Why We Post – Week 1

What is the anthropology of social media?

This week we will introduce you to the work of our nine anthropologists around the world and will challenge your assumptions about social media.

This first week was about setting the scene: introducing the course and what we might mean by social media; introducing the concept of “scalable sociality”; different social media platforms and the role they play (or don’t); how we might approach studying social media; and introducing the English field site. There were eighteen activities, each having some form of stimulus (mainly readings or short videos, as with many MOOCs of this type) and usually closing with a question or two which we participants were invited to answer in the discussion (each exercise had it’s own associated discussion thread.

I have to say I found myself thinking far more about the topics themselves, than reflecting on the process of learning this way. I found myself drawn into the subject matter, perhaps because it is so close to my own area of research. I’ve found the discussion threads fascinating; from the range of responses to the depth of some of them. Anecdotally I’d say there are far more longer responses than in any the discussion threads of any of the other MOOCs I’ve done. Is that the nature of this particular topic, the participants it has attracted or the way in which the questions have been asked? I found myself spending much longer responding to others posts than writing my own. Perhaps that’s partly the teacher in me coming out? Attempting to help people recalibrate their thinking? Hopefully not trying to inflict my opinions on them! With three or four hundred posts in each discussion, I felt I could spend the week’s allocation of time in a single thread, asking people for further details or clarification of their posts and following up to those responses. Is this the researcher in me coming out? Flexing my participant observer muscles?

The key element in this week’s topics was to introduce scalable sociality, presented as a definition for social media. I was left rather perplexed though that I never came across what I would call a definition. What it appears to be however is a composite of two dimensions: private/public, audience size. A post in a public arena, to ‘the whole world’ would then perhaps represent one end of the dual scale, whilst a private matter shared with a single friend would be the other. Here’s how I began to realise the notion of scalable sociality by focusing on Twitter and Email:

Derived from the concept of scalable sociality.
(Click to visit the origin)

An email begins life as a private message to a single person which is visible to no-one else. It could of course be sent to multiple people, but private to them. Once sent however, the sender loses control and the notion of privacy may begin to evaporate. A great deal depends on the norms and expectations of those involved, and the degree of trust they have one another. Though other recipients of an email may distribute it more widely, there is no inherent functionality however, for sharing it beyond those whose email addresses the sender possesses.
Twitter similarly relies to some extent on trust. A direct message (DM) is meant for the eyes of a single person only and has no one-click function to pass it on in the same way that email has. Directing tweets at a person (@person) indicates the message is for them and limits the potential audience somewhat, but safe in the knowledge that other people will be able to see the message and perhaps join in the conversation (Can be compared with a chat between two people in a group of friends who are meeting in a public place). Hashtag chats are completely open public meetings where anyone might view the tweets, and where the hashtag simply serves the purpose of allowing people to congregate around the topic and follow it more easily. Standard tweets have no sense of privacy and are broadcast to the whole of Twitter and beyond.

Having thought about the the topics studied, let me now turn to the means by which people participate, as opposed to just consuming the resources.


Since they are such an integral part of this MOOC, I thought it might be interesting to capture a snapshot of what the discussions look like. These are the results as of 07/03/2016:

Without specifying what each exercise involved, offering an interpretation might not be valid, however we can see a general fall off towards the end of the week; decline from the initial enthusiasm when all is new? Each exercise averaged around 400 to 500 posts, of which some are responses to the posts of other people. It could be argued that responding in this way represents a more engaged (Deeper? More sophisticated?) level of learning; wanting to test your own knowledge and understanding against that of others. Has this person misunderstood the question or have I failed to interpret it correctly. Is my understanding of this concept only partial or skewed? These things cannot be established if all you do is put your thoughts out there; you may not know whether you have grasped something until you engage with someone else, challenge their thinking or allow them to challenge yours.

It might be interesting then to drill down a little further into the comments and explore the extent to which people might be attempting interchange of ideas. These are the results for Exercise 1.9 (as of 07/03/2016):

There were 329 posts which didn’t attract a response; the chart shows the number of each multi-threaded post. There were 31 posts with a single reply, around 8% of the total. 17 posts attracted more than one reply and one produced a string of thirteen responses, in which four people participated in an extended discussion. Whether that picture is repeated across the other exercises can’t be known without further study. Without a closer inspection it’s also difficult to say what proportion of the total number of course participants posted or replied. These figures numbers which might be more meaningful and helpful to the course leaders; what interests me more is what people are posting and why.

There’s a wide variety of posts, from the brief ‘Nice video’ through to posts which overrun the 1200 character limit and which spill into a second post. Sometime people post general observations about that sub-topic, though more usually answer the question(s) posed at the close of the activity. Some go little further than to restate the topic of the exercise, others express opinions prompted by the topic and question, whilst some attempt to engage with the question on a deeper level, drawing together the information in the exercise with prior knowledge and experiences. Like the computing courses I’ve done before, there are clearly some participants who already have a good deal of expertise within this subject area. Thinking as a learner, albeit hopefully as a fairly sophisticated one, I find that mix in capability of my peers quite potent. I’m often challenged by the posts of others who move my thinking on by providing perspectives I hadn’t considered. I’d also argue however that I derive value from those perhaps less familiar with the topic than I am, since I find myself seeking the appropriate words to help them in their thinking … but again, that might just be me as a teacher. I suspect most participants don’t see things like that though, so there are consequences for us all as learners, but doubtless too for the course leaders. Do they design with the tendency towards individuality in mind, or do they actually see the peer support aspects as important and design opportunities in to encourage that … but perhaps more importantly, help the learners understand how to learn in this way? I suspect (though can’t confirm) the educational experiences of the majority of participants will be of a traditional, teacher-led classroom. How difficult, or easy, does learning come to them through this type of course?

This type of learning is guided self-study, supported by peers. That’s where the value comes – from engaging with others. At least that’s how things are for me, but I also have to recognise that may not be the case for all; perhaps even for the majority? My research study has led me to consider that some people gain benefit as ‘lurkers.’ The really tricky bit is finding out what that benefit is, because lurkers are, by their very nature, difficult to monitor, or even to trace. Nonnecke et al (2004) caution that lurking behaviour can be both advantageous and detrimental, to both participants individually and the community as a whole. In some circumstances, adopting strategies to encourage lurkers to post is necessary, whilst in others (especially large, active communities) lurking may be preferable for all concerned. I’m beginning to see that apparent non-participation or lurking is an area I’ll need to revisit in my own research.

I’m looking forward to Week 2, exploring other field sites, digging further into the above issues and doubtless unearthing some new ones. #Hooked


NONNECKE, Blair, ANDREWS, Dorine and PREECE, Jenny (2006). Non-public and public online community participation: Needs, attitudes and behavior. [online]. Electronic commerce research, 6 (1), 7-20.


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