How people use social networks: an anthropological view

I recently read an article on Scientific American about the relationship between loneliness and depression and people’s use of online social networks.

The scientists explained that people who feel alone because of depression or other reasons are quicker to use social networks than those who don’t feel this way. But when these individuals use online social networks they may not know how to handle certain situations. For instance, people who feel alone may misinterpret the fact that someone does not respond immediately to their messages on Facebook.

This finding is the starting point for this article, since my work on social networks in South Africa has made me wonder whether this is true for all people, or if it varies according to their socio-economic backgrounds and education levels. This topic is based on my most recent research on online social networks, which aimed at understanding the way people connect with a certain network from their phones.

Expenditure levels on social networks: what determines them?
In South Africa, approximately 10% of people access internet from a PC. Mobile internet figures are much debated, but according to a mobile service provider, more than 20% of people (11 million) access the internet from their phone.

Given these estimates, when doing research on people’s use of online social networks in South Africa, it is necessary to focus on the majority of internet users. In other words, people who connect from their mobile phones and who cannot afford internet at home.

I interviewed and observed men and women in their natural environment (home and work). They were aged between 18 and 27 years old across all races. These are some of their insights regarding how they use online social networks:

“I am on internet all the time, when I wake up, when I come to school, in between lectures, when I am bored at lectures and when I go to sleep. All the time.” (21- year-old marketing student)

“I (chat) when I wake up and when I go to sleep. I don’t always have airtime but if the conversation is too good I put more…” (27-year-old technician at an air-con company)

These individuals differ in their education level, their access to resources and their age group. What the two of them had in common, however, was their level of connection with the social networks that they use from their phone.

‘Talk’ is cheap
In practice, both of them reload their phone when their airtime runs out in the middle of a chat, and do not keep account of how much money they spend when chatting online. This finding encouraged me to dig deeper into the possible drivers of behaviour among individuals with different cultural and socio-economic backgrounds.

I wondered if the explanation for the similarities could be that both of these individuals felt lonely, and thus were more likely to engage with online social networks? If this was the case, then what was the role that their socio-economic background played when they decided how much money to spend on mobile internet?

I discovered that, regardless of how much they have to pay for the service, people from different LSMs (living standard measurement) spend more than they plan in order to connect whenever they feel like. In general, none of the interviewees (university students and less-educated) strictly monitored how much they spent every time they chatted online.

For instance, an unemployed 22-year-old who did not finish high school, had as many devices and spent as much – or more – money in a month on mobile internet as a university student.

According to him: “My phone costs me R50 a week, which is a lot, but it is ok still. I sometimes use money that I was supposed to spend the following week on airtime.”

This guy was not the only interviewee who spent more than he planned on mobile internet. On the contrary, this seems to be a pattern among the majority of people I interviewed. He ended the conversation by saying: “But I don’t really stop doing things for doing internet. If I don’t have time for that I still go out.”

This caught my attention because he did not acknowledge spending a significant amount of time online, despite the fact that he was one of the most frequent users of social networks among the group I was researching. This  shows me that engaging with people online is a priority for some and that the cost of their phone bill is not necessarily a barrier to their use of social networks. The drivers for this behaviour may vary according to people’s level of education, as the second part of the article will explain.

Meeting people online: “You can still be you but with more reservation”

Differing from the group with less education, university students distrust meeting people online, and are more selective about the contacts they include in each network. They select a certain network for certain purposes.

On the other hand, people with less education  (some had finished high school while others had not), openly admitted that they used social networks to meet new people. Even if this is the case for university students, they do not admit it.

Students said that social networks were a means to connect with people they already knew, and think it is unsafe to meet strangers online. This is in line with North American trends, which confirm that social networks are more effective among those who know each other (see Danah

Important topics emerge from these findings, such as the possible connection between education and the way people use and engage with social networks. In the research, those with less education were keen to risk more than the higher-educated group. They admitted meeting and even dating people from the network they used the most. Did they feel lonelier than the other group? Or maybe those with more education were more aware of the risks of meeting new people, and restricted themselves to online encounters?

Since my research was not quantitative, it is just an indication of a trend that may be worth paying more attention to. But based on my findings, I believe that by better understanding the connection between education and the use of technology, online social networks can be improved by becoming more secure for users who don’t want to risk too much.



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