and corporate entities on how to run businesses!

Will beauty gurus survive Google+?

By Juliano Andrade Spyer, on 29 November 2012

Have you ever heard of YouTube beauty gurus? Chances are that if you are a woman and like makeup, you have seen videos online showing how to do all sorts of ‘looks’. The producers of these videos call themselves beauty gurus.

They form an informal group, which means that there are not boundaries separating them and other YouTube content producers. A guru exists because other gurus acknowledge her videos and this acknowledgment happens through channel subscribing.

Channel subscription is a way gurus come to know who is who among the many that dedicate hours every week creating these video tutorials. The number of subscribers shows if a guru has a higher or lower reputation. Reputation is a way gurus demonstrate admiration for those who know more than them. Through this process, if a person likes a certain channel, she can find others by looking at that channels’ subscribers.

I conducted a little fieldwork on YouTube studying beauty gurus fifteen months ago and at that time (spring-summer of 2011) I saw my informants’ channels acquiring dozens or hundreds of subscribers every month. This week I visited some of these same channels and, to my surprise, their subscription base has barely changed.

I reckon the main cause for this is the recent arrival of Google+. YouTube, which is part of Google, operated until 2011 as a social networking site; that’s what allowed gurus to navigate through each other’s contacts as we do on Facebook. This element has been extracted from the service possibly to promote Google+, the company’s latest attempt to fight Facebook’s hegemony in the business of social networking sites.

Google is right in wanting to add social elements to its popular services, but as Google+ is struggling to reach a larger audience, the company may be unintentionally killing that that it is pursuing: a rich and vibrant group of users. At least on YouTube.