UCL Social Networking Sites & Social Science Research Project
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    Illiteracy and social media: a picture is worth a thousand words

    By Shriram Venkatraman, on 17 January 2014

    Photo by Frits Ahlefeldt-Laurvig – HikingArtist.com (Creative Commons)

    Photo by Frits Ahlefeldt-Laurvig – HikingArtist.com (Creative Commons)

    When I first came to the field site in India, Panchagrami, I had a lot of questions about access to social media and its use by lower socio-economic groups. Particularly, cost of access, literacy rate, social control, and a host of other varied but significant factors I hoped to study in detail. However, literacy and its impact on the use of social media became a recurring thought. Does social media require a textual language and/or a script for communication?  Were there people with very poor educational backgrounds or early school dropouts who could not read/write, and in some cases, read only in Tamil (this does not imply that they can type or write in Tamil) on Social Media, and if yes, what was their preferred media? Also, what do they do there and how do they access it? All of these questions were put to rest by what I saw in the last couple of months in my field site. I came across at least four users of social media (YouTube and Facebook specifically), who had no formal education and in a couple of cases did not know how to even read/write and could be termed as illiterates in general sense. Yet they communicated on Facebook, they “Liked” and “Shared”, but did not “Comment”. What came as a surprise was that they were on Facebook and YouTube every single day and even renewed their pre-paid internet connection on time. Their frequency of Facebook usage even stumped some of the other literate users. Though they did not know how to read texts, they viewed everything as pictures and symbols. So, access to YouTube/Facebook and the activities they performed within it (including Liking and Sharing) were guided by a visual/pictorial understanding of it rather than a textual understanding.

    Key navigational symbols used by illiterate social media users in Indian fieldsite (Images: YouTube/Facebook)

    Key navigational symbols used by illiterate social media users in Indian fieldsite (Images: YouTube/Facebook)

    Their access to these platforms was through an understanding of pictures, where YouTube and Facebook are represented by their logos. Further, their mediation inside these platforms was also through pictures and not through texts. Similarly, their contribution in these sites took the form of clicking on a picture that has a “Thumbs Up” sign which means “Like”. Similar is the case with “Share” for forwards/sharing pictures/video clips that have been shared by someone else, where they clicked on a button at the end of the three button section with a sign. In a way, they become forwarding agents and not producers of content. However, with the access to Smart Phones and the features that smart phones offer, some actually assume the role of content creators. A classic case is that of Nathan.

    Nathan, 26 years, is a bachelor and works as a mineral water supplier. He dropped out of school after his kindergarten due to family issues and economic troubles that these issues created. His network of friends from his neighbourhood included dropouts like him, high school (12th grade) graduates and college graduates. His friends often referred to Nathan as having an inferiority complex specifically with respect to his illiteracy. Though friendly, his demeanour showed that he was a bit reserved and shy. Getting him to even talk was tough to start with, but slowly he opened up about his understanding and use of social media. Until about a year ago he had no phone, not even a simple feature phone. A few of his friends, who had started using smart phones talked him into buying a Samsung Galaxy smart phone with the help of their economic contribution. They introduced him to internet access through smart phones and as a cinema buff, his first brush with the internet was YouTube. He started watching movies and clips (specifically songs and comedies from Tamil movies) by clicking on the links that his friends sent him. He has never searched for anything on YouTube. His friends taught him on how to access his messages, so that he can click on the YouTube links that they sent him through messages. He had the YouTube app installed on his smart phone and accesses it regularly. Now, he understands that the YouTube logo represents YouTube and clicks on it when he wants to browse through it. He looks at the still picture that gets displayed for each video and clicks on it, as YouTube and other such sites recommend videos based on the user generated information such as geographical location, history of videos viewed etc. So, given this set of clips recommended for him to watch, Nathan feels comfortable clicking on new videos and especially if he sees his favourite South Indian cinema stars featured on it. He normally asks his friends to use his phone to watch videos of their favourite songs and films, so that Youtube recommends videos automatically and he doesn’t need to search for anything. However, as YouTube does not require him to contribute anything, he is a passive but a faithful and continuous user of YouTube.

    After YouTube, he was introduced to Facebook almost four months ago. His friends helped him create a Facebook account and he exactly followed what his friends had taught him about accessing Facebook and learnt through observation. His illiteracy means he doesn’t understand the text on Facebook, but he understands the pictures and symbols. So, once the Facebook app was downloaded, his friends made sure that he was always signed into Facebook and he makes sure to recharge his pre-paid internet connection so that he doesn’t get logged out of Facebook. Currently, his normal exercise of accessing Facebook and activities on Facebook can be split into two types: one when he is alone and the other when he is with his friends. His independent access to Facebook takes the following form of activities:

    Step 1: Click on Facebook logo.

    Step 2: He swipes vertically through the screen to browse posts.

    Step 3: If he sees a picture and likes the picture then he clicks on the ‘thumbs up’ sign.

    Step 4: If he wants to share that picture with his network then he clicks on the forward arrow and once again clicks on the last picture on top of the screen and does not type anything. This is also how he shares video clips over Facebook.

    He limits his activities on Facebook to the four listed above when he is alone. However, his activities increase when in a group. He allows his friends to access Facebook and YouTube from his phone. He identifies people through their profile pictures and his friends help him friend others from his neighbourhood (by searching) whom he knows offline. Often his friends will read out what they see on others’ profiles and Nathan will orally comment on it; but he never has his friends write comments on others’ profiles, since every friend on Facebook is from his neighbourhood and knows he can’t read or write. Once he shares a picture/video, he asks his friends to ‘Like It’ or comment on it and to let him know their comment over voice, which normally happens face to face. He is now learning how to upload clips/pictures and soon will have a few pictures that he has taken on his smart phone uploaded to his profile on Facebook.

    His friends have added and subscribed him to a few Facebook groups that have its members posting video clips of Tamil movie comedies, so that he can have more access to such videos and need not wait for his friends to send him links. Similarly, they subscribed him to a group which posts pictures of pets, so he would be able to access these pictures directly on his profile and need not search for them.

    Expert manoeuvring of such maze-like online platforms with pictures as road signs is still possible for people with illiteracy issues like Nathan: after all isn’t a Picture worth a thousand words?

    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.