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Thinking of writing cultures

RazvanNicolescu15 June 2014

Project team selfie (Photograph by Xinyuan)

Project team selfie (Photograph by Xinyuan)

This blog post will try to give just a short glimpse of what our collective work means and how we envisage doing it.

This May, the entire project team reunited in London. This came after roughly twelve months fieldwork for each of us. Imagine nine anthropologists (Elisabetta Costa, Nell Haynes, Tom McDonald, Daniel Miller, Razvan Nicolescu, Jolynna Sinanan, Juliano Spyer, Shriram Venkatraman, and Xinyuan Wang) sitting at the same table and each trying to talk in a way that would make sense for the rest of the team while also addressing very different individual issues and concerns. In a way, this task was very similar with one of the main underlying thoughts since the beginning of the project: how to make our ethnographies really comparable?

We started by structuring our individual presentations into themes and focused more on ‘what went wrong’ or ‘what we didn’t do’ rather than on the positive aspects of our fieldwork. We felt we needed this exercise, as on the one hand we identified common issues and workarounds and on the other hand the kind of feedback we each received was incredibly effective. This was also one occasion to realise how much we have done so far: tens of questionnaires, exploratory interviews, in-depth interviews, close work with local schools and in a few cases (Turkey, Trinidad, and India) with local Universities, gathering of specific quantitative and demographic data, and so on. Besides, each of us followed their individual research interest, updated on a monthly basis the research blog, and circulated inside the team a total of around 70,000 words in monthly reports.

Next, based on our continuous discussions we started to draw a list with the main preliminary insights of the project. We qualified as ‘insights’ the kind of information based on ethnographic evidence that, even if could be strongly relativized between all the nine sites, it is nevertheless essential in understanding the impact of social networking sites on our society. After a few rounds of refinement and clarifications we ended up with around thirty preliminary insights that we will begin to publish on this blog. The idea beyond this is that we recognize that the earlier we put our findings in the public domain and under critical scrutiny the more social science will benefit.

Then, we started to work on a list of tasks that we all have to do in the last three months of fieldwork. We ended up in defining 20 tasks, mostly qualitative, that respond to issues we overlooked so far or we decided collectively we have to have. Some of these are: we redrew parts of the in-depth interview grid, we defined a few common mechanisms to work on and to analyze the online material, and created a second short questionnaire to be done by the end of the fieldwork. Sometimes the endless debates on the various nuances and particular issues in each fieldsite had to be closed down by mechanisms such as democratic votes inside the project team: by voting, we collectively decided whether we will address that particular topic as a collective as part of the mandatory deliverables or it will remain to be further investigated by just some of us.

There are so many other things we worked on during this month and I do not have space to discuss here: gathering user generated content, producing short films on the main themes in each fieldsite, the course we’ll collectively teach at UCL/Anthropology in the second term of the next academic year, discussion on research ethics, methodologies, and data analysis, AAA conference this year, dissemination plan and our collective publications, as detailed here by Danny, the strategy for our online presence, and so on.

By the end of the month, when my colleagues also prepared their panel for the RAI conference on Anthropology and Photography, we all agreed that going through such an immense quantity of data and ideas, process, and plan our further common actions in a relatively short period of time was the real success.

 

Social media, social distance, and inconsistency

RazvanNicolescu22 January 2014

Photo by Razvan Nicolescu.

Photo by Razvan Nicolescu.

This post is about what people in the Italian fieldsite feel their peers should not do on social media.

Here is a fragment from an interview with a 18 year old student on an issue that was mentioned in different ways by most of the teenagers I talked to:

‘What I don’t like [about Facebook] is… these guys who pretend [on Facebook] they are completely different than how they really are [in realtà]. For example, there are some who [at school] don’t talk to anybody, they are all alone (…) and on Facebook they talk a lot, they talk a lot about themselves, how nice they are, they friend up with many people, they ‘Like’ so many things (…) and in reality they don’t even say ‘hello’… there is this girl, she just passes along without saying anything to you…’

These teenagers are not necessarily complaining about either of these two contrasting attitudes of the person, but rather the difference between the two attitudes. Most of the teenagers I talked to think that the most annoying issues they are exposed to on social media are related to a sort of inconsistency between online and offline presence. They seem to not mind if some of their peers are distant or not very social offline, and not even if some are ‘over-social’ and extremely creative online; rather, they sense an inadequacy whenever they see contrasting behaviours in each of the two worlds, that are not justified or explained somehow. At the same time, the attitude of some teenagers and young people to refuse joining any social media seems to be accepted and sometimes even appreciated.

To give this discussion more context, it is important to note that among teenagers and young people in the Italian fieldsite, Facebook is by far the most used social networking site and WhatsApp is by far the most used mobile app. The two platforms rather complete each other: young people think Facebook is a more resilient tool to present oneself and to communicate with a larger set of peers, while WhatsApp is thought as being appropriate for more transient communication within smaller and more intimate peer-groups such as family and close friends. Additionally, there are several other Internet sites and applications which provide these platforms with multimedia content, most notably YouTube and online photo editors such as PicMonkey, iPiccy, or piZap.

The quote above expresses the common thought that people should be true to their peers on social media, or at least not confuse them too much. But it is also true that teenagers expect confusion and excitement on social media. But they feel that this kind of confusion should come from people who also adopt these attitudes in the classroom or on the streets. Most of the users of social media explore the myriad of options available online and their own creativity in order to strengthen various parts of their personalities. Very often social media is not an extension, but an enabler, or a way of promoting the self that is considered acceptable in each particular community. This is the reason why, for example, when a couple breaks up the most violent manifestations are happening online rather than offline. By removing an ex-lover from the list of online friends and thoroughly reconsidering each of their mutual friends one has to objectify the split in ways that in the offline world are considered either unnecessary or ‘natural’. In another post I will write about the effort people put in translating the ‘natural’, and what this means, into the online environment. For now, my point is simply that while on one hand this process is admired in different ways, on the other, people who appear online in ways that seem to have no equivalent or justification in the offline word are highly sanctioned.

This also represents a critique to the sort of literature and public discourses that judge changes brought by social media in terms of fundamental shifts from a pre-existing cultural logic. This kind of discourse was repeated in different ways for the advent of mobile telephony, the Internet, web-based applications and services, and indeed for describing other similar ‘revolutions’ such as the invention of the printing press, modern public transportation, or television. At least from this ethnography it seems that people just do not fit too easy into this model.

Social media and the sense of autonomy

RazvanNicolescu23 October 2013

Photo by Razvan Nicolescu

Photo by Razvan Nicolescu

This post is about the usage of social media among teenagers in the Italian fieldsite and in particular about the idea of self-autonomy. The first thing to say is quite obvious: that is, most teenagers’ usage of social media happens between two main forces that act simultaneously and most of the time in opposite directions. On one hand, their peers encourage an active usage of new technology and social media, and on the other hand, parents and schools tend to drastically discourage and limit this usage. While online friends require more online interactivity and participation, families and teachers encourage more offline involvement. These kinds of misunderstandings are largely discussed in the anthropological literature (see for example Livingstone, Ito, or the Digital Youth Project) and I will not dwell here on this topic.

Another important issue related to teenagers’ usage of social media is that, like when playing in the playground, social media provides the setting where they learn and practice sociality inside the various peer-groups they adhere to and with no significant help or guidance from adults. At the same time, the famous psychologist Jean Piaget argued that roughly between 12 and 14 years old teenagers engage on the road from an ego-centric to a de-centered understanding of the world. In social terms, this process corresponds to a movement from a rather concrete to a more abstract understanding of relationships. Whether it is driven by an individual fascination or by a social imperative for the newly discovered relationships, may be debated. What is really important, I argue, is that the individual is entering int0 a vast system of communication and relations with a large number of peers in a relatively short period of time. There seems to be little time and space to filter out ideas and to be very strict in following some pre-defined rules for communicating, in adults’ terms. Instead, teenagers seem to sort out these rules on the go, while being active on social media.

Paulina is a 14 years old. She has been on Facebook for two years. She has around 800 friends on this platform, her profile is public, and she does not differentiate too much between her online friends. She is usually online two to three hours a day and logged into her Facebook account. She admits she does many other things online, including homework, however, most of the time she is busy answering different requests or messages she receives on Facebook. She does that because she feels she has to respond to these requests and she has to be quick if she wants her own thoughts to be heard. She is not interested if other people look at her online profile and why they would do that.

Paulina’s mother opposes most of these ideas. She has had a Facebook profile for around two years, but she was never too active on it. She has around 80 Facebook friends, most of them mothers. Actually, one of the reasons many parents started using Facebook was to friend their children so they could watch over their online behavior. She could not understand why her daughter would just post ‘everything’ on Facebook. She is quite confused in particular by the fact that her daughter seems to not make any choices in what to post and what to not post online, or in differentiating somehow between the audience of these posts. A private quarrel could go online, as well as an important prize at school. After some time of trying to control her daughter online, she gave up and started to mind more her own Facebook friends.

This story is very typical for the Italian town: teenagers introducing their parents to Facebook and young people introducing their parents to computer and skype. In a way, this seems to correspond to the process described by the term polymedia. However, when teenagers started to be active on twitter, things changed dramatically: they suddenly evaded the more socially accepted peer-to-peer communication for a much stranger one. Most parents do not even bother to ask their children what they do on twitter, not to mention trying to go to the site. Meanwhile, teenagers enjoy their newly discovered autonomy that corresponds to a sort of abstractization of social relations as detailed above. In any case, many teenagers seem to think that while Facebook became rather normative and predictable, twitter allows them to be more autonomous and innovative. And rules seem to be more difficult to be enforced here.