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The aesthetics of the field

NellHaynes19 June 2014

Photo by Nell Haynes

Photo by Nell Haynes

Sometimes, leaving “the field” and returning can be incredibly productive. Sometimes it is because it gives you time to think and plan, while in a different mindset. Other times, it is because the return throws differences into stark relief with the life one leads in other places.

Both have been true for me in the last three days. After spending a month at University College London with my colleagues, I have a much better grasp on where this project is going, where my part fits in, and how it relates to the other eight fieldsites involved.

What is even more impressionable is the sense of aesthetics that I immediately notice upon returning to Northern Chile. And as someone who has always been fond of art, architecture, fashion, interior design, and other forms of visual expression I notice that my surroundings here actually affect the way I feel, present myself, and act in daily life. The nine of us on the project collectively wrote a blog on “Real methods in anthropology” wherein we describe the ways we are a bit like chameleons, and do certain things to more closely fit in as we live in our fieldsites. While this may appear as “inauthentic” to some people, we know that the self in everyday life is always a performance (see Goffman 1959), and that people are always a different version of themselves in different contexts. Yet, returning to Alto Hospicio has reminded me just how different this self is from the selves I perform in Chicago, Washington DC, La Paz, and London.

Being away has also helped me to pinpoint what it is about this place that makes me so different, and perhaps fortunately, I think what I’ve realized has quite extensive impacts for my research as well. Put simply, the aesthetics of Alto Hospicio are incredibly different from those in the other cities where I like to spend time.

At first glance, I think to myself ‘This place has no sense of aesthetics.’ Instagram photos present uninspired subjects in mundane settings without much attention to the filters or other enhancements available in the application. Facebook posts—both photos and text—appear to lack curation (as explained by Erin Taylor). One person’s clothing style is indistinguishable from the next (at least to my eyes). Houses each equally resemble lego blocks. And even the city’s parks and plazas do very little to offer natural refuges from city life.

But to say that there are no aesthetics here is obviously this is not true. Plenty of people tell me that they have personal styles and tastes. Houses are often painted bright colors on the outside and decorated with plenty of artificial flowers on the inside. The new municipal building in the city is architecturally pleasing. Cars are clearly modified with exterior lights, and decals. Clothing ranges from black tshirts displaying heavy metal band names to sunny beach attire. These are styles, not just reflections of function.

So the challenge is first, to find a way of describing this form of aesthetics without implicitly privileging the forms of aesthetics I have delighted in my whole life—those that are middle class, cosmopolitan, North Atlantic, etc. And second, to find what are the underlying currents that define these forms of aesthetics that are present in Northern Chile.

Further Reading

Goffman, Erving.  (1959)  The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Garden City: Doubleday.

Taylor, Erin.  (2014)  The Curation of the Self in the Age of the Internet. Paper presented at IUAES / JASCA Conference, Tokyo, Japan. Available at http://erinbtaylor.com/the-curation-of-the-self-in-the-age-of-the-internet/

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.

 

Resurrecting and Remixing for Youtube Fame

NellHaynes5 May 2014

Photo by Nell Haynes

Photo by Nell Haynes

The latest music craze here in Northern Chile is actually a song from 1993. Italian band Corona’s Rhythm of the Night has been stuck in the collective brain of young Chileans for the last two weeks. Though reading the song title or artist’s name might not immediately ring a bell for blog readers, the song reached number 11 on the US Billboard chart and number 2 on the UK singles chart for 18 weeks in the early 1990s. The song is admittedly catchy (to refresh your memory: the original music video on youtube ). But the circumstances of it’s recent popularity in Chile are both coincidental and very much due to a convergence of typically Chilean sociality and the ways social media functions in relation to Polymedia.

During the first week of April, a young man called into a radio station in the Dominican Republic and requested a song. In a classic misinterpretation of lyrics, he asked for a song with the lyrics “Esas son Reebok o son Nike” [Are those Reebok or Nike]. After a bit of back and forth discussion between the announcer and the caller, the disc jockey Brea realized he was referring to The Rhythm of the Night (though usually pronounced Nī-kē in English, most Spanish speakers pronounce the athletic brand Nīk), and happily played the song as he laughed at the misunderstanding.

Luckily some enterprising radio listener in the Dominican Republic was recording the interaction, and it quickly landed on Youtube. The “original” posting of the sound clip, accompanied by static graphic of Reebok and Nike logos, includes an explanation that the user received the sound file via Whatsapp and was so humored by it “I had to publish it” (hear the video). Hundreds of parody videos quickly appeared. From there it was picked up by Chilean radio stations, who began playing the sound clip along with the full version of the song. Chileans then did their own Youtube searches, which were quickly passed on through two popular Tumblr-like blog sites that generally publish links and photos pertaining to sex, drugs, drunkenness, humor, or some combination of the four. Among my over 100 Facebook friends in northern Chile, none published a link to the Youtube videos or sound files that circulated. Yet more subtle references popped up, such as the comment on a profile picture in which a pair of shoes is visible: “Esas son Reebok o son Nike?”

I didn’t understand these comments, and did not even notice them until April 10th, when I was invited to a cookout. As we waited for chorizo to heat on the grill, my friend Miguel asked if I had heard “Son Reebok o Son Nike.” Having no idea what he was talking about, a conversation equally as awkward as that between the radio announcer and caller ensued. But shortly, with his Samsung Galaxy phone in hand, Miguel played the radio clip for me. For the rest of the night, everyone was humming the tune. I found it the next day on Youtube and discovered it had almost 4 million views (compared to the original song’s less than 380,000 views). By the next weekend, when I went with some friends to a nightclub in Iquique, the entire dance floor erupted in screams of pleasure when the original song was played late in the night.

Clearly, this story illustrates the ways different forms of media, both online and offline, interact, and in fact depend upon one another to spread. The phenomenon started on the “traditional” media of radio, spread through personal Whatsapp message, was transferred to social broadcasting site Youtube, further spread through blog sites and word of mouth, and found it’s apex on a club dance floor. Rather than being eclipsed by Youtube or other online-based music platforms like Spotify or Soundcloud, music on the radio provides one way in which online music gains a hold. Users of Facebook and Youtube now take the place of radio disc jockeys in deciding what becomes popular. The content is both user-filtered and user-distributed. Yet, in taking on this role, comes the responsibility of being aware, and making others aware as well. If you don’t know why the song’s being played in the club on Saturday night, someone will be happy to tell you, and perhaps even show you the video, but not without a bit of social shame.

At the same time, there is something very Chilean about the importance of recognizing the song. Part of what’s being performed with screams of delight is not simply expressing that the song is good for dancing, but a performance of knowing why it is being played. A performance of being sufficiently socially connected, whether face to face (as I learned of the lyric misinterpretation) or via social networking, to sing along with “Son Reebok o son Nike” instead of “It’s the rhythm of the night.” Chances are, the song’s popularity will not last 18 weeks this time, but the song has found new exposure not only because it’s catchy, but because there is a story—and a funny one at that—that accompanies it.

 

The ‘too much information’ paradox

NellHaynes22 March 2014

Photo by Nell Haynes

Photo by Nell Haynes

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

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

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

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

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

Public and private: space and media

NellHaynes10 February 2014

Photo by Nell Haynes

Photo by Nell Haynes

When Daniel Miller came to visit my fieldsite in Northern Chile a few weeks ago, I took him on a walking tour of the city. He had just arrived from his own fieldsite in Trinidad, and as we walked he kept remarked that two places are quite different. They share certain aspects: warmth, nearby beaches, revealing clothing, and gated homes. Yet, he told me that compared to the razor wire or broken glass-topped fences in Trinidad, these just didn’t seem as intimidating. Similarly, we discussed the ubiquity of car alarms as the continuously sounded that evening as we sat in my apartment. “Are they really protecting anything if one goes off every three minutes?” I asked.

A few days after Danny left, I was having coffee with a Catholic priest in a nearby neighborhood. Telling me about his perceptions of the town after living here 6 years, he lamented the lack of “confianza” or trust between neighbors. “Neighbors like each other, but there’s not much trust between them.” He suggested this is a product of the fact that the city is new. It has only been incorporated for a decade. None of the adults who live here grew up in these neighborhoods. The fences are high but there is no neighborhood watch group here.

In a lot of ways this explains the ways I have been warned about safety here. People just don’t seem to trust what might happen in public space. The fences around houses may in fact be a way of delimiting the private from the public in a way that leaves no questions as to where the boundaries lie. And by claiming the space as private rather than public, perhaps that makes it a little safer.

One thing I noticed right away upon arriving here is that people rarely use their phones in public. Not in the plaza, on the bus, or while waiting in line at the supermarket. When Danny and I visited the local market near the municipal gymnasium, we asked a group of vendors about this. One woman, who has a clothing stall in the market told us people never have their phones out in public because they are afraid someone will come by and swipe it. The most recent statistics I could find were from 2008, when 1,236 non-violent robberies (the type that might result in having their cell phone stolen from their hands as they sit in the plaza, or their pocket in a busy market). This is not particularly high, roughly matching national statistics, yet I am given pause that perhaps many such thefts go unreported. About a year ago, online security company ESET reported almost 60% of Latin American residents have had at least one cellular phone stolen. The Catholic priest also told me that the most recent statistics he has seen suggests that about 40% of Alto Hospicio residents have had some personal effect stolen in the last year. “Probably because their billfold or phone is sticking out of their pocket in a public place.” While statistics like “40%” and “1,236 reported” might not necessarily reveal much, I do sense that cellular phone theft is quite common and the vendedora is correct: people know this and protect themselves by not using their phone in public.

So, I wonder then, if there is a certain “privateness” to the cell phone. And perhaps to the internet in general. Though one may interact with their friends though social media, that is generally something done while in private space. Even the local call center/internet café provides patrons with rather large cubicles while they use the computers. Though you might be airing your dirty laundry on facebook for all of your friends, the person physically next to you wouldn’t (or shouldn’t) know.

So these walls, these fences, these car alarms, and these cubicles provide a sense of delineation. A car alarm may be tripped just as easily by someone doing a bad parking job or a ball thrown amiss as by someone trying to steal it. Fences can be jumped. Cubicles can be peeked around (at least one young man quickly turned off his pornographic video as Danny and I walked by in the internet center). But that is not the point. The point, perhaps, is to say this is mine, and this is private. If you touch this, walk past it, or look at my screen, you are transgressing a boundary. So however social, social media might be, for these Northern Chilean users, it ideally retains a sense of the private.

Social media in social spaces

NellHaynes9 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