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Notes on the 14th digital ethnography reading (Haynes 2016)

October 18, 2016

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Haynes, N. (2016). Social Media in Northern Chile. London: UCL Press.

Summary of Chapter 3, “Virtual posting: the aesthetics of Alto Hospicio”, by John Postill

Introduction. p. 63. Visual homogeneity in Alto Hospicio (AH), northern Chile. Intriguing phrase: ‘normativity calls no attention to itself’, not even on Facebook. Aesthetics is the key to understanding citizenship, p. 64 – ‘it produces a certain form of citizenship’ [JP: what form? this point not developed in chapter].

Instagramming the uninteresting. p. 64. Selfies a good place to see ‘aesthetic normativity of social media’ in AH. Locals don’t do glamour, only minimal staging and effort put into it. Humorous take on narcissistic selfie, e.g. ‘footie’ (shared pictures of people’s feet), p. 66 which is just as normative as all else. p. 69 They capture the boredom of daily life in their photos. p. 70. Photo relation change in AH: from expensive recording of experience to cheap enhancing of it. p. 73. Very different from artie Instagram pictures of Santiago middle class.

Daily life and social class on social media. p. 76. AH people play down class/wealth differences, seen as ‘distasteful’. p. 77 Instead they stress commonalities, no stigma if poor or impoverished, e.g. someone who can no longer afford the internet. p. 78 They just laugh about it, e.g. with memes – p. 79 shared self-mockery. p. 79 Lilia uses Facebook to ‘patrol the boundaries of normativity’ e.g. stingy people who won’t share. [JP. Tensions, contradictions and conflict downplayed in this chapter?].

The joys of mediocrity. p. 79 They also perform their lack of life chances and aspirations. p. 80 memes once again. In 2014 Kermit the Frog memes all the rage. p. 82 In June-July 2013 contrast reality vs. aspiration memes were trendy, incl. health, body image, education (p. 85). Okay as long as ‘non-threatening to the core values at stake’ (p. 85).

Rethinking normative aesthetics. p. 86 There is a shared social script in AH. p. 87 Social media extends, not at odd with, daily life.

Seminar notes by Sharon Greenfield
PhD candidate, Digital Ethnography Research Centre (DERC)
RMIT University, Melbourne

The RMIT DERS group had the pleasure of reading and discussing Chapter 3 of Social Media in Northern Chile by Nell Haynes in the Why We Post Series on Sept 14th 2016 followed by a Q&A with the author via Skype from Chicago.

Within the discussion, the group had varying perceptions of the written text, and found it an interesting exercise in ethnography even though the book series itself intentionally does not engage with social media academic literatures. Because the group read only the one chapter, many of the inquiries we had were, according to the kind and informative conversation with the author, answered and had more depth of context in the other chapters. The main themes that the group picked up on and discussed were normativity and neoliberalism, context of objects, methodological clarity and analysis.

Normativity and neoliberalism

And for all the author’s expression of ‘normative’ aesthetics in Alto Hospicio, the group felt that there were undoubtedly underlying aesthetics there, just that they were not easily recognisable. For example, some wondered what were the different ways the miners represented themselves in clothes and image; since as a practice it’s often to the unfocused eye a very normative aesthetic, yet upon ethnographic research there can be found many differentiating aspects.

We also discussed the context behind this ‘normative’ aesthetic. The group wondered about the impact of the history of the area on social media usage, as a Chilean former area of protest against the military dictatorship of Pinochet ending in the early 90s. How did the area with socialist leanings, an economy based on mining workers, and a history of disappearances and tortures during the dictatorship have an effect on this ‘normativity’ and their social media use? Did what the author considered mundane or unassuming have a very real historically cultural reasoning behind it?

However, some felt that neoliberalism was an easy cop out. The ‘too neatly into the box of normativity’ conversation came up repeatedly, and how the conclusion was achieved. The group felt they wanted more of an analysis, and felt the ‘normative’ analysis a bit too easy.

From talk with the author the group found out that the introduction of the report itself set a tone for otherness which was missing in this chapter. The introduction set the scene well that the comradery with each other is an important value and in other chapters (6), the author does speak about class differences and other distinguishing factors even while painting the collective social identity as marginalised.

The group felt that, as image is part of practice, by focusing on image without the practice as context that it made the chapter feel a bit objectivist, and took for granted a lot of things which made the conclusions troubling.

While the author suggested that ‘humorous memes are important to Hospiceños because they allow for play’, the reading group felt that it’s the defining attribute of memes, not the culture, that allows for memes being OK to be over the top. So the data analysis of images here was questioned. However some in the group reminded that the author herself stated that memes were not performative, because they are by definition not an individual expression; they represent a collective feeling that can make individuals possibly seem less vulnerable. It’s just that the author felt that the memes ‘reinforced the sense of normativity, regardless of whether the individual feels constrained or comforted by it.’

Context of objects

In response to the objects themselves, the group questioned the chapter’s imagery and hashtag interpretation. While much of it is described as mundane, many felt that the context for the object making (FB or IG photos for example) was missing which was important to understanding the object. The group felt that the aesthetic interpretation of the objects were either unnecessary or incomplete in fully understanding the real data behind the objects/images.

For example, for the ‘footie’ images, some in the group felt that the context of the room, the environment, the weather, the room furniture, the actual individual, others in the room, and more factors were incredibly important context to the images themselves. And in addition, the very act of posting pictures – since not everyone has access to do so in their social-economic reality – the act itself was already was out of the mundane. Posting an image is just a tiny part of the image itself and oftentimes include a context that changes the significance or meaning to an image.

Methodological clarity and analysis

The group did wonder how far the author was embedded into the field site as it felt some of the findings seems to just grasp the veneer of the culture. For example, Chileans are known to have a specific sense of humour. There is often a sense of cultural self deprecation, which layers a context to many things they say and do. The group wondered if the researcher noticed this.

The author agreed there was often a joke, and that the participants would joke and then explain the joke to her in terms of context and meaning to them.

The author explained that in regards to the methodology, that at some point people stop being suspicious of you as a researcher and saying hello to the same people every morning was a way to mitigate the suspicious and quicken the immersion. Another way to immerse she did by living with a mining family for a few months.

Nell explained that the town Alto Hospicio in Northern Chile was very functional, and to her had a non aesthetic environment which seems to reflect on the people. She noted that they were proud of making fun of their citizenship as Chileans – that self deprecation was a big part of their cultural identity. And that their citizenship was closely connected to their class identity of being a hard worker; being a real Chilean meant feeling the solidarity of the hardworking middle class, not having a lot of access to luxury, being fine with marginalisation and this was reflected through the images they put on social media in that little was scripted or heavily edited and the production practice was very simple.

In closing, the reading group thought that the chapter and book within the context of the Why We Post series, including the comparative book, was thought-provoking and aimed at a general, non-specialist audience.

We very much appreciate the author for taking the time to converse with the reading group and answer many of the questions we had.

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