TO SOME, Facebook, Twitter and similar social-media platforms are the acme of communication—better, even, than face-to-face conversations, since more people can be involved. Others think of them more as acne, a rash that fosters narcissism, threatens privacy and reduces intelligent discourse to the exchange of flippant memes. They might even, these kinds of arguments go, be creating a generation of electronic addicts who are incapable of reflective, individual, original thought.
A topic ripe for anthropological study, then. And such a study, the “Why We Post” project, has just been published by nine anthropologists, led by Daniel Miller of University College, London.
The participants in “Why We Post” worked independently for 15 months at locations in Brazil, Britain, Chile, China (one rural and one industrial site), India, Italy, Trinidad and Tobago, and Turkey. They embedded themselves within families and their surrounding communities. That, the team believes, let them form a nuanced view of the roles of social media in their study sites which could not be gained by analysing participants’ public postings.
These fly-on-the-wall perspectives refute much received wisdom. One of the sceptics’ biggest bêtes noires is the “selfie”—which is often blamed for fostering self-regard and an undue focus on attractiveness. “Why We Post”, however, reveals that the selfie itself has many faces. In Italy girls were indeed seen to take dozens of pictures of themselves before settling on one to post. In Brazil many selfies posted by men were taken at the gym. But at the British site, Dr Miller found, schoolchildren posted five times as many “groupies” (images of the picture-taker with friends) as they did selfies. Britons have also created a category called “uglies”, wherein the purpose is to take as unflattering a self-portrait as possible. And in Chile another unique genre has developed: the “footie”. This is a shot taken of the user’s propped-up feet, a sign of relaxation.
The often-humorous, marked-up images known as memes have also come in for criticism. They debase traditional forms of public debate, lament some, spreading far and wide with little context. But memes serve different purposes in different cultures. In India they tend to focus on serious and religious issues; Trinidadian memes are more often send-ups of politicians. Yet in all cases Dr Miller sees meme-passing not as limiting what social-media users think and say, but as enabling discourse. Many users happily forward memes laced with strong ideological messages about which they would not dare to comment individually.
Critics also often view the online personae people create for their social-media postings as false fronts designed for the medium at hand. Trinidadians, however, disagree. They see online profiles as more representative of a person’s true self even than what is seen in real life. And, though the perceived loss through social media of the anonymity that once characterised online life causes much hand-wringing in the West, young boys and girls in Turkey see things differently. Social media permit them to be in constant contact with one another, in full view of their parents, but to keep their conversations and photos to themselves.
In rural China and Turkey social media were viewed as a distraction from education. But in industrial China and Brazil they were seen to be an educational resource. Such a divide was evident in India, too. There, high-income families regarded them with suspicion but low-income families advocated them as a supplementary source of schooling. In Britain, meanwhile, they were valued not directly as a means of education, but as a way for pupils, parents and teachers to communicate.
“Why We Post” thus challenges the idea that the adoption of social media follows a single and predictable trajectory. Indeed, the Chinese sites show that the use of such media can vary from place to place within a single country. The study also refutes the idea that social media are making humans any less human. Users are, in Dr Miller’s words, “merely attaining something that was latent in human beings”.
The sceptics’ reaction to new technology seems equally deep-rooted. New means of communication from railways and the telegraph onwards have always attracted critics. Sooner or later, the doubters either convert, or die. The adopters, meanwhile, chatter on until the next wave of disruption happens, an advance that some of them will reject as unnecessary and possibly dangerous flummery.