Why We Post – Week 2

What does social media look like?

flickr photo by remmerysilke https://flickr.com/photos/silkeremmery/15856169578 shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

This week were introduced to two more of the field sites (Italy and Trinidad) and covered the topics of social visibility, memes and values, and illiteracy. Here are the main points from the end of section summary:

  • Social media has led to a growth in visual communication
  • We cannot assume that any form of visual posting has the same global implications
  • The meme is an important new genre of communication that helps people express their values.
  • We should not dismiss visual forms of communication as superficial
  • One possible consequence of this increased visibility is that, in some contexts, this may lead to increasing conformity and the suppression of difference.

Although familiar with selfies of course, I also learned about groupies, uglies and footies. (And now I can see the Carry On film scriptwriters hastily sharpening their pencils!)

Cultivating one’s appearance is more significant in some societies than others and rather than viewing this as narcissistic behaviour as I might do from a stereotypically British (old man’s) perspective, it’s clear that in some cultures, spending time on the image you portray is a norm and an expectation. In some cultures, posting images is more about illustrating the everyday, whilst in others it’s related to aspiration. Perhaps as we craft our personas through the use of selfies, post our sports performances on Strava, repost memes, upload photos of the things we’ve made/built, what we’re actually doing is building a social CV? We’re aiming for a different (larger?) audience than we would with a traditional CV, and are more comfortable posting more publicly? Another illustration of scalable sociality?

I’d never really thought about memes in such a serious way. Although I’d come across Lolcats (including in a serious context!) and certainly noticed that people posted other humorous or inspirational images, I’d never actually thought about what that meant. I certainly never considered it might be a means of expressing one’s values, or testing one’s values against those with whom one associates socially. To what end though I wonder? Is it a way of refining or filtering one’s circle of associates? Those who retweet or ‘Like’ what I’m posting agree with my views, and those who don’t simply ‘Unfollow?’ Is it the means by which we find those like-minded individuals who share our values, or as one of my online friends put it “a way to encourage people to conform to your morals/ priorities/ outlook?”

This week’s activities centred on visual imagery, including memes, but I wondered whether whether textual memes served a similar function? Within my ‘community’ on Twitter, hashtags are sometimes used in a similar way to meme images; to express values, share opinion and test reactions. They are reshared, and move across and within the community in the same way as memes, but perhaps also serve additional functions. The #FF (Follow Friday) meme might be said to serve several social functions, whilst there are those focused more tightly on educational topics (#pedagoo), political issues (#brexit) or simply for fun (#ExplainAFilmPlotBadly). Perhaps they act as the small talk which lubricates trust, as Rheingold and Weeks (2012) suggest?

I think I’m just starting to become more comfortable with ‘scalable sociality.’ Being able to express an opinion through social media using memes perhaps illustrates one of the ways in which social media extend our sociality? It does this in (at least) three ways: introducing a visual element (enriching); opening a channel which might not otherwise be available (such as for ‘shy or reluctant’ people); and enabling access to a wider audience.
Perhaps there’s (even) more to social media than I originally thought.

Reflections: Discussions

As I mentioned last week, I find the discussions fascinating from several perspectives: how my own thinking about social media is challenged; the observations I make as a reflective course participant; and finally as a researcher thinking what these things mean for his own research.

A couple of simple observations have struck me this week. I see very few people with a complete profile; only about half have uploaded a profile pic and only a handful have added a bio. I guess I was expecting more from people who are interested in social media, though of course their interest may stem from being a novice who is keen to find out more. Something which surprised me in the opposite sense was how many have participated in other FutureLearn MOOCs, as listed automatically in their profile. I found several who have over twenty listed, though it’s hard to establish whether they completed the courses, or just peeped in through the door.

It’s also possible from people’s profiles to view their activity. Once more with the caveat that this is just an impressionistic observation, it seems that responding to what other people have posted seems to be relatively rare and in most cases, little more than a ‘Like.’ Activity streams largely suggest people respond to the question(s) posed at the end of each activity, whilst paying little attention to what others have posted. That inattention can also be found in what they post. For example, in exercise 2.13 we were asked:

In your opinion, do you think social media has increased people’s ambitions and expectations, since they are confronted by so many of these aspirational images posted by others?

Many participants went on to simply give examples of memes in their contexts, avoiding the question altogether. One is left to wonder to what extent they are engaging with the course. Perhaps they’re simply participating on their own terms; there’s no set of expectations specified prior to commencing the course, so they’re of course at liberty to do that. One might argue that the course has been designed from a social constructivist standpoint; so what effect does it have on other learners if the majority (of visibly active participants) choose to plough their own furrow? I wonder too about the message this sends to the course designer(s) and what they learn from it?

Reflections: Global aspects

I suspect that a good number of participants on the course, whilst aware that they’re in an international community, have failed to appreciate the significance of this. For example, when a question is posed which asks us about an aspect of social media within our local context, people often respond with “Here, we find that …” without actually mentioning where “here” is, thus making further comment more challenging. The differences in our cultures and circumstances were brought sharply home to me in a couple of ways. In one particular discussion thread there were two consecutive posts, one discussing the political instability and unrest in Rio and the next about jokes, cat memes and selfies with friends. In another thread, I came across a post from someone from the arab world who in discussing an aspect of social media, almost casually mentioned the difference ‘the bombing’ makes.

It’s important to remember too that, though the course is conducted in English, this may not be the first language for many fellow participants. Nuances of translation leave plenty of scope for misunderstanding. Perhaps that might be one reason why there are fewer responses and replies than I was expecting? People are reticent about causing offence? That could hardly be an excuse however for the behaviour of the first, what I would class as objectionable participant I’ve encountered. He has very little to say that isn’t dismissive, inconsiderate or disrespectful to others, whilst staying just this the right side of downright unpleasantness. Electing to participate in a social media course centred on research conducted using anthropological methodology, then adopting a realist, positivist epistemological stance, might not be the wisest of choices. Although everyone is entitled to their own views, including being critical, there are acceptable ways by which they might be expressed. Maybe I’m old-fashioned? Hell, there’s no maybe about it!

What’s becoming increasingly clear to me as this course unfolds, is how little I know about the general use of social media, in comparison with my specific use. So when we’re asked at the end of an activity about our opinions on one of the findings, based on our own social media use, I find I’m struggling. The specifically educational context within which my social media use is located may not be reflective of social media use more widely, even if that ‘more widely’ is restricted solely to the UK context. Perhaps then, that’s an area for me to reflect on as we move forward – to what extent and in what ways are the behaviours emerging from this study to be found within my educational social media bubble?


RHEINGOLD, Howard and WEEKS, Anthony (2012). Net smart: How to thrive online. MIT Press.

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