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Glamorizing social mobility through market research

By Juliano Andrade Spyer, on 28 February 2014

Photo by Juliano Spyer.

Nike cap, international sports shirt, colorful shades, and softdrinks – all items teens use to display financial progress. Photo by Juliano Spyer.

Fantástico, a popular Sunday TV news programme in Brazil, had two long pieces related to social mobility this past week. One was about teens learning to install braces themselves as they became a fashionable item. The other is about slums and how, in contrast to the common (external) view, residents now feel happy about living there (both links conduct to pages in Portuguese).

The first story is not framed as something related to social mobility (I will suggest the relation further ahead), but simply as another weirdness that became cool among teens and that can have serious consequences to one’s health. The other story is grounded in market research conducted with over two thousand people by Data Popular, a research institute specializing in investigating what has been called Brazil’s “new middle class”.

A distorted view

It is a good thing to see national news pieces such as the one linked above that question the social stigmas related to living in favelas. At the same time, I found the research to be problematic in the sense that instead of engaging with the usually complex and paradoxical social realities, it shows only positive aspects as a way of promoting this new consumer segment.

The data analysis reinterprets the idea of progress, bringing individualization and breaking social bonds. As an informant explains during the report, outside the slum, life is not just unsafe but also boring. Alternatively, in slums families progressed economically but retained the dense sociality and the networks of cooperation that existed before.

A more nuanced view

I have been living in a working class villa for the past 11 months; I wouldn’t call it a slum although it resembles one in many aspects including the aesthetics of the urbanization.

So signs of prosperity do appear all around but this prosperity is strictly combined with a great sense of competition. Part of consuming is only a way of showing off ones financial conditions. So buying a large TV is not necessarily a choice related to the desire to have that item, but also a form of informing the others about one’s economic progress.

Nobody wants to be seen as the lower part of the social latter; it is as if one’s reputation now corresponds to his or her ability to have and display wealth. If a neighbor buys a certain item, the others around may use all means possible to get the same thing, even if that results in spending the money she or he does not have.

The illusions of progress

This sort of competition does not necessarily make people work harder. In some cases, it has the opposite effect as individuals and families spend a lot of energy partying – because expensive loud speakers and the burning smell of barbecues are efficient ways of displaying one’s means.

But this competition brings even more serious consequences. The poorer families are being more violently confronted with their lack of conditions, and it is the youth from those families that show greater propensity to choose drug dealing as a way of acquiring respect and money.

Using braces, then, is yet another symbol of economic improvement as teenagers have become a sort of showcase for the family’s progress. Similarly, not having to work is equal to not having the obligation of helping in the household. But these changes are affecting the structures of families and society.

Junk food, branded clothes, and quick money

Using braces is as much a health problem as, for instance, the desire to consume highly industrialized goods such as chips and sugar drinks. Either one has the means to purchase junk food or it means their family are “struggling”.

Another problem is that most teenagers on my field site seem to look at schools as only a social arena; a sort of extension of their Facebook friend’s list. It is the place to display one’s means through wearing fashionable items. As an education coordinator told me recently, the poorest ones feel almost obliged to wear the most expensive brands.

Studying is not really something they see as being valuable. Having a diploma is maybe necessary, but learning is not clearly perceived as an advantage. Almost all my informants at this age group said they would much rather have a motorcycle – to show off and make quick money – than to have a professional degree.

So, yes, there is something significant happening in Brazil related to social and economic mobility. A large number of those that previously lived outside of the formal economy are now intensely involved in consuming. The problem is using statistics and research methodologies to simply support a claim that ultimately serves as a sales pitch and does not necessarily improve people’s lives.

When suspension becomes a status symbol

By Shriram Venkatraman, on 13 February 2014

Photo By Vince - uvw916a (Creative Commons)

Photo By Vince – uvw916a (Creative Commons)

The best part of a longitudinal Anthropological study is being a witness to the changes that happens in the mindset of the people you study over a period of time, in my case just 10 months. When I first came into Panchagrami, there was a group of five young men who had just signed up for a Facebook membership. They were all first generation learners from a rural background. As with most new young Facebook members, I witnessed their constant competition in making and grabbing as many friends as possible on Facebook. The first step they always seemed to take was to friend everyone they knew offline by searching for their names on Facebook. Then they went ahead and friended people who were Friends of Friends and mutual members of a group or a page that they Liked.

But, this seemed to take a turn a couple of months ago, when one of my informants from this group, casually stated that he was banned from Facebook, meaning that his account was suspended for a couple of days. This was pretty strange and when further probed, he stated that he was thrown out because he had sent Friends request to strangers (read “foreign women”, specifically Caucasians) and Facebook had his account suspended as he seemed to be spamming Friend Requests to people he just didn’t know and who in no way shared any mutual friends with him. This was not the first time this happened to him. In fact, the first time Facebook had his account temporarily suspended he didn’t even know why his account was banned. But, he seemed to understand from the trend of account suspensions, that whenever he sent out numerous friends request to people (women) he didn’t know, his account was automatically suspended, or at least this was what he attributed his temporary account suspension to.

In a few weeks’ time when hanging out with this group, the others in the group also started boasting of this trend. Each one was boasting about how many times they had their account temporarily suspended in the past one month and the story that went with why their account was suspended. Each of them saw this as a game they played; the more number of times their account was temporarily suspended and the number of days their account got suspended with the story of why their account was suspended earned them brownie points within the group. When asked the reason they did this, they just seemed to want to turn the table on Facebook by changing the “punishment of temporary suspension” for trying to make genuine friends abroad, to merit badges. So, now the yardstick for heroism had shifted from the number of friends they made to the number of times they rebelled and were suspended for trying to make (read “spam”) friends.

It is also interesting that a couple of these informants have now created a second profile on Facebook just to spam Friend Requests and get their account suspended temporarily in order to increase  status among within their peer group. They also maintain a separate genuine Facebook profile.

New-Age Spiritual Gurus and Social Media

By Shriram Venkatraman, on 13 February 2013

It is not rare to see the social media presence of new-age spiritual Gurus in India. They have a steady following on several social networking sites. From Facebook fan pages and groups to Twitter to Youtube channels, you name it and they have it!

Transcendent and immanent omnipresence, a spiritual nature of the soul in Indian philosophy, now finds itself rightly expressed through social media. With such high intense publicity, it seems like several such Gurus are driven by an incessant need to achieve the dream of several beauty pageant participants – namely ‘world peace’.

Though there is nothing wrong in the branding that they wish to achieve in order to either bring in more followers or maintain their supportes – in other words an e-spiritual capital (or call it the i-spiritual capital, or prefix any other vowel that denotes the digital medium) that they build through their social media presence – it doesn’t take long to figure out the conversion of this e/i-Spiritual capital to an economic capital on the digital arena.  Most of their presence on social media are followed by links to their websites which more or less advertises the Guru and does an awesome spiritual marketing, pitching in their e-shops and souvenir items that was until recently only traded in US dollars.

Rituals on the Facebook pages range from chanting (typing) the Guru’s name every morning, noon and night to expressing how an ideal life should be led on this earth. The pages cater to mostly the devotees and followers who are not residents in India. The digital medium is thus used to build memories of the Guru across space and time. Some of the best personal branding social media presence run by volunteers is that of these new-age spiritual Gurus. No wonder that they now advise CEOs and corporate entities on how to run businesses!

Will beauty gurus survive Google+?

By Juliano Andrade Spyer, on 29 November 2012

Have you ever heard of YouTube beauty gurus? Chances are that if you are a woman and like makeup, you have seen videos online showing how to do all sorts of ‘looks’. The producers of these videos call themselves beauty gurus.

They form an informal group, which means that there are not boundaries separating them and other YouTube content producers. A guru exists because other gurus acknowledge her videos and this acknowledgment happens through channel subscribing.

Channel subscription is a way gurus come to know who is who among the many that dedicate hours every week creating these video tutorials. The number of subscribers shows if a guru has a higher or lower reputation. Reputation is a way gurus demonstrate admiration for those who know more than them. Through this process, if a person likes a certain channel, she can find others by looking at that channels’ subscribers.

I conducted a little fieldwork on YouTube studying beauty gurus fifteen months ago and at that time (spring-summer of 2011) I saw my informants’ channels acquiring dozens or hundreds of subscribers every month. This week I visited some of these same channels and, to my surprise, their subscription base has barely changed.

I reckon the main cause for this is the recent arrival of Google+. YouTube, which is part of Google, operated until 2011 as a social networking site; that’s what allowed gurus to navigate through each other’s contacts as we do on Facebook. This element has been extracted from the service possibly to promote Google+, the company’s latest attempt to fight Facebook’s hegemony in the business of social networking sites.

Google is right in wanting to add social elements to its popular services, but as Google+ is struggling to reach a larger audience, the company may be unintentionally killing that that it is pursuing: a rich and vibrant group of users. At least on YouTube.