UCL Social Networking Sites & Social Science Research Project
  • fb_1.pngtwitter_1.pnggoogle_plus.pngflickr.png
  • A A A

    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 cost of an internet connection when there is none available

    By Juliano Andrade Spyer, on 10 November 2013

    Pots, pans, and an antenna on the left. Photo by Juliano Spyer.

    Pots, pans, and an antenna on the left (Photo by Juliano Spyer)

    Carcará is one of the songs that was popular among politically engaged youth of Brazil in the 1960s. Caetano Veloso’s recording of this song starts with the comment: “It is funny [to see] the force that things appear to have when they need to happen.”

    The song describes how a small predatory bird that lives in the northeast of the country survives during the dry winter time by biting the bellybutton of young calves, consequently resulting in their death. The song is a sort of suggestive tribute to the bestial survival strength shared by the millions of illiterate migrants originally from that region.

    I thought of this song the other day as I was visiting the home of a friend that is the president of the association of the residents of a squatter area in Baldoíno, my field site. Land invasions take a lot of effort to be legalised, and people must hang in there without official services such as electricity and running water while the government processes the claims and, if that is approved, make the new ownership official and distribute the documentation among the squatters. It usually takes many years to happen, but despite the odds, my friend was showing me his internet connected computer, which was the first of its kind in the neighbourhood.

    You can see how important the internet is just by looking at the excitement of the family around the computer screen. But the process of connecting that computer was rather costly and involved ingenuity both from my friend and from the person that is providing him with the radio connection.  First, it was necessary to understand that there are products such as surge protectors that must be bought and installed in order to prevent the computer’s hardware from burning due to the instability of electricity supply. Additionally, a person – a friend of my friend – had the idea of re-selling internet connection and he found that it was possible to subscribe to a broadband service and transmit it by radio signal to places far away. He first studied this through YouTube videos and was then successfully testing the experiment by supplying our friend with his much desired internet connection.

    I think the point of this post is self-explanatory: “It is funny [to see] the force that things appear to have when they need to happen.” Teenagers at my field site are crazy about the internet. It serves as a marker of distinction and as a place that is mostly exclusive for them to use in relation to their (normally illiterate) parents and adults in general. Parents seem to mostly feel favorably toward the attention their kids devote to using the internet, because then kids will stay at home rather than spending time outside the home unsupervised. They also will be doing something that  at least appears to be intellectual or related to the acquisition of knowledge. These are some of the reasons  the poorest people in my field site are pushing to find alternative ways to bring this service to their homes, especially in the case of squatting areas.

    Can social networking sites harm you?

    By Juliano Andrade Spyer, on 28 June 2013

    dilmabolada

    Dilma Bolada facebook page

    Do you think that the company that owns the social networking site is using your data for purposes that harm you?

    This is the one question from a demographic survey our team is currently piloting that makes my informants stop and think. Only one person – out of five, so far – have answered “yes” to it, and it was an emphatic “yes”. But the others were convinced that there could not be such thing. And the rationale behind these answers seems to be: - Why would a company want to harm its clients?

    These optimistic informants also add that everything they do or say on Facebook, the most popular social networking site in Brazil, is both true and already known by others so there is no possibility their posts could produce any harm.

    This particular topic came back to my mind earlier this month as Facebook was accused of political censorship here in Brazil.

    Dilma Bolada” is the name of a fictional character inspired on the personality of Brazil’s current president, Dilma Rousseff. The author of the character, a 23 year old college student, has attracted  350,000 followers on Facebook alone.

    His character mixes the (strong) personality of the President with a relaxed tone typically used here on social networking sites to comment on politically-related news stories. As a result, following Dilma Bolada is like being part of circuit of close friends with access to what could be Dilma’s Facebook posts.

    At the end of May, Facebook erased a post published on Dilma Bolada’s page mentioning an alleged involvement of Aécio Neves on a corruption scandal. Neves will likely be one of her strong opponents on the next presidential race.

    The post was based on a news report published by a known magazine and, as the author of Dilma Bolada wrote on a later post, its content did not break Facebook’s user policy.

    Folha de São Paulo, an important national newspaper, picked up the story of an apparent act of censorship by Facebook to protect a politician. Other news venues followed.

    At first Facebook refused to comment on the decision, but the repercussion both online and through the press pressed the company to revoke the decision and to issue an explanation.

    According to Facebook, an automatic feature that detects harmful content was responsible for the deletion. The system bases its decision on feedback sent by users. The company explained that, in this case, the system did not operate correctly.

    The erased post was also reestablished – here, in Portuguese – on Dilma Bolada’s timeline, but the question that remains is: would Facebook have changed its decision if the problem had not drawn so much attention and noise?

    Why do eight comparative ethnographies?

    By Daniel Miller, on 8 December 2012

    Photo: Ed Schipul (Creative Commons)

    I suspect that the initial response of most anthropologists to this kind of comparative study will be negative. Our model of work is incredibly specific, insisting upon the integrity, even the holism, of a fieldsite. It is almost as though we try to deny the often almost arbitrary nature of that particular village or town as our selected place of study, by the sheer devotion we have to the integrity of this place – which can become an account of ‘how my people do things’. It’s a bit like marriage, where, in truth there are thousands of people we might have married, but once we are married we create a relationship that is as though it is impossible to imagine that it could have ever been anyone but the beloved spouse. The idea of a comparative anthropological study can also feel like a betrayal of anthropology itself, and of our relationship to ethnography.

    So it is important to assert that we intend to confront this prejudice. That we do not intend simply to do eight ethnographies that are just eight times a single piece of work. That would be a betrayal of a different kind. It means that we would be failing to recognise that it is almost unheard of to get the kind of funding that allows for eight simulteneous ethnographies. If this is a most unusual opportunity then we have responsibility to understand what kind of opportunity this in fact is. Elisa in an earlier blog post talks about the excitment of sharing discussion at this early stage. Here I want to refer rather to the potential for analysis at the later stage.

    So let’s start from the other end. What can an eight-fold ethnography do that a single ethnography cannot? A blog is not the space to unfold this in any detail but let’s try one example. We will all be studying social network sites, and a core question anyone engaged in such studies must ask themselves, is to what degree the particular usage we observe is a product of the nature of the fieldsite where they work, or the social network site that they also observe. Is this because it is Brazil or because it is Facebook? The problem is that a single ethnography can only surmise on the basis of the evidence of that site which is always a conflation of these two (and of course many more) facets.

    By contrast, when eight sites are being studied simulteneously, the indiviudal who is working in Brazil knows far more than just what a Brazilian is doing on Twitter. At pretty much exactly the same time they will know that people in give other place are doing pretty much the exact same thing on Twitter. Or they will know that people in five other places are doing someting rather different on Twitter. Now we are hopefully too sophisticated to simply draw mechanical conclusion. It is possible there is another fator: a common sense of modernity say that all sites share, which prevents us from merely assuming that commonality means we look for a more technological foundation for this behaviour. Nevertheless the way in which our evidence is cited comparatively means that the level of disussion and analysis can start from a significantly higher level than if we were an isolated study with no idea of how our work related to similar investigations in other places.

    Furthermore, this situation precisely fits the difference between our project and most traditional projects in that our core focus is on something that, in its infrastructure, does not vary other than the contrast between QQ in China and Facebook which conveniently gives us another way of trying to decide what is because of Facebook itself and what from other factors. So a study that looks at this simulteneously in eight sites works particularly for something that has been introduced across the whole world within a very short time period. All this would at least suggest that a comparative study can actually deepen rather than take away from each individual ethnography. You are not betraying your fieldsite you are actually giving it a much greater significance than it otherwise might have had. At least that’s the idea…

    Forming groups

    By Tom McDonald, on 5 October 2012

    Our team of researchers

    Studies of how people form groups is something of a staple of the anthropological diet. In this context, the coming together of our team of researchers to work on the new comparative study on social networking has been an interesting process on which we might reflect, least of all because it will inevitably affect the nature and focus of our research. Befitting of the study, we ourselves have actually been using social networking platforms such as Skype and Facebook to get to know each other and formulate ideas for the project before it had even officially started. Despite the fact that we were located around the world, with researchers drawn from Brazil, India, China, Australia, Italy, Romania and the UK, we found it incredibly useful to meet regularly online to discuss our ideas for the project, and how we might want it to progress.

    Now that we have all finally converged on the UCL Department of Anthropology in London, it is great to encounter the same people face-to-face, and we are now gathering as a group frequently for intense discussions on the precise nature and scope of our research questions, the methodologies we will be employing, and how we will work together as a group and disseminate the findings of our research. Our spatial co-presence means that the relationships between us are becoming strengthened and the animated discussion relating to our project frequently spill-over into our after work time, where we continue our conversations together in the collectively effervescent situation of the pub, as is typical of the British working tradition.

    This group-style of working has led to some particularly exciting ideas, that are quite different from more established ways of carrying out anthropological research we are familiar with, which typically focus on long periods of lone research by a single ethnographer. Undoubtedly  too, working as a team might also bring elements of compromise. In that context it will be to see how our project, and the relationships between us, will develop for years to come.