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Why is Facebook so important for highly-educated unemployed people?

RazvanNicolescu18 December 2014

The satirical blog spinoza.it is a most famous result of the phenomena I am describing in this post. With more than 500k followers on Facebook and more than 600k on Twitter, lines taken over by Italian celebrities like Roberto Benigni, and its own publication line, it is the result of the creativity of highly-educated Italian young adults who are outside the formal employment. The subtitle of the blog reads A very serious blog.

 

According to official data, the unemployment rate in South Italy drops dramatically with age and less dramatically with level of education. In 2013, unemployment was 51% for 15-24 year olds, 30% for 25-34 year olds, and then 16% for 35-44 year olds.  In the same year, unemployment among 15-24 year olds was 56% for people with elementary or no studies, 54% for people with secondary school studies, and then to 50% for people with high school or vocational school. Similarly, for 25-34 year olds, unemployment rate was 36% for people with secondary school studies and 30% for people with graduate studies. It is after 35 years old when people with graduate studies find more work than those with lower studies.

Grano is by no means an exception. Many highly educated that live in the town could not find stable jobs until their late thirties and early forties. As I explain in my forthcoming book on social media use in South Italy, this is due to a combination of factors: firstly, and most importantly, there is no need in the local market for their specialisations: typically graduates in human sciences work on a temporary basis in food, tourism, and retail services. Secondly, specific social and economic conditions prevent people from undergoing professional reconversion or entrepreneurship: the Italian society structures individuals from very little ages to engage in, and be very faithful to, very separate cultural trajectories, such as a very defined difference between working class and public intellectuals. Thirdly, people who were educated for many years in prestigious universities in Rome, Bologna, or Milano, have a strong reticence to join the local system of networks and favours that could assure to many of them a good workplace, such as public servants.

Therefore, they are faced with the problem of how highly-educated people can do something lucrative while also making use of their very specific, and burning, cultural and social capital? The answer is through Facebook! This is more puzzling as most of these people have ambivalent feelings, or even genuinely hate this particular service.

Let’s take Bianca: she has 42 years old, is unemployed and has a masters degree in geography. She never thought she needed more than her basic Nokia phone to communicate, and joined Facebook just a few months ago. She did that mainly because she needed to be part of the Facebook group created by the small ecological association she is part of. Now, she enjoys posting about social, ecological, and sometimes political issues, and always takes brave and penetrating positions. By doing this, she established in Grano her reputation as a strong social and environmental activist.

Salvatore is 36 years old, holds a degree in Letters and never had a stable workplace. He is a quite active member of the local organisation of one of the few left-wing parties. Salvatore is renowned as an intelligent and witty character and loves to upload on Facebook comprehensive political comments and share news accompanied by smart remarks that usually attract a good number of ‘Likes’ or comments.

Indeed, just and Bianca and Salvatore, many highly educated unemployed who live in Grano started over the last couple of years to use Facebook quite intensively. This seems to be in relation to their need to build and advertise a certain cultural capital: all along the period of scarce employment, highly-educated unemployed have an acute need to express what they sense is their special knowledge – be that thoughts, skills, or talents – that is not requested locally. Thus, all these people with time on their hands just started to try articulate parts of this special knowledge on social media: they found different online niches and opportunities and also specialised themselves in different non-lucrative genres, such as, creating witty comments about current Italian politics, sharing more philosophical or poetic ideas, or sharing art and photography. Because of the constant exercise of these genres in the public space, some of these people find sporadic low-paid jobs in the hundreds of social and cultural events that take place throughout the year in the region of South Salento. Nevertheless, these jobs are particularly appreciated because they contribute to the consolidation of the kind of cultural capital these people aim for. In many cases, unemployed individuals set-up small environmental associations, vocational groups, or start to jointly promote the individual works.

This is possible in a setting in which their nuclear families and the local community provide the basic economic needs, as described here. As one woman in her early forties who never had a stable workplace suggested, if she was not present on Facebook, she would have felt she was completely dependent on her family: physically (she lives in a house owned by her family), educationally (her family supported her university studies for 8 years), and economically. Instead, Facebook was the easiest way to demonstrate to her family, and indeed to the entire community that she was not worthless. Then, social media was really the only place in Grano where she could practice her autonomy and critical thinking.

At the same time, most of the highly-educated unemployed adults enjoy positioning themselves out of the otherwise pervasive consistency between the domestic space and the online public sphere that I discussed elsewhere. They use social media in a relatively conspicuous way because they have to express their very particular ideas in the absence of a work environment suited to their training and knowledge that would absorb these. And it is this conspicuity that  gives them the potential to form the next generation of local intelligentsia. It will be only in that distant and unsure future when they might recuperate the social confidence and standing that were shattered by the severe inconsistencies in the present society.

 

What does poverty look like on social media?

RazvanNicolescu2 August 2014

Teenager from a low income family using Facebook (Photograph by Razvan Nicolescu)

Teenager from a low income family using Facebook (Photograph by Razvan Nicolescu)

This blog post is part of a much larger theme of the impact of social media on low income populations. This is most debated among social media theorists and activists and is also one of the research objectives of the Global Social Media Impact Study. I will give just a few insights on this issue from the Italian fieldsite.

First, we should keep in mind that low income is not necessarily related to poverty in Grano.  I will briefly explain why. Indeed, the unemployment figures for the local population seem to be close to recent ones for the southern Italy: that is unemployment of almost 22%, with unemployment among youth at 61%. However, relatively much less people believe they are poor. This is related to a rewarding combination of the following mechanisms: closer kin relations, which also imply efficient redistribution of material goods and possessions within the nuclear family; alternative sources of income, such as from subsistence agriculture; and the possibility to dramatically reduce the costs of living with no direct impact on social status. I will not detail these here, but I will give a typical example: let’s take a family formed of a middle-aged couple with two children where only one adult is employed on a part-time basis. The family could either own their house or live in the same house with some of their own parents; the grandmother is cooking for the entire family and at least one other parent or sibling can contribute fresh vegetables from their campagna (a small house and agricultural lot outside the city) or produce their own olive oil for the entire year. The costs for education and healthcare is minimal and the family can afford to send their children on a weekly basis to private courses of English Language or football. Such a family would normally not consider themselves poor and will always point to other people who have a lower standard of life than their own.

In this post I will refer to people from this latter category, who normally agree they have outstanding economic difficulties. It is this group of people for whom at least one of the first two mechanisms described above does not exist or does not function for different reasons. Regarding the use of social media, the first thing that blatantly differentiates them from other people in the town is related to the cost of technology. Most people living in difficult economic conditions simply cannot afford to pay for an Internet connection (which is at least 20 EURO/month), a cheap second-hand laptop (around 60-80 EURO), and do not have any interest in acquiring a smartphone. Indeed, just a few people in Grano use the free Internet services offered by the public library or the local employment office.

Then, it is interesting how this situation changes for the couples with children and especially when the children turn 12-13 years old. It is this period when parents start to realize they have to buy their children a smartphone and allow them to be present on Facebook as the majority of their school colleagues do. Moreover, most of the parents encourage their children to use social media as they see this as an imperative alignment with their peers. It is then when one of the parents – usually the mother – might also start to use Facebook.

I could not see any major difference in the use of social media among teenagers coming from different economic backgrounds. However, for parents who normally have a much more limited set of peers, social classes seem to draw daunting barriers in the online environment. In this context, for the families living in difficult economic conditions adults’ online presence never takes-off and is definitely much more restricted than for better-off people in the same age group.

It is interesting that young adults (e.g. early 20-year olds) coming from impoverished backgrounds continue to use social media in a way that aims to level off the social differences within their peers. At the same time, this offers their younger siblings and families more convincing grounds to cover up these differences when it is their turn. In this context, what does poverty on social media look like? The short answer is that poverty is portrayed in most cases as a more or less distant and ‘third-party’ issue in which the implication of the self is vaguely hinted at: poverty in different parts of the world, poverty in Italy, poverty as driven by politicians or egotistic economic systems. It is interesting to think why most of these postings and comments do not belong to people who are actually under difficult economic conditions.

It is also interesting to think about the striking absence of any reference to, or display of, one’s own poverty in the online environment. In particular, among teenagers and young people to reveal in any way how poor they actually are is perceived, among other things, as seriously affecting their prospects to venture up the social scale and out of poverty.

Note on the above photo: Giorgia is a 16 years old girl who lives with her parents and her five brothers in a modest council house in the center of Grano. Nobody in her family has a stable job and they depend on weekly help from the church. She is friends on Facebook with both her parents and her three older brothers. None of them ever suggested on Facebook they were poor; their close friends just know that and Giorgia and her family see no reason why they would bring this up online.

The ideal of education and social networking sites

RazvanNicolescu26 February 2014

Schoolroom - Photo by Gerry Balding (Creative Commons)

Schoolroom – Photo by Gerry Balding (Creative Commons)

I have spend quite a while now looking at the impact of social media on the education system in the Italian fieldsite. This blog post will present a few ideas related to the place of education in the local society and some implications for social media.

People in this area conceive education as being the duty of two major institutions: the family and the public education system. While the family is responsible with the moral aspects of education, the different public education services seem to have more functional roles for the individual and the family. Maybe the most important role is considered to be the capacity of public education system to help people attain the desired jobs and social positions.

In a report on education I wrote for the GSMIS I discussed how this works differently at three levels: at the first level we have the hard nucleus of family, represented in many ways through the distinct couple mother-children. At this level, I suggested that public education could be seen as a commodity even if for different reasons that could range from the need to reify the mother-children unity and assure particular relationships within household for more traditional families to a necessary milestone on the road to acquiring a certain sense of self-autonomy in the more progressist families.

At another level, we have the local community where public education is to a great extent still a matter of family in which the role of the teacher or master is usually considered either in terms of the existing social relations within the community or in relation to a bigger ideal of the family. The third level is represented by the region and the state. It is at this level where people could start to say that things are not really working or the forces that play at this level are so powerful and remote so that you have no means to really change or move something.

Social networking sites have an interesting role here as they seem to articulate a sort of vehicle for people to relate to the bigger social issues. Most people use this mostly to make fun of a status-quo that nobody seems to be able to change. Social activists and people involved in politics could use the power of memes and other content on social media to try to send their messages to the higher level of the state in different ways that could be violent in many ways: from the daily accusations of corruption, derision of the public education system, to the realpolitik practised by some important politicians in close relation to social media. Many supporters of such kind of social media violence claim that the only way to change the systems or ‘mentalities’ is to react in a way that could not be ignored by authorities and should determine some reaction.

I will not detail these issues here, I will just mention a few thoughts on social media use among adult people with high education. One of the main things these people are most interested in on social media is to relate to their ex-colleagues or friends from University. This is true especially as most of the people who followed University studies in North Italy remained to live there at least a few years after finishing their studies and before returning to their hometown. The time spent away from home could typically be anywhere between 6 and 10 years, when they tried mainly to find a workplace or to start a family. The main reason for which the majority of 30-40 years old returned to their hometown is related to the fact that they found at least one of these two ideals difficult – either to attain at all or to preserve.

At the same time, recent data from the Italian Ministry of Public Education show that Italians under 35 years of age are by far the least able to find a job. Therefore, it seems that these people returned home just a few years before having a greater chance to find work. As most of these people lack economic resources within the family, their chances of obtaining a job in their hometown is even lower than in the bigger cities from where they returned. At the same time, most of them are not and do not want to take part in the local network of exchanging favours. As a consequence, a sociologist works as a part-time waiter, an engineer seasonally performs as a singer, and many others just do not look for a job anymore. In this context, for them social media responds primarily to their need to relate to the values they share with their ex-colleagues and friends from elsewhere rather than to the local community.

This is similar to Danny’s suggestion that for adult people the use of social networking sites seems to be related to a certain nostalgia and memorization. In this case, nostalgia is related to the ideal of Italian society rather than that of the local society, to its delights and difficulties, and the personal attempts to overcome these.

To conclude, if education acts in different ways at these levels it seems that individuals find themselves in less difficult situations when they do not cut the links between the levels. If high education could be in contradiction with many of the implications of family and local education, social networking sites allow highly educated adults to live locally and relate to distant values. The local tradition of learning a practical skill through apprenticeship has been really challenged by the insistence of the numerous Italian governments and European Union that state education system should respond to the request of labour market. In this context, social networking sites tend to work not upward towards the job market and the political economy but towards the individual need to live locally, which includes relating to ideals that are often in contrast local ones.