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They flirt, they share porn and they gossip

JulianoAndrade Spyer5 February 2016

Image courtesy:  thegillinator.

Image courtesy:
thegillinator.

The last four months of 2015 were tough. I was locking myself in a claustrophobic student carrel every day, spending 9 hours staring at a computer screen but not being able to finish the final draft of my book. I began having trouble sleeping and pictured a clock ticking everywhere I went. But the source of this anxiety – as I realized later – was a prolonged and unconscious struggle to say something about my research while the evidence was pointing the other way. I wanted very badly to conclude on my book saying that this poor settlement in Brazil had a lot of problems, but that because of social media things are changing for the better. But they aren’t.

This realization came after a long conversation with a friend that kindly took the time to read a previous draft of my book. The last chapter is about the effects of social media on relationships between people that are not relatives or friends. I did not notice this before, but I ordered the cases in a way to construct an argument that social media was empowering locals to protest against injustices. But this friend summarized her impression of that chapter saying that despite all this fuss about social mobility in Brazil, people are still living as second rate citizens. If a relative is murdered, not just they have to accept that the police will not investigate: they also have to keep quiet or risk being subjected to more violence.

The internet and particularly social media is everywhere in this settlement. Teenagers and young people are crazy about it but adults and older folks also share the excitement. There is the enchantment with the new possibilities of being in touch with people and also the pride related to having a computer and to be able to use it. It shows that they are not as “ignorant” [illiterate] as others might have thought and the PC looks good in the living-room next to the flat screen TV. But how much of this represents real change and how much is – as my friend’s commentary indicates –just an appearance of change?

In short, I wanted to sympathise with “the oppressed” and also show the internet is empowering. And in order to claim that, I denied the basic evidence of what they do with social media. It is not about learning, though that happens. (For instance, they are much more interested in reading and writing in order to better use things like Facebook and WhatsApp.) However, their reason for wanting to be on social media is mostly to flirt, to share some (very) gruesome videos and to spy on one another and gossip about it.

Evangelic Christianity is much more clearly responsible for “positive” change there than the internet or social media: the protestant ideology promotes literacy and education, helps people get and keep their jobs, reduces the incidences of alcoholism and family violence. Social media, on the other hand, is usually not for opening and expanding the access to information and to new relationships, but to restore and strengthen local networks. Facebook and WhatsApp are in some cases a possibility for young people to harness the desire to study and move beyond their subordinate position in society, but it is also intensely used for social control – i.e. for spying and spreading rumours attacking people who want to challenge conformity.

The picture I have now is not as neat and “positive”. But perhaps the best contribution an anthropological research has to offer is just that: to challenge generalizations and expose how contradictory human relations can be.

Fieldwork is haunting me, thanks to WhatsApp

JulianoAndrade Spyer3 November 2015

When is the end of fieldwork? (Photo: Merlijn Hoek CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

When is the end of fieldwork? (Photo:
Merlijn Hoek CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

When is it that fieldwork finishes? Thanks to social media, the separation between being in the fieldsite and being in the library is becoming ever more blurred. This is true for anthropologists in general, not just those who study social media, because in many societies platforms like Facebook and WhatsApp have become an important channel of interaction during fieldwork.

In a way, I have carried my fieldsite in Brazil with me back to London. I mostly keep contact through regular exchange of messages with friends from the field. But there is one case that draws me back to the position of fieldworker.

It took me a long time and a lot of effort to be trusted in the village so that people were happy to show me the content that circulates through direct or group messages on WhatsApp. I was particularly happy when one adult woman, who appeared to understood the purpose our research project and resolved to help the research by forwarding the messages she received via WhatsApp to me.

These messages allowed me a glimpse into what this part of Brazilian society – the people now called “the new middle class” – is privately talking about. However, the subjects of the videos exchanged are often distressing. In short, there is a lot of amateur sex and violence (also the subject of this previous post); things that are often not fun to see and that can also carry legal consequences. For instance: the recording of students violently bullying someone is a proof of a crime. This is the kind of material that can land on my phone.

While I could easily tell this informant to stop sending me this content, as a researcher, I feel it would be a pity to close this channel because I am now – thanks to informants like her – in touch with this very private social world. However the constant communication from the fieldsite does pose challenges when it comes to writing-up.

Yesterday I was considering buying a second mobile, so I can leave this one at home and only check the new content every now and then. This way I would be able to distance myself and have more control over this flow of distracting (and occasionally) disturbing content. A new phone would also assure I would retain the many textual conversations and exchanges I had with informants during field work.

But this is just an idea and I am sharing this story here also hoping to hear what others think I should do about this situation. In case you do have something to say, please use the comment area below this blog post.

Many thanks!