The Internet: Deviation

From the Series: The Internet

Photo by Jose Antonio Gelado, licensed under CC BY NC.

In many ways, Julia Fleischhack’s contribution to this session of Correspondences could be classified under deviation. Her insights point to examining and questioning our own fetishes, obsessions, and drives—things that are normally kept hidden from view and yet permeate everyday actions, especially uses of digital technologies. The darker uses she describes, where digital technologies are used to incite hatred, harass, discriminate, and deepen existing inequalities, are of concern to scholars, but also appear frequently in popular media.

We should not overstate the prevalence of these dark spaces, however. In all nine of the field sites researched for the Why We Post project, such uses would indeed be described as deviation from social norms. Which is not to say that they do not exist. A topic that came up often enough throughout my fieldwork in Trinidad (2011–2014) was revenge porn. A handful of participants described a well-known website where men uploaded photos of women clearly taken in the context of an intimate relationship, complete with their name and the suburb or town where they lived. Yet these forms of harassment were fairly uncommon.

The towns where we conducted our ethnographies for the Why We Post project are semiurban to rural, with populations of around twenty thousand. Social relations are more intensified than in metropolitan and urban centers, and residents generally know of one another or their families even when they aren’t personally acquainted. We studied uses of social media in these contexts, and one of our key findings was that in these relatively small places, where the main interest is in maintaining relationships, uses of social media were highly normative.

Norms of what is acceptable to do on social media varied between sites. Elisabetta Costa (2016) argues that in southeast Turkey, where she worked, demonstrating family honor is an overriding values. She details the way that pressures placed on women to maintain the appearance of modesty affected their use of platforms like Facebook, with the expectation that no aspects of the self that was not in the service of family honor should be visible. For Razvan Nicolescu (forthcoming), conformity is shown through aesthetics; the residents of his field site in Grano conform to a sense of distinctively Italian style, which manifests in their use of images on Facebook. These displays intend to show good citizenship, where individuals demonstrate the same values, including a shared sense of style. Nell Haynes (forthcoming), on the other hand, shows that the Hospeceños (the residents of Alto Hospicio) of northern Chile, do exactly the opposite. They remain systematically unstylish to affirm a collective sense of being a marginal community.

I realize that a key difference between what I am describing and the kinds of activities in Fleischhack’s discussion consists in self-presentation. In Fleischhack’s studies, I am guessing that those who perpetuate forms of hate are doing so in forums of like-minded individuals or under the guise of anonymity. In our studies, we look at social media users who use their real names and for whom we know others from their lived networks: one of the main contributions of ethnographic fieldwork. So it is easier, in this context, to identify patterns of behaviors, values, and aspirations.

This brings me to a broader point: Our findings in the Why We Post project strongly refute the idea that individuals have an online persona that is separate from their offline life (Miller et al. 2016). For many people who participated in the research, social media platforms such as Facebook, WhatsApp, Snapchat, and Instagram are extensions of the place in which they live and the modes they use to negotiate relationships. Unlike a psychological perspective which might hold that what we see on the surface of a person and, by extension, how they portray themselves online, is best understood as a result of drives, an anthropological perspective argues that what is seen on the outside, how a person behaves on social media is driven by society itself. The Melanesians described by Marilyn Strathern (1988) were concerned with making oneself visible in the correct way, which affected having and exercising power (see also Street and Copeman 2014). Adornment, wearing prestigious objects given as gifts by others, shows how a person has cultivated valuable relationships, proven through displaying material objects on the body. The capacity to act, therefore, relies on making some aspects of oneself visible or present, while obscuring others.

Perhaps the concern I share most keenly with Fleischhack and her area of study is that of spaces for social deviation, such that groups of people who routinely victimize and oppress others are so highly normalized in the dark (and not so dark) spaces of the web. Victimization and oppression in digital spaces are not as hidden as we think, from teenage bullying to anonymous trolling to the organization of rallies based on racism or sexism.


Costa, Elisabetta, 2016. Social Media in Southeast Turkey. London: UCL Press.

Haynes, Nell. Forthcoming. Social Media in Northern Chile. London: UCL Press.

Miller, Daniel, Elisabetta Costa, Nell Haynes, Tom McDonald, Razvan Nicolescu, Jolynna Sinanan, Juliano Spyer, Shriram Venkatramen, and Xinyuan Wang. 2016. How the World Changed Social Media. London: UCL Press.

Nicolescu, Razvan. Forthcoming. Social Media in South Italy. London: UCL Press.

Street, Alice, and Jacob Copeman. 2014. “Social Theory after Strathern: An Introduction.” Theory, Culture, and Society 31, nos. 2–3: 7–37.

Strathern, Marilyn. 1988. The Gender of the Gift. Berkeley: University of California Press.