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Facebook as a window: managing online appearance

RazvanNicolescu31 July 2015

Shop window in Grano

Shop window in Grano (Photograph by Razvan Nicolescu)

A particularly common way that many people in the Italian field site thought about Facebook was by comparing it to a shop window (vetrina in Italian). Some did not exactly like the fact that, like a window, ‘everybody can see your personal stuff.’ In contrast, others used this new kind of visibility as an opportunity to actively promote different aspects of their interests. Out of this latter category, teenagers and some local entrepreneurs were by far the most active in this way, followed by artisans, artists, and a few local politicians.

In my forthcoming book, I explain how much of this region’s history explains why people are very concerned with the way social visibility reflects their social status. For example, families have always demonstrated their core moral values by keeping a clean and tidy house. Equally, most women spend considerable time beautifying themselves, selecting their clothes, making sure their outfits are neat and that their family is equally well dressed before they are willing to leave their own home. Dressing reflects the social and economic status people believe they have, even though their actual economic position could be somewhat different (for example, because of the massive unemployment in the region).

So how is this reflected on Facebook? Just as people put all this time and effort into their offline appearance, now many are extremely careful in curating their Facebook page. They do so by being extremely careful in selecting and editing the photos they upload, showing their support for online friends with comments and ‘Likes’ and in general trying to make sure their appearance on Facebook is consistent with how others would see them ‘offline.’ Facebook is considered a very public platform, and therefore people are very considered in how they post.

Among other things, the role if Facebook here is to actually make sure that there are no major differences between how people appear to others ‘offline’ and ‘online,’ for example, by offering adjustments or justifications when this may seem to some that this is not the case. Recently, a friend of mine in the field site had to post a long message on his own timeline to reply to an accusation from one of his online friends (which remained unnamed) who accused him of not being a proper ecologist. This remark was triggered by some of my friend’s recent postings in which he vaguely displayed some sort of sympathy for mass consumption practices.

Similarly, people are increasing aware that when they dress to go out, some of their friends might take a photo of them and upload it on Facebook. Therefore, that particular photo will have an implication beyond the transience of the particular event they have attended to.

In all these cases, the consequence is that Facebook works as a window that opens up a view both towards an exterior appearance of the individual which also reflects on the social norms existing in the local community, and the interior of moral values or domestic family. For both, people follow clear guides to the type and level of visibility they are expected to reach.

What’s the point of ethnographic fieldwork?

TomMcDonald28 August 2014

Learning from each other in the North China fieldsite (Photo: Tom McDonald)

Learning from each other in the North China fieldsite (Photo: Tom McDonald)

Being an anthropologist is one of the strangest jobs in the world.

For the last 15 months, I’ve been living in a small rural town in North China, where I have been doing ethnographic fieldwork on the impact of social media in the town. In a few days time I will say a final farewell to my friends here, and head back to London.

This is not the kind of job where you can clock-off and go home at 5pm. There are no weekends. Instead it’s a job that demands that we, as ethnographers, join our lives with the people that we study. This means living, eating, talking, playing, exercising, laughing, showering (yes… showering) and doing everything else together. By getting close to people in the fieldsite I hope that I can understand more than if I had solely relied on questionnaires or interviews (although I’ve done plenty of those too).

But these experiences also require something else: sometimes it’s necessary to give up a little bit of yourself to get closer to people who are different to you. Ethnography demands a kind of flexibility, an ability to accommodate those who differ from ourselves in order to try to understand why these differences exist in the first place. In the past 15 months I have often found myself doing things I would rather not do, eating things I’d rather not eat, and drinking things I’d rather not drink. However being able to set aside some of my own self-imposed limits, limits that make me the person that I am, is something that has definitely helped me to make friends here. Also, doing so has let me to explore other possibilities of being human that I never before knew were possible.

This character of accommodating difference has not been a one-way thing. The people of my fieldsite have been overwhelmingly generous in letting me into their lives, and eager to ask questions about my own life. Furthermore, during this time I’ve often made many social slip-ups that might have upset people, maybe said things I didn’t know people would take offence at, or perhaps asked questions that pry a little too much. Throughout, people have been incredibly understanding and patient with me as I slowly learn more about how they do things here. This spirit of mutual understanding has helped me learn so much about people’s lives and what is important to them here in rural China, and in the coming year I’ll share more of these findings. However for now I just want to concentrate on why we need ethnography.

Despite the many scientific and technological advances of the last century, it is obvious to me that we still live in a world that is largely governed by misunderstanding and fear. When we see people who are different from us, it scares us because their presence raises the possibility that our own way of doing things might not necessarily be the best, or even the correct way.

I firmly believe that if we are to hope to solve so many of the challenges facing today’s world, then our best chance is through mutual conversation, dialogue and learning. And although on one hand it may seem entirely superfluous to send a researcher to live in a rural town in China in order to study social media use, the question we need to ask ourselves should not be whether we can afford to do such ethnographic fieldwork, but rather whether we can afford not to?

This blog post is dedicated, with thanks, to the people of the North China fieldsite.

Facebook and the threat to individual expression

ElisabettaCosta12 August 2013

Photo: Elisabetta Costa

Again the topic of privacy seems be central in my field-site that I call here “Dry Rock Town”. During the first few months in Dry Rock Town, I’ve already noticed a pattern that can bring me to make a simple generalization: people do not usually update their status on Facebook. And on the occasions when they do update their status, they quote the sentence of some famous writers, poets, singers or actors, or they write some famous proverbs. Comments on private or public life, observations about politics or about food, general thoughts on everyday life, expression of feelings and emotions are never publicly expressed on the Facebook wall. I met guys that were using Facebook many hours a day, sharing hundreds of posts and making thousands of “like” every month, buy they have never written a thing on their wall. It’s not because people don’t like to write on Facebook. Indeed the inhabitants of Dry Rock Town usually make a lot of comments on their friend’s posts or pictures. And it’s not even because people are not well educated and thus not able to write properly: many of my informants have high-school or university degrees. It is not because people do not want to give information about their private life: people love to post pictures portraying them on holiday or at dinner out with families or friends. And it’s not even because people are afraid to expose their ideas. People usually share a lot of political posts.

But the inhabitants of Dry Rock Town usually do not write on their wall what they think. How can we understand this data?  Defending one’s own reputation is the most important thing here and the public expression of personal thoughts can become a very dangerous practice. It exposes the person to the judgment and to the critics of others and consequently to the loss of reputation.  It’s more convenient to express personal opinions through the words of authoritative others that can not be so easily criticized.  People do not usually write comments on topic of public interests. They just share a quotation, news or pictures. And this point can be very interesting as it contradicts the conclusion of the main literature on the impact of new media in the Middle-East, that emphasize the role of digital and social media in promoting a greater role of the individual against established authorities (among others see Eickelman and Anderson 2003, Hofheins 2011, Lynch 2007). Indeed I believe that in a highly normative and conformist society, Facebook is having the opposite effect as it constitutes a continuous threat to the respectability of the people by making public, visible and permanent what does not necessarily adhere to the social norms. And as reaction people try to follow even more the established social norms and authorised discourses, wherever they come from, the government, the political parties, newspapers or Greek philosophers.  If nobody writes comments on topic of public interest, at the same time nobody writes comments about private life. Here the clear division between private and public sphere typical of Muslim societies is self-evident. Facebook makes the private public and thus it constitutes a continuous threat to the honour of families in a society where honour killings are frequent and alive.

I really believe that in the next months I will investigate more on the role of Facebook in promoting daily-life practices that adhere to instituted social norms and to established authorities, far from creating a sphere where individual are more free to openly discuss issues of public or private interest. But the most interesting thing is that this Facebook ‘s effect goes parallel with the opposite one: publicly the inhabitants of Rock Dry Town follow and reinforce established social norms, but privately and secretly they are involved in private communicative practices such as chatting and flirting between men and women, that are totally new, different and that subvert old social norms.

References:
Eickelman, D. and Anderson J. 2003. New media in the Muslim world. Indiana University Press.
Hofheinz A.,  2011 Nextopia? Beyond the revolution 2.0, International journal of communication.
Lynch, M. 2007. Blogging the new Arab public. Arab Media and Society.