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The role of social networking and technology in relationship difficulties

Tom McDonald25 February 2013

Photo by Asela (Creative Commons)

Photo by Asela (Creative Commons)

I heard a fascinating piece on BBC Radio 4’s Today program this morning on how men often find it difficult to understand relationship problems, which can lead to a worse outcome for them and their families if the relationship ends.

Towards the end of the interview Ruth Sutherland, the chief executive of Relate, a leading relationship support organisation in the UK explained that since men often find it more difficult to talk about relationships, service providers and counselling organisations ought to think of more suitable ways to engage with these men.

One example Sutherland gave was that men most often accessed her charity’s website looking for relationship advice using their smartphones whilst they are on their lunchbreak at work. Whilst Sutherland’s example is really powerful and obviously makes sense in the context of the UK, in other cultures family relationships operate in very different ways, and often each culture posseses a host of unique institutions that also impact upon relationships. Therefore it will be interesting to see how, over the course of our research project, social networking and technology helps to negotiate difficulties and ambivalence in family relationships.

Algorithms and homogenization

Elisabetta Costa8 November 2012

 

The general goal of our project is to investigate on the social effects of Facebook in seven different countries. We want to understand how Facebook, as a global phenomenon, is locally appropriated in seven different small towns. It’s comparative research, so we are interested in finding out differences and similarities emerging from these places. The argument that Facebook is always an invention and creation of its users (Miller) does not imply that the social network does not have its own infrastructure or architecture that produces some sort of homogenization.

In the field of Internet studies some scholars aim to find out how technologies shape and constitute the everyday life of people through the understanding of algorithms and codes that constitute the way the technology works. This kind of research might be very intriguing. For example yesterday I posted something on my Facebook page. Apparently it was not so appealing to my Facebook friends and for this reason I did not receive any feedback. After almost thirty minutes I published a second post more provocative and (apparently) more attractive as in few minutes I received a lot of comments. At the same time Facebook kept visualizing the first post in my friends’ news feed section, the uninteresting one. I thought: “Facebook is so sweet! It doesn’t want me to think that nobody is interested in what I write. It tries to convince my friends to make some comments or at least say ‘I like’”

Facebook is built to prompt people to write comments and give feedback to their friends. If I post something Facebook will help me to receive comments. Facebook has been designed to build networks and create social relationships. The more we connect the more profits Facebook makes.

Facebook does lead people to act in certain ways and not in others. If algorithms and codes are the central mechanism of social network sites, it is surely very interesting to investigate on the intentions of computer scientists and designers. Technologies, material objects and digital platforms always embed the intentions of their producers. However Facebook is presumably appropriated in a way that wasn’t intended and expected by its designers. This has been the case of every artifact, material object and technology in the course of the history.

I am very thrilled in finding out about infrastructures and architectures, such as Facebook’s algorithms. But infrastructures are always used differently in different contests. For this reason I believe that being aware of the way the algorithms work does not give us much information about the social impact of Facebook. Rather a comparative research project about the use of social network sites can give us much more insights about the regularities and the cultural homogenization brought by Facebook in different social contests.

 

Brazil’s internal class struggle over the internet

Juliano Andrade Spyer30 October 2012

An ‘instagram-med’ image that has been reposted in an attempt to expose the ‘lack of taste’ of the new middle class

“Orkutization”. Such a weird sounding word. Unless you are a middle class Brazilian who spends a lot of time online. Then that should be part of your daily vocabulary.

Orkut was to Brazil what AOL represented to the United States: the first opportunity for a lot of people to experience online communication and sociability. Orkut is a social networking site named after its creator, a turkish software engineer from Stanford working at the time for Google. It was released in 2004, a month before Zuckerberg launched Facebook. In similar to Facebook among US college students, Orkut initially imposed a restriction that limited participation to those who had an invitation. For different reasons, Brazilians joined massively and soon became its largest group.

Orkut arrived in Brazil at the same time as the country experimented with a process of rapid internal social change. In the past 20 years, around 50 million Brazilians – roughly 25% of the country’s population – moved out of poverty and started consuming goods.

As computers became more affordable, these new consumers started appearing on Orkut. And as their presence grew, it gradually drove away the early adopters who felt annoyed by the new comer’s boisterous behavior and “lack of manners”.
The same process happened in 2008 with Twitter: its early adopters made it a cool place to be, which, in turn, brought in loads of users from Brazil’s “new middle class”. It was then that term “orkutization” was coined and began circulating.

As it should be clear now, “orkutization” is a derogatory term. It describes the massive arrival of these new users to an online space originally occupied by the wealthier online elite. After Twitter, it happened to Facebook and more recently to Instagram.

An ‘instagram-med’ image that has been reposted in an attempt to expose the ‘lack of taste’ of the new middle class

Claims that an online destination was “orkutizatized” spreads together with collections of examples of the newcomers’ claimed lack of manners. These collections could have, for instance, a list of spelling mistakes or over-sexualized photos.

It is important to notice, though, that such collections are carefully prepared to exaggerate certain aspects and ignore others. Its purpose is to ridicule by implying this exaggeration is true.

Comparative research

Elisabetta Costa30 October 2012

A comparative research about social networking sites! Wow! I am really excited. The portrait of the researcher, the lone adventurer, travelling alone in far-away countries is probably part of the imaginary of many young students who decide to undertake studies in Anthropology.

However the individualistic attitude of the anthropologist is not just a figment of our imagination.

Drawing on my own experience so far, anthropology has been a very individualistic science. Starting from the first year of my PhD, when I had to deal with the massive literature about specific topics or areas, then in the fieldwork, finally in the writing up of the research’s outcomes, anthropologists are alone for most parts of their work.

I think that one of the most worthy aspects of anthropology is its reflexivity. What intrigues me most about anthropology has been its ability to understand the world through the ethnographic encounter between the researcher, the informants and the social and material world they live in. Not reducing the observed phenomena to pre-existing categories or models is what makes anthropology unique. The continuous dialogue between ethnographer’s categories, informants’ discourses and practices observed in the field is what appealed to me.

But what happen if eight researchers have to investigate on the same topic in eight different countries? How can we cling to the principles of the ethnographic research and at the same time producing comparable data?  After all, the main goal of anthropology has always been a comparative understanding of cultures and societies. From the late 1960s the emergence of reflexivity as a central concern of anthropology somehow led to the neglect of comparative research. And this is such a shame! I do not aim to not take into account the effect that the anthropologist has on the research outcomes, but I firmly believe that this awareness doesn’t have to stop us from working on comparable data and findings.

Thus, making a good comparative and collaborative work whilst not losing a deep ethnographic understanding is probably the most ambitious goal of Anthropology. And this is what we are aiming to. But how can we achieve this?

So far the first step has been the continuous dialogue among the research team members, which has lead us to define our topics of investigation, to find out the best way to investigate on them and to formulate our research questions. We are succeeding in having a collaborative attitude and in sharing our skills and theoretical background. We have been meeting for the last two months at least two times a week and I can truly say this is the most exiting team I’ve been able to work with! And this is only the start. During the fieldwork we will have one Skype meeting every month during in which we will discuss our findings. We will meet for an intense month discussion after the first year of fieldwork. Moreover, we will always be in touch through Facebook, Email, Skype, Twitter, Google Plus and Dropbox. So, let’s see where the investigation will take us!

Might one of our research outcomes be the finding of a new collaborative way in carrying on ethnographic researches? It might be. And I really hope it will.

This is not a user study

Jolynna Sinanan24 October 2012

Photo: Frederick Dennstedt (Creative Commons)

Our project is about social networking. We all agree on that. It’s also about contributing to social sciences. We also agree on that. So far, every question we have discussed and asked ourselves along the way has come back to the conclusion ‘whatever we say has to be ethnographically informed.’ If it’s in our field site, we look at it, if it comes up as important to the context of our informants and their social worlds, we look at it.

Yet, when we have referred to social network sites or have discussed how we might look at different ones, we inevitably end up gearing our thoughts towards imagining how facebook might look and be used out there in the field. We insist that this is not a study of facebook and its users, it really isn’t. (A quarter of our project will be looking at QQ in China). So how can we do a project about social networks and SNS without making it just about usage?

What we have come up with so far, to keep with the anthropology equivalent of the Hippocratic oath to our fidelity to ethnography is this. We start with our SNS, facebook, or QQ, or Orkut or whatever the dominant site is in the field. When we start looking at its usage and start to identify trends or patterns, we then start to think about the wider sphere of the media of social relationships. Where does the SNS fit in with other sites? Where does it fit in with texting or emails or webcam for example? And then we widen our lens further to think about the totality of social relationships within that context. What is Trinidadian friendship or experiences of motherhood like? How are the expectations and the norms of these relationships similar or different to friendship or experiences of motherhood in Turkey or China or Brazil? And for that, we then need to consider all the possible things that might come up for us to better understand these relationships.

For example, this makes my first task of understanding friendship and teenage girls in my fieldsite in Trinidad very easy. If friends spend a lot of time bonding over their mutual love of Robert Pattinson, I read Twilight because Twilight will be my ‘in’ to be able to better understand friendships between teenage girls in small town Trinidad. The idea of looking at anything that may come up as important to better understand the totality of social relationships in our field site actually sounds quite fun. It also means we aren’t just looking at usage of facebook. Unfortunately, it also means that I might have to read Twilight.

Questions matter, and the way you ask them matters too

Xin Yuan Wang15 October 2012

Man walking infront of question mark

Photo: An untrained eye (Creative commons)

I always think that it is the strong and inherent curiosity about people that has lead me down the academic path of anthropology. In the past five weeks, working with a group of passionate, intelligent, and curious people has been such an enjoyable experience for me. I can not tell exactly how many potential research questions we have posed, but it feels like a huge amount, much more than we can hope to answer for the moment. However, even this makes the project more exciting and worth studying.

The current eight week intensive discussion tends to build up collective “common sense” for every researcher on the project before they go off to their individual field sites. This should help to make sure that we will all come back with comparable data, which will help to constitute a ‘big picture’ of the global appropriation of social media. To that extent, we decided to have a “to-do” list of questions that everybody is supposed to work on whilst carrying out their fieldwork.

This list comprised, first of all, of basic questions, such as “How many SNS accounts do you have?”; “What phone do you have and what plan?” or “How many SNS friends do you have?” These questions are short and concrete, making sure that ethnographers will collect basic statistics.

“Clever question” comprise the second level of questions, which means addressing a particular research question in a clever way. The way a question is presented to the participant will significantly affect the answer that they give. To put it in a simple way, the questions you want to ask matter, and the way you ask them matters just as much. For example, instead of asking people vaguely ‘what do you think of online privacy?’ a more specific but ‘purpose-hidden’ way of asking might be ‘what kind of information you will never post online?’ or ‘do you want your mother to be your Facebook/QQ friend?’. These questions are more likely to reveal a more nuanced truth. Clever questions can be very open ended, which are likely to lead to more detailed inquiries and in-depth discussions.

Built on ‘clever questions’, the third level of questions is even more profound and comprehensive given the possible situation that there will be several key informants with whom the ethnographer spends a huge amount of time and has abundant opportunities to conduct participant observation whilst in their company. In which case, these questions will not be confined to the previous structure and go deep into either specific issues, or develop into more portrait-like stories of the informant.

We have been amazed at the diversity and richness of the three-level questions everyone in the group has been contributing, which not only inspires each other but also guarantee the depth and width of our collective thinking. Generally speaking, anthropologists don’t have much reputation in ‘team work’. A lonely wanderer in an alien place is more like to exemplify an archetypal anthropologist. Also, some would argue that participant-observation of anthropology does not necessarily require any question. However, given the scale of this ambitious project we feel it would be useful to apply a well-organized framework and think about questions seriously to guarantee a comparative structure, whilst still retaining a degree of individual autonomy for each fieldworker.

Why start with death?

Daniel Miller8 October 2012

Holding the hand of an elderly person

Photo: Rosie O'Beirne (Creative Commons)

Even I would have to admit it wasn’t the obvious way to go. The last three weeks have been amazing with the whole group coming together, but I have been on this project since May and during the intervening period I went ahead with my own fieldwork. Eventually all eight of us will start on our respective ethnographies with hopefully strong common threads. But we have agreed that there will also be some degree of autonomy in which we each have some themes of our own, something probably essential in a discipline such as anthropology.

So in May I decided that my own theme would be to start my study in collaboration with a hospice. This was possibly a very stupid move since our project is centred upon the consequences of social networking sites, and the one group who are least likely to be using this sites are the elderly who, in turn, make up the majority of those who are terminally ill. So why work with a hospice? I guess there were three reasons. The first was that for such a large grant from the public purse I felt that ethics is not just written consent forms, ethics is also whether your research directly benefits the welfare of populations who, in some sense, are paying for it. As it happens, the hospice director was interested in the likely long-term impact of new media and had asked if I could work with them. The health service has been incredibly conservative on this front, the NHS is still mostly based on fax and letters, so this seemed potentially a useful contribution.

The second was that I felt a project this big should address the big picture of anthropology, and not just our parochial ethnographies, and that, for theoretical reasons, I wanted to rethink what we understand by life as enhanced by technology and that this might be understood better in relation to the imminence of death. The third reason was that most researchers studying things like social network sites will simply focus on those alone, while for anthropology everything is context. Getting a real sense of the wider world of communications and social relations from non-users would ensure that we kept that broad context in view when it came to working on social networking sites specifically.

It’s too early to know if any of these were right, but one thing I can say, is that you would not expect that a project based largely with terminal cancer patients would be anything other than downbeat. But I have found that these patients are genuinely happy to find someone who wants to talk about something other than illness and is asking for their advice and life stories and that actually the fieldwork so far has been really uplifting and often surprisingly enjoyable.