I am an ethnographer in Alto Hospicio, Chile. Alto Hospicio is in the far north of the country, about 4 hours from the Peruvian and Bolivian borders, and 26 hours by bus, from Santiago in the center of the country. As an ethnographer, I combine many different research methods. The most basic is participant observation, which simply means I participate in daily life in Alto Hospicio. I eat meals with people, attend community events, buy goods in the local markets, drop by locals’ workplaces, and spend leisure time with people from the city. Second, I conduct questionaires with as many people as possible in order to get a sense of the overall trends in both general life and media use among residents. I also conduct semi-structured interviews with people in the city, to get more detailed information than is possible with a survey. Finally, in studying social media, I analyze and interact with people through facebook, Instagram, whatsapp, twitter, and any other media forms that are significant in my site.
What research project are you working on at the moment?
I am part of the global social media impact study, which is comprised of 9 sights on three different continents. Researchers come from two additional continents as well. Our aim is to provide qualitative as well as quantitative information on the variation of social media usage around the world. Each researcher uses the same methods I mentioned before in order to assess the trends in social media in each site. In essence we hope to fulfill the aspirations of anthropologists to be comparative in a way that has never been done.
What is the scope and scale of the social media research project?
Our scope, as the name implies is global. Specifically, our dissemination plans include translating materials into 8 different languages, which will include popular level books, short films, and more academic texts, particularly on collaborative research and specifically comparative studies.
Where has the research been carried out?
In addition to my site in northern Chile, researchers are also working in rural Brazil, Trinidad, rural England, South East Italy, Southeast Turkey, South India, rural China, and industrial China. We have chosen small cities, developing sites, and rural areas specifically because much research has been done on the use of new media in cosmopolitan centers, but we feel that our sites provide a better view of the ways “average” people across the world are engaging with social media.
Can you tell us what (interim) conclusions you’ve reached about the impact of social media? Does it vary much from country to country? What factors influence the use of social media?
Our team has developed a list of 30 initial insights, but the most important is by far, that contrary to some early predictions, social media specifically and the internet more broadly have not at all resulted in the homogenization of people around the world. In looking at social media from each of our nine sites, it is very clear that the same platform is used in completely different ways in different places. Essentially, one can not talk about what content is like on Facebook as a whole, but must specify that facebook becomes something very different in Trinidad than it does in Turkey. The page format is the same, but the content barely resembles that of another location. Even global trends such as the selfie or meme are used quite differently in different regions.
We also see clearly that online and offline should not be considered two separate domains, rather like phonecalls or letters, online posting is just another part of everyday life.
It is also common to assume that modern life has created movement from an idealized sort of community to more individualism. However, we see that social media often leads to reconnections between people, or even entirely new connections. One such example is the earthquake that recently happened in my fieldsite. In the weeks that followed when basic services such as water, electricity, and petrol were suspended, as well as later rebuilding efforts, social media became a key way in which people organized, planned, and even attempted to create collective representations of their plight. Social media also often reinforces group memberships such as the family, clan, caste, and tribe.
Our studies of national political events suggest a limited impact of social media on politics in our local fieldsites. Specifically, we have followed riots and protests in Brazil, Trinidad, and Turkey which suggest a much more limited impact in the actual fieldsites. Our evidence suggests that social media may have an impact with politicised and more metropolitan groups but we do not see it as an instrument of politicisation. Instead, we find social media used for the everyday local politics of the sites. In fact, the public (but also personal) nature of social media tends to make them conservative and apolitical in many of our sites.
We have also found that digital equality does not necessarily have explicit consequences for offline equality. In most cases there is greater popular access to the communication technology and online worlds which may have substantial impacts upon previously excluded populations, especially with ownership of smartphone. But this may not make a difference in the degree to which populations are excluded or oppressed in offline spheres.
Has Social Media had an influence on what we demand from mainstream media?
I do believe that social media has changed traditional forms of media to an extent. We use the term polymedia to discuss the ways that all media must be viewed in the context of other media. The classic example is that if a young person is going to break up with a romantic partner, there are several communications options available. Depending on the situation, they may do so in person, over the phone, via text message, simply changing their relationship status on facebook, or even posting a picture of themself with another partner on Instagram. In light of these options, each new form of media must find it’s own place, which in turn often changes the ways that the others are used. Television clips are reproduced on youtube and then posted on facebook. Radio programs may be made into podcasts and then sent via email. Telephone calls may be replaced by text messages or recorded voice messages sent on Whatsapp. But possibly the most interesting thing we have found is that very few media actually die out. Rather, as new media emerge, their functions simply shift.
Has Social Media opened up a niche for new kinds of media?
In light of this discussion on polymedia, it’s important to note that the landscape of social media is constantly changing. New programs are introduced constantly, which shifts the ways others are used. However, we find that social media has not entirely changed the types of media people consume. Those who are avid news readers may get their news via social media rather than television or newspaper now, but those who didn’t read the newspaper before are unlikely to read much news simply because of social media. Likewise, people who used to buy music cds may now use sites such as spotify, or share music videos they find on youtube, but those who did not place much importance on music before likely will not.
How do you think social media is going to develop in future? Do you think it is going to become a more or less important part of our lives?
I think we are already seeing that social media has transformed the relationship between offline and online to an extent that the two cannot really be separated anymore. I think this will deepen even further in the future. Social media are used to organize real social events, or replace them when participants are distant. Much like telephone calls or letters, social media does mediate interactions, but that does not make those interactions any less authentically social. And social media, as it becomes less distinct from “non social media life,” will certainly remain important in people’s lives. It is a major form of sociality, and sociality is something that makes humans what they are.
Do you use social media much yourself? How important is it for your work/social life? Could you live without it?
I do use social media, and obviously it’s incredibly important for my work. There are days I would like to take a break from it, but that’s not really possible. For my social life, however, as someone who lives on a continent different from that where I grew up, and has work colleagurs literally all over the world, it is incredibly important for me to keep in contact with friends and family. Obviously, I could live without it, but I do feel that most of the time, it really enriches the communication in my life, and allows me to stay close to people I wouldn’t be able to otherwise.
Has Social Media influenced how we absorb/ digest information, or the kind of information we’re interested in?
I do think social media has allowed us to preference visual forms of information moreso than previous forms. We have found that memes are incredibly important for communicating everything from politics, religion, and morality, to our innermost emotional states. Similarly, the ability to post pictures has allowed us to represent ourselves visually, and even to curate the aesthetic we hope to present to the world. However, there is little evidence that it has changed the types of information we are interested in. As I stated before, those who were not interested in politics before social media are unlikely to be persuaded of their import. People who did not read the news or listen to music will not do so simply because of social media. And possibly most clearly, across all of our sites, we have found that social media is most often used to alleviate boredom and for gossip. Those are human tendencies that have much longer histories than social media, and I think its clear that there is continuity in the information people want, whether it is on social media or from their friends face to face.