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Facebook and the vulnerability of the self

Elisabetta Costa7 February 2014

Photo by Elisabetta Costa

Photo by Elisabetta Costa

A social panic surrounding Facebook has arisen in my field-site in south-east Turkey: nasty cheaters use hacker applications to steal Facebook user names and passwords in order to damage people’s reputation!

The practice of stealing Facebook passwords to post shameful images and video, and swear words on other people’s walls seems to be quite common among young adults. Apparently the town is full of hacking applications that allows spiteful people to enter other Facebook pages and make unpleasant jokes. I met several people whose Facebook profile has been stolen and used to post nasty surprises that ruin their honour. And many young people are really afraid that such a thing can happen to them as well: “Facebook can be very dangerous” I’ve been told several times. I don’t know if hacking applications are really effective here in Dry Rock Town. But surely people continuously share common computers and smartphones, and probably forget to log out from their accounts, giving the opportunity to strangers and perfidious friends to commit these offences.

One of the most prevalent fears people have is that of losing control of their public image that can bring public disapproval. The public image on the Facebook wall can be seen as an extension of the person, but this in turn makes the person more vulnerable. Photos, images, thoughts, and private talks are all significant parts of the self that are “out there” and can be easily violated by others. A simple joke can indelibly violate the self: everybody in the large network of friends and acquaintances can potentially become a threat to the self by entering into its boundaries after having stolen a password. In the age of Facebook the borders of the self are extended, but at the same time more fragile and vulnerable. And when these borders of the self are vulnerable, honour can be shattered.

This moral panic surrounding Facebook reflects the anxiety related to the vulnerability of the self that Facebook has made more apparent. I really believe that traditional codes of honour and shame are given new life in the age of social media.

Honor, fame and networked photography

Elisabetta Costa14 January 2014

Photo by Elisabetta Costa

Photo by Elisabetta Costa

Social media photography in my field site in south-east Turkey is extremely self-oriented. I have recently been asking friends and informants why people post specific images, and the answer has always been the same: “They want to become popular!” For example food is a very common image on Facebook and it is always represented in similar ways: in special occasions during dinner with friends or family, as soon as the wonderful food is ready and put on the table or on the floor someone takes the picture and posts it on Facebook. In few cases I had to wait up to twenty minutes before eating because everybody wanted to take a picture and upload it on Facebook, or keep it on their phones to show it to friends. When people organise dinner with friends or extended family and the food is particularly good-looking, taking a picture and making it public is a must. As everybody told me, the main goal is to appear awesome and become popular. On Facebook there are not pictures of ordinary food during ordinary dinner, or pictures with amazing food eaten with ordinary family members. It’s always a combination of good food and good people, the best way to impress the public. Even when the picture portrays a group of friends or family members, the picture is more oriented toward increasing the popularity of the person than to strengthening social ties with others.

In Dry Rock Town people spend hours looking at the Facebook walls of acquaintances and gossiping about them. This activity is socially accepted, and usually done together with friends or relatives. Women especially enjoy their time together in front of a smartphone or preferably a laptop, commenting about other people’s life as based on what they see on their Facebook walls: “She became fat…He got married to that beautiful woman…He is still single…She always wears beautiful clothes…He has a good job…He became rich…She always goes to the hairdresser…etc, etc, etc.” People gossip in particular about acquaintances or distant family members with whom they don’t have daily interactions, and that are Facebook friends of friends. In a town of 80,000 inhabitants where everybody knows all of the families in the town (and consequently everybody recognizes everybody as a member of a family), Facebook is the best way to get updates and have fresh information about other people’s lives. Because of gossiping, chats, and rumors, the content Facebook walls often ends up being what people know about a certain person. For this reason Facebook visual material is accurately chosen and updated in order to improve self-images, increase respectability and honor. Facebook is used as an identity card to present the self to friends of friends, and friends of friends of friends, and eventually the whole town and the extended family.

People are continuously involved in the practice of updating new pictures that can increase their social reputation. Thus the very practice of posting photos of amazing dinners and holiday trips is one of the main pleasures derived from these activities. It surely increases the their social fame within the town, and with friends and relatives.

Facebook, tribes and internal migration in Turkey

Elisabetta Costa12 December 2013

Photo by Elisabetta Costa

Photo by Elisabetta Costa

In my field-site in south-east Turkey, Facebook is a very important communication tool for keeping alive extended family relationships. On Facebook, people communicate with first, second, and third degree relatives living in different regions of Turkey. The number of relatives that a person has on social media varies between 20 and 300. While parenting and sibling long-distance relationships are usually maintained on the phone and more recently on WhatsApp, extended family relationships are maintained through Facebook. This form of social media seems to be the most appropriate to communicate with distant relatives with whom there is not intimate and close contact.

In South-East Turkey both among Arab and Kurdish populations, tribes have been the main social organization that has captured the attention of anthropologists for several years. What happens to the relationships between members of the same small tribe when they migrate to different parts of the country? The migration of Turkey’s Kurdish and Arab population from the East to the Western Provinces has been massive in the last decades and continues today. Due to this migration, Istanbul became the “the biggest Kurdish city” in Turkey; and all the Western cities of Turkey are inhabited by a big number of Kurds and Arabs.

In Dry Rock Town I have met many people who use Facebook to communicate with relatives living in different parts of the country. Those not belonging to any tribes usually communicate with first degree relatives, e.g. cousins, aunts and uncles. Those who are attached to a tribe organization usually communicate with a bigger number of family members, and this the case of rural people.

M. is a 19 years old Kurdish boy who came to Dry Rock Town from a near village to attend the preparatory classes (Dershane) to be able to pass the university entrance exam. On Facebook he has 200 friends of which 180 are family members living in different parts of Turkey. The ten persons he speaks to most on Facebook are ten cousins who live in Istanbul, Izmir and Cyprus in order to study or work. The remaining 170 are first and second degree relatives distributed among Istanbul, Cyprus, Mersin, Dry Rock Town, and towns in the same province as Dry Rock Town. On Facebook he doesn’t communicate with relatives living in the village. He says he doesn’t have the need to do so because he meets them every weekend and they mainly communicate face by face.

S. is a 24 years old Arab girl who grew up in a village of Dry Rock Town Province and migrated to a town of Western Turkey six years ago with her family. On Facebook she has 90 friends of which 80 are relatives living in different part of Turkey and 10 are school friends. Only one Facebook friend lives in the same town where she lives at the moment. The 10 persons she speaks with most on Facebook are 7 cousins, 1 aunt, and 2 school friends, who live in different parts of Turkey. And the people closest to her, aside from her immediate family, are cousins living all around the country. She doesn’t like the place where she lives now, she feels discriminated because of her south-eastern origins, and she doesn’t have friends there.

The anthropologist Martin Van Bruinessen (2002) ten years ago wrote that tribes and tribalism in Kurdish society were alive and more pervasive than the decades before. To confirm his theory and bring it further I believe that intra-tribe relationships in many cases continue to be the most important ones for a new generation of young adults who experience migration more and more. Thanks to social media, people are able to maintain these relationships despite migration and urbanization processes. While the people I’ve interviewed have continually mentioned to me the existence of their tribe (Aşiret), proving the existence of a strong tribe ideology, only after having looked at their Facebook’s practices did I start to understand what tribe is for them.

Martin van Bruinessen, 2002, ‘Kurds, states and tribes’ in Faleh A. Jabar and Hosham Dawod (eds), Tribes and power: nationalism and ethnicity in the Middle East. London: Saqi.

The Facebook wall as expression of traditional values

Elisabetta Costa11 November 2013

Photo by Elisabetta Costa

Photo by Elisabetta Costa

The inhabitants of Dry Rock Town in south-east Turkey have a mix of social, economic, geographical and ethnic backgrounds. The composition of the town is complex, beginning with a heterogeneous population that has lived here for decades and centuries. Additionally, different groups of rural and urban Kurds, Turks and Arabs came to live in the town more recently for different reasons, contributing to the expansion of the city. At the moment the main social differences of the inhabitants can be explained mainly as a consequence of different levels of urbanization. In fact we can see the people now living in Dry Rock Town as distributed along a continuum from more rural to more urban.

In the last weeks I have worked on the visual analysis of my informants Facebook posts and what has struck me most has been the homogeneity of their Facebook profiles. Although the differences existing in  real life between rural and urban people are evident, their Facebook visual materials look quite similar. It doesn’t matter if a woman or a man has grown up in the main city of the region or in a small village, and they have completely different life-styles. Their Facebook profiles have many things in common and their visual materials are not so different from each other. Traditional values of family, honour and women’s modesty are overtly represented.

For example, H. is a young Kurdish woman who works in a highly professional environment, grew up in a big city in southeast Turkey, has male friends, drinks alcohol in restaurants, and eventually will freely choose the person she marries. Her Facebook wall is not so different from the one of S., a woman in her early thirties who grew up in a small town, has very few relationships with non-family members, and that is married to a man who was chosen by her family. In both cases, relatives, family members and traditional habits surface as the main objects of the visual materials that appear on their Facebook walls. Pictures of weddings and family gatherings, and self-portraits with relatives are the most represented images.

The Facebook social network reproduces the social space of the village where there is no space for anonymity. On Facebook everybody is very careful to not damage their own reputation and that of the family because on Facebook everybody knows each other. The practices learned in the anonymous spaces of the big city disappear in the self-representation played out on Facebook. I refer specifically to habits and customs of urban women, such as hanging out with friends, coming home late at night, drinking alcohol, smoking cigarettes, and having intimate relationships before marriage, which are not represented at all on the Facebook wall.

But as written in a previous post, in contrast with the normativity of the public space, the private chats and the private messages of Facebook are exactly the opposite. People do secretly what they can’t do in the offline world: chatting with girls and boys, flirting, finding lovers, new friends and partners, getting in touch with foreigners, playing games, and being politically active.

Facebook and the body aesthetic in south-east Turkey

Elisabetta Costa9 October 2013

Female mannequin in shop in Turkey fieldsite

Female mannequin in shop in Turkey fieldsite

I have been looking at the Facebook photos of my friends in Dry Rock Town in south-east Turkey and I found very few pictures of overweight women, despite the fact that there are many in town. I can’t reduce the explanation of this fact simply to the presence of an ideal form of the thin body, because this exists in many other parts of the world where people post their pictures of fat bodies on Facebook.

As a way to meet new people and to do some exercise I started to go to one of the three local gyms of the neighborhood where I live. I discovered that the gym is a perfect place to understand the new social aesthetic norms of female and male bodies. Indeed in Dry Rock Town sport is usually portrayed as a way to shape the body, rather than being something worthy in itself. Women go to the gym only to lose weight, while men usually go the gym to do body-building and increase their muscles. I have been asked innumerable times why I was going to the gym as I was not fat, and I had the feeling that my answer “I like doing sport” has never really been understood.

In Dry Rock Town, as with many other parts of the world, the ideal body of the women has changed quite a lot in recent years. As many older men in my fieldsite told me, until few decades ago fatter women were appreciated and searched out by men, because they believed that such women could be more fertile and make more children. But now men are attracted by thin women and young women are obsessed with slim bodies and diet. I had a conversation with a sport trainer who displayed a particularly aggressive attitude towards fat women:

“I really hate fat women! They have never done any exercise during all their life; they just seat, cook and eat. And then all of a sudden they want to lose weight without any effort. I hate them!”

Another friend, a young Kurdish man, is used to making fun of Arab women because they are fat:

“They just know how to cook and eat. The stay at home all day, they clean, they make food and they eat! When they are 35 years old you can’t look at them anymore.”

In Dry Rock Town there are many overweight women as a consequence of a life style that restricts their opportunities to move freely and  have healthy life. In most cases, women sit at home, clean the house, cook, eat, look after the children and, sometimes, they go to work. But if in the past their daily-life habits were fitting the aesthetic social norms, now there is a clear discrepancy between these habits and the shape they tend to achieve, with the effect of creating deep fears and complexes among young women.

But being fat is not only about a physical appearance that does not correspond to the social norms. Being fat is associated with a “traditional” life-style, with old-fashioned habits, with backwardness. Here overweight women are the antithesis of modernity; in somehow they embed exactly what young men and women want to escape from. Facebook users in Dry Rock Town are usually the first generation of educated people, with high school or university degree, and they look towards a different life-style from those of their less educated and more “traditional” parents.

This aversion against the values embedded by weight happens in a place where Facebook is highly normative because it reflects the powerful normativity of a “traditional” Muslim society where people have to strictly follow specific social norms that define every single aspect of the daily life. But now Facebook extends this normativity to new domains: the strict normativity of the way people portray them online where specific aesthetic codes are followed with very few exceptions.

Love is… sending 400 texts to your girlfriend everyday

Elisabetta Costa19 September 2013

Photo by Knight 725 (Creative Commons)

Photo by Knight 725 (Creative Commons)

One of the most surprising pieces of data emerging from the 100 questionnaires I’ve submitted to my informants in our Turkish fielsite regarding their use of communication technologies is the number of text messages (SMS) that teenagers and young people send to their lovers. Indeed some mobile phone companies in Turkey sell SMS bundles for very cheap prices: for example, 12,000 texts for only 10 TL (around £3 GBP) a month. SMS is the most affordable communication channel for young people.

Sending 300-400 SMS a day to the same person is not an extraordinary practice among teenagers and youth who want to communicate with a lover and have to do it far from the gaze and ears of their family members. They write messages during every single moment of the day, while on the toilet, eating lunch, at school, before going to bed and as soon as they wake up in the morning. It seems that SMS is the most suitable communicative channel to have a secret love relationship in a society where premarital relationships are not allowed.

Below is part of a conversation I had with a 23 year-old hairdresser who confessed to me that he sends his girlfriend around 12,000 text messages a month:

Hairdresser: “We communicate all day long and all night long by SMS. I do not sleep so that I can speak with her! I love her too much.”
Me: “What do you write in 400 SMS in a day? Can you give me some example? It’s so difficult for me to imagine it.”
Hairdresser: “We write to each other about what we are doing and with whom we are spending our time. We write our feelings. We write everything. And if we do not have time during the day we send messages to each other during the night. This is love! Yes, this is love!”

There are specific local cultural reasons, beyond the growing romanticism, that explain why young lovers send each other so many messages: until few years ago, women were not allowed to go out, there were no internet and not mobile phones, and men could control women much more easily. Now women are more free, and are more often secretly engaging in romantic relationships with men. The point is that those same technologies  allow men to have intimate relationships with women, at the same time depriving them of the control they had in the past. The main fear of a young man having an illegitimate relationship with a woman is to be betrayed. As many young men told me, they are obsessively jealous. They want to control their girl-friends; they want to know where they are and what they do in every-single moment of the day, and SMS texting is the best way to do it. SMS texting is shaping new ideas of love where romanticism is entangled with new ways of performing masculinity.

Privacy and the lack of transparency in south-east Turkey

Elisabetta Costa11 July 2013

Photo: Elisabetta Costa

We knew that Mark Zuckerberg’s stance about identity was probably not entirely correct. But I couldn’t imagine that in South-East Turkey his expectations could have been so massively disappointed. Mark Zuckerberg expended quite a lot of effort to propose a model based on “radical transparency” that could encourage people to have only one identity in their life. In The Facebook Effect he said that “The days of you having a different image for your work friends or co-workers and for the other people you know are probably coming to an end pretty quickly.”

If we knew that people have been appropriating Facebook in different ways from those envisaged by the founder of the social media, I couldn’t imagine before that a same person would have and use simultaneously 12 different accounts.

A 35 year old man, married with two children, owner of a small shop in the neighbourhood where I live, appeared very anxious when doing an interview with me. He was impatient to tell me how often he was using Facebook, then he immediately confessed to me that he is simultaneously active on twelve different Facebook accounts:

  • One for work friends
  • One for online gaming
  • One for “normal” friends
  • One for female friends that are not lovers
  • One for local lovers
  • One for foreign girls
  • One for business (under the name of his shop)
  • One for the 4 year-old daughter (under the name of the daughter)
  • One account for the 6 year-old son (under the name of the son)
  • Two more accounts he couldn’t tell me about. (I imagine they are in somehow related to politics, as it looks common here to secretly use Facebook for political issues. However I am not completely sure about it.)

This man cared deeply about Facebook’s privacy settings. His main concern was to not let his mistresses and children to be informed about the existence of other women. He was not worried about his wife because she was completely illiterate, not able to read and write and thus to use social media and the internet. But it’s not only a matter of hidden lovers. The example of this man showed that in South-East Turkey the numbers of different social environments that need completely different appropriate behaviour is large, and overall it showed that it’s extremely important to keep these different social spheres divided from each other. Then this example gives us interesting insights about what privacy and public-ness means here and reveals the social normatively according to which people control social situations created by the social media. As Dana Boyd has repeatedly affirmed, privacy is not dead. And in the Muslim Middle-East, especially, privacy is one of the most interesting topics related to the diffusion of the social media.

Facebook and prohibited communication

Elisabetta Costa17 April 2013

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Photo by gypsy in moda (creative commons)

I arrived in my fieldsite in south-east Turkey two weeks ago and I am in the process of settling into the town. As I am really at the early stage of the research, whenever I go shopping, to the hairdresser, to the internet café or to the Locanda for lunch, I aim to get in touch with the locals.

I have been casually asking around what people think about social media, whether they use it or not, and for which reasons.

One middle-aged Kurdish man tolf me that he doesn’t have a Facebook Page because he doesn’t want to upset his wife. “My wife is going to kill me if I start using Facebook”.

Then young women do not say that they use the social media openly in front of their relatives. They just confess it to me privately.

Again the head of an Arab family with whom I am spending most of my time once told me: “Facebook is used only to communicate with people of other sex! We do not like it and we do not use it!”

It would seem that here Facebook is used mainly as a channel to look for prohibited friendships, partners and mistresses.

One of the initial hypothesis of my research was that the overall consequences of SNS on family was profoundly contradictory: Facebook is used by subordinate subjects – women and young people – to challenge old hierarchies, to promote a greater role of the individual against “traditional” forms of authority (Hofheinz 2011 , Salvatore 2011) and to question gendered habitus. But at the same time Facebook is used as a way to keep alive “traditional” family relations in the face of dispersed family and of the failure of welfare state projects. Indeed transformations produced by forces such as the state, economy, migration and cultural flows overlap with the idea of the family as a primary resource of identity and self-security that is rarely questioned (Joseph 2010).

After the first ten days of fieldwork it seems even more worth investigating how Facebook is challenging traditional family and traditional relationships by creating new space of actions and new freedom, and consequently new constraints and restrictions.

References

Hofehinz, A. 2011. “Nextopia? Beyond Revolution 2.0” International Journal of Communication. 5 (2011).

Salvatore, A. 2011. “Before (and After) the ‘Arab Spring’: From Connectedness to Mobilization in the Public Sphere” Oriente Moderno, 1 (2011).

Joseph, S. 2010. “Framings: Rethinking Arab Family Projects” Rethinking Arab Family Projects.

Convivial practices, gossiping and the materiality of the smartphone

Elisabetta Costa10 March 2013

photo by philcampbell (creative commons)

photo by philcampbell (creative commons)

I received my first Smartphone as a Christmas gift a few months ago. I know, you will probably think this may come as quite a late development for a researcher working on social-media and digital technologies! Probably, as a way to express my distaste for the predominant techno-enthusiastic attitude I tend to avoid promptly adopting new communication technologies as soon as they enter the market. I am often sceptical and I prefer to let others test it first! I had always been astonished at the view of those social gatherings where enthusiastic participants would hold a smartphone in their hands and use it to chat and communicate with someone else and simultaneously with those nearby. I myself was shocked when I saw a group of ten teenagers sitting on a little wall and communicating on the smartphone instead of talking with their friends sitting nearby. I thought it was shameful!

However as a Facebook user who spends many hours using social-media every week, I started to be amazed at the new opportunities I was presented with the use of Facebook on the bus, in the toilet and in the kitchen whilst having lunch. The smartphone has changed completely the way I use social networking sites and in just a few months it has created a new normativity (Miller 2012). I now find myself easily checking the results of the Italian political elections and reading political comments and analysis on Facebook while I am having dinner with friends. Most shockingly, it’s not even considered rude or inappropriate. As pointed out by Horst (2010) digital technologies are very quickly domesticated as normative. Yes, it is true! I am not annoyed anymore by those friends who use the smartphone in front of me. Facebook, together with WhatsApp, Skype and other applications have been creating new forms of face-to-face sociality and conviviality. The smartphone is bringing into being new convivial social practices. It connects people sharing the same ‘off-line’ space in the same way that a table game, a card game, or a pint of beer can do.

When I was in Istanbul studying Turkish I used to meet a language exchange partner in a cafe’ or a pub twice a week. Our main activity was gossiping about acquaintances or friends while looking at their Facebook profiles. We used to spend hours sitting and drinking coffee gazing at the smartphone in her hands talking about them on the basis of what we read on Facebook. The result of this was that I learnt Turkish and I also greatly improved my gossiping skills!

Facebook’s effects are strictly entangled with the materiality of the technology supporting it. As also noted by Xin Yuan Wang in a previous blog post, the humility of things (Horst and Miller 2012) is one of the main characteristic of the material culture around us, meaning that things and technology are often ignored by those who use them. Indeed the smartphone has made Facebook a type of social media that has been impacting practices of ‘offline’ conviviality and in most of the cases it is doing it very silently.

 

References

Miller, D., Horst., H. 2012. Digital Anthropology. London: Berg.

Horst H. 2010. Families. In Hanging out, messing around, geeking out: living and learning with New Media, ed. M. Ito, S. Baumer, M. Bittanti, d. Boyd, R. Cody, B. Herr, H. Horst, P. Lange, D. Mahendran, K. Martinez, C. Pascoe, D. Perkel, L. Robinson, C. Sims and L. Tripp, 149-94. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.