As part of his Why We Post research project, Danny Miller, Professor of Anthropology, says our use of social media supports, but doesn’t define, our human relationships.
Words Danny Miller Photographs Chris Lee
Jain cosmological map, Manusyaloka (‘map of the world of man’) made in Rajasthan in the 1890s. The central continent, Jambudvipa, the island of the rose apple tree, has rivers and six mighty mountains (rows with triangles), with Mount Meru at centre (yellow circle).
It is the coffee break that steals an hour out of your day. The sneaky peak that drives your partner to distraction. The essential destination to find out what everyone is talking about. Whatever you think of it, social media – checking it, posting to it – seems to take up an ever greater part of our daily lives.
So what is going on? It might surprise you to hear that until recently the answer to this question wasn’t actually clear. Most discussion of social media that emerges from the newspapers – or indeed government funding for research – is problem-focused. People want to know if social media is causing new syndromes such as Facebook or smartphone addiction, whether it leads to teenage suicide through cyber-bullying, the break-up of marriages through making adultery more visible, new forms of democracy, a loss of social skills, changes in the brain, and so forth. Almost no one has bothered to ask the most basic question: why do we post? And do we post for the same reasons around the world?
I wanted to know the answer, so together with colleagues around the world, I began an anthropological study that would look at social media at specific field sites in Brazil, Chile, China, England, India, Italy, Trinidad and Turkey. The use of social media is fascinating to an anthropologist – and particularly the notion that technology is bringing us all together in a common, shared experience. Our research across nine countries around the world shows that our use of these platforms serves only to underline what we already knew about how our different cultures behave.
There are three primary arguments underpinning our approach. The first is that the study of social media shouldn’t be the study of platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter, but should focus instead upon content, which often migrates and switches easily between entirely different platforms almost regardless of their properties. Secondly, precisely because social media exists largely in the content of what people post, it is always local. Just as there will be Chinese or Trinidadian social media, the most important element in understanding social media in an English village is to appreciate how English it is. Indeed the study of social media turns out to be just as revealing about the nature of Englishness as it is about the nature of social media. And the third argument is that social media should never be considered as a place or world separated from ordinary life. Such a mistake perpetuated the early misconception of the internet as a virtual place.
The best precedent is to consider social media as an elaboration of the traditional telephone. It is unimaginable that today we would consider a landline telephone call as taking place in another world, outside of all other conversations. Social media takes us beyond this analogy, however; in some ways it is now also a place where we live and where everyday life happens, but it is simply another place that could be compared with the way our lives are distributed between spending time at work, within the home or in a restaurant. It may be digital, but it is in no sense virtual.
The Goldilocks approach
So what did we find out about the use of social media in England? Our study focused on the average English village. Pretty, yes, but not chocolate box. Population 6,500. People are born, work, live and die locally. Despite its size and the fact that central London can be reached in less than an hour by train, everyone refers to it as a village. Let’s call it Highglade: a real – if anonymised – English village.
So why do people post in Highglade? To meet new friends? To network? To perfect their humblebrag? Or something else? We decided to examine a range of popular assumptions about social media to see how they stood up in Highglade. Take the idea of using social media to keep our friends and family at arm’s length. This is a peculiarly English trait. Rather than the online community having a sense of the infinite, social media generally remains a very local environment which reflects the social norms of those who use it. And with the English, that means a ‘Goldilocks’ public approach to our friends and neighbours, rejecting both the ‘too hot’ and the ‘too cold’ relationship in favour of the in-between.
For most English users of social media – as very distinct from those in other countries – we found life is all about avoiding things that are too hot or too cold. A very individually English word reflects this perfectly – “nice”, a very convenient way for us to describe the precise temperature of our interactions. We want “nice” online relationships. It’s nice to keep in touch, it’s nice to see online what people are doing and it would be nice to see them in person – but we don’t want to arrange a meeting and certainly don’t want to appear so interested in their posts that they feel they have to meet us.
Jennie Toft, Pharmacist, UCL Hospital “I’m on call, so I have my pager at my waist, my phone in hand in case I get a call-out, and I’m reading on my Kindle. I can never be without my phone.”
Alan Bracey, Research support librarian, UCL “I’m definitely a real-world person. The phone is a tool. I use it a lot for directions, maps, and to check out events. Right now I’m using it to plan my Friday night, while listening to music.”
Aiping Xu, MA New Media, Leeds University (at UCL for a workshop) “I’m trying to quit. I was spending too much time on social media. Now I’m trying to use my phone just for email. How’s that going? Okay. I’m juggling.”
So why do people post? To meet new friends? To network? To perfect their humblebrag? Or something else?
The English, too, are more reticent when it comes to connecting with people they do not already know offline, compared with, say, the Chinese, who tend to see social media as a real opportunity to meet new people. The English Goldilocks strategy, by contrast, finds social media to be a wonderfully useful modern-day version of the net curtain, keeping us informed of, but at a safe distance from, friends, neighbours, even members of our family. Which is nice.
Why do we post?
One of the perceptions of social media is that it is making us more individual and narcissistic, and this is evident. But it’s more common to find examples of social media actually reinforcing social groups and our place within them: in one case that will be the family, in another the caste and in a third the tribe. The same technology is used differently by different cultures – and therefore it cannot be that social media has changed the world, but rather that the world has changed social media.
So why, then, do we post at all? Again, it seems to depend where we are – for instance, if Italians’ offline lives are largely satisfactory they make little use of social media, but employ it more if they need help or advice from support groups, such as those for single mothers. In south-east Turkey, the limitations on young women’s movements and social networks mean they use Facebook to develop friendships with young men outside their family. In Brazil, young people prefer the combination of both worlds – being able to maintain solid relationships while exploring new contact opportunities in education or work. And in India, social media curbs users’ trends towards individualism, such is the extent of family monitoring of social media and its categorisations around kinship, age, gender, caste and class.
But, generally, repair is a common theme. Most people in most places feel that the intensity of their social connections – an intensity they associate with a past ideal of community – has been lost in modern life. There is a widespread fear in some societies that sociality itself is something we are losing and that we are shifting more towards self-interest.
But this, too, is developing – especially as we learn to use, or rather shape, our different forms of social media for different ends. The small groups of WhatsApp are now being used to balance the larger groups of Facebook. The intimacy of Snapchat balances the contact with strangers on Twitter and Instagram.
Critics of social media – and indeed many users – believe we are all becoming more superficial in this virtual world. But what is actually going on is far more incredible – that these are social media, woven into the texture of our relationships. Social media expands our capacity. But the anthropological findings are that however much we use it, even abuse it, it does not change our essential humanity.
It doesn’t, in the end, matter whether we do indeed have 10, fifty, a hundred Facebook friends – because, ultimately, it doesn’t change the people we are.
Danny Miller is the director of Why We Post: The Anthropology of Social Media, an extensive, nine-country research project and free online course exploring the varying uses of online communities around the world and their consequences for relationships, policies and everyday life. For more information visit: www.futurelearn.com/courses/anthropology-social-media
Zhonghao Shi (left) and Yugi Xu (right), Electronic and Electrical Engineering, 1st year students. “I can’t imagine losing my phone,” says Zhonghao Shi. “It’s like part of my body. It’s always in my hand. I use it for everything: work, news, social media, Instagram and Facebook. Phones are part of relationships between people.”
Adriana Tormos, MSc Technology and Analysis of Archaeological Materials. “I’m using TimeHop. It’s an app that pulls from your Instagram, Facebook, your camera’s photo roll, and shows you what you were doing on this day in the past. So I’ve just seen that a year ago I was at a wedding. Three years ago I was in Düsseldorf with a friend. Four years ago I was at ComicCon back home in Puerto Rico. Six years ago someone was posting on my wall saying thank you for their birthday present. It’s a fun reminder. I love it.”
Joyous Pierce, African Politics. “I make Instagram videos with music and abstract art and upload them. I’ve got 1,500 followers, but I’d like more! Yes, I am studying for my exams at the same time.”
- Contents 2016/17
- Two new grand challenges
- Free Radical
- UCL a “global university”
- Jeremy Bentham Speaks
- Extra Curricular
- The Strong Room
- Follow the Crowd
- A Time to Give
- How to Build a Brain
- Next Machina
- Social Animals
- What Janani, Sarah and Adam did next
- The power of philanthropy
- This idea must die
- London vs World