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Fieldwork is haunting me, thanks to WhatsApp

JulianoAndrade Spyer3 November 2015

When is the end of fieldwork? (Photo: Merlijn Hoek CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

When is the end of fieldwork? (Photo:
Merlijn Hoek CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

When is it that fieldwork finishes? Thanks to social media, the separation between being in the fieldsite and being in the library is becoming ever more blurred. This is true for anthropologists in general, not just those who study social media, because in many societies platforms like Facebook and WhatsApp have become an important channel of interaction during fieldwork.

In a way, I have carried my fieldsite in Brazil with me back to London. I mostly keep contact through regular exchange of messages with friends from the field. But there is one case that draws me back to the position of fieldworker.

It took me a long time and a lot of effort to be trusted in the village so that people were happy to show me the content that circulates through direct or group messages on WhatsApp. I was particularly happy when one adult woman, who appeared to understood the purpose our research project and resolved to help the research by forwarding the messages she received via WhatsApp to me.

These messages allowed me a glimpse into what this part of Brazilian society – the people now called “the new middle class” – is privately talking about. However, the subjects of the videos exchanged are often distressing. In short, there is a lot of amateur sex and violence (also the subject of this previous post); things that are often not fun to see and that can also carry legal consequences. For instance: the recording of students violently bullying someone is a proof of a crime. This is the kind of material that can land on my phone.

While I could easily tell this informant to stop sending me this content, as a researcher, I feel it would be a pity to close this channel because I am now – thanks to informants like her – in touch with this very private social world. However the constant communication from the fieldsite does pose challenges when it comes to writing-up.

Yesterday I was considering buying a second mobile, so I can leave this one at home and only check the new content every now and then. This way I would be able to distance myself and have more control over this flow of distracting (and occasionally) disturbing content. A new phone would also assure I would retain the many textual conversations and exchanges I had with informants during field work.

But this is just an idea and I am sharing this story here also hoping to hear what others think I should do about this situation. In case you do have something to say, please use the comment area below this blog post.

Many thanks!

Things that never appear on Facebook

JulianoAndrade Spyer4 October 2013

2013-08-20 17.42.01

Photo by Juliano Spyer

On one morning, towards the end of last year, my research assistant here in Baldoíno (our Brazilian fieldsite) a 25 year old college student, was approached by a friend who asked if she had heard of ‘the murder’. About one hour earlier the body of the murderer had been found and taken out of the river. He was the father of four children, a quiet man who killed his wife due to jealousy and shortly after committed suicide. My assistant told me this story as an example of the types of information that spread quicker through face-to-face contact than through digital media – which, here, translates to Facebook. But this story eventually arrived on Facebook and was openly discussed.

I started thinking about the speed at which information is transmitted at the beginning of my fieldwork when another young informant mentioned how surprised she was at the knowledge her mother had about things that happened in the community. ‘I’m the one who’s on Facebook’, she told me, ‘but she knows much more that I do’. Everything her mother hears come from her trusted network of friends and family members. I want to argue that my initial ethnographic evidence suggests that face-to-face communication is more efficient because there are certain types of information that does not arrive at Facebook at all (or at least not to its public spaces of communication).

About a month ago, a truck had been improperly parked in Baldoíno’s main street. While the driver was unloading goods, the vehicle started to roll down the road and hit two children. Both were taken to the hospital with severe injuries. One of them, a nine year old girl, lost part of her arm as a consequence of the accident. This happened in the early morning while children and teenagers were walking to school. Teens are the most active users of technology here and one of the things they love doing is taking photos and recording videos. On that day, the village looked like a contained but tense swarm of bees as people formed small groups on the streets to exchange information about the accident, what caused it and who was responsible for it. But surprisingly, not one bit of this event made it to Facebook.

So, how come certain events arrive at Facebook and others don’t?

The day of the accident with the truck, I passed by a store where a trusted research participant works. The moment I came in, a police officer and the truck driver were leaving the store after discussing with her about what she had witnessed. After they left, she told me: ‘It is true, I wasn’t here at the time of the accident, but even if I had been, I would’ve said the same thing, that I didn’t see anything that happened.’ Then she developed her argument explaining she knew the driver, and that he is from the village and is friends with “dangerous people”. She does not feel that the police will protect here. The police won’t prevent a criminal from attacking her or someone from her family out of vengeance, so ‘we must know when to be quiet’, she concluded.

The logic about the spreading of information is that potentially hazardous news must be kept in the domain of verbal conversation (which likely includes some direct chatting on Facebook using it’s ‘messages’ function). This solution allows the person to participate on the network of communication without leaving traces of the exact information or opinion she or he shared. Things that are not threatening but equally violent such as a passionate murder can be used openly on Facebook because the subject is of collective interest and will increase the attention given by peers and other people from the same community.