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All in the pose

JolynnaSinanan25 August 2014

Image courtesy of J.G.

Image courtesy of J.G.

Danny and I are in the midst of looking at hundreds of Facebook profiles and in his case, Twitter and Instagram feeds as well to start writing the first book to come out of the project so far, What They Post. The project has always intended to be an anthropology of social media, but as we presented at the Royal Anthropological Institute a couple of months ago, instead of studying social media, we can also see social media as an unprecedented opportunity to study the wider anthropological context.

This is the premise of the book we’re (or at least I’m) muddling through at the moment. By looking at visual posts on social media- photos and self-generated or collaborated images (memes etc.) we can see an alternate route to doing ethnography. We are comparing our two field sites, The Glades in the UK and El Mirador in Trinidad. We’re not comparing Trinidad to the UK, it would defeat the purpose to take the values and cosmology of one society as the bedrock to which all others are compared. In our study, the use of social media by the English looks just as ‘exotic’ as uses of social media in China, Turkey or India. By looking at what people post, we can demonstrate the contrast between Trinidadian and English posting as the best way of showing that posting is in many respects Trinidadian and English.

We have now looked at thousands of images posted on social media and are starting to work with about ten comparative themes. Some are directly taken from the content of images, such as counting how many times alcoholic drinks appear, either with people or images of drink alone. Others are bigger themes that have been more subject to academic study we have big question marks next to that will need deeper analysis, where an images says something about gender or class but we’re not sure what yet.

One of the themes that has stood out to us is the way that women pose in photos. Danny has noticed a pattern where women over the age of around 30, do not overtly pose. They may try to look pretty, attractive or feminine, but they don’t show their bodies in any particular way. Posing years seem to be for teenagers and young adults, but certainly not for adult women.

It is quite the opposite in Trinidad. Women of all ages post images of themselves on Facebook, they pose to the side, they show their behind, they may have a hand of their hip or a leg slightly turned out diagonally from the body, but they show themselves.

And this is where it is very important to not take the values of any one society as the cornerstone to compare others. We have all seen countless journalistic articles that feed into the anxieties we have with the introduction of any new media, usually from a psychological perspective. That social media encourages, or brings out latent narcissistic tendencies, that we are all obsessed with our own image and we are all become more exhibitionist, photographing and sharing everything that we do.

But when I ask women why they post photos of themselves, I get a number of responses like ‘I was in a good mood’, ‘I felt like it’, ‘I liked my make-up’ or ‘I liked how I looked that day’ followed by ‘and I wanted to remember it.’ Trinidad is a society where people strive to be seen and we can’t contextualise that desire in contexts of Western mediatisation or celebrity phenomenon. Because of its own history and experience of modernity, being seen is to be acknowledged that one exists as a person. Visibility has far more existentialist implications in Trinidad than simply wanting fame.

I would also argue that Trinidadian women are generally kinder to themselves and to each other about their bodies. You don’t have to have a certain look to post lots of selfies, young women aren’t ridiculed by their peers for posting selfies or posing in photos if they aren’t thin or pretty enough, they don’t need to look like celebrities to celebrate themselves. Trinidadian women generally have a healthier sense of body image than we have observed with their UK counterparts and it all comes across when we take a comparative look at the photos they post.

Extending empathy

DanielMiller1 July 2013

Photo by Pierre Phaneuf (Creative Commons)

Photo by Pierre Phaneuf (Creative Commons)

The core to an anthropological approach is the extension of empathy. We sort of know what it is like to be us, we conduct ethnography to understand what it is like to be ‘them’. In most disciplines it is assumed it is better for say a female who has given birth to study females giving birth. But my other project is on miscarriage amongst women in Qatar, where for me the whole point is that I am neither female nor Qatari. Similarly in this project we have an Italian anthropologist, but she is doing her fieldwork in Turkey, while it is our Romanian anthropologist who is working in Italy. Because being the ‘other’ helps to extend empathy, that is understand the people we are not.

A good example of this in the study of social media is our attitude to children. The overwhelming stance from journalism and indeed most adult conversation tends to denigrate the child as basically ‘childish’ and the adults as obviously more mature. It is hard not to start from such assumptions. So, for example, it’s bad enough that people go on Facebook, but at least there is some serious conversation and text there. But young people migrate to Instagram which just seems a whole load of photos and filters and comments often by random strangers. Worse still the fastest growing platform in the world right now and the one that appeals to the youngest is Snapchat, which is where you send a photo or video that lasts a few seconds before it disappears from the screen. This certainly seems childish and superficial. Meanwhile in the village where I work, these young people are leaving Facebook which is being colonised by ever older populations.

But then when talking to the schools you find that one of the reasons for these changes is that it is the adults who seem to be behaving like children. Again and again children have little quarrels and say awful things to each other. But they soon make up on the playground and are best friends again. The trouble for the schools is that their parents now see these comments on Facebook and start getting involved and saying their children are being cyber-bullied and going around to the other child’s parents and making a fuss and then complaining to the school, and the whole thing gets exacerbated and becomes a serious problem. Maybe it’s not surprising that the children leave Facebook and play instead with things like Snapchat. As they point out Snapchat is something almost always done between very close friends since it bonds and builds trust that they won’t overshare photos in which you look at your silliest. While Instagram is quite a serious concern to share images and imaginations and crafting one’s view of the world.

Well I have just overgeneralised and perhaps even romanticised the kids. The investigations need to go much deeper over the next two years. But the point is that I need to try and work out why these 16 year olds behave the way they do, and appreciate that there are reasons out there which may sometimes be rather more adult, than the adults. I do this because the basic challenge is always to extend empathy.