Yesterday I visited UCL’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) to hear a seminar on the Global Social Media Impact Study based at the University’s Department of Anthropology. This ties into my own PhD ethnography work on hyperlocal media audiences, where I’ve completed one study and am now about to embark on another in Birmingham.
The project was unusual in being run across nine international sites in parallel, 14 months each (preceded by 7 months of preparation). Tom McDonald spoke first, about his North China site, illustrating attitudes to social media through a discussion of a village school. Here, social media had a terrible reputation amongst parents and the school itself, as potentially distracting from schoolwork. No phones were allowed in the school, and children reported they didn’t have time for social media anyway due to their workload, although they did use the QQ social media platform to create groups for socialisation and sharing homework answers.
In South China, Xinyuan Wang spoke about her work with Daniel Miller, but this time focused on workers in a factory town. Here she presented the perspectives of those using media and online imagery aspirationally, where their phones contained images of sports cars, and ‘princesses’, in stark comparison to their cramped living conditions. Contrary to ideas that use of the Internet results in a loss of humanity, Wang suggested social media made them feel ‘more human’ – as one worker commented, “Life outside the mobile phone is bearable”.
Daniel Miller discussed observations of social media use in a UK hospice, where the ‘mirror selfie’ became a device for people to not only express themselves to the outside world, but also internally come to terms with changes in themselves through illness. We can think of social media as bridging the space between older traditions of private communication (face-to-face) and broadcast media (television, radio).
A presentation of the India portion of the study by Shriram Venkatraman highlighted men’s attitudes to women through social media use, where they would often ‘friend’ women from college or work, even if they had never met them, but then comment to female family members that women shouldn’t similarly engage in social media as it wasn’t appropriate.
Discussions of the work in Turkey, Trinidad and Italy were also discussed, and the seminar ended in a broader discussion of the collaborative and comparative method and value of the study asa whole. By running parallel, researchers at each field site were able to compare notes and similarly provide context in sharing the chapters they’re writing for their nine separate monographs. They have found that social media takes on different focuses internationally – in Trinidad it celebrated carnival culture in its imagery, whereas Italy was more representative of everyday life, being more mundane and banal. This description of the specificity in the different field sites will be balanced by generalisations that can be presented about social media and this is where the real value in a project of this scope lies. For example, selfies, whether we like it or not, were common across all sites, but the motivations, presentations and meanings varied. As the project delivers its outputs (nine monographs, two comparative books, various social media including 100 videos, and a website) we can look forward to some fascinating insights on the role of social media across the globe.