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Archive for November, 2012

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.

Cigarettes and alcohol: towards healthier relationships through social networking?

By Tom McDonald, on 24 November 2012

Social drinking in a chinese karaoke (Photo: Tom McDonald)

It is 11:42 on a Tuesday night, in the height of Red Mountain Town summer, and I find myself standing in a darkened, noisy and stifling, private room four by ten feet in size. Running along one side of the room is a fitted sofa covered in vinyl padding that is supposed to imitate leather, and opposite it a flat screen television. In the space in between is a table, holding a semi-decimated feast of beer bottles, fruit platters, sesame seeds, and cigarette packets. In the corners of the room, above the television, hang two oversized speakers, blaring out distorted music. The room is walled with a smooth glittery surface, constructed from opaque, black-silvery backed tempered glass, set into which are metal purple and red fluorescent lights, and plain strips of metal detailing.

There are seven people in the room, mostly tubby men and women in their forties or fifties; respectable businessmen, engineers, nurses, and retired townsfolk. Their faces are entirely smeared in birthday cake, a bizarre combination of clotted cream, and light fluffy primrose-yellow sponge, as if they were characters straight out of a ‘Laurel and Hardy’ custard-pie fight gone awry. They are maladroitly dancing to the corrosive 2005 Euro-trance song ‘Axel F‘ by Crazy Frog, in an almost paraplegic conjunction of un-coordinated hand waving, and leg shuffling, whilst on the television, askew decade-old video footage shows young nubile bikini-clad Chinese women writhing, out of time with the music, on the stage of an anonymous crowd-filled nightclub in an unidentified Chinese city. In front of me, one portly woman, a divorcee, grabs her boyfriend, a scrawny forty year old moustachioed ferret-like man, and they break into a mini-waltz, which they manage to sustain for about thirty seconds before reverting to their discombobulated convulsive gyrations. One man breaks off from his bopping to stand by the light switch, eagerly turning it on and off repeatedly, plunging the room in and out of darkness in a disordered strobe effect.

A corpulent fellow, heavily exuding sweat, grabs me, throws his arm around my shoulder while thrusting a bottle of Kingway beer into my hand, “Bottoms up!” he bellows into my ear over the music, knocks back his head, and with concentrative purpose, glugs down the beer as if he were a baby suckling fervently on his mother’s teat. I do not want him to feel I am spurning his generosity, so I follow immediately, despite having long before lost track of how much I have had to drink tonight. The warm, additive-soaked beer gushes past my pharynx, and down my throat, as I put in a concerted deglutitive effort. I am out of practice, though, and find simultaneously breathing through my nose, while swallowing the drink and maintaining eye contact with the heavily perspiring man unexpectedly problematic. When I reach the point of asphyxiation I involuntarily gag, foamy carbonated beer erupts from my mouth and down my neck. No sooner than I have drawn the bottle away from my face, though, that another man, who I am unaware is standing behind me claws a handful of cake into his palm, and swings it towards my face, as if applying a chloroform-soaked towel to an unsuspecting kidnap victim, roughly smearing the syrupy mixture over my face, and ears, and most of my clothes.

I take a moment to remind myself where I am. ‘Heaven on Earth Karaoke parlour’ in Red Mountain Town. I wonder for a moment how on earth did it come to be, that out of all the places in the world, I should have ended up here? Then another, altogether more interesting question popped into my head: how on earth did it come to be, that ‘Heaven on Earth Karaoke parlour’ should have ended up to be like this?

The above fieldnotes were made as part of my PhD research into the structures of hospitality in a medium sized town in south-west China. The thesis examines the way in which everyday hosting activities, such those described in the karaoke parlour above, become significant by their adoption of certain material and behavioural structures of hospitality that are partly homologous to forms of hosting in popular religious life and traditional ways of receiving visitors into the home.

Central to many forms of hosting in Chinese society, especially between adult males, are alcohol (Chau, 2008:493) and cigarettes (Wank, 2000). My own friends in Red Mountain Town would often wax lyrical about what they perceived to be the country’s ‘alcohol culture’ (jiu wenhua 酒文化). This concern with using alcohol to comfort others extends to the afterlife: during the tomb sweeping festival my friends would leave a cup of liquor on their ancestors’ tombs for their deceased relatives to consume.

I, on the other hand, did not always see their hospitality in a wholly favourable light, doubtless because my own attitudes have been shaped by the far less positive national discourse surrounding alcohol and smoking that exist here in Britain. However, China too is starting to become aware of the problems that these specific forms of sociality bring. Commercial alcohol production in the country has increased from 0.4 kg beverage alcohol per person in 1952, to an estimated 42.5 kg per person by 2005 (Cochrane et al., 2003). Rates of diabetes and lung cancer in China are increasing at amongst the fastest speeds in the world, and I witnessed first hand the distress, heartbreak and loss that these diseases bought to families in the town.

Nevertheless, this problem seems to be a social one. Alcohol and cigarettes appear to be inseparable from the creation of friendships in China. Which is why social networking is of particular interest. On QQ, China’s most popular social networking service, it is possible to give one’s friends ‘virtual’  gifts of alcohol and cigarette lighters (amongst other things).

Gifting french red wine on QQ (Image © QQ)

This raises a question of whether China’s youth are increasingly tiring of some of the social behaviours of older generations. Are options to gift virtual versions of such objects ways in which they are seeking new forms of sociality, at once different from other generations, whilst still remaining identifiable with ‘traditional’ Chinese culture?

Of course, it is impossible to tell from this one piece of evidence, but given that our study of social networking will have an important welfare element, I hope that through the ethnographic encounter I will be able to find out in what ways social networking might be influencing these established means of relating to each other.

References
Chau, A. Y. (2008). The Sensorial Production of the Social. Ethnos, 73(4), 485-504.
Cochrane, J., Chen, H., Conigrave, K. M., & Hao, W. (2003). Alcohol use in China. Alcohol and Alcoholism, 38(6), 537-542.
Wank, D. L. (2000). Cigarettes and Domination in Chinese Business Networks: Institutional Change during the Market Transition. In D. S. Davis (Ed.), The consumer revolution in urban China (pp. 268-286). Berkeley; London: University of California Press.

Reflection on fieldwork perks

By Jolynna Sinanan, on 19 November 2012

Divali Diyas, photo by Jolynna Sinanan

And so I have left the rest of the team to start fieldwork after 8 weeks of debating, arguing, listening, learning and laughing. One of the joys of doing comparative work is that in the introductory phases of navigating the field, observing, counting and hanging around, I can still hear 8 people’s voices in my head (I suspect that this time next year it will be replaced by the 150 voices of my informants.)

One of the joys of doing ethnographic research on social networks is that you get invited to lots of social events. This week as in many other countries, Trinidad celebrated Divali – the Festival of Lights. As one of my colleagues on the project said a few weeks ago, ‘anthropology is the most romantic of disciplines’. That resonated with me this week, I was invited to a religious festival by a family, clean all week, cook all morning, eat lots of food, catch up and at sunset, light dozens of tiny diyas and scatter them around the garden.

Social events are also a wonderful source for conversations, everybody is in good spirits and wants to talk to you. It’s one of the situations where you are in a great position if you aren’t familiar with the significance of the event, you can get several interpretations and explanations in one setting. The more questions you ask, (clever or otherwise) the more people want to jump in and correct you or each other. Fieldwork in Trinidad at this time of year is littered with upcoming celebrations, we are now into pre-Christmas, Parang (‘indigenous’ Christmas music with a Spanish flavor) parties are snowballing, Soca songs for Carnival are beginning to be released, Mas Camps for making costumes and the pan yard for practicing steel drums are beginning to open. Not to mention the oodles of cooking and eating.

I am working, I swear.

Even a Prime Person who is not Odd can read this

By Shriram Venkatraman, on 12 November 2012

Photo: cogdogblog (Creative Commons)

Ok! This post is just a quick example on how a purely statistical Facebook Analysis might be of least value to a Social Science Researcher.

The following is numerical information produced based on the number of Facebook friends for a team of eight internet researchers (from information obtained on 11 November 2012).

  1. 87.5% had even number of friends
  2. While the minimum number of friends and the maximum number of friends are even numbers, the 81.25th percentile rank is an odd prime number.
  3. The Average number of friends and the median number of friends are Odd numbers. While the average is a prime number, the median is not.
  4. The sum of the total number of friends is 2939, which is again an odd prime number (goes with the simple Arithmetic rule that if you add an even number and an odd number then you end up with an odd number). But the chance of it being a prime number is impressive.
  5. When the odd prime number of friends was added to every other even number of friends to see if the sum would be an odd prime, it resulted that there was only a 25% possibility.
  6. None of the number of friends constitutes a Perfect Square
  7. None of the number of friends constitutes a Perfect Cube
  8. The sum of the difference between the closest perfect square to each of the person’s friends was an odd prime number.
  9. The Range is an even number and is not a perfect square.

Furthermore, the number of facts in this post is an Odd Perfect Square!!!

Digital Politics and the Media

By Shriram Venkatraman, on 12 November 2012

Photo: hjl (Creative Commons)

When talking about Digital Politics, the role of the media cannot be overemphasized. Whether it is as a platform for party/leader promotion or as a medium of social revolution, the press plays an important role as a conduit of information to all stakeholders. In the digital world, the role of the press has not diminished with the translation from offline to the virtual. Digital press takes a plethora of forms: news channel websites, e-newspapers, opinion blogs/columns, polls about current happenings, web TVs, to name but a few. These cater to different kinds of people – from the traditional newspaper addict to the eager web junkie; web novices to the technologically advanced, and so on. The big advantage of the web is the availability of a combination of different formats like audio, static visual, dynamic visuals etc. It is also easier for the press to reach out to their viewers and make the process more interactive. Thus, the digital medium is opening up exciting avenues for more robust news coverage and cutting edge journalism.

Here, it is important to note what the press can do and cannot do. The press can act as a medium to bring knowledge to the people about the happenings in the world. It can also be used as a medium for lay people to express their criticism, opinion, appreciation etc. for the happenings around them. Finally, it can be used as a medium to publicize a political party, its leaders etc. or to bring down a rival party and the latter’s leaders.

However, digital press (just like their offline avatars) cannot be news creators. While, they can amplify or negate the impact of a particular incident, their credibility lies in the fact that the event actually happened and is not a piece of someone’s imagination. Similarly, the press cannot be the solution to a particular problem. Whilst they can drum up an issue to make the relevant people take notice, they cannot offer solutions themselves. Finally, the press cannot do anything that impinges on the fundamental rights of the people (like promoting hate campaigns, clamping down on free speech etc.).

Algorithms and homogenization

By Elisabetta Costa, on 8 November 2012

 

The general goal of our project is to investigate on the social effects of Facebook in seven different countries. We want to understand how Facebook, as a global phenomenon, is locally appropriated in seven different small towns. It’s comparative research, so we are interested in finding out differences and similarities emerging from these places. The argument that Facebook is always an invention and creation of its users (Miller) does not imply that the social network does not have its own infrastructure or architecture that produces some sort of homogenization.

In the field of Internet studies some scholars aim to find out how technologies shape and constitute the everyday life of people through the understanding of algorithms and codes that constitute the way the technology works. This kind of research might be very intriguing. For example yesterday I posted something on my Facebook page. Apparently it was not so appealing to my Facebook friends and for this reason I did not receive any feedback. After almost thirty minutes I published a second post more provocative and (apparently) more attractive as in few minutes I received a lot of comments. At the same time Facebook kept visualizing the first post in my friends’ news feed section, the uninteresting one. I thought: “Facebook is so sweet! It doesn’t want me to think that nobody is interested in what I write. It tries to convince my friends to make some comments or at least say ‘I like’”

Facebook is built to prompt people to write comments and give feedback to their friends. If I post something Facebook will help me to receive comments. Facebook has been designed to build networks and create social relationships. The more we connect the more profits Facebook makes.

Facebook does lead people to act in certain ways and not in others. If algorithms and codes are the central mechanism of social network sites, it is surely very interesting to investigate on the intentions of computer scientists and designers. Technologies, material objects and digital platforms always embed the intentions of their producers. However Facebook is presumably appropriated in a way that wasn’t intended and expected by its designers. This has been the case of every artifact, material object and technology in the course of the history.

I am very thrilled in finding out about infrastructures and architectures, such as Facebook’s algorithms. But infrastructures are always used differently in different contests. For this reason I believe that being aware of the way the algorithms work does not give us much information about the social impact of Facebook. Rather a comparative research project about the use of social network sites can give us much more insights about the regularities and the cultural homogenization brought by Facebook in different social contests.

 

‘Big data’ or ‘Data with a soul’?

By Xin Yuan Wang, on 8 November 2012

Image: Thegreenfly (Creative Commons)

What is big data? In the digital era, the data produced by people on an everyday basis is myriad. There is always more data coming into being, and it is growing at an unimaginable rate. People believe that big data will lead to big impact, claiming that big data opens the door to a new approach to understanding people and helps to making decisions. At the 2012 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, big data was a theme topic and the report Big Data, Big Impact by the forum claimed that big data should be considered as a new class of economic asset, like currency or gold. People who are masters at harnessing the big data of the Web (online searches, posts and messages) with Internet advertising stand to make a big fortune.

I love data, so big data sounds brilliant! However I am not a ‘big fan’ of big data. Partly because, for me, big data sounds more like a marketing term rather than analytical tool; partly because, being trained as an anthropologist, I am very cautious about going too far out on a limb to make such assumptions. For me, it will be a great pity to see people who fancy formulating big data with brilliant statistics, however ignoring the little stories happen in daily life which have been taken for granted

For anthropology, to some extent story is the date with a soul, or contextualized data to be exact. There is always a danger that data without a context would be confusing and very misleading. For example, in my previous study on the appropriation of Facebook among Taiwanese students in the UK, one thing I discovered is that the Taiwanese use the function ‘like’ on Facebook much more frequently compared to UK Facebook users. For a Taiwanese who have 150-200 friends on Facebook, 20-50 ‘likes’ for each status or posting is very commonplace, and the average amount of ‘like’s’ which people give to others is 15-35 daily. Such considerable amount of ‘likes’, per se, could possibly lead me to making some superficial conclusions, for example, that Taiwanese are more predisposed to admire others online, so on and so forth. However, it was only after long-term participant-observation and several in-depth discussions with each of my informants, that I start to realize that both the Chinese normativity of proper social reaction (save face, reciprocity, renqing) and moral responsibility taken by individuals in the negotiation of real life communication practices shape the pattern of Taiwanese online performance.

 “For most of the time I ‘like’ people because I have nothing to say about their updates, but I want them to know that I care about them, I follow their lives.”

“Liking is polite, just like saying hello when you meet your friends. Nothing to do with the content which you like.”

“…I kind of think that, the more I like a certain person, the less I want to be really involved into his/her real life. ‘Like’ is easy and safe. You know you still need to give a face to people.”

Also, according to the principle of Chinese “Bao” (reciprocity), people who have been ‘liked’, will try to find all the means to pay off debts of the “Renqing” (favor) to others.

“I would expect ‘likes’ from others on Facebook, you know, which makes me more engaged with them and I will like their posts as often as I can. For those who like or leave comments on my profile, I will reply to them with careful preparation to show my sincerity.” as the other key informant said.

It’s so interesting to explore the ways in which “Being Chinese” and Facebook appropriation have been mutually constituted. Facebook is to some extent re-invented by the Taiwanese. If I just count how many ‘likes’ and analyze it without looking into the online content and offline context, I will miss the point no matter how big and sophisticated the data is.

So, the question is whether we are looking at ‘big data’ or ‘data with a soul’? Of course, these two are not necessarily mutually exclusive to each other, even though there are some things you can only do with Big Data or ethnographic data. The point is how can we take advantage of the best parts of the both and contribute to the understanding of our human society as a whole, which is also a big question mark for all the researchers in the digital age.

Daniel Miller: ‘Becoming Human’ lecture audio at IR13.0 conference

By Daniel Miller, on 1 November 2012

Audio from Daniel Miller’s paper on ‘Becoming Human’ at Internet Research 13.0 Technologies conference in Salford on 19 October 2012.