On Wednesday (11 May 2016) I went to a lecture organised by the RMIT Centre for Digital Ethnography with Prof. Danny Miller talking about an ERC-funded project investigating the reasons we engage with social media*. I expected nothing less of Anthropologists, but it was still such a relief to listen about good, rigorous, and intellectually exciting ethnographic scholarship on social media and digital engagement.

*Hint: they are varied, culturally-inflected, and always changing. 

‘Why we Post’ is a global anthropological research project on the uses and consequences of social media.  The European Council for Research-funded initiative involved a team of 9 anthropologists who spent 15 months living in 8 countries in communities such as:

  1. two English villages with a largely homogenous population
  2. a factory town and a rural town in China
  3. a community on the Turkish-Syrian border
  4. an IT complex set in villages within south India
  5. a low income settlement in Brazil
  6. a politically marginalised port city in Chile
  7. a small town in  Italy with high levels of unemployment
  8. a semi-urban town in one of Trinidad’s least-developed regions

The project has resulted in 11 Open Access books, a website, a fantastic blog with lots of case studies, and an e-learning course offered via FutureLearn.

The project is also on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube.

Here are some of my takeaways from the talk:

 

POLYMEDIA

Cost used to be the main consideration in choosing a media platform; this is now not the case and users these days ‘flip’ across platforms. Platforms can only be understood in relation to each other. “People use social media wantonly — they flip from platform to platform irrespective of temporality, affordances, restrictions.”

SCALABLE SOCIALITY

Scalable Sociality is one of the  ‘discoveries‘ of this project. Here’s an excerpt from the official definition

We have concluded that the key to understanding (the question of how people socialise on social media) is through what we will call‘scalable sociality.’ Prior to social media, we mainly had private and public media.

Social networking sites started with platforms such as Friendster, QZone and then Facebookas a kind of broadcasting to a defined group rather than to the general public, in a sense scaling downwards from public broadcast.

By contrast some of the recent social media such as WhatsApp and WeChat are taking private communications such as telephones and messaging services that were mainly one-to-one and scaling upwards. Often these now also form groups, though generally smaller ones. Also these are generally not a single person’s network. All members of the group can post equally to all the others.

If we imagine two parameters – one consisting of the scale from private to public and the other from the smallest group of two up to the biggest group of public broadcast – then as new platforms are continually being invented they encourage the filling of niches and gaps along these two scales. As a result, we can now have greater choice over the degree of privacy or size of group we may wish to communicate with or interact with. This is what we mean by scalable sociality.

However this is just an abstract possibility. What people actually do is always a result of local norms and factors. In each society where we conducted fieldwork, we saw entirely different configurations of these scales as suits that area.

Danny shared a particularly fascinating anecdote which highlighted how easy it is to  assume a universality of experience on  certain issues. In this case, the issue of privacy. Discourses in Western cultures tend to cluster around concerns regarding the intrusive nature of social media, and a resultant loss of privacy, for example, the accidental oversharing of information on platforms such as Facebook.

However, in the example Danny recounted, social media use had quite the opposite effect. 17-year Cici works in a factory in South China and shares a dormitory room with three other roommates. Cici first heard of the word ‘privacy’ on a TV soap opera but her first experience of it only came about when she decided to message her boyfriend on QQ, a popular chat platform in China, instead of speaking to him–something I’d imagine would be quite difficult in a room of 4 people speaking at the same time.

AlexiaMaddoxtweetPrivacy

 https://twitter.com/alexiamadd/status/730288733262516224
Another example of scalable sociality in a cultural context is what Miller calls ‘The English Goldilocks’
“The English use scalable sociality to make sure that their relationships are neither too hot nor too cold. They like their relationships best when they are sort of grey, like the weather.” to keep people at a social distance, i.e. they use social media to make sure their
The concept of scalable sociality also relates to degrees of privacy and the size of the group, for example in Miller’s study of 11-18 year olds in a school in a UK , students shared ‘ugly snapchat selfies‘ amongst close friends or on a one-to-one basis as a mechanism for creating trust and bonding. Twitter was the next scale up where they socialised amongst friends angled their address and photos to suit a larger audience. Instagram is located at the total opposite end of Snapchat. Where Snapchat selfies are private, intimate, and ‘ugly’, Instagram photos are picture perfect and is a platform where engagement with strangers is desired and routine.

This reminded me of a meme that was recently shared on my Facebook feed:

PolemdiaplatformDogs

 

Speaking of MEMES…

Memes are apparently the moral police of the internet. They they tend to be shared as moral commentaries, for example, to disparage a certain political view the poster doesn’t agree with. Meme posters tend to be relatively shy people who don’t usually like explicating their values in long, comprehensive posts and so they share memes instead.
“Memes tell you who you should be and who you shouldn’t be”, therefore they are “one of the normative gestures of the internet”.
Of course as with everything else, memes, and their meanings, circulate differently in different cultural contexts. For example the South Indians send religious memes to their friends throughout the day to enhance their karma.

Some further points

  • Social media has made communication more visual (but I note that Facebook for example hasn’t been inclusive of of blindness until very recently).
  • Twitter is where one performs one’s clever and funny persona, Instagram is the platform where one shows off “a different kind of Bordieurian aesthetic — a sense of careful crafting…”
  • Interesting photo generalisations: men in England usually associate themselves with beer; women with wine;
  • Public-facing social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter etc. only account for a component of the totality of social media. Social media also includes hidden conversations on Facebook, Whatsapp, etc.
  • Social media is not a representation of everyday life. It is a far more conservative rendition of life than offline life is.
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