UCL Social Networking Sites & Social Science Research Project
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    Archive for the 'Social networking and polymedia' Category

    The prejudice of shallowness

    By Razvan Nicolescu, on 4 April 2014

    Photo by Stefanie Maria (Creative Commons)

    Photo by Stefanie Maria (Creative Commons)

    Isabella has 28 years old and is engaged (fidanzata) for eight years with a man from a nearby town. In this part of Italy these long engagements are quite common. Actually, Isabella has the most recent engagement in her close circle of friends, who are all engaged for 10 or 12 years. The marriage is thought of as something that should be build on solid grounds, typically a stable workplace and a house. Customarily, the man first builds a house, furnishes it at least partially and then the couple organize the wedding ceremony. In the context of difficult economic circumstances and high social uncertainty these conditions for even thinking of a marriage are quite difficult to be attained.

    Isabella is happy that she works full-time as a shop assistant and has time to also study for her undergraduate degree. She is proud she will most probably graduate this year. She started to study Letters at the University of Salento eight years ago. All along this time, her fidanzato supported her determination to complete her studies even against the will of her family. However, the couple was not able to save money for the marriage. He always worked on a temporary basis as a builder and her current job as shop assistant is the first stable job any of them ever had. They estimate that the wedding ceremony alone would cost them at least 10,000 EURO. They come from modest families who could not raise even a small part of this sum. The plan is that Isabella should graduate first and then they could start saving money for the wedding. This means the two could get married in at least two or three years.

    Until then, and as most of the fidanzati in the town, the two live separately each with their own families. They also work in the same towns where they live. As the two towns are situated about ten miles away one from the other, they currently do not manage to see each other too often during work days – which here are Monday to Saturday. The two compensate this by spendings the weekends together, living alternatively at one of their parents’ house This arrangement also allows them spending more time with their friends.

    Isabella’s closest friends are six female ex-colleagues from her secondary school in Grano who happen to be all engaged with six men from the town of her fidanzato. He is actually a cousin of her best colleague from her secondary school class. She remembers that this was her favourite group of friends since she was a teenager. She always enjoyed the fact that they had the same tastes and very similar passions on a gendered basis. I will not detail this here, but is important to mention that the group itself and this shared intimacy within its strict confines is what makes Isabella feel safe and comfortable.

    Whatsapp is important in keeping this sense on intimacy. The group of friends use three main Whatsapp groups: ‘the group of girls,’ ‘the group of boys’ and the group for all of them which is also the least used. Girls use their group most intensively by far: they may start the day with a simple buona giornata (‘good morning’), a question, or a video clip. At least two hours until work starts, roughly at 10:00, there is an energetic exchange of messages and updates inside this group. The boys use their group rather irregularly, with typical peaks such as the ones around the dates when Juventus Torino is playing. What is important for this discussion is that Isabella senses that her fidanzamento depends on the unity of the group of her female friends and this unity currently knows a substantive support because of Whatsapp. Isabella sees that many women of her age become less attached to their peers when they start to work or move closer to their marriage, and therefore, she is extremely happy that Whatsapp allows her reinforce what she senses she needs most.

    At the same time, these people who could have a noisy aperitivo in large groups of twelve-fifteen people in late summer evenings could easily be accused of a certain shallowness. A typical criticism is that they ‘stay too much on’ their Smartphones when they are supposed to be together. This blog post goes against these prejudices and social condemnations by suggesting a few reasons why these could simply not be true. Beautiful well-dressed women and jovial men could cheerfully manipulate their Smartphones not because they are more distant one from another but because they really want to be much more closer.

    Know thy selfie

    By Daniel Miller, on 1 April 2014

    Image courtesy of ClaudsClaudio, Creative Commons

    Image courtesy of ClaudsClaudio, Creative Commons

    As noted by last week’s The Economist it seems that every new cultural development is assumed by both journalists and academics to be a sign of our growing superficiality and especially our narcissism. A primary use of Anthropology has been to bolster the idea that it is `other’ societies that represent authenticity and depth. I have lived in tribal and peasant societies and I do not accept that my fellow Londoners are either more superficial, or more narcissistic, or even that they are more concerned with the public appearance of the person, than would the case for most other societies studied by anthropologists. It is no surprise that the most recent `proof’ of this narcissism is held to be the Selfie, presumed to be a key moment in growing infatuation with our own appearance. But once again I think it is the interpretation of the Selfie, not the Selfie itself, that should be condemned as merely superficial. To equate the Selfie with narcissism is to imply that it is an idealised version of the self, directed at the self. This is surely mistaken.

    The Selfie is clearly aimed at others, placed on social media as a form of communication. What is a Selfie without its `likes’? As a school pupil put it:- `But it’s sort of while you are having a conversation, you just send a picture of yourself.’ It is literally a `snap-chat’. More importantly the Selfie is subject to polymedia and cultural variation. With respect to polymedia, the `classic’ young, female, pouting, dressed to party, pose has become strongly associated with Instagram. But there is a whole other genre that is found on the much larger platforms of Snapchat and WhatsApp. For young people in England by far the most common form of Selfie is an image designed to make oneself look as ugly as possible. One common pose is with the camera taking the face from below the chin, right up the nostrils. It is predominantly the same young people who create the Selfie that create this `Uglie’. Many more Uglies are posted that Selfies, but most discussions entirely ignore the more prevalent image. Adults often create a similar dualism, but vicariously. Look at the endless postings of their babies, either highly idealised, or looking as ridiculous as possible. These are not individualistic, rather today they have become highly normative forms. The Uglie relates to English humour and self-deprecation rather than being a universal form and thereby reflect cultural specificity. The single term Selfie also fails to differentiate adult Selfies from teenage usage, the increasingly common group Selfie from the individual. It also ignores the difference between all of these and what might be termed the `meta-Selfie’ where the image is of a person taking a Selfie through the mirror. These are often taken simply because they are a more effective way of showing the whole outfit that an individual is wearing. But at least in the English context they can also become a visual comment, ironic or otherwise, on the taking of the Selfie.

    There are even more reasons for taking Selfies than there are genres, and of course, a Selfie can be superficial. I don’t especially admit a tradition in cultural studies that enjoys taking something denigrated as superficial and then making some pretentious claim for its deep significance. But a recent encounter with a Selfie helped me appreciate that the Selfie certainly has that capacity for depth and profundity. This Selfie is the cover photo for the Facebook profile of someone I interviewed as part of my hospice research. One of the main reasons that people dying of cancer retreat into isolation is that they don’t want others to see the devastation to their own appearance that often comes with chemotherapy, if not from the cancer itself.

    The physical disfigurement is itself debilitating. This forty-two year old even kept his girlfriend away during chemotherapy which had been particularly gruelling and destructive in his case. After the chemotherapy ended he began to put back on some weight. He once again started to look like himself. After six weeks he decided to take precisely that kind of Selfie that is posed in front of the mirror. The stance and facial expression are clearly assertive. As he makes clear he first had to acknowledge to himself that he could once again become a decent human being and only then could he communicate this to others. The distance between knowing something as an external fact and internalising it as an acknowledged truth is circumvented because this particular kind of Selfie can operate on both of these modalities simultaneously. Prior to the existence of this form of Selfie it is unlikely that there is anything he could have done that could so succinctly have communicated to others that he had acknowledged the change in himself to himself.

    In this instance I found myself drawn back to the writings of Sartre whose work on existentialism directly equated issues of self-expression to the freedom to choose the nature and manner of our death. More generally the Selfie seems to fit arguments made by the sociologist Anthony Giddens about self-identity. It is not that we are more obsessed by our public appearance. Compared to say the characters in the world’s first novel from the 11th are almost relaxed. As argued in my and Jolynna’s recent book Webcam, what has perhaps changed is our self-consciousness about this concern with appearance, and therefore the need to not only cultivate our looks, but to simultaneously comment upon that act of cultivation, that suggests we know what we are doing. In England this is ideally done with irony and the Selfie only makes sense when we also include the Uglie in our analysis. But the Selfie can be also a serious and evidently in some cases literally a life-affirming use of a new visual genre that exploits it’s very specific form of self-revelation.

    Visibility in the society pages of social media

    By Jolynna Sinanan, on 19 March 2014

    Photo by Jolynna Sinanan

    Photo by Jolynna Sinanan

    I have passed the 10 month point in fieldwork where I am perhaps getting a bit too comfortable with being in Trinidad. Like hundreds of thousands of Trinidadians this month, all my responsibilities and commitments have come second to the greatest show on earth: Carnival. Although Carnival is the height of the Trinidadian calendar year, it is experienced by Trinidadians is different ways. The parades of people you see on the streets in bikinis, beads and feathers (‘pretty mas’, or ‘pretty masquerade’) that resemble Brazilian Carnival, is a transformed version of Carnival that emerged in the 1980s as part of the state strategy to attract more tourism. It’s a strategy that has worked, thousands of tourists come each year paying up to £6000 to ‘play’ mas with the biggest and most popular groups, or as they’re locally known, bands. Prior to the 1980s, playing mas was a uniquely Trinidadian event that resembled the mix of the callalloo* nation. There were elements of theatre, Amerindian ritual and African dancing and drumbeats and costumes were embodiments of political commentary that mocked upper classes or foreign influences such as American seamen who were based in Trinidad in the Second World War. Many people tend to agree that mas had political potential and social commentary. But what of it today?

    February has been a rich month for fieldwork as everybody has an opinion on Carnival. Common discourse and normative values emphasise that contemporary Carnival is vulgar, it’s not really Trinidadian, all the wining (a dance where the main movement is gyrating the hips) and carrying on is indecent. A lot of women agree with this view, but it is undeniable that each year, hundreds of thousands of Trinidadian women play mas. I have been discussing this with Dr Dylan Kerrigan at the University of the West Indies, a fellow anthropologist who has expertise on gender, masculinities and Carnival. We agree that Carnival has retained fractions of its potential for political subversion, perhaps now, not along the lines of race and class, but along the lines of gender. Carnival is the month of the year when a woman of any background, age and race can be extremely scantily clad, dance with whoever she likes and you don’t hear a peep from male onlookers or spectators. Yet, purchasing the space for freedom has an explicit economic dimension, paying for the pre-Carnival parties (fetes) and to play mas with big bands with their own food, drinks, portable bathrooms and security is an investment for a fun (safe) time. The demarcation of expensive fetes and bands makes sure that people of certain levels of society remain in their respective groupings. The one big contradiction to the prestige of going to expensive fetes and playing with big bands is that at this time of year, banks give special loans just for Carnival. People save money over a year (or two) or take out loans to visibly occupy spaces they don’t the rest of the year. Which brings me back to the ongoing theme of visibility.

    I thought that if so much money is being spent on parties and costumes, surely this is the time of year Facebook would be inundated with selfies and mirror shots. Carnival is the pinnacle of the year to be seen by others. With the prestige of fetes and bands, comes with being photographed. Danny Miller is currently doing an in depth study of one such photography company that takes photos in fetes and uploads them to social media and their own website, reminiscent of the society pages in newspapers and magazines. Trinidad is a small society with few print magazine publications. The biggest and most expensive bands publish their own magazines after Carnival, displaying photos of masqueraders on Carnival Monday or Tuesday. Anybody who plays mas with these bands could be potentially snapped for the magazine. The photos I have seen on Facebook of masqueraders have mostly been tagged by others. The extreme few selfies have been ‘before going out’ shots. I saw many people with camera phones on the day, but there is an etiquette of visibility that photos of you are posted by others. What is the point of being the show and being the spectacle for your own gaze, otherwise?

    Contemporary society pages are now the pages of social media. Four major social photography companies regularly post photos of events they have photographed on Facebook and people can tag themselves. The brands of photographers and the brands of fetes and bands is another aspect of how Facebook is made Trinidadian, through emulating the society pages of print magazines.

    *Callalloo: a local dish made of mixed vegetables and cooked together, but also a local idiom for the mixed culture of Trinidad.

    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.

    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.

    Photography in the age of Snapchat

    By Daniel Miller, on 2 February 2014

    Photo by Island Photography

    Photo by Island Capture Photography (Creative Commons)

    I want to suggest that conventionally when we consider the role of the photograph in society, we see this as a kind of three stage movement. First there is the practice of photography itself. We have assumed that this was merely the requisite technology, largely the handmaiden to the desire to have a photograph. Then there is the object, the photograph, and that was assumed in turn to be the handmaiden to the ultimate aim, which was to record something. The photograph was there to serve as an object of memory, a technical facility to retain an image beyond the relatively poor ability of the brain to accurately retain images of the past. It could be as an art, but it was more often a wedding or holiday.

    Today most photographs are taken for their use in social media. Figures quoted online vary but it is suggested around 350 million photos are shared per day on Facebook, 55 million on Instagram, 400 million on WhatsApp and 450 million on Snapchat.

    I want to suggest that as a result, we need to completely turn on its head our conventional understanding of photography. Memory has been reduced merely to the legitimation of having a photograph, but the photograph itself has lost its position as the aim of the exercise since mostly the photo is merely the excuse for what now takes centre stage which is the act of taking a photograph. Photography as an activity has moved from background to foreground. Fortunately we can see this sequence more clearly because it corresponds to the development of three social media sites in sequence. The movement from Facebook to Instagram to Snapchat/WhatsApp.

    Photography on Facebook
    Facebook now appears as the convenient bridge between more traditional photography and the more recent social media. Facebook places considerable importance on the photo album and the collecting of images. Everything shared whether tagged or not is also stored. One of the reasons Facebook’s long term future is likely to be older people, is that it is very effective in this role, certainly compared to conventional photograph album and the analogue photo. As Xinyuan recently noted you can turn to QQ to see yourself as you looked ten years ago when you first joined QQ, soon this will be common on Facebook.

    Photography on Instagram
    Photography on Instagram has a much more transient feel than Facebook. In working with young people I find that Instagram gives them a kind of creative project. All day they can think about what would make a good photograph? (similarly, what would make a clever tweet?). If they don’t see anything else, they can always take a Selfie. This gives purpose to the day and becomes a bulwark against the constant concern with being bored. As such, where once we framed the photograph, now we use photography to frame experience. Here we see the reversed sequence. Storing the photo, as in Facebook, is exposed as mere excuse for having a photo, which in turn is mere excuse for the real purpose, which is the project enacted by the act of photography itself.

    Photography on Snapchat/WhatsApp
    It was Snapchat that bludgeoned to death our conventional view of photography. If the photo can only last for a maximum of ten seconds, then we can’t even pretend it’s about memory or even about the image. The point about Instagram is now made explicit. It can only be the act of taking that matters. Except that on Snapchat/WhatsApp we realise that this is not just individual experience it is a social act, we take pictures in order to share, and to see the response to our sharing. We have to take the word ‘Snapchat’ literally – the photograph is just a form of chat, saying Hi, a more interesting emoticon. WhatsApp is a bit less violent a repudiation of the photograph, but still highly transient. Clearly we may work with all three of these social media and all three of these relationships to photography.

    As I will argue in a more extended paper, the mistake is to think this makes photography more superficial, actually I will argue this makes photography more profound.

    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.

    Fieldwork kit

    By Jolynna Sinanan, on 23 January 2014

    Photo by Jolynna Sinanan

    I have started packing for my last long field work stint in Trinidad. It also might be because it’s the start of the year and I’m about to leave, doing the last social rounds in Melbourne for the year and packing up my apartment, that there is sort of a retrospective playing in my head on what I’ve needed to take to the field, how that has changed over the years and how doing offline and online ethnography has affected what I need to record data, both every day and on social media.

    In 2009, for my first long fieldwork for my PhD, the only equipment I really needed was my camera, a voice recorder and a note book. The laptop for backing up notes was a luxury and I didn’t have or need the internet at home. That fieldwork was also based in Cambodia, where I was looking at people who worked with NGO programs, so sitting in people’s homes or in interviews with a new flash laptop or iPhone wasn’t really appropriate.

    This year, I feel like I need a set of infrastructure set up in Melbourne, London and Trinidad to get and store all the data for my part of this comparative project. Trinidad also has a bit of a different feel from Cambodia in terms of what is appropriate to use when sitting in front of or in the homes of informants. Most people are in front of me with phones much better than mine, from which we end up looking at their WhatsApp, Facebook or BBM. The voice recorder on the phone is a more comfortable, less intrusive way of recording interviews as people are used to seeing phones on the table anyway (I still rely on a small voice recorder for back up nonetheless). A fast, small laptop and external hard drive is a must, and the first thing I look for in accommodation after a shower with good water pressure is a reliable internet connection. I’m pretty lucky because, in my town in Trinidad, 4G has just been introduced and there are also a number of public wifi hot spots. The local population’s desire to be connected greatly helps my research set up, even though the town itself is in the more underdeveloped part of the country.

    I have two cameras ready, a small, every day point and shoot and my larger one for events. One cannot understand Trinidad without appreciating what visibility means in Trinidad, so being part of creating visibility in Trinidad has been an ‘in’ into networks I otherwise would not have been a part of (like documenting a hunger strike in protest of the building of a highway in front of the prime minister’s office and masqueraders at Carnival). My phone’s camera has also been a quick and easy documenting method on the spur of the moment, especially when someone says “I have a story for you for your Facebook research.” They can open their Facebook page and I can screen capture and record what they’re showing me then and there. Danny and I are starting to look more deeply at what people post and what others think about them. I’m using an easy visual format of photos on a tablet screen, so I could discuss them with informants anywhere, from inside a home, to the mall, to the beach, without the need of wifi.

    But the most important research tool also reflects a massive theme in doing anthropological research. More than any of my technological bits and bobs, I need something that Levi Strauss, Malinowski and Strathern had a lot of. We need the trust of our informants so we can stick around long enough to understand their everyday lives. I then need my informants to trust me enough to accept me as a Facebook friend, WhatsApp contact, or BBM contact without restricting their privacy settings so I can see their everyday ‘online’ lives (something I suspect Levi Strauss et al. didn’t have much of a problem with). What makes our project different to other studies of social media as Danny has reminded us, is that this is not simply looking at social media. We then get to go back to the informants and contextualise the uses of social media in the wider context of ethnography. This points to a polymedia of doing research, where the choices of what media to use in what research situation is also framed by the relationships and rapport we have with informants. But for now-data first, theorise later.

    Social media, social distance, and inconsistency

    By Razvan Nicolescu, on 22 January 2014

    Photo by Razvan Nicolescu.

    Photo by Razvan Nicolescu.

    This post is about what people in the Italian fieldsite feel their peers should not do on social media.

    Here is a fragment from an interview with a 18 year old student on an issue that was mentioned in different ways by most of the teenagers I talked to:

    ‘What I don’t like [about Facebook] is… these guys who pretend [on Facebook] they are completely different than how they really are [in realtà]. For example, there are some who [at school] don’t talk to anybody, they are all alone (…) and on Facebook they talk a lot, they talk a lot about themselves, how nice they are, they friend up with many people, they ‘Like’ so many things (…) and in reality they don’t even say ‘hello’… there is this girl, she just passes along without saying anything to you…’

    These teenagers are not necessarily complaining about either of these two contrasting attitudes of the person, but rather the difference between the two attitudes. Most of the teenagers I talked to think that the most annoying issues they are exposed to on social media are related to a sort of inconsistency between online and offline presence. They seem to not mind if some of their peers are distant or not very social offline, and not even if some are ‘over-social’ and extremely creative online; rather, they sense an inadequacy whenever they see contrasting behaviours in each of the two worlds, that are not justified or explained somehow. At the same time, the attitude of some teenagers and young people to refuse joining any social media seems to be accepted and sometimes even appreciated.

    To give this discussion more context, it is important to note that among teenagers and young people in the Italian fieldsite, Facebook is by far the most used social networking site and WhatsApp is by far the most used mobile app. The two platforms rather complete each other: young people think Facebook is a more resilient tool to present oneself and to communicate with a larger set of peers, while WhatsApp is thought as being appropriate for more transient communication within smaller and more intimate peer-groups such as family and close friends. Additionally, there are several other Internet sites and applications which provide these platforms with multimedia content, most notably YouTube and online photo editors such as PicMonkey, iPiccy, or piZap.

    The quote above expresses the common thought that people should be true to their peers on social media, or at least not confuse them too much. But it is also true that teenagers expect confusion and excitement on social media. But they feel that this kind of confusion should come from people who also adopt these attitudes in the classroom or on the streets. Most of the users of social media explore the myriad of options available online and their own creativity in order to strengthen various parts of their personalities. Very often social media is not an extension, but an enabler, or a way of promoting the self that is considered acceptable in each particular community. This is the reason why, for example, when a couple breaks up the most violent manifestations are happening online rather than offline. By removing an ex-lover from the list of online friends and thoroughly reconsidering each of their mutual friends one has to objectify the split in ways that in the offline world are considered either unnecessary or ‘natural’. In another post I will write about the effort people put in translating the ‘natural’, and what this means, into the online environment. For now, my point is simply that while on one hand this process is admired in different ways, on the other, people who appear online in ways that seem to have no equivalent or justification in the offline word are highly sanctioned.

    This also represents a critique to the sort of literature and public discourses that judge changes brought by social media in terms of fundamental shifts from a pre-existing cultural logic. This kind of discourse was repeated in different ways for the advent of mobile telephony, the Internet, web-based applications and services, and indeed for describing other similar ‘revolutions’ such as the invention of the printing press, modern public transportation, or television. At least from this ethnography it seems that people just do not fit too easy into this model.