Do you have a sense of how much time you spend each day on social media and smartphone? Whether you can live with them or you can't live with them, we know for most of us, these are ingrained parts of our everyday lives. In this episode, we will uncover the life in the age of social media and smartphones, featuring Dr. Daniel Miller and Georgiana Murariu from the University College of London. Stay tuned as you learn about the ‘Why We Post’ project, ‘Anthropology of Smartphones and Smart Ageing, and the ‘AnthroCOVID’ project. We dig into:
Daniel Miller is a Professor of Anthropology at University College London and directed the ‘Why We Post’ project, which investigated the uses and consequences of social media in nine different countries around the world. The project resulted in twelve open access books, one about each fieldsite and two comparative ones. He is currently leading a project called ASSA (The Anthropology of Smartphones and Smart Ageing) which aims to analyze the impact of the smartphone on people’s lives based on 11 simultaneous 16-month ethnographies around the world. He is also the founder of the digital anthropology program at University College London (UCL).
Follow Daniel on @DannyAnth
Georgiana Murariu is a public dissemination officer at UCL, working with Daniel Miller and the team of researchers on the ‘Anthropology of Smartphones and Smart Ageing’. She is currently developing and implementing a dissemination strategy for the project which includes helping create a MOOC based on the project’s findings as well as using social media and digital tools to encourage the public to engage with the project’s findings and anthropology as a discipline.
Follow Georgiana on Twitter: @georgiana_mu
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Life in the Age of Social Media and Smartphones Daniel Miller and Georgiana Murariu
Adam Gamwell: [00:00:00] Hey folks. Welcome to This Anthro Life. I'm your host, Adam Gamwell. If you're new to the show, welcome to the pod family. And if you're a return listener it sure is good to have you back. Now whether or not you work in industry and consumer research, or you’re a student or professor in academia, I'm really excited to share this conversation with you because we cover some really important ground around engaged scholarship and what it means to create academically rigorous research that is designed from the outset to be collaborative and team-based, and that will be published first and foremost for the public, as well as in the languages of the people who participate in the studies.
And not only is this an important and often underutilized research ethic, but it allows the stories we collect from people and the social theories and explanations that we derive from them to live in dialogue with them and with others.
On top of that, we're talking about these research methods in relation to some of the most loved and loathed of technologies. That's right. Social media and smartphones. So whether you can live with them or you can't live with them, we know for most of us, these are ingrained parts of our everyday lives. So today we've got a double header for you. A conversation with University College of London's Daniel Miller and Georgiana Murariu, and we'll be covering three of their groundbreaking projects.
The first is called Why We Post, it's a five-year collaborative research project between nine researchers who each spent 15 months in different countries to understand how people used and adapted social media in their everyday lives.
Now before you start thinking, this is an advertisement to put down your phone because we're all becoming more superficial. Why We Post discover just how deeply social media is woven into the texture of all of our relationships across the worlds of Chinese factory workers, young Muslim women on the Syrian Turkish border, and IT professionals in India.
The second and third projects are ongoing as of the fall of 2020. The second is called. The Anthropology of Smartphones and Smart Ageing and employs a team of 10 anthropologists. This project explores the fundamental changes that we experience around age and health with the rise of smartphones. I mean, think about our ability to look up virtually anything on web MD, access mobile health and simply chat with anyone around the planet. This has revolutionized the way that we think about health and as we age.
The third project we're gonna dig into is called anthrocovid this consist of a website that's collecting research and resources by anthropologists and social scientists around you guessed it, COVID so this project has spearheaded by our second guest, Georgiana Murariu, who's the dissemination officer and manager at University College in London.
I'm also joined today by TAL correspondent in tech anthropologist Astrid Countee who always has great questions and conversational pieces to add. So i'm super excited this is super packed smartphones social media, four voices let's get to it.
Daniel Miller: [00:02:40] As you say, the first project was Why We Post and in a way had very straightforward objectives. There was so much discussion out there about social media and its consequences and we just felt that what would be helpful to get the different kinds of scholarship whereby people actually sat patiently for 16 months, in different communities around the world. And rather than imposing their own agenda, asking them about whatever was being debated in the newspapers, simply try and see it from the perspective of the community they were living amongst. What actually passed through their social media on a day to day basis. What was more important for them and consequential for them and because we had relatively good funding we were able to do something which anthropology always aspires to, but is actually quite rare in practice, because of the amount of money it costs really and there's nine different projects, all working simultaneously collaborating, comparing from the beginning, so that the other major component which is often a part of the anthropological brief is to instead of talking about social media as a thing, we would understand that it is going to be dependent upon the particular context that people in Trinidad would not necessarily be doing the same kind of things with Facebook as people in, the UK or I guess the States. So that was the brief for the project and it more or less went to plan.
Adam Gamwell: [00:04:17] Which is always the hope for a fieldwork project, right? Especially with nine anthropologists. That's really interesting too. So how, I'm just curious to think about a bit of the Genesis of this project and the idea of getting, in this case nine anthropologists, which is really something that we don't hear a lot of. What kind of inspires you to think about what if we did this with multiple anthropologists.
Daniel Miller: [00:04:38] Let's start with the basis of comparison. I will tell you as it were, the true story of how it all began and it all has to do with Taylor Swift. Essentially I had been working in Trinidad for quite a long period and in my own personal Facebook, a lot of people were from the UK and a lot of them were from Trinidad. And you may or may not recall a certain dispute took place around Kanye West introducing Taylor Swift. And I noticed when that happens, like all the Trinidadians I had on the Facebook, they were like, wow, did you see what happened? And they would go on about it. And did you end, what do you think about how Taylor Swift responded? And there was like this huge outburst of some kind of conversation. The UK, friends on Facebook. Nah, nothing came up. I'm thinking, this is a thing called Facebook. We have the same event and yet obviously the attitude to Facebook, what it lends itself to, and the way it's actually used is completely different. And that started the idea of we've really got to start looking at this thing, comparatively.
And what happened was really from the very beginning, that often in anthropology, when you're talking about a comparative project, they go off, they do their projects, they come back and then they compare.
But that's almost too late because actually the time you want to have the comparison is from day one. Because one of the problems when you're doing anthropology is that you get to a place and it's all like different and interesting, but then you get used to it and you start to forget that anybody would use Facebook in any different way. So we would compare, we would send around, usually 5,000 words each at the end of the month, read it. And then we would go on to Skype to discuss it. And I actually remember the end of the first month. The guy who was working in Brazil he's in a very kind of low income area, sort of a squatters community. And he was saying, the people where I work, they aren't going to post where they actually live. These sort of half built things with corrugated iron moves, et cetera, they're going to find an opportunity to pretend they're near the gym or near the swimming pool, something like that. And that's what they're going to post.
And then Nell who was working in Northern Chile at the time, listen to that and said what are you talking about? She was working with families of copper miners, who are m=not particularly well off. And she was saying, the people here, they know each other. You can't put a picture on Facebook, which isn't actually where you live. Cause everyone would say what are you doing? We know you don't live there and actually of course they only post what everybody's unpretentious comfortable things that they actually reflect the way they live.
So you start off this project and immediately you see that there are such considerable differences in each place is taken as the natural thing to do. Because when I listened to the guy from Brazil, I thought, of course that's what you do. And then I listened to Nell talk about Chile and thought, Oh that's what you do, but then the opposite to each other. And that is really beneficial for a project like this, because it means every month, instead of taking for granted what you're finding in your particular field site, you’re realizing that actually, your field sites are different. That means you have to explain why is it different? Why in my place do they do it this way? And in that place, do they do it that way?
One of the examples we use is what happens when somebody becomes a mother in terms of Facebook and in the UK? What's slightly strange about it is that typically, they normally would have their portrait picture but then when they have a child, very often the baby is their portrait picture And it's like a whole thing is the baby even though it is their own Facebook profiles. It's all about the baby. And it's all therefore about effectively being a mother. Okay.
Trinidad, what happens when somebody becomes a mother? You start to see on their Facebook profile that they like really sexy, cool, out there pictures, which immediately say, sure, I have become a mother but do not think for one minute that just because I'm a mother, I am any less cool, glamorous, etc.
So these really quite stark differences make that central anthropological point that there isn't such a thing as Facebook. There is what people in different societies and different conditions make of this platform, which because it's content that they create is going to essentially reflect the cultural values of that particular population.
Astrid Countee: [00:09:46] I love this. So during 2012, if I recall, it seemed like social media was in a more optimistic phase. There was a lot of, Oh, look what it can do for The Arab Spring, for instance. And then the United States, Obama had used social media really effectively in his own campaign and that was a new thing. But I'm wondering if because of this comparative method, if we're able to start to tease out some of the seeds of things that now seem to be part of the bigger conversation about like social media, is it useful? Is it just perpetuating horrible things in society? Is it just an echo chamber? Things that we weren't really talking about so much in 2012?
Daniel Miller: [00:10:27] Yeah. I think that the attitude from being an ethnographer is just very different from the coverage in the media. When you look in the media, you're tending to get judgment, as you said at the beginning. Oh, it's all good. And it's all wonderful. Or now like it's all terrible. When did you last read anything positive about social media? And the problem is that what's happening is that the media will be using social media to make news. And news tends to be of that kind, we have this amazing breakthrough and the future's going to be different in that way or democracy is collapsed and nothing can be believed anymore because of social media now. Our job is to essentially, I would say, ignore the lot, ignore the positive, ignore the negative, ignore the things that social media is supposed to be about. And instead, actually concentrate on a sort of patient and fair assessment. And if there is a judgment at all, it should be the judgement of the people. What are they regarded as positive and negative about what's happening on social media?
So to cut a long story short, I would say that our general conclusion would be, there is almost nothing going on on social media that is not simultaneously positive and negative simultaneously. That, if you can have a new capacity to look things up in maps it's going to have benefits. Of the big one at the moment is really that on the one hand, there's the possibilities of surveillance and in the middle of COVID is that a good thing because it helps track and trace and smartphone apps that help you find out where somebody's been? Or is it a bad thing because it's detrimental to privacy, et cetera. Now it's not one or the other and therefore the media will tend to just focus on one of these at one time in order to make these kinds of judgements. Whereas what we're trying to do is say, okay actually from the perspective of study and the people they have to deal with the fact that this stuff is contradictory, that they're two sides usually to the same coin. And actually I would not say that social media was originally positive and is now negative. I would say it was originally contradictory and it's still contradictory.
Adam (Overdub): [00:12:55] And this highlights the sociality or social nature of the many platforms that make up social media.
Daniel Miller: [00:13:00] It's a bit like ecological niches, how they decide to use one then creates a space for the next one. So when we talked about scalable sociality. Aminima was working in these schools in England at the time, and found that Snapchat was about building trust amongst besties, BFFS, best friends forever because you would send them really ugly photos of yourself, in fun. And it's like, I'm kind of testing and trusting you, my bestie not to send it to somebody else. So 15 year old girls they're building trust in small groups and that's how they were using Snapchat.
But the form teacher was using Twitter to actually do things like questions regarding their homework and then Facebook was starting to be things like outside of their school. It might be places they're starting to get jobs at or their family. And you got to Instagram. Instagram was the only, the one where they were happy to have somebody that wasn't their friend, a complete stranger commenting on their Instagram. They really spent time and effort to find this really cool image. Okay. something that they would get credit for because the way they'd taken it and filtered it and the rest of it, and it really looked good. So if somebody came on and said, wow, I liked your image they were from Sweden or wherever it was. That was great.
So sociality is really just about who are we mixing with, how are we mixing with them? How is communication developing between us and the sort of norms? But the point is you can't say one of these was social media, social media was all of them nd each one develops its niche and they change.
Cause I mean, I got involved in this huge controversy in 2012 because, I went out there and said that Facebook was no longer cool for young people. And at the time, nobody believed me. And there was just no idea this could change. But I was finding, because I was in the field, yes, we need something else. So it's nothing to do with this sort of technology determining what mattered was whether your mother was there or not So there's a dynamic to this and as Facebook changed and became for these other people. So then, now it would be maybe TikTok or something where people are going on to, and if your mother comes onto TikTok, you're going to have to find something new.
So, each of these contributes in its own way and the relationship and the complimentality between them has its own dynamic, but the key point we're making is this has nothing to do with technology. It's all determined by the sociality, the way people use this in relation to the different groups of friends and associates that they have.
Adam Gamwell: [00:15:55] That's a great point. And it's funny because I remember when parents started joining Facebook. And so now you're, your prognostication was correct, right? Or actually, really this is just observation derived conclusions. Right? We can see that young people are now saying this is suddenly not a cool place to be, but I also really appreciate the idea of anthropology itself strives to have a more holistic perspective when both doing human research and then drawing any sorts of conclusions.
And so even the idea that to talk of social media actually means we need to think across platforms and across these different ways of how people are sharing and what they're sharing to actually get a sense of how it works. I think that that's actually brilliant and working across so many communities and countries as part of this project, for example, you had a lot of really interesting findings.
One of them that I found, particularly surprising, but also felt kind of validating to see as a response was that public social life or public social media is actually quite conservative. I wonder if we could talk a little bit about, this or some of the other findings that you found that surprised you from doing this research?
Daniel Miller: [00:16:59] Yes. Again, there's a tendency to think whatever new technology comes up, it's going to be in a sense of gimmick, something that we can explore to do completely new things. But actually that was not the predominant finding of our research. And the reason for that is that people live in a wider world. Their main concerns are offline and all sorts of things have been happening that actually were problematic or difficult for people. I mean, people now maybe leave home, families break up, we have more kinds of mobility. So, the traditions of family are lost and, in some cases we were dealing with, it can be war or migration, or other factors that had changed people's lives and shaped them actually for the worst. So when you get a new technology like this, for people that are struggling, or people that have problems, the first thing they want to do is not some fancy new possibility, but actually they want to know is this something that can help them? Is this something that can help them repair some of those problems or deal with those problems. one of the effects of that then is okay. If a family is dispersed, can we bring the family back together again? Can we actually remember some of the things that we used to enjoy as a close family and try and reproduce them? Okay, maybe we're not in the same place, but through, it was Skype or through, now I suppose zoom and also there's other media. So it tends to be conservative in the sense of not even preserving what was there, but actually going back further, trying to bring back things that were lost, things that people regretted or were suffering from.
And a very clear example of that would be migrants. Because migration is often forced. It's not something you want to do. It could be Syrians coming out of war. We were dealing in those days with Kurdish groups, problems in Eastern Turkey. And also one of our books is about historically probably the world's biggest migration of all, which was something like 250 million Chinese that had been in villages in rural areas and had moved into the factory system. And, what we were looking at is really how they saw social media in terms of those changes and the interesting thing there is the contrast because even the generalization I just made is, something that needs to be critiqued because in most cases, the migrants were using it for this repair, for this conservative value. So then we'd come along and make that generalization say, Oh, social media, you know, you might think isn't conservative, but actually is.
Then I've just given you the example of the Chinese. And these Chinese migrants didn't use it in that conservative way. We expected that they were going to use it to get back in touch with their families and rural areas but largely didn't. Actually, they used it for the same purposes of the migration itself, which was to try and engage with modern China, the sort of Shanghai, China that they had felt kind of left behind. They found going into factories didn't really do it for them because, in fact it's just a factory, all you're doing is work with and then litigant dormitories. So the way they got to the new modern China that had been the reason for their migration was actually through social media. In that case it was QQ. And now more WeChat where they were doing all these kind of fancy Shanghai lifestyles, but actually online. It really depends on which population you're talking about, but it's certainly a lot more complicated than thinking,this is just, latest new thing that will be used for some kind of either unprecedented , entirely novel purpose.
Adam Gamwell: [00:21:03] One of the other ideas about this project in a broad sense is that we've been kind of toying with the idea of an inclusive anthropology I think in part has to do with the fact that there's multiple anthropologists working together on the research, but then also a lot of the outputs that you've seen with this project, and this can help us kind of move into thinking about the second project of anthropology of smartphones and smart aging as well is the kinds of outputs that you did in terms of multi multilingual translations of the books, the website that you have for why we post is also in many languages. You're doing videos, using accessible English. So I think there's a really interesting number of different ways that we don't often see with social science. So I think that's one of the other really important aspects of this and the other projects that you've been working on there is an intent and an intentional setting out of multiple kinds of public dissemination of information. So I'd love to hear a bit about your thoughts on the strategy of this.
Daniel Miller: [00:21:56] I think that from the beginning we were trying to appreciate this project, both projects have a particular responsibility. If you were studying something terribly esoteric like the nuances of kinship in a marginal community, not everybody is necessarily going to be interested. But when it comes to smartphones, like who doesn't want to have a better understanding of something that you think you know cause it's right in front of your nose, but boy, you don't, cause actually there's all sorts of considerations that only really come out when you're doing this kind of particularly the comparative study. So we know there's going to be potentially a very wide audience and academia hasn't really, especially social science isn't really built to gain the kind of audiences that potentially would be interested in topics like social media and smartphones. The traditional ethnographic monograph from an anthropologist, got, if they sold 600 copies, you were thinking this was good, that means it's just circulating amongst basically people who have to take exams at the topic in a few metropolitan universities, that would not do it. So we aimed from the beginning to try and find ways, which we have been able to do. I mean, obviously we were delighted in July this year because the books series passed 1 million downloads, and for ethnographic monographs, 1 million has got to be pretty unusual. So the question is how do you go from 600 copies to 1 million. And it's not one particular strategy. I guess we do think holistically it's really pulling together a whole series of different strands and making them work together to build that kind of openness. And I would say the most important things were number one that we publish everything open access, and that means you don't have to pay for it. We work in countries often with people with very low income, a traditional monograph from a publisher it's just not affordable. We strongly believe that people in these areas should have access to the stuff that we produce. We've used their time, they're the ones who've given us the information. Well, shouldn't they also have a right to get information. So open access was vital and we were very fortunate in that UCL where we work has the first fully open access university press, in the UK.
The second part I would say would be accessible English because you can have it for free, but most academic work is just difficult in the sense that it's often obfuscating, it uses jargon and terminology. And as soon as you look at it, if you're not out from that particular kind of group or with that kind of education, you look at it and say, this is not intended for me. So inclusivity, it's about being kind of friendly, saying we want to share, we really do want to share this and if you look at it, you can see it's full of just interesting stories. We try and avoid any words that would not be familiar to somebody let's say finishing school or maybe first year university. So inclusivity comes with the kind of language you're using, but also the, sort of the genre of writing style. Using stories, and finding things that are just interesting to read and writing the kind of narrative that people enjoy. You want to write a book that people pick up and don't put down again until they finish it cause they're actually finding it quite absorbing and exciting.
The next is that it's not just monographs because people need to work up to that If that's not the kind of stuff they would normally read, we actually started blogging from day one. And that means that you've got two or three paragraphs, very straightforward, simple accounts of interesting things as they are happening, so you have that immediacy. This isn't something you're writing about later on it's like, Oh, last week, you know, somebody told me that, so people can start to follow it. They can get engaged with it. We also produced like about a hundred films, but our films are short because we recognize my own research people these days. They like videos that are two or three minutes. One of the big innovations of our next area is, um, the anthropology of smartphones and smart aging is that we're going to actually put the films inside the books. Where in a book normally you'd see like a still photo, but it’s all digital, right. So actually there was nothing to stop you putting a little film in, a little video, and maybe we'll do some short, TikTok style videos as well and add these to the books, because it gives you a sense of what the place is like and what the people is like that always express just in words, having the sort of compliment between the visual and the tech tool works well.
Yet another strategy is actually translating the books into the languages, which in most instances we do. In India, we were lucky because we were able to do it both in Tamil, which was the local language and Hindi, which is the national language. And that produces material for yet another audience that simply otherwise would have been excluded because they don't necessarily, read English.
Yet another strategy is we produced a MOOC and we're going to do another one for the current project. And these are again free if you haven't yet tried a MOOC , they're kind of university courses at one level, but they're really like social media platforms because at least in the FutureLearn platform we use, there's a lot of interactivity between the people taking the course. We're making a statement about how people use visual material in a particular platform. And then one of the students taking the course, there's William. I'm from South Africa. And actually this is the way we do it. And then two minutes later, somebody will say, Oh, here in Russia, actually we don't do that, we do this.
The material itself is kind of extended through the conversation of students from all around the world. So people look at maybe a film with the website or the blog, then they get interested, they take the MOOC and then they get more interested and they read the book. And I would say it's essentially by combining all those different strategies, rather than any one of them, cause one alone wouldn't work that we kind of take this from something that is read by 600 people to the figure we have now over 1 million downloads. And one of the nice things about that mid figure, the million. It's because these are downloads. We're able to monitor where they come from for anthropologists, it's really exciting, when you see 10,000 people in Ethiopia or 15,000 in the Philippines, you see that the readership of these books is global. It includes all the kinds of places also where field work is being done.
I should have said for these projects, we have members of the team from China, Latin America, Africa, India, all over. There is a sense of this, global project that comes from the global and is available to the global and is being consumed globally. And that is clearly one of the aspirations of anthropology that we have been very keen to realize
Adam Gamwell: [00:29:38] it's incredibly refreshing to see this,I think it's important for anthropologists and social scientists to recognize that the mainstay of our research for a hundred plus years has been this kind of monograph model. Which obviously is as you rightly point out, for a very specific audience. Well today, we have so many interesting options. In this case, a MOOC is right. A massively open online course, is that what it stands for? Translations into more lingual, iterations, videos within books. I love that idea, producing videos that are two to three weeks long that's basically on people's expectations or attention spans. It can all work together. I think that's necessary. So that kind of adds a model to the way that anthro projects that intend to have a global reach and that many of them should, can do so.
There's two other projects that I want to think with. One of them is the Anthropology of Smartphones and Smart Ageing that we mentioned. That's a sequel to Why We Post, but it seems that it's following some of the same methods, that I can see from the outside of using multiple researchers, multiple countries, that are working across a similar kind of set of questions around use of smartphones and how to age well, and kind of mobile health applications. Did ASSA the smartphone project come out of the Why We Post in terms of how do we build the next project? Or is it just sort of something else that was in your minds?
Daniel Miller: [00:30:55] One followed from the other. Essentially because many of the things Why We Post went so well, the million downloads obviously, we felt this is something worth building on and not necessarily really changing. So a lot of the ideas about dissemination and comparative, et cetera. Yes, they do build upon Why We Post, but there are differences. One of the curious differences is that with social media, there's loads of books about social media, there's loads of studies, and discussions, You would think that would be true of the smartphone? I mean, the smartphone is even more ubiquitous than social media and indeed I think social media is disappearing as a discrete entity, because actually once you think of social media as something on your smartphone, you can't really say which things are social media. Is messaging? WhatsApping? Facebook? It's sort of blurring and becoming just a series of other smartphone apps.
So, in many ways, smartphones are a bigger thing. And I think actually a more significant thing than social media, there's very little out there about what the smartphone is and its consequences. And actually, one of the possible reasons for that is central to the discipline of anthropology, because the problem with the smartphone is that you can study the corporations that make it, you could look at the thing that you see in the shop but the smartphone is really only created as the smartphone that we are familiar with by its users. because when they get there smartphones, they delete half or refuse to use half the stuff that the corporations put on the stupid thing and actually they start uploading their own and they change the settings and of course, and they develop content and the result is something that nobody could actually even know what it is unless you are out there with the population of users and especially when it's relatively private things like WhatsApp. So I think one of the reasons there hasn't been very much literature in the same way around smartphones is it's so difficult to get out unless you're working as an ethnographer. So we think in a way the trajectory we were going through, building on the social media research and the very nature of the smartphone itself comes together really well. And that in many ways, the book we're just finishing now, the global smartphone book, established the smartphone in usage in a way that probably would have been very difficult to do using any other method other than the ethnographic. And we hope it's a still more important project because I think we really do need to get some scholarship behind the smartphone and its consequences because it is absolutely vast. There's nothing like the smartphone, nothing as intimate that engages with almost everything we're doing these days. Way beyond just issues of social communication. When you start thinking about the way you're using it, location, looking up information, doing your work, that loan, entertainment. I mean, it's like everything. So for us, this has become a hugely important project but there is also a further difference between the two projects. Why We Post was seen simply as an educational project. That was the contribution, helping people cement and understand what was going on with social media. With the smartphone project we actually want ourselves to be involved in going beyond education and actually thinking, how could this be useful to both the populations we work with and basically the world generally, and we decided to focus on a couple of issues, that we thought were really important, which is smartphones, like social media had initially been associated with youth and young people but in the last few years that has completely changed. The biggest expansion of the use of smartphones is actually older people. And with older people, that many people well consequences, but one of them is obviously that as you get older unfortunately you are likely to be even more engaged with issues of health and ill health than when you were younger. And we were really interested, because there was a lot of both speculation in the commercial investment around the possibility of using smartphone apps and developing a field that is usually called M Health, like mobile phone apps for health. We thought, okay, we're going to be in the field, maybe we can assess this and think about how it's being used. And what we actually discovered was something, which we should have thought of, but only really emerged through the actual work itself. There's all this commercial investment in what specialist medical apps like the spoke apps for health. Partly because I guess big companies are hoping to make a lot of money at it. Actually, we found that most ordinary people that we work with don't really make much use of those. And actually don't want massive new apps. They are kind of a bit overwhelmed with apps at this point in time. But smartphones are having, if anything, an even greater impact on health than we had anticipated. And this was because what most people do is not use specialist apps for help just use the apps that they had already been developing and use every day for health purposes. So one of the team, for example, Marilia Duquesne was working in Brazil and he saw an astonishing range of uses of WhatsApp for health. And actually he's published, I think 150 page kind of a booklet on how you can use WhatsApp for health. And one of the other teams working with oncology nurses in Chile, also looking at the potential for WhatsApp, but like Patrick has been working in Cameroon is finding suitable use of YouTube as a key part of information. Whereas, working in Ireland, we were seeing a lot of problems with the way people google information for health, we hadn't kind of anticipated. So what we did was we started with this realization that potentially it could be important to look at the way smartphones are used in health, but then discover that actually it's very different from what people had been suggesting. And therefore we changed the way we worked. And instead of working on these specialist apps we worked on these everyday health apps.
But then something happened and that something was COVID-19. Clearly this is something that everybody has to be engaged with. And if we want to actually, genuinely see our work as being of direct benefit to people, and understand its impact on health, then clearly this is something we really needed to follow, but it happened after the main period of ethnographic field work and finished.
We had to think of a way in which we could both continue our own engagement, but also because we have this kind of collaborative spirit, sort of citizen science ethos, if you like, we wanted to know, could we engage with others. And at this point, I'm going to handover to Georgiana because really she is the one who took this and ran with it and was involved in soliciting the material and posting the material and actually making this an important contribution in terms of understanding the impact of smartphones on health.
Georgiana Mariau: [00:38:58] Thanks, Danny. I work as a public dissemination officer on the ASSA project, but as Danny was saying in those initial couple of weeks at the sort of end of March, beginning of April as the pandemic was unfolding around the world we had many discussions within the team about whether we could do anything to use ethnography to react or to highlight what was happening in different countries around the world.
Within the ASSA team we started to compare digital materials. And posted memes were being so accurately circulated in each field site. But then together with some of our colleagues at the Centre for Digital Anthropology, based at UCL, Hannah, Heidi, and Maria, we set up a website where we encouraged other anthropologists around the world to send in, basically reports, as Danny says to document how the pandemic affected people across the world and how that was happening in the field site or with people that they were doing research with. But we didn't want to be too prescriptive about it.
So we said actually, if you don't have access to a field site or, don't have a community that you're particularly working with right now, then you can start to think about doing digital ethnography and kind of conceptualizing some of the content that you are seeing online. And see whether through an analysis of that you can draw any conclusions about how people are reacting locally. How they're using and repurposing social media, how they're using digital infrastructures to respond to the complete kind of disruption and reorganization of everyday life.
And we were especially interested in documenting new forms of work, new forms of education, new ways of doing self care or transmitting care and affection digitally to family or friends or acquaintances, really new forms of friendship, of travel, of political organizing, and anything else people thought was important.
It became an archive for different experiences and getting an insight into how people were adapting, their routines, their everyday life and how it changed over time. It was really interesting to see how it evolved because we got something like over a hundred reports in total in the end. We did it continuously for a couple of weeks. And, at the beginning, I was sort of liaising with anthropologists and anthropology PhD students who were sending these in and at the beginning they were emailing me and asking how to conduct this ad hoc research, we gave them a sort of period of two weeks to respond to different questions.
So in the initial two weeks, we asked them to document how people were responding. You know how people will share information that they found online and how they made a judgment as to what information should be shared. And then we gave them two weeks to research that topic. So it was quite kind of ad hoc.
And then at the end of the two weeks, they would then report on their findings. And we would move on to the second question. We asked a total of six questions and it was interesting. At the beginning people were emailing me and asking how they should do this research. How do they do this research when they're stuck in their field site or they're stuck at home.
And we had very different dynamics. For example, we had someone who was stuck in the Amazon forest in Ecuador at a scientific station. And so she said, actually I was going to finish my field work, but I have no way of doing that because I can't travel. And then we have people who are stuck at home and unable to start or continue that field work.
And so each of these ended up unfolding quite differently, but they essentially relied a lot on digital ethnography to analyze these questions. And that happened in a number of different ways. So it could have been people relying on voice notes from their research participants who were telling them what was happening in their area or people analyzing Facebook group posts, interviewing people by Skype is something that happened a couple of times as well. We got many reports from varied field sites. So for example, one from an anthropologist in Scotland in lockdown at home, but he was working with monks who were based in a monastery in the Southwest of England.
And they were using lockdown to kind of reflect on subjects like communities and people, and I suppose humanity as a whole can deal with boredom with this kind of glut of time that we had because we were all stuck at home and they were using social media to expand their reach, to reflect on those topics.
Because as monks, you can imagine that. that they're quite experienced in having a lot of time to fit to themselves. It's something that's closer to their lifestyle than it is to ours. I think it works really well showing really creative and ingenious solutions that people had to various problems, whether kind of supplementing their lack of income through selling objects on the side of the road or, teaching their grandparents how to use zoom.
Potentially neighbors who were kind of reporting other neighbors to a local authority for not wearing their mask the right way, they're just highlighting these different intersections of, how people were responding to the pandemic, but also in a really contextualized way that took into account , all these kinds of conditions whether people are not had access to the internet, whether people could travel or not, and all of these different factors.
Adam Gamwell: [00:44:38] Well, that's fascinating is that you’re able to take a global pandemic or this very, arresting moment that we all have to face and then figure out what does it mean to create a space in which information and resources can come together circulating around anthropology and anthropological thinking, and then actually bring some findings out.
I think that's one of the interesting pieces about this project to the anthrocovid project specifically, is that there are issues if there's care versus surveillance, like can I look out for somebody I'm sure that they don't feel like they're being watched right.
Or isolation and what tools do we have? Like, how do we provide digital care for people? whether it's like just sending a emoji hug or it is, you know, texting or checking in using their preferred platform or something. And I think that's actually one of the interesting powers of anthropology that this project helps demonstrate too.
And just the power of humans want to connect, we find ways to do so, and that we can provide these spaces. And so it's almost like this is an experiment of, expanded sociality, right. Or almost social media itself it's that these are what people are making of this experience and then providing a space for them to think about it. And there’s creative ways that people documented the research, right. They were using poems and graphic novels and stuff like that.
Georgiana Mariau: [00:45:50] Actually the graphic novel came from one of our colleagues in the ASSA team, Laura who did 16 months of ethnographic research in Japan. And one of her interests is graphic anthropology. She personally likes graphic novel style illustrations and using those to really create empathy for the research participants, but also to illustrate complex issues.
For example, she created an illustration of how some of her research participants back in Japan felt about having visits during lockdown. So the participants in question were living in a very small Japanese town where everyone knows everyone. So if you have a visit and you seem to have a visit, then obviously there's the kind of risk that you might be stigmatized for especially in a context where a lot of people in that town, above a particular age and might be at risk. And so she creates a kind of illustration of her research participants saying, sorry, I would have you over for a visit, but I'm just too afraid of what others might say. And it's just a nice way of illustrating that stigma is a phenomenon that really came out of pandemic. It was something that emerged over and over again in the reports that were being sent to us.
As you say, canvases surveillance, dilemma, we also had a poem that was from an anthropologist who worked in Leipzig in East Germany. She's working with various grassroots groups, providing support to people who sleep rough in Leipzig, And she actually messaged me a few weeks after the project started and said that she hadn't had a chance to submit her report yet because actually she was working sort of on the ground, in the field, helping these grassroots organizations because I think a racist kind of group threatened some of the groups that she was working with of rough sleepers. So she was really trying to write the report and write down what she was observing while doing this kind of activist work,
She wrote about how once lockdowns started basically, they used to rely a lot before lockdown on human contact when people who might be able to help them. And once everyone had retreated inside, that became a very big issue for them because obviously if they're sleeping rough, then a lot of the support network around that disappears and she also documented the different ways in which local people found out solutions.
So they would live and leave these kinds of gift fences, where they would just leave bags of necessities and food items and things like that on various fences where they knew that the rough sleep as well, likely to be. And because I suppose as a researcher, she was quite affected by the subject matter of the research, she could express that very well through a poem which kind of was just a description of the social reality of doing this research.
It was really interesting to see findings documented in that way. And I think this kind of reportage helps challenge things like harmful messages about marginalized people, challenges hierarchies and I think sometimes it can create empathy for people that maybe we read about in the media as maybe refusing to wear masks or rather messages like that.
But then when you actually read reports from the field that explain how those people in question interpret health messages, it just gives you an insight into what factors might be stopping people from getting the help they need.
Adam Gamwell: [00:49:23] That makes good sense too. I think it's so important to break down some of those narratives too, right? That we may have one specific perspective we say these people are not wearing masks. How we report that information to, makes a huge difference. I wonder as a final question for both Georgiana and Daniel here, if there were either researchers that work in academia or in industry that were interested in these kinds of collaborations. There's two main pieces that I think are so important here, that there's the idea of this collaborative and comparative, like from the outset research you're doing, and then the inclusive outputs that you are putting together. And so like anthrocovid.com is the website that we were just talking about your project and that's where people can go and see some of the findings, but that's kind of what they are, right? Like, what are some of the broad themes that we're seeing as well as then the Why We Post and Smartphones and Smart Ageing Project?
On one level here's a moment that we have an opportunity to collect information, in a time of isolation and it seems to like, even part of our conversation that like the Anthrocovid project is a response and built off of some of the work that we've already seen, are there any pieces of advice you would you'd have for folks that are thinking about I want to do this, but I have no idea how to start, as it is to get research questions you feel are broad enough that can be answered across a number of sites.
Is it finding a problem that's big enough, ie COVID and, or smartphones that multiple people can kind of dig into? For example, I was also really quite inspired by the fact that blogging as thinking about things as they happen during the project was one of the main ideas, and he started for the project rather than waiting to either compare at the end to end or right up.
Your findings at the end, having sort of live commentary as you go. I think it's actually an incredibly important part that we actually don't see a lot of. So that might be one of the answers I'm thinking of. But are there any other pieces like this or any kind of advice you'd have for researchers? Industry or not that would want to do these kinds of collaborative and inclusive projects.
Daniel Miller: [00:51:18] Yeah. When I came into this discipline I thought, well, it's called social anthropology, but sometimes it just isn't that social. It could be because the project, like Why We Posts and ASSA, were well-funded. So obviously if you have that kind of grant proposal, and you get it, and you can fund things, then that's a category all on its own. But actually there are many things you can do which require no additional funding at all. They just require initiative openness and actually just the desire to collaborate. Anthrocovid is an obvious example of that. The main thing it required was organization, but just to give us a different example before the big projects, like Why We Post started. Actually the project I did prior to that was on a completely different subject. It started with a slightly ridiculous question, which was, why do people wear blue jeans? I think in my head, why does everybody wear blue jeans? and the more I thought about it, the more it seemed to be, there was not actually an obvious answer to that. The answer turned out to be quite interesting. Yeah. What I did then was I didn't have the funding, but I just put a thing out there and said,
Hey, I'm going to start this project. I probably started about 18 months from now. and I'll do it for this and that period. so if you're trying to think what projects you might get involved in, is there anything linked to that that you might like to decide to get involved? Partly because you would then know that you would not be doing your own research, in isolation, but actually there would be a conversation and that works well, in the end, I think there are about nine or 10 projects. They all were completely independent, no funding at all. But for that period of time, when we were doing the research, we were continually in conversation, an edited book came from that as well as people's own individual things. It was simply the openness to the idea that it's perhaps more interesting, more fun, to be doing things socially, in collaboration than just As used to be the pattern, which is find something nobody else is doing and do it because the case that's fair enough in itself, but actually projects do tend to relate to each other and anthropology is supposed to be comparative and collaborative. So even without funding, you can actually develop a multiple cited projects of that kind. And actually in that case, it wasn't even just anthropologists. Somebody said, Oh, well, I'd like to do something about the history of blue jeans. Or somebody might decide, look at the ethics of organic clothing and the problems of, blue jeans, pollution and cotton so there's all sorts of things that could come together from different perspectives. Seeing that could work without funding was part of the inspiration to go for a grant that would actually allow us to do this on a bigger scale, which was the project that we've just been talking about.
Georgiana Mariau: [00:54:24] Completely agree with Danny. It was more of a citizen science type of website. And I think some of the things that we aimed to do, where I think to be quite open about who we would get contributions from.
So we initially said it should be anthropologists around the world, but obviously if someone emailed us and said, I'm a user of experience designer sociologists and we wouldn't turn them down for that, because their contribution would be quite useful as well.
I think getting stuff out there fairly quickly and without a sort of long-winded editing process was useful. Telling people that we would aim to get their piece up as soon as possible. And just spending say an hour a day just looking through the latest submissions and having them up really soon because I think often people submit several times.
So we had these six questions one was about how people find the chair information online? The second one was about how people have responded to lockdown. When we had one on online education, we had one on Karen surveillance, one on how people convey affection. And we closed with one about struggles and morality. Which was more general and all encompassing people were encouraged by the fact that we publish them quite quickly. We had a couple of anthropologists who actually contributed to each topic which was really valuable because it added to the diversity of the reports and it meant that the activity carried on well after the last deadline was announced I think summarizing everything that we got and putting that in a separate place and saying you don't have to read through these 100 reports. Actually, these are the main themes that are emerging. This is what they're telling us. This is what we think they mean.
So if you're interested in Brazil then go to these reports. So I think helping people who are interested in the site and reading the site to navigate what was coming out of the reports was also something that I would advise and that people could do if they wanted to do something like this.
Adam Gamwell: [00:56:25] That's great too. Just the simple idea of layering information, but here's the top level. Here's a two page, like a one page, like top report that's a really wonderful way to think about that too.
This has been an incredible conversation. I want to thank both Dan Miller and Georgiana Miriau for joining us on the podcast today. This has been an enlightening and amazing conversation. So I know obviously we've talked about there's websites, there's MOOCs, there's videos. Is there anything that you want to let folks know about, where they can find more information about these projects and where they can get involved?
Georgiana Mariau: [00:56:52] So yeah, you can follow us. We post most often on Twitter, so you can follow us @ASSAUCL. Our current projects, ‘Anthropology of Smartphones and Smart Ageing’UCL, and our blog.
you go UCLASSA you'll get http://wwwdepts-live.ucl.ac.uk/anthropology/assa/ but if you follow us on Twitter, then you'll be able to follow us everywhere. And if you just look up Anthropology of Smartphones and Smart Ageing, we’re pretty much on every major social media and we post them. We tried to do it a couple of times a week, but it's at least weekly.
Adam Gamwell: [00:57:27] Very good. Cool. And we'll, we'll post all these links as well on the show notes so people can click their way into it.
Daniel Miller: [00:57:33] Thank you.
Georgiana Mariau: [00:57:33] Thanks for having us.
Adam Gamwell: [00:57:35] Thanks again to Daniel Miller and Georgiana Mariau, it's been really inspiring to learn some of the unexpected insights about social media, smartphones, and COVID research, as well as what a global and public first strategy for your research looks like. And we want to congratulate them on their incredible work at getting over 1 million downloads. And I highly recommend you check out their MOOC, their online course. It's amazing.
This episode was brought to you with a ton of support and help from our Fall 2020 cohort of interns, Xin Yao Lin. Sara Schmieder and Elizabeth Smyth. They're helping with editing our show, doing social media, show art and so much more. So a big thank you to you all. You're doing amazing
Please be sure to share This Anthro Life with someone you care about. It's one of the biggest compliments you can give us and really helps us grow the community. And speaking of you can check out our new medium blog, Voice and Value over at https://medium.com/missing-link . This is from Missing Link Studios. This is my production company out of which we make This Anthro Life and a bunch of other awesome media projects. Again. That's https://medium.com/missing-link. Check out the blog, share the podcast and let's keep bringing love, we could use it. As always, it's been a pleasure to be with you and we'll catch you next time. I'm Adam Gamwell.