UCL Social Networking Sites & Social Science Research Project
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    Who Am I? – The Case of Caste Related Profiles on Facebook

    By Shriram Venkatraman, on 11 April 2014

     

    Identity FBThe above cartoon says it all. There are quite a few cases here in my field site as well as in the villages closer to it where this sort of double existence on Social Networking Sites (SNS) seems natural and required. The thinking being that this was the right thing to do in order to avert caste problems or issues of any sort. While this sounds like a great strategy to follow, when seen superficially, this actually indicates identity confusion. This seems specific to the rapidly transforming (urbanizing), rural areas especially closer to bigger cities. Given that my field site is one such peri urban area, I encountered such an identity crisis in my informants quite often.

    This identity crisis of a person of a rural background (specifically young men/women) suddenly finding himself/herself in the midst of a rapid urbanization, manifests itself on social networking sites, where you have one caste based SNS profile and another more secular one. The idea is to not really mix these two as you tend to now live both the lives at the same time. However, my informants feel that it sometimes becomes confusing on who they really are and what ideology they really subscribe to. So when I asked Rajeev (the person in the cartoon), which profile would thrive for a longer time and which profile is a true reflection of himself; he said he really didn’t know. But, he was quick to add that it might be the one which is secular, since he thought that he might move away from the village looking out for a job sometime soon and secular was the way to go. However, once again, he reverted to saying that he might still have both the profiles separate without anyone (except for a handful of friends) from either of these profiles knowing that the other one exists, since he didn’t want anyone from his village to be offended. I asked him if he liked his caste based kin and his activity on the caste based profile; he replied that he loved it, as it was what had made him what he is today. But, he thought the secular profile from his college days was also important since it was the one which gave him his friends’ network,  a great worldview and a politically correct picture of him.

    After multiple interviews with such informants, it became rather clear that they were in a way struggling to understand and see who they really were and what was the image they were trying to project to the world. It was like they were being pulled on both sides by two opposite ideological forces at the same time. Escaping the geographical boundaries of the village seemed to be a solution to end both the social control and enabling the merging of identities. However, the emotional attachment to one’s caste and kin made them to hesitate to leave the caste based boundaries. Maybe, their identity itself was about existing in both the worlds at the same time and this is what is very clearly reflected on their SNS profiles.

    When suspension becomes a status symbol

    By Shriram Venkatraman, on 13 February 2014

    Photo By Vince - uvw916a (Creative Commons)

    Photo By Vince – uvw916a (Creative Commons)

    The best part of a longitudinal Anthropological study is being a witness to the changes that happens in the mindset of the people you study over a period of time, in my case just 10 months. When I first came into Panchagrami, there was a group of five young men who had just signed up for a Facebook membership. They were all first generation learners from a rural background. As with most new young Facebook members, I witnessed their constant competition in making and grabbing as many friends as possible on Facebook. The first step they always seemed to take was to friend everyone they knew offline by searching for their names on Facebook. Then they went ahead and friended people who were Friends of Friends and mutual members of a group or a page that they Liked.

    But, this seemed to take a turn a couple of months ago, when one of my informants from this group, casually stated that he was banned from Facebook, meaning that his account was suspended for a couple of days. This was pretty strange and when further probed, he stated that he was thrown out because he had sent Friends request to strangers (read “foreign women”, specifically Caucasians) and Facebook had his account suspended as he seemed to be spamming Friend Requests to people he just didn’t know and who in no way shared any mutual friends with him. This was not the first time this happened to him. In fact, the first time Facebook had his account temporarily suspended he didn’t even know why his account was banned. But, he seemed to understand from the trend of account suspensions, that whenever he sent out numerous friends request to people (women) he didn’t know, his account was automatically suspended, or at least this was what he attributed his temporary account suspension to.

    In a few weeks’ time when hanging out with this group, the others in the group also started boasting of this trend. Each one was boasting about how many times they had their account temporarily suspended in the past one month and the story that went with why their account was suspended. Each of them saw this as a game they played; the more number of times their account was temporarily suspended and the number of days their account got suspended with the story of why their account was suspended earned them brownie points within the group. When asked the reason they did this, they just seemed to want to turn the table on Facebook by changing the “punishment of temporary suspension” for trying to make genuine friends abroad, to merit badges. So, now the yardstick for heroism had shifted from the number of friends they made to the number of times they rebelled and were suspended for trying to make (read “spam”) friends.

    It is also interesting that a couple of these informants have now created a second profile on Facebook just to spam Friend Requests and get their account suspended temporarily in order to increase  status among within their peer group. They also maintain a separate genuine Facebook profile.

    Illiteracy and social media: a picture is worth a thousand words

    By Shriram Venkatraman, on 17 January 2014

    Photo by Frits Ahlefeldt-Laurvig – HikingArtist.com (Creative Commons)

    Photo by Frits Ahlefeldt-Laurvig – HikingArtist.com (Creative Commons)

    When I first came to the field site in India, Panchagrami, I had a lot of questions about access to social media and its use by lower socio-economic groups. Particularly, cost of access, literacy rate, social control, and a host of other varied but significant factors I hoped to study in detail. However, literacy and its impact on the use of social media became a recurring thought. Does social media require a textual language and/or a script for communication?  Were there people with very poor educational backgrounds or early school dropouts who could not read/write, and in some cases, read only in Tamil (this does not imply that they can type or write in Tamil) on Social Media, and if yes, what was their preferred media? Also, what do they do there and how do they access it? All of these questions were put to rest by what I saw in the last couple of months in my field site. I came across at least four users of social media (YouTube and Facebook specifically), who had no formal education and in a couple of cases did not know how to even read/write and could be termed as illiterates in general sense. Yet they communicated on Facebook, they “Liked” and “Shared”, but did not “Comment”. What came as a surprise was that they were on Facebook and YouTube every single day and even renewed their pre-paid internet connection on time. Their frequency of Facebook usage even stumped some of the other literate users. Though they did not know how to read texts, they viewed everything as pictures and symbols. So, access to YouTube/Facebook and the activities they performed within it (including Liking and Sharing) were guided by a visual/pictorial understanding of it rather than a textual understanding.

    Key navigational symbols used by illiterate social media users in Indian fieldsite (Images: YouTube/Facebook)

    Key navigational symbols used by illiterate social media users in Indian fieldsite (Images: YouTube/Facebook)

    Their access to these platforms was through an understanding of pictures, where YouTube and Facebook are represented by their logos. Further, their mediation inside these platforms was also through pictures and not through texts. Similarly, their contribution in these sites took the form of clicking on a picture that has a “Thumbs Up” sign which means “Like”. Similar is the case with “Share” for forwards/sharing pictures/video clips that have been shared by someone else, where they clicked on a button at the end of the three button section with a sign. In a way, they become forwarding agents and not producers of content. However, with the access to Smart Phones and the features that smart phones offer, some actually assume the role of content creators. A classic case is that of Nathan.

    Nathan, 26 years, is a bachelor and works as a mineral water supplier. He dropped out of school after his kindergarten due to family issues and economic troubles that these issues created. His network of friends from his neighbourhood included dropouts like him, high school (12th grade) graduates and college graduates. His friends often referred to Nathan as having an inferiority complex specifically with respect to his illiteracy. Though friendly, his demeanour showed that he was a bit reserved and shy. Getting him to even talk was tough to start with, but slowly he opened up about his understanding and use of social media. Until about a year ago he had no phone, not even a simple feature phone. A few of his friends, who had started using smart phones talked him into buying a Samsung Galaxy smart phone with the help of their economic contribution. They introduced him to internet access through smart phones and as a cinema buff, his first brush with the internet was YouTube. He started watching movies and clips (specifically songs and comedies from Tamil movies) by clicking on the links that his friends sent him. He has never searched for anything on YouTube. His friends taught him on how to access his messages, so that he can click on the YouTube links that they sent him through messages. He had the YouTube app installed on his smart phone and accesses it regularly. Now, he understands that the YouTube logo represents YouTube and clicks on it when he wants to browse through it. He looks at the still picture that gets displayed for each video and clicks on it, as YouTube and other such sites recommend videos based on the user generated information such as geographical location, history of videos viewed etc. So, given this set of clips recommended for him to watch, Nathan feels comfortable clicking on new videos and especially if he sees his favourite South Indian cinema stars featured on it. He normally asks his friends to use his phone to watch videos of their favourite songs and films, so that Youtube recommends videos automatically and he doesn’t need to search for anything. However, as YouTube does not require him to contribute anything, he is a passive but a faithful and continuous user of YouTube.

    After YouTube, he was introduced to Facebook almost four months ago. His friends helped him create a Facebook account and he exactly followed what his friends had taught him about accessing Facebook and learnt through observation. His illiteracy means he doesn’t understand the text on Facebook, but he understands the pictures and symbols. So, once the Facebook app was downloaded, his friends made sure that he was always signed into Facebook and he makes sure to recharge his pre-paid internet connection so that he doesn’t get logged out of Facebook. Currently, his normal exercise of accessing Facebook and activities on Facebook can be split into two types: one when he is alone and the other when he is with his friends. His independent access to Facebook takes the following form of activities:

    Step 1: Click on Facebook logo.

    Step 2: He swipes vertically through the screen to browse posts.

    Step 3: If he sees a picture and likes the picture then he clicks on the ‘thumbs up’ sign.

    Step 4: If he wants to share that picture with his network then he clicks on the forward arrow and once again clicks on the last picture on top of the screen and does not type anything. This is also how he shares video clips over Facebook.

    He limits his activities on Facebook to the four listed above when he is alone. However, his activities increase when in a group. He allows his friends to access Facebook and YouTube from his phone. He identifies people through their profile pictures and his friends help him friend others from his neighbourhood (by searching) whom he knows offline. Often his friends will read out what they see on others’ profiles and Nathan will orally comment on it; but he never has his friends write comments on others’ profiles, since every friend on Facebook is from his neighbourhood and knows he can’t read or write. Once he shares a picture/video, he asks his friends to ‘Like It’ or comment on it and to let him know their comment over voice, which normally happens face to face. He is now learning how to upload clips/pictures and soon will have a few pictures that he has taken on his smart phone uploaded to his profile on Facebook.

    His friends have added and subscribed him to a few Facebook groups that have its members posting video clips of Tamil movie comedies, so that he can have more access to such videos and need not wait for his friends to send him links. Similarly, they subscribed him to a group which posts pictures of pets, so he would be able to access these pictures directly on his profile and need not search for them.

    Expert manoeuvring of such maze-like online platforms with pictures as road signs is still possible for people with illiteracy issues like Nathan: after all isn’t a Picture worth a thousand words?

    (Brain) Drain vs. Gain

    By Shriram Venkatraman, on 16 November 2013

    Photo by Sinistra Ecologia Libertà (Creative Commons)

    Photo by Sinistra Ecologia Libertà (Creative Commons)

    Recently, when I was interviewing a retired school Principal, she casually mentioned how disheartened she was about the Brain Drain that was happening in India and Brain Gain that was happening in developed nations. At first it just seemed like a casual mention, but when she kept returning back to this topic over and over again, it somehow seemed to strike a chord even with my Research Assistant. To examine this topic further, I thought it would be helpful to first understand what each of these terms mean. ‘Brain drain’ is the flight of qualified and intelligent individuals from a particular geographic region or field and ‘brain gain’ is the influx of qualified and intelligent individuals into a geographic area or field of work. Brain drain, by definition, is a depletion of vital human resources that would have helped to develop that area (geographic area or field of work). On the other hand, brain gain is an aggregation of talent that can potentially transform the area if the additional talent can be nurtured and channeled in a proper manner.

    Geographically, brain-drain is an oft repeated complaint in many countries of the developing world where infrastructure and economic return may not match what is offered in more developed countries. This is evident in India where there is a constant outflow of talented and well qualified individuals to first world countries in North America, Western Europe, Australia and some Asian countries as well. Such individuals leave India in search of more economically viable jobs, better infrastructure, respect for their talent and a perceived higher quality of living. This is a visible phenomenon and has been talked about time and again in the media. A more hidden and subtle form of brain drain in India is that of the outflow of qualified individuals from certain fields/professions to others. Let’s take for example the IT and ITES industries. Companies from these industries recruit talent in droves from colleges (especially, engineering/management for IT and Arts and Science colleges for ITES) and are lauded as economic boons.

    This caught my attention through a series of interviews with a few undergraduate students studying in Engineering as well as Arts and Science colleges in my field site. What was evident was their aspiration to somehow get into the IT field. IT is such a drawing force that these students really haven’t explored their own field of study as much as they have explored the IT industry. Through any means possible they want to be associated with the IT industry. From Chemical Engineers to Tamil scholars, students tend to look at IT with a sense of awe and respect, though they often say that they are aware of the pitfalls in the industry. They tend to view IT careers as the panacea to all their problems (though it seems like all of their problems point to personal finances), through which they say they would attain status both in their own family as well as society at large. Their aspirations reminded me of Nicholas Nisbett’s bookGrowing Up in the Knowledge Society. Though he deals with Bangalore, the case is similar with most of the South Indian cities where the IT economy rules. Of course, the physical distance that someone is from an IT industry is also a factor and given that my field site is so close to a Special Economic Zone that tends to favour the IT industry, such aspirations aren’t really a rarity. However, what is often overlooked is that this talent inflow into IT/ITES is at the cost of losing talent in other areas of Engineering, Sciences and Humanities. In other words, the IT industry’s brain gain is the result of a brain drain from other disciplines and this leads to a skewed and potentially unsustainable distribution of talent. Thus, India faces a simultaneous brain drain and brain gain which together are a more complicated issue than if each is seen separately.

    Child in India? Sorry! No Facebook then!

    By Shriram Venkatraman, on 20 May 2013

    The Delhi High Court had questioned the Union Government of India on why minors (children below 18 years of age) were on Facebook and Google. This was in response to a case filed by an ideologue of a major political party in India. The issue they wanted explained was how someone under the age of 18 years could enter into a contract with a company as according to the Indian laws, this cannot be done by any minor in India.

    Facebook allows user registration with an email address, so when creating an email address, one again needs to electronically sign a contract ticking the acceptance of terms and services of the service provider, so would signing up for an email addresses also be blocked and not available for anyone under the age of 18? Or would it be fine if the students let their parents know that they are signing up for email address, so that they have now received their parents consent? But, according to the law, wouldn’t that also be wrong, as these services require the user to enter into a contract and not their parents or guardians? So should these service providers now create consent forms to be signed in by the parents of these children rather than by the children themselves? What would then happen to the first generation learners in India? Several schools and educational institutions would then be in the wrong as they now ask their students to have email addresses and sign in to educational groups. Several summer camps, hobby groups for children and children’s clubs might be contravening the law, as they really haven’t enlightened the law to their child members nor have they followed it.

    Similar is the case with educational e-applications now selling (downloading) like hot cakes on smart phones and tablets, they all require the user to “Agree and Install”. It seems like several of these need to be looked into now. Similar is the case with multi user online games, which are pretty popular among children in India.

    Wouldn’t this mean that any child, who owns a laptop, should not install any legal applications (even an update), because they ask the user to enter into a contract with them – where the user needs to tick the box that he/she understands the terms under which the application is installed in his/her system. Should this also require the consent of the parents then?

    So, is the intent on the online security of these children when they get into such social networking sites? Or is it just blindly following a law that states no one under the age of 18 can enter into agreement or sign a contract? If so, wouldn’t this apply to all avenues of one’s life, rather than just to Facebook or Google alone, why target just these companies alone? If the intent is on child security online, then shouldn’t the base of this case filing itself be different? The question of why have the court and/or India woken up to this after such a long time still persists? If children are said to be creating fake profiles and if such faking is punishable with imprisonment by law, it also may seem as if several Indian children would have to be placed in juvenile homes.

    It seems like Facebook as a company had let the US authorities know that almost 80 million Facebook accounts were fake, as there was no user verification. Statistics show only people aged above 18 years on Facebook, however, it is evident that this might not necessarily be the case. Would Facebook consider removing these 80 million fake profiles?

    It would definitely be interesting to wait and watch at the proceedings in this case and how the law of the land unfolds itself in due course.

    Refs:

    http://www.indianexpress.com/news/explain-how-children-open-facebook-other-accounts-delhi-high-court-to-govt/1107592/

    http://www.hindustantimes.com/India-news/NewDelhi/Explain-how-kids-below-18-open-FB-google-accounts-HC-to-Centre/Article1-1050425.aspx

     

    Facebook users: do they turn up at polling booths in India?

    By Shriram Venkatraman, on 12 April 2013

    Photo by Yogesh Mhatre (Creative Commons)

    Photo by Yogesh Mhatre (Creative Commons)

    An Indian national daily newspaper carried an interesting article recently, on how Facebook users can change the election results in India. It spoke about the impact on digital campaigning that political parties in India were adapting in order to woo supporters.

    Based on several sources on Facebook statistics, it would be safe to assume that an average of 60 million people (approx. 5% of Indian population) from India are on Facebook and it would be safe to assume from various other data sources that at least 50% of them are youth and most of them are educated middle class Indians.

    Similarly, on an average, from popular news reports it is evident that the voter turnout during elections is between 70 to 75%. However, it is most often criticized that these voters are mostly from the poorer strata of Indian society (both rural and urban) and the numbers constitute very few educated Indian middle class. Further, Indian middle class are also constantly criticized for being armchair critics.

    How many of these poor who vote are on Facebook? While numbers at a top level may seem to be significant, they lose significance when diving deep to understand the constitution of the group which finally decides Indian political leadership.

    While it is definitely interesting to see the digital campaigning strategies adopted by political parties, these only constitute 50%, the rest is on making sure that the impact created by these strategies turn into votes.  It would be interesting to see how many of these Facebook users turn up at the polling stations, which would truly demonstrate the impact of digital campaigning.

    New-Age Spiritual Gurus and Social Media

    By Shriram Venkatraman, on 13 February 2013

    It is not rare to see the social media presence of new-age spiritual Gurus in India. They have a steady following on several social networking sites. From Facebook fan pages and groups to Twitter to Youtube channels, you name it and they have it!

    Transcendent and immanent omnipresence, a spiritual nature of the soul in Indian philosophy, now finds itself rightly expressed through social media. With such high intense publicity, it seems like several such Gurus are driven by an incessant need to achieve the dream of several beauty pageant participants – namely ‘world peace’.

    Though there is nothing wrong in the branding that they wish to achieve in order to either bring in more followers or maintain their supportes – in other words an e-spiritual capital (or call it the i-spiritual capital, or prefix any other vowel that denotes the digital medium) that they build through their social media presence – it doesn’t take long to figure out the conversion of this e/i-Spiritual capital to an economic capital on the digital arena.  Most of their presence on social media are followed by links to their websites which more or less advertises the Guru and does an awesome spiritual marketing, pitching in their e-shops and souvenir items that was until recently only traded in US dollars.

    Rituals on the Facebook pages range from chanting (typing) the Guru’s name every morning, noon and night to expressing how an ideal life should be led on this earth. The pages cater to mostly the devotees and followers who are not residents in India. The digital medium is thus used to build memories of the Guru across space and time. Some of the best personal branding social media presence run by volunteers is that of these new-age spiritual Gurus. No wonder that they now advise CEOs and corporate entities on how to run businesses!

    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.