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Teenagers on social media in southeast Italy – quantitative data

RazvanNicolescu14 December 2015

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In this blog post I will take a look to the quantitative data from my fieldwork, discussing some findings from a questionnaire I conducted with students in their final two years of secondary school in Grano. 539 students participated, mostly aged between 17-19 years old.

More than 90% of respondents were actively using Facebook and 80% WhatsApp. These impressive numbers reflect that in Grano the two services were seen as two complementary facets of sociality: the former being extremely public and the latter more private and personal.

In contrast, most young people did not have a clear idea about what to use Instagram and Twitter for: relatively more students used Twitter primarily to be in contact with friends than to follow celebrities (45 vs. 30%) and many used it to talk to their colleagues, family members, and partners (22%). While Instagram was more clearly used to establish relationships based on shared interests, still many used it primarily to stay in contact with school colleagues (18%) and friends from their hometown (14%). For example, those who were commuting to study in Grano used Instagram to share images from their hometown with school friends and share image from school and Grano with friends from their hometown. Most of the parents and older relatives did not even bother to ask their children what they did on Twitter or Instagram, even less to actually try and log in to these platforms.

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86% of students owned a smartphone and 99% owned or shared at least one computer with their family: 83% owned some sort of mobile computer as opposed to only 16% who owned only a desktop. These figures correspond to a recent OECD report that shows that 65% of Italian families with at least one child have a computer at home, while on average there are just six PCs for every 100 students in Italian schools. In my forthcoming book, I explain how these figures reflect the particular importance of home education in Grano.

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Most children receive their first smartphone at 10-12 years old and parents try to resist decreasing this age further. This is the age when many children also start to use social media, including more controversial platforms such as ask.fm. Throughout their adolescence their mobile use and online presence is constantly diversified as their universe continuously expands: many participate in secondary education away from their hometowns, start romantic relationships, and gain increased autonomy from their families. In a separate questionnaire on the use of social media, 82% of respondents felt that that children should only start using social media after the age of 14 years old, the main reason being that younger children are not considered to be adequately mature to establish relationships in such a public environment.

In contrast, my ethnographic qualitative data suggests that despite the relative unease of parents and teachers regarding their children’s use of mobile phones and social media, they actually encourage this use as many see it as compulsory for assuring young people a good future. This is a good example of how quantitative data was balanced by ethnographic insights in the Why We Post project.

Note: Thanks to Shriram Venkatraman for helping with statistics and graphs.

Learning to write English

DanielMiller30 June 2015

Image courtesy of Sharon and Nikki McCutcheon (Creative Commons)

Image courtesy of Sharon and Nikki McCutcheon (Creative Commons)

Our research team is made up of nine anthropologists, of whom less than half are native English speakers (two from England and one from the US), so one might not be blamed for imagining that the problem suggested by the title of this post relates to the other six researchers. Actually this is not the case. In fact this is an issue which relates to each and every member of the research team.

The problem is this – we are currently filming our MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) and creating the website for Why We Post which is the title we will use for publishing our research results. These are intended for audiences, very few of whom we anticipate will be anthropologists.  Therefore we want to ensure that all our findings are accessible to people who are, by any definition, not academic. This means that the language must be entirely colloquial and in the form of everyday speech. When you are trained as an academic,  it is very hard to refrain from using words in a manner that takes meaning from one’s own academic experience. It is not just that we need to avoid words that were invented as jargon,  such as positionality and precarity, but also terms that are used in everyday speech but take on new forms of meaning in an academic context, such as subaltern or even critical.

I actually don’t think I am able to write anymore (though I find I can speak) with this kind of English that everyone outside of academia uses pretty much all the time. Something about the act of writing automatically shifts my use of words back into academic usage. So we have decided to employ Laura Pountney, who recently wrote the text book on anthropology for schools and specialises in explaining anthropology for English school children and and  further education as well as writing textbooks on sociology level, to go through all our written texts and check them for accessibility.

I don’t believe this constitutes `dumbing down.’ After all, novelists often express complex and profound discussion and dilemmas using ordinary English to great effect, so we ought to be able to do the same thing. It is possible we have swung the pendulum too far. I noticed that we had a script which translated homogeneity and heterogeneity as sameness and difference, these are colloquial words and could get tedious for educated readers.

On the other hand, all of the text used on these sites will be translated into six languages.  This is despite the fact that many of the audiences we hope to reach also use English as a second language, such as regions of India and Africa. From the beginning of the project,  our commitment has been to have our findings fully accessible to the people in the regions where we conducted fieldwork. I have felt for some years that the debate on Open Access is partial if the focus is only on cost rather than genuine accessibility to people who, so far, we have excluded through the use of intimidating and obfuscating language. So perhaps we should aim to err on the side of greater accessibility. Having said this, the issue really is very much about trying to strike a balance.

Fortunately, I think the actual material we are presenting is fascinating and whatever is lost by simplifying language will be gained by the richness of what is being described. Since I am also starting to receive requests from schools to speak, for example about the work I did on social media and school banter, this is also a skill I think I need to develop and is perhaps something that all anthropologists should be encouraged to develop, especially the ones who assume, like myself, that we already know English.

Cooking Soup Online and Being a Good Mother

XinyuanWang9 March 2015

soup images on social media

Images of soup on Chinese social media

In order to analyze people’s postings on QQ or WeChat I had to spend a lot of time viewing and recording my informants’ online postings, especially the photos and other images they posted on their social media profiles, and then categorize different kinds of images into different genres.

Among all the images, ‘food’ photos turned out to be one of the major genres which people frequently post online. ‘You are what you eat’- food is such an important part of Chinese perceived cultural experience, the use of food to express sophisticated social norms is highly developed in China (1). As Kao Tzu, a Chinese ancient philosopher said, ‘Shi Se Xing Ye’ (the appetite for food and sex is human nature). And a Chinese saying goes ‘Min Yi Shi Wei Tian’ (Food is the paramount necessity of the people).The importance of food in everyday life is also reflected in greetings. For instance, instead of asking “How are you?” it is quite normal to ask “Have you eaten?” Division of a stove is symbolic of family division (2). One of the most insightful anthropological discussions of communal dining in China is Waston’s (1987) study on Sihkpuhn (to eat from the same pot) banquet in a Hong Kong village. As Waston argues, eating from the same pot serves to ‘legitimize a social transition’, for instance, a marriage without Sihkpuhn feast is not considered legitimate; the social birth of males and heir adoption are both marked and celebrated by Sihkpuhn feast. This is why the family reunion meal is so important for every family member, it is not only a time to enjoy delicious and various foods and drinks, but an occasion to unite a family together. Every family member in the reunion dinner, eating from the same pot, represents a family collectivity and is therefore “eating for others”. It also seems that, especially among rural migrants, food and the feeling of ‘being at home’ when one is working far away from one’s homeland is closely connected.

All the previous study on Chinese food as above seems to have provided the convincing reason of ‘why food postings are so popular among Chinese people on social media’. However, curiously, when I counted the ‘food’ photos and images I found there is one specific kind of Chinese food was most popular among young mothers, which is soup. Why soup? The answer seems go beyond the Chinese social norms about ‘food’ in general- there must be something more specifically about mothering.

During my field work, I found that one of the typical criteria of a ‘good mother’ among my informants is to ‘cook well’ as many of them put it. From time to time, people told me that the thing they miss most when working outside is their mother’s cooking. Here the social implication of mother-child bond through the image of mother’s cooking seems to go beyond the real taste of the food. It is widely believed that food is a kind of medicine which helps to strike the balance of the ‘Qi’ (air, vitality) of one’s body in daily life, according to the philosophy of Chinese cuisine. In addition, among all kinds of Chinese cuisine, soup is unquestionably regarded as the one which can nourish one’s ‘Qi’ best. In my field site, the best way people could treat, me as they believed, was to feed me a lot of homemade food in overwhelming and non-stop manner. And from time to time it felt extremely difficult to say no when women started their lines like “oh it took me the whole day/ whole afternoon to prepare and cook this soup, and you have to have some, very good for you body!” Cooking a decent soup usually requires a very long time, a lot of patience, delicate heat control and decent knowledge of food material.

In a way, the process of preparing and cooking a decent soup is similar to ‘mothering’ – it’s always time-consuming, and you need a lot of patience, understanding and good control of the ‘heat’ in the relationship. Thus the frequent sharing of soup photos seems to just reinforced the widely accepted image of a good mother.

It’s universal that women feel anxious about becoming a mother, and a wise strategy to deal with such anxiety among young mothers in my field site seems to be posting a lot of ‘soup’ photos on their social media profiles. That is to say, before they cook the ‘real’ soup for their kid, they have cooked the soup online to prepare to be a good mother.

Reference:

(1) Watson, James L. 1987. “From the Common Pot: Feasting with Equals in Chinese Society”, in Anthropos, 1987 (82): 389-401.

(2) Stafford, Charles. 1995. The Roads of Chinese Childhood: Learning and Identification in Angang. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p4

Using social media for teaching social media

TomMcDonald2 February 2015

QQ icon in dock on Mac

QQ: China is just a click away (Photo: Tom McDonald)

This term our research team has been teaching a completely new Master’s module on the Anthropology of Social Media at UCL, with many of the students taking the module being from our fantastic MSc in Digital Anthropology.

In addition to incorporating the results from our own research in each of our fieldsites into our teaching, the students have been doing their own research on social media through mini-practicals taking place every week.

Last week, I wanted the students to experience QQ themselves, to get a feel for the platform, and to get a chance to see and think about how Chinese people interact on these platforms. In order to do this they joined a QQ Group and had a chance to communicate with English-speaking Chinese students in Beijing.

It was really interesting to see the two groups interact – albeit in very different ways – and it seemed from our conversations in the seminars that many people found examining the differences between QQ and non-Chinese social media platforms a useful starting point to think about Chinese practices in communication, social relationships and culture.

The Future of Facebook: What will we learn from the study of Chinese social media?

XinyuanWang29 January 2014

Image courtesy of emreterok, Creative Commons

Image courtesy of emreterok, Creative Commons

China is a dreadful desert to Western social media giants such as Facebook and Twitter, however it is a tropical rainforest to many local species. It is curious to note that even though none of the participants in my field site use, or have even heard of Facebook or Twitter, the way they use Chinese social media such as QQ and WeChat provides an interesting parallel to the way UK teenagers in Danny’s study differentiate a range of social media in their daily life, even though as social media QQ, or WeChat are both significantly different from Facebook.

Among certain groups of Chinese people, like teenagers, QQ seems to be in stasis. For teens with relatively high education and social status that are more willing to try something new and urban middle-class, QQ is not cool at all, just as what Danny reported about Facebook in his previous blog article. It is not rare to find people who have used QQ for more than 10 years in China given QQ started to become popular almost 15 years ago. In fact, QQ could be considered Facebook’s predecessor and to some extent through the study of QQ’s development in China we may ‘foretell’ what will happen in ‘Facebook land’ in the future. Many of my participants have told me that around 10 years ago, QQ represented the coolest thing about urban life because rural migrants who came back to their village during Chinese New Year showed off that they had a QQ account in front of their stunned fellow villagers. After 10 years, when almost half of the Chinese population have QQ accounts, QQ numbers rather than mobile phone numbers are exchanged most frequently as  permanent contact details (it is reported that people change their mobile phone much more frequently than their QQ account). QQ has lost its association with trendy or cool things, especially for urban Chinese people who want to escape from the ‘hustle and bustle’ QQ land which somehow has been associated with rural Chinese. On one hand, some people report that they use QQ less and less in recent years since Wechat’s audio message is more fun and convenient, and WeChat seems to be more in line with urban life. Some report that their closest friends and frequent contacts all moved to WeChat. On the other hand, people admitted that they would always come back to QQ when they wanted to catch up with long-lost relationships, such as old classmates or previous colleagues. As one informant put it, those contacts “didn’t move to other social media,” but remain in the “old home” of QQ. Those contacts may also have started using WeChat or other social media, but from my participants’ perspectives, they ‘belong’ to QQ. These friends may not have updated their social media details because of sparse communication, or are regarded a part of ‘past old days’ in one’s mind and QQ is the PLACE to go.

That is to say, people didn’t quit QQ because of their engagement with other social media. Rather, QQ survives time and thus obtains a ‘senior’ status, something like an old friend who has witnessed one’s ups-and-downs in life even though they may only meet once a year. QQ may also be regarded like one’s birthplace, which my rural migrant informants only visit during Chinese new year but always remains as one of the most import places in their lives. People don’t dump QQ, but keep it, and use it in a different way.

So the quick conclusion is QQ seems to be in stasis among certain groups of people not because of ‘being QQ’, but because of the law of ‘nature’ – here let me call this the nature of social media. And it also makes sense if one replaces “QQ” by “Facebook” in this argument.

And what is the nature of social media? You may need a bit more patience to read through the following academic ‘block’ to get a clearer picture:

First, stuff becomes more than the material after being used by people. For example the pen from your passed-away grandpa is to you by no means equal to any other pen which was produced on the same factory assembly line. If we have to use jargon, we call the process ‘objectification’ where an object consumed by people is domesticated and becomes part of the person and their relationship to others. That is where material culture starts, and the context in which we study digital technology. Digital technology, as a form of material, is no more sophisticated or mediated than any other object in terms of the relationship between material and human beings. Having said that, however, it is worthwhile to highlight the uniqueness of social media in the way that social media show the relationship between the digital and social relationship in a more visible and obvious way. That is to say, without people’s engagement and usage, social media is next to nothing. In a way, ‘Facebook’ and ‘QQ’ are only half finished goods before being used by people. Social media is produced through the consumption, as the terminology ‘prosumption’ suggested. Thus, it is safe to say social media is highly entangled with the ‘self’ and personal relationship to the degree that it somehow grows with the person and has its own life (Gell’s theory of ‘agency’ also shed light on this argument).

Furthermore, the concept of ‘polymedia’ describes another feature of social media. Each social media platform finds its niche in specific personal relationships and people take moral responsibility for their choice of different social media. In the case of ‘Facebook’, as Danny suggested, at the moment when people got friend request from their mother, the social medium is transformed into a family-orientated place rather than the place where people share secrets with their close friends. Also the concept ‘remediation’  helps to illustrate the way how certain social media (like QQ and Facebook) become ‘old’ because of the development of other social media. Dialectically, there is no so-called old or new social media without the comparison with others, that is to say people tend to re-define certain social media in the context of polymedia.

Even though my research is still unfinished, let me ‘jump to the conclusion’ and put my incomplete version of ‘the nature of social media’ here: First, social media as a social agent grow with the person and own their own lives. Second, social media were applied and valued by people in a context of polymedia.

Having discussed the nature of social media, then, let’s go back to my argument from the beginning – QQ seems to be in stasis among certain group of people not because of ‘being QQ’, but because of the law of ‘nature’, and so does Facebook. It is important to not treat social media as functional technology like we would computers. In terms of technology, new social media are not more advanced than pre-existing ones. It makes sense to say that today’s computers have taken the place of the early bulky computer, whereas we can’t say that a certain social medium is dead completely because its users turn to new ones and use others more actively. The situation in practice is like the way people treat friendship and the attitude toward one’s birthplace. From time to time, my participants in this Chinese town used “old friend” or “lao jia” (hometown) to describe their QQ profiles. For some of them, the usage of WeChat is more frequent and active than the usage of QQ. They report and I have observed that WeChat is more for recent contacts one meets in face-to-face situations, and generally speaking closer friends in a smaller circle. QQ on the other hand is used to keep up with all kinds of friends, acquaintances, and communities (QQ offers a group function, such as ‘class group’  used in one middle school) that one has accumulated over a relatively long term. In some cases QQ has become some people’s digital legacy where they keep the ‘silly self’ of 10 years ago. As one of my informants said she won’t use QQ to communicate with her new friends anymore since “on QQ you will encounter a little girl of 10 years ago”, however it is always good to view that ‘self’ in the past as it remains alive on QQ. QQ has become the PLACE, the legacy. Each generation, each human being owns their own history, and in the digital age, social media have become the place people store their history, and where old friends and memory dwell. I have witnessed it already in the usage of QQ among Chinese people and I don’t see any reason why Facebook will not follow suit.

Finally, the findings in China, with the absence of Facebook, actually reinforced our essential argument that the study of digital anthropology and this GSMIS project go beyond specific usage of a certain social medium. Social media usage is the point of entrance which allows our digital anthropologists to look into, understand and interpret the social relationship and the relationship between people and technology in different cultures and societies in the digital age.

The normativity of social media

RazvanNicolescu26 December 2013

Blackboard after a class of communication in one of the local High Schools. Photographed by Razvan Nicolescu.

Blackboard after a class of communication in one of the local High Schools. Photographed by Razvan Nicolescu.

The questionnaires we applied this summer in our Italian fieldsite showed that around 40% of respondents who were on Facebook had never changed their privacy settings, which means their profiles were public. At the same time, more than 80% responded they were not concerned or did not care if an individual or an organization would use their personal data available on the platform. These percentages were much higher than I expected, and seemed relatively high when compared to similar data collected from other fieldsites in the project. They suggested that in general Italians are quite relaxed about their online appearance as well as about the content they post or produce online. Further investigation into the usage of social media suggested that Italians’ online presence is characterized by a strong sense of normativity. This sense seems to be the result of the juxtaposition of two different forces: on the one hand there is a strong sense that society is characterized by a particular order and predictability that should not be contradicted, not even online. This is expressed, for example, through a high concern on what one should post, how one should behave, what one should ‘Like,’ and so on. The second force is expressed through a high concern about the performative (in Goffman‘s terms). This is again normative, as most individuals try to present themselves online the way they think society is expecting them to. In other words, there is a great consistency between the way people present themselves online and what they think society thinks about them. For example, with the notable exception of teenagers, the very few histrionic or ‘inconsistent’ online profiles belong to highly educated people who also have some sort of privileged access to different forms of cultural capital. At the same time, people use other media, such as mobile phones, including mobile phone Apps, Skype, or photography, for their most private issues. This seems to be related to the fact that these media are used to communicate in more private spaces, in smaller groups, or in one-to-one fashion .However, most of the content of this relatively private communication will be made public sooner or later, including via social media. It seems that most of the time the information that is considered sensitive goes through a series of more private filters until it can be safely displayed in such an accessible space as, say, Facebook. Therefore, the information is normally displayed on Facebook after losing a few layers: it could lose much of its novelty, it could lose or disguise most of its private character, some of its specificity, and so on. At the same time, the loss in novelty could be compensated through actions of close friends such as ‘Likes’ or a lively series of comments. The loss of privacy could be balanced out by a gain in audience, and the loss in specificity could be offset by the personal creativity and the capacity to relate to other issues that are more public and popular for a certain audience.

People I work with continue to tell me in different ways how online they constantly dress and undress information following this pattern. Usually, they aim to find a way, even if eccentric or innovative, to fit in at least one definition of normativity. This brief discussion suggests a few things. First, social media could help us to understand the bigger social system of which it is a part, if we think of social media as a place where people delegate and work out different parts of their sociality. It is the aggregate of these delegations that we hope will tell something about people and the society in which they live. Much of this ethos is condensed in terms such as Polymedia or Digital Anthropology. This  project also aims to identify other common expressions of diversity. Secondly, in the Italian fieldsite it seems that social media works not towards change – of society, notions of individuality and connectedness, and so on – but rather as a conservative force that tends to strengthen the conventional social relations and to reify society as Italians enjoy and recognize it. The normativity of the online presence seems to be just one expression of this process.

The ‘social’ bit of ‘social media’

RazvanNicolescu20 June 2013

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Photo: Razvan Nicolescu

This post is about the meaning of the term ‘social’ when it is part of the most popular phrase ‘social media’. The huge and diverse literature on ‘social media’ points out, in different ways, that this term signifies the kind of medium, created by usually new technologies and devices, that facilitates various types of social interactions. These interactions could be peer-to-peer or not, real-time or not, with different degrees of interactivity, as well as they could be very far from the initial intentions of the designers and producers of the particular communication technology. Nevertheless, the term ‘social media’ seems to provide an acceptable and intuitive description to this wide range of usages and practices.

The directive and levelling use of the term is perhaps most evident in the mainstream political and economic discourse. These two domains are the most active promoters of the phrase ‘social media,’ especially in relation to the assumed efficacy of this medium to drive the different ambitions on their particular agendas. I think that the most influential discourses and strong pressures that come from this part of the world economy represent the source of essential ambiguities of the term ‘social media.’ One such ambiguity is related to the sheer lack of understanding of, or interest in, what people actually do when they use some ‘social media.’

If specific new media is inherently social, this does not mean that the mainstream discourse or quantitative research would tell too much about the kind of sociality it involves. Therefore, how useful is it to say we are interested in social media? Is there any major media left that is not ‘social’ yet to a certain extent? Any research into the everyday use of ‘social media’ that is not targetting specific groups which enthusiastically embrace new technology, such as Western teenagers, affluent middle-class, or particular professional groups, show that ‘social media’ could be equally loved, ignored or hated. Then, there is no single way to love, ignore or hate, but rather an immense variety of expressions and motivations for these emotions.

The issue then seems to be to give a meaning to the ‘social’ bit of the term ‘social media.’ Does it account for so many things at once that it became theoretically ambiguous; or by contrary, does its polysemy assures a broader reach to our theoretical reasoning? I think we could respond to these kinds of questions if we try to understand what people actually do while everybody else tells them, and us, they are on social network. We will look at the everyday use and non-use of social networking sites and communication technologies in this respect: we will try to understand people in order to then understand the society they are living in.