‘Why We Post’ is a research project at UCL that brings together a number of international researchers in order to study the interrelationship between social media and daily life. This research has also provided a foundation for an online learning course of the same name, which launched at the beginning of March 2016. I attended a workshop that acted as both a showcase for the research, and a discussion of the course as a form of research dissemination.
Daniel Miller started the day by outlining the range of topics being addressed. He made the important point that, as social scientists, the aim is not to study social media itself, but to consider these technologies only in so far as they affect people’s lives. He also noted the importance of making research available and accessible, such as in the form of the online course, available in eight languages.
Anupam Das discussed language use as a way of indicating social closeness and distance, and maintaining group solidarity on social media. This took the form of politeness behaviour, as manifested in either formal language or slang, and how social relationships as manifested in likes and other interactions in Facebook. He also found that people seek out others with similar cultural backgrounds online, to avoid feelings of social isolation.
David Herol argued that the social has been removed from social media, and discussed an approach that looks at people’s life as a whole, and observing how social media fits into that. He found that activities otherwise classed as doing nothing’ on social media should in fact be approached as creating the possibility for something to happen. He concluded by asserting that technological use is not natural, but cultural.
Jordan Kraemer’s research considers social media use in Berlin, in particular the use of visual media. Her findings related to online expressions of transnational feelings of ‘europeanness’, especially in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, which saw large numbers of people posting emotive, visual, material.
Deirdre McKay spoke about her research with migrants who are working into the informal care economy. She argued that she was only looking at social media as a result of her participants’ use of it, which demonstrated how care has become mediated online. Shared images and text form an archive that gives migrants a sense of a future, in which things that aren’t yours yet, are still attached to you as being possible. McKay observed how rituals such as wakes and sacrifices had become polymediated, and asserted that such topics indicated the the continued value of studying Facebook, as migrant social media is different from what we know our own experiences of Facebook to be. McKay also spoke of her interest in projects that aim to develop apps or platforms for migrants, such as giving advice on crossing the Mediterranean, but concluded that they were unlikely to be supported by government.
Gabrielle Hosein discussed various scales of social feeds, kinds of publics and contexts, all of which facilitate different types of conversation. Her particular interest was in social media use in the context of carnival, and the panic around social media potentially carnival less sociable. Conversely, her findings showed that social media acted to counteract some of the inequality surrounding carnival, where rising costs prevented many from personally attending, who then relied on viewing the social media feeds of others.
Joao Matta studied social media and class in Brazil, in particular the emergent middle class, who have a disproportionate level of access to social media relative to others. His interest was in the potential for creating and negating diversity, particularly in an increasingly stressful environment for young people, who are under pressure to study, obtain a good career and generally do well in life.
Rosana Pinheiro-Machado spoke about social movements and social media, in particular the potential for social activism online. She asked: does social media promote equality? And concluded that it depends. People use social media to dream of a better world, and to overcome differences, and gain access to resources, but ultimately inequality and equality coexist on social media.
Nimmi Rangaswamy discussed the Indian political climate in relation to social media, such as the backlash against Free Basics, and the dominance of three discourse relating to anti corruption, the common man, and the Hindu right. Her research found that there were a number of ways in which political groups put forward their agenda online.
There followed a group sharing session, in which members discussed other projects and forms of work being undertaken which we should know about, located in the three broad categories of field site being discussed: Asia, the Americas and Europe. Discussion focused on ethics and the need to adapt concepts such as harm to the cultural context. Sonia Livingstone noted that do no harm is a universal maxim, but what it actually means changes according to context.
The afternoon session featured two themed discussions, focused around the themes of current research in digital and media anthropology, and media studies.
Veronica Barassi discussed digital activism, and social movements as manifested online. She also spoke about media anthropology as a field, and the ways in which progress in this field from ten years ago had stalled.
Hairy Geismar spoke about how forms of knowledge around collections and museums translate online. She argued that social media is part of an ongoing process of mediating and processing the self through external factors and forces. She also discussed other kinds of research practice, outside of academia, where ethnographic methodologies have been appropriated in commercialised contexts, which has impact back onto academia.
Hannah Knox described her work as an anthropology of technology, looking at examples of efforts to use technology to effect social change, such as through urban planning or climate change. For example, how is knowledge being disrupted and articulated through digital forms of expression? She argued for the need to think about technology in terms of infrastructure, so not just how groups of people use them, but also how digital is used in social change as a structural process, and how technologies get brought to bear on certain problems and circumstances.
Tiziano Bonini spoke about how people appropriate media by looking at how listeners of a public cultural radio channel in Italy, and a commercial radio station, use Twitter, and what differences existed between these audiences. He also looked at freelance precarious workers in four national radio stations, and how they used social media to present themselves. Social media appeared to reinforce social roles and norms, in which higher positions in the offline world were reproduced online. One sector was showing off cultural capital, in the form of their ability to comment on cultural issues, presenting themselves as public figures with positions of importance as described in their bios. The other group positioned themselves as fans in their bios, and as supporters of certain sports teams and music.
Sonia Livingstone spoke about several current projects. One project relates to an ethnographic study of a class of thirteen year olds in a London suburb. They spent a year following them across life in school, in the family, and with their peers, both online and off. This research culminates in a publication entitled The Class: living and learning in the digital age. This project looked at the utopian vision of reframing education with the affordances of digital media, usually presented in narratives of extraordinary kids and teachers who use technology in ground breaking ways. Instead the project used ‘normal’ examples to see how this refashioning might or might happen more often. One finding related to a form of chosen disconnection, where things were not connected to one another, in terms of school, home, life etc, as there are commitments at stake in keeping things separate. Livingstone also apoke of her work on a book examining parenting and the digital, where digital technologies are used by parents as a way of imagining the future, and as a catalyst for thinking about where they and their children are going.
Mirca Madianou spoke about interdisciplinarity within media studies, in which understanding forms of communication requires knowing why people communicate, and what purposes it serves. She also spoke about the difficulty in ceasing relationships with participants that she had built relationships with. Madianou’s project relates to the role of technology in disaster recovery, in which she looked at how communication technologies were used by humanitarian organisations and by communities themselves, following a typhoon in the Philippines, as they try to rebuild their lives. One finding was that feedback collected about humanitarian technology use was being used to justify sponsorship rather than change that organisation’s performance or activities.
The final session featured a discussion of the ways in which research can be disseminated in order to reach a wider audience and range of applied uses.
Alicia Blum-Ross discussed how to talk to people who may want to know about things that they are not necessarily talking about. She asked how best to make research legible and accessible to people? Her interest also lies in making policy briefs for organisations, and how work is disseminated in that way.
Laura Haapio-Kirk talked about the need for a range of dissemination techniques being used by UCL, including the online course, books free to read, and journal articles. She argued that there’s a huge opportunity to engage with people and to get young people especially involved. The blog started in 2012, sharing experiences of fieldwork. A website was built around 15 key discoveries that emerged from the research, chosen for their ‘punchy’ quality. Here, a reader can engage with research in form of small chunks, and then see all that is behind this, encouraging them to dig deeper, and to read about anthropology without even knowing it. She outlined the next project, which is a learning zone tailored to a school age audience, that sought to get kids to engage with anthropological issues. The online ‘What We Post’ course was also saved onto disk, so that people could engage with it without having an Internet connection. She concluded by arguing that taking the course into the classroom is important, as completion rates online on sites such as Future Learn is very low, perhaps as low as six percent.
To conclude the day, Laura Pontney spoke about curriculum development incorporating digital topics and material into anthropology studies in the context where she works, teaching sixth formers. She stressed the problem of colleges, schools and universities not talking to each other, in which students in the early period of anthropology uni study were finding that they had not being prepared by their A levels.
This was a fascinating day that demonstrated an emormous range of research being undertaken across the world, and across social media. For any researcher working in this field, these presentations were inspiring, and I feel certain that things I learned during the course of this day will feed back into my own ethnographic work.