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Ropa americana online: the local market for used clothing

NellHaynes15 August 2015

Screen Shot 2015-08-13 at 16.23.47

A Facebook announcement from an online shop in northern Chile announces “Jackets, Vests, and Sweatshirts”

Ebay, Etsy, Alibaba, and Taobao have changed the way many people around the world shop. Now, you can get virtually any product from anywhere, delivered right to your door. Tom McDonald has even observed companies that have sprung up to make this possible in rural China where even courier services does not deliver (also see his blog about business Facebook pages). But in northern Chile, people aren’t really all that concerned with getting interesting things from far off places. To them, ropa americana [American clothing, code for used goods] is the cheapest and least impressive form of dressing. If one is looking for style, the department stores in the larger cities will do just fine.

But this doesn’t mean that there’s no market for these goods online. Many people, particularly older women, have developed “shops” through Facebook in order to sell used clothing. Just like their counterparts who operate physical used clothing shops in the semi-formal markets around the city, these women buy used clothes in bulk, and sell it to individual consumers. But instead of renting a stall, they take pictures of the individual items to upload to Facebook accounts that they have just for that purpose. When a potential buyer likes and item, they will negotiate a price (usually about $4 for a tshirt, a bit more for jeans or a dress, up to $20 for a coat), and a time and place to meet for the exchange. While new customers may simply ask the price as a comment on the picture, or send a private message through Facebook to arrange a drop-off, regular customers will send WhatsApp messages asking about specific items, hoping to get the best of the best before they even make it to the Facebook page.

Paola, who sells clothes mostly for men told me that a miner requested she meet him as he got off the bus, coming home from his shift at the mine. He had ripped his coat while at work, and was afraid of being very cold between the bus drop off and walking a few blocks home. Paola agreed to meet him at midnight at the bus, for just a few extra dollars.

So while in many ways social media has the ability to expand consumption options globally and allow people access to cosmopolitan goods they might not have imagined a decade ago, it can also take on a form that is distinctly local and personal. Like Paola meeting the miner at his bus, this is just one way that social media can truly strengthen the community bonds that people feel in their local place.

Personal and public aesthetics: What I learned from my own visceral reactions in the field

NellHaynes25 June 2015

jair selfie

Photo by Nell Hayes

At first, I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but over the first several months in my fieldsite in northern Chile I began to realize that one of the reasons I never quite felt totally at home was that the aesthetics of the place never quite fit with my own sense of aesthetics. By aesthetics, I mean the effort and thought that people put into the way things look. In my fieldsite, a city of 100,000 inhabitants, I noticed this in public parks and municipal buildings, in both the inside and outside of homes, and in the way people dressed. It was not only an intellectual exercise, but a visceral feeling. If I wore the clothes that I was used to wearing, perhaps a dress or a fitted button down shirt, I felt as if everyone was staring at me because I was dressed with too much care. Perhaps they were right. There wasn’t really anywhere to go looking smart. The only bar in the city had cement floors, cinderblock walls, and heavy metal bands playing live every weekend.

Over time I thought more about the sense of aesthetics in Alto Hospicio, and realized that while I had considered it entirely utilitarian at first, there was something more particular about it. The aesthetic was very much a part of the accessibility and normativity that prevailed in the city. The predominant aesthetic was not nonexistent, nor did it always privilege form above function or the “choice of the necessary” as Bourdieu calls the working class aesthetic. While many people clearly could afford to redecorate their homes or buy expensive clothing from the department stores in the nearby port city, their aesthetic choices leaned toward an appearance that was not too assuming. They didn’t flaunt or show off in any way. It was an aesthetic that was presented as if it were not one, because aspiring to a particular aesthetic would be performing something; a certain kind of pretension. Yet the aesthetic relies on deliberate choices to not be pretentious or striking; to be modest; to be unassuming. This aesthetic then not only predominated in the material world, but also online. Unlike in Brazil, where young people would never post a selfie in front of an unfinished wall, this was precisely the type of place youth in northern Chile might pose. While in Brazil this would associate the person with backwardness that contradicts the type of upward mobility they hope to present, in northern Chile this type of backdrop would add a sense of authenticity to the person and their unassuming lifestyle.

So, in the end, what began as a visceral feeling of discomfort in the field site, actually led to a very important insight. As I told academic friends many times during my fieldwork, “This place is a great site for research, but not at all a great site for living.” Fortunately, even some of the “not at all great” parts of about living in northern Chile helped my research more than I realized at first.

 

Reference

Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste. Richard Nice, trans. New York: Routledge (1984), pp 41, 372, 376.

 

Comparative ethnography: Local and global levels

NellHaynes12 February 2015

For the first year of my fieldwork, I lived in Alto Hospicio, Chile, a city considered marginal and home to the working poor (as the US class system would call them). I spent the year chatting with neighbors in my large apartment building, kicking balls back to children playing in the street, shopping at the local markets and grocery stores, buying completo hot dogs from food vendors, walking along the dusty streets, and taking the public bus to and from Iquique. Now, for my last few months of fieldwork, I am living in Iquique, the larger port city, just 10 km down the 600 m high hill that creates a barrier between the two cities.

iqq beach 1

Photo by Nell Haynes

This project is based on comparative ethnography, but usually this means comparison across continents, hemispheres, and language barriers, at least. Yet, I have learned a great deal from comparing Iquique and Alto Hospicio, even in just one short month. Iquique is more lively, with a US-style shopping mall, many bars and restaurants, more variety in terms of grocery stores, a beach, a casino, and the sort of variety of different jobs and services available in mid-sized cities across the world. By comparison Alto Hospicio seems bare, even barren. There are no billboards there advertising the latest Tommy Hilfiger perfume (available in the TH shop in the tax free import zone of the city). There are no Peruvian-Italian fusion restaurants, or even cuisines like vegetarian, Indian, Mexican, Thai, or Italian alone. There is no theater, no yearly film festival, and—perhaps most disappointing for me last year—bars with happy hour deals on mojitos.

But what I know of Alto Hospicio, is that while there is less investment in infrastructure and commercial activity (or even advertisement), it is still a lively place. Neighbors chat, people take Saturday trips to the beach with their family, and friends gather to pass time or celebrate special occasions. But in many ways the lack of commercial activity gives Alto Hospicio a homogeneity that one does not encounter in Iquique. As I’ve written before, from the very shape of the houses to the clothing people wear, the spectrum of aesthetics is limited. People work in mining, in service industries, or own small businesses such as a corner store. And everyone knows that for “once” (pronounced own-say), the evening tea, the table will be equipped with bread, margarine, sliced cheese, and sandwich meat to accompany the hot tea. And most people seem quite content to share these things in common with their neighbors.

aho mirador

Photo by Nell Haynes

I wrote last month that the acceptance and even pride surrounding normativity is reflected on social media. But in looking at the social media in Iquique this becomes even more apparent. Foreign newspaper and magazine links are much more prominent. People post pictures from events they attended or even displaying the new throw pillows they’ve purchased for their couch, while in Alto Hospicio photos taken inside the home are rarely are intended to demonstrate the interior decoration. And the percentage of funny memes is much much higher in Alto Hospicio.

None of this shocks me. Coming from a middle-class US background, Iquique feels more like home, and Facebook usage from those residing here looks much more like what my friends at home post. But what this reminds me of is the ways that homogeneity may be working as the world becomes more and more connected. Iquique begins to look and feel like the Midwest of North America (well, with the added bonus of a Pacific Ocean beach), while Alto Hospicio remains very locally focused. That is to say, perhaps certain places are more or less likely to be both homogenized by social media, and have that homogeneity reflected on social media, given their figurative proximity to the global centers (in terms of economics, aesthetics, consumption, services, education, and work opportunities). By looking across all 9 sites of the Global Social Media Impact Study, this may become more or less apparent. We may find that those places that remain on the global “periphery” remain peripheral on social media as well. There may only be a 10km highway separating Alto Hospicio from Iquique, but the differences seem continental.

Normativity on social media in Northern Chile

NellHaynes7 January 2015

As many entries in the blog affirm, local cultural aspects are often reflected or made even more visual on social media. As I have written before of my fieldsite, there is a certain normativity that pervades social life. Material goods such as homes, clothing, electronics, and even food all fall within an “acceptable” range of normality. No one is trying to keep up with Joneses, because there’s no need. Instead the Joneses and the Smiths and the Rodriguezes and the Correas all outwardly exhibit pretty much the same level of consumerism. Work and salary similarly fall within a circumscribed set of opportunities, and because there is little market for advanced degrees, technical education or a 2 year post-secondary degree is usually the highest one will achieve academically. This acceptance of normativity is apparent on social media as well.

One particularly amusing example of this type of acceptance is especially apparent from a certain style of meme that overwhelmed Facebook in October of 2014. These “Rana René” (Kermit the Frog, in English) memes expressed a sense of abandoned aspirations. In these memes, the frog expresses desire for something—a better physique, nicer material goods, a better family- or love-life—but concludes that it is unlikely to happen, and that “se me pasa,” “I get over it.”

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Similarly, during June and July of 2013 a common form of meme contrasted the expected with reality. The example below demonstrates the “expected” man at the beach—one who looks like a model, with a fit body, tan skin, and picturesque background. The “reality” shows a man who is out of shape, lighter skinned, and on a beach populated by other people and structures. It does not portray the sort of serene, dreamlike setting of the “expected.” In others, the “expected” would portray equally “ideal” settings, people, clothing, parties, architecture, or romantic situations. The reality would always humorously demonstrate something more mundane, or even disastrous. These memes became so ubiquitous that they were even used as inspiration for advertising, as for the dessert brand below.

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For me, these correspondences between social media and social life reinforce the assertion by the Global Social Media Impact Study that this type of research must combine online work with grounded ethnography in the fieldsite. These posts could have caught my eye had I never set foot in northern Chile, but knowing what I know about what the place and people look like, how they act, and what the desires and aspirations are for individuals, I understand the importance of these posts as expressing the normativity that is so important to the social fabric of the community.

It’s all in the comments: the sociality behind social media

NellHaynes2 December 2014

autoconstrucion boys

boys in the fieldsite hang out after school and look at Facebook on a mobile phone

As I begin to write my book about social media in Northern Chile, it’s great to see little insights emerge. One of the first of these insights is that interaction is essential to the ways people in my fieldsite use social networking sites. Facebook and Twitter are the most widely used, with 95% of people using Facebook (82% daily), and 77% using Whatsapp with frequency. But with other sites or applications, use falls off drastically. The next two most popular forms of social media are Twitter and Instagram which are used by 30% and 22% of those surveyed respectively.

So what makes Facebook so popular but not Twitter? My first reaction was that Twitter doesn’t have the visual component that Facebook does. This was partially based on the fact that many of my informants told me that they find Twitter boring. Yet Instagram is even less well-used than Twitter. And as I began looking more closely at the specific ways people use Facebook and Twitter, I began to see why they feel this way.

People use Facebook most frequently because they are most likely to get a response on that platform. In fact, this forms a sort of feedback loop in which people perceive that others use it more, so when they want the most feedback they use Facebook, which in turn keeps others coming back as well. As this cycle continues, people know that if they want their friends, family, colleagues, acquaintances, and even enemies to see something, Facebook is the place to put it. This is also what attracts older generations to use Facebook—if they want to see what is going on with younger generations, they join. But as their age-peers join for the same reasoning, they begin interacting with them as well. In essence, Facebook is the most truly social of the social media for people living in Alto Hospicio.

This desire for interaction is exemplified by the fact that far more important than writing statuses, or even posting photographs, memes, videos, or links to websites of interest, is the commenting in which people engage. It is not unusual to find a single sentence status update that has more than twenty comments. Many comments are positive and supportive. When a young woman posts a new profile picture, it will usually receive more than ten comments essentially expressing the same thing: “Oh [daughter/niece/ friend/cousin] you look so pretty and happy!” When someone expresses a complaint, like neighbours playing music too loudly, comments usually range from “How annoying!” to “Do you want to borrow my big speakers so you can show them your music is better?” These comments generally serve a function of staying in contact and supporting friends and family by simply reminding them that you are paying attention and care about them.

This type of cohesion has impacts beyond social media as well. Many friends of friends actually get to know one another through such comments on social media, so that by the time they end up meeting in person at a party or group outing, they are already familiar with one another, friendly, and if they’ve interacted enough on the same posts, may have already added one another as friends on Facebook. Thus, Facebook is not only a space for interacting with old friends, but making new ones as well.

Aside from helping me to understand how important sociality is to people in my fieldsite, this realization also serves as an excellent example of the ways quantitative and qualitative research support one another. Quantitative data from my survey alerted me to the fact that Facebook was popular not just for it’s visual uses. But I had to go back to my qualitative research to find out why exactly this might be. As I continue to analyze and write, I find that I keep bouncing between the two, reassuring me that without both aspects, this project would not have been complete.

For more on the confluence of qualitative and quantitative data, here are examples from England and Brazil.

Regulating the body in Chilean cyberspace

NellHaynes22 September 2014

no desnudes

Last week, a friend here in Northern Chile posted on his Facebook wall a stylized drawing of a woman’s body with the words: “Don’t show your naked body on social networking sites. Gain the admiration and respect of your contacts and friends by showing your qualities as a person. What makes you sexy and beautiful is not your body, but your personality. Women and girls deserve respect.”

This was not the first time I had seen such a post. I have seen such memes circulating for several months, posted by grandmothers, mothers, and young men and women. But this post made me pause because my friend Miguel was the one who posted it. A few months into my fieldwork, Miguel was showing me a funny meme his friend had posted. As he scrolled down on his Facebook feed, he passed a post from Playboy Magazine that showed two women in bikinis. “Oh, those are my ugly cousins!” he joked. As he scrolled down there were several other posts from Playboy and he told me “My cousins post pictures of themselves a lot.”

Since the subject had been breached, he seemed to feel comfortable discussing semi-pornographic posts with me and I took advantage of the situation by continuing to ask questions. He told me all about “the new thing” of pictures of the underside of women’s breasts rather than their cleavage. He switched to Whatsapp and clicked a link a friend had sent him to demonstrate. There I saw “50 of the Best Underboob Shots on the Internet,” mostly taken selfie-style either in the mirror, or up one’s own shirt. I wasn’t sure whether to be offended or confused.

With this previous discussion in mind, in which, quite openly he discussed how he enjoyed seeing overtly sexy pictures that women take of their bodies, it seemed strange that he would post such a meme chastising women for doing this very thing.

Of course, there is a big difference between the women who are likely the intended recipients of his message and the women who are displayed on Playboy’s Facebook page. That is: he expects his female friends to read his Facebook wall. He does not expect Playboy models, or even the women whose reverse cleavage pictures are floating around the internet to be his followers on Facebook. In essence, his Facebook activity is revealing of something anthropologists have long known; we treat friends and acquaintances differently than we treat strangers (for example see Simmel’s essay on The Stranger and our own blog about chatting to Strangers in China). In this case it is acceptable to objectify the bodies of strangers, but he hopes that the women he knows personally will not openly contribute to their own objectification.

In looking through my own female Facebook friends from Northern Chile, I don’t see any pictures that are overtly sexual and show body parts that one wouldn’t reveal on a hot summer day. However, in my “you might know…” suggestions, I do see several such profile pictures for accounts based in this city. Miguel, along with other friends—both male and female—assured me that these profiles were fake (see also controversies of fake profiles in India and Turkey). “They say they’re from here but I’ve never met any of these women. They’re definitely fake profiles.”

To me this suggests two related points about the ways the regulation of bodies and nudity are happening online. The first is simply that these “Don’t show your naked body” memes represent a way of surveilling and controlling what others do with their bodies. They use straw-women as a warning, suggesting that showing too much body on social media will result in people losing respect. This strategy seems to have worked as well. Young women in northern Chile shy away from showing their bodies in contexts connected to their public personality. Yet the pictures still appear in the form of anonymous or fake profiles. Using fake names and profile pictures, they still post faceless photos exposing body parts fit only for a very liberal beach.

While this in some ways may be seen as a victory for young women’s self-worth based on traits not connected to their sexuality or bodies’ likenesses to those featured in the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue, the surveillance and judgment of their online activity represents another issue—regulation that denies young women agency over the representation of their own bodies. This is one thing when coming from mothers and aunts, but young men like Miguel present a double standard in which their social networking activity elevates the bodies of strangers—from swimsuit models to unknown women taking risqué selfies, while condemning their own peers for similar self-representations. It’s not hard to imagine then why fake profiles might be a good option for young women trying to find self esteem about their bodies and their own ways to fit into the world of social networking.

In the end, what this tells us about social networking sites in this context, is that they are still very closely connected to the body. The internet is not a haven for free-floating identity, disconnected from our physical form, but is a place where bodies may still be seen as a representation of an individual, may still be regulated, and may still be a site of agency or repression. Rather than actually showing the respect that “women and girls deserve,” these memes further regulate women. Much as catcalls on the street regulate women’s bodies in physical space, memes that tell women what is acceptable for their bodies do so in the space of the internet.

If you are interested in themes of surveillance and control, see also Caste Related Profiles on Facebook in India, Facebook and the Vulnerability of the Self and Love is… in Turkey, and Social Media and the Sense of Autonomy in Italy.

On death and desserts: Mourning heroes on Facebook

NellHaynes11 August 2014

chumbeque

Photo courtesy of Creative Commons

On 5 December 2013, Nelson Mandela died. At the time, I was reviewing about 50 different Facebook accounts of people living in my Northern Chile fieldsite to see in a systematic way, what exactly they posted about on Facebook. I noted that only a few posted about Nelson Mandela. Those that did made funny ironic references to actor Morgan Freeman, who portrayed the South African politician in a film biography, while more politically socialist users posted old photos of the politician alongside their hero Fidel Castro. Yet these posts represented only 6 of the 50 users I was concentrating on, or 12%.

That same week Paul Walker, a film actor of The Fast and the Furious fame, also died. More than 20 of the users whose activity I was observing posted about his death on Facebook. As with Mandela’s death, no one linked to obituaries or news articles, but instead posted photos of the actor, or at times posted photos of their own cars with quotes from The Fast and the Furious or other commentary suggesting that the films had inspired their love of automobiles.

From this, along with Presidential elections which had just taken place in Chile, I got a sense that people were much more likely to post something on Facebook when they felt personally affected by it. While people recognized the significant contributions of Mandela to peace and humanitarian efforts, he had not affected Chileans’ daily lives, while Walker had been an important hero for many people. One young man posted about both. On the day of Mandela’s death he simply wrote “QDEP Morgan Freeman” [Rest in Peace Morgan Freeman] in an ironic and humorous attempt to conflate the politician with the actor who had portrayed him. A few days later, when news of Walker broke, he wrote, “I’m watching The Fast and the Furious on TNT (television channel)…in honor of the movies that inspired my Honda, and more importantly in memory of Paul Walker.” Clearly this user had reserved the more sincere and personal message for Walker who he characterized as an inspiration.

My insight that personal connection was more important than world impact has been put to the test again with the unfortunate death of a local celebrity. Arturo Mejía Koo, the son of Chinese immigrants to the region, was locally known as the authority on chembeques—a kind of pastry made of corn flour and honey. Though chembeques can be found in almost any outdoor market in the region, Koo’s shop was something of a pilgrimage point for those who love the dessert. Perhaps then, it’s not surprising that Facebook has been littered with homages to Koo. At the time of this writing, about 1/5 of the posts that appear on my Facebook timeline are related to Koo’s death. People post links to the local paper’s story with a simple comment of a frowning face, or no comment at all. Others post links with the comment “Noooooooooooooooo!!!” Responses are lacking in eloquence, but the sheer number of them is impressive.

Among my highly educated, urban, middle-class friends in the United States, posting about the death of a highly iconic politician such as Mandela was an act of both proclaiming political stance and being “in the know.” Yet in Chile, it is much more important to be “in the know” about local events. While in both places I see memes that circulate with text such as “If you didn’t eat/watch/play [insert local favorite], you didn’t grow up in [insert local area],” Northern Chileans take to heart this mentality. They experience the death of world icons with a grain of irony, likely owing to the distance they perceive between that person’s life and their own. Yet a local hero’s death is experienced as a personal heartfelt loss.

This makes clear that for most Northern Chileans, Facebook is an outlet for performing personal and local affiliations, rather than a platform for interacting with global discourses. Mandela’s death was noteworthy for a few because he was a world figure. Yet lacking in a personal connection, emotions were expressed through irony or affiliations with other more regionally relevant politicians. Walker’s death was important for some because he had been a Hollywood hero, yet was still expressed at a distance through reference to his film roles. But in the instance of Koo’s death huge numbers of people in the region feel personally affected because eating his pastries had been an important part of local belonging. Facebook then was an appropriate place to express the very simple emotions of sadness and disbelief that emerged from the loss that felt so personal. The outpouring of public response to Koo’s death then demonstrates the ways that Facebook may reflect local affiliations much more strongly than global awareness.

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.

 

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