UCL Social Networking Sites & Social Science Research Project
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    The ‘too much information’ paradox

    By Nell Haynes, on 22 March 2014

    Photo by Nell Haynes

    Photo by Nell Haynes

    Here in Northern Chile, Facebook still reigns among social networking sites. Particularly for people over 25, programs like Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitter are rarely used. And through interviews and surveys, as well as actually observing what people here do online, I’m finding that people feel far more comfortable ‘liking’ and commenting on posts rather than creating their own new content.

    During an interview just last night, a man in his late 20s who I will call Sebastian told me he thinks sometimes people post too much information. “I see everything but I don’t write anything… If my friend writes ‘I’m angry’ I just don’t see the point. Why tell everyone? For me I like reading what my friends post, but I hardly ever post anything.” He then made fun of his sister-in-law who was also present for sometimes writing ‘Goodmorning’ or ‘Goodnight’ on Facebook. “It’s just silly. Why do you have to tell everyone something so basic? And sometimes—not you Celia, but others, it’s just annoying when my Facebook is filled with all these pointless posts and I can’t see the interesting things posted about films I want to see or friends in Argentina.” This sentiment has been echoed many times by both men and women from their early 20s to late 60s. In fact, when looking closely at around 50 different Facebook profiles from Northern Chileans, the average person only created a new status message 4 or 5 times in 2 weeks.

    Yet this is not because they are absent from Facebook. The number of comments and likes on status messages and shared links are often in the dozens. So while many people may not ‘see the point’ as Sebastian said, they are still commenting and liking these posts. Why? As Sebastian explained later, “I want my friends to know that I’m paying attention. Some live far away and I don’t call or write them. But I click like on their post and they know I’m here.” I found similar reasoning—appearing to be paying attention—for sharing memes about politics, as I wrote about here.

    But even this explanation leaves a paradox: If everyone is content to simply comment or like posts, who is creating content that they are commenting upon? In my research I have met two of these people who count themselves in the ‘very small percentage’ of people who post regularly, and admittedly, sometimes ‘too much information’. When I asked Alex, a man in his 30s, if most of his friends post as much as him, he told me, “Only about 20%. The others only post what is necessary, and many more only look and hit ‘like’.”

    A few days later he posted a cartoon meme with the text “We all have that friend that posts everything they do all day,” with the comment “That’s me!” The post received 42 likes and no comments. Alex was proud that he posted so much “because I make my friends laugh and I give them something to comment on.” So even though Alex realizes that he is sometimes that annoying friend that everyone complains about posting too much information, he sees it as something of a public service, giving his friends pleasure and something to comment upon. “I mean, what’s the point of Facebook if no one ever writes anything!”

    Facebook, death and memorialisation

    By Daniel Miller, on 13 March 2014

    Photo by Rosie O’Beirne (Creative Commons)

    Alongside my ethnographic research in The Glades I have now been working for over a year alongside The Hospice of St Francis. When I am in the UK I try to spend a day a week interviewing their patients who are mainly terminal cancer patients. I was delighted to hear this winter that the wonderful hospice director Dr Ros Taylor was awarded an MBE in this year’s honours list. My intention in working for the Hospice was a concern that a project of this size should also have an applied or welfare aspect where we could see the direct benefit. The initial work was simply an attempt to see how the hospice could benefit from new media. The report was published on my website, but once I was working with them I realised that in a way the hospice was the clearest example of what the whole team have endeavoured to demonstrate through this blog.

    The hospice movement represents no kind of technical or medical advancement. It is entirely the product of a transformation in collective consciousness. Previously it was assumed that when people knew they were dying this was tantamount to a stage in merely their withdrawal from the world. We talk about ‘investing in our children’ as though there were long-term financial assets. The same logic would condemn the dying as of limited value. The Hospice movement was all about saying that knowing someone is terminal should be seen as an opportunity. It is no longer a medical issue, they will not be cured, instead we can concentrate on their quality of life and make this stage of life, since that is what it is, as enjoyable and fulfilling as it could be. Everything that Dr Taylor says and does demonstrates this, as does my colleague in this research Kimberley McLaughlin a senior manager of the hospice.

    On reflection this is perhaps our single most important finding also as anthropologists of social media. People become fixated on the technological advances of new media. What each device can now be capable of – the latest app or smartphone or platform. These certainly feature throughout our work. But the vast majority of our blog posts are not about that. Instead they describe changes in the same collective consciousness: the social uses that people creatively imagine for these media as part of their lives.

    The two issues come together in my observations of Facebook in relation to death and memorialisation. One of my early informants was a woman who felt that she wanted to use the experience of terminal cancer to help educate the wider world about her experience. A subject people tend to avoid but need to gain a better understanding of. I last saw her six days before she died and she was quite clear that using Facebook as almost a daily blog had enabled her to do just that. I am hoping (if I obtain the funding) to make a film based on her and other patients who have used Facebook in this manner.

    I would be equally positive about the ways people have found to use Facebook in memorialisation and grief. Previously we have tended to use highly formal and religious institutionalised frames for dealing with death. As I argued in my book Tales From Facebook, this was out of synch with changes in our notion of the authenticity of the individual. Where once we took formal posed pictures, now we like to capture images that seem spontaneous, informal and thereby more ‘real’ to us. Similarly we needed a form of memorialisation that contained this element of personalisation and immediacy. People on Facebook can put both serious and jokey memories and do so at a time of their choosing. I find these sites poignant and effective. I don’t find other social media sites, such as Twitter or Instagram, as having the same potential, so I hope we retain this capacity of Facebook.

    But the point is that the inventors of Facebook were certainly not thinking about its relationship to death or memorialisation. Rather, as in the case of the invention of the hospice movement, this reflects a change in our collective imagination in what we could potentially do in relation to death and grief. This is why we argue it is anthropology rather than more tech-driven studies of new media that are most suited to understanding what social media actually become. Most of these reports reflect not the technological potential, but the imaginative realisation of social media.

    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

    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.

    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.

    Understanding the Chinese internet: anthropology’s contribution

    By Tom McDonald, on 23 June 2013

    Broadband advertisement in village (Photo: Tom McDonald)

    Broadband advertisement in village (Photo: Tom McDonald)

    I spent last weekend in Oxford at the China and the New Internet World conference. In addition to presenting some of my PhD research, I found the conference a really valuable opportunity to get an idea of what people who are researching the Chinese internet are working on.

    Several things impressed me during the conference. The majority of papers focussed on topics of legislation, censorship, political theory, etc., and a large number of them resorted to quantitative analysis or clever automated computer methods in order to reach often quite grand conclusions about ‘the Chinese internet’.

    I must confess that, in comparison to such well-composed papers with finely-honed ‘take-home messages’, my own presentation’s conclusion was slightly more muddled. It is always quite unnerving to have to tell your audience at a conference that your conclusion is that you perhaps don’t really have one.

    This got me thinking about the role of anthropology in understanding the Chinese internet. Anthropology is one of the most difficult of disciplines, in that it demands that the anthropologist immerses themselves in the lives of their research participants for an extended amount of time. This often means living alone in difficult and tiring conditions amongst people who often hold radically different beliefs or engage in practices that you at times find disagreeable. Not only that, but once this period is over, the same researcher has to grapple with the task of turning the data collected in the field into something understandable to (mostly) western educated readers.

    The problem is that very few people want to do this in their lives. Furthermore, not many people want to read the results of what happens when someone does do this, because typically there are no ‘clean’ conclusions. Such stuff makes slightly uncomfortable reading, in that it often challenges the basic assumptions each of us hold that make us confident that the way that we live our lives are necessarily correct.

    The vast majority of papers at the conference concentrated on issues of censorship, democracy and urban middle-classes. But as I listened to these papers I wondered what my friends in my fieldsite, a small town and its surrounding villages in north China might have made of this concern with issues of censorship and privacy. It seemed to me as though all the time us academics had been spending in computer labs, libraries and talking to other academics might actually be working to increase the distance between us, as academics, and the people that we claim to be protecting the interests of.

    David Kurt Herold summed this issue up quite nicely in his own conference paper, where he commented:

    We need more studies that look at how people in China are using the Internet to do what they want to do, i.e. in what practices are Internet users in China engaging and how are they constructing their own offline and online lives in relation to these practices (Hobart, 2000: 41f)? To ask a leading question: Is politics and the pursuit of democracy really the most important issue for Chinese Internet users, or is it just the most important issue for us researchers?

    I am still not sure precisely what is going to come out of my own fieldwork in north China for this project. But I have every reason to expect by virtue of my placement in a very ‘normal’ part of China, that the people I will meet over the next year-and-a-half have every chance of changing the way we understand the Chinese internet, and Chinese people, for the better.

    The role of social networking and technology in relationship difficulties

    By Tom McDonald, on 25 February 2013

    Photo by Asela (Creative Commons)

    Photo by Asela (Creative Commons)

    I heard a fascinating piece on BBC Radio 4’s Today program this morning on how men often find it difficult to understand relationship problems, which can lead to a worse outcome for them and their families if the relationship ends.

    Towards the end of the interview Ruth Sutherland, the chief executive of Relate, a leading relationship support organisation in the UK explained that since men often find it more difficult to talk about relationships, service providers and counselling organisations ought to think of more suitable ways to engage with these men.

    One example Sutherland gave was that men most often accessed her charity’s website looking for relationship advice using their smartphones whilst they are on their lunchbreak at work. Whilst Sutherland’s example is really powerful and obviously makes sense in the context of the UK, in other cultures family relationships operate in very different ways, and often each culture posseses a host of unique institutions that also impact upon relationships. Therefore it will be interesting to see how, over the course of our research project, social networking and technology helps to negotiate difficulties and ambivalence in family relationships.

    Elderly, ageing and social networking: a brief literature review

    By Tom McDonald, on 24 January 2013

    Photo by Ethan Prater (Creative Commons)

    One of the foci of our research project will be to assess the impact of social networking on elderly people and housebound individuals. Back in October of last year I spent a few days in the library undertaking a literature review on the theme to get an idea of what had been written so far.

    Most of the studies came from psychology. These investigations were almost all based in Europe or North America, and used questionnaires to try and understand the impact of internet use on people who were alone in their homes. Some studies suggested that computers and internet could decrease sense of isolation for homebound elderly and disabled persons, whilst others pointed to a relationship between social anxiety and a preference for online computer interaction. So the findings from these kind of studies, were perhaps not entirely conclusive.

    For anthropology, ageing represents a universal human phenomenon.  But at the same time, I agree with Lawrence Cohen that we should not just reify old age as an object of study. Even our titling of this research focus as ‘impact of social networking on elderly people and housebound individuals‘ is somewhat unfortunate, as it lumps together two groups of people that would not always identify with each other!

    Instead, I think that keeping an open mind on issues of ageing should be central to our ethnographic fieldwork. Ageing is a unique process which affects people in different cultures in vastly different ways, to the extent that some people in their seventies or eighties might not even identify as being ‘old’.

    And social networking will undoubtedly be bringing it’s own effects to the way ageing is understood and occurs in society. In an article by Laviolette and Hanson they record the effects of assistive technology devices that formed a telecare package were placed into the homes of older people with chronic heart failure living in north England. These devices were supposed to ‘monitor’ the older people’s activities (i.e. heart rate, moving around room, etc.) to enable them to remain at home instead of having to be admitted to a care home. Here too, being housebound was not necessarily a bad thing, and the participants of the study typically deeply feared the possibility that they might lose their home. However, whilst some participants appreciated that the monitors were reporting their health back to the hospital, for others they feared that the sensors would be used to gather evidence that would allow social care services to argue that the patients were unable to look after themselves in their own home.

    Our project will, of course, differ from all of the above. The data we gather will be through living with old people for 15 months in small towns of seven different countries. I will be fascinated to see how the findings of such in-depth, culturally diverse studies can contribute to our understanding of the way information technologies are shaping the lives of people in their older years.

    Why do eight comparative ethnographies?

    By Daniel Miller, on 8 December 2012

    Photo: Ed Schipul (Creative Commons)

    I suspect that the initial response of most anthropologists to this kind of comparative study will be negative. Our model of work is incredibly specific, insisting upon the integrity, even the holism, of a fieldsite. It is almost as though we try to deny the often almost arbitrary nature of that particular village or town as our selected place of study, by the sheer devotion we have to the integrity of this place – which can become an account of ‘how my people do things’. It’s a bit like marriage, where, in truth there are thousands of people we might have married, but once we are married we create a relationship that is as though it is impossible to imagine that it could have ever been anyone but the beloved spouse. The idea of a comparative anthropological study can also feel like a betrayal of anthropology itself, and of our relationship to ethnography.

    So it is important to assert that we intend to confront this prejudice. That we do not intend simply to do eight ethnographies that are just eight times a single piece of work. That would be a betrayal of a different kind. It means that we would be failing to recognise that it is almost unheard of to get the kind of funding that allows for eight simulteneous ethnographies. If this is a most unusual opportunity then we have responsibility to understand what kind of opportunity this in fact is. Elisa in an earlier blog post talks about the excitment of sharing discussion at this early stage. Here I want to refer rather to the potential for analysis at the later stage.

    So let’s start from the other end. What can an eight-fold ethnography do that a single ethnography cannot? A blog is not the space to unfold this in any detail but let’s try one example. We will all be studying social network sites, and a core question anyone engaged in such studies must ask themselves, is to what degree the particular usage we observe is a product of the nature of the fieldsite where they work, or the social network site that they also observe. Is this because it is Brazil or because it is Facebook? The problem is that a single ethnography can only surmise on the basis of the evidence of that site which is always a conflation of these two (and of course many more) facets.

    By contrast, when eight sites are being studied simulteneously, the indiviudal who is working in Brazil knows far more than just what a Brazilian is doing on Twitter. At pretty much exactly the same time they will know that people in give other place are doing pretty much the exact same thing on Twitter. Or they will know that people in five other places are doing someting rather different on Twitter. Now we are hopefully too sophisticated to simply draw mechanical conclusion. It is possible there is another fator: a common sense of modernity say that all sites share, which prevents us from merely assuming that commonality means we look for a more technological foundation for this behaviour. Nevertheless the way in which our evidence is cited comparatively means that the level of disussion and analysis can start from a significantly higher level than if we were an isolated study with no idea of how our work related to similar investigations in other places.

    Furthermore, this situation precisely fits the difference between our project and most traditional projects in that our core focus is on something that, in its infrastructure, does not vary other than the contrast between QQ in China and Facebook which conveniently gives us another way of trying to decide what is because of Facebook itself and what from other factors. So a study that looks at this simulteneously in eight sites works particularly for something that has been introduced across the whole world within a very short time period. All this would at least suggest that a comparative study can actually deepen rather than take away from each individual ethnography. You are not betraying your fieldsite you are actually giving it a much greater significance than it otherwise might have had. At least that’s the idea…

    On what a blog can do

    By Tom McDonald, on 2 May 2012

    Woman wearing veil using smart phone

    Photo: Ikhlasul Amal (creative commons)

    It is incredibly exciting to write the first post for the blog for the UCL Social Networking Sites & Social Science Research Project, not least of all because with this blog, just like with this project, we have little idea of what it will develop into. Of course, it is our intentions and ambitions that have propelled us to create this space in the first place, so we have formulated at least some initial thoughts of what this blog might become.

    We would like to think that the blog would provide a commentary and analysis of some of developments in the Anthropology of Social Networking as they occur, presenting particular papers or findings to those interested in this topic. Hopefully it would provide a valuable addition to the website in terms of a place where researchers could gather new ideas and inspiration for their own research.

    The blog might also give us the opportunity to disseminate social networking research in new ways. Many people, whether  or not they happen to be anthropologists, have somewhat of an inkling of the tremendous effect that social networking is having on humankind. As we enter a period where disseminating research to wider audiences becomes ever more important, we may be able to ask how blogging might provide an opportunity to share our results with people who may not otherwise come into contact with anthropology? While traditional media outlets appear to be in a state of decline (and typically gave little affordance to anthropological studies anyway), and academic anthropological journals (with some notable exceptions) remain accessible only by means of expensive subscriptions or through university libraries, could it be that blogs offer a useful in-between space through which we can experiment with different kinds of writing to reach out to audiences?

    Also, a blog could be considered as a form of social networking in and of itself. This blog will have the opportunity for readers to leave comments and we of course welcome debate and feedback to posts. There are fast-developing plugins and interfaces that link blogs with social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook. One could envisage that blogs might open up parts of the research process that remain hidden from many: meetings, solitary fieldwork or discussions. Research is often a collaborative endeavour, could blogs provide an opportunity to throw problems or discussions out to an altogether different set of people to solicit further opinions, helping to iterate and develop our research?

    Finally, maybe a blog could just be a place to share. Claude Levi-Strauss commented that “anthropology is, with music and mathematics, one of the few true vocations”. Undertaking anthropological research is an all-consuming, exhilarating, exasperating, exhausting, tear-jerking, laugh-making and life-affirming endeavour, and if a blog could encapsulate at least some of those feelings we personally think it would be no bad thing.