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“I’m Feeling …” – Status Messages on Social Media

ShriramVenkatraman25 February 2015

Photo by Sean MacEntee (Creative Commons)

Photo by Sean MacEntee (Creative Commons)

 

“Smiling :)”

“Happy !!!!!!!”

“Feeling Sad…”

“Irritated!”

Do the above look like private messages that one sends? More often than not at Panchagrami, they end up as Status messages on Facebook or WhatsApp groups.

Though these messages might authentically represent a person’s state of mind at a given point of time, there is no denying that such status messages receive much more responses (As Likes or Comments on Facebook or as questions on WhatsApp) at a rate faster than other posts. These kinds of messages normally occur with higher frequency among the young people  (less than 30 years old) at Panchagrami.
Status messages such as these tend to have a sense of mystery attached to them and would never reveal the whereabouts of the person (home/office/college or at a shopping center – where does he/she post this message from?) or if this message is related to ones personal or professional life or just something they encountered.

For example: A message such as “Pissed Off!” normally tends to have responses that could be put into several categories,

it could be serious —– “Sorry for you…What happened?”
it could be sarcastic —– “Once again?” or “Me Too!”
it could be an advice —- “Take a walk bro…things would be alright”
or offering immediate support —- ” Call me at +9199******08″
or it could be a joke —- “Take a leak” or “Don’t do it on your chair”

and for no reason a message such as this can attract two dozen Likes on Facebook – now this cannot be categorized under anything.

A message such as “I am smiling” can have responses such as

“I know why”

“What’s brewing?”

“Its good to smile. Smile often”

“hmmmm… hmmmm…”

A look at these messages leads one to reason out the ready support system that a person might have, though one cannot deny that there is a
level of performance associated with this as well. However, letting your ready audience know of a state of mind that one is in has its own strong and weak points. While several point out that channeling your frustration with your boss at work onto WhatsApp/Facebook as a status message and attracting a few soothing responses might calm your nerves, several also believe that people tend to overuse this platform for venting out their day to day frustrations, a few even criticize the neediness of the people who post such messages.

However, interviewing college students at Panchagrami revealed that authenticity of such messages in itself needs to be questioned at times.
Observing that such messages now attract a lot more responses, a few use it to their strategic advantage in order to receive more Likes and comments on their profile.

Now…”I’m Amused!”

WhatsApp: A pain in the arse

JulianoAndrade Spyer4 January 2015

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Image courtesy of Josh Stocco, Creative Commons

It is not uncommon for the people of Balduino to discuss sex. Even my least talkative informants enjoyed telling me about their love affairs outside their official relationships. So it is not surprising that loads of sex clips circulated through my informant’s smart phones’ WhatsApp exchanges. Yet I did not understand that a trusted female informant – that agreed to share her personal communication with me – constantly forwarded me clips of heterosexual anal penetration.

Most of the videos she sent me depicting sex had in common one element: they were low budged videos that displayed painful anal sex penetration.

Since I cannot show you those clips because of the nature of the content, I will briefly describe what is particular about them.

One clip shows the moment the male actor mistakenly misses the actresses’ vagina and penetrates her anus abruptly. The video is edited comically using slow motion to depict the ferocious reaction of the woman as she breaks from that predictable porn performance and, screaming, begins to attack her partner on that scene. There are also clips in which the women try to hide the pain by screaming in as if she was having an orgasm.

All these videos indicate that the women are putting up with those scenes for reasons that are not related to pleasure. They accept it, most likely because they are being paid as porn actresses, but they do not like it.

Why would adult heterosexual women be sharing this kind of content if it is not because it turns them on – as it clearly doesn’t?

My informant and her friends laugh at these scenes. For them, it is humouring the only channel that allows this kind of subject to be brought up. Laughing about these videos is a way to talk about the sudden change in gender relations in the village.

It was only in the past two decades that most women there began having the opportunity of developing a career and becoming financially independent from their male partners.

Men are no longer needed as before to provide money and protection for the family. In fact, women have become better adapted to the formal job market; they have studied more and are more productive than men according to various sources I spoke with. This change raises discomfort among men.

An informant told me her partner took away her birth control pills when she refused having sex late in the night (as she had to work early in the morning) as a way to punish her. As a mother she would again have to stay home and accept her dependence on him. Looking from this angle, the sharing of these painful anal clips exposes how difficult it has been for women and for men to negotiate new roles.

The conclusion may seem too obvious; but showing painful anal penetration clips may be just a way of agreeing that the men in Balduino are a big pain in their arses.

 

The qualitative insights we get from applying questionnaires

JulianoAndrade Spyer31 August 2014

After our team gathered in London this past May, we came back to the field with four main tasks, one of which is to apply a new questionnaire to one hundred participants. Now that this mission is nearly accomplished, I am surprised by what I learned from the questions that, for various reasons, did not work and also by the ones that did. The application of a questionnaire forced me to contact people outside the groups I am closer to and provided a valuable opportunity to check if the generalizations I have made so far are correct. At the end, the questionnaire showed how quantitative methods could be misleading as people either don’t understand or differently evaluate the questions they are faced with. But they can and should be used in the context of long-term qualitative research as the researcher is then able to learn not just by the responses, but also mainly by the information that is offered beyond what the questionnaire requests.

On this blog post I will present some of the qualitative insights the application of this questionnaire has provided.

Right at the beginning of the conversation we ask the informant how many friends she or he has on their preferred social networking site. My expectation was that teenagers would have thousands of friends while everyone else would have about a few hundred or less. This has been the case among some participants, but as I applied the questionnaire often I heard the following intriguing reply by everyone including teens: – “Oh, I have loads of friends there. About 60…” There are quite a few things that can be unpacked from this answer. One is that I realized my teenage informants were heavy users and they were not representative of the entire group of people in their age group. Besides that, it is intriguing that having 60, 80 or 120 can be perceived as being a great number and I can now ask around to find out why is that so.

Some questions confirmed perceptions the ethnography uncovered. Later on in the questionnaire, we ask how many of the person’s friends on social networking sites the informant has never met face to face. Although I am Brazilian like my informants, their notion of what a Facebook contact should be is clearly different from mine. A “friend” here is everyone you can know, which is a group that includes the people that knows the people each one knows (friends of friends). Very few of my respondents answered that they knew personally everyone from their network. The typical reply was that loads of those they were friends with on Facebook they had added because, among other reasons, they had friends in common. So through sites like Facebook we see that my informants understanding of an acquaintance is much wider and flexible than that of people with my urban middle class background.

My informants have not understood the question that helped me realize this previous observation. Originally our research team wanted to know if informants asked the permission of friends or of family members before adding people to their network of contacts. As I read this question to informants, they replied to it quite quickly and confidently so it was not until almost finishing this task that I saw they had understood something very different from our original intention. They usually answered that they consulted friends before adding new contacts, but they were actually saying that when they receive a request from someone they haven’t met and don’t know, they go to this person’s profile and browse around to find out, among other things, who these people are friends with. Having friends in common is an important aspect in the decision of accepting friendship requests.

Some questions worked out incredibly well. One of these asked: do you feel that the opportunity of interacting with people through the Internet has become a headache? This was clearly understood by everyone and it will be interesting to see after we process the data if there are specific demographic groups that replied affirmatively to it. For example: young married people apparently both enjoy meeting more people and are bothered by having their lives more closely monitored by their partners. Others said that Facebook mixes up together different groups of people and it has become a burden to deal with frequent tensions inside one’s network.

We ask informants whether they think social networking sites are good or bad for education and for work. Although some replied Facebook was bad for education because it captures the attention of students out of their schoolwork, several parents consider it positive for exposing their children to information and knowledge. The answers were even more emphatic about work. As Baldoíno is a working class village, many of my informants here work in hotels, are private security guards or have small businesses and having the possibility of communicating with peers and with business partners easily and without paying is very helpful.

On the whole, my informants could not say whether they had “liked” businesses on Facebook. It is unclear to almost all what the difference is between, for instance, a soap opera and a company, and notions such as “local”, “national” and “international” in regard to the businesses they “liked” were confusing to them. Why shouldn’t Coca Cola be local or national if its products are available locally and their adverts are running on national TV channels? Some informants answered that they have purchased items from the businesses they follow, but what they mean is not that the purchase happened as a consequence of them “liking” the business. They like the product and they express this by “liking” them on Facebook and buying products.

I was surprised to see how the people here understand the Facebook timeline. In my private use of Facebook, friends rarely publish stuff on my timeline; as a whole, we share the understanding that one’s timeline is a private place that should not be used by others unless on specific occasions such as birthdays. Here in Baldoíno leaving messages of all sorts in someone else’s timeline is part of the way Facebook is used and the word “timeline” has become part of the vocabulary people use to talk about social networking online.

The questionnaire ends with two questions about politics and the answers I collected are revealing of the particularities about this place. I think all but one person said she or he had unfriended someone because of political differences. Many said that they have unfriended people because of quarrels motivated by other reasons, but not because of politics. These answers reveal the physical distance that in fact exists between them and local representatives. Politics is a topic not worth quarreling about because there is nothing to gain from it. Government type of politics represent a burden that has to be dealt with every two years during elections and politicians are very present during that time but afterwards they disappear.

Although informants consistently said they didn’t care about politics, most said confidently that social networking sites have made them more politically active. They were very sure about both answers so I started asking what they understood about being politically active. Initially I suspected they meant Facebook allowed them to be more active in their community as they are now able to complain publicly about things they don’t like, but this was not what many were trying to say. By being more active politically they are saying they are better informed about what happens beyond the daily life in their locality. Facebook is a place that disseminates information so they learn about more things that are interesting to them that they don’t get through other media such as the television.

There is a lot more to say about this experience and about how quantitative methods can be a valuable tool to acquire qualitative data, but hopefully the examples offer possibilities for this subject to be discussed further. I am curious to learn how the experience has been for my research colleagues and hope they blog about it here as well.

Between walls: methodology for comparing Chinese and non-Chinese social media

TomMcDonald27 July 2014

Comparing two walls: QZone is often referred to as the 'Chinese Facebook', but there are important differences between the two platforms (Photo: Tom McDonald)

Comparing two walls: QZone is often referred to as the ‘Chinese Facebook’, but there are important differences between the two platforms (Photo: Tom McDonald)

Recently our team has been doing a statistical analysis of  our particpants’ social networking use in our different fieldsites around the world. In the future this data will be one of the key ways we will compare between the fieldsites. For most of the fieldsites, the analysis takes place on Facebook using clever computer programs created by Shriram that helps to automate the data collection and make sure that the same techniques are used between all the fieldsites.

But our two fieldsites in North and South China pose a unique problem in terms of methodology. Facebook is inaccessible here in China, and most people use QQ or WeChat as their main social networking platform. Both these platforms are quite different to Facebook in terms of layout and functionality, and neither of them have proper, full APIs that allow you to run the kind of automated statistical analysis we have been attempting on Facebook. This raises an important methodological question: how is it possible to do a comparison between fieldsites when the thing that you are comparing is not the same?

It’s something I have felt that our team has struggled with throughout this project, and often when we have met as a group to discuss the project and our methodology, QQ seems to get pushed into the background. It often feels like Chinese social networks are this great, dark unknown. For a start, their appearance is incredibly different from Facebook, and the fact that many of them only support Chinese language versions makes them almost impenetrable to people who don’t understand the language. Our group’s internal fieldwork manuals, which contain comprehensive instructions that guide the rest of the team through how to research a particular question, are often reduced down to a single sentence for our China fieldsites: “Tom and Xinyuan will have to use local resources.”

This is not a complaint. Rather, it is a testament to how different Chinese social media is from the rest of the world. Also, it is a challenge to think through the comparisons we are trying to make; what kind of data they will provide us with and, most importantly, what conclusions we hope to make from them.

For example, one of the things we are analysing is who are the people who interact (i.e. like, comment) the most with our friends in the fieldsite on their wall. On Facebook this is simple enough, however on QZone we have to count these interactions manually on a wall-like feature called ‘His/Her Happenings’ (ta de dongtai). This is further complicated by the fact that users very rarely use their real name on their account, with most adopting creative pseudonyms such as ‘Lonely cigarette butt’. Also because people tend to repost many more memes on QZone than on Facebook, the ‘likes’ of friends can sometimes get lost between thousands of other likes, which can make it very confusing to count which of the likes come from a participant’s QQ friends.

I am not suggesting that this makes the data derived from our Chinese and non-Chinese fieldsites incomparable to each other. Rather, it points to the fact that any statistical figures that we come up with need to be treated as just one part of the puzzle, and that the very process of trying to produce such statistics highlights the important material differences between the platforms, which are begging to be documented and explained. Such accounts will help to make Chinese social media a little less of a ‘dark unknown’, and will tell us quite a lot about Chinese culture and life in the process.

Furthermore, these differences highlights the danger of simply looking at statistical data, and assuming it demonstrates an ‘absolute truth’. Reality is often more complicated that a simple percentage. Any statistical comparison needs to be tempered with the qualitative data we have been gathering through interviews and participant observation in each of our fieldsites that help to understand how social media is embedded into people’s lives.

Comparison is never simple or easy, especially so with a large global project like this. But I feel certain that the challenges such comparisons involve, and the opportunities they present for cultural understanding make it all the more important to try.

It’s OK to send my boss a WhatsApp message!

ShriramVenkatraman25 July 2014

Image Courtesy Bhupinder Nayyar (Creative Commons)

Image Courtesy Bhupinder Nayyar (Creative Commons)

Mahesh, 28, an ITES (Information Technology Enabled Services) professional met with me for lunch in one of Chennai’s well-known vegetarian restaurants. He works three days a week from his company’s branch office located in the Indian field site – Panchagrami – and two days from the company’s Chennai office located close to this restaurant.

Over special vegetarian Thali meals, we discussed his life, his ambitions, his family, his presence on social media etc. When I called him up to schedule an interview, he arranged for us to meet for lunch before his work shift that started at 2 PM. Though we met at around 12:30 PM, he seemed pretty relaxed and unrushed and the lunch interview kept going until around 1:45 PM, when he excused himself to let his boss know that he would be running late for work by approximately 30 minutes. He got his smart phone, a Samsung Galaxy out of his pocket and typed something into it and sent out a communication in less than 20 seconds. I was pretty surprised because, it normally takes at least a minute for an official communication to be typed and sent over an official email server with all the salutations normally required in an official communication. So, wondering if he had already typed an email to his boss, I asked him what he let his boss know, to which he replied that he just sent a WhatsApp message to his boss letting him know that he was delayed over a meeting and would report in shortly. This triggered a conversation that was extremely informative. I asked him why he didn’t email his boss and why did he choose to operate and communicate over WhatsApp.

Soon, it became extremely clear that WhatsApp was fine enough for communicating mundane official matters such as informing that one was running late to the office or to a meeting or to meet at lunch etc. and that it was replacing what Short Messaging Service (SMS) did originally. However, important official communication always happened through official email. But, communicating to one’s immediate boss on mundane official matters now moved from text messages to WhatsApp messages. So, why did this happen? Because everyone is now on WhatsApp, almost all have a smart phone connected to the internet with WhatsApp as an application, which people would keep checking on a constant basis compared to SMS and WhatsApp is free to use. These factors led to people using WhatsApp messages more often than SMS.

Naturally, the next question was geared towards Facebook (FB). I asked him if his boss was his friend on Facebook and were they on FB messenger on an always signed-in mode. He replied ‘yes’. So, why did he still choose to communicate over WhatsApp rather than Facebook? He considered WhatsApp more official compared to Facebook. It seems like one of his teammates had actually sent a message to his boss over FB and was frowned upon, as somehow FB just didn’t seem official enough and equated everyone to a being just a ‘friend’, thus breaking hierarchies, while hierarchy was still maintained over WhatsApp. So, did people in his team ever communicate with their boss over FB? They did for more for personal communication such as ‘liking’ something, forwarding a moral message, spreading the word about an office party or get together etc. but nothing related to an official one-to-one or one-to-many sort of communication. He made sure to add that he would never communicate to his boss’s boss over WhatsApp, it had to always be over an email. The vertical span of use of media seemed extremely interesting.

I was immediately reminded of the concept of polymedia, termed by Madianou and Miller, 2012 and also on how an important person in a network influences others in the network to choose media through which people communicate to him. In this case, Mahesh had three ways of communicating with his boss – over email, over SMS or over WhatsApp (in this case was influenced by the boss, who was fine with communication over WhatsApp and had added it to the list of official communication tools).

This soon became an important question, and interviews with several other IT/ITES professionals revealed something similar. So, why are certain media perceived to retain hierarchy while others don’t? Stay tuned to find out…

Teens are obsessed about spell checking thanks to Facebook

JulianoAndrade Spyer2 July 2014

Photo by Juliano Spyer

Photo by Juliano Spyer

Schoolteachers and staff in Baldoíno have a common perspective about the impact of social media on education. For them, Facebook and similar services are bad because they make students even less interested in what happens during classes. The argument tends to be that the Internet in general is a good thing, but young people avoid the “good internet” to devote a lot of time to socialization. The typical example of the “good internet” here is Google because it’s where one can learn things. Google fits into the image of a sort of oracle of knowledge that fits well with the idea of what a teacher is while Facebook is the playground and the understanding is that children have nothing good to teach each other.

If you ask a staff member of a school to give an example of the consequences of using the “bad side of the internet”, they may talk about how poorly students are writing because of the lingo they use to communicate through social networking sites. They say that kids are now happy to misspell words because they all like to type in this way. But this is actually very far from what the evidence from fieldwork shows. I am confident to claim that, at least here in my field site, Facebook has made spelling-checks an obsession among younger users and they are constantly improving their writing skills for that reason.

Here is a bit of my own pre-theorizing about the way things work here in terms of social mobility. Displaying economic progress is an important part of life, hence the effort made to show off this progress through actions such as buying branded clothes or a being a strong speaker through which the neighbors can evaluate the technical quality of your investment in education. Teenagers appear to have been given a central role in this arena: they are the main embodiments of display for family wealth and that may be a heavy burden to bear. These kids are intensely comparing what they have to what others around them have to look for signs of  a“lack of conditions”. And a serious indicator of poor economic means shows itself through writing.

I have systematically asked teens about different topics related to technology and almost all of them are highly concerned about not misspelling words on Facebook’s public areas. Some have newer phones that have spellcheckers and these are sought after technologies. Others with less powerful smartphones get into the habit of using Google to check the words they are not sure about. And as a consequence they all claim that their writing skills have improved as they fell more confident about writing.

I like this example because it shows how an assumption about the effects of the Internet may be wrong and yet remain as the truth, at least to a certain group. The perspective of school staff reveals less about what happens in terms of learning and possibly more about another important topic related to the internet here: how it has deepened the generation gap. We are talking about parents that are functionally illiterate in terms of reading, but also in terms of operating a computer. So young people have the whole World Wide Web to live their lives away from the sight of adults.

‘We are more united for the World Cup than for Christmas!’: the World Cup in Italy

RazvanNicolescu27 June 2014

Photograph by Razvan Nicolescu

Photograph by Razvan Nicolescu

To start writing a blog post how people in the Italian fieldsite watch the World Cup and how the competition is reflected on social media, I started off on the streets of Grano looking for a place to watch Italy’s opening game in the competition.

The town seemed to be much less concerned with the game than I expected. I counted just three Italian flags, one adorned by a young tifoso on his balcony and the other two guarding a van that was selling hot-dogs and hot panini near the railway station. The game was scheduled at midnight local time, when basically all cafés and a few bars where the game could have been screened were closed. I think that in the entire town, there were less than half a dozen public places where you could watch the game.

I chose a place where the biggest crowd in the town might have gathered. Most people knew each other quite well, being either family, friends, or neighbours. The audience of around 30 people was split in two. Half were men above forty years old who watched the game sitting in comfortable armchairs in front of the biggest screen in the bar. The other half were much younger and included two women; they were standing around the bar and watched the game on a normal flat screen, which hanged on the wall opposing the big screen. The two groups of people were literally watching the game back-to-back. All throughout the game, some six to eight women were sitting in the inner court of the bar waiting for their partners while a few kids were excitedly running everywhere.

The main explanation for the relatively few public places where the World Cup could be watched is that people really prefer to watch it at home. This has a lot to do with the fact that they always have, and the World Cup doesn’t seem to be the best time to change. Then, there are the credenze (beliefs, superstitions). A good friend of mine in her mid-thirties explained to me that she had to watch Italy’s opening game at her parents’ house because that is where they have been watching the World Cup since 1994. Each of her family members had to occupy more or less the exact places as when Italy played at the previous World Cup. This time, her younger sister had no boyfriend, so she had to call a friend and ask him to come and sit where her boyfriend four years ago used to sit: on the coach between herself and her mother. Despite the late hour of night, my friend’s father did not allow her to go to sleep or to have some fresh air on the balcony from time to time. Finally, she managed to find a moment when she could sneak out and go home straight to bed. When her partner came home after the match asked him in her sleep who had won. She exclaimed in a quite frustrated way that her family is more united during the World Cup than during Christmas. Actually, the World Cup has more to do with the house and family than I would have expected.

In this context, maybe is not unusual that there were so little posts about World Cup on social media among the people I am working with. Even those who are otherwise quite active football supporters did not post much on Facebook. In the first days of the competition when Italy played two games I took a brief look over more than 100 Facebook profiles and I counted only around 20 posts about the World Cup. Almost all were about the Italian national team: half of the posts were uploaded in the actual days of the games and expressed in different ways the famous supporting slogan ‘Forza Azzurri!’ The other half were comments on the games, which varied from enthusiastic ones celebrating the victory against England to rather negative ones after the defeat against Costa Rica. If the first were serious and posted by ‘experts,’ usually men, the second posts were more humorous and provocative, where women were relatively well represented. A female teenager commented that the end-of-school examination in mathematics was as ‘disgusting’ as Italy’s defeat against Costa Rica.

This is the moment I noticed the first posts against Italy’s national team. By the time of the third game where Italy competed, there were already half a dozen people who were either mocking the national team or were supporting their opponents. These people were known among their peers as being in different ways anti-mainstream.

On the day of the decisive game against Uruguay, I counted around 20 supporting phrases, that is around twice more than was in the first two games added together. After Italy lost the game, a small avalanche of posting about the game was uploaded on Facebook. In two days I counted a total of 30 posts related to the game, out of which 21 were status messages, 4 edited photos, 4 not edited photos, and one film – all shared from Internet. The three main themes of these postings were: 9 referring to the moment when the Uruguayan striker Luis Suárez bit one Italian defender, 8 about the game itself and 6 negative comments about the Italian team. ‘The bite’ scene seemed to be more present as 7 of the 9 posts were photos. Even though it looked like people were active about the World Cup in Facebook, the 30 posts were posted by less than twelve people, with three most active, uploading 8, 7, and 4 postings respectively.

Some of the memes circulated on Facebook

Some of the memes circulated on Facebook

I don’t have the scope to discuss it here, but it is interesting to mention that if mainstream media in Italy discussed the relative high impact of the games on social media it was mainly because of how the main commentators tweets* were shared and commented on by the same mainstream media (a technique also used in the case of celebrities and politicians). However, as I wrote in a previous blog post, the penetration of Twitter in Grano is extremely low. This is just an example of the difference between what media claims that ‘happens on social media’ and what actually happens.

At the same time, it seems that not many WhatsApp messages regarding the World Cup were sent as in many cases most of the people such messages would have been sent to, have been watching the game together anyway.

A few questions rise from this short investigation into how the World Cup is represented on social media: how, when and to what extent is the private represented online? What is the relation and why is there such a big difference between mainstream media, which in this case is saturated with World Cup, and the way people use social media? What kind of sociality and individual acting is social media currently constructing?

Note
* The controversial tweet of the Italian striker Mario Balotelli before the game with Costa Rica is a good example for the impact of celebrity tweets on media. According to reports, this allegedly made the Italian manager Cesare Prandelli ask to his players: ‘Less social networking and more goals’.

Interesting statistics on the number of tweets during the game Italy vs. Uruguay can be found on an article in the main Italian sport journal Gazzetta dello Sport (methodology explained in Italian).

THE WORLD CUP ON SOCIAL MEDIA WORLDWIDE
This article is part of a special series of blog posts profiling how social media is affecting how ordinary people from communities across the planet experience the 2014 World Cup.

The prejudice of shallowness

RazvanNicolescu4 April 2014

Photo by Stefanie Maria (Creative Commons)

Photo by Stefanie Maria (Creative Commons)

Isabella has 28 years old and is engaged (fidanzata) for eight years with a man from a nearby town. In this part of Italy these long engagements are quite common. Actually, Isabella has the most recent engagement in her close circle of friends, who are all engaged for 10 or 12 years. The marriage is thought of as something that should be built on solid grounds, typically a stable workplace and a house. Customarily, the man first builds a house, furnishes it at least partially and then the couple organize the wedding ceremony. In the context of difficult economic circumstances and high social uncertainty these conditions for even thinking of a marriage are quite difficult to be attained.

Isabella is happy that she works full-time as a shop assistant and has time to also study for her undergraduate degree. She is proud she will most probably graduate this year. She started to study Letters at the University of Salento eight years ago. All along this time, her fidanzato supported her determination to complete her studies even against the will of her family. However, during this time the couple was not able to save money for the marriage. He always worked on a temporary basis as a builder and her current job as shop assistant is the first stable job any of them ever had. They estimate that the wedding ceremony alone would cost them at least 10,000 EURO. They come from modest families who could not raise even a small part of this sum. The plan is that Isabella should graduate first and then they could start saving money for the wedding. This means the two could get married in at least two or three years.

Until then, and as most of the fidanzati in the town, the two live separately each with their own families. They also work in the same towns where they live. As the two towns are situated about ten miles away one from the other, they currently do not manage to see each other too often during work days – which here are Monday to Saturday. The two compensate this by spendings the weekends together, living alternatively at one of their parents’ house This arrangement also allows them spending more time with their friends.

Isabella’s closest friends are six female ex-colleagues from her secondary school in Grano who happen to be all engaged with six men from the town of her fidanzato. He is actually a cousin of her best colleague from her secondary school class. She remembers that this was her favourite group of friends since she was a teenager. She always enjoyed the fact that they had the same tastes and very similar passions on a gendered basis. I will not detail this here, but is important to mention that the group itself and this shared intimacy within its strict confines is what makes Isabella feel safe and comfortable.

Whatsapp is important in keeping this sense of intimacy. The group of friends use three main Whatsapp groups: ‘the group of girls,’ ‘the group of boys’ and the group for all of them which is also the least used. Girls use their group most intensively by far: they may start the day with a simple buona giornata (‘good morning’), a question, or a video clip. At least two hours until work starts, roughly at 10:00, there is an energetic exchange of messages and updates inside this group. The boys use their group rather irregularly, with typical peaks such as the ones around the dates when Juventus Torino is playing. What is important for this discussion is that Isabella senses that her fidanzamento depends on the unity of the group of her female friends and this unity currently knows a substantive support because of Whatsapp. Isabella sees that many women of her age become less attached to their peers when they start to work or move closer to their marriage, and therefore, she is extremely happy that Whatsapp allows her reinforce what she senses she needs most.

At the same time, these people who could have a noisy aperitivo in large groups of twelve-fifteen people in late summer evenings could easily be accused of a certain shallowness. A typical criticism is that they ‘stay too much on’ their Smartphones when they are supposed to be together. This blog post goes against these prejudices and social condemnations by suggesting a few reasons why these could simply not be true. Beautiful well-dressed women and jovial men could cheerfully manipulate their Smartphones not because they are more distant one from another but because actually they want to be much closer.

Know thy selfie

DanielMiller1 April 2014

Image courtesy of ClaudsClaudio, Creative Commons

Image courtesy of ClaudsClaudio, Creative Commons

As noted by last week’s The Economist it seems that every new cultural development is assumed by both journalists and academics to be a sign of our growing superficiality and especially our narcissism. A primary use of Anthropology has been to bolster the idea that it is `other’ societies that represent authenticity and depth. I have lived in tribal and peasant societies and I do not accept that my fellow Londoners are either more superficial, or more narcissistic, or even that they are more concerned with the public appearance of the person, than would the case for most other societies studied by anthropologists. It is no surprise that the most recent `proof’ of this narcissism is held to be the Selfie, presumed to be a key moment in growing infatuation with our own appearance. But once again I think it is the interpretation of the Selfie, not the Selfie itself, that should be condemned as merely superficial. To equate the Selfie with narcissism is to imply that it is an idealised version of the self, directed at the self. This is surely mistaken.

The Selfie is clearly aimed at others, placed on social media as a form of communication. What is a Selfie without its `likes’? As a school pupil put it:- `But it’s sort of while you are having a conversation, you just send a picture of yourself.’ It is literally a `snap-chat’. More importantly the Selfie is subject to polymedia and cultural variation. With respect to polymedia, the `classic’ young, female, pouting, dressed to party, pose has become strongly associated with Instagram. But there is a whole other genre that is found on the much larger platforms of Snapchat and WhatsApp. For young people in England by far the most common form of Selfie is an image designed to make oneself look as ugly as possible. One common pose is with the camera taking the face from below the chin, right up the nostrils. It is predominantly the same young people who create the Selfie that create this `Uglie’. Many more Uglies are posted that Selfies, but most discussions entirely ignore the more prevalent image. Adults often create a similar dualism, but vicariously. Look at the endless postings of their babies, either highly idealised, or looking as ridiculous as possible. These are not individualistic, rather today they have become highly normative forms. The Uglie relates to English humour and self-deprecation rather than being a universal form and thereby reflect cultural specificity. The single term Selfie also fails to differentiate adult Selfies from teenage usage, the increasingly common group Selfie from the individual. It also ignores the difference between all of these and what might be termed the `meta-Selfie’ where the image is of a person taking a Selfie through the mirror. These are often taken simply because they are a more effective way of showing the whole outfit that an individual is wearing. But at least in the English context they can also become a visual comment, ironic or otherwise, on the taking of the Selfie.

There are even more reasons for taking Selfies than there are genres, and of course, a Selfie can be superficial. I don’t especially admit a tradition in cultural studies that enjoys taking something denigrated as superficial and then making some pretentious claim for its deep significance. But a recent encounter with a Selfie helped me appreciate that the Selfie certainly has that capacity for depth and profundity. This Selfie is the cover photo for the Facebook profile of someone I interviewed as part of my hospice research. One of the main reasons that people dying of cancer retreat into isolation is that they don’t want others to see the devastation to their own appearance that often comes with chemotherapy, if not from the cancer itself.

The physical disfigurement is itself debilitating. This forty-two year old even kept his girlfriend away during chemotherapy which had been particularly gruelling and destructive in his case. After the chemotherapy ended he began to put back on some weight. He once again started to look like himself. After six weeks he decided to take precisely that kind of Selfie that is posed in front of the mirror. The stance and facial expression are clearly assertive. As he makes clear he first had to acknowledge to himself that he could once again become a decent human being and only then could he communicate this to others. The distance between knowing something as an external fact and internalising it as an acknowledged truth is circumvented because this particular kind of Selfie can operate on both of these modalities simultaneously. Prior to the existence of this form of Selfie it is unlikely that there is anything he could have done that could so succinctly have communicated to others that he had acknowledged the change in himself to himself.

In this instance I found myself drawn back to the writings of Sartre whose work on existentialism directly equated issues of self-expression to the freedom to choose the nature and manner of our death. More generally the Selfie seems to fit arguments made by the sociologist Anthony Giddens about self-identity. It is not that we are more obsessed by our public appearance. Compared to say the characters in the world’s first novel from the 11th are almost relaxed. As argued in my and Jolynna’s recent book Webcam, what has perhaps changed is our self-consciousness about this concern with appearance, and therefore the need to not only cultivate our looks, but to simultaneously comment upon that act of cultivation, that suggests we know what we are doing. In England this is ideally done with irony and the Selfie only makes sense when we also include the Uglie in our analysis. But the Selfie can be also a serious and evidently in some cases literally a life-affirming use of a new visual genre that exploits it’s very specific form of self-revelation.

Conosco il tuo selfie

DanielMiller1 April 2014

Tradotto da Inglese da Bianca Barone

Per gentile concessione di ClaudsClaudio (Creative Commons)

Per gentile concessione di ClaudsClaudio (Creative Commons)

Come notato la settimana scorsa dal The Economist, sembra che ogni nuovo sviluppo culturale venga assunto da giornalisti e accademici come un segno della nostra crescita superficiale e soprattutto del nostro narcisismo. Un utilizzo primario dell’Antropologia è stato quello di sostenere l’idea che si tratta di “altre” società che rappresentano la propria autenticità e spessore. Ho vissuto in società tribali e contadine e non accetto che i miei colleghi londinesi sono o più superficiali o più narcisisti, o addirittura che sono più interessati all’apparenza, di quanto non accada per la maggior parte delle altre società studiate dagli antropologi. Non è una sorpresa che la più recente ` prova ‘ di questo narcisismo sia il Selfie, che si presume essere un momento chiave nella crescente infatuazione con il nostro stesso aspetto. Ma ancora una volta penso che sia l’interpretazione del Selfie, non il Selfie in se, che deve essere condannato come meramente superficiale. Equiparare il Selfie al narcisismo implica che sia una versione idealizzata di sé stessi, diretta al sé. Questo è sicuramente sbagliato.

Il Selfie è chiaramente rivolto verso gli altri, posizionato sui social media come forma di comunicazione. Che cosa è un Selfie senza i suoi “mi piace”? Così come un alunno lo vede: – ` Ma è come se nel mentre si sta avendo una conversazione, si invia una foto di se stessi’. E’ letteralmente una ` snap-chat ‘. Ancora più importante è che il Selfie è soggetto ad una polivalenza mediatica (polymedia) e a variazioni culturali. Per quanto riguarda la “polimedialità” (polymedia), la ` classica ‘ posa da giovane donna, imbronciata, vestita a festa è fortemente associata con Instagram. Ma c’è tutto un altro genere che si trova sule piattaforme molto più grandi di Snapchat e WhatsApp. Per i giovani in Inghilterra la Selfie più comune serve a mostrarsi quanto più brutti possibile. Una posa comune è quella di inquadrare il viso con la telecamera da sotto il mento, inquadrando le narici. Chi prevalentemente crea il Selfie è lo stesso numero di giovani che crea questi “Uglie” (mostri). Sono pubblicati molti più “Uglie” che Selfie, ma la maggior parte delle discussioni ignora del tutto l’immagine più diffusa. Gli adulti spesso creano un dualismo simile, ma per interposta persona. Se si guarda alle infinite pubblicazioni dei loro bambini, o sono molto idealizzate, o in cerca del ridicolo. Queste pubblicazioni non sono individualiste, ma anzi oggi sono diventate forme sociali altamente utilizzate come standard. L’Uglie è correlato all’umorismo inglese e all’auto-disapprovazione piuttosto che essere una forma universale, riflette in tal modo la specificità culturale. Il singolo termine Selfie inoltre non riesce a differenziare il Selfie degli adulti dall’uso adolescenziale, il gruppo più comune e in crescita del Selfie individuale. Esso inoltre ignora la loro differenza e ciò che potrebbe significare la parola “Meta-Selfie”, cioè l’immagine di una persona che fotografa se stessa nello specchio. Questi scatti sono spesso semplicemente fatti perché sono un modo più efficace di mostrare il vestito che uno indossa. Ma nel contesto inglese ciò può diventare anche un commento visivo, ironico o meno, sulla cattura del Selfie.

Ci sono ancora più motivi per scattare una Selfie di quanti generi ci siano, e, naturalmente , un Selfie può essere superficiale.  Io non ammetto soprattutto una tradizione in studi culturali che si diverte a prendere qualcosa che viene denigrata come superficiale per poi fare una rivendicazione pretenziosa del suo profondo significato. Ma un recente incontro con un Selfie mi ha aiutato a capire che il Selfie ha certamente una capacità di spessore e profondità. Il Selfie cui mi riferisco è la foto di copertina per il profilo Facebook di qualcuno che ho intervistato durante la mia ricerca nel Centro di Cure Palliative. Uno dei motivi principali che le persone che muoiono di cancro si ritirano in isolamento è che non vogliono far vedere agli altri la devastazione del proprio aspetto causata spesso dalla chemioterapia, se non dal cancro stesso.

La deturpazione fisica è di per sé debilitante. Questo 42enne ha anche tenuto la sua fidanzata lontana durante la chemioterapia, che è stata particolarmente faticosa e distruttiva nel suo caso. Dopo che la chemioterapia si è conclusa, cominciò a rimettere su qualche chilo. Ha cominciato a riconoscersi. Dopo sei settimane ha deciso di fare quella sorta di Selfie che si scatta di fronte allo specchio. La posizione e l’espressione del viso è chiaramente assertiva. Come ha lui stesso sottolineato, ha dovuto prima riconoscere a se stesso che poteva ancora una volta essere un uomo presentabile e solo dopo ha potuto comunicarlo agli altri. La distanza tra il sapere qualcosa come un fatto esterno e la sua interiorizzazione come una verità riconosciuta viene aggirata perché questo particolare tipo di Selfie può operare su entrambe le modalità contemporaneamente. Prima dell’esistenza di questa forma di Selfie è improbabile che ci fosse qualcosa che avrebbe potuto fare per comunicare in una maniera così diretta agli altri che lui avesse riconosciuto il cambiamento di se stesso a se stesso.

In questo caso mi sono ritrovato a guardare agli scritti di Sartre e al suo lavoro rispetto l’esistenzialismo direttamente equiparato a questioni sull’auto-espressione e la libertà di scegliere la natura e le modalità della nostra morte. Più in generale il Selfie sembra adattarsi alle argomentazioni formulate dal sociologo Anthony Giddens sull’auto-identità – noi non siamo più ossessionati dall’apparenza in pubblico –  rispetto a dire che i personaggi nel mondo del primo romanzo dall’undicesimo sono quasi più rilassati. Come sostenuto da me e Jolynna nel nostro recente libro Webcam, ciò che forse è cambiato è la nostra auto-coscienza rispetto al problema dell’apparenza, e quindi la necessità di coltivare non solo il nostro aspetto, ma anche di commentare contemporaneamente su quell’atto stesso di coltivare noi stessi, che sappiamo può suggerire che sappiamo quello che stiamo facendo. In Inghilterra questo è fatto idealmente con ironia e il Selfie ha senso sono quando includiamo l’Uglie nella nostra analisi.

Ma il Selfie può anche avere un utilizzo serio e in alcuni casi letteralmente suggerisce l’affermazione nella propria vita di un nuovo genere visivo che sfrutta la sua forma molto particolare di auto-rivelazione.