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All in the pose

JolynnaSinanan25 August 2014

Image courtesy of J.G.

Image courtesy of J.G.

Danny and I are in the midst of looking at hundreds of Facebook profiles and in his case, Twitter and Instagram feeds as well to start writing the first book to come out of the project so far, What They Post. The project has always intended to be an anthropology of social media, but as we presented at the Royal Anthropological Institute a couple of months ago, instead of studying social media, we can also see social media as an unprecedented opportunity to study the wider anthropological context.

This is the premise of the book we’re (or at least I’m) muddling through at the moment. By looking at visual posts on social media- photos and self-generated or collaborated images (memes etc.) we can see an alternate route to doing ethnography. We are comparing our two field sites, The Glades in the UK and El Mirador in Trinidad. We’re not comparing Trinidad to the UK, it would defeat the purpose to take the values and cosmology of one society as the bedrock to which all others are compared. In our study, the use of social media by the English looks just as ‘exotic’ as uses of social media in China, Turkey or India. By looking at what people post, we can demonstrate the contrast between Trinidadian and English posting as the best way of showing that posting is in many respects Trinidadian and English.

We have now looked at thousands of images posted on social media and are starting to work with about ten comparative themes. Some are directly taken from the content of images, such as counting how many times alcoholic drinks appear, either with people or images of drink alone. Others are bigger themes that have been more subject to academic study we have big question marks next to that will need deeper analysis, where an images says something about gender or class but we’re not sure what yet.

One of the themes that has stood out to us is the way that women pose in photos. Danny has noticed a pattern where women over the age of around 30, do not overtly pose. They may try to look pretty, attractive or feminine, but they don’t show their bodies in any particular way. Posing years seem to be for teenagers and young adults, but certainly not for adult women.

It is quite the opposite in Trinidad. Women of all ages post images of themselves on Facebook, they pose to the side, they show their behind, they may have a hand of their hip or a leg slightly turned out diagonally from the body, but they show themselves.

And this is where it is very important to not take the values of any one society as the cornerstone to compare others. We have all seen countless journalistic articles that feed into the anxieties we have with the introduction of any new media, usually from a psychological perspective. That social media encourages, or brings out latent narcissistic tendencies, that we are all obsessed with our own image and we are all become more exhibitionist, photographing and sharing everything that we do.

But when I ask women why they post photos of themselves, I get a number of responses like ‘I was in a good mood’, ‘I felt like it’, ‘I liked my make-up’ or ‘I liked how I looked that day’ followed by ‘and I wanted to remember it.’ Trinidad is a society where people strive to be seen and we can’t contextualise that desire in contexts of Western mediatisation or celebrity phenomenon. Because of its own history and experience of modernity, being seen is to be acknowledged that one exists as a person. Visibility has far more existentialist implications in Trinidad than simply wanting fame.

I would also argue that Trinidadian women are generally kinder to themselves and to each other about their bodies. You don’t have to have a certain look to post lots of selfies, young women aren’t ridiculed by their peers for posting selfies or posing in photos if they aren’t thin or pretty enough, they don’t need to look like celebrities to celebrate themselves. Trinidadian women generally have a healthier sense of body image than we have observed with their UK counterparts and it all comes across when we take a comparative look at the photos they post.

Visibility in the society pages of social media

JolynnaSinanan19 March 2014

Photo by Jolynna Sinanan

Photo by Jolynna Sinanan

I have passed the 10 month point in fieldwork where I am perhaps getting a bit too comfortable with being in Trinidad. Like hundreds of thousands of Trinidadians this month, all my responsibilities and commitments have come second to the greatest show on earth: Carnival. Although Carnival is the height of the Trinidadian calendar year, it is experienced by Trinidadians is different ways. The parades of people you see on the streets in bikinis, beads and feathers (‘pretty mas’, or ‘pretty masquerade’) that resemble Brazilian Carnival, is a transformed version of Carnival that emerged in the 1980s as part of the state strategy to attract more tourism. It’s a strategy that has worked, thousands of tourists come each year paying up to £6000 to ‘play’ mas with the biggest and most popular groups, or as they’re locally known, bands. Prior to the 1980s, playing mas was a uniquely Trinidadian event that resembled the mix of the callalloo* nation. There were elements of theatre, Amerindian ritual and African dancing and drumbeats and costumes were embodiments of political commentary that mocked upper classes or foreign influences such as American seamen who were based in Trinidad in the Second World War. Many people tend to agree that mas had political potential and social commentary. But what of it today?

February has been a rich month for fieldwork as everybody has an opinion on Carnival. Common discourse and normative values emphasise that contemporary Carnival is vulgar, it’s not really Trinidadian, all the wining (a dance where the main movement is gyrating the hips) and carrying on is indecent. A lot of women agree with this view, but it is undeniable that each year, hundreds of thousands of Trinidadian women play mas. I have been discussing this with Dr Dylan Kerrigan at the University of the West Indies, a fellow anthropologist who has expertise on gender, masculinities and Carnival. We agree that Carnival has retained fractions of its potential for political subversion, perhaps now, not along the lines of race and class, but along the lines of gender. Carnival is the month of the year when a woman of any background, age and race can be extremely scantily clad, dance with whoever she likes and you don’t hear a peep from male onlookers or spectators. Yet, purchasing the space for freedom has an explicit economic dimension, paying for the pre-Carnival parties (fetes) and to play mas with big bands with their own food, drinks, portable bathrooms and security is an investment for a fun (safe) time. The demarcation of expensive fetes and bands makes sure that people of certain levels of society remain in their respective groupings. The one big contradiction to the prestige of going to expensive fetes and playing with big bands is that at this time of year, banks give special loans just for Carnival. People save money over a year (or two) or take out loans to visibly occupy spaces they don’t the rest of the year. Which brings me back to the ongoing theme of visibility.

I thought that if so much money is being spent on parties and costumes, surely this is the time of year Facebook would be inundated with selfies and mirror shots. Carnival is the pinnacle of the year to be seen by others. With the prestige of fetes and bands, comes with being photographed. Danny Miller is currently doing an in depth study of one such photography company that takes photos in fetes and uploads them to social media and their own website, reminiscent of the society pages in newspapers and magazines. Trinidad is a small society with few print magazine publications. The biggest and most expensive bands publish their own magazines after Carnival, displaying photos of masqueraders on Carnival Monday or Tuesday. Anybody who plays mas with these bands could be potentially snapped for the magazine. The photos I have seen on Facebook of masqueraders have mostly been tagged by others. The extreme few selfies have been ‘before going out’ shots. I saw many people with camera phones on the day, but there is an etiquette of visibility that photos of you are posted by others. What is the point of being the show and being the spectacle for your own gaze, otherwise?

Contemporary society pages are now the pages of social media. Four major social photography companies regularly post photos of events they have photographed on Facebook and people can tag themselves. The brands of photographers and the brands of fetes and bands is another aspect of how Facebook is made Trinidadian, through emulating the society pages of print magazines.

*Callalloo: a local dish made of mixed vegetables and cooked together, but also a local idiom for the mixed culture of Trinidad.