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Women Entrepreneurs and WhatsApp

ShriramVenkatraman17 April 2015

Image Courtesy Bhupinder Nayyar (Creative Commons)

Image Courtesy Bhupinder Nayyar (Creative Commons)

 

A few educated young mothers (aged 35 years or below) at Panchagrami terminate their well paying corporate careers to cater to the needs of their families. These family needs mostly fall under two major categories, namely children and/or in-law issues (specifically mother-in-law). Only a few quote other reasons, such as genuinely wanting to take a break from work, office politics, bad bosses etc., for terminating their careers.

While some return back to work after a couple of years, many don’t. Once they take a break, returning back to their corporate careers is the lowest priority. Continuing family issues, or even concerns such as not getting the right upward mobility in their careers if they were to go back, discourage them from returning to their corporate careers.

A survey of this group at Panchagrami revealed that while 55% or so chose to remain homemakers, the rest decided to change careers. While a few take up online work from home, many decide to take up teaching in private schools where their kids study (this option is a favorite among young mothers, who have a few years of corporate experience).

However, those educated housewives who aren’t able to take up full-time employment, sometimes turn into part time entrepreneurs due to restrictions placed on them for a variety of reasons. By becoming part time entrepreneurs they run small businesses from home, these could be product or service oriented and in several cases it might seem like hobbies that have turned into businesses. Their endeavors could range from catering freshly prepared snacks to producing colorful fancy jewelry or even providing home based tuition for children, music/dance lessons, language lessons etc.

Although becoming an entrepreneur is though, living in large apartment complexes comes in handy. They don’t go in search of customers as, in several cases, their neighbors become their customers. They don’t have any online services, but use communication tools such as WhatsApp to advertise their products and services. Becoming a member of a community based WhatsApp group helps these entrepreneurs to tap into their personal network rather than an open market. They advertise products and services in these groups to a ready consumer base, who prefer to buy from their neighbors for a variety of reasons. While need, price and distance become the major variables, personal trust, supporting the community and mutual understanding are also a few significant.

For example: In making/producing snacks, one of the strategies used is appealing to the needs of their neighbors. Many middle class Indian homes feed their children with a snack at tea time when they return back from school at around 4 PM. An advertisement for an affordable home made snack at around 2:30 PM on a community based WhatsApp group, attracts a lot of customers, several of them being loyal and repeat customers. Similarly, an advertisement for snacks at 6 PM is for the tired spouse who is back from work. Sometimes these snacks are even home delivered within the apartment complex for those who might not be able to pick it up.

Similar is the case of providing music/dance lessons. As several middle class parents at Panchagrami now want their children to be occupied once they are back from school, music/dance classes provide an opportunity for this, while also helping their child build a skill.

All advertisements for products and services are done through WhatsApp rather than any other medium.While there are several factors which contribute to understanding why a particular social media becomes a preferred media by a certain group of people over another media, in this case, the speed of response (though asynchronic – its almost assumed to be synchronic), ease of access to the media (over mobile devices), and economy of using it are a few significant variables which speak to this preference for WhatsApp.

The products/services of these women entrepreneurs are mostly targeted at women consumers and families with children. What is of particular interest here is the strategy of turning a community based personal network on WhatsApp into an asset for coordinating their entrepreneurial activities.

What does poverty look like on social media?

RazvanNicolescu2 August 2014

Teenager from a low income family using Facebook (Photograph by Razvan Nicolescu)

Teenager from a low income family using Facebook (Photograph by Razvan Nicolescu)

This blog post is part of a much larger theme of the impact of social media on low income populations. This is most debated among social media theorists and activists and is also one of the research objectives of the Global Social Media Impact Study. I will give just a few insights on this issue from the Italian fieldsite.

First, we should keep in mind that low income is not necessarily related to poverty in Grano.  I will briefly explain why. Indeed, the unemployment figures for the local population seem to be close to recent ones for the southern Italy: that is unemployment of almost 22%, with unemployment among youth at 61%. However, relatively much less people believe they are poor. This is related to a rewarding combination of the following mechanisms: closer kin relations, which also imply efficient redistribution of material goods and possessions within the nuclear family; alternative sources of income, such as from subsistence agriculture; and the possibility to dramatically reduce the costs of living with no direct impact on social status. I will not detail these here, but I will give a typical example: let’s take a family formed of a middle-aged couple with two children where only one adult is employed on a part-time basis. The family could either own their house or live in the same house with some of their own parents; the grandmother is cooking for the entire family and at least one other parent or sibling can contribute fresh vegetables from their campagna (a small house and agricultural lot outside the city) or produce their own olive oil for the entire year. The costs for education and healthcare is minimal and the family can afford to send their children on a weekly basis to private courses of English Language or football. Such a family would normally not consider themselves poor and will always point to other people who have a lower standard of life than their own.

In this post I will refer to people from this latter category, who normally agree they have outstanding economic difficulties. It is this group of people for whom at least one of the first two mechanisms described above does not exist or does not function for different reasons. Regarding the use of social media, the first thing that blatantly differentiates them from other people in the town is related to the cost of technology. Most people living in difficult economic conditions simply cannot afford to pay for an Internet connection (which is at least 20 EURO/month), a cheap second-hand laptop (around 60-80 EURO), and do not have any interest in acquiring a smartphone. Indeed, just a few people in Grano use the free Internet services offered by the public library or the local employment office.

Then, it is interesting how this situation changes for the couples with children and especially when the children turn 12-13 years old. It is this period when parents start to realize they have to buy their children a smartphone and allow them to be present on Facebook as the majority of their school colleagues do. Moreover, most of the parents encourage their children to use social media as they see this as an imperative alignment with their peers. It is then when one of the parents – usually the mother – might also start to use Facebook.

I could not see any major difference in the use of social media among teenagers coming from different economic backgrounds. However, for parents who normally have a much more limited set of peers, social classes seem to draw daunting barriers in the online environment. In this context, for the families living in difficult economic conditions adults’ online presence never takes-off and is definitely much more restricted than for better-off people in the same age group.

It is interesting that young adults (e.g. early 20-year olds) coming from impoverished backgrounds continue to use social media in a way that aims to level off the social differences within their peers. At the same time, this offers their younger siblings and families more convincing grounds to cover up these differences when it is their turn. In this context, what does poverty on social media look like? The short answer is that poverty is portrayed in most cases as a more or less distant and ‘third-party’ issue in which the implication of the self is vaguely hinted at: poverty in different parts of the world, poverty in Italy, poverty as driven by politicians or egotistic economic systems. It is interesting to think why most of these postings and comments do not belong to people who are actually under difficult economic conditions.

It is also interesting to think about the striking absence of any reference to, or display of, one’s own poverty in the online environment. In particular, among teenagers and young people to reveal in any way how poor they actually are is perceived, among other things, as seriously affecting their prospects to venture up the social scale and out of poverty.

Note on the above photo: Giorgia is a 16 years old girl who lives with her parents and her five brothers in a modest council house in the center of Grano. Nobody in her family has a stable job and they depend on weekly help from the church. She is friends on Facebook with both her parents and her three older brothers. None of them ever suggested on Facebook they were poor; their close friends just know that and Giorgia and her family see no reason why they would bring this up online.

Facebook as freedom

JolynnaSinanan13 October 2013

Image courtesy of Creative Commons

Image courtesy of Creative Commons

We started this project by thinking about Facebook as an ‘in’ to understanding the social totality of people’s lives. Facebook may be the means, but relationships are the ends. One of the themes that has emerged from Trinidad is how people navigate relationships that are given, for example kinship, family and the community where one grew up in a small town where most people know each other and relationships that are made such as friendships through school, university, work and interest groups.

In other blog posts, I have mentioned aspects of ‘Trinidadian’ uses of Facebook, to ‘fas’ or ‘maco’ (look into) other people’s business and existing through visibility is a major theme of Danny Miller’s Tales from Facebook. To take this further, Facebook could also tap into another Trinidadian theme, that of freedom. Within family relationships for example, bound by obligation and reciprocity, while people value being dutiful to their families, there may be an underlying resentment about being taken for granted.

On Facebook, where one’s social circles collide and congregate in the same space, a person may be friends with most people they have known face-to -face for several years, but it may be the only space where they exist as an individual. My pre-theorising of this comes from two examples from El Mirador. Two ‘hubs’, or clusters of people that I have gotten to know are an Evangelical community church and a group of sales people from the international multi-level marketing company Amway. Both groups strongly emphasise belonging to a community, the church has its usual service on a Sunday morning and Amway business owners have monthly meetings and in the times in between, when the entire group doesn’t get together, members take to Facebook. People in both groups tag each other in events, and individuals post regularly in relation to the interests of the group. Church members post a Bible verse that they know is relevant to another member or one they feel speaks to their situation of the week or an inspirational quote or meme. Amway members post similarly, with motivational quotes of images that encourage their fellow members with their sales and businesses.

A quick look at the timelines of some members of these groups and I can see they are no less active in the lives of their family and friends, multiple people post or comment, the individuals are tagged in non-church or non-Amway activities, but the difference is that the majority of post by the profile owner reflects their independent affiliations and interests, as if to assert “I may be all these different things to different people, but this is me.”

Social media may be a huge source of entertainment or ways to pass the time for vast amounts of people in different contexts such as people on long commutes or shop sellers in the small stalls, but for people who have grown up in less populated places, where they are less anonymous, Facebook might be a ticket to individual freedom.

Social media as ageist?

JolynnaSinanan30 May 2013

Left- an old man is choosing an 'old people phone'; right- the interface of the 'old people phone'. Photo by Xin Yuan Wang

Left- an old man is choosing an ‘old people phone’; right- the interface of the ‘old people phone’. (Photo by Xin Yuan Wang)

By Jolynna Sinanan and Xin Yuan Wang

We had the opportunity to talk comparatively about what is coming out of our respective fieldwork, when Jolynna took a detour through China on her way home from her second round of fieldwork in Trinidad to visit Xin Yuan. We found a number of complimentary themes and parallels from our field sites and our discussions with our informants. Trinidad and the region of China where Xin Yuan is doing her fieldwork are similar in that there are large amount of intra-state migrants (in Xin Yuan’s field site, rural migrants amount to two thirds of the local total population), whose main social networks remain in their home towns. This suggests that these groups may need social media mostly in terms of developing social networks in their area of destination as well as for their contacts who remain in their home towns. Of course, it is too early at this stage to talk about the social consequences of the appropriation of social media among migrants, which we definitely aim to address at the end of the project.

However, some very obvious parallels did express themselves clearly enough in Jolynna’s short research visit, and pushed us to think WHY. For example, we both found that there are very few to no people over the age of 50 using social media, or even seem interested in using social media (in Xin Yuan’s case, she found so far, that nobody over the age of 45 is using social media and Jolynna has only one informant over 60 who uses Facebook). We discussed a couple of factors to why this is the case: A) illiteracy (especially in Xin Yuan’s case amongst older rural migrants in China); B) older people as being more  technophobic; and C) the dominance of face to face relations for older people. The first two factors are to do with people’s capability and willingness to use digital technologies, however the last reason has more to do with people’s perception of social life and the social normativity around the questions such as “which kind of social connection really matters in one’s everyday life”.

Firstly, in both of our field sites, older people are more invisible in the smartphone market. From her observations and discussions with informants, Xin Yuan has found that many older locals and migrants are illiterate and they are mostly interested in a phone that can meet the basic functions of making and receiving calls. They are generally not interested in smartphones because they ‘don’t see the need’. Their need for the main functions of making and receiving calls plus the extra need for easier usage is reflected in the phones, which is called the ‘old people phone’, available in the industrial town at a very low price (around 300 RMB, equals to 30 pounds). This kind of mobile phone is designed for easy usage, buttons and screens are larger, the screen itself is not cluttered with graphics, the phone also allows for two SIM cards, there is a clear SOS button, which calls the number of the person’s choosing if they need to reach them urgently and the incoming call alert is particularly loud (see figure above). The phone also doesn’t need to be charged as often as a regular phone, battery life can last up to a month as older people here tend to associate the phone with a landline telephone, which remains plugged in and doesn’t need to be charged. Yet, in Trinidad, there are very few phones especially for older people on offer. Landline phones with larger numbers can still be found, but mobile phone shops cater more for younger customers, they have all sorts of ‘fad’ phones on offer, of different colors and camera functions to upload photos directly onto SNSs and the newest iPhones, Samsung Galaxies and Blackberries dominate display cabinets.

More so, older people in Xin Yuan’s field site don’t seem to have the desire to make friends beyond their immediate living areas, where they keep mainly face-to-face communication. Xin Yuan suggests that this reflects the old saying that “yuanqin buru jinlin” (close neighbours are better than faraway relatives), perhaps because it is only their neighbors that they would turn to for day to day support, which they can’t rely on faraway relatives for. It is a very pragmatic attitude towards social relationships, since one can only survive within a stable social network where they can turn for help in a tough ‘real life’ situation.

It is no surprise to find that the social networks of older people are more or less shrinking in both Jolynna and Xin Yuan’s field sites. Like China, Trinidad is an extremely family-oriented society, but there is more of a pattern that the elderly are engaged more in face-to-face relations with their immediate and extended families, unless their relatives live abroad. Children of the elderly visit very often, everyday or once every two days if they live nearby and at least in El Mirador, sociality for older people still resolves more around the town market place, which is a bustling hub on the weekends.

This project sought to explore social media through an anthropological lens, where, as Daniel Miller emphasized in an earlier post, context is everything. So far, in our respective field sites of a semi-urban town in Trinidad and an industrial town in China that is a hub for rural migrant workers; older people aren’t using social media as much as we might have thought. Social media doesn’t seem to be a priority for a demographic of people whose relationships are predominantly face-to-face in closer and more immediate circles of neighbours and family, perhaps in the face of smaller, more localised social networks or a lack of the need or desire to make and keep new friends.