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Social media broadens opportunities

International research shows that digital platforms break social bubbles by democratizing experiences, and sharing practical tips and academic content

Catarina Bessel

On the streets of the largest urban centers, the scene repeats itself. In the subway, on the bus, and in their cars, Brazilians move around like semi-zombies, their eyes pinned to the screens of their cell phones, without paying much attention to what’s happening around them. Today, 64.7% of the Brazilian population over 10 years of age is connected to the internet, according to the latest Continuous National Household Sample Survey (PNAD). And 62% have a smartphone, according to the Google Consumer Barometer study from 2017. There has been a boom in mobile connectivity over the last six years; in 2012, only 14% of Brazilians had smartphones.

“In the past, only the upper and upper-middle classes had access to the internet. In the 1990s, for example, it was a young person’s thing, for students, white guys, nerds, and generally men,” says anthropologist Juliano Spyer, author of a study conducted for University College London (UCL) in England, which was recently published in the book Social Media in Emergent Brazil: How the internet affects social mobility (Educ/UCL Press). “Beginning in the mid-2000s, the internet became popular due to Orkut,” he adds. In Brazil’s case, the political stability and economic development experienced during the last 20 years has provided people with access to home computers and mobile devices such as tablets and smartphones.

Intrigued by the popularization of internet access tools, Spyer devoted himself to understanding the phenomenon. In April 2013, he closed his home in São Paulo and moved to a dormitory village for low-income workers in Bahia with a population of 15,000, where he lived until May 2014. To safeguard the identity of the interviewees, the researcher gave the place the fictional name of Balduíno.

Prior to starting their field research, Spyer and eight other anthropologists spent seven months preparing, under the guidance of anthropologist and archaeologist Daniel Miller of UCL. After reviewing a bibliography related to the topic, they established the principal questions to be addressed with the research: reasons for using social networks, their practical usefulness, the degree to which they interfere in education, the political role they play, and to what extent they bring people together—or distance them.

“After six months in Balduíno, I was already integrated into the community,” says Spyer. From there, the anthropologist began to follow—via Facebook, WhatsApp, and outside the internet—the lives of 250 people, who spontaneously became his “friends” on the social networks. To deepen the research, 50 of these from differing social profiles and age groups were selected in such a way as to reflect the local population. “We didn’t want a teen-only survey because internet use by those with less online experience is just as relevant,” says Spyer.

In Balduíno, people earn a living working as housekeepers, drivers, gardeners, and cooks, mainly in hotels and other businesses in the tourist economy in the northern sector of the city of Salvador. “Their consumer aspirations include clothing from international brands, motorcycles, cars, and computers. In fact, today the computer occupies the same physical and symbolic place in the living room that was once occupied by the TV, in order to be displayed to friends and neighbors,” says Spyer. “The research found that among the low income population, knowing how to use the internet indicates that the person is part of the modern world, and has more advanced communication skills, characteristic of someone who has had some education,” he explains. “But, paradoxically, digital communication also strengthens the traditional networks of mutual aid that had been diminishing as a result of urbanization.”

The investigation led Spyer to deconstruct some stereotypes about the behavior of internet users who inhabit the peripheries of Brazilian cities. Such as, that they could live in different realities, one virtual and another real. “In the mid-2000s, I received patients at my practice who created fake profiles, completely different from who they were offline,” recalls psychoanalyst Patrícia Ferreira, a postdoctoral fellow in clinical psychology at the University of São Paulo (USP). “Today, these posts have changed and appear more as a confirmation of the “me” that they wish to be, their perfect “selfie.”

Ferreira is investigating the political appropriation manifested in the rhetoric found on social media after the street demonstrations of June 2013, when protests exploded in capitals across the country, initially against the increase in public transport fares. Using the tools of psychoanalysis, she accomplishes what she defines as “listening to the collective” using information published in social media profiles, and discussions groups with opposing positions. Although not yet complete, the study has highlighted the “protective” function of the screen, which encourages users to say what they think, almost always ignoring their responsibility for the effects of their words.

In the community researched by Spyer, the young people indicated they found social media gave them a means of expressing themselves with more freedom. “The virtual environment is monitored very little by older people. In general, young people have more education and know how to use social media better than their parents,” the researcher says. “People of all ages meet on Facebook, but younger people use their better education and technical knowledge to prevent their presence from being monitored by adults.”

Incentive to education
Although the common sense view is that social media is a major distraction, Spyer has found that it can act as an incentive to learning. “During my research, I found, for example, that no one wants to be embarrassed for writing something wrong on a Facebook post, and be ridiculed and called ‘ignorant,'” says the researcher. To these ends every effort seems reasonable, from using spellcheck to consulting Google before posting.

A professor in the postgraduate program in Brazilian education at the Federal University of Ceará, and coordinator of the LER Group (Languages and Networked Education), Eduardo Santos Junqueira points out that the internet brings together a lot of useful information.  “With the help of a child or grandchild, low-income adults can access quality content that they otherwise wouldn’t have any contact with,” observes Junqueira, who studies the problem of using and understanding new languages via the web. “There are YouTube videos, for example, that teach you how to solve problems in a very concrete way, from how to repair a computer to how to build a house,” he says.

Junqueira mapped out the methods by which many low-income students, using distance learning, can access, consult, and share a variety of audiovisual content available on the internet that’s fundamental for their education and success in the subjects being studied. “It’s not, therefore, merely a socialization activity or one of enjoying cultural content, but a pragmatic use case that brings benefits to the professional and academic lives of these populations,” Junqueira states.

Groups made up of members who don’t know each other very well, but are connected because they have some common ground—such as work, neighborhood, or school—are important for broadening worldviews and opportunities, especially for the less affluent. “When accessing a social network there exists the possibility of establishing connections with people from very different worlds,” the educator observes. “Although not traditional friendships, these relationships can generate social capital and enable contact with new ideas, spreading experiences and references.” In other words, it breaks the bubble of restrictive friendship groups.

“We are in the process of digitizing the things that are on the streets,” says economist Gilson Schwartz, a professor in the Department of Cinema, Radio, and TV at the School of Communication and Arts at USP. To aid in understanding this phenomenon, he created the undergraduate courses “Introduction to Iconomy,” (the political economy of icons), and “International Audiovisual Economics.” “Informal education has to be seen as complementary to formal education,” says Schwartz.

Shortening Distances
Contrary to what many have feared, studies indicate that social networks actually bring people together. “Talking, posting, or uploading videos are inexpensive ways to stay in touch. It’s enough to have a smartphone and a signal, which is often shared or hacked,” says Spyer. “It’s not uncommon, especially in the Northeast, for people to migrate to distant cities where there’s better employment opportunities. In these cases, the internet helps maintain a connection with the family, which used to be accomplished through letters or long-distance phone calls.” These tools also bring a little peace of mind to mothers who spend their days away from home, working. The study showed that social media applications such as WhatsApp help parents monitor and guide children from a distance.

In regions where public services are inadequate, support from friends, neighbors, and relatives connected via social networks can also help address health, safety, and educational needs, Spyer observes. “Everyone needs community support. ‘I lost my job,’ ‘I don’t have food to feed my family,’ ‘My son is on drugs,’ ‘I need to go to the hospital.’ These are some of the problems that states and municipalities often are unable to solve. That’s why the traditional networks of mutual aid, based on relationships between family and neighbors, were strengthened by the potential for fast and cheap communication,” he notes.

In addition to Spyer, who studied the Brazilian case, the other eight anthropologists went to locations in India, Turkey, England, Italy, Trinidad, Chile, and China to investigate how internet users view social media. In China research was carried out in two locations, one more industrialized and one rural. All were part of the research project called “Why We Post.”

Cultural differences did not prevent similar patterns of behavior from emerging in different countries. In each location it was observed, for example, that social media created more flexible forms of communication. While previously relations were either private (a message addressed to one recipient), or public (posted on the open pages of social networks), it has now become possible to have a hybrid model of relative privacy within a group controlled by one or more moderators. During the period analyzed, the more public platforms such as Facebook timelines, for example, proved to be conservative, with people avoiding political issues. In media platforms with more exclusivity, such as WhatsApp, this feature was exercised more, precisely because of the possibility of keeping the discussion within a carefully curated group.

The results of the research are detailed in 11 books on the project’s website. Although structured in a similar way, they provide the reader a glimpse at some regional peculiarities. In India, members of the lower castes prefer shopping on the internet to shopping in stores, where they suffer discrimination from sellers from the higher castes. In China’s industrial centers, where women constitute the main labor force, male-oriented social media reveal men are more sensitive than expected by Chinese society.

Because they see the internet as a democratic means of accessing content, the “Why We Post” researchers have made all the books available for free download. “In the academic context, today this is superimportant. There is a lot of debate about who owns the results of the surveys carried out with public money. All our books are licensed by Creative Commons. They are sold on paper, but they’re fully available in PDF format for download,” Spyer says.

Digital inclusion, but only for some

The lack of infrastructure in Brazilian schools is still one of the greatest obstacles to using information available on the internet as a complementary source to the knowledge offered in books and classroom handouts. Practically all urban schools have some internet connection, but it’s almost always intended for management activities. Rarely can the internet be used pedagogically. “In most schools the network speed is low, only two megabytes per second,” says Fábio Senne, research coordinator of the Regional Center for Studies on the Development of the Information Society (, which recently published the eighth edition of its Information and Communication Technologies research in the area of education, or TIC Education. Created using data from 2017, the study is an X-ray of the connectivity available in Brazilian school systems.

Since 2010, has interviewed students, teachers, education coordinators, and principals to track the use of information and communication technologies in private and public schools across the country. This year, for the first time, schools located
in rural areas were included. The research surveyed 10,866 students in grades five through nine in elementary school and in the second year of high school, in addition to 957 principals, 884 education coordinators, and 1,015 teachers.

According to the study, currently 86% of students use the internet to research school work. But only 39% do it at school. “In addition to connectivity problems in the teaching environment, teachers need specific training in the use of digital content,” says Senne. “To be effective, technology-use policies need to promote adequate teacher training strategies and access to digital educational resources,” he says.

In rural areas, the problem is more serious: only 36% of schools have an online connection and only 43% have computers. Regional discrepancies are also large. In southern Brazil, 81% of rural schools have at least one connected computer, while in the North this percentage drops to 18%. Among unconnected schools, 28% of school principals explain that high equipment costs make such technology prohibitively expensive

Political appropriation after the street demonstrations: Rhetoric in the sociopolitical-digital discourse (2016–2019) (no. 15/15215-8); Grant Mechanism Postdoctoral Grant; Principal Investigator Miriam Debieux Rosa (USP); Scholarship Beneficiary Patrícia do Prado Ferreira; Investment R$208,194.17.