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A good amount of news coverage and scholarship about the role of social media in political movements has been trending for some time. Most recently, news articles and blogs have documented how the use of social media like Twitter helped fuel and organize the protests in Ukraine, which ultimately led to the expulsion of its president, and the escalating crisis in Crimea. Just a few weeks ago I attended an academic conference investigating the relationship between the ‘cyber’ and the ‘urban,’ especially in the context of social or political movements. But my own research has forced me to beg the question: what about the anti-politics of social media?
For those of you who have been following my blog, you will already know that I have spent the last several months conducting an in-depth anthropological study of a self-proclaimed “internet community” in Indonesia. This tight-knit urban neighbourhood of roughly 25 houses has dedicated the last six years to improving the quality of socioeconomic life by disseminating access to the internet. But while the community has banded together for the explicit purpose of using technology to promote self-sufficiency based on social values, there is no indication that this translates to political action via the internet.
There seems to be a kind of paradox emerging in the neighbourhood, known to locals as Kampoeng Cyber. Even as the access to their internet was made possible by the political wile of their elected leader, it appears that most residents are almost systematically averse to expressing political views via social media. By contrast to more widespread “movements” that have built their momentum on the astute use of such technologies, many of these residents will have nothing to do with politics, a word that sometimes even makes them cringe.
One informant, for instance, claimed that he intentionally deleted three of his Facebook friends after he realized that too much of the content they posted was political in nature, encouraging heated discussions that completely put him off. Annoyed that these posts were intruding on one of his favourite forms of entertainment, he opted to remove the irksome perpetrators to restore the balance on his newsfeed. Now he could return to enjoying the silly or funny (konyol) posts that he regularly logged on to read.
In fact, it appears that many of the posts that might be interpreted as political in nature are often presented in comedic light. The only time I saw a photo of Vladimir Putin, the President of Russia, posted to Facebook was from someone asking, in the style of an inside joke, who among his friends was his doppelganger. Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) has appeared once or twice on my newsfeed as a humorous internet meme, along with the once notorious, and now nostalgic image of the former President Suharto. But beyond eliciting a few comic remarks in the comments section of the post, these political images usually quickly get lost in the sea of posts that come after.
One of the standard questions I ask during interviews about social media use patterns is whether they like to post or read ‘political’ content on their favorite social networking sites (usually after a brief discussion eliciting what politics means to them). Most of the responses I have received so far have been negative, yet more detailed explanations of why that is so are difficult to come by. Many simply shrug their shoulders and reiterate their dislike for politics, noting corruption as a major reason for which they find the subject not only tedious, but fruitless.
One Facebook user has gone so far as to describe her political views on the “about” section of her page as “bah, politics just gives you a headache/makes you dizzy” (lha POLITIK Kui Nggawe MUZZMET… ). Another explained in more detail that she felt there might be a general fear, or uneasiness, about posting political opinions on news links, for example, because there have been cases where commentators have been singled out by the government and punished for their opinions. Although I cannot verify these cases, her comments speak to a possibility that the legacy of Suharto’s autocratic rule might still be affecting a sense of free political expression in Indonesia.
It would, of course, be unfair to claim that there is no political expression on social media beyond spreading jokes. There have been a few cases where users have claimed to make it their aim to use such media as a way to express their political beliefs, such as social and gender equality, while others who live outside of Kampoeng Cyber have regularly posted political views or news articles, though these have tended to be the most highly educated among my informants. As I continue my study I hope to add cases and nuance to what I have observed so far.
Yet what I find most puzzling and intriguing about the apparent tension between politically motivated internet-access programs and the lack of political expression via social media, is that it doesn’t seem to be isolated to Kampoeng Cyber. While the community I have chosen as my field site is the first to have dubbed itself a “cyber village” in the area, it is not the only one. Last week five representatives from a large neighbourhood in Solo, Yogyakarta’s sister city located two hours away, visited the leader of Kampoeng Cyber for advice on how to improve their own “Internet Community.” This neighbourhood, consisting of about 30 internet connected houses (though in a larger population), has obtained funds from the city government to promote social cohesion through connectivity. Like Kampoeng Cyber, they have been operating since 2008, yet have independently established similar goals. In the meantime, another neighbourhood in Yogyakarta that now goes by the name of “Suronatan Digital Village” has set up cheap neighbourhood-wide WiFi access only a stone’s throw from my field site, a government initiative meant to encourage education and economic development.
As I move forward with my research, I will be looking systematically at the objectives and manifestations of these different internet communities to gain a better understanding of how the explicitly political goals of producing economically independent, socially-based moral communities results in the production of anti-politics in social media.
I came to realize today, that the applicability of the term “ethnography” or “netnography” to my own research is somewhat limited. A comical but unsettling story that happened today demonstrated the limits of treating social media like Facebook as social “worlds” to be investigated holistically. It became clear to me that applying ethnography to virtual worlds like Second Life or World of Warcraft (Boellstorff 2008, Nardi 2010) is different from integrating virtuality into ethnography.
Before breakfast today, as on most days, I stopped by the house of a friend and informant, Patricia,* for a chat. After some small talk, Patricia launched into a brief tirade about how rumours, misconstrued as truth, can sometimes lead to uncomfortable situations. An hour or two before my arrival, she said, friends and neighbours started to show up unannounced at her neighbour, Dwi’s, house, which opens into and is shared with her own home. They seemed shocked and confused that the place was so empty, asking Patricia why no one had yet arrived. Having not been informed of any events happening today, Patricia returned the question to them.
“We’re here for the funeral” they said, matter-of-factly.
“Who’s funeral?” asked Patricia, concerned.
“Dwi’s,* of course” they replied.
Incredulous, Patricia exclaimed “What do you mean, Dwi? She’s not dead, she’s doing laundry in the back! See for yourselves.”
The guests were taken to the back where Dwi, alive and well, was indeed washing clothes. Brushing it off as though it were a common occurrence, Dwi simply went back to washing after the situation was cleared up.
Confused about how something so untoward could happen, and how Dwi could be so nonchalant about it, I asked Patricia how they could have been so misinformed. She speculated that someone in the neighbourhood might have jokingly told someone that she had passed away, and taking the news seriously, that person might have begun to spread the false report.
I asked if this was something that happened often, and though Patricia denied it, she added that a few years ago, a similar thing happened. Someone had made the claim that Dwi had been hit by a car, and her leg being badly injured, was taken to hospital, to later recover at home. People started to show up at her home to offer fruit baskets and sympathies (the correct thing to do in this context), only to find Dwi in perfect health.
When I asked Patricia how news could spread so quickly, she explained offhandedly that people just “talk.” This implied that one person tells another and the news spreads mouth to mouth, often with people just chatting as they meet people along the street. In other cases where residents have actually passed away, I have heard that information is commonly disseminated through the Mosque’s loudspeakers, by pinning messages to community bulletin boards, and increasingly through text messaging and social media. I have personally seen death announcements posted to the Kampoeng Cyber Facebook page, offering the time and place of the wake and burial, along with condolences, but this is usually several hours after most people in the community have been informed, and preparations are already underway (funerals always happen at home).
This story, which involves different methods and different media for spreading information, whether true or false, made me reflect upon the ways in which such media need to be incorporated into a study about a “cyber village” like Kampoeng Cyber. Unlike studies of “virtual worlds” like Second Life and World of Warcraft, where the medium can be equated with the field of study, my own research requires that I treat social media like Facebook as one of many forms of media used for sociality and communication. In cases of death announcements for instance, we see the use of speech, text messaging, and Facebook to disseminate information, but the death itself did not take place in any of these media, as it could have in either Second Life or World of Warcraft.
The implications for methodology are that, as Tom Boellstorff, Bonnie Nardi, Celia Pearce, and T.L. Taylor have asserted in their book “Ethnography and Virtual Worlds: A Handbook of Method,” social networking sites like Facebook must be treated as “networked environments” rather than virtual worlds (2012:7). This means that rather than applying ethnography to the study of social media, I need to be looking for which tools within ethnography’s “palette of methods” (Boellstorff et. al: 2012:15) work for understanding how such media fit within my informants lives. While I can indeed conduct interviews through Facebook, and actively participate in online discussions while observing them, it is important to make the distinction that I am not conducting an ethnography of Facebook, but instead an ethnography that includes Facebook as an object of study.
*All names have been changed to protect the privacy of informants.
By Jessika Tremblay
Boellstorff, Tom, Bonnie Nardi, Celia Pearce, and T.L. Taylor
2012 Ethnography and Virtual Worlds: A Handbook of Method. Princeton: Princeton University
Many of you can relate to the irksome experience of scanning through Facebook status updates and landing on one that is so cryptic that it becomes undecipherable: “I can’t believe that just happened!” or “Just made a huge mistake, what now?” The number of blog posts dedicated to listing the insufferable act of “vaguebooking” as one of the top 10 most annoying Facebook habits attests to that. Often decried as being an immature and thinly veiled attempt by teenaged girls to garner attention from their peers, the trend has mostly been dismissed as unnecessary and vain. Yet to people who do not live in the world of “networked individualism” (Rainie and Wellman 2012), where the “loose” and “fragmented” nature of their social networks seem to somewhat limit the impact of social media posts, the practice has a more concrete role.
In urban neighbourhoods like Kampoeng Cyber, where close-knit social networks based on family and neighbourship thrive alongside the global relaxing of group ties in favour of flexible networks, social media content becomes the subject of conversation. For Javanese people living in kampung, or densely populated urban communities that ideally (though not necessarily) value closeness and sociability, status updates become embedded in a broader communicative system that incorporates various media. Thus, rather than being isolated as a case of poor use of one particular medium, Facebook, the social value of vague status updates may better be located in the totality of communicative options available to the poster (see Miller and Madianou on polymedia).
The best way of illustrating this, from my experience so far, is by looking at gossip. The word gossip usually evokes the image of shifty-eyed interlocutors (usually women) leaning in for whispers and quieting down at the approach of the victim of their dubious tales. While usually garnering a negative connotation for causing social rifts and ruining reputations, scholars have also attributed it to promoting social cohesion (by finding a scapegoat), and serving individual interests (Besnier 2009). From this view, the political side of gossip allows poor, marginalized, or otherwise disadvantaged people the opportunity to discretely voice concerns and affect social outcomes, sometimes to their own benefit, without fear of direct conflict.
My own experience as a foreign woman entering a somewhat conservative neighbourhood has involved a failure of impression management, resulting in becoming the object of gossip. Despite what I would interpret to be excessive efforts of discretion and politeness, many of my actions (speaking to men, commenting on male friends’ statuses, or briefly leaving the country) have been interpreted as unseemly for a woman, and have relegated me to a position of cautionary acceptance among a few people in the neighbourhood.
The gossip that has fueled this precarious position has made use of various media for its dissemination, including face-to-face conversation and Facebook. While women have at times made indirect comments to me insinuating, falsely, that I had “many boyfriends”, other informants have told me that they had received private Facebook messages lying to them about how I had been text messaging with certain men (an almost sure sign of flirtation if with someone of the opposite gender).
But the most telling expansion of gossip through Facebook came through a status update of someone who hinted, but didn’t explicitly state, that people who went out on Saturday evenings (which I often do, in search for food) were probably engaging in more naughty activities. The status update, to my dismay, was almost immediately deleted so that it couldn’t be analyzed in more detail. But it revealed something about how gossip is filtered indirectly by innuendo through various media, not just whispers and winks.
For example, in another instance, one informant became irritated when they heard through the grapevine that certain members of the community had been gossiping about them. Instead of addressing the situation directly and risking conflict, they posted a vague status update deploring the practice of talking behind other people’s backs as a waste of time, and an indication that those who engage in it have nothing better to do. No names or context were mentioned. I was surprised to learn that this almost immediately yielded a face-to-face apology from one of the perpetrators, who became aware of the unpleasant effects of gossip on its targets. This is something that seems to contrast with the notion of the anonymous urbanite whose diffused social networks don’t engender the kind of dense, constant, and close interaction found in Kampoeng Cyber, where status updates enter into the broader repertoire of communicative practices.
Watching the politics of gossip unfold in this neighbourhood has allowed me to see how the “encryption” of status updates plays into a social system that privileges social inclusion as a main conduit of access to information. The status updates don’t bring any new information to the fore, but bring those who are already in-the-know closer together, and further alienates those who are not. In other words, if you don’t understand my status update, you probably aren’t close enough to me socially to have already been privy to the context necessary for its decoding. Even worse, if you’re too far out of too many circles, your marginalization makes you an easy target for gossip.
And this, methodologically, is one of the greatest challenges for a budding anthropologist trying to decipher the fast moving conveyor belt of status updates that grace Facebook daily. While gaining trust has been tenuous at best, at worst, it has forced me to learn and to write about gossip from the target’s perspective.
By Jessika Tremblay
2009 Gossip and the Everyday Production ofPpolitics. University of Hawaii Press.
Rainiee, Lee, and Barry Wellman
2012 Networked: The New Social Operating System. Cambridge: MIT Press.
In September 2013 I began systematically collecting data on a small urban neighbourhood in one of Indonesia’s “cultural hubs” – the royal city of Yogyakarta in central Java. This is part of a year and a half of anthropological fieldwork meant to unveil the ways in which ordinary Javanese folk make use of the Internet to overcome their economic and cultural marginalization. It is also a project that aims to contribute to the fledgling field of anthropological research on the place of the Internet and new social media in localized (Postill 2008) forms of sociality.
Inconspicuously wedged between the narrow alleyways, known as mouse paths (jalan tikus, I.) of a densely populated upper-lower class neighbourhood in Yogyakarta, Kampoeng Cyber (Cyber Village, I.) is an unusually appropriate place to explore the role of technology in the lives of Javanese Indonesians. This neighbourhood of about 125 individuals claims the title as one of Indonesia’s first Internet-saturated communities. Unlike most Indonesians, the majority of Kampoeng Cyber households benefit from inexpensive, high-speed cable Internet made possible by a community-based network sharing system. By sharing the infrastructure required to connect homes, community members have managed to reduce the cost of access to an affordable 4USD per month, a significant reduction for people who mostly make a living from modest home industries.
In an effort to market the neighbourhood as unique and different from adjacent communities that attract tourist traffic with their own gimmicks, Kampoeng Cyber has evolved into a brand. As part of this effort, the elected community leader frequently hosts free public PowerPoint presentations about the community’s successful use of the Internet to improve their livelihoods. Murals have been painted around the neighbourhood to showcase the harmony of traditional Javanese values and modern capabilities of social networking and search engines. Journalists and academics regularly visit the site to inquire about the secrets of a humble community that has risen to local fame for its unusual appreciation of the potentials of modern technology.
By living full time in this neighbourhood for an extended period of time, I hope to investigate in some depth the stakes involved in Kampoeng Cyber members portraying themselves as harbingers of technological salvation in an otherwise “primitive” place, as one of my informants put it today. This blog will document some of my experiences, struggles, and lessons in applying a blended methodology of ethnography, the long-term immersion of the anthropologist in an alternate setting, along with what Robert Kozinets (2010) has called netnography, which involves a similar process of observation and participation in “online” interactions.
These experiences will reflect preliminary findings, which may later be subject to adjustment or change based on new information. They will also foreground personal experiences, questions, and ideas that I expect will be of some help to producing a dissertation and publications in the future, and which in the meantime I hope will fuel discussions and debate about the emerging and established fields of digital anthropology, urban anthropology, and anthropology of media.
by: Jessika Tremblay
Kozinets, Robert V.
2010 Netnography: Doing Ethnographic Research Online. London: Sage
2008 Localizing the internet beyond communities and networks. New
Media & Society 10(3):413-431.