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Global Social Media Impact Study


Project Blog


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.

What is social media about?

RazvanNicolescu9 May 2013

Photo by mikeleeorg (Creative Commons)

In this post I will summarise my individual interest in this project and how it relates to my previous work.

In my PhD I discussed a particular and apparently individual reaction to the lack of appropriate alignment of the individual to the external forces that come from society. I showed that in rural southeast Romania existential boredom could be the result of a continuous evaluation of the relation between the individual and his or her designated social position. In particular, people I worked with used to represent this alignment by adopting particular attitudes towards the material culture that surrounded them. If wealthy and hard-working peasants expressed their relative success through sustained work and reticence, most of the dispossessed and unemployed people expressed their disapproval of their current social situation by engaging with a larger spectrum of practices that ranged from being extremely expansive to being annoyingly inactive.

In all these cases, there was a local morality that always justified people’s different attitudes. I argued that this morality was not articulated necessarily simply by the customary village life, or by the local enactments to the various ideological impositions, but this was judged according to people’s social positions. These judgements were usually done in relation to what kind of role a particular individual was supposed to play within the community. In particular, idleness was judged locally as either a right or a shame.

Elsewhere, I showed how Romanian teenagers in a rather affluent neighbourhood in Bucharest engage with media technology in a highly normative way. Even if majority used to declare that media liberated them and offered so many opportunities, their actual online practices showed that they adopted very strict and normative attitudes within their social groups. One of the reasons for this attitude was the fact that their communities and peers actually obliged them to create and follow self-made norms that were meant to protect them from the unpredictability of the online medium. I showed that in spite of the new and exciting opportunities offered by social media, teenagers nevertheless found there the same kind of annoyance and boredom as in the offline world.

I see this project as a continuation of my work. I am interested to explore the use of social networking in relation to the way individuals perceive their social positions. Is social networking simply reproducing these social arrangements, or, by contrary, people use social networking in order to emphasis or to contradict particular aspects of their social positions? Why would the individual present himself or herself in everyday life in different ways in offline and online environments? When is he or she free to actually do this? Will Goffman’s arguments about the presentation of the self be true for social networks, or will we contribute to a more refined understanding of social relations?

Two of the issues that Goffman missed are the individual freedom and the morality that determines the individual to act. Goffman sees the world as a set of principles that the individual has to pursuit if she wants to be successful within any given society. As I showed in my PhD, people’s practices are not necessarily the result of the particular hierarchy of social forces that act upon them, but rather are informed by a sustained individual comment on this hierarchy. My question is how this relation changes when the individual is free to choose between different concurrent representations of the self in the online and the offline worlds. What does freedom mean here?

I also intend to explore what people do actually look for when they either engage enthusiastically with, or, by contrary, are indifferent to social networking. I am interested in the implications of social networking on people’s ideas about how they should live their lives. The hypothesis is that people use social networking in relation to their individual ideas about how they should act in the society. The question is then how does social networking contribute to these ideas.