UCL Social Networking Sites & Social Science Research Project
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    The continuum of visibility

    By Jolynna Sinanan, on 17 February 2014

    Photo by Jolynna Sinanan

    Photo by Jolynna Sinanan

    If Facebook is a visual platform-one where people can show aspects of themselves through words in posts, or what was status updates or comments and in photos that they have taken themselves or photos taken of them in posts, uploads and albums, or share something made by someone else in memes, clips, audio and video-then we also have to think about how people engage with each other through visibility.

    Since returning to field work in Trinidad last week, I have been continuing working with Dr Gabrielle Hosein at the University of the West Indies on spectacular politics, work which started when I documented the hunger strike of Dr Wayne Kublalsingh last year.

    Now, we are thinking about how people engage with each other though the Facebook tools: Like, Comment, Post and Share. What can these things say about how social life plays out on Facebook? Trinidad is well versed and have a language for degrees of visibility. The most extreme, the spectacle, is played out for four days of the year, culminating on Carnival Tuesday. Playing Mas is about being the spectacle and being the show, ‘playing yourself’, externalising a true self that can’t be enacted the rest of the year, on the festival of disruption and inversion of the usual social order. The literature on Carnival speaks to how people come to exist through visibility, being seen and being in stage, whether or not one is being seen as themselves, or through a mask (Lovelace, 1979, Birth, 2008, Mason, 1998, Franco, 1998).

    As Carnival has specific understandings within Trinidadian culture, the cultural understanding of the usage of Facebook is less about Facebook, than an enactment of a cultural world that is Trinidad (Miller, 2011, Miller and Sinanan, 2014). So what can ‘likes’, ‘comments’, ‘posts’ and ‘shares’ tell us about the degrees of visibility? The first very important factor to note is the research that is informing this pre-theorising is based in a small town. El Mirador has all the ideals and frustrations of small town life. It’s a town that is considered to hold ‘traditional’ family and community values and most people know each other or at least know of each other and each other’s families. El Mirador can be too social, where everybody knows everybody’s business.

    We’re starting to ask people when and how they use ‘likes’, ‘comments’, ‘posts’ and ‘shares’ and we are finding there is a distinct correlation to ‘offline’ social life. ‘Like’ represents the benign sociality of the local idiom of ‘liming’, hanging around, gentle acknowledgement and visible presence, and the other end of the spectrum is ‘post’, which is really putting yourself out there, on show. The majority of posts are sharing of moods, what people are doing, where they have been, holidays, family events, parties etc, there is very little political comment or commentary. When asked when they would not engage with something someone has posted, that is when they ‘do nothing’, the majority respond around ‘TMI: too much information’- when people are too visible. ‘Sharing’ is directed to specific groups or individuals, there is less sharing on an individual’s wall, but more general sharing that would resonate with certain individuals or groups. ‘Commenting’ is more personal, it is one degree down from posting, people comment when they feel strongly about something: ‘if it affect me’.

    If usage of Facebook is embedded in existing social relations and spaces, it is worth unpacking the nuances of what ‘posts’, ‘comments’, ‘shares’ and ‘likes’ connote. The hazards of becoming too visible, even through online engagement on Facebook invites controversy and invites attacks on the self, whereas gentle acknowledgement, hanging around and being present is, in this context, more socially acceptable.

     

    References:

    Birth, Kevin, 2008, Bacchanalian Sentiments: Musical Experiences and Political Counterpoints in Trinidad, Durham and London: Duke University Press

    Franco, Pamela, 1998, ‘Dressing Up and Looking Good: Afro-Creole Female Maskers in Trinidad Carnival’, African Arts, Vol. 31, Iss. 2, pp. 62-67

    Lovelace, Earl (1979), The Dragon Can’t Dance, London: Longman

    Mason, Peter, 1998, Bacchanal! The Carnival Culture of Trinidad, London: Latin America Bureau (Research and Action) Ltd

    Miller, Daniel (2011) Tales From Facebook, Cambridge: Polity

    Miller, Daniel and Sinanan, Jolynna (2014) Webcam, Cambridge: Polity

     

     

    Social media, social distance, and inconsistency

    By Razvan Nicolescu, on 22 January 2014

    Photo by Razvan Nicolescu.

    Photo by Razvan Nicolescu.

    This post is about what people in the Italian fieldsite feel their peers should not do on social media.

    Here is a fragment from an interview with a 18 year old student on an issue that was mentioned in different ways by most of the teenagers I talked to:

    ‘What I don’t like [about Facebook] is… these guys who pretend [on Facebook] they are completely different than how they really are [in realtà]. For example, there are some who [at school] don’t talk to anybody, they are all alone (…) and on Facebook they talk a lot, they talk a lot about themselves, how nice they are, they friend up with many people, they ‘Like’ so many things (…) and in reality they don’t even say ‘hello’… there is this girl, she just passes along without saying anything to you…’

    These teenagers are not necessarily complaining about either of these two contrasting attitudes of the person, but rather the difference between the two attitudes. Most of the teenagers I talked to think that the most annoying issues they are exposed to on social media are related to a sort of inconsistency between online and offline presence. They seem to not mind if some of their peers are distant or not very social offline, and not even if some are ‘over-social’ and extremely creative online; rather, they sense an inadequacy whenever they see contrasting behaviours in each of the two worlds, that are not justified or explained somehow. At the same time, the attitude of some teenagers and young people to refuse joining any social media seems to be accepted and sometimes even appreciated.

    To give this discussion more context, it is important to note that among teenagers and young people in the Italian fieldsite, Facebook is by far the most used social networking site and WhatsApp is by far the most used mobile app. The two platforms rather complete each other: young people think Facebook is a more resilient tool to present oneself and to communicate with a larger set of peers, while WhatsApp is thought as being appropriate for more transient communication within smaller and more intimate peer-groups such as family and close friends. Additionally, there are several other Internet sites and applications which provide these platforms with multimedia content, most notably YouTube and online photo editors such as PicMonkey, iPiccy, or piZap.

    The quote above expresses the common thought that people should be true to their peers on social media, or at least not confuse them too much. But it is also true that teenagers expect confusion and excitement on social media. But they feel that this kind of confusion should come from people who also adopt these attitudes in the classroom or on the streets. Most of the users of social media explore the myriad of options available online and their own creativity in order to strengthen various parts of their personalities. Very often social media is not an extension, but an enabler, or a way of promoting the self that is considered acceptable in each particular community. This is the reason why, for example, when a couple breaks up the most violent manifestations are happening online rather than offline. By removing an ex-lover from the list of online friends and thoroughly reconsidering each of their mutual friends one has to objectify the split in ways that in the offline world are considered either unnecessary or ‘natural’. In another post I will write about the effort people put in translating the ‘natural’, and what this means, into the online environment. For now, my point is simply that while on one hand this process is admired in different ways, on the other, people who appear online in ways that seem to have no equivalent or justification in the offline word are highly sanctioned.

    This also represents a critique to the sort of literature and public discourses that judge changes brought by social media in terms of fundamental shifts from a pre-existing cultural logic. This kind of discourse was repeated in different ways for the advent of mobile telephony, the Internet, web-based applications and services, and indeed for describing other similar ‘revolutions’ such as the invention of the printing press, modern public transportation, or television. At least from this ethnography it seems that people just do not fit too easy into this model.

    Digital public, publics, publicness

    By Jolynna Sinanan, on 5 December 2013

    todays yoof_davity dave

    (image, courtesy of davitydave, Creative Commons)

    Doing what is essentially two simultaneous ethnographies is no simple task (‘Simple’ as in ‘straightforward’, not ‘easy’. Conducting ethnography is generally not easy, but analysing the ‘online’ component can be mistaken for being easy. In the last two weeks, doing ethnography entailed sitting on Facebook for a few hours a day, staring at hundreds of posts and actually calling it work). Now that we have all done a considerable amount of fieldwork and have met quite a few people, we will all also be spending more time on Facebook (or QQ, or QZone) looking at streams of what people post. For us, debates and differentiation between ‘offline’ and ‘online’ are becoming increasingly irrelevant, as each area gives us more information and provides more insight and depth of understanding to the societies we are studying. Looking at posts on Facebook involves a mix of images, text, acknowledgements in the form of comments, tags and likes and sharing of content made and modified by others in links to other material, memes and videos. We aren’t just analysing images taken and posted by individuals, we are also analysing shared and mixed content. Just photos, for example, would be more straightforward: photos are inherently reflexive, they are taken by someone of something, and they are a way of pointing out, describing and judging, yet; the image-maker is also visibly absent from what they have captured.

    So who is all this content for? A general public, groups of publics, or certain individuals? A brief review of other studies on visual practices, photo-sharing and circulation included a study from 2011 by Lindtner et al. on how the sharing of digital media is not just about the exchange, but about social and cultural production, maintaining social ties and identity production. They interrogate the idea of ‘publics’ by drawing on the work of Warner (2001, 2002), which distinguishes between a single public and several publics. Media sharing is aimed towards specific publics, for example, when friends see what other friends have posted there is a sense that ‘this is aimed for me to see’, despite their actual relationship (if any) to the individual (Lindtner, 2011: 5.3). An individual could have several of their networks on Facebook and so each network or ‘digital public’ in this sense is also part of the individual’s impression management (in Goffman’s sense). Aspects of the individual that are being shown through what they post are for specific people in those networks to understand the reference and not others. Some posts I came across that exemplify this are status updates like ‘DON’T LIKE ME?? Have a seat with the rest of bitches waiting for me to give a F#@k’ and ‘I hate how after an argument I think about more clever shit I could of said’ and  ‘The most amazing things happen when you really slow down and look at all the wonders around you and you realize God truly does have a plan.’ A quick look at the likes and comments, especially by those informants I’ve met, says that these are distinct messages to people where close friends know the context.

    A discussion with the other researchers on the project leads us to think that aspects of managing publics will be common and others will be comparative. By looking at the content of shared images, posts and updates, we can start to gauge what MacDougall describes as ‘the range of culturally inflected relationships enmeshed and encoded in the visual’ (2005: 221). So there will be a lot of time procrastinating, I mean, working on Facebook in the months ahead.

     

    References

    Lindtner, Silvia, et al. “Towards a framework of publics: Re-encountering media sharing and its user.” ACM Transactions on Computer-Human Interaction (TOCHI) 18.2 (2011): 5.

    MacDougall, David. The corporeal image: Film, ethnography, and the senses. Princeton University Press, 2005

    Snapshots from the field: using social media in the Italian fieldsite

    By Razvan Nicolescu, on 26 November 2013

    People walking in the central square of a small town close to the fieldsite during a local feast. Photo by Razvan Nicolescu.

    People walking in the central square of a small town close to the fieldsite during a local feast. Photo by Razvan Nicolescu.

    Sandra is a 34 year old lawyer and considers herself to be quite successful. She lives with her parents in a big house near the centre of the town. She is expecting a baby sometime next year. When she found out she was pregnant, she and her fiancée decided to get married and build a ‘real’ family. At the same time, the two renounced using Facebook. This was quite simple as they were using the same Facebook account. The two enjoyed the fact they had no secrets between each other and could share the same friends and tastes. Therefore, they thought it would not make sense to use two separate Facebook profiles. However, when they decided to get married they also decided they would not need Facebook anymore. The main reason for this change was that people ‘gossip a lot’ and they do not need to see that online. They sensed that the intimacy of their couple was enough for them and they really had no intention to share this with people other than their closest friends.

    Helena is a 28 year old shop assistant. About one year ago she split with her fiancée. This was a quite difficult moment for her as they were together for more than six years and she was still in love with him. The first thing she did when she realised they had really broken up was quit Facebook. She did not want to see her fiancée anymore and most of his male friends. Helena decided to dedicate her time to work. She also went out with her friends and sisters much more rarely than she used to do before. A few months ago she decided to create a new Facebook account. She thinks the new profile is ‘cleaner,’ mainly because she very carefully selected each person she friended. She actually decreased the number of friends from more than four hundred to just over two hundred. Helena thinks she is totally different on Facebook now than she used to be one year ago. She does not advertise much about herself and does not write too much text. However, she ‘shares’ a lot of content uploaded by other people and ‘likes’ up to 15 times a day. She is always connected on Facebook via her Smartphone and also spends a few hours each evening on this social media at her family’s computer.

    Tony is an engineer for civil works. He just finished University and is unemployed. He used to collaborate on several small projects in his branch and accumulated some experience. He is trying to find some stable work although he recognizes this is very difficult. He does some volunteering work for one ecological association in the region. He finds Facebook useful for relating with his friends, but rather useless for the things he is most interested in, like finding a job and building a career. Most of his friends are unemployed too. Just around half of them have Smartphones. When they meet in a café or in the square they rarely check their phones for updates or messages. Tony agrees that Facebook is to be checked out at home, and not when you spend time with your friends.

    Andy is an IT engineer. He works from home for a big Italian company and also develops software applications as a hobby. He is a technology enthusiast: he loves new IT gadgets, powerful cars, and pieces of software that he could re-assemble and use in complete new ways. Andy is well connected on several different social media: he consistently follows about a dozen blogs and he is quite active on Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram. He reads a few journals online and comments whenever he feels he should. He watches movies online, sometimes a few in a row without pause. He does so many things online that his girlfriend rarely sees him. They do not live together and she says it is difficult to get him out of the house after work any time other than when he is walking his dog. Andy seems quite happy and, as he told me, one important reason for this is the freedom he senses when he realizes he could do almost anything he wants from home.

    And we, as anthropologists, should put all these together…

    Is QQ uniting the many different Chinas?

    By Tom McDonald, on 19 November 2013

    A meme shared by a research participant with the following caption: "I already have you in my heart. Even if there was someone better, I wouldn’t want them." (Original author unknown)

    A meme shared by a research participant with the following caption: “I already have you in my heart. Even if there was someone better, I wouldn’t want them.” (Original author unknown)

    China, it is often said, is a country of great contrasts. While our project has placed researchers in eight different countries around the world to research the impacts of social media, for China we deliberately chose to have two separate researchers and fieldsites: one in the north of China, and another in the south. It made sense to have two fieldsites in China because the country is such a unique case: Facebook and Twitter are inaccessible from the mainland, and the country has instead developed it’s own social media networks to fill the gap: QQ, WeChat and Weibo.

    I have been astounded by the difference between our two Chinese fieldsites. My China North fieldsite is a very small rural town which is characterised by a relatively fixed local population with little inward migration, a strong emphasis on education, adherence to family planning laws, powerful ideals of family and the institution of marriage.

    By contrast, the China South fieldsite where my colleague Xinyuan works is a relatively large urban town, with factories that employ rural migrants from faraway in China’s poorer western provinces. Xinyuan has shown how her participants often avoid family planning laws and show far less concern for the formal education of their children. Their decisions also seem led by more short-term ideals relating to the new pleasures and experiences that migration to urban areas can offer them.

    To all intents and purposes, it seemed as though our fieldsites were two different worlds. At least that was the case until last month, when we moved our attention from day-to-day fieldwork to analysing the content of our participants’ QQ profiles. The results of the exercise was startling: despite all the differences between the north and south China fieldsites, most people create and share very similar types of posts. In China the most popular genres of these posts centring on ideals of either romantic relationships (see above example), or childbirth and child-raising.

    Our task as anthropologists is to try to make sense of whether there is a link between these similar behaviours in our very different fieldsites, and what these phenomena mean for our understanding of society.

    It is very early speculation at this stage, but I have a feeling that these similar postings might be one of the ways in which people across China are able to feel that they share values with each other, despite all the other differences that separate them. It does not matter that the participants from the China North fieldsite do not know our participants in the China South fieldsite, or vice versa. The fact that our informants are mostly writing and sharing the same kinds of posts might mean that they already have more in common than we had previously thought.

    If we are to follow this line of reasoning, then it may be possible to speculate that social media in China is playing an important role in nationalism. But the nationalism I am suggesting here is not the obvious kind (and the one that attracts the most media and academic coverage), which operate on the level of patriotic postings, censorship, or protectionism of the Chinese internet. Rather, the nationalism I am proposing operates at a deeper (and far more subtle and widespread) level. Could it be that these posts play an active role in making Chinese people who are so obviously different in terms of status, background and wealth, feel a little more like each other?

    If this is the case, then we need to also acknowledge that this affinity, rather than being ‘top down’, is expressed and furthered by users themselves every time they write, like or share one of these apparently innocuous posts. However ridiculous it may sound, the idea that a sense of Chinese nationalism might be partly constructed by shared baby photos and romantic memes could take us a step closer to understanding China as it is imagined and experienced by the normal population.

    The Facebook wall as expression of traditional values

    By Elisabetta Costa, on 11 November 2013

    Photo by Elisabetta Costa

    Photo by Elisabetta Costa

    The inhabitants of Dry Rock Town in south-east Turkey have a mix of social, economic, geographical and ethnic backgrounds. The composition of the town is complex, beginning with a heterogeneous population that has lived here for decades and centuries. Additionally, different groups of rural and urban Kurds, Turks and Arabs came to live in the town more recently for different reasons, contributing to the expansion of the city. At the moment the main social differences of the inhabitants can be explained mainly as a consequence of different levels of urbanization. In fact we can see the people now living in Dry Rock Town as distributed along a continuum from more rural to more urban.

    In the last weeks I have worked on the visual analysis of my informants Facebook posts and what has struck me most has been the homogeneity of their Facebook profiles. Although the differences existing in  real life between rural and urban people are evident, their Facebook visual materials look quite similar. It doesn’t matter if a woman or a man has grown up in the main city of the region or in a small village, and they have completely different life-styles. Their Facebook profiles have many things in common and their visual materials are not so different from each other. Traditional values of family, honour and women’s modesty are overtly represented.

    For example, H. is a young Kurdish woman who works in a highly professional environment, grew up in a big city in southeast Turkey, has male friends, drinks alcohol in restaurants, and eventually will freely choose the person she marries. Her Facebook wall is not so different from the one of S., a woman in her early thirties who grew up in a small town, has very few relationships with non-family members, and that is married to a man who was chosen by her family. In both cases, relatives, family members and traditional habits surface as the main objects of the visual materials that appear on their Facebook walls. Pictures of weddings and family gatherings, and self-portraits with relatives are the most represented images.

    The Facebook social network reproduces the social space of the village where there is no space for anonymity. On Facebook everybody is very careful to not damage their own reputation and that of the family because on Facebook everybody knows each other. The practices learned in the anonymous spaces of the big city disappear in the self-representation played out on Facebook. I refer specifically to habits and customs of urban women, such as hanging out with friends, coming home late at night, drinking alcohol, smoking cigarettes, and having intimate relationships before marriage, which are not represented at all on the Facebook wall.

    But as written in a previous post, in contrast with the normativity of the public space, the private chats and the private messages of Facebook are exactly the opposite. People do secretly what they can’t do in the offline world: chatting with girls and boys, flirting, finding lovers, new friends and partners, getting in touch with foreigners, playing games, and being politically active.

    Two worlds

    By Xin Yuan Wang, on 5 September 2013

    The bed of my informant CY, which she shares with her little sister (photo by XinYuan Wang)

    The bed of my informant CY, which she shares with her little sister (photo by Xin Yuan Wang)

    The more that I get to know people here in the South China fieldsite, the more I see the sharp distinction between their offline lives and online lives.  It seems that there are actually two worlds, or two places where my informants live – one is a physical place, and the other social media.

    My informant ‘CY’ is 18 years old, lives with her parents and her little brother and little sister. CY’s parents work in the same factory. The whole family lives in two small rooms – CY shares the bed with her little sister in the downstairs room (see image, above).

    Every day the family wash themselves in a shared toilet which is without a shower. One plastic bucket and one plastic wash basin serves as a shower set. There is used toilet paper and dirty water on the floor, stains on the wall. However the toilet at home is still much better than the one at work, where people just don’t feel like flushing after using it, which is welcomed by swarms of flies. The air is thick with the stench of sewage and human waste and one has no problem of finding the toilet with the sense of smell hundreds of meters away. At daytime, even indoor temperature is above 38 degree, the air is so warm to the degree that I am afraid the only electric fan stops working because its engine is burning hot. One day, after work, CY was ‘playing’ her smartphone in her room while chatting with me from time to time. She was attracted into the ‘online world’ as if she had forgotten where she was; after a while; she looked up to see me – I was sitting there, sweating like a pig.

    “Life outside the mobile phone is unbearable, hum?” she smiled.

    Exactly. Life outside the mobile phone! I almost jumped up and cheered when I heard what she said. CY was right, there are two worlds , one is inside the mobile phone, and the other one outside the mobile phone. The one outside is a tedious place with the smell, high temperature and other chaos. To the contrary, the one inside with infinite space is free from any unpleasant smell and weather. CY’s QQ profile is neat, clean with the color of light blue and white. She updated her QZone (status and forward post) at least three times per day. Online CY is surrounded by a group of admirers and the way she talked is as if she was the princess who is waiting for true love. I have never seen CY talk like a princess in any face-to-face situation.  In this big factory, there are hundreds of other ordinary young women just like CY, CY is just one of them and as such pretty ordinary;  However,  she is a princess in her ‘inside’ world online.

    Of course the offline world and online world overlap in many cases; half of CY’s online status have a very close relationship with what just happened offline. And the one who interacts with CY most frequently online is her best friend who works in the next-door workshop of the same factory. A great part of the offline world (especially the not so pleasant part) is not reflected in her QQ profile at all. She knows each of her online friends offline, in which vein, one cannot view online and offline as separated in terms of participators. However, my point is that a significant part of my informants’ online world has nothing to do with their offline world, and in most cases, they prefer to ‘live’ in the online world which is much more interesting, pleasant, and purified.

    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.

    Something we take for granted in the digital age

    By Xin Yuan Wang, on 14 December 2012

    Photo: Enkhtuvshin’s 5DmkII (Creative Commons)

    The other day I was talking with my friend via Skype, whilst at the same time using my smartphone to check some information. I couldn’t find it anywhere. At last, I had to hang up the call and return to the library to find my phone, before suddenly realising that I was, in fact, holding my phone, talking to it when I was trying to find it. This anecdote provoked much laughter from my friends. However it may be more than a joke. Why didn’t I notice the phone? Obviously the mediation of technology in this communication has been ignored, which would be regarded as another example of the humility of things - “the more effective the digital technology, the more we tend to lose our consciousness of the digital as a material and mechanical process” (Horst & Miller 2012: 25). As such, it is no surprise speed at which people now have taken the digital for granted in the digital age.

    Despite the popularity and saturation of digital technologies in many places, no generation of human beings has yet lived their whole life span in this digital age. Many of the earlier writings concerned the digital media (the Internet, cyberspace) as a “virtual” place. As the opposite of the “real”, “virtual” seems less real, and thus less valid to represent the authenticity of humanity. Then why bother to study a “virtual” place? It is safe to say that human kind have never just lives in a tangible world since the very beginning of human culture. ‘Virtuality’ is neither new, nor specific, to the digital world. We all live in a culturally and spiritually structured world which involves a huge amount of imaginative aspects: the legend of the tribe, the memory of the ancestors, or forms of art, etc. Culture, as shared systems of imagination and practice, shapes people’s idea of kinship, identity, community, and society – in sum, the very deepest assumptions about being a human being in the world. In this regard, the digital world ontologically does not differ from any other worlds at all.

    Nevertheless there is something unique about the digital. Digital has created an ‘always-on’ lifestyle (see boyd 2011:72), in which the boundary between online and offline has become blurred. Being ‘always-on’ does not literally mean always-on the Internet, but rather always having the capacity of being connected. Also being ‘always-on’ does not necessarily means being always accessible. You can leave the phone unanswered or ignore the messages on IM (instant message), and individuals have quickly developed a sophisticated strategy for communication with a whole palette of possible digital communicative channels (see the idea of polymedia). The primary concern of media choice has shifted from an emphasis on the affordances of media to an emphasis upon the social and emotional consequences which as been articulated by the media choice: one medium may be good for arguing or avoiding arguments; one may be suitable for flirting or communicating secrets, so on and so forth. ‘Always-on’ and ‘polymedia’ would mean different things in different social milieu, but one thing is for sure: we can no longer just examine the binary opposition of online or offline; or concentrate on one single medium to analyze people’s communication in the digital age.

    References

    boyd, danah. 2011. “Participating in the Always-On Lifestyle”, in Graham Meike & Sherman Young (eds) Media Convergence. Pp. 71-76.

    Horst, Heather A. & Daniel Miller. 2012. Digital Anthropology. London: Berg.

    ‘Big data’ or ‘Data with a soul’?

    By Xin Yuan Wang, on 8 November 2012

    Image: Thegreenfly (Creative Commons)

    What is big data? In the digital era, the data produced by people on an everyday basis is myriad. There is always more data coming into being, and it is growing at an unimaginable rate. People believe that big data will lead to big impact, claiming that big data opens the door to a new approach to understanding people and helps to making decisions. At the 2012 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, big data was a theme topic and the report Big Data, Big Impact by the forum claimed that big data should be considered as a new class of economic asset, like currency or gold. People who are masters at harnessing the big data of the Web (online searches, posts and messages) with Internet advertising stand to make a big fortune.

    I love data, so big data sounds brilliant! However I am not a ‘big fan’ of big data. Partly because, for me, big data sounds more like a marketing term rather than analytical tool; partly because, being trained as an anthropologist, I am very cautious about going too far out on a limb to make such assumptions. For me, it will be a great pity to see people who fancy formulating big data with brilliant statistics, however ignoring the little stories happen in daily life which have been taken for granted

    For anthropology, to some extent story is the date with a soul, or contextualized data to be exact. There is always a danger that data without a context would be confusing and very misleading. For example, in my previous study on the appropriation of Facebook among Taiwanese students in the UK, one thing I discovered is that the Taiwanese use the function ‘like’ on Facebook much more frequently compared to UK Facebook users. For a Taiwanese who have 150-200 friends on Facebook, 20-50 ‘likes’ for each status or posting is very commonplace, and the average amount of ‘like’s’ which people give to others is 15-35 daily. Such considerable amount of ‘likes’, per se, could possibly lead me to making some superficial conclusions, for example, that Taiwanese are more predisposed to admire others online, so on and so forth. However, it was only after long-term participant-observation and several in-depth discussions with each of my informants, that I start to realize that both the Chinese normativity of proper social reaction (save face, reciprocity, renqing) and moral responsibility taken by individuals in the negotiation of real life communication practices shape the pattern of Taiwanese online performance.

     “For most of the time I ‘like’ people because I have nothing to say about their updates, but I want them to know that I care about them, I follow their lives.”

    “Liking is polite, just like saying hello when you meet your friends. Nothing to do with the content which you like.”

    “…I kind of think that, the more I like a certain person, the less I want to be really involved into his/her real life. ‘Like’ is easy and safe. You know you still need to give a face to people.”

    Also, according to the principle of Chinese “Bao” (reciprocity), people who have been ‘liked’, will try to find all the means to pay off debts of the “Renqing” (favor) to others.

    “I would expect ‘likes’ from others on Facebook, you know, which makes me more engaged with them and I will like their posts as often as I can. For those who like or leave comments on my profile, I will reply to them with careful preparation to show my sincerity.” as the other key informant said.

    It’s so interesting to explore the ways in which “Being Chinese” and Facebook appropriation have been mutually constituted. Facebook is to some extent re-invented by the Taiwanese. If I just count how many ‘likes’ and analyze it without looking into the online content and offline context, I will miss the point no matter how big and sophisticated the data is.

    So, the question is whether we are looking at ‘big data’ or ‘data with a soul’? Of course, these two are not necessarily mutually exclusive to each other, even though there are some things you can only do with Big Data or ethnographic data. The point is how can we take advantage of the best parts of the both and contribute to the understanding of our human society as a whole, which is also a big question mark for all the researchers in the digital age.