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
2008 Localizing the internet beyond communities and networks.
New Media & Society
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.