By Nell Haynes
Social media is no longer the geek domain it once was, with the Americas and Europe approaching a fifty percent penetration rate, and an overall global penetration rate of over thirty percent. But as these platforms and apps become more widely used, they also become more specialized to certain kinds of use intended for certain kinds of audiences. And as audiences shift, new types of communities emerge through social media.
The Why We Post project is a collaborative and comparative ethnographic study of 9 different cities and towns around the world. It is funded through a European Research Council Grant, the Wenner Gren Foundation and Chile’s National Commission for Science and Technology Research. My own research is based at the Center for Intercultural and Indigenous Studies at Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, while some of the other researchers are based at University College London (more details and results are available at WhyWePost.com). In order to shift away from social media studies’ usual focus on North America and Western Europe, anthropologists chose to study small towns and marginal cities in Brazil, Chile, China (two different sites), England, India, Italy, Trinidad and Tobago, and Turkey. The study included a plethora of different forms of social media—Facebook, Whatsapp, Instagram, Twitter, Google+, Flickr, Tumblr, Tinder, Grindr, email, blogs, Youtube, Spotify, and platforms like QQ and WeChat in China, looking at use across age, class, religion, gender, sexuality, and race, in addition to other social markers. The study was ethnographic as well, with each anthropologist spending 15 months living in the city or town of their research site, using participant observation, interviews, surveys, and an assortment of other ethnographic methodologies. The comparative results, available in the authors’ co-written book, How the World Changed Social Media gives a great sense of the wider spectrum of how people are using social media, how it is changing their lives, and how their use is changing the way we mean by social media.
Part of the beauty of the project is that this breadth of understanding of social media on a global scale does not come at the expense of intimate details in local contexts. In my own field site of Alto Hospicio, a marginal city in northern Chile, some of the most interesting ethnographic details have to do with the ways young people use collaboratively managed Tumblr accounts to create a sense of a community through language play and humor, extending beyond the local area to a nationally imagined community. This identification with a national community is actually quite an anomaly, because in many senses the people of Alto Hospicio often distinguish themselves from people in other regions of the country, considering themselves to be more marginal and exploited than the average Chilean citizen. The city is located in a booming copper mining area, but most residents are low-level workers in the industry, and watch as the massive profits end up in the national capital of Santiago or abroad in Europe, North America, and Australia. In general, most citizens envision themselves as economically disadvantaged and politically (and geographically) marginalized. While marginality is often used as a category of analysis within the social sciences, generally to describe the conditions of people who struggle to gain societal and spatial access to resources and full participation in political life, in the case of Alto Hospicio, marginality is incorporated into the ways citizens view their own position in contrast to those people the see as more powerful in the center of the country. In actively distancing themselves from cities such as Santiago – both in daily life and through their online activity – residents of Alto Hospicio see their marginalized city as part of the way they perceive them- selves – not as victims, but as an exploited community that continues to fight for its rights. Yet they strongly identify as Chileans, citing their cultural affiliations rather than political power.
Miguel and Jhony, both in their early 30s, often spend afternoons in Alto Hospicio sitting on Miguel’s couch laughing for hours at images and videos shared on Tumblr sites such as PLP (Por la Puta) and Jaidefinichon (pronounced ‘High Definition’). The sites feature content that is best described as “raunchy”: related to drunkenness, sex, drugs, and bodily humour. Regular visitors often submit memes, pictures, videos, and links to site administrators to be posted. These may include posts such as a video of a bull ramming a person, a meme playing on similar syllables in “Ebola” and “Bolivia”, a .gif of a mostly nude woman shaking her ass at an impossibly fast rate, a video of a guy falling off of a skateboard, and a meme about marijuana using stills from the television cartoon The Simpsons. Jhony and Miguel both started following Jaidefinichon around 2009. Miguel explained, “At first it was like a virus. One person telling all their friends, and that’s how everyone found out about it. A lot of people sent the link on Facebook. In 2009 or 2010. Others just mentioned it to their friends [in person].” “And the commentary is funny too,” Jhony chimed in. “There are memes about the president, videos of dogs walking on two legs, and images of weed. And it’s a different conversation in the comments about each one. But all funny. Though sometimes I don’t understand. Maybe I’m too old now.”
As Jhony and Miguel explained, users can submit photos, videos, or other sorts of media to the owners of the blog. Those who find the posts especially funny can click to a direct link of the picture or video and share it on their own Tumblr or Facebook. Occasionally the memes are also shared on Instagram as well, or sent via Whatsapp. “People republish things because they want to make their friends laugh. They also try to write a funny caption for Facebook to show that they don’t just share funny things; they’re actually funny too. That’s why funny comments are so important. You have to show your own creativity,” said Jhony. Miguel also noted “Everybody sees the same thing and everybody can talk about it when they get together for a party. It’s not just about seeing it, or even writing comments online, but you can laugh about it with your friends when you see them too.” While these particular Tumblr pages are a bit raunchy and foster forms of citizenship based on cultural belonging rather than community engagement, they also contribute to community belonging offline when they become topics of discussion in face-to-face conversations.
But what these young men did not point out was the highly nationalistic character of many of the posts. They likely didn’t point this out because the posts play on the kind of cultural Chileanness that is often taken for granted, highlighting certain language conventions, social norms, relations with other countries and their citizens that, to many, define what it means to be an authentic Chilean.
Indeed, many of the posts identifying with a conception of Chileanness highlight mundane forms of social life. Some post pictures of typically Chilean foods such as completo hot dogs or pichangas (a dish of French fries covered in onion, beef, sausage, and fried egg). Others show the flag as displayed for the fiestas patrias on September 18 or a game played by the national football team. Other times, simply the language used indicates an association with Chileanness.
In fact, language is probably the most common expression of national identity on social media, even when only unconsciously used in writing daily status updates on Facebook. Chileans are known for distinctive pronunciation that involves a dropping letters, slurring words together, heavy use of slang, and adding the practically meaningless “poh” to almost every expression. They also conjugate the second person informal as vos rather than tú so that one should ask a friend “¿como estai?” rather than “¿como estás?”. This conjugation also creates the common phrase “cachai?”, from cachar, to catch, used just as commonly as a phrase-ending insertion as “you know?” in English. Hospiceños, like other Chileans, also frequently employ the word “weon,” somewhat equivalent to “dude,” which can mean either friend or asshole. Chileans realize this language use is unique and see it as a point of pride that they can distinguish themselves so thoroughly by linguistic means.
This identification with Chilean language and humor is actually quite surprising, given that, in general, residents of Alto Hospicio are likely to contrast themselves with more mainstream ideas about what it means to be ‘Chilean.’ What one calls Chilean culture is highly context dependent, and proximity to cosmopolitan centres, as well as class, education, and racial identification, have great impacts on what exactly individuals consider the hallmarks of Chilean society. Mendez (2008) argues that class boundaries in Chile play a critical role in social life, and middle classness is considered central to Chilean authenticity in Santiago. Yet residents of Alto Hospicio use Santiago as a foil for what they see as authentically Chilean, positioning this urban middle-class identity as an exception. Instead they see their own marginalized experiences as more representative of true Chileanness (World Bank 2011). Hospiceños are quick to distinguish their lived experiences from those in the cosmopolitan capital, and in doing so, their social media use is important to understand how they envision their place within the nation.
Alto Hospicio residents often use the word “Santiago” to stand in for people whose lives are defined by class-consciousness, consumerism, and international connections; the politicians who funnel resources away from the region; and, most importantly, the national politics from which they feel disenfranchised. But rather than seeing themselves outside of the nation which Santiago represents, they envision Santiago as the anomaly—it is a cosmopolitan city in a nation of otherwise working class, normative (see Haynes 2016) people. In essence, residents of Alto Hospicio reverse the logic of marginality, positioning marginalized people at the centre.
One young man in his early twenties who shared this meme wrote as a caption “It’s really far from everything.” By this he means that the distance between Santiago and “everything” is not just physical, but that Santiago represents a different kind of mentality and lifestyle as well. It is home to politicians, cosmopolitan types, and rich people—particularly those who profit from mining in the northern region. While Santiago may appear to foreigners and those who live in the Metropolitan Region as “Chile, proper,” it is not the “Chile” that people in the North identify with.
Through sharing content first on the Tumblr pages, and subsequently engaging in comments on Facebook or other social media platforms (or even in person), Tumblr sites such as PLP and JaiDefinichon contribute to a local community of humor. Further, these sites also contribute to a sense of national identification, through language and jokes that are only interpretable to those who share understandings of Chilean conventions. Thus, these sites are one of the uses of social media in which users in Alto Hospicio imagine themselves as within the nation, rather than positioning themselves in contrast to the nation as they usually do when sharing memes or personally written text that distinguishes themselves from Santiago or Chile as a whole.
These findings then join a plethora of different ways researchers in the Why We Post project have found that people in different localities imagine their place within a region, nation, or the world in general. Social media use communicates something about how individuals imagine their own position in relation to others and institutions of power, even when presented as seemingly vulgar jokes and hard-to-understand vernacular. For a further look at how these issues manifest differently in Brazil, Trinidad and Tobago, England, Italy, Turkey, India, and China, chapter six of each title in the Why We Post series explores issues of the relationship between individuals and the wider world. As the books become available, they can be accessed in free pdf form through the UCL Press website.
Nell Haynes is a postdoctoral researcher at the Center for Intercultural and Indigenous Studies at Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile. She works in partnership with the Why We Post project at University College London and has co-authored How the World Changed Social Media. She is also author of Social Media in Northern Chile, and numerous articles discussing popular culture, media, gender and race in Andean South America. She earned her Ph.D. in Anthropology at American University in 2013 with a concentration in Race, Gender, and Social Justice. She holds a Bachelor of Science Degree from Northwestern University in Anthropology and Theater. Nell regularly blogs at nellhaynes.com.
Haynes, Nell. Social Media in Northern Chile: Posting the Extraordinarily Ordinary. London: UCL Press, 2016.
Mendez, Maria Luisa. 2008. “Middle Class Identities in a Neoliberal Age: Tensions between Contested Authenticities,” Sociological Review, 56 (2008): 220–237.
World Bank (2011). Regional GDP for Tarapacá is less than $9 billion, while that of Santiago is over $173 billion. See “GDP per capita, PPP (current international $).”