UCL Social Networking Sites & Social Science Research Project
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    Facebook and the vulnerability of the self

    By Elisabetta Costa, on 7 February 2014

    Photo by Elisabetta Costa

    Photo by Elisabetta Costa

    A social panic surrounding Facebook has arisen in my field-site in south-east Turkey: nasty cheaters use hacker applications to steal Facebook user names and passwords in order to damage people’s reputation!

    The practice of stealing Facebook passwords to post shameful images and video, and swear words on other people’s walls seems to be quite common among young adults. Apparently the town is full of hacking applications that allows spiteful people to enter other Facebook pages and make unpleasant jokes. I met several people whose Facebook profile has been stolen and used to post nasty surprises that ruin their honour. And many young people are really afraid that such a thing can happen to them as well: “Facebook can be very dangerous” I’ve been told several times. I don’t know if hacking applications are really effective here in Dry Rock Town. But surely people continuously share common computers and smartphones, and probably forget to log out from their accounts, giving the opportunity to strangers and perfidious friends to commit these offences.

    One of the most prevalent fears people have is that of losing control of their public image that can bring public disapproval. The public image on the Facebook wall can be seen as an extension of the person, but this in turn makes the person more vulnerable. Photos, images, thoughts, and private talks are all significant parts of the self that are “out there” and can be easily violated by others. A simple joke can indelibly violate the self: everybody in the large network of friends and acquaintances can potentially become a threat to the self by entering into its boundaries after having stolen a password. In the age of Facebook the borders of the self are extended, but at the same time more fragile and vulnerable. And when these borders of the self are vulnerable, honour can be shattered.

    This moral panic surrounding Facebook reflects the anxiety related to the vulnerability of the self that Facebook has made more apparent. I really believe that traditional codes of honour and shame are given new life in the age of social media.

    Social media in social spaces

    By Nell Haynes, on 9 December 2013

    Toasting to New Friends (Photo by Nell Haynes)

    Toasting to New Friends (Photo by Nell Haynes)

    The first time I was invited out by friends on a Friday night in my fieldsite in Northern Chile, I was surprised by the ways social media and technology permeated the evening’s events. My new friend Alex* sent me a message on Facebook asking if I would like to go out with he and his friends Andrea and Edith, who I had never met. When he got to my street to pick me up, he sent another Facebook message to let me know. As I walked down the stairs and to the parking lot of my apartment building, I knew I was looking for a Honda because he was constantly posting pictures of it on Facebook. He was standing leaning against the car looking at his Samsung phone. When I got to the car, he began to tell me a story of locking his keys in the car while at Edith’s house. I already knew most of the story though, because someone had made fun of him for locking the keys inside via his Facebook wall about an hour earlier.

    We drove a few blocks to Edith’s house where she and Andrea were waiting, and they hopped in the back seat. We then drove to a karaoke bar where the music was so loud I could barely hear Andrea was make fun of Edith for constantly using Whatsapp. Edith retorted that Andrea was just jealous because she didn’t have Whatsapp on her phone. I looked around and all three of my companions were on their phones. I was about to pull out my own just to fit in when Alex passed me his. On the note app he had written, “”If you get bored let me know and we can leave.” I wrote back “I’m just happy to have friends to hang out with on the weekend!” He laughed and then pulled up an app called LED that made the phone into a scrolling sign of the type that shows stock market prices. He wrote “It’s too loud to talk” and showed everyone at the table. He handed the phone to me to write something and at a loss for anything creative wrote “I can’t hear anything!”

    Shortly after, Alex told the three women we should pose for a picture, and the two others started posing, then switching places, posing again, standing up and posing, so that we ended up with about 10 photos of the three of us. A man Alex knew from work walked past and offered to take a photo of all 4 of us. Again, many pictures were taken with people standing, then sitting, then in a different order. We sat back down and Alex sent everyone the pictures from his phone via Facebook message. About five minutes later he passed his phone around to show the picture of the four of us that he had already put on Instagram. By the end of the night, I was Facebook friends with Edith and Andrea, and Alex and I had started following each other on Instagram.

    While this may seem like just a mundane night out, I was struck by the amount and ways people in Northern Chile were using social media even in the physical presence of their friends. One great thing about starting this project in a new fieldsite is that even seemingly commonplace things surprise me. Among my friends in the United States it would be considered incredibly rude to spend so much time looking at a phone while with others. In my previous fieldsite in Bolivia, very few of my urban middle class friends had smartphones, so messaging would have been done via old-fashioned text messaging and photos would have been posted to Facebook several days later. Many people argue that the influx of social media into time spent physically together spells the demise of substantive relationships. But in this case social media allowed us to interact, overcoming the loud music, to communicate more effectively. Certainly social media is changing friendships, but I think this story demonstrates the ways these media are not separate from “the real world,” but are integrated into the ways people interact when physically present in social spaces.

    *All names have been changed

    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

    Social networking and social relations

    By Razvan Nicolescu, on 10 April 2013

    IMG-20130409-00012

    Photo by Razvan Nicolescu

    Epistemologically, this project is starting from the premise that ‘social networking’ is not something new. In the project proposal I suggested that the science of anthropology was founded on the belief that societies should be described as complex social networks, rather than as aggregations of individuals. In such social networks, individuals occupied different roles, which were put into evidence by the ethnographers in relation to their particular interests within the discipline, focus on kinship, economic relations, political organization, and so forth, as well as to the different paradigms they were actually working in.

    At the same time, anthropology is a peculiar discipline when it attempts to understand the whole by a minutiae description of the particular, or of the partial. In other words, as Danny put it during our group discussions, anthropology often tends to become a partial aggregate of rather disparate detailed descriptions. Positivist methodologies or holism represented different kinds of ways in which anthropologists attempted to grasp the totality of a culture. They did so by employing a vast array of techniques, be they methodological, writing or interpretational.

    This project aims at restoring this epistemological shortcoming. The eight simultaneous ethnographies in seven countries could formulate unique universal claims on the nature of social relations. The aim is not to recuperate terrain from other social sciences, such as sociology or geography, but rather to give an anthropological understanding to some of the common grounds on which anthropologists are working anyway.

    The opportunity given by ‘social networking’ resides mainly in the fact that with the advent of digital technology, the human social networks tend to be encapsulated in something with true universal pretentions. At the same time, for the average user of online social networking, this does not necessarily correspond to any particular ideological or economic imposition. One may argue that these impositions could be obvious at other levels, such as at the level where the dominant Western world imposes its classificatory categories or tastes, but this research attempts to demonstrate whether this is actually true.

    For example, whether new media technologies are created by egoistic entrepreneurs, or, by contrary, by idealistic activists, I suggest that they actually end up in being used by people in ways which are consistent with their respective social contexts. In particular, thinking about my fieldsite, I suspect there is a clear expectation from people in Italy who belong to a particular class and political ideology that they should behave in a particular way on a particular social networking site. The expectation does not stem necessarily from any imposition created by technology itself, or by its perpetrators. Rather, I suggest that new technology grants people freedom to work towards what they actually want to be. In my work, I suggested for a dialectical process in which, on the one hand, the individual, and, on the other hand, society, press people into particular kinds of persons. Throughout this process, technology seems to act as a sort of mirror (as Strathern suggested) in which people recognize themselves and the society they are part of. I am excited to explore these issues in the field.

    The ‘timeline’ as narrative?

    By Jolynna Sinanan, on 25 March 2013

    Image courtesy of Alec Couros, Flickr Creative Commons

    Image courtesy of Alec Couros, Flickr Creative Commons

    Last January, Facebook replaced the ‘wall’ and introduced the ‘timeline’, ‘a new kind of profile that lets you highlight the photos, posts and life events that help you tell your story… Timeline gives you an easy way to rediscover the things you shared, and collect your most important moments’ (McDonald, 2012). Over a year, on, I was sitting with one of my informants, Charlie, in front of her open Facebook page, enjoying a typical past time: macoing other people’s pages (maco: Trinidadian colloquial for looking into other people’s business. One of the most common things that has come up in conversation is that people don’t like it when others maco their profile, even though everybody is looking at everybody’s profiles and profiles of their friends. I actually regret not putting the question, “Do you maco other people’s profile on Facebook?” into our general questionnaire on SNS usage.) Charlie showed me one of her friends from work who recently had a baby. We scrolled through the page and she said “What was I doing last year when she when she got engaged, then got married, then was pregnant and then had this child? All that happened in a year?! Wow, Facebook.” Each life event that had taken place for her friend in the last year had been captured on screen, in pictures, statuses, albums and comments.

    The timeline is a curious thing. It’s not quite a blog, which has aspects of different categories of personal documents: they are ‘part life history, part diary, part letter, part guerilla journalism, part and “literature of fact” (Graham et al. 2010: 284). The timeline has elements of a blog, it can support a collection of different media, like text, photos and videos, but it’s not quite diary keeping, history or faction. Facebook clearly encourages the use of the timeline as a quick entry diary or scrapbook that becomes a collection of moments that reflect the important things in a person’s life, but after speaking with over 100 people now about how they use the timeline, the more common use is for sharing of memes, music videos, and ‘clippings’, links to other things that are made by other people.

    Are people constructing their narratives by speaking through the digital artifacts of other people? Are they even constructing narratives at all? What is somebody revealing about themselves by sharing Grumpy Cat memes? Am I taking Grumpy Cat too seriously?

    Having oodles of data in the form of timelines, I’ve been toying methodologically with how to tackle understanding the timeline while doing this ethnography. If the timeline is a form of narrative, perhaps a revisiting of narrative in ethnography might be a starting point. How do people talk about the timeline? What is it exactly to them? Krizek, for example privileges story telling in ethnographic methodologies and culture and communication, “with a specific focus on meanings and identities as revealed in personal narratives” (2003: 143). Krizek’s research interest is non-routine public events; social occasions, performance and enactment. To an extent, the timeline is an event, it appears, it passes, it can be recollected, here in digital form. Personal narratives are part of a larger context, in the case of the Facebook timeline, this is two-fold: the narrative of the timeline in the wider context of Facebook to the person, and the narrative of the individual (about Facebook or themselves) in the larger context of their lived experience. Krizek, quoting Rosenwald and Ochenberg (1992: 1) agrees that “Personal stories are not merely a way of telling someone (or oneself about one’s life; they are a means by which identities are fashioned” (2003: 142).

    These two levels, the narrative of the timeline in the context of facebook usage and the narrative of the person in the context of their lived experience seems worth investigating. It just feels a little too post-post-modern at the moment, though.

    References:

    Graham, Connor, Satchell, Christine and Rouncefield, Mark, (2010), ‘MoBlogs, Sharing Situations and Lived Life, Computer Supported Cooperative Work, Springer, pp 269-289

    Krizek, Robert L. (2003) ‘Chapter 12: Ethnography as the Excavation of Personal Narrative’, in Carr, Robin Patric, Expressions of Ethnography: Novel Approaches to Qualitative Methods, State University of New York Press, Albany

    McDonald, Paul, (2012) ‘Timeline: Now Available Worldwide’, http://ja-jp.facebook.com/blog/blog.php?post=10150408488962131, accessed March 24, 2013

    Convivial practices, gossiping and the materiality of the smartphone

    By Elisabetta Costa, on 10 March 2013

    photo by philcampbell (creative commons)

    photo by philcampbell (creative commons)

    I received my first Smartphone as a Christmas gift a few months ago. I know, you will probably think this may come as quite a late development for a researcher working on social-media and digital technologies! Probably, as a way to express my distaste for the predominant techno-enthusiastic attitude I tend to avoid promptly adopting new communication technologies as soon as they enter the market. I am often sceptical and I prefer to let others test it first! I had always been astonished at the view of those social gatherings where enthusiastic participants would hold a smartphone in their hands and use it to chat and communicate with someone else and simultaneously with those nearby. I myself was shocked when I saw a group of ten teenagers sitting on a little wall and communicating on the smartphone instead of talking with their friends sitting nearby. I thought it was shameful!

    However as a Facebook user who spends many hours using social-media every week, I started to be amazed at the new opportunities I was presented with the use of Facebook on the bus, in the toilet and in the kitchen whilst having lunch. The smartphone has changed completely the way I use social networking sites and in just a few months it has created a new normativity (Miller 2012). I now find myself easily checking the results of the Italian political elections and reading political comments and analysis on Facebook while I am having dinner with friends. Most shockingly, it’s not even considered rude or inappropriate. As pointed out by Horst (2010) digital technologies are very quickly domesticated as normative. Yes, it is true! I am not annoyed anymore by those friends who use the smartphone in front of me. Facebook, together with WhatsApp, Skype and other applications have been creating new forms of face-to-face sociality and conviviality. The smartphone is bringing into being new convivial social practices. It connects people sharing the same ‘off-line’ space in the same way that a table game, a card game, or a pint of beer can do.

    When I was in Istanbul studying Turkish I used to meet a language exchange partner in a cafe’ or a pub twice a week. Our main activity was gossiping about acquaintances or friends while looking at their Facebook profiles. We used to spend hours sitting and drinking coffee gazing at the smartphone in her hands talking about them on the basis of what we read on Facebook. The result of this was that I learnt Turkish and I also greatly improved my gossiping skills!

    Facebook’s effects are strictly entangled with the materiality of the technology supporting it. As also noted by Xin Yuan Wang in a previous blog post, the humility of things (Horst and Miller 2012) is one of the main characteristic of the material culture around us, meaning that things and technology are often ignored by those who use them. Indeed the smartphone has made Facebook a type of social media that has been impacting practices of ‘offline’ conviviality and in most of the cases it is doing it very silently.

     

    References

    Miller, D., Horst., H. 2012. Digital Anthropology. London: Berg.

    Horst H. 2010. Families. In Hanging out, messing around, geeking out: living and learning with New Media, ed. M. Ito, S. Baumer, M. Bittanti, d. Boyd, R. Cody, B. Herr, H. Horst, P. Lange, D. Mahendran, K. Martinez, C. Pascoe, D. Perkel, L. Robinson, C. Sims and L. Tripp, 149-94. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

    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.

    Algorithms and homogenization

    By Elisabetta Costa, on 8 November 2012

     

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

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

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

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

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

     

    Brazil’s internal class struggle over the internet

    By Juliano Andrade Spyer, on 30 October 2012

    An ‘instagram-med’ image that has been reposted in an attempt to expose the ‘lack of taste’ of the new middle class

    “Orkutization”. Such a weird sounding word. Unless you are a middle class Brazilian who spends a lot of time online. Then that should be part of your daily vocabulary.

    Orkut was to Brazil what AOL represented to the United States: the first opportunity for a lot of people to experience online communication and sociability. Orkut is a social networking site named after its creator, a turkish software engineer from Stanford working at the time for Google. It was released in 2004, a month before Zuckerberg launched Facebook. In similar to Facebook among US college students, Orkut initially imposed a restriction that limited participation to those who had an invitation. For different reasons, Brazilians joined massively and soon became its largest group.

    Orkut arrived in Brazil at the same time as the country experimented with a process of rapid internal social change. In the past 20 years, around 50 million Brazilians – roughly 25% of the country’s population – moved out of poverty and started consuming goods.

    As computers became more affordable, these new consumers started appearing on Orkut. And as their presence grew, it gradually drove away the early adopters who felt annoyed by the new comer’s boisterous behavior and “lack of manners”.
    The same process happened in 2008 with Twitter: its early adopters made it a cool place to be, which, in turn, brought in loads of users from Brazil’s “new middle class”. It was then that term “orkutization” was coined and began circulating.

    As it should be clear now, “orkutization” is a derogatory term. It describes the massive arrival of these new users to an online space originally occupied by the wealthier online elite. After Twitter, it happened to Facebook and more recently to Instagram.

    An ‘instagram-med’ image that has been reposted in an attempt to expose the ‘lack of taste’ of the new middle class

    Claims that an online destination was “orkutizatized” spreads together with collections of examples of the newcomers’ claimed lack of manners. These collections could have, for instance, a list of spelling mistakes or over-sexualized photos.

    It is important to notice, though, that such collections are carefully prepared to exaggerate certain aspects and ignore others. Its purpose is to ridicule by implying this exaggeration is true.

    Comparative research

    By Elisabetta Costa, on 30 October 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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