Most people rely on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to bring them closer together. But how are they used across the planet? Is a "footie" taken in Chile any different than a "selfie" from Australia?
RMIT Vice-Chancellor’s Postdoctoral Fellow Dr Jolynna Sinanan spent 15 months conducting fieldwork across the globe to uncover what social media means for people’s everyday lives, as part of the Why We Post project.
Sinanan was one of nine anthropologists examining the use and consequences of social media for different communities in the project funded by the European Research Council and led by Daniel Miller, University College London.
The researchers looked at factory and rural towns in China, a town on the Syrian-Turkish border, low income settlements in Brazil and Chile, an IT complex set between villages in South India, small towns in south Italy and Trinidad and a village in England.
Here, Sinanan sheds light on five key findings from her research that reveal the differences – and similarities – between social media users around the world.
1. Social media is second nature to some, but not others
Across Trinidadian, Chilean, industrial Chinese and South Indian field sites, there’s a wide spectrum of people embracing social media as second nature. Most usage in these places simply expands on ways relationships have always been conducted.
In South Turkey however, people put a considerable amount of thought into using social media, as the implications for private communication dramatically transforms social relationships, especially between men and women.
2. Globally, the split between online and offline is disappearing
We need to collapse the division between "online" life and "offline", or "real" life. For a lot of people, social media is just another way to live and realise themselves.
For industrial Chinese factory workers and the mining population of Alto Hospicio in Chile, social media is an inexpensive way to socialise and be entertained in places that are otherwise characterised by long hours of hard work and boredom.
3. Memes are life, no matter where you are
Communication is becoming far more visual because of social media. Two dominant kinds of visual posts are memes and selfies.
Memes are the "moral police of the internet", because whether funny or serious, memes reinforce social norms and their appeal is that people "get" them and share the view being expressed.
Selfies also mean very different things in different societies. They are incredibly important for showing aspirations in the low income populations of Industrial China and in Brazil, for example.
In northern Chile, rather than selfies showcasing an individual, people use them to highlight their connections to others. In fact, there’s a type of selfie entirely unique to their region: the "footie". A footie - just like it sounds - shows a person’s feet while sitting watching TV, indicating relaxation.
4. Stalking vs snooping – it all depends where you’re coming from
In western society, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone talk about the social benefits of cyber stalking. In Trinidad however, it is a societal norm to look or get into other people’s business without them knowing.
Referred to as “macoing”, or being a “maco”, it is as natural to Trinidadians as breathing.
“It’s in our land, it’s in the Trini blood, it’s in our dirt and it’s in our earth,” local Trinidadians said.
The intention behind macoing is quite benign; the result might just be some gossip and there is rarely malicious intent. Like other Trinidadian idioms, it is far less serious than what we would refer to as cyber stalking.
5. Equality online does not mean equality offline
Although there’s a wide range of information and education initiatives available online, it doesn’t mean they’re easily accessible or translate to making a real difference in people’s everyday lives.
Individuals are embedded in wider, structured networks based on family, class, gender and ethnicity and these are the networks that shape people’s behaviour online.
In comparing higher income to lower income populations in Trinidad for example, those from higher income circles are extremely selective in who they accept as a Facebook friend, whereas those from lower income groups try to ‘friend’ as many people as they can as an attempt to move up the social ladder.
Sinanan will be speaking alongside Why We Post project lead Daniel Miller and Sheba Mohammid, Director of Policy and Implementation on the project, at a roundtable discussion next week.
Roundtable Discussion: e-learning and the Anthropology of Social Media is at RMIT’s Design Hub on Thursday 12 May.
The discussion will focus on a new e-learning initiative to emerge out of the project and the important discoveries that have been made on the uses of social media in relation to education, politics and inequality.
Story: Sean O’Malley