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What does social media tell us about sociality in Grano?

RazvanNicolescu15 February 2016

Buon_giorno

‘Good morning’ message received on WhatsApp [double-click on the image to see the video].

So, what does the ethnography of social media use in southeast Italy tells us? In my forthcoming book I argue that people use social media to craft themselves and carry out ideal behaviours that are otherwise expressed through conventional institutions and practices. In particular, Facebook is responsible for the public nature of social relations and WhatsApp for the more private and intimate one. Facebook is neither a reflection of relationships and nor of a person in their totality, but of one core element of what a person decides to be. In the entire region where I worked people start from a highly socialised familiarity to each other and instead of repeating this on Facebook, they use social media mainly to add additional components to this sociality.

Most people in Grano do not need Facebook to reflect, reproduce or strengthen relationships, because the entire society is already doing this. Rather, intimate relations are expressed online in more subtle ways: for example, two spouses rarely post on each other’s Facebook wall but complement each other in their online postings in similar ways they complement each other offline. Or, by keeping to largely accepted genres, such as moral memes, people do not risk being criticised while at the same time the most important audience, family and close friends, can still decipher deeper meanings in public postings.

In this setting, people use WhatsApp as well as conventional dyadic communication media, such as the mobile phone and Skype, to express social relations within the nuclear family and close relationships. WhatsApp became very popular in Grano in a relatively short period of time (winter 2013 – summer 2014) because people realised that this service is extremely versatile in expressing a multitude of intimate relationships: by promptly answering your mother in precise moments of the day, chatting continuously with your fiancée, or having passionate discussions with your male friends each weekend around the Italian football championship, people realised that WhatsApp could be as complex and delicate as personal relationships are. The fact that this service is free and easy to use reflects the direct character of these relationships, as opposed to the more elaborated visual content on public-facing social media.

It is the well-defended, anxious, and often tempestuous private media that actually allows for the more calm and attractive public facing social media to exist. But overall, people use this basic complementarity between various social media to express the dual nature of their sociality. A simple ‘Good morning’ message sent only to loved ones is a subtle way to reflect a relationship.

 

 

Password sharing: I get by on QQ with a little help from my friends

TomMcDonald17 February 2015

Group of Chinese schoolchildren

Friendship is only a shared password away. (Photo by Athena Lao, CC BY 2.0)

One of the surprising features of my conversations with primary and middle school students in our rural fieldsite in the north of China was the number who said that the pressures of schoolwork meant they didn’t have any time to ‘care for’ (zhaogu) their social media profiles. Many spoke of the importance of needing to ‘invest time’ (touru shijian) and ‘invest money’ (touru qian) in their QQ account or QQ online games in order to achieve high levels or status on these platform.

For this reason, a number of people that I spoke to, particularly middle school students, told me that they would ask their friends to ‘look after’ their account, or various parts of the games that they played.

Having somebody else responsible for looking after one’s QQ account constituted a very significant indicator of trust, and this seemed especially so in the case of school children. A high proportion of middle school students told me they shared their social media passwords with other people, most often their close friends.

Often when I asked middle school students who it was that they shared their QQ password with, a considerable number of male students would use the term ‘senior male fellow student’ (shixiong) which often indicates incredibly close relationships (similar to ‘best buddies’ or ‘best mates’); whereas for female middle school students, it was often the case that they said the person they shared their social media password with was a female best friend (guimi). In both cases, it seemed that if QQ passwords were shared with friends then it was far more likely that these people were of the same gender as the people doing the sharing.

This not only highlights a different attitude towards privacy on social media, but it also speaks to how platforms can be used to cement long-lasting friendships for young people.

The ideal of education and social networking sites

RazvanNicolescu26 February 2014

Schoolroom - Photo by Gerry Balding (Creative Commons)

Schoolroom – Photo by Gerry Balding (Creative Commons)

I have spend quite a while now looking at the impact of social media on the education system in the Italian fieldsite. This blog post will present a few ideas related to the place of education in the local society and some implications for social media.

People in this area conceive education as being the duty of two major institutions: the family and the public education system. While the family is responsible with the moral aspects of education, the different public education services seem to have more functional roles for the individual and the family. Maybe the most important role is considered to be the capacity of public education system to help people attain the desired jobs and social positions.

In a report on education I wrote for the GSMIS I discussed how this works differently at three levels: at the first level we have the hard nucleus of family, represented in many ways through the distinct couple mother-children. At this level, I suggested that public education could be seen as a commodity even if for different reasons that could range from the need to reify the mother-children unity and assure particular relationships within household for more traditional families to a necessary milestone on the road to acquiring a certain sense of self-autonomy in the more progressist families.

At another level, we have the local community where public education is to a great extent still a matter of family in which the role of the teacher or master is usually considered either in terms of the existing social relations within the community or in relation to a bigger ideal of the family. The third level is represented by the region and the state. It is at this level where people could start to say that things are not really working or the forces that play at this level are so powerful and remote so that you have no means to really change or move something.

Social networking sites have an interesting role here as they seem to articulate a sort of vehicle for people to relate to the bigger social issues. Most people use this mostly to make fun of a status-quo that nobody seems to be able to change. Social activists and people involved in politics could use the power of memes and other content on social media to try to send their messages to the higher level of the state in different ways that could be violent in many ways: from the daily accusations of corruption, derision of the public education system, to the realpolitik practised by some important politicians in close relation to social media. Many supporters of such kind of social media violence claim that the only way to change the systems or ‘mentalities’ is to react in a way that could not be ignored by authorities and should determine some reaction.

I will not detail these issues here, I will just mention a few thoughts on social media use among adult people with high education. One of the main things these people are most interested in on social media is to relate to their ex-colleagues or friends from University. This is true especially as most of the people who followed University studies in North Italy remained to live there at least a few years after finishing their studies and before returning to their hometown. The time spent away from home could typically be anywhere between 6 and 10 years, when they tried mainly to find a workplace or to start a family. The main reason for which the majority of 30-40 years old returned to their hometown is related to the fact that they found at least one of these two ideals difficult – either to attain at all or to preserve.

At the same time, recent data from the Italian Ministry of Public Education show that Italians under 35 years of age are by far the least able to find a job. Therefore, it seems that these people returned home just a few years before having a greater chance to find work. As most of these people lack economic resources within the family, their chances of obtaining a job in their hometown is even lower than in the bigger cities from where they returned. At the same time, most of them are not and do not want to take part in the local network of exchanging favours. As a consequence, a sociologist works as a part-time waiter, an engineer seasonally performs as a singer, and many others just do not look for a job anymore. In this context, for them social media responds primarily to their need to relate to the values they share with their ex-colleagues and friends from elsewhere rather than to the local community.

This is similar to Danny’s suggestion that for adult people the use of social networking sites seems to be related to a certain nostalgia and memorization. In this case, nostalgia is related to the ideal of Italian society rather than that of the local society, to its delights and difficulties, and the personal attempts to overcome these.

To conclude, if education acts in different ways at these levels it seems that individuals find themselves in less difficult situations when they do not cut the links between the levels. If high education could be in contradiction with many of the implications of family and local education, social networking sites allow highly educated adults to live locally and relate to distant values. The local tradition of learning a practical skill through apprenticeship has been really challenged by the insistence of the numerous Italian governments and European Union that state education system should respond to the request of labour market. In this context, social networking sites tend to work not upward towards the job market and the political economy but towards the individual need to live locally, which includes relating to ideals that are often in contrast local ones.

How are numbers important?

RazvanNicolescu30 September 2013

Photo by Gabriela Nicolescu

Young people in the Italy fieldsite using mobile phones (Photo by Gabriela Nicolescu)

This blog post is about some of the significances of the huge difference in the usage of social media between teenagers and other people in the Italian fieldsite. If we are looking at the average usage of social media, we could easily identify a few groups that are corresponding to different age groups. The first group is constituted by teenagers aged up to 16-18 year old who use social media, and especially Facebook, quite intensively. This means that most of them have around 1,000 online connections and if they are not always-connected through a smartphone than they may spend a few hours a day or every few days on different social media.

This definitely contrasts with the rest of age groups. Young people between say 20 and 30 year old use social media in a more nuanced way. Even their subscription to the service is more unpredictable. If most of the young people who use some sort of social media have on average around 200-300 online connections, there are individuals, like the ones described in my previous post, who near 1,000 connections and have very precise strategies for online communication. At the other end of the spectrum around 20% of young users who have a few tens of connections and engage sporadically in any social networking activity. The way these people think about online media is actually very close to the way young people who refuse to subscribe to any social media at all motivate their resistance. At the same time, the way young people use Facebook or Twitter is much more heterogeneous than in the case of teenagers: it ranges from a few minutes a week to a few hours a day and from random to constancy. It is interesting that most of the time this usage is quite consistent for any given individual and does not necessarily depend on the time of the year or on the work schedule.

Then, for adult population figures drop dramatically, from around 30-40% of young adults who are active on at least one social media to around 20% in the case of adults. Old people use social media rarely, and usually in relation to some younger relatives who live elsewhere and actively encourage this usage. Most of the time this media is skype, that seems to respond better to the exigencies of this particular kind of distant relationship. The reasons are many, from its synchronous character, the possibility of high quality video conversations, to the ease of its usage which is a highly important issue for old people who usually have relatively poor computer expertise.

Therefore, we have this highly unequal distribution of knowledge and practice in relation to social media across the town population. As most of the literature in this area focused on teenagers and different affluent, and influent, people or social groups, our project objectives aim to cover other segments of population as well as some particularly overlooked social issues. However, before doing that we need to understand the important differences in terms of penetration and usage that seem to exist in most of the sites in this project.

The questions that have arisen from the preliminary survey on the usage of social media that we undertook in the Italian fieldsite are many. I will discuss here just one aspect: the very different numbers and intensity of usage in relation to social media among the various age groups together with the complex social relations between people belonging to these age groups seem to indicate the fact that it would be completely meaningless to focus exclusively on social media. That is, social media could not account but for a particular part of the society and the relationships that are at work here. At the same time, social media seems to be a very helpful lens through which we, as anthropologists, could make sense of these relationships exactly because they are objectified in a very transparent and accessible medium. In particular, I suggest that the numbers presented in this post point not to an inequality between different age groups, but rather to a very specific mutual completion of these.

Some of the ways society understands to use the numbers related to social media are more obvious: for instance, the educational systems’ inefficient attempts to adapt themselves to the impressive request and consumption of new technology and media. These attempts seldom imply massive public spending on initiatives that are at least questionable, such as the new-technology-for-the-disadvantaged or the ones promising the migration of sensitive schooling processes on different IT infrastructures. These are examples of ‘big numbers’ taken ad litteram, with little, if any, attempts of critical interpretation. As fieldwork shows, whenever ‘big numbers’ are judged independently from ‘small numbers,’ important misunderstandings happen. The simple reason is that either one of these two groups could easily be irrelevant when not considered in relation with the other or when this relation is taken for granted.

Different types of news

RazvanNicolescu29 August 2013

Photo by Gabriela Nicolescu

Photo by Gabriela Nicolescu

There are two local newspapers and a regional one in the Italian town where I am conducting fieldwork. They appear once a week before the weekend and are distributed freely in the main hot spots of the town, like cafés and retail units. The biggest one is published in a few thousand copies, a significant number when one considers  the town’s population is almost 20,000. Its editorial line is strongly on the social side, so that more popular themes like politics are not discussed. While the main editorial team is composed by a few men who work pro-bono for the publication, anybody in the local community can contribute as author. The editors encourage this kind of public involvement through a series of initiatives such as local writing contests or symbolic prizes offered to prestigious Italian journalists. Last year around one hundred people from the local community wrote at least one article for the journal, out of which more than a dozen were considered constant contributors.

The impact of this journal on the social life of the town is amazing. Almost every adult who enjoys reading newspapers reads carefully at least the main column on the front page which represents the subject of the week. This could be then debated over a few weeks in different public spaces, in the subsequent numbers of the journal, or in various other local media, such as Facebook. People usually trust the information in the journal much more than the news coming from more distant sources such as national journals or the RAI. It seems to represent a sort of undeniable proof for the different social issues within the local community.

I will not discuss here the intellectual and cultural issues that are at stake with this journal as neither my research is interested in these sorts of disputes. Rather, I am interested in how  the local population relates to this particular media and how different this relationship is when the same content is made available on Facebook. There is a whole discussion on the role of social media in the current Italian society, see, for example, the way the political movement MoVimento 5 Stelle (Movement 5 Stars) has constructed much of its political success on the massive popular mobilisation through the internet and social media. However, I will limit this posting to a few considerations on how people in the small town relate to the news on Facebook.

If teenagers and some young people could easily have 800-1,200 Facebook friends, most of the adult population have somewhere between a few tens and 200. The only adults who reach the teenagers’ numbers of online connections are particular public actors such as artists, social activists, entrepreneurs, or people involved in different ways in media. Their Facebook profile is almost the same: they post on different social issues or share joking posts and let their online connections  comment or disseminate this information. As these actors recognise that their audience is very eclectic, which also implies they do not necessarily share the same the political or social views, they usually prefer to not moderate these conversations. Their most common explanation is they do not afford to loose connections or their interventions are less important than the initial postings. At the same time, if some people enjoy participating to the online debates, most of the audience does not. They rather prefer to discuss the different issues offline, within the family, or in particular circles of friends. It is here where Facebook seems to act like a newspaper. Like journals wait for clients in an empty caffe, Facebook pages wait for people to access them when they don’t have anything else to do.

However, the type of information individuals gather from the two sources are very different. If in the local newspaper people are interested in the public news, in Facebook users tend to look for the private persons who are interested in news. To wait for public news on Facebook is nonsense. This might be interesting for different activists or entrepreneurs, but most of the people seem to spend huge amounts of time online just trying to find the information that is most private and available in a relatively public environment. The reasons could be pure friendship or curiosity. What is important is that most of the time in the private world of Facebook, news is unimportant if it do not serve to better understand your peers.

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.