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Teens are obsessed about spell checking thanks to Facebook

JulianoAndrade Spyer2 July 2014

Photo by Juliano Spyer

Photo by Juliano Spyer

Schoolteachers and staff in Baldoíno have a common perspective about the impact of social media on education. For them, Facebook and similar services are bad because they make students even less interested in what happens during classes. The argument tends to be that the Internet in general is a good thing, but young people avoid the “good internet” to devote a lot of time to socialization. The typical example of the “good internet” here is Google because it’s where one can learn things. Google fits into the image of a sort of oracle of knowledge that fits well with the idea of what a teacher is while Facebook is the playground and the understanding is that children have nothing good to teach each other.

If you ask a staff member of a school to give an example of the consequences of using the “bad side of the internet”, they may talk about how poorly students are writing because of the lingo they use to communicate through social networking sites. They say that kids are now happy to misspell words because they all like to type in this way. But this is actually very far from what the evidence from fieldwork shows. I am confident to claim that, at least here in my field site, Facebook has made spelling-checks an obsession among younger users and they are constantly improving their writing skills for that reason.

Here is a bit of my own pre-theorizing about the way things work here in terms of social mobility. Displaying economic progress is an important part of life, hence the effort made to show off this progress through actions such as buying branded clothes or a being a strong speaker through which the neighbors can evaluate the technical quality of your investment in education. Teenagers appear to have been given a central role in this arena: they are the main embodiments of display for family wealth and that may be a heavy burden to bear. These kids are intensely comparing what they have to what others around them have to look for signs of  a“lack of conditions”. And a serious indicator of poor economic means shows itself through writing.

I have systematically asked teens about different topics related to technology and almost all of them are highly concerned about not misspelling words on Facebook’s public areas. Some have newer phones that have spellcheckers and these are sought after technologies. Others with less powerful smartphones get into the habit of using Google to check the words they are not sure about. And as a consequence they all claim that their writing skills have improved as they fell more confident about writing.

I like this example because it shows how an assumption about the effects of the Internet may be wrong and yet remain as the truth, at least to a certain group. The perspective of school staff reveals less about what happens in terms of learning and possibly more about another important topic related to the internet here: how it has deepened the generation gap. We are talking about parents that are functionally illiterate in terms of reading, but also in terms of operating a computer. So young people have the whole World Wide Web to live their lives away from the sight of adults.

Public and private: space and media

NellHaynes10 February 2014

Photo by Nell Haynes

Photo by Nell Haynes

When Daniel Miller came to visit my fieldsite in Northern Chile a few weeks ago, I took him on a walking tour of the city. He had just arrived from his own fieldsite in Trinidad, and as we walked he kept remarked that two places are quite different. They share certain aspects: warmth, nearby beaches, revealing clothing, and gated homes. Yet, he told me that compared to the razor wire or broken glass-topped fences in Trinidad, these just didn’t seem as intimidating. Similarly, we discussed the ubiquity of car alarms as the continuously sounded that evening as we sat in my apartment. “Are they really protecting anything if one goes off every three minutes?” I asked.

A few days after Danny left, I was having coffee with a Catholic priest in a nearby neighborhood. Telling me about his perceptions of the town after living here 6 years, he lamented the lack of “confianza” or trust between neighbors. “Neighbors like each other, but there’s not much trust between them.” He suggested this is a product of the fact that the city is new. It has only been incorporated for a decade. None of the adults who live here grew up in these neighborhoods. The fences are high but there is no neighborhood watch group here.

In a lot of ways this explains the ways I have been warned about safety here. People just don’t seem to trust what might happen in public space. The fences around houses may in fact be a way of delimiting the private from the public in a way that leaves no questions as to where the boundaries lie. And by claiming the space as private rather than public, perhaps that makes it a little safer.

One thing I noticed right away upon arriving here is that people rarely use their phones in public. Not in the plaza, on the bus, or while waiting in line at the supermarket. When Danny and I visited the local market near the municipal gymnasium, we asked a group of vendors about this. One woman, who has a clothing stall in the market told us people never have their phones out in public because they are afraid someone will come by and swipe it. The most recent statistics I could find were from 2008, when 1,236 non-violent robberies (the type that might result in having their cell phone stolen from their hands as they sit in the plaza, or their pocket in a busy market). This is not particularly high, roughly matching national statistics, yet I am given pause that perhaps many such thefts go unreported. About a year ago, online security company ESET reported almost 60% of Latin American residents have had at least one cellular phone stolen. The Catholic priest also told me that the most recent statistics he has seen suggests that about 40% of Alto Hospicio residents have had some personal effect stolen in the last year. “Probably because their billfold or phone is sticking out of their pocket in a public place.” While statistics like “40%” and “1,236 reported” might not necessarily reveal much, I do sense that cellular phone theft is quite common and the vendedora is correct: people know this and protect themselves by not using their phone in public.

So, I wonder then, if there is a certain “privateness” to the cell phone. And perhaps to the internet in general. Though one may interact with their friends though social media, that is generally something done while in private space. Even the local call center/internet café provides patrons with rather large cubicles while they use the computers. Though you might be airing your dirty laundry on facebook for all of your friends, the person physically next to you wouldn’t (or shouldn’t) know.

So these walls, these fences, these car alarms, and these cubicles provide a sense of delineation. A car alarm may be tripped just as easily by someone doing a bad parking job or a ball thrown amiss as by someone trying to steal it. Fences can be jumped. Cubicles can be peeked around (at least one young man quickly turned off his pornographic video as Danny and I walked by in the internet center). But that is not the point. The point, perhaps, is to say this is mine, and this is private. If you touch this, walk past it, or look at my screen, you are transgressing a boundary. So however social, social media might be, for these Northern Chilean users, it ideally retains a sense of the private.

Working class teens switching Facebook for Whatsapp in Brazilian field site

JulianoAndrade Spyer9 January 2014

IMG_5552

Photo by Juliano Spyer.

As I have written earlier here, Facebook is a very important part of being young in Baldoíno. If it took a while for everyone here to respond to the street mobilizations that happened nationally during June and July, the (fake) news about the government closing down the internet and consequently Facebook made people here want to protest – more here. Being on “Face”, as Brazilians warmly call the service, is part of what makes someone a person others would want to talk to in my field site. But there has been an almost silent revolution towards the adoption of Whatsapp and informants are spending less time and paying less attention to what happens on Facebook.

The critical reason for the change doesn’t seem to be what is making UK teens migrate to other services, as Miller pointed out. Among my working class informants, Whatsapp is more useful because it works better on their mobile phones, and the mobile phone tends to be more important for them than the PC. The PC usually belongs to the family so it has to be shared, while the mobile phone is something that is one person’s exclusive possession. It is not just that mobiles are more affordable and can be carried everywhere; they materialize a possibility of having private interactions in a social context that doesn’t allow this to happen very often. Even at home people are constantly being monitored by their neighbors. And the mobile enables stealth conversations among people.

As I started conducting field work nine months ago, very few people talked about Whatsapp or had it installed on their phones. Now Whatsapp is perhaps the main reason my informants have for choosing a new mobile. They are willing to pay more for equipment that enables them to use this service. If a few months ago a good phone for them should have a camera and a memory card for music, it now should also have Android OS as it is perceived as the best platform to have Whatsapp running.

The advantage of Whatsapp is that it runs better on their not very powerful smart phones and unstable internet connections. Using Facebook for chatting through mobiles normally is a painful process involving having patience for the program to open and having to deal with misunderstanding as the user could be seen as being online but not all messages would arrive immediately. Whatsapp loads quicker and delivers the results expected in terms of promoting the exchanges of direct messages. And further than that, the service was understood as a sort of Bluetooth solution where people didn’t have to be near each other to exchange files. And exchanging files – music, video clips, voice clips, and photos – is something my informants love doing.

At first, as I saw Whatsapp becoming the new cool thing, I felt it would be bad for the research. Facebook is mostly used for private communication here, but, because it does more than that, users would chat and then participate on public or semi-public events that I could follow. Whatsapp does not have a timeline for people to post things to anyone interested. Through Whatsapp you are either talking to one person or to a specific group. But to my surprise, I am now feeling that Whatsapp offers a great advantage for anthropologists conducting long term research.

During this kind of deep engagement with informants, we are able to build trust relationships so I learned I could ask my informants to show me the kinds of conversations they have through Whatsapp. Because Whatsapp is not public, people feel more at ease to “be themselves”, which, among other things, means talking about things and sharing things they wouldn’t if they knew others were looking.

I will briefly give examples based on the two conversations I had so far with informants about this subject.

1)    Business / work – Using Facebook at work is not usually appreciated by employers, but they now are having ambiguous feeling about Whatsapp as it is being applied inside companies as an efficient tool to communicate with clients and also with work colleagues. At a hotel resort, for instance,  every cleaner can now be immediately contacted without carrying a walkie-talkie.

2)    Bizarre humor and sex – a lot of what is exchanged are short clips with different sorts of bizarre images. I could mention, as an example, a man having sex with a goat while singing a popular country song about wanting the girlfriend to follow the guy to town where he is going for work. If there is a pattern about this –as far as I can see – it is that many of such files make reference to the life of working migrants.

3)    Entrepreneurship – users use the service to help each other in terms of solving problems. A person could promote the ice cream produced by a friend or forward the image of a furniture a friend wants to build to a trusted professional.

4)    Maintaining a virtual presence – a person had a small surgery on her mouth and shared the image of her face with a close friend to hear her opinion on how she looked; alternatively the person can be at the store, photograph a certain item and ask the opinion of peers before purchasing it.

5) Exchange local information – Baldoíno does not have a newspaper or a local radio station and yet people are mostly up-to-date about things happening through gossiping networks. Whatsapp became part of this process as it allows the exchange of images such as that of a murdered person or of the difficult work conditions for employees at an important sports event. The photo makes the gossip more trustworthy and real.

As one of my informants said, after Whatsapp, she now rarely uses Facebook. She has both apps on her mobile and as she rides the bus home after work and school, she first checks the new messages shared on Whatsapp. If there is nothing new she then sees who is online on Whatsapp that she could talk to. In the exceptional case that no one is on and there are no new exchanges, she then opens Facebook to see what is going on over there.

Photo 1: Sent to my informant by a friend after having a tooth surgery to see how she looked.IMG-20131109-WA0020a

PHOTO 2: Some friends my informant wanted to buy ice cream and she told them through WhatsApp she had another friend that makes great ice cream. They exchanged quite a few photos, which included the menu with flavours and prices. This image shows the larger size of her friend’s ice cream in comparison to those found in supermarkets.IMG-20131109-WA0016

Is it bad that facebook became the king of communication among Brazil’s “new middle class” youth?

JulianoAndrade Spyer9 August 2013

IMG_5320

Teens at the Brazil field site. Photo by Juliano Spyer.

“If one day the sadness and the loneliness knock on your door, open and answer: ‘Hello, I cannot host you, my home is full. In the living room is Happyness, Joy, and Harmony. In one of the rooms is Love. In the other room is Affection and Tenderness. And in the kitchen is Peace and Prosperity. Fortunately the other room is under renovation to receive Victory. Have a lovely afternoon, many kisses, N.'”

Through the course of three months I have been conducting a questionnaire eith informants in my fieldsite about how they use communication services in general. The one question that has been a constant source of insights is the one that inquires about who they communicate with using social networking sites, email, Skype-like services, SMS, land line, mobile, instant messaging, and WhatsApp-like solutions.

Texting – The short text that appears at the start of the article is what texting (SMS) seems to be mostly used for. Texting is not a way of interacting with contacts, but a broadcasting tool used to deliver these kind of uplifting messages to friends and family. I supposed the “normal” function of texting is covered by voice calls through mobile phones, which are accessible to those less confortable with writing and typing on a small device. So those who have free texts on their mobile plans use it to display their affection, specially to those living in different cities from the sender.

Telephone / Skype – Landlines may be used, but only relatively rarely  They are still used by some (older people in the house) to call relatives living away, but it is an expensive service to call mobile phones in general, so the few people that have access to it, either at home or at their work, use it for “institutional calls”, which translates to calling one’s college admin office, a business client, or a government office. Many also know about Skype, but have not started using it because of low internet bandwidth.

Emailing – A lot of people have email. It used to be a tool for keeping in contact with colleagues at the university that lived far away. Its advantage was to enable group communication: everyone would be in sync with the exchanges aiming to coordinate collective activities. And it is free to use by those with access to the internet. But similarly to land lines, email is becoming less important, and is typically only used for “institutional communication”. Student exchanges are currently migrating to Facebook groups.

Mobile phones are today the second most important communication device to my young informants. Mobile phones are great, but they are still costly services considering the amount of communication they want to have. The phone is there, but it is mostly a one-way communication product, as many do not have credit to make calls. In special occasions, they can make collect calls or use a special SMS service that delivers a message to another user asking that person to call back.

Social networking and Facebook

Vianna is among the Brazilian social scientists that criticize the near monopoly-stage Facebook has arrived to in Brazil. “Many people do not venture any more outside the walls of this private social network: they think that there is all there is of the large Network, forgetting that there they live in an environment controlled by a single company, working for free for their business success,” he wrote in a newspaper column [in Portuguese] earlier this year. But I am not so sure that Facebook is able to understand how it is being used.  He says he refuses to call it “Face”, as if it was a personal friend, but calling it “Face” is an evidence of a cultural interpretation.

Social communication at my field site is synonymous to using Facebook together with face-to-face interactions. Facebook – or “Face”, as it is called at my field site – is the perfect tool in many regards: it is the cheapest solution to reach everyone at any time; those that connect occasionally using the services of internet cafes and those who are “always on” through mobile internet plans. It may be conceptualized as a sort of  “polymedia machine” as it condenses different functions (chat, blogging, etc) and also connects the various platforms available for digital communication.

The gift of privacy and anonymity

Among Facebook’s many functions, private chatting it by far the most important among teens and young adults here. As I ask them about how many times they perform different actions, chatting is normally at a higher order of magnitude compared to other actions such as updating status, “liking”, sharing, or commenting.

I must look further into this topic, but so far I know it represents the possibility of totally private communication – one that is not accessible to anybody else but the two interacting at a given moment. Facebook chat allows people to talk to each other away from everyone else’s sight. This seems to be important at a place that has a large group of “natives” (people born and raised, with strong ties with each other) and migrants (those arriving recently and with few social ties). Anonymity and privacy facilitate social interacting under these circumstances.

Facebook is also a solution to being always near some people; a sort of SMS that is free to use and reaches friends everywhere, independently of time, space, and the mobile plan chosen. And it is also private regarding parents and older people in general since older people tend to be less interested and knowledgeble about computers and phones and are also less skilled with writing and reading.

The near future

The mobile phone has  great potential that is not far from being reached. They are becoming a private mobile computer, considering their home computer is shared among the family. Cheap smart phones are already common among teens as it became a prized object of social distinction. The internet connection to phones are also accessible price-wise. The problem, at least at my field site, is that the quality of the connection and the processing capacity of phones are still low. The small screens, complicated apps and tiny keyboards make it more difficult to use the service. And still, many do it.

It is relatively easy to explain why my informants use communication devices the way the do, but I was not be able to anticipate how they use it, considering my user habits tend to be more similar with that of my age group and social class (my habits seem to be more international than Brazilian in that regard). What I believe I can anticipate now is that things are about to “catch on fire”, as Brazilians say it, as mobile internet connections becomes not just available, but friendlier in terms of user interface, processing capacity, and connection speed.

Strategies of scarcity and supply: water and bandwidth

TomMcDonald24 July 2013

The water tankered makes a delivery (Photo: Tom McDonald)

The water tankered makes a delivery (Photo: Tom McDonald)

Fieldwork normally involves bearing some hardships, however I never thought that at the start of my research in China that water would have been an issue of concern here. Nor did I consider that it might be able to tell us something about social networking use.

I was surprised, then, when I found out that the urban town area of the fieldsite has not had a piped water supply for the past year.

This situation is slightly ridiculous when one considers that there is a large, well-stocked reservoir two kilometres distance from the town.

reservoir-lake

According to some local residents, the problems started last year when workmen dug up the pipe in order to lay the new, wide asphalt road that runs north-south through the town.

For the past year, the town’s government have been paying for two water bowsers and four people to collect water from the neighbouring town and deliver it here once every two days. The only perk to the current situation is that because the service is so poor, the government provides the water free of charge.

Not having a regular water service makes life really tough. Limitations in water supply provoke people to clearly prioritise the things that they must do against the things that they would perhaps like to do. People’s houses are awash with buckets and tankards for storing water. Water for cooking or for dinking tends to come before, say, washing clothes or having a shower. Similar coping mechanisms and prioritizing seem to exist for internet use.

I think the case of the limited water supply is also useful for thinking about the way some people experience social media and the internet seen here in China. I was really drawn to the paper Blanchette gave at the UCL Department of Anthropology a couple of years ago where he outlined A Material History of Bits, making very clear the physical limitations of the digital, in contradiciton to how we sometimes assume it to be a potentially ‘unlimited’ object. I would say this is made almost even more clear in the China North fieldsite where the actual amount of bandwidth available becomes patently obvious for people in the same way as water does.

The internet does have it’s specificities though: one of the clear things that is coming out of our surveys is the significance of different modes of access and I think there are analogies to be made between the ways villagers cope with limitations imposed upon them in terms of various resources and their often incredibly lofty aspirations of what they wish to achieve.

The vast majority of our informants (over three-quarters) were China Mobile customers. While those who travelled regularly with work and business tended to have packages that afforded larger bandwidth allowances, and roaming outside of the province, the remaining half of these customers had packages that severely limited the mobile access that they had to the internet. These were normally packages that varied in cost between 10–20 RMB per month, offering between 30–70 megabyte bandwidth allowance respectively.

How was this experienced in people’s everyday lives? Just like with water, people developed clear and intelligent strategies in order to prioritise which things they believed to be essential. One lady in a village, explained that she had the 30 megabyte bandwidth package for 5 RMB a month said that she tended to only use QQ on her phone, because if she used both QQ and WeChat she would go over her limit, and all her friends were on QQ.

Others sometimes failed to understand the concept that there were distinct limits to the amount of bandwidth and resources available. A young man working in the town explained that he once watched a streamed movie with his girlfriend using his phone, without realizing that doing that would push him over the bandwidth limit. He had to pay 200RMB for the single month’s bill. He explained to me that he didn’t know about it, and wondered why he hadn’t just paid for his girlfriend to go to the cinema with him, at least that way he wouldn’t have strained his neck, he joked.

For others, they developed ways to get around such restrictions using their existing connections. One of the town’s young male hairdressers, joked to his friend that he willing to allow his assistant to pay his own phone bill in order to remove the block on his phone. The manager of a photocopying shop in the town used his connections in China Unicom (he was an authorized reseller/top-up point) to get a very low-cost 2G phone card (around 10RMB per month) that allowed him virtually free nationwide calls, and then relied on the broadband internet connection in his shop, which he spent most of every day in anyway.

While readers in the west are typically used to very generous bandwidth allowances offered by telecoms companies, it is important to remember that here in China, economic constraints such as bandwidth remain a very real barrier to social networking use for many. In this sense, we can see links with Shriram’s previous blog post where he mention’s electricity cuts as a major challenge facing people in his fieldsite. These regimes of shortages create economies where peoople may have to make difficult decisions about who they will communicate with, and how they will communicate with them.

Locating the ‘previously thought extinct’ Brazilian dongle

JulianoAndrade Spyer3 June 2013

Photo by Juliano Spyer

“Who uses a dongle nowadays?” was the question that crossed my mind when I heard Shriram mentioning that these devices represented an important means by which many Indian people connected to the internet. In my world, dongles used as wireless modems belonged to the past. What was the point of using a dongle if mobiles could do the trick when people find themselves in a place where broadband is not available?

Not very long after arriving at my field site here in Brazil, a friend took me on a short car trip to outside of the urbanised area in which I now live.

Soon after we left we arrived in a rural area. There were small properties on both sides of the road but houses were not always visible due to the vegetation and the abundance of large fruit trees that most properties have.

Suddenly my friend and I saw a sign, shown in the above photo, saying: “I assemble and give maintenance to computers”. It was not just the content of the message that seemed interesting but also its format: a handmade painted sign, something very different from the type of aesthetics associated with computers and technology today.

We stopped in front of the entrance to the site and I clapped. I wanted to know who was the person offering that kind of service.

After a bit of waiting, a women came to talk to me. She was naturally intrigued and suspicious. “City-folks” like us, people that look like tourists, do not need to have that kind of service there. But she was helpful and called her 20 year old daughter to talk to us.

I was surprised to find that it was a young woman, rather than a man, who was offering that service. Computers are usually associated with young men. She told me she had attended some short technical courses and had also learned from experience playing with her own computer.

But why would someone have a computer there? What kind of internet connection did they have? – “Unlocked dongles”, she promptly replied. The dongle allowed sim-cards to be directly connected to the computer.

– “At our own home we have two such dongles, and there are many neighbors using the same solution,” she added.

If other solutions  are not available or are not affordable, this mobile provider allows a monthly connection for as low as 10 reais (close to 3.30 pounds). And the client did not have to buy the dongle from the mobile provider as unlocked equipment can be purchased for around 100 reais or 33 pounds.