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Sharing anthropological discoveries on social media: ‘marketing’ or ‘interactive learning’?

DanielMiller6 August 2015

Indian teenager using smartphone

Social media and engaging anthropology? (Photo: Pabak Sarkar CC BY 2.0)

Over the last year, people have often asked us questions like “Surely you will market your project using social media?” or, “What exciting campaigns based on social media will make your project a success?”

Well the answer is that indeed we think we have learnt a good deal about social media. What it is useful for, but equally where claims are made that are not borne out by our evidence. We have concluded that this huge emphasis on marketing through social media has far more to do with the wishes and desires of the marketing industry for this to be the case than any sober assessment of what social media actually is.

Looking at our research as a whole, we find quite limited successful employment of social media as a form of mass marketing and promotion. Yes certainly in some cases, but in most of our field sites it’s force is quite limited.

Our primary theorisation of social media is instead as a form of sociality and the formation of small groups for internal discussion. It is not generally a means for trying to reach new or different people but rather for consolidating social groups that are largely known. Some platforms such as LinkedIn and Twitter clearly command a wider presence but even here, social media generally works best for groups that are linked by common interests such as devotees of Star Wars, rather than in reaching a generic audiences.

We are not alone in this. Fore example, even people in business are starting to appreciate that Twitter is not always effective in driving traffic in the direction that they would wish.

So yes, we do envisage a role for social media in the dissemination of our project findings but mainly other than as a tool for mass marketing. We see social media as an important instrument for interactive learning. So people who take our online course will be encouraged to form small groups in which they can discuss the material and make and receive comments about what they are learning.

People who cannot meet physically in class rooms can use social media for discussion. Social media can also harness one’s personal networks to disseminate information in limited ways, and much of the more successful commercial usage we observe in our field sites relates to businesses where personal interaction is also important.

What people seem to imagine is that a project that studies social media will – for that very reason – concentrate on using social media. But we have never been advocates for social media.

The point of our research is to remain open and cautious about our findings, and we are just as comfortable noting the limitations and negative effects of social media as its potentials.

Job opportunity: Can you help the world discover our findings?

TomMcDonald30 July 2015

Construction site

Can you help us build our dissemination materials? (Photo by MF)

As part of our project’s ambitious dissemination plans we are currently seeking to recruit a content manager to assist our research team in creating a new website (named ‘Why We Post’), an online course and a series of social media channels to share our research findings with a broad and global audience.

In addition the person holding this post would assist in the organisation of the project including copy editing English, co-ordinating translations, research analysis and in promoting the project to the media and within education.

This is an incredible opportunity to join our team and be part of an exciting project aiming to change the way anthropological research is presented and shared.

Full information on the position is available via the UCL Jobs website. The closing date for applications is 12 August 2015.

What is an anthropological global generalisaion?

DanielMiller17 August 2014

Image courtesy of Lindsay Campbell, Creative Commons

Image courtesy of Lindsay Campbell, Creative Commons

Perhaps the biggest problem of our entire project is that every time anyone asks us a question we have nine different answers, which is not what the person asking the question wants to hear. As our project becomes better known we are all constantly asked for the ‘results’ of our study in the form of  ‘does social media do this?’ or ‘is Facebook having that impact?’ With very few exceptions people want and expect a simple and clear answer. But any answer we give that fitted such questions would be in effect an ‘anthropological global generalisation’ and it’s not clear what such a thing could be. As a recent blog post noted, Chinese social media are not even the same platforms and so can be constantly rendered peripheral by answers in the form of ‘Facebook does this – but not in China’.

We also recently posted a study of how the World Cup appeared on social media in all nine sites. We have no evidence that this was used as ‘news’ by others, although we felt the results were fascinating. We might publish an academic paper using this information but other people find it difficult to know what to do with nine different answers. Of course, for us the single most important academic result should be an insistence on acknowledging these differences. Not because it suits us as anthropologists but because it is the truth about social media. They are different in each site. But endless reiteration of this point reduces us to being never more than the critics of psychologists, economists and pundits generally. This is important and we now have a vast amount of evidence that they are wrong in pretty much everything they say, to the degree that they ignore such differences. But this isn’t the only thing we want to say. Furthermore it is empirically evident from our study that there are many ‘sort-of’ generalisations we could and should make. We too are interested to find out that some things are more generalisable than others, often unexpectedly so.

When we met for a month in May we attempted an initial solution to this problem. We sat together, proposed, argued and discussed our findings to see what generalisations we could come up with. In the end we tentatively suggested around 30. Since that time I have put many of them up on my own twitter account at @DannyAnth. As Tweets they are both succinct and wildly over generalised. But at least this forces us to confront the issue. What we discovered was that there might be a solution as long as we are prepared to make certain compromises and this might be worthwhile in order for our work to be actually taken up and used. Even for educational purposes people want something other than nine different answers. We felt it will be safe to make generalisations partly because there will be nine books with enough detail to show how there exists another finer level of detail available to anyone who wants a more honest account of our findings. Secondly we found a mode of expressing ourselves of the ‘Yes-But’ variety.

What transpired was that we had no generalisations at all that didn’t require caveats. Even if something seemed generally the case for most of us, there would be one site, often in Turkey or rural China where this was conspicuously not the case. So the compromise was to have a mode that linked each generalisation to its caveat, that is a footnote that could slightly expand on this point and take note of which places this generalisation did not hold in. In May these took the following form:-

5) Social media should not be viewed as a simple extension of prior uses of the Internet.

Footnote: For example, prior uses of the internet caused concerns about anonymity, while with social media concern has shifted more to privacy. Though with exceptions, for instance we find Facebook used to create anonymity in India and Turkey.

6) Social science has tended to see modern life as an inexorable movement from communal living to more individualism. Social media, by contrast, may lead to re-connections between people or entirely novel connections.

Footnote: In our South China site we find the more conventional movement largely from communal to more autonomous life through social media. The meaning of individualism also varies from site to site.

7) Our studies suggest that in some areas groups continue to be the key units of social media usage. For example the family in Italy and low income Brazil, the caste in India and the tribe in South-East Turkey. 

Footnote: For example, the acceptance of friending depends on groups beyond the individual. In China QQ organises friends lists and most people have one dedicated to the family. Trinidad and England seem to accord better with the notion of ego-centred networking. In Turkey we see both group control and also the creation of ego-centred networks through anonymous profiles.

Even here we have the additional problem that, of course, we didn’t study ‘Turkey’ or ‘England’ but just sites of around 25k in each case. To use national tags is itself problematic. But without them we once again fall into the trap of being ‘correct’ but useless to non-anthropologists. When we complete our fieldwork we will return to this issue. Whatever we do will require compromise all of which will lead us to be criticised, not least by other anthropologists. There will inevitably be different levels of dissemination from the full and detailed expression of our differences to the over generalised statements without which we will never transcend our anthropological audience. In practice even a book of 80k words feels like an overgeneralised account when you have done 15 months fieldwork.

We believe this exercise is important not only for our project but for the future of anthropology more generally. Help and suggestions, for example of good precedents in making anthropological global generalisations, would be very welcome.

It’s not what we find, it’s what you learn that counts

DanielMiller1 September 2013

Photo by Gerald Pereira (Creative Commons)

Photo by Gerald Pereira (Creative Commons)

I have now completed two fieldsite visits. I will be visiting six more over the next five months. But already there is one issue that I am becoming increasingly anxious about. Anyone reading this blog regularly would understand why even after five months, which is one-third of our fieldwork, I would predict that this study will surpass even our wildest ambitions in terms of what should be our main criteria, that is the level of original insight this will bring to our understanding of the impact of social and new media on the world today. But that is just the half of it, because I feel the extraordinary richness of engagement at each and every site means that these nine studies should give us a depth of engagement with the wider lives of ordinary people across our contemporary world that is unrivalled.

The two site visits that have confirmed this feeling. In both cases I find the material revelatory. This is partly because the sites are so well chosen. The Indian case of 200,000 (soon to be 700,000) IT workers plonked into the middle of villages creating a radical juxtaposition is symptomatic of the transformation of India. In Brazil I had been very sceptical of this term ‘new middle class,’ because I could not see how you could apply this to the level of domestic cleaning staff and construction workers that populate our fieldsite. But now I have seen how squatting has turned into a strategy for long term property investment, and met the children who go to University and aspire to do post-graduate work abroad, I can see how this site also is perfect for understanding the future of Brazil.

So why I am anxious? It is because I learnt so much from actually visiting the sites themselves. In this project we do a good deal of internal reporting. Both Shriram Venkatraman and Juliano Spyer have already each written around 45,000 word descriptions of their projects. Both have long experience in writing in previous commercial employment and some journalism, and write unusually well. Having seen their sites I don’t see how they could have done a better job of conveying them. Yet to be honest there were so many things I didn’t really get until I actually visited them. The problem is that no one, other than me, will visit all these sites. We hope to gain a huge popular audience for our findings, but none of these people will be able to experience the sites as I have done. The ultimate point of research is not what the researchers have learnt, but what they succeed in conveying to the readership they attract. Even if they both write superb academic and popular books, which I fully expect they will do, it’s just not the same as actually being here.

All of which means that we have to do something else, to bridge that gap, if the project is to deliver as we intend. One possibility is that we learn from online behaviour as to how to use the online to convey academic findings more effectively, whether that be film, user generated content, animation, cartoon, clever graphics or photos, or some interplay between these. I am not sure I have yet seen an ethnographic work that quite managed this. It will be the topic of Sheba Mohammid’s contribution to the project which is a plus. But until this is accomplished, I am going to remain anxious about how we will manage to achieve this ambition. Also I feel very aware of a final contradiction. Since I will have visited all the sites, I will never be able to recreate the naïve state of pre-visiting. So how would I even know if we have succeeded in adding that extra dimension to our dissemination? Hopefully, the answer will lie in the reception of the results by others – hopefully.