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Social Media from the Anthropologist's Perspective

The final day of Web Science 2016 starts with a keynote by Daniel Miller, who contributes an anthropologist's perspective to the conference. He notes that especially when it comes to the popular discussion of Web technologies such as social media, there are many spurious claims about how they change social interactions – and anthropologists are called upon to make sense of these claims. Anthropology, he notes, is in fact the study of people as social networks: we are all of us embedded in our social relations with others, and it is these relations that anthropology examines and analyses.

This enables a process of 'holistic contextualisation', which aims to examine comprehensively why people do what they do, online and offline. This studiously avoids any simplistic concentrations on online or offline activities, as people are almost always operating across both spaces. One core principle of this is the idea of 'polymedia', which builds on the fact that cost and access barriers to most media have decreased to the point that people no longer choose their media based on such factors, but instead on other – social and moral – considerations. (The moral judgment comes in as people assess others' uses of specific media: is it appropriate to break up a relationship via social media, for instance?)

Social media in particular have created a new type of scalable sociality: we've moved beyond a public/private distinction between different media forms that was based on the very divergent reach of such platforms, and the reach of public media has decreased while that of private media has grown substantially. This enables users to choose platforms based on the scale and reach that their messages can achieve, and this is a fundamental change in how we communicate.

This is represented in people's sense of the social media hierarchy – in English schools, for example, Daniel's work has identified a hierarchy from Snapchat (small groups, very private) through WhatsApp (larger groups, specific communities) to Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. But content, and content genres, also migrate between these platforms, almost regardless of their specific affordances, and which platforms are favoured in this migration tends to vary across different countries.

This isn't dissimilar from other population groups and communication platforms, Daniel points out: it's been the same with email, for instance, which has been used for a very wide range of practices from the private to the professional, and which has torn down the barriers between public and private life. School children, on the other hand, have been found to use email only for school purposes: they have rebuilt those barriers. This means that we are constantly changing the platforms we're working with: social media haven't changed the world, but the world has changed social media, and keeps doing so.

From the same perspective, it's interesting to study how social media are being used in the specific context of English villages. Social media were first seen to bring together and maintain more distant relationships with people elsewhere, but this is no longer how they're being used; instead, they now fulfil the purpose of maintaining the right distance between acquaintances within the same village.

Much of this is also turning more visual, through platforms such as Snapchat but also through the visual elements of Twitter and Facebook. But there's an interesting difference here between conscious self-presentation and the images that others post of oneself – and there is a need to get over popular media's obsession with selfies: there are five times as many group shots on these platforms than there are selfies. Further, such platforms provide a space both for connecting at once with multiple others, but also for coming to terms with one's own current life situation.

The other visual media form that is prominent on such platforms is the meme – both funny and serious. Hindus in India tend to send positive and religious memes early in the morning in order to improve their karma; by contrast, funny memes are a comfortable way of showing personal alignment with a specific set of values, without needing to create substantial original text to do so. These practices arise and fall away again often within a space of a few months, and the dynamics of that process are fascinating.

This also has a political dimension. Politics on social media has been researched in fairly straightforward studies that captured specific relevant datasets from platforms such as Twitter, for instance, but this does not capture the everyday politics of life; social media are about relationships with friends and family, and the outright discussion of political matters tends not to be particularly appropriate in such spaces as it may disrupt existing family and friendship bonds.

Daniel argues that for this reason social media are actually far more conservative than offline life – but this is also different across different social media platforms, depending on their specific communicative affordances. For instance, social media are used by young people in conservative societies to connect with the opposite sex, but this does not mean that they engender a marked change in offline social circumstances; however, for some such users social media constitute the first experience of real privacy in their lives.

How people portray themselves online can diverge wildly. Poor Brazilians and Trinidadians depict themselves on social media in higher-class settings; poor Chileans show themselves in traditional spaces, and any aspirations to higher-class are frowned upon. These differences must be studied and understood from a more comprehensive perspective.

The works of Daniel and his team on social media uses around the world are published as open-access books by UCL Press, and this approach to the anthropological study of social media is also covered in a 5-week MOOC course offered by the team.