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Football World Cup 2014: observations from Panchagrami

Shriram Venkatraman27 June 2014

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Cricket, cinema, politics and religion are things that interest Tamils the most. This is not only reflected in their offline lives but can be witnessed online too, especially on Facebook. Now, where does football fit into all of this? Though football isn’t something that is entirely ignored, it really doesn’t scale up as cricket does. It is one game which is constantly encouraged in schools during the physical training hours next to cricket, but, it really doesn’t have the same following as cricket does. However, it is nonetheless more popular than hockey, which is India’s national sport.

Most men would tell you that they were exposed to football during their school days, but, as a sport the interest in it gets restricted to their school/college days, compared to their interest in cricket which is carried on to their adult life. However, the scenario is not all bad as there are people who do follow football feverishly and know each team’s statistics by heart, but, the numbers just don’t match cricket. Chennai, the nearest city to my fieldsite – Panchagrami – has a Manchester United clothing shop in a famous mall and people do shop there, some for its brand value and a few as fans.

The Ground Reality
So, how does the recent FIFA World Cup 2014, score in this scenario? While Brazil wakes up to football, it’s almost bed time in India. The live telecast of the World Cup starts only at around 9:30 PM which is almost past dinner time for most folks in Tamil Nadu, India. The first match at 9:30 PM isn’t too tough to follow, but the next slot is close to midnight and the slots thereafter most often takes a toll on people who work. They go back to work like zombies if they stay awake watching the entire series the night before. So, people following the live action of every single match is rare.

These night slots come at a disadvantage not only to fans but also to the hospitality industry. Star hotels, restaurants and bars do play the matches live, but most have a time constraint and normally don’t go over midnight. Though replays of matches do take place in the afternoon, football isn’t really treated as a great marketing option during weekdays, though weekends are slightly different. There is only one five-star hotel in Chennai which has taken football to be a serious way of marketing and attracting fans to dine in and has activities related to the sport 24/7. While a few others do consider this an attractive marketing option, most places haven’t really bothered too much with the idea. Bars and restaurants in Chennai (specifically those in star-rated hotels) play football on their television sets, however, most go on only till about midnight and close down, so catching the live telecast from Brazil in public places is difficult for most people here.

The other issue is with the concept of bars in Tamil Nadu. The bars here are of two different kinds, the first type is attached to the local government-run alcohol shops called TASMAC. But, most middle class men prefer not to frequent this bar and opt to take alcohol home. Further, there isn’t any facility here to watch football. The second kind of bars are those that are mostly present in star-rated hotels or exclusive bars/restaurants and can be pretty costly compared to the local government-owned alcohol shops. So, people frequenting them would normally be people travelling on business or upper middle class/rich folks. However, irrespective of the bar one frequents, if one decides to drive back home, with the stiffening of rules against drunk-driving, one is almost certain to get caught by the law and shell out loads of money (either as a fine or at least in terms of corruption to avoid a fine). Some clubs do offer football viewing during dinner for its members, while most often the television sets in gymnasiums play them as an option along with cinema songs.

A World Cup 2014 arrangement at a star-rated hotel in Chennai:

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The scenario in coffee shops is not too different. Though some do have replays of football matches instead of cinema songs, most prefer cinema songs to match replays. Most often one can catch some advertisement/sign or symbol related to the World Cup in the form of a commercial product. Coffee shops don’t spend money putting together advertisements or banners of the Football World cup, but willingly display beverages bearing the symbols of the World Cup.

For example, Coca Cola cans which have the World Cup advertisement on them.

Pic4 The constant scene of people who watch windows of shops/showrooms with a television set playing a live stream of the cricket World Cup matches isn’t seen with the FIFA World Cup. Though, the time at which the matches are played might be one reason, the other would be that football just doesn’t interest people here as cricket does. Private viewings in homes do take place in Chennai. However, except for a few nights in the season, most stop watching past midnight during weekdays, due to work day schedules. The only store which has a dedicated football brand Manchester United also only plays matches of the team and not the FIFA World Cup, as a store associate expressed his concern of attracting too much of crowd, if the matches were shown in the store. However, the time of live relay of such matches was also something that did not work out in their favour.

Pic5 One definitely cannot ignore the World Cup as there are vinyl hoardings and the media (print, radio and television) constantly relays news of the World Cup. Most often people seem to prefer watching news slots of the matches or just get the scores from the internet rather than watching it live. Discussions at offices or schools on football aren’t as frequent as they are regarding cricket.

The World Cup on Tamil Television news

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However, it does have its own reflection on social media, and especially on Facebook. Private chats and groups on football do exist. Most often one needs to get invited to these groups, where discussions between Facebook friends happen. Being a part of such a group was clearly enlightening, as it gave the opportunity to witness conversations first hand. Members keep checking for scores online and run their own analysis of teams. They also share links of popular articles related to the teams they love or hate or just about the World Cup itself. Some even run voting options such as the one below Pic7 Pic8

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The Scene in Panchagrami

By contrast to the above scene in Chennai, Panchagrami, which lies in the outskirts of Chennai offers a completely different scenario. What hits one is that there are absolutely no vinyl hoardings of football. Further, there are no commercial enterprises that offer an overt advertisement related to football. The only place which has a public viewing of football matches is a star-rated hotel at Panchagrami, situated on a major highway. It offers football match viewing between 7 PM and 11:30 PM every day available only at the roof-top garden restaurant, opened newly at the hotel. However, the screen where the match is projected is pretty small and unclear.

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Interviews with the restaurant staff revealed that when families dine in, they really don’t pay too much attention to the matches and most aren’t bothered about them. Some have even requested the staff to change channels (to play cinema songs) as the sport seemed boring to them. However, the staff were ready to admit that excitement picks up only when groups of young men come in to dine and specifically only when they consume alcohol. This normally seems to happen on weekends rather than weekdays. Every evening there are men who travel on business who dine in at the hotel and sit alone to watch the game, just until they finish dinner, most often out of boredom rather than an interest for the sport. The same was true of a coffee shop in the area too; they were content playing cinema songs rather than the World Cup as they felt that cinema songs were much better received by their customers. When probed deeper, they did say that a few customers mostly men, sometimes requested the staff to change channels for a few minutes to update themselves on news related to the football World Cup. Again, timing for catching live action of the World Cup just isn’t suitable for most people nor does it suit the business.

The corner tea shops are normally the spaces where communication of world news is witnessed through informal discussions. Frequenting some of these tea shops revealed that people did speak about cricket in the last week and never once mentioned Football. Informal chats with a few in these tea shops revealed that they just didn’t care about it and were content getting a glimpse of it from the local newspapers.

Most of my informants in the past week were posting pictures of their favourite cricket/cinema stars and political figures. They even Liked pages of their favourite stars, teams or political leaders. I haven’t found even a single posting on football. Even IT workers staying here weren’t really bothered putting up posts on Facebook about football. Interviewing my younger group of informants, revealed a few interesting findings on why they don’t post anything about football.

  1. None of their friends were interested in it.
  2. They wouldn’t get as many Likes if they post about football rather than cricket
  3. It doesn’t allow girls to Like/Comment on their posts – while they did say that the chances of women Liking/Commenting on a post related to cricket was more. In other words, they meant that football was more masculine and could keep away women from actively participating in their profile (through Commenting/Liking).

However, a few did say that they did receive WhatsApp messages from some of their work/college friends about football and most of these friends were from Chennai and some weren’t even native Tamils and hailed from West Bengal or Kerala where football is much more popular. So, while some reeled off statistics they had collected from their office colleagues and from newspapers, they did accept that the discussions on football weren’t as intense as cricket.

The online forums/discussion groups of upper middle class residential apartments also did not have any messages asking for people to join in a public viewing of the sport. However, talking to an International school in the area revealed that they had football coaching sessions over weekends. Attending a few sessions over the last couple of weekends showed that the fathers normally encouraged their sons who were attending coaching sessions to watch World Cup matches. There was a strong family (father-son) bonding that was visible through their discussions on Football on the practise ground. Some were constantly referring to a few You Tube videos of player interviews and techniques. But, other than a few matches they watched during weekends at home or at a Star hotel, most agreed that watching live action of the World Cup just didn’t suit their schedule or timing. However, they did catch up with the scores on the internet.

There were a few men who did agree that they used football as an excuse to go out drinking (alcohol) together as a group. But they just didn’t bother posting about it online, as they didn’t want their wives to know that they were out boozing in the pretext of watching Football.

Most of my male informants did agree that they had played football and liked the game, but it was soon very clear that playing a sport needn’t necessarily transition to following the sport.

Interviewing and constantly checking for updates on Facebook profiles of my informants about their interest in football revealed yet another dimension – women loved cricket more than they did football. None discussed football. Football, they said was very masculine and somehow it just didn’t suit them. However, they did accept that if they had grown up watching football as they did cricket, maybe they would have loved it and changed their favourites. But, it just doesn’t seem to be happening in the near future.

In conclusion, football still hasn’t diffused into the boundaries of Panchagrami as it has in Chennai. As the area transitions, there might be a greater number of Football fans in Panchagrami. Further, the timings do hinder those who might want to give it a try in Panchagrami. As the final match of the World Cup gets closer, maybe people would be much more interested and would start following the World cup. However, at least people catch a glimpse of it in newspapers or on television sets and do update themselves and the situation isn’t as bad as hockey – supposedly India’s national sport – of which people know much less than they know of football.

THE WORLD CUP ON SOCIAL MEDIA WORLDWIDE
This article is part of a special series of blog posts profiling how social media is affecting how ordinary people from communities across the planet experience the 2014 World Cup.

Thinking of writing cultures

Razvan Nicolescu15 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.

 

Who Am I? – The Case of Caste Related Profiles on Facebook

Shriram Venkatraman11 April 2014

Identity FBThe above cartoon says it all. There are quite a few cases here in my field site as well as in the villages closer to it where this sort of double existence on Social Networking Sites (SNS) seems natural and required. The thinking being that this was the right thing to do in order to avert caste problems or issues of any sort. While this sounds like a great strategy to follow, when seen superficially, this actually indicates identity confusion. This seems specific to the rapidly transforming (urbanizing), rural areas especially closer to bigger cities. Given that my field site is one such peri urban area, I encountered such an identity crisis in my informants quite often.

This identity crisis of a person of a rural background (specifically young men/women) suddenly finding himself/herself in the midst of a rapid urbanization, manifests itself on social networking sites, where you have one caste based SNS profile and another more secular one. The idea is to not really mix these two as you tend to now live both the lives at the same time. However, my informants feel that it sometimes becomes confusing on who they really are and what ideology they really subscribe to. So when I asked Rajeev (the person in the cartoon), which profile would thrive for a longer time and which profile is a true reflection of himself; he said he really didn’t know. But, he was quick to add that it might be the one which is secular, since he thought that he might move away from the village looking out for a job sometime soon and secular was the way to go. However, once again, he reverted to saying that he might still have both the profiles separate without anyone (except for a handful of friends) from either of these profiles knowing that the other one exists, since he didn’t want anyone from his village to be offended. I asked him if he liked his caste based kin and his activity on the caste based profile; he replied that he loved it, as it was what had made him what he is today. But, he thought the secular profile from his college days was also important since it was the one which gave him his friends’ network,  a great worldview and a politically correct picture of him.

After multiple interviews with such informants, it became rather clear that they were in a way struggling to understand and see who they really were and what was the image they were trying to project to the world. It was like they were being pulled on both sides by two opposite ideological forces at the same time. Escaping the geographical boundaries of the village seemed to be a solution to end both the social control and enabling the merging of identities. However, the emotional attachment to one’s caste and kin made them to hesitate to leave the caste based boundaries. Maybe, their identity itself was about existing in both the worlds at the same time and this is what is very clearly reflected on their SNS profiles.

When suspension becomes a status symbol

Shriram Venkatraman13 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.

Illiteracy and social media: a picture is worth a thousand words

Shriram Venkatraman17 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?

The NRI Club: Non Resident Indians stay connected with Facebook

Shriram Venkatraman15 December 2013

NRI Club

NRIs (Non Resident Indians) are Indian citizens who have lived outside India for a period of 182 days or more in a year. Most South Indian NRIs in the last two decades are those who have left India for an IT career in the West. They normally get their permanent residency status and settle down in the country that they work in, some proceed to get their citizenship and thus lose their Indian citizenship, but maintain a status that they have an Indian origin. The last few years have seen quite a few of this segment return back to India for various personal and professional reasons. Some of them make a choice to return due to a pressing personal situation back at home (very often induced by their aged parents or parents-in-law) and work for a company here in India. At times this leads to issues and problems settling in India again. These people ruminate over their choice and relive their experiences and life in the West (mostly the United States of America) through their memories. One physical way of doing this is by looking through the pictures/photos they have of their life in the West. Another is to look at the lives of their friends through a combination of pictures, text, videos, friends’ reactions to these found on Facebook, in order to still be an active part of their lives. Facebook (or an equal social networking site, but in the Indian field site people most often use Facebook) acts and serves as a memory to their past lives. Further, it also helps in making sure that one can still live a life and be a part of that network that he/she always was, though he/she lives physically away in another network. Sometimes, this is true the extent that people create two different Facebook profiles-one to maintain their memories and the networks of the past (though a few similar NRIs may be added to this in the present, because only they would understand the situation) and one for today’s network. The following is a typical example of what was described above.

Raghu, aged 47 years, holds a very important top level position for an IT company in India. He took up this position around two years ago, after his return from the US. He relocated to India along with his wife (Prema, aged 43 years) and his two children. He had recently bought an apartment in a posh building here and has his children studying in an International School in this area. His wife works for the same American company that she was with earlier (while in the US) and works from home. Raghu travelled to the US just after his graduation at the age of 21 for pursuing a Masters in Computer Science. He then settled in the US and raised a family of his own. Meanwhile, his parents were in India and his sister was married and settled in Australia. Raghu, tried getting his parents to settle in the US along with him, but failed since they felt they were very comfortable in India. Further, for over 20 years his parents had been shuttling between the US and Australia and now felt tired of this yearly exercise and wanted to be in India. His parents weren’t really keen on moving anywhere. When his parents were travelling, Raghu and his family had weekly telephone calls with them and would speak on Skype maybe only once every two weeks or month. Raghu was always secure in his parents’ well-being as they were with him or his sister for most part of the year and were alone only for a period of a month or so in between trips.

With their decision to get settled in India with no more travel and with their increasing age, Raghu was not too sure of leaving them all by themselves in India. His weekly telephone calls now became proper Skype calls, where he was able to see his parents rather than just hearing their voice. Over Skype, Raghu helped them set up Bill paying services online, so that they never had to go stand in a queue to pay a bill. His sister from Australia also made it a point to come on Skype every week and talk to her parents and more than once every month all of them would get on a conference call. Further, Raghu arranged for his wife Prema’s parents and his own parents live near each other, so that they would take care of each other. As Prema’s parents had bought a brand new apartment and moved into a gated community, Raghu relocated his parents there too, by renting another apartment in the same community. However, even though this plan worked, recent medical issues with Raghu’s father forced him to consider a decision between appointing a nurse/caretaker to look after his parents or returning to India to look after them himself. The frequency of their Skype calls increased and the duration of each call increased too. Both his Prema and Raghu tried convincing his parents to appoint a nurse or to come to the US permanently. The conference calls with Raghu’s parents and sister increased, as did the frequency with which Raghu and his sister spoke on Skype. However, his parents were completely against the appointment of a nurse or moving back to the US and this left him with no choice but to relocate to India after very careful consideration.

Relocation was not easy as his US Company did not have Indian operations, so he had to find work in another IT company. He chose an Indian IT company that wanted someone with the US market experience and interviewed with them over Video conferencing and negotiated his salary and relocation package. He first moved into the apartment complex where his parents and his in-laws lived and later rented out a bigger apartment when his wife and children moved to India. He wasn’t too interested in investing in a house of his own in India, but looking at the boom in the real estate market, just six months ago he bought a huge 4 bedroom apartment in a posh apartment building very close to his workplace.

For the first year and a half, Raghu had a Facebook profile, which only had family, friends (from US) and colleagues (from his previous work connections) in the US. He was absolutely against friending anyone from India or his Indian workplace on Facebook, though he was fine getting connected to them on LinkedIn. His Facebook was exclusively for his US connections for two reasons. Though he had made a choice to relocate to India for his parents sake, his heart was still in the life that he led in the US. His Facebook profile allowed him to experience/re-live his life back in the US. So, Facebook served to rekindle his US memories. Also, through Facebook, he never was out of his US friends’ lives. He was still an active member of the US network that he had built on Facebook. He regularly followed his past community activity such as being a part of the local Hindu temple or giving suggestions to the neighborhood sustainability initiatives. Flipping through the updates and profiles of his friends enabled him to vicariously live the life that he was missing. Further, he wasn’t too sure if his family would like India or if he would himself like his work in India in the long run. So just in case he changed his mind and wanted to relocate back to the US, he wanted to maintain his connections on Facebook.

However, once he moved to the new posh apartment complex, his love for the game of cricket allowed him to socialize with his neighbors, specifically the men (around 15 of them) who played cricket over the week end mornings. Socializing with them helped him learn that almost all of them were like him. Most had returned from the US for the sake of their aged parents and most had their social networking preferences set exclusively for their US memories. Some even maintained two profiles (personal profiles as on Facebook)- one for US and one for India-and they made sure never to mix them. However, their LinkedIn profiles were much more open, as they reflect their professional networks. There seems to be a very clear distinction between their personal and professional choice of networks. While their professional networks seem to be rooted to their presence in physical space, their personal networks seem to be based on their emotional longing.

(Brain) Drain vs. Gain

Shriram Venkatraman16 November 2013

Photo by Sinistra Ecologia Libertà (Creative Commons)

Photo by Sinistra Ecologia Libertà (Creative Commons)

Recently, when I was interviewing a retired school Principal, she casually mentioned how disheartened she was about the Brain Drain that was happening in India and Brain Gain that was happening in developed nations. At first it just seemed like a casual mention, but when she kept returning back to this topic over and over again, it somehow seemed to strike a chord even with my Research Assistant. To examine this topic further, I thought it would be helpful to first understand what each of these terms mean. ‘Brain drain’ is the flight of qualified and intelligent individuals from a particular geographic region or field and ‘brain gain’ is the influx of qualified and intelligent individuals into a geographic area or field of work. Brain drain, by definition, is a depletion of vital human resources that would have helped to develop that area (geographic area or field of work). On the other hand, brain gain is an aggregation of talent that can potentially transform the area if the additional talent can be nurtured and channeled in a proper manner.

Geographically, brain-drain is an oft repeated complaint in many countries of the developing world where infrastructure and economic return may not match what is offered in more developed countries. This is evident in India where there is a constant outflow of talented and well qualified individuals to first world countries in North America, Western Europe, Australia and some Asian countries as well. Such individuals leave India in search of more economically viable jobs, better infrastructure, respect for their talent and a perceived higher quality of living. This is a visible phenomenon and has been talked about time and again in the media. A more hidden and subtle form of brain drain in India is that of the outflow of qualified individuals from certain fields/professions to others. Let’s take for example the IT and ITES industries. Companies from these industries recruit talent in droves from colleges (especially, engineering/management for IT and Arts and Science colleges for ITES) and are lauded as economic boons.

This caught my attention through a series of interviews with a few undergraduate students studying in Engineering as well as Arts and Science colleges in my field site. What was evident was their aspiration to somehow get into the IT field. IT is such a drawing force that these students really haven’t explored their own field of study as much as they have explored the IT industry. Through any means possible they want to be associated with the IT industry. From Chemical Engineers to Tamil scholars, students tend to look at IT with a sense of awe and respect, though they often say that they are aware of the pitfalls in the industry. They tend to view IT careers as the panacea to all their problems (though it seems like all of their problems point to personal finances), through which they say they would attain status both in their own family as well as society at large. Their aspirations reminded me of Nicholas Nisbett’s bookGrowing Up in the Knowledge Society. Though he deals with Bangalore, the case is similar with most of the South Indian cities where the IT economy rules. Of course, the physical distance that someone is from an IT industry is also a factor and given that my field site is so close to a Special Economic Zone that tends to favour the IT industry, such aspirations aren’t really a rarity. However, what is often overlooked is that this talent inflow into IT/ITES is at the cost of losing talent in other areas of Engineering, Sciences and Humanities. In other words, the IT industry’s brain gain is the result of a brain drain from other disciplines and this leads to a skewed and potentially unsustainable distribution of talent. Thus, India faces a simultaneous brain drain and brain gain which together are a more complicated issue than if each is seen separately.

Mentoring across borders

Shriram Venkatraman13 October 2013

Blogpost Wordle

A social network consists of several kinds of networks, and a knowledge network is one of them. While knowledge sharing and/or information sharing happens both formally and informally on social networking sites, some of them have formal user groups and pages dedicated to sharing knowledge/information (all user generated). The users get introduced through the network and sometimes even develop relationships outside the online social networking site, which could be of various kinds, mentoring relationships being one of them. Social networking sites such as Facebook are not an exception to this. This becomes all the more interesting when a person from a small town in India gets in touch with a professional on the other side of the world and is provided with mentoring across borders, in other words transnational mentoring, all through Facebook.

Recently I met with an informant who benefited by this knowledge network on Facebook. This person is from a very humble background and worked very hard to graduate with a MBA, majoring in finance. His college is very close to the field site and this ensured that he never really moved out of this area until he joined a bank in their financial product sales team after graduating from his MBA. He seems to have become interested in the number crunching that finance as a subject offered him. He was quickly disillusioned with the job, as it involved more  smooth-talking rather than the number crunching that he had hoped for. Not giving up, he initially tried to advise his friends from the neighbourhood on their financial planning but didn’t find many enthusiastic takers for his suggestions.

Disappointed, he turned to the internet and chanced upon a Facebook group that had people from all over the world discussing and sharing knowledge on financial concepts. Enthused by this discovery, he carefully followed the discussion and was struck by the suggestions given by a particular discussant from Germany. My respondent started corresponding with this person and found that he was a senior financial analyst in a stock brokerage firm in Germany. Thus began a deep friendship that progressed from talking about debentures, futures, options and equity to career goals and aspirations. The analyst from Germany became a mentor to my respondent and inspired him enough to quit his job and set up his own stock brokerage firm. This firm was started with the blessings of the mentor who provided my respondent with the necessary knowledge support and a list of the required software. Where possible, he also provided the software itself for the start up. My respondent managed to procure the necessary funding and the rest of the software with some of the latter being sourced as pirated versions. The firm runs from his humble two bedroom home in the field site which he shares with his parents and two younger brothers. He claims that his life has become much better and he now has support (international knowledge and moral support) to follow his dreams.

I was particularly struck by the true globalization that took place through a social networking site!

Facebook for fitness: a case study from India

Shriram Venkatraman18 September 2013

Photo by Bharfot (Creative Commons)

Photo by Bharfot (Creative Commons)

The following is a case study of a fitness enthusiast (a small business owner as well – owns a gym) in our Indian fieldsite who shares his passion for body building and subtly influences his business members through Facebook.

Krishna, aged 28, is a body building enthusiast who just loves fitness to the extent that it was natural for him to start his fitness centre/gym immediately after he graduated. While pursuing his Bachelors in Business Administration at a college close to the fieldsite, he took on several part time jobs, all in the field of fitness, at various privately owned and community gyms both in the city of Chennai and in the villages surrounding it, working in a wide spectrum of roles from being an instructor to looking after the administration. He learnt through being an apprentice to various well known instructors. He read most of the well-known fitness magazines that his work place subscribed to. He was not just an instructor who only preached, but  was also a walking proof  by practicing his own ideals on fitness. He participated very actively in most of the state-based fitness competitions and has even won a few of them, which further added to his credibility.

He surrounded himself with friends (mostly young men) who were also interested in fitness and he seemed to have influenced most of them to get into body building, and even compete in a few city/state and national level competitions themselves. His network which mostly consisted of people who were seriously into fitness and body building, now seemed to have influenced him in turn by respectfully addressing him as their “Master”. They do this even now, and the gym members seemed to have forgotten his real name and just address him as their Master. His personal attention to the fitness of his friends seemed to go a long way. He volunteered to help them compete in competitions and thereby spread around this idea (in a way popularising himself as a brand too, as he did not have a business at that time). Hence, it was natural for him to look out for an opportunity to expand his passion and with a good business sense he turned his network of friends into clients. He started his own gym and had a ready network of friends who naturally joined the gym. A member of his network seemed to have even helped him with procuring the equipments, while one helped him with a bank loan and another with the space for the gym.

Now he is a the owner of this small business, who owns and runs an 1800 square foot gym in a rented area. The gym functions in an artificially created shed in the terrace of a building owned by his friend’s dad. Thanks to his friend’s influence, he pays a rent which is at least 60% less than the market price. He charges his members a very reasonable amount as his gym does not have any electronic equipment and is not air conditioned. His network expanded considerably and so did the gym membership, the membership roster boasts of approximately 200 members on a rotational basis. Given that this is a men-only gym with very limited facilities, this number seems to be significant. Also most most of the gyms for body building use rather than usual aerobic fitness regimes.

As body building requires huge amounts of motivation and inspirational stories and pictures, it required a significant amount of time to ensure that his members are motivated to turn up to the gym every day. Following up with them was itself a huge task. Cell phones helped him in this task, where calling members individually and talking to them personally and messaging them inspirational quotes helped, however sending inspirational pictures of body builders with quotes in them were not possible with the phone that he had. So, he turned to a cheaper but an effective and valuable option: Facebook.

He made sure to add most of his old members as his friends on Facebook and also  asked every new member their Facebook ID and made sure to add all of them as his friends on Facebook. He send all his Facebook friends, who are his clients, pictures of body builders with inspirational quotes. He also sends them personal messages and pictures that he downloads from the internet. As a member of other international fitness groups on Facebook, he has all of these pictures and quotable quotes falling into his lap. He also shares stories of people in unfortunate circumstances and who have made it big and relates them to fitness. His way of caring, motivating and influencing his members/clients was now becoming easier. He says that he knows his members welcome this because, when they open their Facebook page every morning, they see a positive message with the picture of a strong man, which creates a positive energy in them to face the day and, in a way, subtlety influences them and reminds them of fitness and his gym.

He says his membership churn-over has reduced considerably since he adopted Facebook to communicate with them and has definitely helped in reducing a considerable amount of time/money spent over phone in motivating members to turn up for fitness. This method he feels is very non-intrusive. Further, he is now able to use his time effectively to concentrate on other business details and with Facebook groups, he uses them as a knowledge network to know the latest developments in the body building world, which has also brought down his magazine subscription charges. He prints out pictures of body builders and inspirational quotes that he gets on Facebook and now pastes them in his gym, to motivate those working out in the gym. Of course, he also relies on phone to communicate with people with whom Facebook doesn’t work or who are not into Facebook. He says his presence on Facebook also has helped him attract new members in the area. So when people search for gyms in the area, his name stands out with the area name. His Facebook ID is a combination of the name of the gym and his name, as well and with his geographical details are given, it’s pretty certain that his name stands out when people search for a gym in this area. Surprisingly, he doesn’t have a page for his gym and he says he doesn’t want to create one simply for the reason that his clients would then be clients and lose personal touch with him if he has a page instead of his profile. A profile makes sure his clients are his friends and it shows he cares for them.

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

Daniel Miller1 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.