Category Archives: Academic

How poverty affects online personalities on social media

In August 2018, I published an article on First Monday about the advent of online self-representations in the context of impoverished communities.

I believe this is one of the most underresearched aspects of social media. The extent to which poverty and inequality could mirror different kinds of self-representation, either by selfies and short text posts on the Internet.

I took on the example of Brazil’s favelas. First because of the past of these communities in the media. They are since a long time de-humanised, de-personalised, and stereotyped; either in telenovelas, films, and in popular discourse. Based on this background, I could check whether the Internet could allow fresh images to flourish and influence the mainstream society.

I first approached the possibilities of new online ‘subjectivities’ from favelas a few years ago for the Discovery Society. Now, I deepen in how these subjectivities can fructify. I discuss the opportunities surrounding the online favelado in a more practical sense. What can they make it of themselves by being online? Below I clarify some of the conceptual tools I used in this research.

What is personality?

I simplified the understanding of such deep psychologic notion by limiting my interest in a generic form of media expressions on the Internet as models for personality.

Despite so many definitions, my aim was to accept the common sense of organised forms of “accounts”, “patterns of feelings.” In my perception, textual references or imagery could embed many of the attributes of personality:

Personality is a system of parts that is organized, develops, and is expressed in a person’s actions.

Personality is about many things: perception and attention, cognition and memory, neurons and brain circuitry…We try to understand the individual human being as a complex whole…[and] to construct a scientifically credible account of human individuality (McAdams, 2006, p. 2).

Personality is the organized, developing system within the individual that represents the collective action of that individual’s major psychological subsystems (Mayer, 2007, p. 14).

Personality refers to those characteristics of the person that account for consistent patterns of feelings, thinking, and behaving (Pervin, Cervone & John, 2005, p. 6)

Social media and ‘personality’

I placed the existence of online personality in contrast with the persistence of past stigmas related to these communities. So I oppose an external inheritance (representation) to a notion of ‘personality’ that stemming from within; from the sharing of everyday experiences on Facebook or Twitter. To what extent could this internal process of self-representing is enough to unmake a background of inherited stereotypes?

I qualified personality also based on social media interactions. It is true that what we call ‘IT  skills’ involve a range of socially-approved behaviours and goals that point to a rather limited form of consensus; But it is possible to look, for instance, at the occurrence of likes as exercises of personality without believing that those who don’t like it on social media wouldn’t have done it if they could.

Another conceptual difficulty of studying poverty within social technology is to go against these platforms’ design. Its commercialism is embedded in tastes and possibilities of its participants. However, even if the use of filters and geotagging are ways to “show off,” which is not in the best interests of the poorest, it could still reveal if poverty is likeable or accepted.

In the end, I targeted the display of personality directly from the content of users’ publications. On the one hand, this approach has not allowed me to extrapolate to the whole issue of social media usage by favela-based users. On the other, it was not possible to assume that every social user was living de facto in a favela, I had to be limit my use to references to the geographical favela. Let’s see some results.

Representing and self-representing

This repeated display of personality could be captured through practices of representing or self-representing. 

Representing on a media perspective exists in the well-watched telenovelas, for example, which has mirrored the life of millions as soft, sympathetic and suburban-like in Avenida Brasil. Internationally, favelas could be stages for drug dealing and violent police Films such as in films such as City of God or Elite Troop. Those are representations.

Then, self-representing appeared as the opposite of these generalist portraits. If not entirely contradicting this past of injustice and violence seen in the favelas, self-representing constantly pointed to the unmaking of the hegemonic face of poverty.  In this sense, I tried to build
not only how poverty defines online personality, but how it leads to other roles and responsibilities assumed by such producers.

Self-representing, whether by expressions, images, and roles described in this content, led me into three main roles that emerge as the contemporary possibilities of the favelado once he or she assumes the control of its authorship. In my First Monday article, I described these roles in its entirety. Below I give you a brief description:

Favela media producers as leaders

Personality in favelas is historically tied to past models of community leadership. While calling themselves journalists, bloggers, and content producers, media producers from favelas distance themselves from the image of these leaders. In other words, there was no evidence that the former individuals have had any influence over interviewed producers through any platform.

In reality, much of what producers have mentioned is about being themselves with their personal habits and tastes. This ‘individuality’ comes up as opposed to speaking on the citizens’ behalf. Fewer producers have said to feel proud of the individuals that used to speak on behalf of the favela, but in a memorialising way.

Favela media producers as journalists

I did not sight that what I conceptualised as ‘self-representation’ is still an advanced affordance that might not be available for all the citizens, as it was for the interviewees. However, those which have voiced it out had positioned themselves as if belonging to a fusion of journalist and amateur content producer.

In fact, media studies literature has said much on the re-invention of alternative media producers as journalists, as well as on how fluid are the barriers of the profession. But as a self-representation, being a journalist has meant a range of things, from informing (in partnership with the mainstream media or not) to finding what to do, organising events, claiming importance. Poverty as a topic of their practice has been directly associated with each producers’ publication.

Favela media producers as culture promoters

Some content has indeed displayed personality in a more conventional way. By doing what they call ‘showing off’, favela media producers could not escape from posting pictures of their stay in whatever hotel rooms they were in (some of whom do it for the first time), or underlining their consumerism habits.

By doing so, they try to bridge their personality with the average middle-class person personality. The difference is that they also open space for burst pipes leaking water, or for the shootings in their communities. There is much of sharing of the Sunday’s barbecue or the pagode in the middle of the streets as it has of bodies lying on the pavement.

Conclusion: New forms of personalising the periphery

The approximation of poverty from social media platforms happens to the extent that these platforms allow these interspersions between the soft and hard aspect of life; whether the favela personality is based on rap, hip-hop, funk, and on transgender singers or personality as a range of constraints faced on first hand (although it is evident that this is persistently their ‘real’ life.)

Thanks to social media, I argue, personality exists in individuals’ well-known hardship, but as different forms of authorship spread through the Internet, the narrative of pleasure and power mingles one of oppression and fear, being the latter increasingly losing ground to the former.

This phenomenon I called the “personalisation of the periphery” which praises individualism and merit but also allows leadership, journalism, and culture amid an increasingly mediatised battle against urban chaos and violence.

In sum, the online favela tends to reduce the cult of the charismatic community leader. This image might still echo on the mass media, but it says more about the mainstream media inability to truly engage with dwellers’ emerging personalities than it denies the existence of more nuances of the process (the new soap operas do not necessarily address these individuals, as seen in other studies.)

In this way, even under several limitations of social media as a representational tool of poverty, this contrast between soft and hard aspects of the discourse has the fluid personality from these communities as the main phenomenon, which deserves a further exploration.

In times of political crisis, could this favela personality change towards a more politicised self? Could it forge a political voice amid the current right-wing turmoil? Could it stop the capture by consumerist forces? All these questions demand scholars’ engagement in methods and scope.

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Between methods and “inner experience”: The challenges of studying sexuality

In “Eroticism”, Georges Bataille discusses the need for methods and even science when approaching sex and sexuality. He argues that studying such subjective phenomenon, one could quit objective resources: data, methods, and traceability. One could, instead, use as scientific research oneself’s “inner” experience. As human beings, we have all experienced some erotic situation. In this case, it is a matter of how to transmit that knowledge. 

For Bataille, to communicate what one understands as eroticism, a realm close to that of religion, is to admit that “neither philosophy nor science can answer the questions that religious aspirations have set us.” On the other hand, while every scholar is acquainted with erotic experiences as any other human being is, we can neither stop behaving as subjects, not refrain from talking experience:

“My inquiry, then, based essentially on inner experience, springs from a different source from the work if religious, historians, ethnographers, and theologists. No doubt men working in these fields did have to ask whether they could assess the data under their consideration independently of the inner experience which on the one hand they share with their contemporaries and on the other resulted to some degree from their personal experiences modified by contact with the world constituting their fields of study (…)”

Bataille then hints at an alternative, to map “coincidences”:

“This difficulty is a general one, though it is relatively simple for me to imagine in what way my own inner experience coincides with that of other people and in what way it enables me to communicate with them.”

By the end of the book, he ponders on how research difficulties emerge even for those who try to study sexuality from a neutral point of view:

“If we affirm that guilty sexuality can be regarded as innocently material, our awareness, far from seeing sexual life as it is, neglects entirely those disturbing aspects which do not fit in with a clear picture. A clear picture is actually the first requirement but because of this, the truth escapes notice. Such aspects, felt to be accursed, remain in the twilight where are a prev to horror and anguish. By exonerating our sexual life from every trace of guilty science has no chance of seeing for what it is. Our ideas are clarified but at the cost of being blinkered. Science with its emphasis on precision cannot grasp the complexity of the system in which a few factors are pushed to extremes when it rejects the blurred and distinct realities of sexual life.”

Excerpt from:
Bataille, G. (2001). Eroticism, trans. Mary Dalwood. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Reading Stuart Hall in 2017

Two fresh publications feature the life and work of academic and postcolonial thinker Stuart Hall: Familiar Stranger (Allen Lane) and Selected Writings (Duke University Press). Both were reviewed by Tony Jefferson for a recent edition of Theory, Culture, and Society. On Familiar Stranger we find:

“Originally conceived more than 20 years ago as a short dialogue outlining Hall’s intellectual trajectory, it grew to a manuscript of ‘over 300,000 words’(xiv) at the time of Hall’s death in 2014. Schwarz was then faced with a massive editing job and then, after discussing with the publishers, recasting everything ‘as a first-person narrative’(xv). The fact that it reads so smoothly is a testimony to Schwarz’s labour and his ability to ventriloquize Hall: ‘Some parts are verbatim, while many others have been constructed from fragments’(xv).”

Indeed, after reading this first book, it is evident that Hall’s depth and originality feels much untouched, even though Schwarz, the editor, admits in the preface to have worked hard to glue what were actually multiple excerpts. In fact, some parts were actually collected by email or during conversations, as Stuart Hall’s health deteriorated, delaying the book’s launch. The editor’s strategy has made the whole thing make sense as the book reads according to the sequence of Hall’s life in the UK. On Selected Political Writings, it is said:

There are seven essays on ‘The New Left and after’, eleven on ‘Thatcherism’ and three on ‘NeoLiberalism’, which are book ended by a concise contextualising ‘Introduction’ by the editors and an unfussily succinct ‘Afterword’ overviewing ‘Stuart Hall as a political intellectual’ by Michael Rustin. 54 years separate the first and last essay; but you would hardly know it. The themes are those thrown up by the changing political scene: changes in political parties (like post-war changes in the Conservative party, the birth of Thatcherism, the crisis of Labourism, the formation of a new social democratic bloc, New Labour); broader shifts (e.g. in class relations, political commitment, the New Left, racism, the growth of authoritarianism, new times, neoliberalism); and dramatic events (like the Cuban crisis). But the continuity in approach is remarkable.

This remarkable political trajectory is another chapter of the complex genius of Hall’s. In the end of the books, the reader will have witnessed a kind, but profoundly aware individual on the limitations of life in the so-imagined metropolis. At the same time these limitations aren’t enough to stop what turned out to be a strong engagement and frenetic militancy, to the extent that it often overshadowed that of the native inhabitants of the ex-Empire. As Jefferson asserts on Hall’s multiple lives:

Add to this the ‘double consciousness’ of a diasporic intellectual and one can begin to see the origins of an expanded view of the political and impatience with reductive thought of any kind.

The full review can be accessed here. To complete Hall’s deserved revival in Brexit Britain of 2017, a podcast presented by Ben Carrington fleshes out the multiple impressions Hall has caused during his academic life. Here, there are debates on immigration, racism, colonialism, and conscious Marxism that emerge in the voice of his ex-work partners, colleagues, and admirers. It is really worth listening, delivered in a fine-cut radio show in accessible and didactic format for non-UK spectators.

 

Book review: Activism on the web – Everyday struggles against digital capitalism by Veronica Barassi

As we witness phenomena such as Momentum, Labour’s digital assemblage that pushed for Jeremy Corbyn in the 2017 General Election, we might want to remove digital activism out of commonplace. Beyond the rhetorics of the “phenomenon”, “social media-led change”, scholars have challenged the actual ICTs penetration in these activist realms by contrasting their relationship with digital capitalism. To what extent can they become bedfellows on what concerns commoditization, immediacy, and “digital labour”? These are central questions for Veronica Barassi in Digital Activism on the Web: Every Day Struggles Against Digital Capitalism.

This is an ethnography of three distinct groups of activists. First, she studies a UK-based initiative aimed at working for a positive image of Cuba, much connected to the UK left. The second one is a young collective battling for better public spaces in Milan. And the third NGO is based in Madrid, with the purpose of promoting politicized ecological discussions.

Barassi sees a gap in critical theories of the digital as they fail to address realistic settings. This could be solved by delving into the political roots of activists/users, inquiring into the self-referential language of the social networks. This failure at going deeper with what activists do, developing a closer look at their history and sense of strategy once on social media, for example. That could reverse the trend of having “thin” approaches to digital activism, as a “thick” approach would be one of more empiricism, cataloguing behaviours, mapping the real intention behind the use of digital assets in the everyday activism. To what extent participants are conscious not only of technologies, but of its implications, such as the evils from digital capitalism.

Indeed, digital capitalism can be a rather controversial concept. Barassi resolves it by furnishing her activist ethnography with three stable notions. By assigning categories such as the “self-centred communication and individualism”, followed by the “user-generated data to profit”, which leads to a discussion on “digital labour”, we are guided through the principles of her exploration. Aware that these areas are also objects of unresolved disputes among scholars, Barassi opens these concepts to further interpretations. In dialogue with similar explorations of networked activism, as seen in Castells (2011) or, more recently, in Gerbaudo (2012), Barassi’s attempt to rethink some of such meanings seems more settled as a kind of anthropological perception.

The author first focuses on activists’ self-projection through digital tools. The book skips normative divides such as the “new” and the “old”, “networked” or “non-networked” movements, as that would be to otherwise confirm a “thin” perception. Instead, We find the interesting idea of media imaginaries. While not necessarily connected with the digital capitalism discussion, we understand, for example, the reasons why a white-male group of activists from the UK has sought to transpose an “ideal” of Cuba to the heart of British politics. Crossing present, past, and future scenarios into the same media imaginaries appears as a key resource for them.

Back to the digital problem, Barassi’s ethnography intends to avoid a techno-determinist approach. For that reason, details on activist organizations emerge here as a priority for the study, as well as discussions on their routines. This conscious focus on the “human” part to some extent contrasts when activists admit that the Internet has” radically changed every day practices” (54);  it does not get clear how exactly this came to happen or to what degree their role as ordinary Internet users coexists with that of activists, or if both remain the same.

Barassi comes to later concede that activists switch between both receptors and participants of the technological agency.  However, likening activists’ opinion on technology with ideas of adoptions or concessions with the digital capitalism discourse seems a bit of a stretch. We risk to naturalize the action of corporate Internet giants, such as Google, by assuming that some of its interventions over people’s lives are not our concessions (browse on it, for example), while other actions (advertising, marketization) are so. The premises according to which one considers what digital capitalism is and where it extends to, how it is perceived, would need a bit more of development, under the risk of becoming too arbitrary.

On the other hand, by interpreting the interplay between activism and digital life through ethnographic data, we learn that activists are prone to negotiate the technological agency along with other values. Technology is the advent that gives a contemporary shape to their gestures, but which does not affect a hard, long-standing political core. Barassi treats this duality very well by allowing the digital discourse to be a  “contested space of meaning” (60). At one level the role of the corporate web is expected and pictured by the activists, at another, this is about each user’s idea of what the digital means to their lives.

Two final points approach the pressures from technology and its effects. The first one is about the “self-centred” nature of social media as an attitude-influencer. We realize that activists are rather critical of the “networked, individualist self” of the web, but that opinion seems to appear marginally, or on a case-by-case basis. In other words, activists might be self-centred, but a narcissist social media does not seem to affect collective processes of meaning and engagement, as they continue to acting as regular users.

On digital labour, insofar as no real consensus exists on this controversial topic, this book does not seem to side with the “techno-optimist” theses. Whether by clicking and liking exists as a type of work or not, digital labour embodies a rather virtual concern to the activists. Regardless of the kind of digital labour we are talking about, participants argue on the creation of a different type of “value”. Eventually, this particular kind of labour will not necessarily follow a capitalist logic, rather, it resembles a  representational goal, aimed at mocking “social worlds”, not necessarily a sort of production system (96).

As seen, activists’ accounts can inform the limits of the digital media usage, but it also sets the limits to scholars appropriation of this topic because it leads them to conform with much subjectivy from each user. Social movements’ action suggest much more complexity of terms such as digital labor, individualism, or immediacy than one would imagine. Therefore I wonder if an ethnographic approach is still what best suits this study. In reality, conversations have better worked to show that discussions on technology happen at a different pace when consumerism and technology are confronted with the activism reality. The book could have been slightly bolder by trying to translate other adoptions or refusals by activists, yet it shows a good use of the ethnographic when it focuses on purpose, rather than to confirm patterns for use of technology. 

It is noteworthy that the author can give a fascinating account from the ground. By visiting meetings, closely talking to activists, or relating to their past or present experiences, Barassi creates a valuable set of data that is captured under non-spectacular, media-oriented circumstances. Pity that the constant reference to “capitalist” discourses seems to lack echo in many of the activists’ testimonials. Instead of “digital capitalism”, activists seem to cope with the pressures of a generic “digital mind-set”, which may rival their old principles and offline loyalties.

The approach for activist magazines at the end of the book gives us a quick glance on how the legacy of struggle is far from being memorabilia. This part deserved to be further extended, perhaps by extracting more discourses from their past and comparing what we have in the present, if this doesn’t make another study. Overall, Barassi’s book has succeeded in demonstrating that, as far as activists acknowledge the pressures to adjust to a world of constant “new” digital capital, they also embody an ambiguous, slow-paced analogic side. In these negotiations, one must not assume that sides – pro or con – will be necessarily chosen. In that sense, Barassi’s book is a balanced and realistically grounded exercise.

 

References

Barassi, V. (2015). Activism on the web: Everyday struggles against digital capitalism. Routledge.

Castells, M. (2011). The rise of the network society: The information age: Economy, society, and culture (Vol. 1). John Wiley & Sons.

Downing, J. D. (2000). Radical Media: Rebellious Communication and Social Movements: Rebellious Communication and Social Movements. Sage Publications.

Gerbaudo, P. (2012). Tweets and the streets: Social media and contemporary activism. Pluto Press.