UCL Social Networking Sites & Social Science Research Project
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    Archive for January, 2013

    Who built the internet?

    By Juliano Andrade Spyer, on 31 January 2013

    Photo by quinn anya (Creative Commons)

    Photo by quinn anya (Creative Commons)

    A debate sparkled recently after president Barack Obama said the internet was the result of a government project. Analysts from mainstream media shared their perspectives suggesting that corporations, some intelligent people, everyone or indeed the government should claim responsibility for starting this communication revolution and the topic became a series of posts at the anthropological blog Savage Minds. But amid these conflicting views there is room left for at least one more position: that no one invented the internet.

    Yes, the US government paid for Arpanet, the “Eve” of computer networks, but it was not meant to be a communication device for people. As Kevin Kelly has argued earlier, nobody predicted the arrival of the internet and actually, he adds, until quite recently many people doubted that a form of entertainment based on typing would convince more than a handful of enthusiasts to give up TV.

    One of the ways of conceiving the internet is as a tool for group communication. Shirky* explains that networked computer communication combines the interactivity of telephones and the reach of television or radio to provide a solution for many people to interact with each other. And this particular element – the possibility of group conversations – was brought to Arpanet by chance as one of the computer engineers installed extra officially a program for email.

    The point is that, until then, this email-like program allowed people sharing the same computer to leave messages to one another (computers were quite expensive in the 1960s). As Arpanet connected various computers, this service opened unforeseen possibilities. Suddenly people living apart in different cities could communicate in an interesting fashion: not just it was possible to have more than two participants, they did not have to be simultaneously connected.

    As the story about the internet is reviewed, one particular bit seems to always be present: after the installation of this first email program, email quickly became the primary reason for people using the network. It is said that in less than two years, ¾ of the data circulating through connected computers consisted of this kind of text messages meant for humans to use. I feel that what makes this minimal bit of historic data relevant is that it portrays our own surprise with this new communication tool. In other words, what is surprising here is that Arpanet ostensibly belonged to the military, but was quietly re-purposed to serve a different function without anybody even knowing about it.

    This argument is similar but significantly different from Steven Johnson’s, who defended the internet as a product of a collective effort. The difference is that for him there is an intention attracting the multiple collaborators working together – as in projects like Linux – whereas through this new perspective, there wasn’t one or not the same kind of intention.

    So maybe the argument here is that the internet, in similarity to cities, languages and cultures, resulted not from our abity to gaze at the future and forge new scientific miracles, but rather from something everyone has and is very parochial and simple: our drive for social interaction.

    * Shirky, Clay. Here Comes Everybody: How change happens when people come together. Penguin, 2009.

    Elderly, ageing and social networking: a brief literature review

    By Tom McDonald, on 24 January 2013

    Photo by Ethan Prater (Creative Commons)

    One of the foci of our research project will be to assess the impact of social networking on elderly people and housebound individuals. Back in October of last year I spent a few days in the library undertaking a literature review on the theme to get an idea of what had been written so far.

    Most of the studies came from psychology. These investigations were almost all based in Europe or North America, and used questionnaires to try and understand the impact of internet use on people who were alone in their homes. Some studies suggested that computers and internet could decrease sense of isolation for homebound elderly and disabled persons, whilst others pointed to a relationship between social anxiety and a preference for online computer interaction. So the findings from these kind of studies, were perhaps not entirely conclusive.

    For anthropology, ageing represents a universal human phenomenon.  But at the same time, I agree with Lawrence Cohen that we should not just reify old age as an object of study. Even our titling of this research focus as ‘impact of social networking on elderly people and housebound individuals‘ is somewhat unfortunate, as it lumps together two groups of people that would not always identify with each other!

    Instead, I think that keeping an open mind on issues of ageing should be central to our ethnographic fieldwork. Ageing is a unique process which affects people in different cultures in vastly different ways, to the extent that some people in their seventies or eighties might not even identify as being ‘old’.

    And social networking will undoubtedly be bringing it’s own effects to the way ageing is understood and occurs in society. In an article by Laviolette and Hanson they record the effects of assistive technology devices that formed a telecare package were placed into the homes of older people with chronic heart failure living in north England. These devices were supposed to ‘monitor’ the older people’s activities (i.e. heart rate, moving around room, etc.) to enable them to remain at home instead of having to be admitted to a care home. Here too, being housebound was not necessarily a bad thing, and the participants of the study typically deeply feared the possibility that they might lose their home. However, whilst some participants appreciated that the monitors were reporting their health back to the hospital, for others they feared that the sensors would be used to gather evidence that would allow social care services to argue that the patients were unable to look after themselves in their own home.

    Our project will, of course, differ from all of the above. The data we gather will be through living with old people for 15 months in small towns of seven different countries. I will be fascinated to see how the findings of such in-depth, culturally diverse studies can contribute to our understanding of the way information technologies are shaping the lives of people in their older years.

    Why Facebook but not Twitter

    By Jolynna Sinanan, on 21 January 2013

    by Daniel Miller and Jolynna Sinanan

    Image courtesy of Beth Kanter, Creative Commons

    During the time we have been conducting joint fieldwork in Trinidad, we have been developing through conversations an argument that perhaps Facebook is the revenge of most of the world against the internet. This builds on arguments in Tales From Facebook that suggested that so far, instead of being the latest iteration of the internet following the same trajectory, Facebook actually reverses several trends as it re-socialises peoples networking, for example, it brings back into visibility the nature of ‘community’, where instead of sharing a nostalgic view, it reminds us that community is close knit, everyone is visible to everybody else, and everybody knows about everybody else (2012). Indeed, the problem with most studies of networking today is that they confuse two forms of networking, one of which is largely instrumental and focused upon the more effective modes of transmitting and obtaining information in this ever more diverse and complex world. This for example, is a key imperative to ‘bridge and build social capital’, to create ‘knowledge and ‘information networks’ in many development programs, where social networks are viewed as an untapped resource for creating information networks, indeed, instrumental networks (Craig and Porter, 2006, Li, 2007). This was and remains the main imperative behind the internet itself. Rainie and Wellman and Castells for example, speculate and argue for the avocation of a knowledge based society, where people are the nodes for transferring information (2012, 1996). The other is the traditional networking of social relations that actually turns people from what are generally regarded as these significant advances, favoured by the field of development studies, and instead re-orients them to the trivial everyday stuff of our social banter and exchanges. In short, it helps bring them back to the sort of worlds traditionally studied by anthropologists, but which are just seen as a kind of barrier to breaking through to the educational and informational future of development. So, not only should informational networks and social networks not be confused, which is a constant problem of networking studies, but they are often in contradiction to each other.

    In Tales from Facebook, the argument was that Trinidadians took to Facebook with alacrity because it finally allowed online activity to express traditional values that foregrounded social over informational content. Indeed, today, it is increasingly items such as political news or following latest styles that in Trinidad are being extracted from the wider internet and relocated within the more socialised environs of Facebook. But what then happens to Twitter, which superficially looks a bit like a social network such as Facebook but in another way, is its inverse? Twitter is among other things, a means to use social networks to effectively transmit and obtain information, which is why it is much closer to conventional journalism and older mass media. If that is the case, then what would Trinidad do with Twitter? The answer was not clear during out fieldwork in 2011-2012 since Twitter was new and Trinidadians will always adopt the latest thing (much of our current fieldwork is about WhatsApp). But by 2013 we have a clear answer. Trinidadians have almost entirely rejected Twitter. Our informants say they tried it for a while but then abandoned it. The story may be different for the more cosmopolitan population of the capital, but in our small town, Twitter is dead as a dodo. Yet Facebook continues to flourish and becomes ever more dominant. We believe that the reasons closely conform to the problems similar populations have with development projects. They resist attempts by top down initiatives that lead to more abstract, de-socialised agendas focused on efficiency and information. They use against these, the strength of contextualised social networking. Thus our initial statement, that perhaps Facebook is much of the world’s revenge again the internet.

    References

    Castells, Manuel, 1996, The Rise of the Network Society, The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture Vol. I. Blackwell, Oxford

    Craig, David and Porter, Doug, 2006, Development Beyond Neoliberalism? Governance, Poverty Reduction and Political Economy, London, Routledge

    Li, Tania Murray, 2007, The Will to Improve: Governmentality, Development and the Practice of Politics, Duke University Press, Durham and London

    Miller, Daniel, 2012, Tales from Facebook, Polity, Cambridge

    Rainie, Lee and Wellman, Barry, 2012, Networked: The New Social Operating System, MIT Press Cambridge, London

    Entrepreneurs and Social Media

    By Shriram Venkatraman, on 14 January 2013

    Photo by Camille Rose (Creative Commons)

    Online Social networking use by businesses is already quite well established. With newer avenues, business expansion and marketing ideas to a ready audience of other net-workers happens effortlessly, even for cash strapped small scale businesses. Entrepreneurs and social entrepreneurs are finding avenues to market and spread the word about their ventures, and create brand value at almost no cost by using social network or media websites. The social network, fan and follower base that these entrepreneurs end up building for their local businesses through globalised internet tools is inspiring.

    For example, a local kiosk chain in India, which serves wraps for people to eat was at some point of time known more from its Facebook page than through other means. In fact, the owner of this chain uses Facebook and other social networking sites as his main marketing and branding tool. A strategy adopted by such new food chain entrepreneurs with limited budget in India is to get a few well known newspapers or magazines carry an article about them in the Lifestyle section. They make sure to mention their brand’s Facebook or Twitter page in such articles and end up getting a considerable number of fans or followers online. How much of this converts to business is an aspect to consider, but, the mission of creating a brand value at almost no cost is accomplished.

    The use of social network as a knowledge network by entrepreneurs and social entrepreneurs is yet another area of interest. With existence of several interest groups and knowledge sharing groups or networks, it is well known that these social networks have gone on to help several of its members by bringing together strangers separated by physical distances onto a common platform. Entrepreneurs and Social Entrepreneurs have found this platform an extremely viable medium through which knowledge of business processes, technicalities, laws, organisation culture and so on can be shared extensively in a cost effective manner.

    An exemplary case of Polymedia: the advantages of looking at idioms of usage

    By Juliano Andrade Spyer, on 4 January 2013

    About a month ago I was on an overground train going home from visiting a friend when a teenage mother and her little daughter sitting in front of me caught my attention. Fastened to her pram, the baby girl unsuccessfully attempted to loosen the belts around her torso while repeatedly calling for her mom, trying to attract her attention.

    While the baby was moving and making noises, the mom was static; headphones on, her face was immersed in the exchanges she was carrying out through text messages. I couldn’t tell if she was ignoring the calls coming from the baby or was, in reality, sealed-off from the surrounding noises and visual information.

    In my memory, these dynamics – a baby fastened to a pushchair attempting to contact her motionless mother – lasted through several stations, but suddenly the mother broke from that trance-like state to carry a brief interaction with the person sitting next to her, who, until that point, was also barely moving, with headphones on and also exchanging text messages.

    They were friends and their trance-like state was temporarily suspended while the mother expressed her disappointment with one of the people she had been communicating with through text. She was annoyed that this other person accused her of ending a conversation with an ironic “fine”.

    Rapidly and while the friend sitting next to her was still paying attention, the young mother recorded a voice message to the other person demonstrating the correct tone that she supposedly meant, “- I said ‘fine’ [sweet voice] in a nice way and not ‘fine’ [bored voice] in an ironic way… asshole!” And as the girl friend next to her laugh, it became clear that this last word had not been recorded; it was just for her friend to hear.

    For the purpose of this blog post, the above exchange is relevant because it shows how the abundance of communication platforms – which constitutes a state of polymedia – favours the creation of idioms of use. Notice that the mom had many alternatives to follow up in that conversation: she could have simply texted back or called the person. Instead, she chose a new solution – a voice message transmitted similarly to a text message.

    The point of the notion of polymedia (Madianou and Miller 2012) is that it helps the researcher to reflect about communication strategies and also to formulate hypothesis about how certain social relations are being configured. A state of polymedia is produced when a person has at least half a dozen possible ways to convey a message (through mobile or computer), knows how to use them, and won’t pay more for choosing a certain solution given that the costs will be the same (since the broadband plan has a fixed monthly price).

    In this case, for instance, maybe the mom wanted to be seen by her friend as intelligent and a bit “wicked” (by displaying publically how she understood and controlled the channel of communication); and she achieved this goal while also providing a quick reply and avoided a possible confrontation that could happen through a phone call. This can be speculated based on the idiom of usage that she chose to apply.

    Reference:

    Madianou, M and Miller, D (2012) Migration and New Media. Routledge