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Archive for the 'Social networking and low income groups and social welfare' Category

What’s the point of ethnographic fieldwork?

By Tom McDonald, on 28 August 2014

Learning from each other in the North China fieldsite (Photo: Tom McDonald)

Learning from each other in the North China fieldsite (Photo: Tom McDonald)

Being an anthropologist is one of the strangest jobs in the world.

For the last 15 months, I’ve been living in a small rural town in North China, where I have been doing ethnographic fieldwork on the impact of social media in the town. In a few days time I will say a final farewell to my friends here, and head back to London.

This is not the kind of job where you can clock-off and go home at 5pm. There are no weekends. Instead it’s a job that demands that we, as ethnographers, join our lives with the people that we study. This means living, eating, talking, playing, exercising, laughing, showering (yes… showering) and doing everything else together. By getting close to people in the fieldsite I hope that I can understand more than if I had solely relied on questionnaires or interviews (although I’ve done plenty of those too).

But these experiences also require something else: sometimes it’s necessary to give up a little bit of yourself to get closer to people who are different to you. Ethnography demands a kind of flexibility, an ability to accommodate those who differ from ourselves in order to try to understand why these differences exist in the first place. In the past 15 months I have often found myself doing things I would rather not do, eating things I’d rather not eat, and drinking things I’d rather not drink. However being able to set aside some of my own self-imposed limits, limits that make me the person that I am, is something that has definitely helped me to make friends here. Also, doing so has let me to explore other possibilities of being human that I never before knew were possible.

This character of accommodating difference has not been a one-way thing. The people of my fieldsite have been overwhelmingly generous in letting me into their lives, and eager to ask questions about my own life. Furthermore, during this time I’ve often made many social slip-ups that might have upset people, maybe said things I didn’t know people would take offence at, or perhaps asked questions that pry a little too much. Throughout, people have been incredibly understanding and patient with me as I slowly learn more about how they do things here. This spirit of mutual understanding has helped me learn so much about people’s lives and what is important to them here in rural China, and in the coming year I’ll share more of these findings. However for now I just want to concentrate on why we need ethnography.

Despite the many scientific and technological advances of the last century, it is obvious to me that we still live in a world that is largely governed by misunderstanding and fear. When we see people who are different from us, it scares us because their presence raises the possibility that our own way of doing things might not necessarily be the best, or even the correct way.

I firmly believe that if we are to hope to solve so many of the challenges facing today’s world, then our best chance is through mutual conversation, dialogue and learning. And although on one hand it may seem entirely superfluous to send a researcher to live in a rural town in China in order to study social media use, the question we need to ask ourselves should not be whether we can afford to do such ethnographic fieldwork, but rather whether we can afford not to?

This blog post is dedicated, with thanks, to the people of the North China fieldsite.

What does poverty look like on social media?

By Razvan Nicolescu, on 2 August 2014

Teenager from a low income family using Facebook (Photograph by Razvan Nicolescu)

Teenager from a low income family using Facebook (Photograph by Razvan Nicolescu)

This blog post is part of a much larger theme of the impact of social media on low income populations. This is most debated among social media theorists and activists and is also one of the research objectives of the Global Social Media Impact Study. I will give just a few insights on this issue from the Italian fieldsite.

First, we should keep in mind that low income is not necessarily related to poverty in Grano.  I will briefly explain why. Indeed, the unemployment figures for the local population seem to be close to recent ones for the southern Italy: that is unemployment of almost 22%, with unemployment among youth at 61%. However, relatively much less people believe they are poor. This is related to a rewarding combination of the following mechanisms: closer kin relations, which also imply efficient redistribution of material goods and possessions within the nuclear family; alternative sources of income, such as from subsistence agriculture; and the possibility to dramatically reduce the costs of living with no direct impact on social status. I will not detail these here, but I’ll give a typical example: let’s take a family of a middle-aged couple with two children where only one parent is employed on a part-time basis. The family could either own their house or live in the same house with their own parents; the grandmother is cooking for the entire family and at least one other parent or sibling can contribute fresh vegetables from their campagna (a small house and agricultural lot outside the city) or produce their own olive oil for the entire year. The costs for education and healthcare could be decreased and the family can afford to send their children on a weekly basis to private courses of English Language or football. Such a family would normally not consider themselves poor and will always point to other people who have a lower standard of life than their own.

In this post I will refer to people from this latter category, who normally agree they have outstanding economic difficulties. It is this group of people for whom at least one of the first two mechanisms described above does not exist or does not function for different reasons. Regarding the use of social media, the first thing that blatantly differentiates them from other people in the town is the cost of technology. Most people living in difficult economic conditions simply cannot afford to pay for an Internet connection (which is at least 20 EURO/month), a cheap second-hand laptop (around 60-80 EURO), and do not have any interest in acquiring a Smartphone. Instead, just a few of them use free Internet services offered by the public library or the local employment office.

Then, it is interesting how this situation changes for the couples with children and especially when the children turn 12-13 years old. It is this period when parents start to realise they have to buy their children a Smartphone and allow them to be present on Facebook with the majority of their school colleagues. Moreover, most of the parents encourage their children to use social media as they see this as an imperative alignment with their peers. It is then when one of the parents – usually the mother – might start to also use Facebook.

I could not see any major difference in the use of social media among teenagers coming from different economic backgrounds. However, for parents who normally have a much more limited set of peers, social classes seem to have daunting barriers in the online environment. In this context, for the families living in difficult economic conditions adults’ online presence never takes-off and is definitely much more restricted than for other people in the same age group.

It is interesting that young adults (e.g. early 20-year olds) coming from impoverished backgrounds continue to use social media in a way that aims to level off the social differences within their peers. At the same time, this offers their younger siblings and families more convincing grounds to cover up these differences when it is their turn. In this context, what does poverty on social media look like? The short answer is that poverty is portrayed in most cases as a more or less distant and ‘third-party’ issue in which the implication of the self is vaguely hinted at: poverty in different parts of the world, poverty in Italy, poverty as driven by politicians or egotistic economic systems. It is interesting to think why most of these postings and comments do not belong to people who are actually under difficult economic conditions.

It is also interesting to think about the absence of talking about and showing one’s own poverty online. Among teenagers and young people to reveal in any way how poor they actually are is perceived as seriously affecting their prospects to venture up the social scale and out of poverty.

Note on the above photo: Giorgia is a 16 years old girl, she lives with her parents and her five brothers in a modest council house in the centre of Grano. Nobody in her family has a stable job and they depend on weekly help from the church. She is friends on Facebook with both her parents and her three older brothers. None of them ever suggested on Facebook they were poor; their close friends just know that and they see no reason why they would bring this up online.

Teens are obsessed about spell checking thanks to Facebook

By Juliano Andrade Spyer, on 2 July 2014

Photo by Juliano Spyer

Photo by Juliano Spyer

Schoolteachers and staff in Baldoíno have a common perspective about the impact of social media on education. For them, Facebook and similar services are bad because they make students even less interested in what happens during classes. The argument tends to be that the Internet in general is a good thing, but young people avoid the “good internet” to devote a lot of time to socialization. The typical example of the “good internet” here is Google because it’s where one can learn things. Google fits into the image of a sort of oracle of knowledge that fits well with the idea of what a teacher is while Facebook is the playground and the understanding is that children have nothing good to teach each other.

If you ask a staff member of a school to give an example of the consequences of using the “bad side of the internet”, they may talk about how poorly students are writing because of the lingo they use to communicate through social networking sites. They say that kids are now happy to misspell words because they all like to type in this way. But this is actually very far from what the evidence from fieldwork shows. I am confident to claim that, at least here in my field site, Facebook has made spelling-checks an obsession among younger users and they are constantly improving their writing skills for that reason.

Here is a bit of my own pre-theorizing about the way things work here in terms of social mobility. Displaying economic progress is an important part of life, hence the effort made to show off this progress through actions such as buying branded clothes or a being a strong speaker through which the neighbors can evaluate the technical quality of your investment in education. Teenagers appear to have been given a central role in this arena: they are the main embodiments of display for family wealth and that may be a heavy burden to bear. These kids are intensely comparing what they have to what others around them have to look for signs of  a“lack of conditions”. And a serious indicator of poor economic means shows itself through writing.

I have systematically asked teens about different topics related to technology and almost all of them are highly concerned about not misspelling words on Facebook’s public areas. Some have newer phones that have spellcheckers and these are sought after technologies. Others with less powerful smartphones get into the habit of using Google to check the words they are not sure about. And as a consequence they all claim that their writing skills have improved as they fell more confident about writing.

I like this example because it shows how an assumption about the effects of the Internet may be wrong and yet remain as the truth, at least to a certain group. The perspective of school staff reveals less about what happens in terms of learning and possibly more about another important topic related to the internet here: how it has deepened the generation gap. We are talking about parents that are functionally illiterate in terms of reading, but also in terms of operating a computer. So young people have the whole World Wide Web to live their lives away from the sight of adults.

The aesthetics of the field

By Nell Haynes, on 19 June 2014

Photo by Nell Haynes

Photo by Nell Haynes

Sometimes, leaving “the field” and returning can be incredibly productive. Sometimes it is because it gives you time to think and plan, while in a different mindset. Other times, it is because the return throws differences into stark relief with the life one leads in other places.

Both have been true for me in the last three days. After spending a month at University College London with my colleagues, I have a much better grasp on where this project is going, where my part fits in, and how it relates to the other eight fieldsites involved.

What is even more impressionable is the sense of aesthetics that I immediately notice upon returning to Northern Chile. And as someone who has always been fond of art, architecture, fashion, interior design, and other forms of visual expression I notice that my surroundings here actually affect the way I feel, present myself, and act in daily life. The nine of us on the project collectively wrote a blog on “Real methods in anthropology” wherein we describe the ways we are a bit like chameleons, and do certain things to more closely fit in as we live in our fieldsites. While this may appear as “inauthentic” to some people, we know that the self in everyday life is always a performance (see Goffman 1959), and that people are always a different version of themselves in different contexts. Yet, returning to Alto Hospicio has reminded me just how different this self is from the selves I perform in Chicago, Washington DC, La Paz, and London.

Being away has also helped me to pinpoint what it is about this place that makes me so different, and perhaps fortunately, I think what I’ve realized has quite extensive impacts for my research as well. Put simply, the aesthetics of Alto Hospicio are incredibly different from those in the other cities where I like to spend time.

At first glance, I think to myself ‘This place has no sense of aesthetics.’ Instagram photos present uninspired subjects in mundane settings without much attention to the filters or other enhancements available in the application. Facebook posts—both photos and text—appear to lack curation (as explained by Erin Taylor). One person’s clothing style is indistinguishable from the next (at least to my eyes). Houses each equally resemble lego blocks. And even the city’s parks and plazas do very little to offer natural refuges from city life.

But to say that there are no aesthetics here is obviously this is not true. Plenty of people tell me that they have personal styles and tastes. Houses are often painted bright colors on the outside and decorated with plenty of artificial flowers on the inside. The new municipal building in the city is architecturally pleasing. Cars are clearly modified with exterior lights, and decals. Clothing ranges from black tshirts displaying heavy metal band names to sunny beach attire. These are styles, not just reflections of function.

So the challenge is first, to find a way of describing this form of aesthetics without implicitly privileging the forms of aesthetics I have delighted in my whole life—those that are middle class, cosmopolitan, North Atlantic, etc. And second, to find what are the underlying currents that define these forms of aesthetics that are present in Northern Chile.

Further Reading

Goffman, Erving.  (1959)  The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Garden City: Doubleday.

Taylor, Erin.  (2014)  The Curation of the Self in the Age of the Internet. Paper presented at IUAES / JASCA Conference, Tokyo, Japan. Available at http://erinbtaylor.com/the-curation-of-the-self-in-the-age-of-the-internet/

School fights, moral judgments and racial commentary

By Jolynna Sinanan, on 22 April 2014

front page headline from Trinidad and Tobago's 'Newsday', 19.03.2014

front page headline from Trinidad and Tobago’s ‘Newsday’, 19.03.2014

(note: this blog post contains language around racial categorisation that may be offensive when taken out of context)

In the last month, the circulation of two videos of school yard fights on social media have become the subject of attention by the national news media. The first video, captured on a phone outside a prestigious school in the capital city, Port of Spain, shows a group of girls outside the school yard in a confrontation, which escalates into a fight between two girls, kicking, pulling hair and shoving each other to the ground. The crowd of girls cheers them on, and a passing off-duty policeman tries to break up the fight. Some of the crowd turn on him and yell at him for trying to break up the fight. The second is another group of girls in a high school in the rural town of Toco inside a classroom, one springs off a table onto a girl who has been swearing at her and they struggle on the ground.

Fights between school children are nothing new. They occur in all sectors of society, between boys or girls, between private and public school students alike. The reaction to the fights across the country reflected normative concerns around good versus bad parenting and the decline in morals for kids today. Yet, the stakes are much higher for what these judgement calls imply in Trinidadian society.

The legacy of colonialism is not far away in the consciousness of Trinidadians. From the formation of the society of indentured East Indians and ex-enslaved Africans, there has always been benign (and in periods such as the Black Power movement) overt antagonism between Indo- and Afro-Trinidadians. Yet, the country has also been an exemplary one for the potential of a pluralistic, genuinely cosmopolitan and ethnically mixed society to exist cohesively and peacefully. It is quite common for families to be made up of Afro- and Indo- Trinidadians of Hindu, Muslim and various Christian beliefs. Race and class in Trinidad is an extremely complex topic, way beyond the scope of a brief blog post. There is a well-established argument that despite the appearance of antagonism based on race, the real conflict in Trinidad is based on class (Yelvington, 2010, Meighoo, 2003, Singh, 1994,  )

The concern that arises from the circulation of videos such as these resonates with an argument that Daniel Miller and myself raised in Webcam. To summarise, video footage as evidence has a fruitful contradiction. On the one hand, the visible evidence that we see as real-time captured footage on a phone attests to the truth of the event and on the other hand, the truth that appears on film has more potential to be fabricated and false- especially when taken out of context. The hazard of the rapid circulation of such videos is the moral discourse that is generated by the ‘truth’ of what appears in the videos. If taken as evidence, comments such as these, which appeared on Facebook confirm that girls who are in school yard fights are undisputedly certain sorts of girls.

“These little black children!”

“I don’t apologise for my words, but damn shameful disgraceful old n***a behaviour”

“typical poor black ppl children … not an indian child there … child mudda (mother) with bout 6 chilren for bout 5 different man and one child she eh (isn’t) sure who is d fadda (the father) is … black people need to wake d f*** up before its too late”

And the comments go on, each with at least three ‘likes’. But this is Facebook and the people who leave comments have their names (or pseudonyms) and profile picture clearly visible. A quick scan through the commentators’ profiles where few have tight security settings shows that all of the commentators who comment on race are themselves Afro-Trinidadians.

This brief observation speaks to a well-discussed themes in critical race studies, of internalised racism and institutionalised racism. Face-to-face, when racial observations are brought up in everyday conversations, they are more peppered with humour and are generally good-natured, even if they reflect more harmful racial stereotyping. Yet, comments on Facebook redrew the boundaries of what is said and accepted in public. Offline, none of the conversations around the incidents contained the severity of condemnation of the online comments. Symbolic interactionalism based on racial categorisation has a long history in Trinidad and the visibility provided by the affordances of Facebook adds another dimension to deeply messy areas of race and class.

Bibliography:

Yelvington, K. (2010). Producing power: Ethnicity, gender, and class in a Caribbean workplace. Temple University Press.

Meighoo, K. P. (2003). Politics in a’half made society’: Trinidad and Tobago, 1925-2001. Kingston: Ian Randle Publishers.

Singh, K. (1994). Race and class struggles in a colonial state: Trinidad 1917-1945 (p. 226). Calgary: University of Calgary Press.

Visibly invisible: you can always see me

By Xin Yuan Wang, on 24 March 2014

The Little Prince is probably the novel which I have read the most times. Each time I read it, I am warmly touched. Amid field work, I am reading it again. My favorite part is the conversation between the fox and the little prince, when the fox tells the little prince that meaning of ‘to tame’ is to ‘establish ties’.

“Just that,” said the fox. “To me, you are still nothing more than a little boy who is just like a hundred thousand other little boys. And I have no need of you. And you, on your part, have no need of me. To you, I am nothing more than a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes. But if you tame me, then we shall need each other. To me, you will be unique in all the world. To you, I shall be unique in all the world…”

“My life is very monotonous,” the fox said. “I hunt chickens; men hunt me. All the chickens are just alike, and all the men are just alike. And, in consequence, I am a little bored. But if you tame me, it will be as if the sun came to shine on my life. I shall know the sound of a step that will be different from all the others. Other steps send me hurrying back underneath the ground. Yours will call me, like music, out of my burrow. And then look: you see the grain-fields down yonder? I do not eat bread. Wheat is of no use to me. The wheat fields have nothing to say to me. And that is sad. But you have hair that is the color of gold. Think how wonderful that will be when you have tamed me! The grain, which is also golden, will bring me back the thought of you. And I shall love to listen to the wind in the wheat…”

I have to quote the whole lot what the fox said,  not only because it is beautifully written, but also it reminders me of a recent talk between myself and  my informant LX about QQ (social media) permission settings.

LX is a sweet factory girl who is 19-year-old. One day she complained that I was always ‘invisible’ (my QQ status) online, which is true. My QQ default setting is ‘invisible’ which means I can get QQ messages but my QQ contacts don’t know I am online when I log in. To be ‘invisible’ means I won’t be disturbed by other online contacts and it has become an accepted/applied strategy among my informants who have hundreds of QQ contacts to log in as ‘invisible’.

There are six online status of QQ (see the screenshot below): I am online; Q me (chat with me); Away; Busy; Do not disturb; and Invisible.  For most people (90%) as long as they are online, the status is either ‘online’, or ‘invisible’, or ‘away’ with auto-response. The reason for being ‘invisible’ varies– the main reason is that people do not want to be disturbed or get involved in a conversation, however still want to view others’ Qzone (online profiles) and don’t want to miss any important message. ‘Do not disturb’ as a status is rarely used since people think that is rude.

QQ status

I thought there were only six alternatives one can choose until LX taught me that actually there were some other ‘hidden’ options in the advanced permission setting. Right click any QQ contact’s avatar, on the pop-up select box (see screenshot below) there are a few options which enact different operations upon the certain contact, for instance: send instant message, send an Email (QQ offers email service which is the dominant email service my informant used), view chat log (one can check the local chat log, which is the chats that occurred on the current digital device or roaming chat log, which refers to all the chats under the same account occurring on different digital devices), put this contact on top of the contact list, edit the name (QQ names, in most cases, are not real names, as I mentioned in my previous report. As a result users will usually note the real-name if they know it), group the contact, delete the contact, report the contact (for online  harassment), create a desktop shortcut, enter his/her Qzone, check his/her Tencent weibo (twitter-like service QQ offers) etc. and permission setting (see the screen shot below, blue highlighted). In the permission setting, there is one option that says “yin shen dui qi ke jian” (make visible to him/her in invisible status) which means the selected contact can always ‘see’ you even when you are in ‘invisible’ status.

QQ advanced permission setting

I felt honored to realize that I am the second person who can ‘see’ LX when she is ‘invisible’ to others on QQ (the first one is her boyfriend).

It is like you can always see me, and I am always there waiting for you, you know, very close and exclusive.

LX further explained the significance of ‘visible invisibility’. In return, I set her as the first contact that can ‘see’ me when I am ‘invisible’, which made her very happy. Such mutual advanced permission setting reinforced our relationship.

‘To see’ is different from ‘to look.’ The latter happens all the time, however in many cases does not necessarily lead to the former. A senior manager of a local factory told me that the logic of assembly line is that humankind is a part of the machine. I asked him whether he personally knew any of the factory workers. Rather than answer ‘no’, he told me “it’s not necessary”. True, he only needs to know the machine. I am probably the first one (the weird one) who visited the factory workshop and paid more attention to the workers rather than the product, the building, and the machine.

“All the rural migrants are just alike” as some of my local informants put it. In this small town, in factory workshops, monotonousness on a daily basis is the grand narrative, eclipsing individuality.  Most of the time, my rural migrant friends are ‘invisible’ to most people, even though they certainly did not ‘set’ themselves as ‘invisible’.  Unfortunately unlike on QQ, the default ‘social’ setting of ‘invisible’ cannot easily be changed in their offline life. To live against such daily ‘invisibility’, LX’s skillful usage of QQ allows herself some ‘privileged’ visibility, and in consequence,  an ordinary factory girl who is just like a hundred thousand other rural-to-urban migrant girls shall be unique in all the world, at least in the ‘virtual world’ created by social media.

Facebook for children?

By Elisabetta Costa, on 14 March 2014

Photo by Elisabetta Costa

Youth taking photos at a wedding in the Turkey fieldsite (Photo by Elisabetta Costa)

In common with many of our other fieldsites, here in south-east Turkey the sentiment is that Facebook is also not as ‘cool’ as it was before among teenagers. However, as Amber explained in her blog post, the increasing use of other social networking sites does not necessarily mean that Facebook is used less than before. This is a trend in common with findings in our fieldsites in other countries, as UK and Brazil, but the reasons of the change are specific to each field-site. Here people aged between 16 and 19 are telling me that Facebook is not so cool anymore because it is used more and more by younger children. According to the data emerging from my in-depth interviews Facebook is used by a large majority of students (age 6-10) in primary schools to play games and chat with school friends. And it’s used by almost every student (age 11-13) in middle schools. Also in the streets of the town it’s very common to see groups of  primary school aged children talking about Facebook, and playing games on Facebook using the smartphone of some older brother or cousin. Adults and parents often describe Facebook as a tool more appropriate to children than adults. And assumptions about Facebook as a media appropriate to play games, to have fun, and not to discuss serious topics or to read news are very common here.

Then, the massive diffusion of Facebook among children is also explained by a positive attitude towards technology in the generation of parents in their twenties and thirties, an attitude that is completely absent among parents in their forties and above. The latter, especially women, are rarely users of social media. Mothers of teenagers are usually ‘digitally illiterate’ housewives with a  low level of education. While parents in their twenties and thirties are more educated, they are users of internet and digital media and they do have a more positive attitude towards new technologies. The significant generational gap between the generation of parents in their twenties and thirties, and those in their forties reflects the big economic boom and  massive growth of public education experienced by Turkey in the last ten and fifteen years. The evidence emerging from my ethnography is confirmed also by some simple quantitative data: according to data from the Turkish Statistical Institute in the province where my fieldsite is situated, the number of women with a university degree in the age of 30-34 is six times higher (1933) than those in the age of 40-44 (337).

It seems that increased wealth and  familiarity with digital technology causes young parents to support the use of social media by their kids. Not only this: the use of smartphone and computers by children play an important role in the affirmation of middle-class status of their family. In this growing consuming economy, the presence of digital technologies in the family plays a very important role within the new hierarchy of taste, in the sense given by Bourdieu (1984).

Thus, in front of the increasing usage of Facebook by children, teen-agers are starting to explore new social media platforms such as WhatsApp and Twitter that are seen as more stylish and trendy, and are used mainly by a narrower group of peer-friends. But Facebook still remains the favourite media to have access to a wider audience, to achieve more popularity, to play games and to communicate with strangers.

Glamorizing social mobility through market research

By Juliano Andrade Spyer, on 28 February 2014

Photo by Juliano Spyer.

Nike cap, international sports shirt, colorful shades, and softdrinks – all items teens use to display financial progress. Photo by Juliano Spyer.

Fantástico, a popular Sunday TV news programme in Brazil, had two long pieces related to social mobility this past week. One was about teens learning to install braces themselves as they became a fashionable item. The other is about slums and how, in contrast to the common (external) view, residents now feel happy about living there (both links conduct to pages in Portuguese).

The first story is not framed as something related to social mobility (I will suggest the relation further ahead), but simply as another weirdness that became cool among teens and that can have serious consequences to one’s health. The other story is grounded in market research conducted with over two thousand people by Data Popular, a research institute specializing in investigating what has been called Brazil’s “new middle class”.

A distorted view

It is a good thing to see national news pieces such as the one linked above that question the social stigmas related to living in favelas. At the same time, I found the research to be problematic in the sense that instead of engaging with the usually complex and paradoxical social realities, it shows only positive aspects as a way of promoting this new consumer segment.

The data analysis reinterprets the idea of progress, bringing individualization and breaking social bonds. As an informant explains during the report, outside the slum, life is not just unsafe but also boring. Alternatively, in slums families progressed economically but retained the dense sociality and the networks of cooperation that existed before.

A more nuanced view

I have been living in a working class villa for the past 11 months; I wouldn’t call it a slum although it resembles one in many aspects including the aesthetics of the urbanization.

So signs of prosperity do appear all around but this prosperity is strictly combined with a great sense of competition. Part of consuming is only a way of showing off ones financial conditions. So buying a large TV is not necessarily a choice related to the desire to have that item, but also a form of informing the others about one’s economic progress.

Nobody wants to be seen as the lower part of the social latter; it is as if one’s reputation now corresponds to his or her ability to have and display wealth. If a neighbor buys a certain item, the others around may use all means possible to get the same thing, even if that results in spending the money she or he does not have.

The illusions of progress

This sort of competition does not necessarily make people work harder. In some cases, it has the opposite effect as individuals and families spend a lot of energy partying – because expensive loud speakers and the burning smell of barbecues are efficient ways of displaying one’s means.

But this competition brings even more serious consequences. The poorer families are being more violently confronted with their lack of conditions, and it is the youth from those families that show greater propensity to choose drug dealing as a way of acquiring respect and money.

Using braces, then, is yet another symbol of economic improvement as teenagers have become a sort of showcase for the family’s progress. Similarly, not having to work is equal to not having the obligation of helping in the household. But these changes are affecting the structures of families and society.

Junk food, branded clothes, and quick money

Using braces is as much a health problem as, for instance, the desire to consume highly industrialized goods such as chips and sugar drinks. Either one has the means to purchase junk food or it means their family are “struggling”.

Another problem is that most teenagers on my field site seem to look at schools as only a social arena; a sort of extension of their Facebook friend’s list. It is the place to display one’s means through wearing fashionable items. As an education coordinator told me recently, the poorest ones feel almost obliged to wear the most expensive brands.

Studying is not really something they see as being valuable. Having a diploma is maybe necessary, but learning is not clearly perceived as an advantage. Almost all my informants at this age group said they would much rather have a motorcycle – to show off and make quick money – than to have a professional degree.

So, yes, there is something significant happening in Brazil related to social and economic mobility. A large number of those that previously lived outside of the formal economy are now intensely involved in consuming. The problem is using statistics and research methodologies to simply support a claim that ultimately serves as a sales pitch and does not necessarily improve people’s lives.

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?

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