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Thinking of writing cultures

RazvanNicolescu15 June 2014

Project team selfie (Photograph by Xinyuan)

Project team selfie (Photograph by Xinyuan)

This blog post will try to give just a short glimpse of what our collective work means and how we envisage doing it.

This May, the entire project team reunited in London. This came after roughly twelve months fieldwork for each of us. Imagine nine anthropologists (Elisabetta Costa, Nell Haynes, Tom McDonald, Daniel Miller, Razvan Nicolescu, Jolynna Sinanan, Juliano Spyer, Shriram Venkatraman, and Xinyuan Wang) sitting at the same table and each trying to talk in a way that would make sense for the rest of the team while also addressing very different individual issues and concerns. In a way, this task was very similar with one of the main underlying thoughts since the beginning of the project: how to make our ethnographies really comparable?

We started by structuring our individual presentations into themes and focused more on ‘what went wrong’ or ‘what we didn’t do’ rather than on the positive aspects of our fieldwork. We felt we needed this exercise, as on the one hand we identified common issues and workarounds and on the other hand the kind of feedback we each received was incredibly effective. This was also one occasion to realise how much we have done so far: tens of questionnaires, exploratory interviews, in-depth interviews, close work with local schools and in a few cases (Turkey, Trinidad, and India) with local Universities, gathering of specific quantitative and demographic data, and so on. Besides, each of us followed their individual research interest, updated on a monthly basis the research blog, and circulated inside the team a total of around 70,000 words in monthly reports.

Next, based on our continuous discussions we started to draw a list with the main preliminary insights of the project. We qualified as ‘insights’ the kind of information based on ethnographic evidence that, even if could be strongly relativized between all the nine sites, it is nevertheless essential in understanding the impact of social networking sites on our society. After a few rounds of refinement and clarifications we ended up with around thirty preliminary insights that we will begin to publish on this blog. The idea beyond this is that we recognize that the earlier we put our findings in the public domain and under critical scrutiny the more social science will benefit.

Then, we started to work on a list of tasks that we all have to do in the last three months of fieldwork. We ended up in defining 20 tasks, mostly qualitative, that respond to issues we overlooked so far or we decided collectively we have to have. Some of these are: we redrew parts of the in-depth interview grid, we defined a few common mechanisms to work on and to analyze the online material, and created a second short questionnaire to be done by the end of the fieldwork. Sometimes the endless debates on the various nuances and particular issues in each fieldsite had to be closed down by mechanisms such as democratic votes inside the project team: by voting, we collectively decided whether we will address that particular topic as a collective as part of the mandatory deliverables or it will remain to be further investigated by just some of us.

There are so many other things we worked on during this month and I do not have space to discuss here: gathering user generated content, producing short films on the main themes in each fieldsite, the course we’ll collectively teach at UCL/Anthropology in the second term of the next academic year, discussion on research ethics, methodologies, and data analysis, AAA conference this year, dissemination plan and our collective publications, as detailed here by Danny, the strategy for our online presence, and so on.

By the end of the month, when my colleagues also prepared their panel for the RAI conference on Anthropology and Photography, we all agreed that going through such an immense quantity of data and ideas, process, and plan our further common actions in a relatively short period of time was the real success.

 

Glamorizing social mobility through market research

JulianoAndrade Spyer28 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.

Working class teens switching Facebook for Whatsapp in Brazilian field site

JulianoAndrade Spyer9 January 2014

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Photo by Juliano Spyer.

As I have written earlier here, Facebook is a very important part of being young in Baldoíno. If it took a while for everyone here to respond to the street mobilizations that happened nationally during June and July, the (fake) news about the government closing down the internet and consequently Facebook made people here want to protest – more here. Being on “Face”, as Brazilians warmly call the service, is part of what makes someone a person others would want to talk to in my field site. But there has been an almost silent revolution towards the adoption of Whatsapp and informants are spending less time and paying less attention to what happens on Facebook.

The critical reason for the change doesn’t seem to be what is making UK teens migrate to other services, as Miller pointed out. Among my working class informants, Whatsapp is more useful because it works better on their mobile phones, and the mobile phone tends to be more important for them than the PC. The PC usually belongs to the family so it has to be shared, while the mobile phone is something that is one person’s exclusive possession. It is not just that mobiles are more affordable and can be carried everywhere; they materialize a possibility of having private interactions in a social context that doesn’t allow this to happen very often. Even at home people are constantly being monitored by their neighbors. And the mobile enables stealth conversations among people.

As I started conducting field work nine months ago, very few people talked about Whatsapp or had it installed on their phones. Now Whatsapp is perhaps the main reason my informants have for choosing a new mobile. They are willing to pay more for equipment that enables them to use this service. If a few months ago a good phone for them should have a camera and a memory card for music, it now should also have Android OS as it is perceived as the best platform to have Whatsapp running.

The advantage of Whatsapp is that it runs better on their not very powerful smart phones and unstable internet connections. Using Facebook for chatting through mobiles normally is a painful process involving having patience for the program to open and having to deal with misunderstanding as the user could be seen as being online but not all messages would arrive immediately. Whatsapp loads quicker and delivers the results expected in terms of promoting the exchanges of direct messages. And further than that, the service was understood as a sort of Bluetooth solution where people didn’t have to be near each other to exchange files. And exchanging files – music, video clips, voice clips, and photos – is something my informants love doing.

At first, as I saw Whatsapp becoming the new cool thing, I felt it would be bad for the research. Facebook is mostly used for private communication here, but, because it does more than that, users would chat and then participate on public or semi-public events that I could follow. Whatsapp does not have a timeline for people to post things to anyone interested. Through Whatsapp you are either talking to one person or to a specific group. But to my surprise, I am now feeling that Whatsapp offers a great advantage for anthropologists conducting long term research.

During this kind of deep engagement with informants, we are able to build trust relationships so I learned I could ask my informants to show me the kinds of conversations they have through Whatsapp. Because Whatsapp is not public, people feel more at ease to “be themselves”, which, among other things, means talking about things and sharing things they wouldn’t if they knew others were looking.

I will briefly give examples based on the two conversations I had so far with informants about this subject.

1)    Business / work – Using Facebook at work is not usually appreciated by employers, but they now are having ambiguous feeling about Whatsapp as it is being applied inside companies as an efficient tool to communicate with clients and also with work colleagues. At a hotel resort, for instance,  every cleaner can now be immediately contacted without carrying a walkie-talkie.

2)    Bizarre humor and sex – a lot of what is exchanged are short clips with different sorts of bizarre images. I could mention, as an example, a man having sex with a goat while singing a popular country song about wanting the girlfriend to follow the guy to town where he is going for work. If there is a pattern about this –as far as I can see – it is that many of such files make reference to the life of working migrants.

3)    Entrepreneurship – users use the service to help each other in terms of solving problems. A person could promote the ice cream produced by a friend or forward the image of a furniture a friend wants to build to a trusted professional.

4)    Maintaining a virtual presence – a person had a small surgery on her mouth and shared the image of her face with a close friend to hear her opinion on how she looked; alternatively the person can be at the store, photograph a certain item and ask the opinion of peers before purchasing it.

5) Exchange local information – Baldoíno does not have a newspaper or a local radio station and yet people are mostly up-to-date about things happening through gossiping networks. Whatsapp became part of this process as it allows the exchange of images such as that of a murdered person or of the difficult work conditions for employees at an important sports event. The photo makes the gossip more trustworthy and real.

As one of my informants said, after Whatsapp, she now rarely uses Facebook. She has both apps on her mobile and as she rides the bus home after work and school, she first checks the new messages shared on Whatsapp. If there is nothing new she then sees who is online on Whatsapp that she could talk to. In the exceptional case that no one is on and there are no new exchanges, she then opens Facebook to see what is going on over there.

Photo 1: Sent to my informant by a friend after having a tooth surgery to see how she looked.IMG-20131109-WA0020a

PHOTO 2: Some friends my informant wanted to buy ice cream and she told them through WhatsApp she had another friend that makes great ice cream. They exchanged quite a few photos, which included the menu with flavours and prices. This image shows the larger size of her friend’s ice cream in comparison to those found in supermarkets.IMG-20131109-WA0016

How teenagers communicate with publicly private messages

JulianoAndrade Spyer30 November 2013

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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

The cost of an internet connection when there is none available

JulianoAndrade Spyer10 November 2013

Pots, pans, and an antenna on the left. Photo by Juliano Spyer.

Pots, pans, and an antenna on the left (Photo by Juliano Spyer)

Carcará is one of the songs that was popular among politically engaged youth of Brazil in the 1960s. Caetano Veloso’s recording of this song starts with the comment: “It is funny [to see] the force that things appear to have when they need to happen.”

The song describes how a small predatory bird that lives in the northeast of the country survives during the dry winter time by biting the bellybutton of young calves, consequently resulting in their death. The song is a sort of suggestive tribute to the bestial survival strength shared by the millions of illiterate migrants originally from that region.

I thought of this song the other day as I was visiting the home of a friend that is the president of the association of the residents of a squatter area in Baldoíno, my field site. Land invasions take a lot of effort to be legalised, and people must hang in there without official services such as electricity and running water while the government processes the claims and, if that is approved, make the new ownership official and distribute the documentation among the squatters. It usually takes many years to happen, but despite the odds, my friend was showing me his internet connected computer, which was the first of its kind in the neighbourhood.

You can see how important the internet is just by looking at the excitement of the family around the computer screen. But the process of connecting that computer was rather costly and involved ingenuity both from my friend and from the person that is providing him with the radio connection.  First, it was necessary to understand that there are products such as surge protectors that must be bought and installed in order to prevent the computer’s hardware from burning due to the instability of electricity supply. Additionally, a person – a friend of my friend – had the idea of re-selling internet connection and he found that it was possible to subscribe to a broadband service and transmit it by radio signal to places far away. He first studied this through YouTube videos and was then successfully testing the experiment by supplying our friend with his much desired internet connection.

I think the point of this post is self-explanatory: “It is funny [to see] the force that things appear to have when they need to happen.” Teenagers at my field site are crazy about the internet. It serves as a marker of distinction and as a place that is mostly exclusive for them to use in relation to their (normally illiterate) parents and adults in general. Parents seem to mostly feel favorably toward the attention their kids devote to using the internet, because then kids will stay at home rather than spending time outside the home unsupervised. They also will be doing something that  at least appears to be intellectual or related to the acquisition of knowledge. These are some of the reasons  the poorest people in my field site are pushing to find alternative ways to bring this service to their homes, especially in the case of squatting areas.

Things that never appear on Facebook

JulianoAndrade Spyer4 October 2013

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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.

It’s not what we find, it’s what you learn that counts

DanielMiller1 September 2013

Photo by Gerald Pereira (Creative Commons)

Photo by Gerald Pereira (Creative Commons)

I have now completed two fieldsite visits. I will be visiting six more over the next five months. But already there is one issue that I am becoming increasingly anxious about. Anyone reading this blog regularly would understand why even after five months, which is one-third of our fieldwork, I would predict that this study will surpass even our wildest ambitions in terms of what should be our main criteria, that is the level of original insight this will bring to our understanding of the impact of social and new media on the world today. But that is just the half of it, because I feel the extraordinary richness of engagement at each and every site means that these nine studies should give us a depth of engagement with the wider lives of ordinary people across our contemporary world that is unrivalled.

The two site visits that have confirmed this feeling. In both cases I find the material revelatory. This is partly because the sites are so well chosen. The Indian case of 200,000 (soon to be 700,000) IT workers plonked into the middle of villages creating a radical juxtaposition is symptomatic of the transformation of India. In Brazil I had been very sceptical of this term ‘new middle class,’ because I could not see how you could apply this to the level of domestic cleaning staff and construction workers that populate our fieldsite. But now I have seen how squatting has turned into a strategy for long term property investment, and met the children who go to University and aspire to do post-graduate work abroad, I can see how this site also is perfect for understanding the future of Brazil.

So why I am anxious? It is because I learnt so much from actually visiting the sites themselves. In this project we do a good deal of internal reporting. Both Shriram Venkatraman and Juliano Spyer have already each written around 45,000 word descriptions of their projects. Both have long experience in writing in previous commercial employment and some journalism, and write unusually well. Having seen their sites I don’t see how they could have done a better job of conveying them. Yet to be honest there were so many things I didn’t really get until I actually visited them. The problem is that no one, other than me, will visit all these sites. We hope to gain a huge popular audience for our findings, but none of these people will be able to experience the sites as I have done. The ultimate point of research is not what the researchers have learnt, but what they succeed in conveying to the readership they attract. Even if they both write superb academic and popular books, which I fully expect they will do, it’s just not the same as actually being here.

All of which means that we have to do something else, to bridge that gap, if the project is to deliver as we intend. One possibility is that we learn from online behaviour as to how to use the online to convey academic findings more effectively, whether that be film, user generated content, animation, cartoon, clever graphics or photos, or some interplay between these. I am not sure I have yet seen an ethnographic work that quite managed this. It will be the topic of Sheba Mohammid’s contribution to the project which is a plus. But until this is accomplished, I am going to remain anxious about how we will manage to achieve this ambition. Also I feel very aware of a final contradiction. Since I will have visited all the sites, I will never be able to recreate the naïve state of pre-visiting. So how would I even know if we have succeeded in adding that extra dimension to our dissemination? Hopefully, the answer will lie in the reception of the results by others – hopefully.

Is it bad that facebook became the king of communication among Brazil’s “new middle class” youth?

JulianoAndrade Spyer9 August 2013

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Teens at the Brazil field site. Photo by Juliano Spyer.

“If one day the sadness and the loneliness knock on your door, open and answer: ‘Hello, I cannot host you, my home is full. In the living room is Happyness, Joy, and Harmony. In one of the rooms is Love. In the other room is Affection and Tenderness. And in the kitchen is Peace and Prosperity. Fortunately the other room is under renovation to receive Victory. Have a lovely afternoon, many kisses, N.'”

Through the course of three months I have been conducting a questionnaire eith informants in my fieldsite about how they use communication services in general. The one question that has been a constant source of insights is the one that inquires about who they communicate with using social networking sites, email, Skype-like services, SMS, land line, mobile, instant messaging, and WhatsApp-like solutions.

Texting – The short text that appears at the start of the article is what texting (SMS) seems to be mostly used for. Texting is not a way of interacting with contacts, but a broadcasting tool used to deliver these kind of uplifting messages to friends and family. I supposed the “normal” function of texting is covered by voice calls through mobile phones, which are accessible to those less confortable with writing and typing on a small device. So those who have free texts on their mobile plans use it to display their affection, specially to those living in different cities from the sender.

Telephone / Skype – Landlines may be used, but only relatively rarely  They are still used by some (older people in the house) to call relatives living away, but it is an expensive service to call mobile phones in general, so the few people that have access to it, either at home or at their work, use it for “institutional calls”, which translates to calling one’s college admin office, a business client, or a government office. Many also know about Skype, but have not started using it because of low internet bandwidth.

Emailing – A lot of people have email. It used to be a tool for keeping in contact with colleagues at the university that lived far away. Its advantage was to enable group communication: everyone would be in sync with the exchanges aiming to coordinate collective activities. And it is free to use by those with access to the internet. But similarly to land lines, email is becoming less important, and is typically only used for “institutional communication”. Student exchanges are currently migrating to Facebook groups.

Mobile phones are today the second most important communication device to my young informants. Mobile phones are great, but they are still costly services considering the amount of communication they want to have. The phone is there, but it is mostly a one-way communication product, as many do not have credit to make calls. In special occasions, they can make collect calls or use a special SMS service that delivers a message to another user asking that person to call back.

Social networking and Facebook

Vianna is among the Brazilian social scientists that criticize the near monopoly-stage Facebook has arrived to in Brazil. “Many people do not venture any more outside the walls of this private social network: they think that there is all there is of the large Network, forgetting that there they live in an environment controlled by a single company, working for free for their business success,” he wrote in a newspaper column [in Portuguese] earlier this year. But I am not so sure that Facebook is able to understand how it is being used.  He says he refuses to call it “Face”, as if it was a personal friend, but calling it “Face” is an evidence of a cultural interpretation.

Social communication at my field site is synonymous to using Facebook together with face-to-face interactions. Facebook – or “Face”, as it is called at my field site – is the perfect tool in many regards: it is the cheapest solution to reach everyone at any time; those that connect occasionally using the services of internet cafes and those who are “always on” through mobile internet plans. It may be conceptualized as a sort of  “polymedia machine” as it condenses different functions (chat, blogging, etc) and also connects the various platforms available for digital communication.

The gift of privacy and anonymity

Among Facebook’s many functions, private chatting it by far the most important among teens and young adults here. As I ask them about how many times they perform different actions, chatting is normally at a higher order of magnitude compared to other actions such as updating status, “liking”, sharing, or commenting.

I must look further into this topic, but so far I know it represents the possibility of totally private communication – one that is not accessible to anybody else but the two interacting at a given moment. Facebook chat allows people to talk to each other away from everyone else’s sight. This seems to be important at a place that has a large group of “natives” (people born and raised, with strong ties with each other) and migrants (those arriving recently and with few social ties). Anonymity and privacy facilitate social interacting under these circumstances.

Facebook is also a solution to being always near some people; a sort of SMS that is free to use and reaches friends everywhere, independently of time, space, and the mobile plan chosen. And it is also private regarding parents and older people in general since older people tend to be less interested and knowledgeble about computers and phones and are also less skilled with writing and reading.

The near future

The mobile phone has  great potential that is not far from being reached. They are becoming a private mobile computer, considering their home computer is shared among the family. Cheap smart phones are already common among teens as it became a prized object of social distinction. The internet connection to phones are also accessible price-wise. The problem, at least at my field site, is that the quality of the connection and the processing capacity of phones are still low. The small screens, complicated apps and tiny keyboards make it more difficult to use the service. And still, many do it.

It is relatively easy to explain why my informants use communication devices the way the do, but I was not be able to anticipate how they use it, considering my user habits tend to be more similar with that of my age group and social class (my habits seem to be more international than Brazilian in that regard). What I believe I can anticipate now is that things are about to “catch on fire”, as Brazilians say it, as mobile internet connections becomes not just available, but friendlier in terms of user interface, processing capacity, and connection speed.

Can social networking sites harm you?

JulianoAndrade Spyer28 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 Riots in Brazil seen from a different planet

JulianoAndrade Spyer18 June 2013

Protesters at the National Congress

Protesters at the National Congress. Photo by: Midia Ninja.

By Daniel Miller and Juliano Andrade Spyer

After Egypt, Turkey, and other parts of the world, it is now time for Brazilians to appear on the front page of international newspapers – here and here. Yesterday, a quarter of a million people participated in political demonstrations across the country. But while I am also in Brazil, my experience is as though I was living on a different planet. Protests are happening 70 kilometres from here, at the state capital, but it might as well be across the ocean somewhere else. The Brazilians at my field site are simply not showing much interest in these events, especially not on Facebook.

It is an interesting inversion, noteworthy because Facebook and Twitter are, again, at the core of these “emergent” political rallies. What made the initial demonstrations (against the raise of bus fares in São Paulo) spread online was that the established news outlets such as radio stations and newspapers tried to ignore them. The feeling of impotence against the powerful – including the ones controlling the news – fueled people to self-organize and share information through social networking sites about the next rallies.

Notice that here, at the place I am conducting field work, Facebook IS the internet. Take Facebook away and there is very little left for people to be online, but it is also very important since a teenager without a Facebook profile is almost an outcast. And yet, the news about the rallies have only just arrived on Facebook in this area after they finally appeared on television. Because television channels could not for long ignore a self-organized demonstration that invades the National Congress. It was only after this happened that a few secondary school and university level students living here wrote something generic on their walls about democracy and the “waking up of the giant”.

I do not think this lack of interest for politics has anything to do with political alienation. On the contrary: it seems that political silence is very political here. Institutionalized politics is seen at its best as a necessary evil one has to accept in order to receive some government advantages, but it is not something that exists beyond the official time for electoral campaigning. This broad and rather abstract thing called “the government” is not something that people discuss. I have not seen, among the people I am friends with on Facebook, any posts mentioning a local politician, not even the mayor.

But, yes, there are social organization happening online and also ideological disputes. A few weeks ago, for instance, the police-made a sketch of a rapist operating in the region which was shared on Facebook and some people took the effort of going to internet cafes to have the image printed out so they could circulate it and show it at their neighborhoods. And I believe there is a serious dispute happening regarding the symbolic ownership of God by Evangelical Christians. I noticed that those commonly attacked by these more radical Christians – such as the gay community or the disciples of African Brazilian religions – make very public comments mentioning God, either thanking God for a blessing, or asking God for help to resolve a certain problem.

There are differences between large urbanized areas where the rallies are happening and small places such as here regarding the use of Facebook. There, Facebook is a channel used for keeping in touch with the people one does not necessarily see every day. Facebook tends to become a gathering place where we are close to everyone, independently of their location in different neighborhoods or other places. The purpose here of using Facebook is not “keeping in touch” because that is really not necessary as friends and everyone else are already physically near to each other every day. What is important, then, is not talking about public things that everyone can know, but to share private information that not everyone knows about. Demonstrations are not interesting for those living here because they relate to institutional politics and also because they are already public, everyone knows about it, and something everyone knows about is not worth talking about.

We, the researchers of this project, still have a long way to go in our ethnographies, so what I am writing now is still an initial impression about how different Facebook is even considering the people living in the same country. But this is a major part of the justification of our project. By comparison the big debates about politics and the internet such as the work of Morosov and those opposed to him, look quite crude. In the same country and at the same time, social media are both central to today’s politics in Brazil and almost irrelevant. It depends on who exactly you are talking about. We need ethnography to undertand how they relate to the different types of politics and the different types of social media. It is not that we are trying to make things more complex, it is rather that we are trying to acknowledge the complexity that we confront.