How do digital social media change the way we see ourselves?

I have recently been reading with great interest Daniel Miller’s Tales from Facebook. Two-thirds of the book recounts portraits of twelve Trinidadians and how their lives have been changed by the experience of using Facebook. Why, Miller asks, are people in Trinidad, where Facebook had already taken off in a major way by 2010 (when 26% of Trinidadians were using it), seemingly quite unconcerned with the loss of privacy caused by Facebook? Don’t get him wrong, Miller isn’t talking about algorithms, or worries whether Facebook (as an agent in itself) might be reading along what users post or sent in private messages via Facebook. His take on the use of Facebook, as his earlier studies of the internet as used by Trinis, is a classical anthropological one: what is the impact of social networking sites on the lives of their users?

I have been particularly interested in how Miller’s characters – I think this reference to fiction writing is a better way to describe his protagonists than the usual terms of social science speak (“participants”, “informants”, even the more dialogical “interlocutor”) - put Facebook to use in their local environment, and in their own lives. Written with more literary fluency than the conventional academic publication, Miller’s thought-provoking discussion of the implications of social networking sites reminds us that we still need to understand more deeply, how Facebook, Whatspp etc. change the way people see themselves.

My former student at the University of the Western Cape, Lara Leoschut addressed this question a couple of years ago in her Masters thesis, The social uses of internet enabled cell-phones among young women in Eersteriver. The thesis revisits concepts of gendered personhood in working-class neighbourhoods on the Cape Flats near Cape Town and explores whether or not the availability of new social media altered them.

Through a range of methods in digital ethnography – research conducted both online and offline -, Lara’s graduate research showed the kinds of relationships the young women of Eersteriver had with their phones; it demonstrated how and for what purposes they used the devices, who they communicated with, and in which ways they communicated. She demonstrated how social media had changed the young women’s understanding of social interaction and their practices of ‘doing’ intimacy. Reading through this absorbing account it becomes apparent how new gendered subjectivities emerge from performances and representations of personhood, which have become possible in social media such as Facebook and WhatsApp. Furthermore, we learn how understandings of ‘good’ daughterhood and respectability are altered and thus crafted into these practices.

In their virtual status updates, the young women Lara worked with performed themselves to their peers as, in her words, “outgoing and very social and for lack of a better word – cool”. On the social media they experimented with, and transgressed the social boundaries of being ‘good daughters’ while in the physical world they complied with the expectations of gendered personhood.

My student found that the young women used their smartphones as a means of exploring the social and virtual realm without putting their reputation as a ‘good’, ‘respectable’ girl at risk.

This was possible because of the ‘separateness’ that the parallel reality of social media offered them. WhatsApp and Facebook served as platforms, which allowed them to “’safely’ misbehave”. In the virtual realm where little or no adult supervision was present the young women – all in their late teens - acted out, particularly through posting risky images, selfies which had been taken in the privacy of their bedrooms. Posting these images of parallel ways of seeing themselves allowed them to discreetly subvert dominant expectations to gendered personhood. This they could do while still maintaining their status of respectability in their families and neighbourhood; in line with local expectations ‘good daughters’ rarely venture outside the house, except for school, church or running errands.

Lara’s study forms part of a lively body of work that deals with subjectivities, new social media, and technologies in South Africa and elsewhere on the African continent. Numerous studies from Anthropology, Sociology, Media and Communication Studies, and Gender Studies have focused on how young people see themselves, how they shape subjectivities, including gendered ones, and respond to politics through the use of social media such as Facebook and WhatsApp. Reading through this thriving literature on social media, everyday behaviour, and also popular political movements one cannot help to think that digital technologies allow people to navigate new agencies in a rapidly changing world. It is certainly true that to many young Africans today social networking sites and social apps are things they feel they own. Questions remain, however, to what extent this assumption about the role of digital media technologies in everyday negotiations of power is accurate.

Lara Leoschut’s thesis is available here.