Tech, Now + Beyond, Interviews

Social Media in a Whole New Light: An Interview with Jolynna Sinanan

After over a year out in the field, social media researcher Jolynna Sinanan explains why we post, in communities around the world.

Is there some sort of meaning behind what we share on social media? What are we trying, or not trying, to say by what we post? And why so many selfies? Are we all narcissists?

Sometimes we’ve had these thoughts or discussions with peers. But until now, large-scale studies and research on how social media culture is embedded into our every behavior have been few and far between.

A group of nine anthropologists from the Global Social Media Impact Study looked into questions of public relationship struggles, posting about controversial topics and the ever popular selfie through research on the ground in various communities from South America, the Caribbean, Middle East and Asia.

Now their research, featured in The Economist and The Guardian, has been made available through a new free online course from the University College London entitled “Why We Post.” It’s been published alongside 11 books and more than 100 videos that look deeply into the question of why we use social media the way we do. We spoke with anthropologist Dr. Jolynna Sinanan, whose 2014 book “Webcam” with Professor Daniel Miller was the first in-depth study on the various uses of webcams based on her fieldwork in the Caribbean island of Trinidad.

The Tempest: Tell us about your background.

Jolynna Sinanan: I live in Melbourne, Australia, and am a vice chancellor’s postdoctoral research fellow at RMIT University. That means that I research and publish for academic audiences and, ideally, for the wider public. For the online course, I had an equal role in writing and delivering the course content, along with my colleagues with the Why We Post project.

It’s not just an online course. The website has over 100 videos, our key findings in 9 languages and our books from the project to download for free, so we are hoping that for anybody who wants to learn about the anthropology of social media will be able to do so easily.

For this course, researchers traveled and looked at social media uses in South Asia, East Asia, and the Middle East. Were you able to participate in this research?

For the course, each researcher lived in their field site in China, Italy, Turkey, Trinidad, England, Chile, India, and Brazil for 15 months, between 2012 and 2014. My field site was a town in Trinidad, where I lived with different families. I spent most days with different people, seeing where they lived, where they worked and generally following along with them, doing what they do. Being embedded in people’s ordinary, day to day lives allowed for a much wider understanding of the contexts in which people use social media.


Explain what you mean when you say “the anthropology of social media.”

The anthropology of social media is the comparative understanding of social media through long-term ethnographic study. That means the anthropologist needs to be living within the community for a while – we did 15 months. So rather than speculating what social media might mean in each place based on what we observe in posts only, we take the opportunity to talk to people come to understand what social media means and does for them.

What do you find to be missing in popular discourse about social media?

Any reference to the idea that it might be used entirely differently or might mean something different in each place. For example, Facebook might be characteristically Trinidadian, as suggested in Daniel Miller’s book “Tales from Facebook.”

Are there common themes or divergences across all research fields, that you can make generalizations about global social media use?

For every generalization we can make about social media, at least one of the researchers said, “It’s not like that in my field site.” So we were constantly finding that uses of social media are comparative, not universal. With that said, there are common ‘genres’ of posts for example, especially visual posts. Memes appeared everywhere, but with their own unique inflection. Selfies also appeared, but ideals of beauty and aspirations, for example, appear in different ways.What are your thoughts on the shift from public-facing social media — Twitter, Facebook — to private messaging platforms like Snapchat, Facebook Messenger, and WhatsApp?

Public-facing social media proved to be the most conservative space, because people are friends with several people they grew up with, went to school with or work with — especially in small towns. For this reason, people tend to be less controversial or too openly challenges to the views of others and the norms in that community. Private conversations over Messenger and WhatsApp tended to be be more liberal, individuals tended to say what they really think as the conversation is not in front of an audience of their relatives, peers and wider connections.


 How did you get involved in studying this?

I became involved with the project after finishing my Ph.D. in post-conflict development in Cambodia. Professor Miller, who is the chief investigator on the project, is also an expert on Trinidad and I wanted to spend some time in the country, as my father is from there and I had never spent substantial time there growing up. Family relationships are the most primary relationships in Trinidad, so having these connections were essential to understanding wider social life.

My Ph.D. was also based on ethnographic research, which I love doing. It’s such a rich way of coming to appreciate how people see the world and live their lives and to have such a close connection with Trinidad was an ideal scenario.

Find Dr. Sinanan on Twitter @jolynnasinanan and her writing in The Guardian. This interview has been edited lightly for clarity.