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How Tweets and Status Updates may be more than “Pointless Babble”

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Gamelan music associated with the high Javanese culture of Yogyakarta’s sultan’s palace, or Kraton

Since the Arab Spring, a growing concern of journalism and social science has been to document and understand the role of social media in fomenting or supporting political protests, demonstrations, and uprisings. Twitter and Facebook, finding momentary reprieve from growing criticism about the banality of incessant content generation and questionable privacy policies, were praised by some for offering digital workarounds for oppressive political regimes. These sentiments quickly tempered, but have left us with a growing recognition that social media are not just platforms for “pointless babble,” but also play a role in things that really matter.

My anthropological field-site in Indonesia is slowly revealing that the apparent pointlessness  of some online interactions carry just as much political significance as the more visible forms of resistance. In an effort to contribute to an understanding of what John Postill has called “banal activism” in contrast to more media-gripping forms of “serious cyberactivism” (2008:419), I have begun to document some of the ways in which the “seemingly mundane” relates to issues of social importance.

One of the most gripping examples of this dynamic in Kampoeng Cyber, where I have spent the last eight months, is the way in which the use of language on Facebook seems to connect to issues of economic and cultural marginality.  In this neighbourhood, the vast majority of daily conversations take place in ngoko, the most commonly used register of the Javanese language. This is significant because the four different levels of the Javanese language are used in accordance with the relative status of the speaker in relation to the listener. A young person speaking ngoko to an elder, for instance, would almost certainly insult the latter and perhaps strain the relationship. That is if, of course, everyone is able to speak and to understand the higher registers of the language, which include Krama and Krama Inggil (used among the inner circles of the sultan’s palace).

It turns out that a generational gap in the transmission of Javanese language has left many people below the age of forty or fifty with little to no working knowledge of the higher, or more “polite” registers of the language. As a result, and partly due to a familial or neighbourly sense of closeness, many conversations in Kampoeng Cyber skip the status rule and rely mostly on plain, and sometimes crass, ngoko.

This is also true for Facebook conversations between residents of Kampoeng Cyber. While many status updates inching their way down the newsfeed page appear in the status neutral national language, Bahasa Indonesia, perhaps in respect to ‘friends’ who don’t speak Javanese, comments to those statuses almost invariably show up in a mix of ngoko and Bahasa Indonesia. And this, often regardless of age (although direct conversations often take place between peers).

This transfer of speech patterns to Facebook seems to be related to the larger issue of encouraging a sense of pride and community in a neighbourhood physically located within the boundaries of the Yogyakarta Kraton (or sultan’s palace), yet economically and culturally lower class. Kampoeng Cyber members have often mentioned to me the importance of the feeling of “togetherness” (kebersamaan, I.) and “unity” (kasatuan, I.), and have attributed their tendency to speak to each other in ngoko as a sign of how close they are to each other, despite age differences.

This sense of unity, however real or fictitious (to be discussed in future posts), has helped to foment a community effort to challenge their position of precariousness relative to a number of factors. While the Kraton, or sultan’s palace, touts high Javanese culture as the “true” Java, Kampoeng Cyber members take pride in their humble roots. While the Kraton reserves the land rights to Kampoeng Cyber and has threatened for a generation to evict its residents to restore the grounds to their former splendour, some community members are intentionally harvesting the cultural capital of the lower class to leverage against claims that kampung (hamlet) dwellers have nothing to offer the tourist industry. One informant has told me, for example, that he wishes to restore the local home-based batik industry to its former strength in order to show the Kraton (in other words “the man”) that even the wong cilik (literally “little people,” J.) have something to offer. Social media content, including Tweets and Facebook posts, that show off and even exaggerate a sense of humble unity (whether consciously or unconsciously) may therefore serve the interests of a group struggling against its own marginality.

The incessant joking and teasing comments that accompany even the most cryptic and sometimes serious status updates, therefore, have begun to reveal some of the ways in which the mundane nature of Facebook interactions can relate to broader issues of political interest, even without the grandiosity of protests.

By Jessika Tremblay

References

Postill, John

2008 Localizing the internet beyond communities and networks.

New Media & Society

10(3):413-431.


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