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Snapshots from the field: using social media in the Italian fieldsite

By Razvan Nicolescu, on 26 November 2013

People walking in the central square of a small town close to the fieldsite during a local feast. Photo by Razvan Nicolescu.

People walking in the central square of a small town close to the fieldsite during a local feast. Photo by Razvan Nicolescu.

Sandra is a 34 year old lawyer and considers herself to be quite successful. She lives with her parents in a big house near the centre of the town. She is expecting a baby sometime next year. When she found out she was pregnant, she and her fiancée decided to get married and build a ‘real’ family. At the same time, the two renounced using Facebook. This was quite simple as they were using the same Facebook account. The two enjoyed the fact they had no secrets between each other and could share the same friends and tastes. Therefore, they thought it would not make sense to use two separate Facebook profiles. However, when they decided to get married they also decided they would not need Facebook anymore. The main reason for this change was that people ‘gossip a lot’ and they do not need to see that online. They sensed that the intimacy of their couple was enough for them and they really had no intention to share this with people other than their closest friends.

Helena is a 28 year old shop assistant. About one year ago she split with her fiancée. This was a quite difficult moment for her as they were together for more than six years and she was still in love with him. The first thing she did when she realised they had really broken up was quit Facebook. She did not want to see her fiancée anymore and most of his male friends. Helena decided to dedicate her time to work. She also went out with her friends and sisters much more rarely than she used to do before. A few months ago she decided to create a new Facebook account. She thinks the new profile is ‘cleaner,’ mainly because she very carefully selected each person she friended. She actually decreased the number of friends from more than four hundred to just over two hundred. Helena thinks she is totally different on Facebook now than she used to be one year ago. She does not advertise much about herself and does not write too much text. However, she ‘shares’ a lot of content uploaded by other people and ‘likes’ up to 15 times a day. She is always connected on Facebook via her Smartphone and also spends a few hours each evening on this social media at her family’s computer.

Tony is an engineer for civil works. He just finished University and is unemployed. He used to collaborate on several small projects in his branch and accumulated some experience. He is trying to find some stable work although he recognizes this is very difficult. He does some volunteering work for one ecological association in the region. He finds Facebook useful for relating with his friends, but rather useless for the things he is most interested in, like finding a job and building a career. Most of his friends are unemployed too. Just around half of them have Smartphones. When they meet in a café or in the square they rarely check their phones for updates or messages. Tony agrees that Facebook is to be checked out at home, and not when you spend time with your friends.

Andy is an IT engineer. He works from home for a big Italian company and also develops software applications as a hobby. He is a technology enthusiast: he loves new IT gadgets, powerful cars, and pieces of software that he could re-assemble and use in complete new ways. Andy is well connected on several different social media: he consistently follows about a dozen blogs and he is quite active on Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram. He reads a few journals online and comments whenever he feels he should. He watches movies online, sometimes a few in a row without pause. He does so many things online that his girlfriend rarely sees him. They do not live together and she says it is difficult to get him out of the house after work any time other than when he is walking his dog. Andy seems quite happy and, as he told me, one important reason for this is the freedom he senses when he realizes he could do almost anything he wants from home.

And we, as anthropologists, should put all these together…

The ‘timeline’ as narrative?

By Jolynna Sinanan, on 25 March 2013

Image courtesy of Alec Couros, Flickr Creative Commons

Image courtesy of Alec Couros, Flickr Creative Commons

Last January, Facebook replaced the ‘wall’ and introduced the ‘timeline’, ‘a new kind of profile that lets you highlight the photos, posts and life events that help you tell your story… Timeline gives you an easy way to rediscover the things you shared, and collect your most important moments’ (McDonald, 2012). Over a year, on, I was sitting with one of my informants, Charlie, in front of her open Facebook page, enjoying a typical past time: macoing other people’s pages (maco: Trinidadian colloquial for looking into other people’s business. One of the most common things that has come up in conversation is that people don’t like it when others maco their profile, even though everybody is looking at everybody’s profiles and profiles of their friends. I actually regret not putting the question, “Do you maco other people’s profile on Facebook?” into our general questionnaire on SNS usage.) Charlie showed me one of her friends from work who recently had a baby. We scrolled through the page and she said “What was I doing last year when she when she got engaged, then got married, then was pregnant and then had this child? All that happened in a year?! Wow, Facebook.” Each life event that had taken place for her friend in the last year had been captured on screen, in pictures, statuses, albums and comments.

The timeline is a curious thing. It’s not quite a blog, which has aspects of different categories of personal documents: they are ‘part life history, part diary, part letter, part guerilla journalism, part and “literature of fact” (Graham et al. 2010: 284). The timeline has elements of a blog, it can support a collection of different media, like text, photos and videos, but it’s not quite diary keeping, history or faction. Facebook clearly encourages the use of the timeline as a quick entry diary or scrapbook that becomes a collection of moments that reflect the important things in a person’s life, but after speaking with over 100 people now about how they use the timeline, the more common use is for sharing of memes, music videos, and ‘clippings’, links to other things that are made by other people.

Are people constructing their narratives by speaking through the digital artifacts of other people? Are they even constructing narratives at all? What is somebody revealing about themselves by sharing Grumpy Cat memes? Am I taking Grumpy Cat too seriously?

Having oodles of data in the form of timelines, I’ve been toying methodologically with how to tackle understanding the timeline while doing this ethnography. If the timeline is a form of narrative, perhaps a revisiting of narrative in ethnography might be a starting point. How do people talk about the timeline? What is it exactly to them? Krizek, for example privileges story telling in ethnographic methodologies and culture and communication, “with a specific focus on meanings and identities as revealed in personal narratives” (2003: 143). Krizek’s research interest is non-routine public events; social occasions, performance and enactment. To an extent, the timeline is an event, it appears, it passes, it can be recollected, here in digital form. Personal narratives are part of a larger context, in the case of the Facebook timeline, this is two-fold: the narrative of the timeline in the wider context of Facebook to the person, and the narrative of the individual (about Facebook or themselves) in the larger context of their lived experience. Krizek, quoting Rosenwald and Ochenberg (1992: 1) agrees that “Personal stories are not merely a way of telling someone (or oneself about one’s life; they are a means by which identities are fashioned” (2003: 142).

These two levels, the narrative of the timeline in the context of facebook usage and the narrative of the person in the context of their lived experience seems worth investigating. It just feels a little too post-post-modern at the moment, though.

References:

Graham, Connor, Satchell, Christine and Rouncefield, Mark, (2010), ‘MoBlogs, Sharing Situations and Lived Life, Computer Supported Cooperative Work, Springer, pp 269-289

Krizek, Robert L. (2003) ‘Chapter 12: Ethnography as the Excavation of Personal Narrative’, in Carr, Robin Patric, Expressions of Ethnography: Novel Approaches to Qualitative Methods, State University of New York Press, Albany

McDonald, Paul, (2012) ‘Timeline: Now Available Worldwide’, http://ja-jp.facebook.com/blog/blog.php?post=10150408488962131, accessed March 24, 2013

Digital Politics 101

By Shriram Venkatraman, on 22 October 2012

Digital Politics is the representation of the players in a nation’s political scenario, on the internet. Simply put, it is the online version of a nation’s politics and governance. Political leaders all over the world are waking up to the power of the mouse click and the enterprising ones are trying to ensure that they are being presented in a favorable light.

Digital politics came to the forefront in the late 1990s and 2000s, emerging simultaneously with increased globalization of the world. People started migrating to other countries either in search for economic prosperity or to escape a troubled atmosphere back home. However, this dispersed diaspora were still interested in the happenings in their home countries and the ‘no barriers’ benefit of online technology won eager converts amongst these web-savvy immigrants.

The other important reason was that many of the countries in the world were becoming knowledge societies. A knowledge society is where knowledge is a ‘public good’ and not a prerogative of the elite few (UNESCO, 2005). Knowledge societies are characterized by a constant need to acquire and distribute knowledge about all aspects deemed important to an individual. Given that the internet was a revolutionary medium affording quick and cheap information accumulation and dissipation, people took to this medium quickly and various aspects of their lives spilled over to this virtual world. Naturally, politics and government started becoming a part of the tapestry of the digital world.

The dynamics of digital politics is constantly changing as various stakeholders become more sophisticated in how they use the digital platform. It goes without saying that technology has been the most important enabler of this changing dynamics. As technology matures, more avenues for this information exchange have emerged (blogs, social networking sites, twitter etc.) that have in turn influenced what people do with this platform. The web has become an important medium for citizen activism due to its power to reach out to a number of people at a minimal cost. Social activism has in turn provoked responses from the relevant authorities who are realizing the benefits of the internet to reach out to the people. The initial successes brought in more users and as technology became more robust yet simpler to use, even more people joined. This cycle has increased the popularity and reach of the mouse click even to those who are present in remote locations.

How and why people are using the web for political reasons has evolved over time and can be represented as a continuum which have the following stages

Information Acquisition

The first stage witnessed in this continuum is that of information acquisition. As the various countries threw open their boundaries to the outside world, a good number of people migrated to other countries in search of economic prosperity or to escape difficult conditions back home. This diaspora retained their ties with their home countries and the easiest way to acquire information about happenings back home was through the internet. Even for information about one’s place of residence, the internet provides a robust yet relatively less expensive medium for information acquisition.

Voicing of Opinion

The Information Acquisition phase was characterized by a passive, one way flow of information to the seeker. The natural extension of this was sharing this information along with one’s views and opinions with others. The online tools like blogs, social media etc. were the apt medium for this exchange. As this information exchange became viral, it became an instrument of political change. This was recently demonstrated in the ‘Arab spring’ series of citizen revolutions in the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region. This was where the world sat up and took cognizance of the power of mass thought.

Reciprocal Information sharing

As the world realized the potential of online media as thought shaping and information communicating platform, various stakeholders decided to maintain an online presence. This could be for various reasons; some of which are to present authentic information, to bring in transparency in the political mechanism, to present a favorable picture of a leader/political party, publicity, to gather funding from supporters, to reach out to the grassroots directly etc.

As the world becomes increasingly digital, politics is not far behind. The political fraternity has embraced the digital media and political parties, political leaders, lay citizens etc. are taking advantage of the benefits offered by the internet. Social movements have gained impetus from the quick access (to the citizen) provided by the internet and the presence of digital press has converted hesitant users to internet addicts.

References

UNESCO World Report (2005). “Towards Knowledge Societies” Paris: UNESCO

On what a blog can do

By Tom McDonald, on 2 May 2012

Woman wearing veil using smart phone

Photo: Ikhlasul Amal (creative commons)

It is incredibly exciting to write the first post for the blog for the UCL Social Networking Sites & Social Science Research Project, not least of all because with this blog, just like with this project, we have little idea of what it will develop into. Of course, it is our intentions and ambitions that have propelled us to create this space in the first place, so we have formulated at least some initial thoughts of what this blog might become.

We would like to think that the blog would provide a commentary and analysis of some of developments in the Anthropology of Social Networking as they occur, presenting particular papers or findings to those interested in this topic. Hopefully it would provide a valuable addition to the website in terms of a place where researchers could gather new ideas and inspiration for their own research.

The blog might also give us the opportunity to disseminate social networking research in new ways. Many people, whether  or not they happen to be anthropologists, have somewhat of an inkling of the tremendous effect that social networking is having on humankind. As we enter a period where disseminating research to wider audiences becomes ever more important, we may be able to ask how blogging might provide an opportunity to share our results with people who may not otherwise come into contact with anthropology? While traditional media outlets appear to be in a state of decline (and typically gave little affordance to anthropological studies anyway), and academic anthropological journals (with some notable exceptions) remain accessible only by means of expensive subscriptions or through university libraries, could it be that blogs offer a useful in-between space through which we can experiment with different kinds of writing to reach out to audiences?

Also, a blog could be considered as a form of social networking in and of itself. This blog will have the opportunity for readers to leave comments and we of course welcome debate and feedback to posts. There are fast-developing plugins and interfaces that link blogs with social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook. One could envisage that blogs might open up parts of the research process that remain hidden from many: meetings, solitary fieldwork or discussions. Research is often a collaborative endeavour, could blogs provide an opportunity to throw problems or discussions out to an altogether different set of people to solicit further opinions, helping to iterate and develop our research?

Finally, maybe a blog could just be a place to share. Claude Levi-Strauss commented that “anthropology is, with music and mathematics, one of the few true vocations”. Undertaking anthropological research is an all-consuming, exhilarating, exasperating, exhausting, tear-jerking, laugh-making and life-affirming endeavour, and if a blog could encapsulate at least some of those feelings we personally think it would be no bad thing.