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Working class teens switching Facebook for Whatsapp in Brazilian field site

By Juliano Andrade Spyer, on 9 January 2014

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Photo by Juliano Spyer.

As I have written earlier here, Facebook is a very important part of being young in Baldoíno. If it took a while for everyone here to respond to the street mobilizations that happened nationally during June and July, the (fake) news about the government closing down the internet and consequently Facebook made people here want to protest – more here. Being on “Face”, as Brazilians warmly call the service, is part of what makes someone a person others would want to talk to in my field site. But there has been an almost silent revolution towards the adoption of Whatsapp and informants are spending less time and paying less attention to what happens on Facebook.

The critical reason for the change doesn’t seem to be what is making UK teens migrate to other services, as Miller pointed out. Among my working class informants, Whatsapp is more useful because it works better on their mobile phones, and the mobile phone tends to be more important for them than the PC. The PC usually belongs to the family so it has to be shared, while the mobile phone is something that is one person’s exclusive possession. It is not just that mobiles are more affordable and can be carried everywhere; they materialize a possibility of having private interactions in a social context that doesn’t allow this to happen very often. Even at home people are constantly being monitored by their neighbors. And the mobile enables stealth conversations among people.

As I started conducting field work nine months ago, very few people talked about Whatsapp or had it installed on their phones. Now Whatsapp is perhaps the main reason my informants have for choosing a new mobile. They are willing to pay more for equipment that enables them to use this service. If a few months ago a good phone for them should have a camera and a memory card for music, it now should also have Android OS as it is perceived as the best platform to have Whatsapp running.

The advantage of Whatsapp is that it runs better on their not very powerful smart phones and unstable internet connections. Using Facebook for chatting through mobiles normally is a painful process involving having patience for the program to open and having to deal with misunderstanding as the user could be seen as being online but not all messages would arrive immediately. Whatsapp loads quicker and delivers the results expected in terms of promoting the exchanges of direct messages. And further than that, the service was understood as a sort of Bluetooth solution where people didn’t have to be near each other to exchange files. And exchanging files – music, video clips, voice clips, and photos – is something my informants love doing.

At first, as I saw Whatsapp becoming the new cool thing, I felt it would be bad for the research. Facebook is mostly used for private communication here, but, because it does more than that, users would chat and then participate on public or semi-public events that I could follow. Whatsapp does not have a timeline for people to post things to anyone interested. Through Whatsapp you are either talking to one person or to a specific group. But to my surprise, I am now feeling that Whatsapp offers a great advantage for anthropologists conducting long term research.

During this kind of deep engagement with informants, we are able to build trust relationships so I learned I could ask my informants to show me the kinds of conversations they have through Whatsapp. Because Whatsapp is not public, people feel more at ease to “be themselves”, which, among other things, means talking about things and sharing things they wouldn’t if they knew others were looking.

I will briefly give examples based on the two conversations I had so far with informants about this subject.

1)    Business / work – Using Facebook at work is not usually appreciated by employers, but they now are having ambiguous feeling about Whatsapp as it is being applied inside companies as an efficient tool to communicate with clients and also with work colleagues. At a hotel resort, for instance,  every cleaner can now be immediately contacted without carrying a walkie-talkie.

2)    Bizarre humor and sex – a lot of what is exchanged are short clips with different sorts of bizarre images. I could mention, as an example, a man having sex with a goat while singing a popular country song about wanting the girlfriend to follow the guy to town where he is going for work. If there is a pattern about this –as far as I can see – it is that many of such files make reference to the life of working migrants.

3)    Entrepreneurship – users use the service to help each other in terms of solving problems. A person could promote the ice cream produced by a friend or forward the image of a furniture a friend wants to build to a trusted professional.

4)    Maintaining a virtual presence – a person had a small surgery on her mouth and shared the image of her face with a close friend to hear her opinion on how she looked; alternatively the person can be at the store, photograph a certain item and ask the opinion of peers before purchasing it.

5) Exchange local information - Baldoíno does not have a newspaper or a local radio station and yet people are mostly up-to-date about things happening through gossiping networks. Whatsapp became part of this process as it allows the exchange of images such as that of a murdered person or of the difficult work conditions for employees at an important sports event. The photo makes the gossip more trustworthy and real.

As one of my informants said, after Whatsapp, she now rarely uses Facebook. She has both apps on her mobile and as she rides the bus home after work and school, she first checks the new messages shared on Whatsapp. If there is nothing new she then sees who is online on Whatsapp that she could talk to. In the exceptional case that no one is on and there are no new exchanges, she then opens Facebook to see what is going on over there.

Photo 1: Sent to my informant by a friend after having a tooth surgery to see how she looked.IMG-20131109-WA0020a

PHOTO 2: Some friends my informant wanted to buy ice cream and she told them through WhatsApp she had another friend that makes great ice cream. They exchanged quite a few photos, which included the menu with flavours and prices. This image shows the larger size of her friend’s ice cream in comparison to those found in supermarkets.IMG-20131109-WA0016