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Networked Community: the Old Social Operating System?

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The tightly packed homes of Kampoeng Cyber, an urban community in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, seen from above.

When I woke up yesterday I didn’t realize that pastries would get me thinking about the role of Facebook in the lives of urban Indonesians. But in a strange way, they did.

I spent the better part of yesterday morning delivering cakes to my neighbours. I hadn’t planned to do so, but like most mornings in Kampoeng Cyber (Cyber Village), this one was quiet and open to possibility. I was chatting with a neighbour and grudgingly contemplating tackling the mountain of field notes that needed typing when two local women strolled by. “Come on, Jess, help us deliver the cakes,” they implored. Having just learned that a thirteen year old boy had been circumcised two hours earlier and was celebrating in the traditional Javanese fashion by having his mother deliver rice dishes to the community, I immediately connected the pastries to the affair.

I followed the women to a nearby house, where I found the boy lying on a mattress near the doorway in a cotton sarong, silently watching a movie on a laptop to while away the pain. His mother and several other women were busy counting and boxing hundreds of shoe-box sized parcels for delivery to each of the household heads in the community. Circumcisions, births, and other rites, it seems, require that the family deliver the news and share the celebration with such offerings.

I interpreted this to be part of a system of generalized reciprocity, where at a later date another family would do the same for them. But the mother also specified that only members of the boy’s neighbourhood, which has a set administrative boundary, and family members who live nearby (even if they’re outside the boundary), receive these deliveries. This made it clear to me that in Yogyakarta, neighbours make up a much more important part of an individual’s core of “significant ties” than in North American cities, where according to Lee Rainie and Barry Wellman (2012), they only comprise about 10% of an individual’s principal network.

It was significant to me that neighbours with no blood ties would receive cake in favour of blood relations who live farther away, an indication that geography may sometimes trump relatedness in the formation of social bonds, even 10 years into the age of social networking sites. The amount of familiarity between community members is also astounding in this context, with the women systematically naming the household heads from memory and instinctively putting the boxes into piles by location so that they could be delivered in batches, although that familiarity became shakier as the houses grew farther and farther away from the limits of the neighbourhood.

Delivering the cakes cemented the obvious importance of neighbourly ties in my eyes. The women would enter the houses one by one, and sit down briefly while explaining what the cake was for. Almost invariably the receiver would nod their head in comprehension and appreciation when they were told who had been circumcised, sometimes asking who the father was in confirmation. Those who lived nearby needed no explanation, while relations only a few houses away sometimes needed reminding about the familial relationship “Oh, you mean so-and-so’s son?” again revealing how geographical proximity sometimes outweighed blood.

I decided to test this idea further in an afternoon interview with a local couple about their social networking site practices. When asked who they would go to in times of financial or familial emergency, the couple responded without hesitation that they would knock on a neighbour’s house before they tried to contact relations who lived farther away. In this case though, their next-door neighbour was a sibling, which demonstrated the high degree of closeness between many community members, a good percentage of whom were born and raised in the same neighbourhood. While they confirmed that geographical closeness was important in cementing ties, they added that it wasn’t everything. “One has to have sympathy  or tepo seliro (Javanese),” the young mother added. The husband explained that “silaturahmi (Indonesian)” or the act of often visiting with each other, was essential in order to produce a sense of closeness or “akrab” (Indonesian), that was never automatic, no matter how close you live to your neighbours.

This is where I see the importance of understanding the role of social media in settings that have different systematic social foundations than in North America or Europe. Just as in any other part of the world, social relationships or “ties,” which can be either weak or strong, require cultivation and maintenance. What is fascinating is that we can see through the work of scholars like Rainie and Wellman that in the West (or “developed” countries) social media have helped to solidify an already long-standing revolution in the way people relate to each other. Rather than relying on close-knit neighbourly or familial ties for social support, they claim, “networked individuals” now rely on expanded and more fragmented social networks of weaker ties, which can more easily be cultivated with social media.

But in settings like Yogyakarta, where the “urban village” or “kampung” (Indonesian, Javanese) encourages strong neighbourhood ties based on kin and geography, the question of how social media fits into social life is not yet clear. The young father I interviewed last night complained that he felt Facebook, the most popular social networking site in the neighbourhood, was really just a silly and frivolous communication tool. He expressed that he thought it has entertainment value and is useful for keeping in touch with old high school friends, but that for Indonesians, what’s really important is “face-to-face” communication. He lamented the fact that most of his Facebook friends seem to regard the network as a platform for seeking vacuous attention, declaring Facebook in Indonesia to be identical with “attention whoring” (Facebook di Indonesia jadi identik dengan caper [cari perhatian]) (Indonesian).

The last few months of my research will be dedicated in part to understanding how social media fits into the lives of people who experience social networking differently than networked individuals do. Could it be that I observing a “networked community” phenomenon where close-knit ties, groups, and the traditionally reified “community” has absorbed social media into an existing system of strong social ties? Is the networked kampung (hamlet/village) different from one where the internet is not as readily available? And is the “social operating system” in communities like Kampoeng Cyber experiencing a revolution, continuity, or something else? I don’t think it’s as easy as a clear-cut dichotomy, but I think it’s worth it to explore the different ways in which new technologies find their social niches.

 

 


8 Comments

  1. John Postill says:

    Really interesting post, Jessika. I personally wouldn’t import a community/network framework onto your locale, for reasons I spelled out in Postill, J. (2008). Localizing the internet beyond communities and networks. New Media & Society, 10(3), 413-431. Instead, I would construct a model of local relationships (and their internet mediations) from the ground-up, drawing from local people’s own mapping of their socio-technical landscape through notions of kinship, friendship, propinquity, etc.

    • JessikaTremblay says:

      Thanks for your insights and suggestions, I very much appreciate constructive feedback. That is actually what’s really interesting and difficult in terms of conceptualizing the kinds of social relationships I see in Kampoeng Cyber. The way in which the local people describe and imagine their relationships is through this very explicit notion of the “community” which they label as the kampung. It’s not only a conceptual boundary, but it comes into practical effect on a regular basis, and even in daily interactions, where the boundaries of the neighbourhood become almost synonymous with the community. Of course there’s already a bunch of literature about how the kampung, notions of “togetherness,” gotong-royong, and so on are partially constructions of the Indonesian state that have been harnessed for more effective administration, but despite that abstract constructedness they still shape the way people interact.

      I’m also trying desperately hard to avoid describing the role of social media in the neighbourhood as something that’s having an “impact” on an already-existing social system, because I don’t think that’s useful either. Perhaps that was clearer in my earlier posts than in this one, which seems to lean more towards describing the social system here as an “older” form, although I’m not sure I actually see it that way. I rather prefer to look at social media as just that, media, through which new forms of social interactions emerge constantly (I’m a fan of Mazzarella’s work). But I’m having difficulty with the notion of the “social field” which you put out there in your article. I’m not quite sure how to apply since my experience has been that people here seem to operate with a quite rigid notion of what a community is supposed to be. Thoughts?

      • John Postill says:

        I think it’s important not to conflate the Indonesian word kampung with with English word community. They each have very different trajectories in their respective languages and territories (e.g. the notion of community doesn’t mean quite the same thing in the US, Britain, or Australia). Perhaps it’s best left untranslated?

  2. John Postill says:

    Correction: I meant to say “through *vernacular* or emic notions of kinship, friendship, propinquity, etc.”

  3. John Postill says:

    A closer translation would of course be village, which is a much less polysemic notion than community. Community can mean anything you want it to mean. It’s a chewing gum word, it will stick to almost anything. At any rate, I think it makes more sense to call a spade a spade, to call a kampung a kampung.

  4. JessikaTremblay says:

    Those are some good points – I’ll do a closer reading of your article to get the juices flowing. Do you have any other reading suggestions for moving beyond the community/network framework?

  5. JessikaTremblay says:

    Although I’ve found that “kampung” is just as much a flexible term as community. I’ve seen definitions ranging from village, hamlet, urban-village, to a janus-faced logic of community, to neighbourhoods, to administrative units and so on (Sullivan, Guinness, Newberry, etc). I’ve addressed those distinctions in a paper I recently wrote, but I do agree that perhaps I need to look in more depth at the distinctions and what they mean for how people interact.

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