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Social media and the sense of autonomy

RazvanNicolescu23 October 2013

Photo by Razvan Nicolescu

Photo by Razvan Nicolescu

This post is about the usage of social media among teenagers in the Italian fieldsite and in particular about the idea of self-autonomy. The first thing to say is quite obvious: that is, most teenagers’ usage of social media happens between two main forces that act simultaneously and most of the time in opposite directions. On one hand, their peers encourage an active usage of new technology and social media, and on the other hand, parents and schools tend to drastically discourage and limit this usage. While online friends require more online interactivity and participation, families and teachers encourage more offline involvement. These kinds of misunderstandings are largely discussed in the anthropological literature (see for example Livingstone, Ito, or the Digital Youth Project) and I will not dwell here on this topic.

Another important issue related to teenagers’ usage of social media is that, like when playing in the playground, social media provides the setting where they learn and practice sociality inside the various peer-groups they adhere to and with no significant help or guidance from adults. At the same time, the famous psychologist Jean Piaget argued that roughly between 12 and 14 years old teenagers engage on the road from an ego-centric to a de-centered understanding of the world. In social terms, this process corresponds to a movement from a rather concrete to a more abstract understanding of relationships. Whether it is driven by an individual fascination or by a social imperative for the newly discovered relationships, may be debated. What is really important, I argue, is that the individual is entering int0 a vast system of communication and relations with a large number of peers in a relatively short period of time. There seems to be little time and space to filter out ideas and to be very strict in following some pre-defined rules for communicating, in adults’ terms. Instead, teenagers seem to sort out these rules on the go, while being active on social media.

Paulina is a 14 years old. She has been on Facebook for two years. She has around 800 friends on this platform, her profile is public, and she does not differentiate too much between her online friends. She is usually online two to three hours a day and logged into her Facebook account. She admits she does many other things online, including homework, however, most of the time she is busy answering different requests or messages she receives on Facebook. She does that because she feels she has to respond to these requests and she has to be quick if she wants her own thoughts to be heard. She is not interested if other people look at her online profile and why they would do that.

Paulina’s mother opposes most of these ideas. She has had a Facebook profile for around two years, but she was never too active on it. She has around 80 Facebook friends, most of them mothers. Actually, one of the reasons many parents started using Facebook was to friend their children so they could watch over their online behavior. She could not understand why her daughter would just post ‘everything’ on Facebook. She is quite confused in particular by the fact that her daughter seems to not make any choices in what to post and what to not post online, or in differentiating somehow between the audience of these posts. A private quarrel could go online, as well as an important prize at school. After some time of trying to control her daughter online, she gave up and started to mind more her own Facebook friends.

This story is very typical for the Italian town: teenagers introducing their parents to Facebook and young people introducing their parents to computer and skype. In a way, this seems to correspond to the process described by the term polymedia. However, when teenagers started to be active on twitter, things changed dramatically: they suddenly evaded the more socially accepted peer-to-peer communication for a much stranger one. Most parents do not even bother to ask their children what they do on twitter, not to mention trying to go to the site. Meanwhile, teenagers enjoy their newly discovered autonomy that corresponds to a sort of abstractization of social relations as detailed above. In any case, many teenagers seem to think that while Facebook became rather normative and predictable, twitter allows them to be more autonomous and innovative. And rules seem to be more difficult to be enforced here.

Freebies and socioeconomic indicators

ShriramVenkatraman14 July 2013

Photo by Rajib Ghosh (Creative Commons

Photo by Rajib Ghosh (Creative Commons)

The use of socioeconomic indicators in surveys is well documented. While conducting a sample survey in the Indian field site (Tamil Nadu), it slowly emerged that some variables used as socioeconomic indicators were going awry. Even in the most poor localities, almost every house had two television sets, a grinder, a mixie (a mixer), and if the household had a member in college or higher secondary school, it had a laptop and everyone had a mobile phone (though at least this was not too surprising after reading the book The Cell Phone Nation)

What was available only to the middle class 5 or 6 years ago and was a luxury to the poor was now with the poor too. It seemed like a puzzle and the answer lay in the election manifestos of different political parties which promised (and to a certain extent delivered) ‘freebies’ if elected to power in the state of Tamil Nadu. It seemed like a competition between which party could promise the most free stuff. Though, several articles had appeared in journals/newspapers speaking about the effect that all this had created, the survey served as the right opportunity to witness this first hand.

New socioeconomic indicators seemed to be needed now to assess the real conditions in the field site. The thought of reassessing the field site with newer advanced socioeconomic indicators soon emerged and it was exactly like putting together a puzzle until one crucial and basic/foundational piece fitting all of these together was missing and that crucial piece turned out to be electricity – the electricity needed to run/operate any of these electrical products. Everything else seemed to be in place except for the electricity supply, which was either missing for several hours of a day or was fluctuating constantly, sometimes even killing some of these electrical products.

The lesson we can ear from this is to never assume basic necessities are in place just by seeing all the paraphernalia.