Juliano Spyer (@jasper) is part of the Why We Post global research project, based at the UCL Department of Anthropology, that looks into the uses and consequences of social media. The project involved nine anthropologists, each of whom spent 15 months in communities around the world. On 29th February 2016, the first 3 books are being launched that compare the results from all the fieldsites, as well as a book on social media in England. There will also be a free online course. For more information, follow their twitter @UCLWhyWePost.
When is it that fieldwork finishes? Thanks to social media, the separation
between being in the fieldsite and being in the library is becoming ever more
blurred. This is true for anthropologists in general, not just those who study
social media, because in many societies platforms like Facebook and WhatsApp
have become an important channel of interaction during fieldwork.
In a way, I have carried my fieldsite in Brazil with me back to London. I
mostly keep contact through regular exchange of messages with friends from the
field. But there is one case that draws me back to the position of
It took me a long time and a lot of effort to be trusted in the village so
that people were happy to show me the content that circulates through direct or
group messages on WhatsApp. I was particularly happy when one adult woman, who
appeared to understood the purpose our research project and
resolved to help the research by forwarding the messages she received via
WhatsApp to me.
These messages allowed me a glimpse into what this part of Brazilian society
– the people now called “the new middle class” – is privately talking about.
However, the subjects of the videos exchanged are often distressing. In short,
there is a lot of amateur sex and violence; things that are often not fun to see and that can also
carry legal consequences. For instance: the recording of students violently
bullying someone is a proof of a crime. This is the kind of material that can
land on my phone.
While I could easily tell this informant to stop sending me this content, as
a researcher, I feel it would be a pity to close this channel because I am now –
thanks to informants like her – in touch with this very private social world.
However the constant communication from the fieldsite does pose challenges when it comes to writing-up.
Yesterday I was considering buying a second mobile, so I can leave this one
at home and only check the new content every now and then. This way I would be
able to distance myself and have more control over this flow of distracting (and
occasionally) disturbing content. A new phone would also assure I would retain
the many textual conversations and exchanges I had with informants during field
But this is just an idea and I am sharing this story here also hoping to hear
what others think I should do about this situation. In case you do have
something to say, please use the comment area below this blog post.