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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.

Memes: The internet’s moral police

DanielMiller12 May 2015

On the face of it memes and religion would seem unlikely bedfellows, or even worthy of mention in the same discussion. Religions come to us from centuries of tradition and are defined by the continuity of custom and belief, and would be generally considered deep and spiritual. By contrast most people associates memes with funny looking cats, terrible puns and representing the latest phase of the superficiality and transience of the internet.

Despite that, if we look across our nine fieldsites there is certainly an argument to be made that memes have occupied the place in social media we might have anticipated being colonised by religion. Firstly memes are in fact the primary way most people do post explicitly religious imagery. In our book Visualising Facebook (forthcoming), which directly compared the visual posts of our fieldsites in England and Trinidad, this is something common to both.

A meme celebrating the religious festival of Diwali (Original author unknown)

A meme celebrating the religious festival of Diwali (Original author unknown)

But relatively few memes are actually religious in content. By contrast, a very high proportion of memes could now be said to represent the ‘moral policing’ of the internet. Memes have become the way people post visuals that express their values. In some of our fieldsites it is clear that people with less power or less confidence and who would be shy of posting their opinions directly or as text, are much more comfortable posting such memes.

An example values-based meme (original author unknown)

A values-based meme (Original author unknown)

But the notion of moral policing suggests that this amounts to more than simply the declaration of values. It is also about establishing what values are (or are not) acceptable for online postings. This might range from the support of gay rights, to accusing males of hypocrisy in their relationships with women, or even asserting the right not to care about football.

A humorous meme accusing males of hypocrisy in their relationships with women (Original author unknown)

A humorous meme accusing males of hypocrisy in their relationships with women (Original author unknown)

A meme directed against posts regarding football (Original author unknown)

A meme directed against posts regarding football (Original author unknown)

Perhaps the strongest argument for this idea of memes as moral policing comes from what might seem to be the counter instance, which is that the vast number of memes are devoted to humour. But when examined more closely actually a great number of these funny memes are humorous at the expense of some position of behaviour of which they disapprove. Or alternatively they are a way of allowing licence for behaviour of which they do approve but might not have been accepted. So in these instances women are all making fun around stereotypes about women, but also establishing a position with regard to that characterisation, though humour. This policing is as much about making freedom for values as for suppressing unacceptable ones.

A humour based meme (Original author unknown)

A humour based meme (Original author unknown)

A humour based meme (Original author unknown)

A humour based meme (Original author unknown)

Looking across the nine fieldsites in our study, this use of moralising memes seems common to all. Which is very helpful to our study, since one of our conclusions is that in each site there is considerable conformity and repetition. To explain this we need to understand the mechanisms that keep people in line. Moral memes may well be ones of these.

What does poverty look like on social media?

RazvanNicolescu2 August 2014

Teenager from a low income family using Facebook (Photograph by Razvan Nicolescu)

Teenager from a low income family using Facebook (Photograph by Razvan Nicolescu)

This blog post is part of a much larger theme of the impact of social media on low income populations. This is most debated among social media theorists and activists and is also one of the research objectives of the Global Social Media Impact Study. I will give just a few insights on this issue from the Italian fieldsite.

First, we should keep in mind that low income is not necessarily related to poverty in Grano.  I will briefly explain why. Indeed, the unemployment figures for the local population seem to be close to recent ones for the southern Italy: that is unemployment of almost 22%, with unemployment among youth at 61%. However, relatively much less people believe they are poor. This is related to a rewarding combination of the following mechanisms: closer kin relations, which also imply efficient redistribution of material goods and possessions within the nuclear family; alternative sources of income, such as from subsistence agriculture; and the possibility to dramatically reduce the costs of living with no direct impact on social status. I will not detail these here, but I will give a typical example: let’s take a family formed of a middle-aged couple with two children where only one adult is employed on a part-time basis. The family could either own their house or live in the same house with some of their own parents; the grandmother is cooking for the entire family and at least one other parent or sibling can contribute fresh vegetables from their campagna (a small house and agricultural lot outside the city) or produce their own olive oil for the entire year. The costs for education and healthcare is minimal and the family can afford to send their children on a weekly basis to private courses of English Language or football. Such a family would normally not consider themselves poor and will always point to other people who have a lower standard of life than their own.

In this post I will refer to people from this latter category, who normally agree they have outstanding economic difficulties. It is this group of people for whom at least one of the first two mechanisms described above does not exist or does not function for different reasons. Regarding the use of social media, the first thing that blatantly differentiates them from other people in the town is related to the cost of technology. Most people living in difficult economic conditions simply cannot afford to pay for an Internet connection (which is at least 20 EURO/month), a cheap second-hand laptop (around 60-80 EURO), and do not have any interest in acquiring a smartphone. Indeed, just a few people in Grano use the free Internet services offered by the public library or the local employment office.

Then, it is interesting how this situation changes for the couples with children and especially when the children turn 12-13 years old. It is this period when parents start to realize they have to buy their children a smartphone and allow them to be present on Facebook as the majority of their school colleagues do. Moreover, most of the parents encourage their children to use social media as they see this as an imperative alignment with their peers. It is then when one of the parents – usually the mother – might also start to use Facebook.

I could not see any major difference in the use of social media among teenagers coming from different economic backgrounds. However, for parents who normally have a much more limited set of peers, social classes seem to draw daunting barriers in the online environment. In this context, for the families living in difficult economic conditions adults’ online presence never takes-off and is definitely much more restricted than for better-off people in the same age group.

It is interesting that young adults (e.g. early 20-year olds) coming from impoverished backgrounds continue to use social media in a way that aims to level off the social differences within their peers. At the same time, this offers their younger siblings and families more convincing grounds to cover up these differences when it is their turn. In this context, what does poverty on social media look like? The short answer is that poverty is portrayed in most cases as a more or less distant and ‘third-party’ issue in which the implication of the self is vaguely hinted at: poverty in different parts of the world, poverty in Italy, poverty as driven by politicians or egotistic economic systems. It is interesting to think why most of these postings and comments do not belong to people who are actually under difficult economic conditions.

It is also interesting to think about the striking absence of any reference to, or display of, one’s own poverty in the online environment. In particular, among teenagers and young people to reveal in any way how poor they actually are is perceived, among other things, as seriously affecting their prospects to venture up the social scale and out of poverty.

Note on the above photo: Giorgia is a 16 years old girl who lives with her parents and her five brothers in a modest council house in the center of Grano. Nobody in her family has a stable job and they depend on weekly help from the church. She is friends on Facebook with both her parents and her three older brothers. None of them ever suggested on Facebook they were poor; their close friends just know that and Giorgia and her family see no reason why they would bring this up online.

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.