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What’s special about social media in small places?

RazvanNicolescu19 September 2015

'Normal friend: 'Wow, how beautiful you are!' / Bestt friend: It's Shrek at the phone says he wants back his face.' Meme shared on Facebook by Comix

‘Normal friend: ‘Wow, how beautiful you are!’ / Best friend: It’s Shrek on the phone, says he wants his face back.’ Meme shared on Facebook by Comix

From the beginning of my fieldwork I kept thinking about why social media seems to be used so differently in my fieldsite – the Italian town of Grano – compared to other places, such as Rome or Milan. Maybe the most immediate answer is that Grano is a small place!

Indeed, with less than 20,000 inhabitants the town is far smaller than many metropolitan place, and here social relations could be much different than elsewhere. But what does this mean exactly? At the same time, social media is known to be a global technology which promises equal chances to access and utilize online resources to all its users. So, what is the implication of this to the existing social relations? To attempt to answer this, I will given a real-life example from my research.

Salvatore is person who is aware of the immense power he has because of social media, but sometimes he is annoyed that he cannot express himself online in the way that he would like. For example, he would never post  photos on Facebook which were taken at parties after drinking too much or behaving ‘stupidly.’ His close friends know this, and they too, would never tag Salvatore in a photo they know he wouldn’t like to be published online. On the other hand, Salvatore equally cannot promote himself on Facebook with a nice photo or accomplishment without his friends mocking him for taking himself too seriously.

Salvatore works as an IT consultant for a medium-sized company in Lecce and is renown as a quiet and refined person. In this context, both situations described above would challenge the image people in his hometown have constructed of him. In contrast, he feels that in Lecce he can be a ‘different person’ (un’altra persona) as people there actually encourage this kind of diversity. He commutes to work everyday and sometimes spends whole weekends in the city staying with friends. However, Salvatore is more interested in taking care that Facebook corresponds to the image he has in his hometown, rather than the one he constructs in the city.

What this story points to is how most people in southeast Italy use public-facing social media so that it reflects the relationships and image they have in their home communities. The problem, then, is that this image may vary significantly with social behavior between rural places, small and medium-sized towns and metropolitan places. Writing on these kinds of differences at the turn of the 20th century, sociologist Georg Simmel shows why that what varies essentially is the balance between ‘the objective spirit’ and ‘the subjective spirit.’ That is, in metropolitan places people have to cope with an avalanche of essentially objective issues, from money economy and commerce to mass-produced commodities, which places emphasis on individuality and rationality. In contrast, people living in rural areas, with the slower more habitual, and fewer flows of life, are closer to the ‘spirit’ (or Geist) of people and objects, and, among other things, this allows for more space for subjectivity in social relations.

My ethnographic material cannot really engage with this theoretical proposition as my research was done in a small place. However, what I can agree with is that people in Grano build relationships based on traditions and institutions which incorporate time, a certain predictability and more opportunities to share this ‘spirit’ that are simply unavailable in bigger places. In this context, most people in Grano sense that social media should reflect these very specific local values exactly because they are quintessentially subjective and thus recognizable, before any global forms and tastes.

Facebook as a window: managing online appearance

RazvanNicolescu31 July 2015

Shop window in Grano

Shop window in Grano (Photograph by Razvan Nicolescu)

A particularly common way that many people in the Italian field site thought about Facebook was by comparing it to a shop window (vetrina in Italian). Some did not exactly like the fact that, like a window, ‘everybody can see your personal stuff.’ In contrast, others used this new kind of visibility as an opportunity to actively promote different aspects of their interests. Out of this latter category, teenagers and some local entrepreneurs were by far the most active in this way, followed by artisans, artists, and a few local politicians.

In my forthcoming book, I explain how much of this region’s history explains why people are very concerned with the way social visibility reflects their social status. For example, families have always demonstrated their core moral values by keeping a clean and tidy house. Equally, most women spend considerable time beautifying themselves, selecting their clothes, making sure their outfits are neat and that their family is equally well dressed before they are willing to leave their own home. Dressing reflects the social and economic status people believe they have, even though their actual economic position could be somewhat different (for example, because of the massive unemployment in the region).

So how is this reflected on Facebook? Just as people put all this time and effort into their offline appearance, now many are extremely careful in curating their Facebook page. They do so by being extremely careful in selecting and editing the photos they upload, showing their support for online friends with comments and ‘Likes’ and in general trying to make sure their appearance on Facebook is consistent with how others would see them ‘offline.’ Facebook is considered a very public platform, and therefore people are very considered in how they post.

Among other things, the role if Facebook here is to actually make sure that there are no major differences between how people appear to others ‘offline’ and ‘online,’ for example, by offering adjustments or justifications when this may seem to some that this is not the case. Recently, a friend of mine in the field site had to post a long message on his own timeline to reply to an accusation from one of his online friends (which remained unnamed) who accused him of not being a proper ecologist. This remark was triggered by some of my friend’s recent postings in which he vaguely displayed some sort of sympathy for mass consumption practices.

Similarly, people are increasing aware that when they dress to go out, some of their friends might take a photo of them and upload it on Facebook. Therefore, that particular photo will have an implication beyond the transience of the particular event they have attended to.

In all these cases, the consequence is that Facebook works as a window that opens up a view both towards an exterior appearance of the individual which also reflects on the social norms existing in the local community, and the interior of moral values or domestic family. For both, people follow clear guides to the type and level of visibility they are expected to reach.