UCL Social Networking Sites & Social Science Research Project
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    How teenagers communicate with publicly private messages

    By Juliano Andrade Spyer, on 30 November 2013

    2013-11-01 12.57.36

    Teens may use different characters to add layers of information to a name. (Photo by Juliano Spyer)

    Through the process of “gutting” profiles I had the opportunity to pay attention to a kind of posting I see often but did not recognize as a type of coded communication. Many of the female young adults and teenagers I friended publish regularly moralizing content that they themselves write. At first sight they are rather uninteresting, looking like an amateurish exercise on writing self-help prose, but a trusted local showed me that there was more to it than I had grasped at first. Lange’s (2007) notions of privately public and publicly private have been helpful to study this phenomenon.

    First, let me show you what it is that I am talking about. Here are examples of the content these informants may share at any time and any day:

    “When all seems lost, give glory to God”.

    “The pain will pass just like the smile will arrive”.

    “Today’s tip: ignore offensive words because poison only does you harm if you swallow it”.

    “The size of my deception is the size of the trust I gave. There are people that don’t think of others, they only see their own bellybutton.”

    “Sometimes change must come from within”.

    “To be happy is not to have a perfect life. But to use your tears to irrigate tolerance. Use the losses to refine patience. Use the mistakes to carve serenity. Use pain to lapidate the pleasure. Use the obstacles to cultivate intelligence”.

    I arrived at this topic–codes teenagers and young adults use to speak privately in public areas such as Facebook–as my research assistant told me about a recent experience she had related to the use of social media. The story involves her close friend who is 16 years old, that for the purpose of anonymity I will call G16. G16 liked a boy that had a reputation of being a lady-killer. The information reached G16’s mother, who is overly-concerned that her daughter will not sacrifice her future because of an unplanned pregnancy. As G16 refused to friend her mom on Facebook, the mother decided she had the obligation to spy on her daughter. She did so by convincing my assistant’s mother to request that my assistant show them the content G16 posts on Facebook.

    This story will make better sense if you have an idea of what Baldoíno, our Brazilian field site, is like. This used to be a fishing village about half century ago. It has steadily grown and has became a sort of working class neighborhood for the manual labor hired by the touristic industry nearby. Students in general are not very interested in studying, but are under the spell of digital communication devices and services. This passion started with Orkut and Messenger, and has now materialized in Facebook. Of course, as Professor Daniel Miller recently pointed out in his blog post, Facebook  is becoming less cool for younger generations.  In Baldoíno, young people are  quickly migrating to the new cool thing: WhatsApp. And my hypothesis is that the absolute fascination with these products is partially about looking cool, but mainly about having the possibility of communicating among themselves and, as much as possible, away from adults like teachers and parents. This sort of privately-public communication is possible partly because older people here are not well trained in reading, writing, using keyboard and mouse, and navigating through computer screens. That is the case of the mothers of G16’s and my assistant. It takes a long time for them to read and even longer to type.

    As the mothers pressed my assistant to expose her friend and to break the confidence they have on each other, my assistant decided to cooperate but not to volunteer information either about G16’s life or about how to use Facebook and the local codes of usage. And as expected, the mothers did not spend much time looking at the girl’s timeline as it was much too crowded with written stuff. Instead, they asked to look at G16’s photos. The logic of the request was that, if G16 was dating this guy, they should have photos of each other as a couple. But, as my assistant explained, G16 knew that a picture of that kind would find a way of reaching her mom the same way the gossip about her secret affair did, so she would never expose herself like that.

    The attempted spying failed and G16’s mother was then convinced that it was a better strategy to have an honest conversation with her daughter.But the story would have been somehow different if my assistant had been as helpful to the mothers as she was to me. You first need to know that the extensive amount of generic moralizing content was disguised communication. Secondly, you would need to be part of G16’s group of trusted companions to know through face to face communication what was going on in her life. Under such circumstances I could see that there was a lot G16 was saying about her romance on recent postings.

    Here are examples of her coded messages (which have been re-written for anonymizing purposes):

    “Don’t ever ignore someone that loves, worries about you and misses you. Because maybe one day you may wake up and find out you have missed the moon while counting the stars”.

    “I matured a lot recently and learned to acknowledged myself. As new people came to my life, I also decided to let go others that did not add to my well-being. – feeling bothered”

    According to my interpreter, the first message was a warning to the boyfriend. She was telling him and others that know him that she was not happy with the little attention he is offering her and telling him she would not tolerate that much longer. The following message suggests that she had decided to let go of him even if his actions do not please her. My assistant speculated that G16′s conversation with her mom had a positive outcome. So writing is a way of hiding things from the older generations here. Together with writing one hides hints of what is going on under the look of a prosaic or philosophic reflection that makes no reference to specific people, places or events. Had it not been for the help and trust of my assistant, I would have never guessed the true meaning.

    Reference

    Lange, P. G. (2007), Publicly Private and Privately Public: Social Networking on YouTube. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 13: 361–380. doi: 10.1111/j.1083-6101.2007.00400.x

    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.

    Tencent news: in-app news delivery in QQ and WeChat

    By Tom McDonald, on 24 October 2013

    Newspapers arrive at the town's Post Office for delivery to local homes and businesses (Photo by Tom McDonald)

    Newspapers arrive at the town’s Post Office for delivery to local homes and businesses (Photo by Tom McDonald)

    One of the aims of our research is to understand the connection between politics and social media. Before we started our fieldwork we had envisaged this topic would largely revolve around how people made posts relating to specific stories in the news or shared news articles on their own Facebook pages. However, once again, China has surprised us in how different its social media is from it’s Western counterparts. People tend to refrain from making lots of public comments about news online, but both QQ and WeChat’s mobile applications (both made by Tencent) are set up by default to deliver national news items to their user’s mobile devices, with these items appearing in-between other conversations users are having with their friends.

    The 'recent conversations' screen in the QQ iPhone app. The fourth contact down (showing the QQ 'penguin' icon surrounded by a tri-coloured circle) is the QQ news centre

    The ‘recent conversations’ screen in the QQ iPhone app. The fourth contact down (showing the QQ ‘penguin’ icon surrounded by a tri-coloured circle) is the QQ news centre

    The news to each of these in-app news services is written and delivered by the Tencent News centre. Both apps receive three new reports daily, normally containing four stories in each post, and the user receives on-screen notifications when they arrive. Occasionally, especially significant news stories may be afforded their own individual posts.

    In general, the news that appears in these stories tends to be middle-brow, and written in quite accessible language, remaining largely free of the formal news about diplomatic meetings and official  language that tends to dominate the main closely government-controlled national news sources such as the  evening TV News Simulcast (Xinwen Lianbo) and People’s Daily. Instead, Tencent’s in-app news consists mostly of stories focusing on a mixture of criminal cases, ongoing government corruption investigations, sex scandals, and scientific discoveries.

    It would be easy to view all Chinese media as a propaganda tool, and an extension of the government, and this is the kind of statement that is often repeated by Western media outlets. However, one of the strengths of the ethnographic approach of our fieldwork is that instead of only analysing the content of  social media, we also compare this to how normal people in our fieldsites actually use and talk about these platforms themselves. When I spoke to one of my participants in our China North fieldsite about the in-app news feature I asked him whether he thought the function might have been included at the government’s bequest. He said he didn’t think the government would have forced Tencent to add the in-app news function to their chat tool. Instead, he argued that it was probably the fact that Tencent thought that the news would ‘attract people’ and that they would find it ‘interesting’.

    From here in this small town in North China, it is impossible to know exactly what decisions are made faraway in the Tencent News centre. Nonetheless, QQ and WeChat’s in-app news feature has become a particularly significant — if not the main — way in which national news is now consumed for many people who own a smartphone in the town. But also this marks a fundamental change from having to ask for news through ordering the newspaper, or turning on the television, to having the news delivered to your device without requesting it, often appearing as if it were a message from a friend.

    Things that never appear on Facebook

    By Juliano Andrade Spyer, on 4 October 2013

    2013-08-20 17.42.01

    Photo by Juliano Spyer

    On one morning, towards the end of last year, my research assistant here in Baldoíno (our Brazilian fieldsite) a 25 year old college student, was approached by a friend who asked if she had heard of ‘the murder’. About one hour earlier the body of the murderer had been found and taken out of the river. He was the father of four children, a quiet man who killed his wife due to jealousy and shortly after committed suicide. My assistant told me this story as an example of the types of information that spread quicker through face-to-face contact than through digital media – which, here, translates to Facebook. But this story eventually arrived on Facebook and was openly discussed.

    I started thinking about the speed at which information is transmitted at the beginning of my fieldwork when another young informant mentioned how surprised she was at the knowledge her mother had about things that happened in the community. ‘I’m the one who’s on Facebook’, she told me, ‘but she knows much more that I do’. Everything her mother hears come from her trusted network of friends and family members. I want to argue that my initial ethnographic evidence suggests that face-to-face communication is more efficient because there are certain types of information that does not arrive at Facebook at all (or at least not to its public spaces of communication).

    About a month ago, a truck had been improperly parked in Baldoíno’s main street. While the driver was unloading goods, the vehicle started to roll down the road and hit two children. Both were taken to the hospital with severe injuries. One of them, a nine year old girl, lost part of her arm as a consequence of the accident. This happened in the early morning while children and teenagers were walking to school. Teens are the most active users of technology here and one of the things they love doing is taking photos and recording videos. On that day, the village looked like a contained but tense swarm of bees as people formed small groups on the streets to exchange information about the accident, what caused it and who was responsible for it. But surprisingly, not one bit of this event made it to Facebook.

    So, how come certain events arrive at Facebook and others don’t?

    The day of the accident with the truck, I passed by a store where a trusted research participant works. The moment I came in, a police officer and the truck driver were leaving the store after discussing with her about what she had witnessed. After they left, she told me: ‘It is true, I wasn’t here at the time of the accident, but even if I had been, I would’ve said the same thing, that I didn’t see anything that happened.’ Then she developed her argument explaining she knew the driver, and that he is from the village and is friends with “dangerous people”. She does not feel that the police will protect here. The police won’t prevent a criminal from attacking her or someone from her family out of vengeance, so ‘we must know when to be quiet’, she concluded.

    The logic about the spreading of information is that potentially hazardous news must be kept in the domain of verbal conversation (which likely includes some direct chatting on Facebook using it’s ‘messages’ function). This solution allows the person to participate on the network of communication without leaving traces of the exact information or opinion she or he shared. Things that are not threatening but equally violent such as a passionate murder can be used openly on Facebook because the subject is of collective interest and will increase the attention given by peers and other people from the same community.

    Different types of news

    By Razvan Nicolescu, on 29 August 2013

    Photo by Gabriela Nicolescu

    Photo by Gabriela Nicolescu

    There are two local newspapers and a regional one in the Italian town where I am conducting fieldwork. They appear once a week before the weekend and are distributed freely in the main hot spots of the town, like cafés and retail units. The biggest one is published in a few thousand copies, a significant number when one considers  the town’s population is almost 20,000. Its editorial line is strongly on the social side, so that more popular themes like politics are not discussed. While the main editorial team is composed by a few men who work pro-bono for the publication, anybody in the local community can contribute as author. The editors encourage this kind of public involvement through a series of initiatives such as local writing contests or symbolic prizes offered to prestigious Italian journalists. Last year around one hundred people from the local community wrote at least one article for the journal, out of which more than a dozen were considered constant contributors.

    The impact of this journal on the social life of the town is amazing. Almost every adult who enjoys reading newspapers reads carefully at least the main column on the front page which represents the subject of the week. This could be then debated over a few weeks in different public spaces, in the subsequent numbers of the journal, or in various other local media, such as Facebook. People usually trust the information in the journal much more than the news coming from more distant sources such as national journals or the RAI. It seems to represent a sort of undeniable proof for the different social issues within the local community.

    I will not discuss here the intellectual and cultural issues that are at stake with this journal as neither my research is interested in these sorts of disputes. Rather, I am interested in how  the local population relates to this particular media and how different this relationship is when the same content is made available on Facebook. There is a whole discussion on the role of social media in the current Italian society, see, for example, the way the political movement MoVimento 5 Stelle (Movement 5 Stars) has constructed much of its political success on the massive popular mobilisation through the internet and social media. However, I will limit this posting to a few considerations on how people in the small town relate to the news on Facebook.

    If teenagers and some young people could easily have 800-1,200 Facebook friends, most of the adult population have somewhere between a few tens and 200. The only adults who reach the teenagers’ numbers of online connections are particular public actors such as artists, social activists, entrepreneurs, or people involved in different ways in media. Their Facebook profile is almost the same: they post on different social issues or share joking posts and let their online connections  comment or disseminate this information. As these actors recognise that their audience is very eclectic, which also implies they do not necessarily share the same the political or social views, they usually prefer to not moderate these conversations. Their most common explanation is they do not afford to loose connections or their interventions are less important than the initial postings. At the same time, if some people enjoy participating to the online debates, most of the audience does not. They rather prefer to discuss the different issues offline, within the family, or in particular circles of friends. It is here where Facebook seems to act like a newspaper. Like journals wait for clients in an empty caffe, Facebook pages wait for people to access them when they don’t have anything else to do.

    However, the type of information individuals gather from the two sources are very different. If in the local newspaper people are interested in the public news, in Facebook users tend to look for the private persons who are interested in news. To wait for public news on Facebook is nonsense. This might be interesting for different activists or entrepreneurs, but most of the people seem to spend huge amounts of time online just trying to find the information that is most private and available in a relatively public environment. The reasons could be pure friendship or curiosity. What is important is that most of the time in the private world of Facebook, news is unimportant if it do not serve to better understand your peers.

    Facebook and the threat to individual expression

    By Elisabetta Costa, on 12 August 2013

    Photo: Elisabetta Costa

    Again the topic of privacy seems be central in my field-site that I call here “Dry Rock Town”. During the first few months in Dry Rock Town, I’ve already noticed a pattern that can bring me to make a simple generalization: people do not usually update their status on Facebook. And on the occasions when they do update their status, they quote the sentence of some famous writers, poets, singers or actors, or they write some famous proverbs. Comments on private or public life, observations about politics or about food, general thoughts on everyday life, expression of feelings and emotions are never publicly expressed on the Facebook wall. I met guys that were using Facebook many hours a day, sharing hundreds of posts and making thousands of “like” every month, buy they have never written a thing on their wall. It’s not because people don’t like to write on Facebook. Indeed the inhabitants of Dry Rock Town usually make a lot of comments on their friend’s posts or pictures. And it’s not even because people are not well educated and thus not able to write properly: many of my informants have high-school or university degrees. It is not because people do not want to give information about their private life: people love to post pictures portraying them on holiday or at dinner out with families or friends. And it’s not even because people are afraid to expose their ideas. People usually share a lot of political posts.

    But the inhabitants of Dry Rock Town usually do not write on their wall what they think. How can we understand this data?  Defending one’s own reputation is the most important thing here and the public expression of personal thoughts can become a very dangerous practice. It exposes the person to the judgment and to the critics of others and consequently to the loss of reputation.  It’s more convenient to express personal opinions through the words of authoritative others that can not be so easily criticized.  People do not usually write comments on topic of public interests. They just share a quotation, news or pictures. And this point can be very interesting as it contradicts the conclusion of the main literature on the impact of new media in the Middle-East, that emphasize the role of digital and social media in promoting a greater role of the individual against established authorities (among others see Eickelman and Anderson 2003, Hofheins 2011, Lynch 2007). Indeed I believe that in a highly normative and conformist society, Facebook is having the opposite effect as it constitutes a continuous threat to the respectability of the people by making public, visible and permanent what does not necessarily adhere to the social norms. And as reaction people try to follow even more the established social norms and authorised discourses, wherever they come from, the government, the political parties, newspapers or Greek philosophers.  If nobody writes comments on topic of public interest, at the same time nobody writes comments about private life. Here the clear division between private and public sphere typical of Muslim societies is self-evident. Facebook makes the private public and thus it constitutes a continuous threat to the honour of families in a society where honour killings are frequent and alive.

    I really believe that in the next months I will investigate more on the role of Facebook in promoting daily-life practices that adhere to instituted social norms and to established authorities, far from creating a sphere where individual are more free to openly discuss issues of public or private interest. But the most interesting thing is that this Facebook ‘s effect goes parallel with the opposite one: publicly the inhabitants of Rock Dry Town follow and reinforce established social norms, but privately and secretly they are involved in private communicative practices such as chatting and flirting between men and women, that are totally new, different and that subvert old social norms.

    References:
    Eickelman, D. and Anderson J. 2003. New media in the Muslim world. Indiana University Press.
    Hofheinz A.,  2011 Nextopia? Beyond the revolution 2.0, International journal of communication.
    Lynch, M. 2007. Blogging the new Arab public. Arab Media and Society.

    Privacy and the lack of transparency in south-east Turkey

    By Elisabetta Costa, on 11 July 2013

    Photo: Elisabetta Costa

    We knew that Mark Zuckerberg’s stance about identity was probably not entirely correct. But I couldn’t imagine that in South-East Turkey his expectations could have been so massively disappointed. Mark Zuckerberg expended quite a lot of effort to propose a model based on “radical transparency” that could encourage people to have only one identity in their life. In The Facebook Effect he said that “The days of you having a different image for your work friends or co-workers and for the other people you know are probably coming to an end pretty quickly.”

    If we knew that people have been appropriating Facebook in different ways from those envisaged by the founder of the social media, I couldn’t imagine before that a same person would have and use simultaneously 12 different accounts.

    A 35 year old man, married with two children, owner of a small shop in the neighbourhood where I live, appeared very anxious when doing an interview with me. He was impatient to tell me how often he was using Facebook, then he immediately confessed to me that he is simultaneously active on twelve different Facebook accounts:

    • One for work friends
    • One for online gaming
    • One for “normal” friends
    • One for female friends that are not lovers
    • One for local lovers
    • One for foreign girls
    • One for business (under the name of his shop)
    • One for the 4 year-old daughter (under the name of the daughter)
    • One account for the 6 year-old son (under the name of the son)
    • Two more accounts he couldn’t tell me about. (I imagine they are in somehow related to politics, as it looks common here to secretly use Facebook for political issues. However I am not completely sure about it.)

    This man cared deeply about Facebook’s privacy settings. His main concern was to not let his mistresses and children to be informed about the existence of other women. He was not worried about his wife because she was completely illiterate, not able to read and write and thus to use social media and the internet. But it’s not only a matter of hidden lovers. The example of this man showed that in South-East Turkey the numbers of different social environments that need completely different appropriate behaviour is large, and overall it showed that it’s extremely important to keep these different social spheres divided from each other. Then this example gives us interesting insights about what privacy and public-ness means here and reveals the social normatively according to which people control social situations created by the social media. As Dana Boyd has repeatedly affirmed, privacy is not dead. And in the Muslim Middle-East, especially, privacy is one of the most interesting topics related to the diffusion of the social media.

    Can social networking sites harm you?

    By Juliano Andrade Spyer, on 28 June 2013

    dilmabolada

    Dilma Bolada facebook page

    Do you think that the company that owns the social networking site is using your data for purposes that harm you?

    This is the one question from a demographic survey our team is currently piloting that makes my informants stop and think. Only one person – out of five, so far – have answered “yes” to it, and it was an emphatic “yes”. But the others were convinced that there could not be such thing. And the rationale behind these answers seems to be: - Why would a company want to harm its clients?

    These optimistic informants also add that everything they do or say on Facebook, the most popular social networking site in Brazil, is both true and already known by others so there is no possibility their posts could produce any harm.

    This particular topic came back to my mind earlier this month as Facebook was accused of political censorship here in Brazil.

    Dilma Bolada” is the name of a fictional character inspired on the personality of Brazil’s current president, Dilma Rousseff. The author of the character, a 23 year old college student, has attracted  350,000 followers on Facebook alone.

    His character mixes the (strong) personality of the President with a relaxed tone typically used here on social networking sites to comment on politically-related news stories. As a result, following Dilma Bolada is like being part of circuit of close friends with access to what could be Dilma’s Facebook posts.

    At the end of May, Facebook erased a post published on Dilma Bolada’s page mentioning an alleged involvement of Aécio Neves on a corruption scandal. Neves will likely be one of her strong opponents on the next presidential race.

    The post was based on a news report published by a known magazine and, as the author of Dilma Bolada wrote on a later post, its content did not break Facebook’s user policy.

    Folha de São Paulo, an important national newspaper, picked up the story of an apparent act of censorship by Facebook to protect a politician. Other news venues followed.

    At first Facebook refused to comment on the decision, but the repercussion both online and through the press pressed the company to revoke the decision and to issue an explanation.

    According to Facebook, an automatic feature that detects harmful content was responsible for the deletion. The system bases its decision on feedback sent by users. The company explained that, in this case, the system did not operate correctly.

    The erased post was also reestablished – here, in Portuguese – on Dilma Bolada’s timeline, but the question that remains is: would Facebook have changed its decision if the problem had not drawn so much attention and noise?

    The ‘social’ bit of ‘social media’

    By Razvan Nicolescu, on 20 June 2013

    1

    Photo: Razvan Nicolescu

    This post is about the meaning of the term ‘social’ when it is part of the most popular phrase ‘social media’. The huge and diverse literature on ‘social media’ points out, in different ways, that this term signifies the kind of medium, created by usually new technologies and devices, that facilitates various types of social interactions. These interactions could be peer-to-peer or not, real-time or not, with different degrees of interactivity, as well as they could be very far from the initial intentions of the designers and producers of the particular communication technology. Nevertheless, the term ‘social media’ seems to provide an acceptable and intuitive description to this wide range of usages and practices.

    The directive and levelling use of the term is perhaps most evident in the mainstream political and economic discourse. These two domains are the most active promoters of the phrase ‘social media,’ especially in relation to the assumed efficacy of this medium to drive the different ambitions on their particular agendas. I think that the most influential discourses and strong pressures that come from this part of the world economy represent the source of essential ambiguities of the term ‘social media.’ One such ambiguity is related to the sheer lack of understanding of, or interest in, what people actually do when they use some ‘social media.’

    If specific new media is inherently social, this does not mean that the mainstream discourse or quantitative research would tell too much about the kind of sociality it involves. Therefore, how useful is it to say we are interested in social media? Is there any major media left that is not ‘social’ yet to a certain extent? Any research into the everyday use of ‘social media’ that is not targetting specific groups which enthusiastically embrace new technology, such as Western teenagers, affluent middle-class, or particular professional groups, show that ‘social media’ could be equally loved, ignored or hated. Then, there is no single way to love, ignore or hate, but rather an immense variety of expressions and motivations for these emotions.

    The issue then seems to be to give a meaning to the ‘social’ bit of the term ‘social media.’ Does it account for so many things at once that it became theoretically ambiguous; or by contrary, does its polysemy assures a broader reach to our theoretical reasoning? I think we could respond to these kinds of questions if we try to understand what people actually do while everybody else tells them, and us, they are on social network. We will look at the everyday use and non-use of social networking sites and communication technologies in this respect: we will try to understand people in order to then understand the society they are living in.