A A A

What is social media about?

By Razvan Nicolescu, on 9 May 2013

Photo by mikeleeorg (Creative Commons)

In this post I will summarise my individual interest in this project and how it relates to my previous work.

In my PhD I discussed a particular and apparently individual reaction to the lack of appropriate alignment of the individual to the external forces that come from society. I showed that in rural southeast Romania existential boredom could be the result of a continuous evaluation of the relation between the individual and his or her designated social position. In particular, people I worked with used to represent this alignment by adopting particular attitudes towards the material culture that surrounded them. If wealthy and hard-working peasants expressed their relative success through sustained work and reticence, most of the dispossessed and unemployed people expressed their disapproval of their current social situation by engaging with a larger spectrum of practices that ranged from being extremely expansive to being annoyingly inactive.

In all these cases, there was a local morality that always justified people’s different attitudes. I argued that this morality was not articulated necessarily simply by the customary village life, or by the local enactments to the various ideological impositions, but this was judged according to people’s social positions. These judgements were usually done in relation to what kind of role a particular individual was supposed to play within the community. In particular, idleness was judged locally as either a right or a shame.

Elsewhere, I showed how Romanian teenagers in a rather affluent neighbourhood in Bucharest engage with media technology in a highly normative way. Even if majority used to declare that media liberated them and offered so many opportunities, their actual online practices showed that they adopted very strict and normative attitudes within their social groups. One of the reasons for this attitude was the fact that their communities and peers actually obliged them to create and follow self-made norms that were meant to protect them from the unpredictability of the online medium. I showed that in spite of the new and exciting opportunities offered by social media, teenagers nevertheless found there the same kind of annoyance and boredom as in the offline world.

I see this project as a continuation of my work. I am interested to explore the use of social networking in relation to the way individuals perceive their social positions. Is social networking simply reproducing these social arrangements, or, by contrary, people use social networking in order to emphasis or to contradict particular aspects of their social positions? Why would the individual present himself or herself in everyday life in different ways in offline and online environments? When is he or she free to actually do this? Will Goffman’s arguments about the presentation of the self be true for social networks, or will we contribute to a more refined understanding of social relations?

Two of the issues that Goffman missed are the individual freedom and the morality that determines the individual to act. Goffman sees the world as a set of principles that the individual has to pursuit if she wants to be successful within any given society. As I showed in my PhD, people’s practices are not necessarily the result of the particular hierarchy of social forces that act upon them, but rather are informed by a sustained individual comment on this hierarchy. My question is how this relation changes when the individual is free to choose between different concurrent representations of the self in the online and the offline worlds. What does freedom mean here?

I also intend to explore what people do actually look for when they either engage enthusiastically with, or, by contrary, are indifferent to social networking. I am interested in the implications of social networking on people’s ideas about how they should live their lives. The hypothesis is that people use social networking in relation to their individual ideas about how they should act in the society. The question is then how does social networking contribute to these ideas.

Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the fairest one of all? Social media as framed mirrors

By Xin Yuan Wang, on 2 February 2013

Photo by Sukanto Debnath (Creative Commons)

The other day, my previous informant X showed me her latest Facebook status update with a broad smile. The status looked like a quote out of nowhere, which confused me, and the only comment which came from her boyfriend made me even more confused. Even though I could understand each individual word; however the conversation between the post and the comment didn’t make any sense to me at all, there was a clear disconnect. Then X took 5 minutes to explain the whole story, which turned out to be the first time ‘Facebook official claim’ of their relationship which still remained a secret to most of their friends. I was amazed.

Why would people utter tender words of endearment to their lovers on Facebook which otherwise could be done by more private communicative channels? Why should people add confusing posts/comments, which can be only understood by a few intimate friends on Facebook to a huge number of other people? Many studies are concerned about the social media’s potential to destroy privacy, which I would definitely not disagree with. However, in other cases, it seems that those people who are fully aware of the context of social media, intentionally play around with the ‘transparent/private’ features of Facebook to express the most subtle emotions–is this just for fun?

Linguists have long noticed that the existence of ‘indexical signs’ the meaning of which highly depends on the context of social interaction. For example, smoke would be related with many things, but in certain spatio-temporal contexts smoke is an index of fire, however smoke does not ‘stand for’ the fire the way in which the word ‘fire’ refers to fire–here exists a causal rather than symbolic relationship, which ‘points back’ from the index to the referent (Boellstorff 2012:51). Similarly, the indexicality of those wordplays on Facebook, points back to the relationship itself. And the conversation acquires meanings from the ‘Facebook context’, rather than the ‘face value’ of the content. So why bother to post a ‘Facebook official claim’? Partly because the meaning of intimacy comes from the distinction, which suggests the uniqueness of the particular relationship exclusively against other aggregated public/private social relationships on Facebook – that is ‘among all the others, only we can understand what we are talking about’, which gives rise to the establishment of the relationship. In other words, that making things visible is, in itself, constituting relationship. To take this a stage further, Facebook to some extent has become a mirror to make a relationship visible–just like you can’t see yourself without a mirror.

The sociologist Goffman (1975) used the word ‘frame’ to explain how people’s behavior is cued by the frames which constitute the context of action. The Facebook ‘frame’ tells us how to interpret others’ behaviour as well as our own, but mostly, such framed activities are unconsciously embedded in the social expectations and understanding of what is or is not appropriate. The ‘public’ represented by Facebook is more often than not the people one knows privately (at least the anonymity of ‘real-name’ social media is limited compared to the other online communities), and there are consequences of addressing such a large body of social connections through ‘one-to-many’ texts or photos on Facebook rather than other personal communicative channels with particular individuals. Just as Miller argues “we have reached the point where Facebook may be regarded as providing a crucial medium of visibility and public witnessing” (2011:180). In such a frame, as long as people get used to the ‘public gaze’ or ‘participatory surveillance’, they start to develop a strategy to address the ‘public’. As X said “He knows only I know and others don’t know”, also in a way the invisible confused ‘public’ has contributed to the perception of the distinction which has added meaningful significance to their intimate relationship.

So, “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the fairest one of all?” does the fairy tale ring a bell when you look into the framed mirror of Facebook every day? The question why do people ask the mirror matters as much as the mirror’s answer in the eyes of digital anthropologists.

References

Goffman, E. 1975. Frame Analysis. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Miller, D. 2011. Tales from Facebook. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Boellstorff, T. 2012. “Rethinking Digital Anthropology”, in Heather A. Horst & Daniel Miller (eds.) 2012. Digital Anthropology. London: Berg.