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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.

 

 

What about the Anti-Politics of Social Media?

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An Indonesian Facebook user posts a photo of Vladimir Putin weeks before the crisis in Ukraine, and jokingly asks his friends “which of you looks most like him?”

 

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.

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An example of political memes found in Indonesian social media. This one, featuring the late President Suharto, reads roughly: “How are you? How great was my era, right?” evoking a sense of nostalgia towards the once autocratic ruler. From http://yonasukmalara.files.wordpress.com/2013/10/soeharto-enak-jamanku.jpg

 

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.

The Social Function of the (Annoying) Cryptic Status Update

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Men (unknown) having an afternoon chat in a rice paddy outside Yogyakarta

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

References

Besnier, Niko

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.

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.