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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.

Social media as hyper-visibility

JolynnaSinanan7 May 2015

Image courtesy of Kris A, Creative Commons

Image courtesy of Kris A, Creative Commons

 

After an intensive few months of hiding away finishing our books (and neglecting this blog), we have come back together to work on our comparative book. With nine people already having written a book each on social media, surely taking the lead on one chapter should be a more manageable task. But with nine countries and one book that deals with the big-picture impacts of social media, on education, on commerce and on humanity, among other themes, this book is also becoming an epic compendium.

If social media has provided (just) one form of unprecedented social change, it is that people can now self-craft, self-present and disseminate on a large scale, in real time. That observation is not new, these anxieties are revealed in conversations almost every day with “Did you see what so and so posted” and “I shared this really interesting thing” are all to do with the consequences of extended social visibility. A sociology of social media as hyper-visibility has come from doing more classical anthropological study through ethnography. From a small place, we can perhaps make wider generalisations.

We have been fortunate enough to give presentations and papers on our findings from our individual field sites now, and I usually start my presentations by talking about Trinidadian Carnival. Audiences tend to assume that Carnival is a fascinating and exotic event with little importance elsewhere outside Trinidad. But the point to emphasise is that, although Carnival is beads, feathers and bikinis, it is a festival that was born out of resistance to slavery- where people were physically oppressed from having the means to express their identities and values through bodily freedom. Although Carnival has transformed today, to varying degrees the logics of visibility from Carnival are resonant in Trinidadian society all year round.

Which brings me to social media, it is difficult to study any aspect of Trinidadian society without considering social visibility. It then seems inevitable, when looking at social media in Trinidad, to link its uses to the logics of Carnival and applying a term such as hyper-visibility. Carnival is about showing the truth of who you are on the body through masquerade and performance- it is a time and space to amplify how you see yourself. Trinidadians have a well understood vocabulary around appearance and its implications, so much so that the rest of the world is perhaps only catching up. The concern with what we show on social media and what it says about us is parallel to what Trinidadians have always understood about visibility: it is how we cultivate truth that makes us subject to the judgement of others. The multiple judgments of others then reinforces norms and acceptable values.

On Facebook in Trinidad, you are what you show, whether that is lifestyle through food posts, ideology through political postings or moral commentary through sharing memes. You can show yourself as very global through posts of holidays or opinions on Game of Thrones, or very local, with humour that only Trinidadians would understand. Throughout the 3-year study, there was a general decline in the usage of Facebook by individuals for showing themselves, although it is still the dominant social media platform in Trinidad. Because of the consequences of being hyper-visible, individuals are starting to curate themselves more to cultivate an exact and consistent image by which they want to be seen.

Does Facebook produce reality?

ElisabettaCosta31 December 2014

Facebook meme

Facebook meme

Researchers of the Global Social Media Impact Study are currently writing a chapter about the visual material posted on social media. For this reason I’ve been carefully observing my friends’ Facebook profiles and I counted an incredibly high number of memes citing famous writers, poets, and philosophers. Differently from the Italian field-site (see Razvan’s last blog post) where highly educated people use Facebook to express their knowledge and abilities when these can’t be used in other ways, in Mardin young adults use Facebook to construct a well-educated, moral and virtuous self and make it visible to the others. As I’ve been told by many local friends, people in Mardin want to appear literate, wisdom, religious and moral, and they use social media to achieve this goal. In fact Facebook is also criticized for being used to construct an-ideal self that is quite different from the offline self. The discrepancy between the online and the offline was a discussed topic in Mardin, and it also emerged from my ethnographic observation.

On the public Facebook wall, people consciously post what they know is going to be under the gaze of others. The public Facebook wall in Mardin is a place to be observed and to be looked at. Young adults and and middle aged people don’t simply stage a successful character in that specific social context, but they perform a self that is imagined as continuously monitored, controlled and judged. In Mardin social media are spaces under surveillance, and people more or less consciously perceive themselves under the control and the gaze of others and of the State institutions.

In a region that has experienced decades of political violence and inter-ethnic conflicts, people’s traumatic experiences have led to the production of fears and suspicion towards the ‘other’, whether this is embodied by the State or by the social body, and whether the threat is real or not. These two levels, the State and the society, blend and reinforce each other. As result people tend to be aware of privacy settings, to be cautious about the material they share, and to post only what strictly confirms to dominant social norms. Surveillance is a productive force that generates specific performances and production of selves.

But probably the most interesting consequence of surveillance is that it makes the visible real. When the visible is monitored by the society and by its authorities, and for this reason it’s imagined as having real consequences, then it’s intended as real. It’s in this context of surveillance that the visible on Facebook becomes real. And this explains why many people in Mardin spend a lot of time and energy to accurately construct their idealized self on Facebook. In 1928 the two sociologists W.I. Thomas and D.S. Thomas formulated this theorem: “When men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences”. But we may also say that when one level of appearance is imagined as having consequences (and it does have consequences) then it becomes as real.

All in the pose

JolynnaSinanan25 August 2014

Image courtesy of J.G.

Image courtesy of J.G.

Danny and I are in the midst of looking at hundreds of Facebook profiles and in his case, Twitter and Instagram feeds as well to start writing the first book to come out of the project so far, What They Post. The project has always intended to be an anthropology of social media, but as we presented at the Royal Anthropological Institute a couple of months ago, instead of studying social media, we can also see social media as an unprecedented opportunity to study the wider anthropological context.

This is the premise of the book we’re (or at least I’m) muddling through at the moment. By looking at visual posts on social media- photos and self-generated or collaborated images (memes etc.) we can see an alternate route to doing ethnography. We are comparing our two field sites, The Glades in the UK and El Mirador in Trinidad. We’re not comparing Trinidad to the UK, it would defeat the purpose to take the values and cosmology of one society as the bedrock to which all others are compared. In our study, the use of social media by the English looks just as ‘exotic’ as uses of social media in China, Turkey or India. By looking at what people post, we can demonstrate the contrast between Trinidadian and English posting as the best way of showing that posting is in many respects Trinidadian and English.

We have now looked at thousands of images posted on social media and are starting to work with about ten comparative themes. Some are directly taken from the content of images, such as counting how many times alcoholic drinks appear, either with people or images of drink alone. Others are bigger themes that have been more subject to academic study we have big question marks next to that will need deeper analysis, where an images says something about gender or class but we’re not sure what yet.

One of the themes that has stood out to us is the way that women pose in photos. Danny has noticed a pattern where women over the age of around 30, do not overtly pose. They may try to look pretty, attractive or feminine, but they don’t show their bodies in any particular way. Posing years seem to be for teenagers and young adults, but certainly not for adult women.

It is quite the opposite in Trinidad. Women of all ages post images of themselves on Facebook, they pose to the side, they show their behind, they may have a hand of their hip or a leg slightly turned out diagonally from the body, but they show themselves.

And this is where it is very important to not take the values of any one society as the cornerstone to compare others. We have all seen countless journalistic articles that feed into the anxieties we have with the introduction of any new media, usually from a psychological perspective. That social media encourages, or brings out latent narcissistic tendencies, that we are all obsessed with our own image and we are all become more exhibitionist, photographing and sharing everything that we do.

But when I ask women why they post photos of themselves, I get a number of responses like ‘I was in a good mood’, ‘I felt like it’, ‘I liked my make-up’ or ‘I liked how I looked that day’ followed by ‘and I wanted to remember it.’ Trinidad is a society where people strive to be seen and we can’t contextualise that desire in contexts of Western mediatisation or celebrity phenomenon. Because of its own history and experience of modernity, being seen is to be acknowledged that one exists as a person. Visibility has far more existentialist implications in Trinidad than simply wanting fame.

I would also argue that Trinidadian women are generally kinder to themselves and to each other about their bodies. You don’t have to have a certain look to post lots of selfies, young women aren’t ridiculed by their peers for posting selfies or posing in photos if they aren’t thin or pretty enough, they don’t need to look like celebrities to celebrate themselves. Trinidadian women generally have a healthier sense of body image than we have observed with their UK counterparts and it all comes across when we take a comparative look at the photos they post.

Visibly invisible: you can always see me

XinyuanWang24 March 2014

The Little Prince is probably the novel which I have read the most times. Each time I read it, I am warmly touched. Amid field work, I am reading it again. My favorite part is the conversation between the fox and the little prince, when the fox tells the little prince that meaning of ‘to tame’ is to ‘establish ties’.

“Just that,” said the fox. “To me, you are still nothing more than a little boy who is just like a hundred thousand other little boys. And I have no need of you. And you, on your part, have no need of me. To you, I am nothing more than a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes. But if you tame me, then we shall need each other. To me, you will be unique in all the world. To you, I shall be unique in all the world…”

“My life is very monotonous,” the fox said. “I hunt chickens; men hunt me. All the chickens are just alike, and all the men are just alike. And, in consequence, I am a little bored. But if you tame me, it will be as if the sun came to shine on my life. I shall know the sound of a step that will be different from all the others. Other steps send me hurrying back underneath the ground. Yours will call me, like music, out of my burrow. And then look: you see the grain-fields down yonder? I do not eat bread. Wheat is of no use to me. The wheat fields have nothing to say to me. And that is sad. But you have hair that is the color of gold. Think how wonderful that will be when you have tamed me! The grain, which is also golden, will bring me back the thought of you. And I shall love to listen to the wind in the wheat…”

I have to quote the whole lot what the fox said,  not only because it is beautifully written, but also it reminders me of a recent talk between myself and  my informant LX about QQ (social media) permission settings.

LX is a sweet factory girl who is 19-year-old. One day she complained that I was always ‘invisible’ (my QQ status) online, which is true. My QQ default setting is ‘invisible’ which means I can get QQ messages but my QQ contacts don’t know I am online when I log in. To be ‘invisible’ means I won’t be disturbed by other online contacts and it has become an accepted/applied strategy among my informants who have hundreds of QQ contacts to log in as ‘invisible’.

There are six online status of QQ (see the screenshot below): I am online; Q me (chat with me); Away; Busy; Do not disturb; and Invisible.  For most people (90%) as long as they are online, the status is either ‘online’, or ‘invisible’, or ‘away’ with auto-response. The reason for being ‘invisible’ varies– the main reason is that people do not want to be disturbed or get involved in a conversation, however still want to view others’ Qzone (online profiles) and don’t want to miss any important message. ‘Do not disturb’ as a status is rarely used since people think that is rude.

QQ status

I thought there were only six alternatives one can choose until LX taught me that actually there were some other ‘hidden’ options in the advanced permission setting. Right click any QQ contact’s avatar, on the pop-up select box (see screenshot below) there are a few options which enact different operations upon the certain contact, for instance: send instant message, send an Email (QQ offers email service which is the dominant email service my informant used), view chat log (one can check the local chat log, which is the chats that occurred on the current digital device or roaming chat log, which refers to all the chats under the same account occurring on different digital devices), put this contact on top of the contact list, edit the name (QQ names, in most cases, are not real names, as I mentioned in my previous report. As a result users will usually note the real-name if they know it), group the contact, delete the contact, report the contact (for online  harassment), create a desktop shortcut, enter his/her Qzone, check his/her Tencent weibo (twitter-like service QQ offers) etc. and permission setting (see the screen shot below, blue highlighted). In the permission setting, there is one option that says “yin shen dui qi ke jian” (make visible to him/her in invisible status) which means the selected contact can always ‘see’ you even when you are in ‘invisible’ status.

QQ advanced permission setting

I felt honored to realize that I am the second person who can ‘see’ LX when she is ‘invisible’ to others on QQ (the first one is her boyfriend).

It is like you can always see me, and I am always there waiting for you, you know, very close and exclusive.

LX further explained the significance of ‘visible invisibility’. In return, I set her as the first contact that can ‘see’ me when I am ‘invisible’, which made her very happy. Such mutual advanced permission setting reinforced our relationship.

‘To see’ is different from ‘to look.’ The latter happens all the time, however in many cases does not necessarily lead to the former. A senior manager of a local factory told me that the logic of assembly line is that humankind is a part of the machine. I asked him whether he personally knew any of the factory workers. Rather than answer ‘no’, he told me “it’s not necessary”. True, he only needs to know the machine. I am probably the first one (the weird one) who visited the factory workshop and paid more attention to the workers rather than the product, the building, and the machine.

“All the rural migrants are just alike” as some of my local informants put it. In this small town, in factory workshops, monotonousness on a daily basis is the grand narrative, eclipsing individuality.  Most of the time, my rural migrant friends are ‘invisible’ to most people, even though they certainly did not ‘set’ themselves as ‘invisible’.  Unfortunately unlike on QQ, the default ‘social’ setting of ‘invisible’ cannot easily be changed in their offline life. To live against such daily ‘invisibility’, LX’s skillful usage of QQ allows herself some ‘privileged’ visibility, and in consequence,  an ordinary factory girl who is just like a hundred thousand other rural-to-urban migrant girls shall be unique in all the world, at least in the ‘virtual world’ created by social media.

The secret world of the inbox

JolynnaSinanan24 April 2013

Photo courtesy of Harlan Harris, Creative Commons

This is my last week in my field site until 2014. I’ve been hussling to spend as much time with as many people as I can in the last couple of weeks, I’ve been invited to a wedding, a ceremony of Hindu prayers (a puja), a political rally, a cd launch by a local band and a high school reunion on a cruise. Ethnographically, all great stuff. Some days, I’ve just been leaving my apartment with my worldly possessions tied in a gingham tablecloth attached to a stick and wandering around to see where the day goes and who I’ll end up talking to (metaphorically. I’m actually in the car, driving around and checking in on different informants to see if it’s convenient to hang around.) Last Friday was particularly rainy for a dry season day in El Mirador so I decided to try some virtual fieldwork on Facebook, a habit I’ll have to get into from next week when I leave Trinidad. I had a look at the timelines of around 20 friends- informants I know quite well and people I’d asked to complete a questionnaire and I saw something that gave me that heart-in-your-stomach-oh-my-God-I’ve-been-in-the-field-for-six-months-and-I’ve-got-it-all-wrong feeling. There was very little activity on most of those timelines for the last month, a friend added here and there, an occasional meme or tagged photo, an occasional status, but for the majority of those pages, there was a sharp decline in activity than when I arrived six months ago.

Is this the start of the decline of Facebook in Trinidad? When I come back, will there be a new popular social networking site? It is those particular individuals? Is it just a quiet time of year? I caught up with a few of those people this week and asked them what their most common used feature of Facebook was this last month. Almost unanimously, it was the private message inbox and it was used almost every day.

What it means to be visible in Trinidad is a key theme in understanding Trinidadian personhood. Trinidadians have a language for visibility, bacchanal: drama, scandal, commotion, gossip, fas: to point something out and make a big deal of it and maco: to get into other people’s business (usually unwanted attention). Cultural idioms of visibility are embedded in Carnival through the use of the stage, spectacle, performance as a transformation of the self. The nature of performance, staging and being seen are all things that Trinidadians understand well.

The other side of controlling what is seen and how is controlling what is concealed and how. Razvan Nicolescu’s assertion in his project blog post from earlier this month, that “new technology grants people freedom to work towards what they actually want to be” is certainly resonant in Trinidad. People go through extraordinary efforts to amplify aspects of themselves they want to be seen and at the same time concealing others. And here, perhaps like in Italy, “the individual and the society press people into particular kinds of persons.” The ‘Trinidadian’ element is the constant negotiation of revealing and concealing, some of these informants were quite pleased that their timeline looked inactive and perhaps boring, as there was a lot of activity going on in Goffman’s backstage of the inbox (even some bacchanal) and nobody knew it was there.

It is starting to look like my virtual fieldwork is going to take the form of sitting on my couch, in front of my tv, ice cream on the table and hanging around the Facebook inbox. Leaving the Caribbean for now suddenly doesn’t seem so disheartening.