UCL Social Networking Sites & Social Science Research Project
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    School fights, moral judgments and racial commentary

    By Jolynna Sinanan, on 22 April 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “These little black children!”

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

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

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

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

    Bibliography:

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

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

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

    QQ and education: children, parents, and schools and communication in China

    By Tom McDonald, on 22 August 2013

    'Summer Holiday Homework' textbook

    Chinese textbook entitled ‘Summer Holiday Homework’ used by a middle school student in the North China fieldsite (Photo by Tom McDonald)

    In the North China fieldsite, education makes a really neat contrast with Xinyuan’s case that she outlined in her earlier blog post, where she described how the migrant factory workers in her South China fieldsite often seemed to be having children specifically with the objective of sending them to factories at the earliest possible age.

    The situation could not be more different here in North China, where education has presented itself as being an overwhelming priority for parents. Although people in the town and the surrounding villages are not in excruciating poverty, they are also by no means wealthy. Nonetheless, doing whatever they can to make sure that their child gets the best education seems to be at the front of parent’s minds. For example, here the summer holidays are not turned over the children’s play, as one may expect. Instead, many children attend tutoring classes (fudao ban). Most of the tutoring classes follow the normal school times of 8-11:30am and 2:30-5:30pm, except they take place an astonishing seven days a week.

    Given the importance of educational achievement that parents place on their children, social media seems to play a role that would be best defined as somewhat antagonistic and contradictory to these educational aims. There is a discourse around QQ in the town that assumes it to be bad, and particularly threatening to children’s educational achievement of young people, and so it requires access to be restricted. This is then weighed against more practical benefits offered by the services that mean that they are in fact used by many student, parents and teachers alike.

    One of the most common statements that emerged was that parents said their middle school children did not have QQ accounts or mobile phones. Almost every parent of children who did not have QQ or a phone would say ‘it affects study’ (yingxiang xuexi) as the reason for their children not having access to certain types of communication. For example, Mr Li bought a computer in the year 2003 when he was trying to make a go of his photography business. At this time Mr Li’s daughter was about 7 years old. Mr Li decided to setup a QQ account for his daughter. He saw that she was using it a lot and became worried she was playing too much, so he tried encourage his daughter to limit her own use, threatening to change the password if she did not comply. After two days Mr Li went to change the password, and realised it had already been changed. His daughter maintained that she hadn’t changed the password herself, saying to her father ‘hey, how can I not login?’. From this event Mr Li explained that he realised that young people caught on to new technologies very quickly.

    Schools themselves also present a somewhat mixed set of messages regarding the use of social networking. Most obviously, the school rules prohibit the use of mobile phones. The reality is, of course, somewhat different. According to one middle school teacher, in a class of around 40 students, one might expect to find around 11 with telephones on their person. The most important reason for confiscating phones is the use of playing online games on phones or using it to send messages via QQ.

    On the other hand, there were also examples of cases where schools had been incredibly pro-active in the creation of accounts. One parent explained their main reason for having a QQ account themselves was to hear from the school:

    “I do not normally use QQ chat, I mainly use it for communicating with my child’s primary school teachers. My child has just started the second year of primary school, from the start of the first year, if teachers have some materials they just post it all on QQ, and you download it yourself.”

    The final interesting twist to this story is that all this parental effort aimed at restricting young people’s access to QQ and mobiles is effectively then reversed when, at the relatively tender age of 15, most children leave home to read vocational college or high school in the nearby city district, about 20km away. This event changes a major part of parent’s views towards communication and it becomes more common for parents to condone the use of QQ or mobiles.

    For example, Liu Ting has just finished her middle school examination, and has also managed to secure a place in the top high school in the nearby city. As a reward (jiangli) for her excellent results, her parents said they were going to give her 1000 RMB ($163 USD) cash. However her mother told us that Liu Ting said it was too much, so they came to a compromise of a 500 RMB ($81 USD) reward and a mobile phone for her to use when she started school in the city. Previously she had not been allowed the use of a phone.

    These three quite contradictory examples all show different degrees of restriction or condoning of QQ and phone use, and reveal the nuances of shifting relationships between children parents and schools in China.

    Anthropology of social media within the city and the Gezi Park protests

    By Elisabetta Costa, on 16 June 2013

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    Photo: Elisabetta Costa

    Our seven ethnographies on the impact of social media are all going to be carried out in seven different towns, in seven different countries. These have different sizes and characteristics, but as written in the research proposal they are all towns with links with bigger and cosmopolitan cities, and at the same time with surrounding rural villages and areas. Furthermore, in order to have more comparable data we decided to carry on the core of our analysis in an area of the town around 25000 inhabitants.

    What I would like to stress more in this blog post is the internal cultural heterogeneity that I am coming across in my field-site. In the first two months spent in the field what has drawn my attention more has been the heterogeneity of the people living here. I am trying to meet new people every week and I am finding out that the distinctiveness of their cultural traits is quite relevant. Differences in religion, politics, social class, level of education, gender, ethnicity and age contribute to the shaping of different internet related social and cultural practices. My field-site is also inhabited by teachers, civil servants, university students, engineers, architects, NGO workers, medical doctors, nurses, polices men that came to work here from other parts of West and East Turkey. These persons actively contribute to the life of the city and to the shaping of different processes of social and cultural change. At this point of the research heterogeneity in the cultural traits of this small city’s inhabitants is definitely more visible than any sort of imaginable homogeneity. And what is even more interesting is that different forms of appropriation of the internet and social media seem to be perpetuating cultural differences instead of reducing them. It seems that any generalization about the appropriation of the internet in this small city can be built up only on the assumptions of great diversity. Following the anthropological methodology we know that through the comparisons of these different internet-related habits we will find out why and how dissimilarities emerge. But how can we compare these diversified and heterogeneous practices?

    When I started to consider the different locals’ reactions to the Gezi Park protests that have been going on in the last two weeks in many cities of Turkey, my first feeling was to think in terms of the different national and transnational networks my informants were part of. However I believe that categories of networks used to describe communication processes and internet usage brings scholars – and journalists – to think more and more in terms of connection and to not see the rest. As Marilyn Strathern (2002) pointed out “Its epistemological effect (making connections) makes thinkers lazy.” She also reminds us that the more we talk about connection the more divisions become visible. For this reason I believe that a comparison between different practices emerging in the field should be linked first of all to the work of political ideologies at a “micro-level” and only secondly to networks. Ideology and the articulation of hegemonic (and counter-hegemonic) positions within the nation are important. I believe that it is through the intersection between these two different perspectives (network/ ideologies and hegemony) that we can understand more in depth why, and how, distinct and contradictory internet-related practices emerge.

    References:

    Strathern Marilyn. 2002. “Not giving the game away”  In: Gingrich A. and Richard F. (eds.) Anthropology by comparison. London: Routledge

    Class and communication

    By Daniel Miller, on 1 June 2013

    Photo by cityofstrangers (Creative Commons)

    Photo by cityofstrangers (Creative Commons)

    I don’t really want to study social class, every researcher on English society seems obsessed with it, as are the general public. Consider the recent reaction to the BBC Great British Class Survey or books such as Watching the English. But after just two months fieldwork in The Groves I am immersed in a whole slew of such differentiations. How far do the people of High Grove look down on those of Low Grove? Is everyone now using the term ‘social housing’ as a proxy for not just lower class but all sorts of problematic behaviour they associate with that class? Can I ignore stories of parent’s weeping when their child fails to get into their chosen school? I would like to have focused on something more original, but the integrity of ethnography starts with ignoring what you would like your study to be about, and going with your evidence.

    When I do research on class I find I fluctuate in my perspective. Sometimes I see through welfare glasses where class looks like differential life chances, and the sensibility of fairness. I remain incensed by the degree that it is still the mere luck of being born to lower income families and lower educational expectations that largely determines life’s opportunities and the likelihood of suffering and deprivation. This remains true of the UK where inequalities still mainly stem from chance not ability. But I also see class with other glasses that pick up all sorts of nuances and playfulness of style as social differences which make up a fascinating tapestry of distinctions in clothing music and style, without necessarily meaning a whole lot in terms of objective life chances.

    I may have inherited this duality from the French anthropologist/sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. Much of his research concerned poverty and the relationship between education and subsequent social mobility. Others, such as his book Distinction are associated with issues of taste. The recent BBC Great British Class Survey is a pop version of the work of Mike Savage which is in turn a pop (or updated) version of Bourdieu. But Bourdieu was less divided since with the legacy of Marxist writing he still saw taste and life chances as two sides of the same coin, which guaranteed the status of class as an object of study.

    How will class relate to the study of digital communications? Differential digital literacy may still reflect class as welfare. Other differences are more complex. Some quite hip young people are into Instagram used for all sorts of ‘edgy’ photo effects. But others with a serious interest in photography see this as an inauthentic cheat that devalues photography as art. Maybe this is typical of the democratization of skill? There are early indications. There seems to be a stronger digital presence generally including higher usage of Instagram in High Grove. Does this run parallel with evidence its high street has the delicatessens and art galleries, while Low Grove has few such class markers?

    I am suspicious of correlations as evidence of cause. My work with the hospice suggests that it was often high status families who were most reserved and cut off from social communications and ended up suffering social isolation as a result. So higher status may not translate as advantage. Class is cross-cut by gender and age, and Facebook seems to be migrating from younger to older. Also social differentiation fragments into many different competitions. As Bourdieu once put it there is a struggle for hierarchy between the different hierarchies. So things will be complex, but that is the nature of ethnography, and if don’t manage to tease out these tangled threads, who will. Fortunately we have another two years to try and make sense of such things.

    Brazil’s internal class struggle over the internet

    By Juliano Andrade Spyer, on 30 October 2012

    An ‘instagram-med’ image that has been reposted in an attempt to expose the ‘lack of taste’ of the new middle class

    “Orkutization”. Such a weird sounding word. Unless you are a middle class Brazilian who spends a lot of time online. Then that should be part of your daily vocabulary.

    Orkut was to Brazil what AOL represented to the United States: the first opportunity for a lot of people to experience online communication and sociability. Orkut is a social networking site named after its creator, a turkish software engineer from Stanford working at the time for Google. It was released in 2004, a month before Zuckerberg launched Facebook. In similar to Facebook among US college students, Orkut initially imposed a restriction that limited participation to those who had an invitation. For different reasons, Brazilians joined massively and soon became its largest group.

    Orkut arrived in Brazil at the same time as the country experimented with a process of rapid internal social change. In the past 20 years, around 50 million Brazilians – roughly 25% of the country’s population – moved out of poverty and started consuming goods.

    As computers became more affordable, these new consumers started appearing on Orkut. And as their presence grew, it gradually drove away the early adopters who felt annoyed by the new comer’s boisterous behavior and “lack of manners”.
    The same process happened in 2008 with Twitter: its early adopters made it a cool place to be, which, in turn, brought in loads of users from Brazil’s “new middle class”. It was then that term “orkutization” was coined and began circulating.

    As it should be clear now, “orkutization” is a derogatory term. It describes the massive arrival of these new users to an online space originally occupied by the wealthier online elite. After Twitter, it happened to Facebook and more recently to Instagram.

    An ‘instagram-med’ image that has been reposted in an attempt to expose the ‘lack of taste’ of the new middle class

    Claims that an online destination was “orkutizatized” spreads together with collections of examples of the newcomers’ claimed lack of manners. These collections could have, for instance, a list of spelling mistakes or over-sexualized photos.

    It is important to notice, though, that such collections are carefully prepared to exaggerate certain aspects and ignore others. Its purpose is to ridicule by implying this exaggeration is true.