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Archive for the 'Social networking and Parent-child relationships' Category

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.

Digital photo albums in south-east Turkey

By Elisabetta Costa, on 10 July 2014

Photo by Elisabetta Costa

Photo by Elisabetta Costa

Anytime I become close to a family after having visited them at least a couple of times, my new friends usually show me their family photo albums. So far this has happened in every house I’ve been to. After talking, eating and drinking tea together, they ask me if I want to have a look at their family pictures. Then they usually bring me one, two or more boxes containing different albums and many scattered photos. I’ve seen many pictures taken from the ‘60 until recently. These boxes usually contain both formal photos taken during weddings and then edited in the studio, and more informal pictures from daily life. Showing family photo albums and family photos to guests is a very common practice here in Mardin. It’s a way to communicate to new friends what the family looks like, and to highlight to me (a new friend) who the family members are and were in the past.

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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.

Filmmaking and photography in anthropological research

By Tom McDonald, on 12 June 2014

Baby in fieldsite using Kiki Wang's camera (Photo: Tom McDonald)

Child in north China fieldsite explores Kiki Wang’s camera (Photo: Tom McDonald)

As part of the project’s ambitious plans for telling people about the findings of our research, I’m fortunate to have been able to collaborate with the incredibly talented and creative Gillian Bolsover and Kiki Wang who have just finished a short visit to the north China fieldsite, in order to produce a series of photographs and films with the aim of bringing the ethnography to life for people all around the world.

It’s been a particularly intensive week of work for us all, as I have been taking both of them around many places in the fieldsite, trying to introduce them to as many of my friends here as possible and to help them to capture as many different aspects of life in the town and villages as we can.

But I’ve found the exercise to be useful in another sense; it has forced me to reflect on the key relationships and friendships that I have made with people in the town during the past year of fieldwork. These people have been both great and wonderfully understanding about participating in our photos and films. I had assumed that they would be reticent about the process, but often they have been really positive about appearing in the films and see it as a chance to tell people around the world about their hometown and their lives. Traditional anthropological papers and books have always attempted to tell the stories of ‘faraway others’, but it is a shame that so few people tend to read ethnography. I hope that through these photos and videos I can bring the lives of the people in our fieldsite who have been so generous in participating in this project to more people and in different formats.

Having two fresh pairs of eyes in my fieldsite has also helped in other ways. Speaking with Gillian and Kiki over the past week and hearing their opinions on my fieldsite has made me reconsider aspects of my own ethnography and many times they have asked my research participants questions that I had never thought of.

It will take some time for the final results to be ready; however, what I have seen so far suggests they will be a success in every way. The entire experience of working with photographers and filmmakers has confirmed my belief in the value of collaborative anthropological research projects, which draw on the skills of people from all kinds of backgrounds. Before last week I was hesitant about conducting research that involved taking photos and making films, but now I honestly can’t imagine doing research without it.

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.

The ideal of education and social networking sites

By Razvan Nicolescu, on 26 February 2014

Schoolroom - Photo by Gerry Balding (Creative Commons)

Schoolroom – Photo by Gerry Balding (Creative Commons)

I have spend quite a while now looking at the impact of social media on the education system in the Italian fieldsite. This blog post will present a few ideas related to the place of education in the local society and some implications for social media.

People in this area conceive education as being the duty of two major institutions: the family and the public education system. While the family is responsible with the moral aspects of education, the different public education services seem to have more functional roles for the individual and the family. Maybe the most important role is considered to be the capacity of public education system to help people attain the desired jobs and social positions.

In a report on education I wrote for the GSMIS I discussed how this works differently at three levels: at the first level we have the hard nucleus of family, represented in many ways through the distinct couple mother-children. At this level, I suggested that public education could be seen as a commodity even if for different reasons that could range from the need to reify the mother-children unity and assure particular relationships within household for more traditional families to a necessary milestone on the road to acquiring a certain sense of self-autonomy in the more progressist families.

At another level, we have the local community where public education is to a great extent still a matter of family in which the role of the teacher or master is usually considered either in terms of the existing social relations within the community or in relation to a bigger ideal of the family. The third level is represented by the region and the state. It is at this level where people could start to say that things are not really working or the forces that play at this level are so powerful and remote so that you have no means to really change or move something.

Social networking sites have an interesting role here as they seem to articulate a sort of vehicle for people to relate to the bigger social issues. Most people use this mostly to make fun of a status-quo that nobody seems to be able to change. Social activists and people involved in politics could use the power of memes and other content on social media to try to send their messages to the higher level of the state in different ways that could be violent in many ways: from the daily accusations of corruption, derision of the public education system, to the realpolitik practised by some important politicians in close relation to social media. Many supporters of such kind of social media violence claim that the only way to change the systems or ‘mentalities’ is to react in a way that could not be ignored by authorities and should determine some reaction.

I will not detail these issues here, I will just mention a few thoughts on social media use among adult people with high education. One of the main things these people are most interested in on social media is to relate to their ex-colleagues or friends from University. This is true especially as most of the people who followed University studies in North Italy remained to live there at least a few years after finishing their studies and before returning to their hometown. The time spent away from home could typically be anywhere between 6 and 10 years, when they tried mainly to find a workplace or to start a family. The main reason for which the majority of 30-40 years old returned to their hometown is related to the fact that they found at least one of these two ideals difficult – either to attain at all or to preserve.

At the same time, recent data from the Italian Ministry of Public Education show that Italians under 35 years of age are by far the least able to find a job. Therefore, it seems that these people returned home just a few years before having a greater chance to find work. As most of these people lack economic resources within the family, their chances of obtaining a job in their hometown is even lower than in the bigger cities from where they returned. At the same time, most of them are not and do not want to take part in the local network of exchanging favours. As a consequence, a sociologist works as a part-time waiter, an engineer seasonally performs as a singer, and many others just do not look for a job anymore. In this context, for them social media responds primarily to their need to relate to the values they share with their ex-colleagues and friends from elsewhere rather than to the local community.

This is similar to Danny’s suggestion that for adult people the use of social networking sites seems to be related to a certain nostalgia and memorization. In this case, nostalgia is related to the ideal of Italian society rather than that of the local society, to its delights and difficulties, and the personal attempts to overcome these.

To conclude, if education acts in different ways at these levels it seems that individuals find themselves in less difficult situations when they do not cut the links between the levels. If high education could be in contradiction with many of the implications of family and local education, social networking sites allow highly educated adults to live locally and relate to distant values. The local tradition of learning a practical skill through apprenticeship has been really challenged by the insistence of the numerous Italian governments and European Union that state education system should respond to the request of labour market. In this context, social networking sites tend to work not upward towards the job market and the political economy but towards the individual need to live locally, which includes relating to ideals that are often in contrast local ones.

Social media and mass media: the CCTV Chinese New Year’s Gala

By Tom McDonald, on 23 February 2014

Poetic couplets hung on the door of a village house in preparation for Chinese NewYear (Photo: Tom McDonald)

Poetic couplets hung on the door of a village house in preparation for Chinese New Year (Photo: Tom McDonald)

I passed the recent Chinese New Year in my fieldsite in North China with the Wang family in their rented shopfront-cum-home on the small rural town’s commercial street, with Mr Wang, his wife and son, 16 year old Little Wang, who had just finished his term at the high school in the nearby county-town, and was back home for the school holidays.

One of the most interesting elements of the festival is social media’s relationship with the mass media event of the day (and probably the year), which is the CCTV New Year’s Gala programme produced by China Central Television. The programme is basically a variety show. But at the same time it is the most difficult variety show on the planet to get right, because its 700 million–1000 million viewers (53-76% of the country’s population) are comprised of every generation of Chinese families, who watch the show together as they eat they ‘reunion meal’. As such, the programme makers have to attempt to appeal to all these drastically different audiences. No mean feat when we are talking about elderly people who grew up in the Republican-era, witnessed the Sino-Japanese war, and the founding of the People’s Republic; or middle aged people who were children during the hardships of the cultural revolution, and then saw the enormous transformations bought by the reform-and-opening period; or China’s youth, those born in the 80’s, 90s, and 00’s, often single children, many of whom have grown up with a material aspirations on par with western society. So you end up with a variety show that is a bizarre and wizardly mix of revolutionary songs, trapeze artists, dancers performing to happy hardcore music, magicians, ‘hip’ youth TV hosts, recognised family performers and national pop stars. The show traverses the utterly naff and absolutely incredible. One cannot help but feel that the show tries so hard to appeal to everybody that it is perhaps doomed to failure.

At the Wang’s house we watched and chatted as the show went on, slowly devouring the dinner while Mr Wang and I knocked back baijiu, a fiery Chinese liquour. I soon noticed that Little Wang’s attention had waned, however, and after eating a little food, he left us and moved into the shop area of their house, where the computer is located. Soon after I followed him into the room. I noticed that he was alternating between browsing QZone, and chatting on the QQ Instant Messaging client. He was using the QQ IM client to send New Year’s ‘blessings’ (zhufu) to his classmates, while browsing his QZone. Many of the status updates from his friends were related to the television show. For example, one of the features of the show was a young girl dressed in a flowing white dress who was introduced by the presenters at the start of the programme. The presenters explained that she would spin around on the spot up until midnight (4 hours) to symbolise the changing seasons of the year. Indeed she managed to do this quite successfully. One of Little Wang’s friends had forwarded a meme of a photo of the girl asking ‘spinning girl, have you eaten Xuanmai chewing gum?’. Xuanmai chewing gum recently ran an advertising campaign with the tagline ‘Xuanmai chewing gum, unable to stop’ (xuanmai kouxiangtang, tingbu xialai). The advert featured a young man singing, with powerful sound waves coming out of his mouth, and he was challenged to see how long he could sustain the singing. After eating the chewing gum it seemed to give the man somewhat cosmic powers to continue with his crooning. What is interesting about this case is we can kind of see the spillover from a mass media event onto social media, so while people do not seem to be happy posting about news or other big events, the Spring Festival Evening Party seems to be prime fodder for discussion of QQ, but especially among young people.

There is precedent for this, as traditionally the show is something people often talk about and critique for days after, even offline. But in addition to young people talking about the New Year’s Gala online, I got a feeling during the evening that young people were having a kind of separate New Year’s Eve party on QQ with all their friends. Chinese New Year is a key moment of reunion for Chinese families, and I get a feeling that even this moment of togetherness is being affected by social media as young people are living a large part of their spring festival online with their classmates.

Does this mean that the ‘traditional’ Chinese New Year is at risk? I want to get away from the idea that social media’s presence in the spring festival necessarily has to be good or bad, or even assume that social media is ‘transforming’ the Chinese New Year (anymore than the Chinese New Year is transforming social media). It is not that Little Wang’s practices are heralding the decay of the Chinese New Year, but rather I think it is signalling the importance of classmates being part of that reunion. It seems to be an acknowledgement that family ties are not the only thing that matters, and the deliberate decision for classmates to include each other in their spring festival reunion meals suggests a willingness to apply family ideals to educational peers.

The Future of Facebook: What will we learn from the study of Chinese social media?

By Xin Yuan Wang, on 29 January 2014

Image courtesy of emreterok, Creative Commons

Image courtesy of emreterok, Creative Commons

China is a dreadful desert to Western social media giants such as Facebook and Twitter, however it is a tropical rainforest to many local species. It is curious to note that even though none of the participants in my field site use, or have even heard of Facebook or Twitter, the way they use Chinese social media such as QQ and WeChat provides an interesting parallel to the way UK teenagers in Danny’s study differentiate a range of social media in their daily life, even though as social media QQ, or WeChat are both significantly different from Facebook.

Among certain groups of Chinese people, like teenagers, QQ seems to be in stasis. For teens with relatively high education and social status that are more willing to try something new and urban middle-class, QQ is not cool at all, just as what Danny reported about Facebook in his previous blog article. It is not rare to find people who have used QQ for more than 10 years in China given QQ started to become popular almost 15 years ago. In fact, QQ could be considered Facebook’s predecessor and to some extent through the study of QQ’s development in China we may ‘foretell’ what will happen in ‘Facebook land’ in the future. Many of my participants have told me that around 10 years ago, QQ represented the coolest thing about urban life because rural migrants who came back to their village during Chinese New Year showed off that they had a QQ account in front of their stunned fellow villagers. After 10 years, when almost half of the Chinese population have QQ accounts, QQ numbers rather than mobile phone numbers are exchanged most frequently as  permanent contact details (it is reported that people change their mobile phone much more frequently than their QQ account). QQ has lost its association with trendy or cool things, especially for urban Chinese people who want to escape from the ‘hustle and bustle’ QQ land which somehow has been associated with rural Chinese. On one hand, some people report that they use QQ less and less in recent years since Wechat’s audio message is more fun and convenient, and WeChat seems to be more in line with urban life. Some report that their closest friends and frequent contacts all moved to WeChat. On the other hand, people admitted that they would always come back to QQ when they wanted to catch up with long-lost relationships, such as old classmates or previous colleagues. As one informant put it, those contacts “didn’t move to other social media,” but remain in the “old home” of QQ. Those contacts may also have started using WeChat or other social media, but from my participants’ perspectives, they ‘belong’ to QQ. These friends may not have updated their social media details because of sparse communication, or are regarded a part of ‘past old days’ in one’s mind and QQ is the PLACE to go.

That is to say, people didn’t quit QQ because of their engagement with other social media. Rather, QQ survives time and thus obtains a ‘senior’ status, something like an old friend who has witnessed one’s ups-and-downs in life even though they may only meet once a year. QQ may also be regarded like one’s birthplace, which my rural migrant informants only visit during Chinese new year but always remains as one of the most import places in their lives. People don’t dump QQ, but keep it, and use it in a different way.

So the quick conclusion is QQ seems to be in stasis among certain groups of people not because of ‘being QQ’, but because of the law of ‘nature’ – here let me call this the nature of social media. And it also makes sense if one replaces “QQ” by “Facebook” in this argument.

And what is the nature of social media? You may need a bit more patience to read through the following academic ‘block’ to get a clearer picture:

First, stuff becomes more than the material after being used by people. For example the pen from your passed-away grandpa is to you by no means equal to any other pen which was produced on the same factory assembly line. If we have to use jargon, we call the process ‘objectification’ where an object consumed by people is domesticated and becomes part of the person and their relationship to others. That is where material culture starts, and the context in which we study digital technology. Digital technology, as a form of material, is no more sophisticated or mediated than any other object in terms of the relationship between material and human beings. Having said that, however, it is worthwhile to highlight the uniqueness of social media in the way that social media show the relationship between the digital and social relationship in a more visible and obvious way. That is to say, without people’s engagement and usage, social media is next to nothing. In a way, ‘Facebook’ and ‘QQ’ are only half finished goods before being used by people. Social media is produced through the consumption, as the terminology ‘prosumption’ suggested. Thus, it is safe to say social media is highly entangled with the ‘self’ and personal relationship to the degree that it somehow grows with the person and has its own life (Gell’s theory of ‘agency’ also shed light on this argument).

Furthermore, the concept of ‘polymedia’ describes another feature of social media. Each social media platform finds its niche in specific personal relationships and people take moral responsibility for their choice of different social media. In the case of ‘Facebook’, as Danny suggested, at the moment when people got friend request from their mother, the social medium is transformed into a family-orientated place rather than the place where people share secrets with their close friends. Also the concept ‘remediation’  helps to illustrate the way how certain social media (like QQ and Facebook) become ‘old’ because of the development of other social media. Dialectically, there is no so-called old or new social media without the comparison with others, that is to say people tend to re-define certain social media in the context of polymedia.

Even though my research is still unfinished, let me ‘jump to the conclusion’ and put my incomplete version of ‘the nature of social media’ here: First, social media as a social agent grow with the person and own their own lives. Second, social media were applied and valued by people in a context of polymedia.

Having discussed the nature of social media, then, let’s go back to my argument from the beginning – QQ seems to be in stasis among certain group of people not because of ‘being QQ’, but because of the law of ‘nature’, and so does Facebook. It is important to not treat social media as functional technology like we would computers. In terms of technology, new social media are not more advanced than pre-existing ones. It makes sense to say that today’s computers have taken the place of the early bulky computer, whereas we can’t say that a certain social medium is dead completely because its users turn to new ones and use others more actively. The situation in practice is like the way people treat friendship and the attitude toward one’s birthplace. From time to time, my participants in this Chinese town used “old friend” or “lao jia” (hometown) to describe their QQ profiles. For some of them, the usage of WeChat is more frequent and active than the usage of QQ. They report and I have observed that WeChat is more for recent contacts one meets in face-to-face situations, and generally speaking closer friends in a smaller circle. QQ on the other hand is used to keep up with all kinds of friends, acquaintances, and communities (QQ offers a group function, such as ‘class group’  used in one middle school) that one has accumulated over a relatively long term. In some cases QQ has become some people’s digital legacy where they keep the ‘silly self’ of 10 years ago. As one of my informants said she won’t use QQ to communicate with her new friends anymore since “on QQ you will encounter a little girl of 10 years ago”, however it is always good to view that ‘self’ in the past as it remains alive on QQ. QQ has become the PLACE, the legacy. Each generation, each human being owns their own history, and in the digital age, social media have become the place people store their history, and where old friends and memory dwell. I have witnessed it already in the usage of QQ among Chinese people and I don’t see any reason why Facebook will not follow suit.

Finally, the findings in China, with the absence of Facebook, actually reinforced our essential argument that the study of digital anthropology and this GSMIS project go beyond specific usage of a certain social medium. Social media usage is the point of entrance which allows our digital anthropologists to look into, understand and interpret the social relationship and the relationship between people and technology in different cultures and societies in the digital age.

Scholarship, integrity and going viral

By Daniel Miller, on 30 December 2013

For a professional academic the foundation of reputation must be scholarship and integrity. Academic studies are interpretations, and even what our informants tell us are their interpretations, and may not equate with the underlying reasons for their actions. Nevertheless, we can and should strive for our writing to be well informed, and authoritative as the basis for original insights. This commitment is at the heart of the Global Social Media Impact Study (www.gsmis.org) a team of nine anthropologists in eight countries each spending 15 months collecting data on the use and consequences of social media.

WHAT WAS THE DATA BEHIND MY BLOG POST?

As part of our project I have been working north of London in an area I call The Glades (not the real name), a site with a population of around 24,000 people. I have worked there full time since April looking explicitly at the use of social media. The first focus of my research was a hospice and terminally ill patients. The most recent has been with three schools, where I and a colleague have conducted interviews with forty pupils aged 16-18. But the findings I set out in my blog post (24/11/13) were not dependent on those interviews. The trends were emerging right from the start of fieldwork in April last year through the door-to-door interviews (over 150 different informants, each a minimum of forty minutes). I was conducting around the villages which included young people. Ethnography also means the countless informal encounters with people who live in the area. Of particular importance is direct observation and participation, so you know what people are doing and you don’t just rely on what they say they are doing. Many in the team don’t even interview, everything is direct observation and participation, for example, the analysis of informants’ postings.

If the schools agree, we may also conduct some questionnaires involving much larger numbers, perhaps several thousand. The best academic work in this field, such as that of Barry Wellman or Sonia Livingstone, combines qualitative and quantitative sources. But the post was based on the strength of qualitative rather than quantitative work. Asking the right questions in any future questionnaire depends upon this earlier research. At first, if you merely ask these school pupils why they hardly use Facebook today, they may talk about the functions of Twitter or even claim they care about privacy – because they may realize that this is what adults want them to say. A quantitative survey is often a bad aggregate of these superficial responses. By having long conversations with individuals, under conditions of anonymity, about actual postings and the effects these had on their class or on their families, you can dig deeper. On further discussion, they themselves make clear that these issues of privacy were not really their concern, and in the end they don’t think the newer media are more effective. But rather the key issue is that media used by older people is not a cool site for their own peer to peer interactions. My blog post on ‘The Fall of Facebook‘ was not so much about the decline of Facebook amongst schoolchildren as trying to understand what we can learn from this. Quantitative surveys are fine for simple questions such as ‘what phone do you have?’, but for a subtle issue, such as the motivation for shifting platforms, I believe our work should prove far more reliable than any survey, however extensive.

WHERE IS THE REPORT?

So far I have completed 9 out of 15 months fieldwork. Before I write any formal publications, however, I will be reviewing these results, again and again, and we will be continuing to interview young people and engage in participant observation until the end of our data collection in September 2014. I do have one report on an early applied aspect of my findings, though with a very different focus, which may be found here.

We hope eventually to produce at least ten books of data, an Open Access university course and perhaps teaching material for school children, all free and online. We hope this will be in multiple languages, so that people all around the world can be better informed. Rather than anecdotes about the political impact of Twitter or the effect on privacy of Facebook they will have access to sustained scholarship. They will also come to see how these things differ from region to region. But with data collection continuing until September 2014, we don’t expect to publish reports until 2016. This is why, given the interest in our topic, we keep a blog of interim findings and stories. We would prefer our final reports to go viral rather than our blog posts (there was no press release), but we now appreciate we have no control over this.

WAS THIS BIG NEWS?

Well not really, the very reputable Pew Research Centre in the US had published a report called ‘Teens Haven’t Abandoned Facebook (Yet)’ on 15/08/2013. So I was not the first to note these trends. However, while Pew found that in the US Facebook still takes the bulk of teens’ attention, I observed that in The Glades it was now relegated behind its rivals and used for family much more than for peer communication. That is why I could say with confidence that with respect to coolness Facebook is ‘dead and buried’ for these teens. But then their survey ended in Sept 2012. By 5/11/13 Pew had published ‘5 sites teens flock to instead of Facebook‘.

I don’t think anyone reading my original blog post would be misinformed. I don’t ever suggest that Facebook is doomed. I state clearly that Facebook is expanding in other field-sites and age groups and that these same teens retain Facebook for family purposes. My data overwhelmingly made the case for this loss of cool. The phrase ‘dead and buried’ unambiguously only refers to the way Facebook is never going to be cool again for this age group. If you saw the NBC report on my work, it implies that my findings also reflect trends in the US. Even the ‘opposing’ industry analyst could not deny this loss of cool. What he opposed was the idea that Facebook itself was dead and buried, something I have never ever suggested – though the same report implied that I had.

GOING VIRAL

What went viral was not the blog piece, but a version that was re-written by a journalist for an online academic magazine called The Conversation. The journalist gave me the opportunity to review her version, which I checked for factual errors. But, mea culpa, I realize now that I left in elements in her version that perhaps over-simplified the original. For example, my original post recognized that there was some time between a mother’s friending, and the move from Facebook to other media, while the new version implied an immediate effect. I should have corrected and qualified more precisely. I apologize for this and regret that I didn’t. But on the other hand, the journalist in question was only trying to do her job based on the journalistic claim (usually correct) that academic work will not gain popular attention because of the way it is written. Allowing your work to be ‘sexed-up’ seems to be a compromise academics will have to accept if they want to reach those audiences. So I didn’t want to challenge everything she had done. In the future I will be more pedantic about correcting such rewrites. Small shifts in meaning that came with the rewrite became accentuated in later less careful reportage by other journalists. Yet the substance was accurate, and I nowhere imply a demise for Facebook.

I am not of course happy when a subsequent journalist mistakenly claims that this trend was found in all eight countries, or when European funding is turned by some reports into the project being a study of Europe. Journalists have to work to demanding deadlines, but equally I was not responsible for these mistakes, which simply distort what I had said. I am sure there are journalists who have as much concern with integrity and keeping people properly informed as we do. We will want to work with those journalists in the future as a partnership, with anthropologists having the time for more sustained research, and journalists helping to rewrite for and disseminate to a wider public. Over time genuine positive collaborations are entirely possible and to be welcomed.

But what happened last week was not that. The reason the post went viral is likely to be due to a combination of factors. In some media, my post was used for more sensationalist purposes to claim that Facebook itself was doomed. This was ‘news’ at a Christmas period when journalists were short of news. Most important was the way items spread easily through the viral impact of digital media. Phrases such as ‘dead and buried’ shifted from a description of Facebook losing its cool for English schoolchildren, to the supposed fate of Facebook as a whole. I soon began to get emails from financial analysts, because in our world there are many people who couldn’t care a less about academic research but care hugely about share prices.

THE FUTURE

On reflection, I am relatively sanguine as to the results of this last week but I would much rather go viral with our actual published research results. What clearly should happen now I think is quite obvious. I really, really hope that some of the journalists or indeed readers of this news story will now go out and talk to some teenagers in depth about their use of new media. By its very nature as ethnography our work is highly parochial, based in one place. It would be extremely interesting to know if there are similar trends amongst school pupils in the North of England or in France.

Meanwhile, on return to London in February, I have another six months to continue this research, expanding on these findings but also exploring in much more detail why these trends develop and what we can learn from them. The eventual report will be hundreds of pages not just a quick blog post. We will never be able to fully control the spin that is put on our results, but the reason we do this work is to keep people informed and it is to be hoped that what happened last week will result in continued interest in the amazing work of the GSMIS team.

Finally, our field method is participant observation. So being a participant in ‘going viral’ is quite a useful experience. This response has of necessity been immediate, but I will reflect on it over the longer term and hopefully will learn some useful lessons about the nature of viral spread. Going viral just became part of what we study.

I apologize that I was unable to respond to most inquiries. I am currently in the Caribbean and visiting our field-sites in Trinidad and Chile, but if you have further questions about our research please contact me at d.miller@ucl.ac.uk, though I am not back in the UK until the end of January.