Why We Post – Week 4

Week 4 opened by introducing two more field sites, this time both from a single country, albeit in China, a large one! One rural site was juxtaposed with an urban one, though the latter was rather unusual in that it focused on those workers who had migrated to the city and were making the transition to becoming urban, whilst maintaining links with their roots.

There were four topics that these field sites were used to illustrate: polymedia, education, commerce and privacy.


In one of the early discussion threads on this topic, a fellow participant suggested that multi- and polymedia might be one and the same. Until I read that comment, I’d assumed I understood the distinction between the two, based on the information we had been provided. When I thought about whether to respond, I realised I didn’t really understand, which then prompted me to look further into it. I found the distinction on Wikipedia, but also, perhaps more appropriately, from the research which preceded this study.

It was also within the discussion on this topic that someone referred out to a particular research article available from Language@Internet Journal – potentially useful source of which I’d previously been unaware.


Having an extensive background in education, I was the wrong person to be looking at the activities in this topic. Like many MOOCs of this nature, the course designers are producing activities aimed at a general audience. Since I’m a little further forward in my thinking, there wasn’t much new for me here.

I found there was a tendency to mix together the two terms education and learning. Whilst one might argue that the two are at least somewhat related, because they are two different phenomena, the effects of social media on each are different I’d argue. I also baulked a little at the introduction of informal and formal learning, without specifying how they’re different and just assuming participants would tacitly know the difference. After providing some illustrations, this question was then posed:

How do you think social media is changing the relationships between students, teachers and parents where you are?

which isn’t particularly closely related to informal and formal learning. I ought to be able to void being somewhat critical here, but I guess it was just too precious a topic.


Unsurprisingly I found this less controversial than the education topic, and once more had my eyes opened to differences in cultural norms around the world. I had never been aware of the differences associated with the gifting of money on special occasions. Although we do that here in the UK, the attitude towards the practice is somewhat different I’d contend.

I was also struck by one of the illustrative examples which involved a young chinese woman describing how a friend used Wechat as a business platform to sell trinkets she had imported from Korea. This had some resonance for me; it’s only recently that I mentored a young chinese student whose project involved something similar – using social media as a storefront for the jewellery she was making.


Having recently read and written at length about privacy in the context of ethics, it was interesting (unsettling?) to find how other cultures have completely different attitudes to privacy. In rural China for example, where people have been brought up in societies where families are nuclear and share space intimately, privacy as a notion does not exist. The arrival of smartphones and online accounts is beginning to challenge that however. Conversely, our (eurocentric) notions of privacy are beginning to tighten as we fear intrusion from the state and from commercial enterprises. I wonder if this means my ethical submission needs a revisit?


It’s strange how our familiarity or prior experience with a topic might prejudice our attitude to further study. Education has provided me with a career for the past ahem years, but as a consequence I may have been somewhat less receptive towards (or more critical of?) material on that topic. And yet despite the recent extensive reading I’ve done on ethics, without this course, I would never have come across a different conception of privacy. A salutary warning I’m sure.

A couple of fellow participants once more provided a mild source of irritation, being critical as they were of the facilitators’ lack of presence. Even if that were true, which in my opinion it wasn’t, although supporting the course might be part of their duties, at the end of the day we’re participating in a FREE course! With extensive FREE support materials! What more can you ask?

Why We Post – Week 3

The Impact of social media on politics and gender

flickr photo by UN Women Gallery https://flickr.com/photos/unwomen/5475551048 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-ND) license

This week’s field sites were a city in southeast Turkey and five villages in south India associated with a high-tech development centred. The findings from the study which we discussed over the course of the week included:

  • Public spaces on social media tend to conform more to the locally dominant social norms; and more private spaces on social media tend to include more alternative expression of gender and politics.
  • Social media is a technology that allows things to happen easily and this leads to it being a double-edged sword.
  • Scalable sociality as a means to increase the distance between the private and the public.

The two themes discussed in this week’s exercises are more sensitive issues, which presented me with an additional issue to consider. I’ve always been incredibly careful about what I post online, whether through social media or not, so I try to steer clear of topics which might result in someone developing a view of me I would not prefer. If for example I expressed particular views on ‘Brexit,’ immigration or the Health Service, then I would be concerned that someone would be uncomfortable with the views I espoused. Strangely, I’m far less worried about doing that offline, where I have the freedom to explain at greater length, to have the luxury of being able to gauge the mood and where I can quickly deal with any misunderstandings.

It is perhaps not surprising to find that readily sharing political views varies across cultures around the world. In some areas, expressing a particular view can attract unwelcome attention from the state or in some cases, more local sources of authority. The freedom to express our views is largely taken for granted here in the UK, but are not universally enjoyed. For some, social media have been liberating, providing a communication channel they never had previously. Others worry about the public exposure their views would receive, compared with airing them within the family home or local coffee shop. Scalable sociality once more comes into play, since thoughtful and considered use of social media enables the selection of different audiences, with different levels of public-private exposure. Interestingly, in the discussions, several people remarked how rapidly one’s views can be distributed. There are advantages and disadvantages here, but it’s worth considering whether rate of distribution might be another dimension within scalable sociality. To what extent is the speed with which your views spread under your control?


The discussion posts related to politics entangled within social media taught me more about life in other countries than I could ever have expected. I never realised the situation in Brazil was so tense and so polarised. In fact it was only when I caught a world news slot on the mainstream media quite late in the week that I became aware of the political turmoil there. It was interesting to balance that overview from the perspective of British media with the ‘inside’ view of Brazilians posted in the discussions.

I was intrigued by how some fellow course members responded to the views of one of the Indian field site interviewees. He had intimated that some of his friends didn’t know how to use Facebook. My peers remarked how strange it was to think there might be a right or wrong way, which prompted me to think whether there a different way of thinking about this might be as multiple Facebooks. I discussed this at (much!) greater length here.

In a previous post I mentioned a fellow course member with particularly entrenched views. Although I had originally not intended to engage him, eventually I gave way … and was glad to have done so. I found that seeking to pose an alternative view, in the most respectful way possible, required me to revisit my own knowledge and positionality. Similarly, when I came across another post critical of the research methodology in the study, I found that before responding, I needed to review and refresh what I know about ethnography and to seek out further information. I didn’t just blindly respond with my opinion. This supplementary activity actually resulted in me unearthing new insights for which I was grateful.

With the halfway point of the course now passed, I’m starting to notice the same ‘regulars’ posting comments. I don’t often see new people, so I assume those who were going to stick around have stuck around. I wonder too whether people largely have a pattern to their studies? Some might have blitzed through all the materials at the start. Others might be working at the weekly pace, but within that may have their own patterns; working at the weekends for example. If you do develop a routine though, that means that you’re more likely to encounter others who have adopted a similar routine. Does this mean you’re restricting the number of people with whom you can interact? I guess it depends on the extent to which you can scroll through all the comments made in a particular exercise, and whether those people who did the work a while ago are still around to answer any questions you posed to them?

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.

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.

Why We Post – Introduction


Discover the varying uses of social media around the world and its consequences for politics, relationships and everyday life. This free online course is based on the work of nine anthropologists who each spent 15 months in fieldsites in Brazil, Chile, industrial and rural China, England, India, Italy, Trinidad and Turkey.

The team of anthropologists, headed by Daniel Miller, produced eleven freely available books, which together with this course aim to disseminate their findings in a rather innovative way … socially?

This is a five week course, each week focusing on a particular theme arising from the different field sites:
Week 1 – What is the anthropology of social media?
Week 2 – What does social media look like?
Week 3 – The impact of social media on gender and politics.
Week 4 – The Chinese Challenge
Week 5 – Social media and social mobility

There are around twenty activities within each week; these consist of video provocations or readings, each drawn from the field or the findings. Each activity has an associated discussion thread where participants can post comments or observations, or answer the questions posed which formed part of the activity, Naturally they can also comment on each others’ posts and thereby enter into discussions. It will be interesting to see how successful this is, given the topic of the course. Will it have attracted people who are naturally more inclined towards online contributions and interactions?

My positionality

There are a number of threads behind my decision to participate in this course, beginning with my interest in MOOCs. From the early days when Siemens and Downes first coined the term to describe their innovative online offering, I’ve been intrigued by their (potential) massiveness, openness and potential for provoking teachers and learners to reconsider the way they teach and learn. What does it mean to learn (or teach) within a community of hundreds or thousands? How does the presence of learners from a wide range of cultures, of different ages and with different capabilities, needs and backgrounds with respect to the topic, affect the learning experience. To what extent is it possible (or necessary?) to build trust and learning relationships with peers and tutors/facilitators in such a densely populated environment? How does the baggage of expectations based on traditional educational experiences affect participation and completion? Might MOOCs sit comfortably alongside more conventional offerings as an alternative strand, or are they provoking us to rethink what we do and the way we do it? These issues are being discussed in formal academic circles1, the media and across the blogosphere, including my modest offerings.

I’ve already participated in several MOOCs, bucking the trend by completing more than those where I dropped out. Some have been through the MOOC aggregation platforms like Coursera and FutureLearn, and have including ‘Computer Science 101,’ ‘An Introduction to Dutch’ and ‘Qualitative Research.’ Others have been smaller scale, more niche and from individual or institutional providers. With only a couple of exceptions, I’ve found them to have served my needs more than adequately … but that hinges on what my needs and expectations were and what I had in mind as success criteria.

My reasons for embarking on this course then include extending my experiences with MOOCs from the participant perspective, but crucially this is a topic which currently of importance to me in my formal studies. (And I’m immediately struck by my use of the word ‘formal’ and how I set it apart from my participation in this MOOC. Is one formal and the other not? Something to explore further.). I’m also attracted by the fact that the course ‘leader’ is Daniel Miller, who produced one of the seminal works associated with the early days of digital/virtual ethnography2. I guess that if you are familiar with his works, it conveys a sense of legitimacy or gravitas for the course.

In a rather timely doctoral supervision meeting this week, when I mentioned that I’d’ embarked on the MOOC, it was pointed out that this might also present an additional opportunity. To reflect on my experience as a learner within a larger community of learners, who are all focused on social media and are brought together within an environment which has several parallels with social media. It was suggested that it might prove illuminating to journal my participation, so what follows over forthcoming posts constitutes that process.


Although I don’t have access to any of the underlying data, it appears there are around 15000 participants, located around the globe (click the map to visit the ‘live’ version):

Locations of participants from around the world
Locations of participants from around the world

The distribution leaves much to discuss, as I’m sure the course leaders will be doing. Naturally, the UK features heavily and South America too, yet perhaps surprisingly, not its northern counterpart. Nor indeed Australia and New Zealand. I wonder if the map, representing only 10% of the participants, reflects the distribution of the population as a whole?

I’m participating in the English strand of the course, though I understand it is also being offered in several other languages, perhaps associated with the field sites? Any further observations then, will be based on what I’ve seen within the English strand and may not reflect what is happening across the others. Anecdotally, based solely on my observations in the discussion threads, I’d say there is a 4:1 female:male gender split, for which there may be a host of reasons. It’s hard to establish ages, but from profile pics (perhaps unlikely to be relaible for a number of reasons) there appears to be a range spanning young adults to those of us with more … experience.

In the next post, I’ll focus on the exercises within Week 1.

1LIYANAGUNAWARDENA, Tharindu Rekha, ADAMS, Andrew Alexandar and WILLIAMS, Shirley Ann (2013). MOOCs: A systematic study of the published literature 2008-2012. [online]. The international review of research in open and distributed learning, 14 (3), 202-227
2MILLER, Daniel and SLATER, Don (2000). The Internet : An Ethnographic Approach. [online]. Oxford, Oxford : Berg.