UCL Social Networking Sites & Social Science Research Project
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    Algorithms and homogenization

    By Elisabetta Costa, on 8 November 2012

     

    The general goal of our project is to investigate on the social effects of Facebook in seven different countries. We want to understand how Facebook, as a global phenomenon, is locally appropriated in seven different small towns. It’s comparative research, so we are interested in finding out differences and similarities emerging from these places. The argument that Facebook is always an invention and creation of its users (Miller) does not imply that the social network does not have its own infrastructure or architecture that produces some sort of homogenization.

    In the field of Internet studies some scholars aim to find out how technologies shape and constitute the everyday life of people through the understanding of algorithms and codes that constitute the way the technology works. This kind of research might be very intriguing. For example yesterday I posted something on my Facebook page. Apparently it was not so appealing to my Facebook friends and for this reason I did not receive any feedback. After almost thirty minutes I published a second post more provocative and (apparently) more attractive as in few minutes I received a lot of comments. At the same time Facebook kept visualizing the first post in my friends’ news feed section, the uninteresting one. I thought: “Facebook is so sweet! It doesn’t want me to think that nobody is interested in what I write. It tries to convince my friends to make some comments or at least say ‘I like’”

    Facebook is built to prompt people to write comments and give feedback to their friends. If I post something Facebook will help me to receive comments. Facebook has been designed to build networks and create social relationships. The more we connect the more profits Facebook makes.

    Facebook does lead people to act in certain ways and not in others. If algorithms and codes are the central mechanism of social network sites, it is surely very interesting to investigate on the intentions of computer scientists and designers. Technologies, material objects and digital platforms always embed the intentions of their producers. However Facebook is presumably appropriated in a way that wasn’t intended and expected by its designers. This has been the case of every artifact, material object and technology in the course of the history.

    I am very thrilled in finding out about infrastructures and architectures, such as Facebook’s algorithms. But infrastructures are always used differently in different contests. For this reason I believe that being aware of the way the algorithms work does not give us much information about the social impact of Facebook. Rather a comparative research project about the use of social network sites can give us much more insights about the regularities and the cultural homogenization brought by Facebook in different social contests.

     

    Comparative research

    By Elisabetta Costa, on 30 October 2012

    A comparative research about social networking sites! Wow! I am really excited. The portrait of the researcher, the lone adventurer, travelling alone in far-away countries is probably part of the imaginary of many young students who decide to undertake studies in Anthropology.

    However the individualistic attitude of the anthropologist is not just a figment of our imagination.

    Drawing on my own experience so far, anthropology has been a very individualistic science. Starting from the first year of my PhD, when I had to deal with the massive literature about specific topics or areas, then in the fieldwork, finally in the writing up of the research’s outcomes, anthropologists are alone for most parts of their work.

    I think that one of the most worthy aspects of anthropology is its reflexivity. What intrigues me most about anthropology has been its ability to understand the world through the ethnographic encounter between the researcher, the informants and the social and material world they live in. Not reducing the observed phenomena to pre-existing categories or models is what makes anthropology unique. The continuous dialogue between ethnographer’s categories, informants’ discourses and practices observed in the field is what appealed to me.

    But what happen if eight researchers have to investigate on the same topic in eight different countries? How can we cling to the principles of the ethnographic research and at the same time producing comparable data?  After all, the main goal of anthropology has always been a comparative understanding of cultures and societies. From the late 1960s the emergence of reflexivity as a central concern of anthropology somehow led to the neglect of comparative research. And this is such a shame! I do not aim to not take into account the effect that the anthropologist has on the research outcomes, but I firmly believe that this awareness doesn’t have to stop us from working on comparable data and findings.

    Thus, making a good comparative and collaborative work whilst not losing a deep ethnographic understanding is probably the most ambitious goal of Anthropology. And this is what we are aiming to. But how can we achieve this?

    So far the first step has been the continuous dialogue among the research team members, which has lead us to define our topics of investigation, to find out the best way to investigate on them and to formulate our research questions. We are succeeding in having a collaborative attitude and in sharing our skills and theoretical background. We have been meeting for the last two months at least two times a week and I can truly say this is the most exiting team I’ve been able to work with! And this is only the start. During the fieldwork we will have one Skype meeting every month during in which we will discuss our findings. We will meet for an intense month discussion after the first year of fieldwork. Moreover, we will always be in touch through Facebook, Email, Skype, Twitter, Google Plus and Dropbox. So, let’s see where the investigation will take us!

    Might one of our research outcomes be the finding of a new collaborative way in carrying on ethnographic researches? It might be. And I really hope it will.

    This is not a user study

    By Jolynna Sinanan, on 24 October 2012

    Photo: Frederick Dennstedt (Creative Commons)

    Our project is about social networking. We all agree on that. It’s also about contributing to social sciences. We also agree on that. So far, every question we have discussed and asked ourselves along the way has come back to the conclusion ‘whatever we say has to be ethnographically informed.’ If it’s in our field site, we look at it, if it comes up as important to the context of our informants and their social worlds, we look at it.

    Yet, when we have referred to social network sites or have discussed how we might look at different ones, we inevitably end up gearing our thoughts towards imagining how facebook might look and be used out there in the field. We insist that this is not a study of facebook and its users, it really isn’t. (A quarter of our project will be looking at QQ in China). So how can we do a project about social networks and SNS without making it just about usage?

    What we have come up with so far, to keep with the anthropology equivalent of the Hippocratic oath to our fidelity to ethnography is this. We start with our SNS, facebook, or QQ, or Orkut or whatever the dominant site is in the field. When we start looking at its usage and start to identify trends or patterns, we then start to think about the wider sphere of the media of social relationships. Where does the SNS fit in with other sites? Where does it fit in with texting or emails or webcam for example? And then we widen our lens further to think about the totality of social relationships within that context. What is Trinidadian friendship or experiences of motherhood like? How are the expectations and the norms of these relationships similar or different to friendship or experiences of motherhood in Turkey or China or Brazil? And for that, we then need to consider all the possible things that might come up for us to better understand these relationships.

    For example, this makes my first task of understanding friendship and teenage girls in my fieldsite in Trinidad very easy. If friends spend a lot of time bonding over their mutual love of Robert Pattinson, I read Twilight because Twilight will be my ‘in’ to be able to better understand friendships between teenage girls in small town Trinidad. The idea of looking at anything that may come up as important to better understand the totality of social relationships in our field site actually sounds quite fun. It also means we aren’t just looking at usage of facebook. Unfortunately, it also means that I might have to read Twilight.