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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.

Teens are obsessed about spell checking thanks to Facebook

JulianoAndrade Spyer2 July 2014

Photo by Juliano Spyer

Photo by Juliano Spyer

Schoolteachers and staff in Baldoíno have a common perspective about the impact of social media on education. For them, Facebook and similar services are bad because they make students even less interested in what happens during classes. The argument tends to be that the Internet in general is a good thing, but young people avoid the “good internet” to devote a lot of time to socialization. The typical example of the “good internet” here is Google because it’s where one can learn things. Google fits into the image of a sort of oracle of knowledge that fits well with the idea of what a teacher is while Facebook is the playground and the understanding is that children have nothing good to teach each other.

If you ask a staff member of a school to give an example of the consequences of using the “bad side of the internet”, they may talk about how poorly students are writing because of the lingo they use to communicate through social networking sites. They say that kids are now happy to misspell words because they all like to type in this way. But this is actually very far from what the evidence from fieldwork shows. I am confident to claim that, at least here in my field site, Facebook has made spelling-checks an obsession among younger users and they are constantly improving their writing skills for that reason.

Here is a bit of my own pre-theorizing about the way things work here in terms of social mobility. Displaying economic progress is an important part of life, hence the effort made to show off this progress through actions such as buying branded clothes or a being a strong speaker through which the neighbors can evaluate the technical quality of your investment in education. Teenagers appear to have been given a central role in this arena: they are the main embodiments of display for family wealth and that may be a heavy burden to bear. These kids are intensely comparing what they have to what others around them have to look for signs of  a“lack of conditions”. And a serious indicator of poor economic means shows itself through writing.

I have systematically asked teens about different topics related to technology and almost all of them are highly concerned about not misspelling words on Facebook’s public areas. Some have newer phones that have spellcheckers and these are sought after technologies. Others with less powerful smartphones get into the habit of using Google to check the words they are not sure about. And as a consequence they all claim that their writing skills have improved as they fell more confident about writing.

I like this example because it shows how an assumption about the effects of the Internet may be wrong and yet remain as the truth, at least to a certain group. The perspective of school staff reveals less about what happens in terms of learning and possibly more about another important topic related to the internet here: how it has deepened the generation gap. We are talking about parents that are functionally illiterate in terms of reading, but also in terms of operating a computer. So young people have the whole World Wide Web to live their lives away from the sight of adults.

Glamorizing social mobility through market research

JulianoAndrade Spyer28 February 2014

Photo by Juliano Spyer.

Nike cap, international sports shirt, colorful shades, and softdrinks – all items teens use to display financial progress. Photo by Juliano Spyer.

Fantástico, a popular Sunday TV news programme in Brazil, had two long pieces related to social mobility this past week. One was about teens learning to install braces themselves as they became a fashionable item. The other is about slums and how, in contrast to the common (external) view, residents now feel happy about living there (both links conduct to pages in Portuguese).

The first story is not framed as something related to social mobility (I will suggest the relation further ahead), but simply as another weirdness that became cool among teens and that can have serious consequences to one’s health. The other story is grounded in market research conducted with over two thousand people by Data Popular, a research institute specializing in investigating what has been called Brazil’s “new middle class”.

A distorted view

It is a good thing to see national news pieces such as the one linked above that question the social stigmas related to living in favelas. At the same time, I found the research to be problematic in the sense that instead of engaging with the usually complex and paradoxical social realities, it shows only positive aspects as a way of promoting this new consumer segment.

The data analysis reinterprets the idea of progress, bringing individualization and breaking social bonds. As an informant explains during the report, outside the slum, life is not just unsafe but also boring. Alternatively, in slums families progressed economically but retained the dense sociality and the networks of cooperation that existed before.

A more nuanced view

I have been living in a working class villa for the past 11 months; I wouldn’t call it a slum although it resembles one in many aspects including the aesthetics of the urbanization.

So signs of prosperity do appear all around but this prosperity is strictly combined with a great sense of competition. Part of consuming is only a way of showing off ones financial conditions. So buying a large TV is not necessarily a choice related to the desire to have that item, but also a form of informing the others about one’s economic progress.

Nobody wants to be seen as the lower part of the social latter; it is as if one’s reputation now corresponds to his or her ability to have and display wealth. If a neighbor buys a certain item, the others around may use all means possible to get the same thing, even if that results in spending the money she or he does not have.

The illusions of progress

This sort of competition does not necessarily make people work harder. In some cases, it has the opposite effect as individuals and families spend a lot of energy partying – because expensive loud speakers and the burning smell of barbecues are efficient ways of displaying one’s means.

But this competition brings even more serious consequences. The poorer families are being more violently confronted with their lack of conditions, and it is the youth from those families that show greater propensity to choose drug dealing as a way of acquiring respect and money.

Using braces, then, is yet another symbol of economic improvement as teenagers have become a sort of showcase for the family’s progress. Similarly, not having to work is equal to not having the obligation of helping in the household. But these changes are affecting the structures of families and society.

Junk food, branded clothes, and quick money

Using braces is as much a health problem as, for instance, the desire to consume highly industrialized goods such as chips and sugar drinks. Either one has the means to purchase junk food or it means their family are “struggling”.

Another problem is that most teenagers on my field site seem to look at schools as only a social arena; a sort of extension of their Facebook friend’s list. It is the place to display one’s means through wearing fashionable items. As an education coordinator told me recently, the poorest ones feel almost obliged to wear the most expensive brands.

Studying is not really something they see as being valuable. Having a diploma is maybe necessary, but learning is not clearly perceived as an advantage. Almost all my informants at this age group said they would much rather have a motorcycle – to show off and make quick money – than to have a professional degree.

So, yes, there is something significant happening in Brazil related to social and economic mobility. A large number of those that previously lived outside of the formal economy are now intensely involved in consuming. The problem is using statistics and research methodologies to simply support a claim that ultimately serves as a sales pitch and does not necessarily improve people’s lives.