WhatsApp as 'technology of life': Reframing research agendas
First Monday

WhatsApp as 'technology of life': Reframing research agendas by Edgar Gomez Cruz and Ramaswami Harindranath



Abstract
In this paper, we present a few ethnographic vignettes on the use of WhatsApp from a study in Mexico City. We suggest WhatsApp is a paradigmatic example of how a particular technology becomes an infrastructure to sustain, and therefore shape, a wide range of quotidian activities, from personal to economic, from spiritual to political. WhatsApp exemplifies what we call technologies of life, as such technologies mediate almost all aspects of social life. On this basis, we propose two interventions into the research agenda that go beyond data-centric approaches and focus on the lived-experiences of individuals, families, and communities.

Contents

Introduction: WhatsApp in the Global South
Digital practices in the Global South, a brief look at the literature
A brief note on methodology
WhatsApp in Mexico, a short biography
WhatsApp as a technology of life: Ethnographic vignettes
Towards reframing research agendas: Two interventions
Conclusions

 


 

Introduction: WhatsApp in the Global South

In July 2019, WhatsApp had a massive outage [1]. While this failure lasted for only few hours and it was not total, as it was still possible to send and receive texts, news reports on the outage suggested a certain degree of panic, as reflected in headlines such as “Cybernetic Apocalypse” [2]. WhatsApp is a paradigmatic example of a growing phenomenon in developing societies in particular, where a single technology or a group of technologies becomes an infrastructure to sustain (and therefore shape) a wide range of quotidian activities, from personal to economic, from spiritual to political. We call them technologies of life, as they mediate almost all aspects of social life. The notion ‘technologies of life’ is intended to be less an emerging concept than a way to highlight the intricate and complex connections between the app’s pervasive (and sometimes inescapable) use and the mediations that these connections engender and sustain. We suggest WhatsApp has become a “technology of life”, and with this we emphasise two points: first, the everydayness and pervasive presence of the app in diverse life experiences; second, the alignment of our approach with decolonising efforts that emphasise the contextual and the historical in examining how technologies are used, perceived and experienced by different groups. We use technology of life as a concept to highlight the ways in which life is expanded, experienced, and has become increasingly dependent on certain technologies.

In this paper, we discuss a few ethnographic vignettes from a study in Mexico that exemplify how WhatsApp mediates life and how its analysis demands an engagement that reaches beyond data-centric approaches and focuses on the lived-experience of individuals, families, and communities. While ethnographies of social media practices are not new, we agree with Coleman (2010), who, in her review of ethnographic approaches to digital media, rightly underlines the importance of pushing “against the narrow presumptions about the universality of digital experience.” [3]

Our primary aim in this article is to call for an intervention in scholarly literature on the socio-cultural and political dimensions underpinning the use of social media and digital technologies. We focus on WhatsApp as illustrative of a broader discussion about how digital culture has been constituted, experienced and enacted and how it has been studied and understood in areas outside of the Anglosphere. We suggest a twofold intervention: first, by highlighting the limitations of approaches that position (big) data at the centre of academic inquiry and privilege the study of platforms where data scraping is possible, which reinforce a very particular idea of “public space”. Secondly, we wish to bring to the fore the need to carry out research on digital technologies in other geographies that pays attention to how specific socio-historical contexts and cultures shape how these technologies are used, experienced and integrated in everyday life.

 

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Digital practices in the Global South, a brief look at the literature

While acknowledging that “Global South” is a problematic term, we use it here to indicate regions and populations outside the ‘West’ and the Westernised, aligning ourselves with current approaches that “challenge analyses that implicitly assume Western democracies as the privileged setting where and from where to observe.” [4].

Crucial here are questions such as: how does WhatsApp affect ordinary lives and ways of being in the world and of world-making? What does this reveal about the local context and about technologies themselves? Exploring such issues, and developing relevant concepts and appropriately grounded theory, requires an engagement with how closely the app is implicated in everyday practices in the Global South. Understanding what technologies such as WhatsApp mean to users seems crucial; as do the cultural, emotional, and social resonances they carry, over and above their affordances and capacities as digital tools. It is important to examine the social life of WhatsApp, focussing on practices and lives outside the Global North, since, firstly, WhatsApp is arguably the most important everyday technology in several parts of the Global South, with countries like India, Brazil and Mexico having substantially more users than, for example, the U.S. or the U.K. [5]. Secondly, the adoption of technologies involves them being adjusted in particular ways by different groups for locally relevant reasons, through a process of “mutual domestication” (Siles, et al., 2019).

In keeping with recent ethnographic work such as Arora (2019), Doron and Jeffrey (2013), and Miller, et al., (2016), we recognize the importance of both the examination of the use of media technologies in diverse locations and the overlaps and distinctions between them, but also, more importantly, on what the study of the socio-cultural and political contexts would reveal. In that sense, we acknowledge the contributions of ethnographies of mobile phone use, such as Tenhunen (2008), whose field research on how the adoption of mobile phones in rural India changed social and cultural configurations provides valuable insights on the process of homogenisation of what she calls ‘social logistics’. We agree that research on digital technologies has largely “focussed on Western countries, which has led to a tendency to centre on Western-based concepts.” [6] However, while studies such as Tenhunen’s have, mostly, centred on rural lives, our focus is on the urban, and we want to take into account the disparities that constitute city life in the Global South.

The concept of technologies of life is mobilised here as a way of being attentive to how WhatsApp has changed the ways in which users — some of whom have adopted it reluctantly — orchestrate the diverse aspects of their lives. As Doron and Jeffrey (2013) ask in their study of cheap mobile telephony and everyday life in India, “To what extent do expectations and practices fundamentally change” as a result of using mobile phones [7]? We are confident that our interviews — with WhatsApp users from different socio-economic backgrounds — combined with our understanding of the sociocultural and historical context of Mexico, are sufficiently revealing for us to extrapolate from. Our impulse here is, in some ways, not dissimilar to that of Rai (2019) in his ethnography of the everyday practice of ‘jugaad’ or workaround (in the original sense of subaltern enactments of creative ways to circumvent obstacles) within “the volatile context of the Indian mobile phone ecology” [8]. Like him, we want to develop locally relevant concepts and theorisations grounded on ethnographic data that speak to the demotic experiences of people outside the EuroAmerican context. We derive our theoretical energies from earlier engagements with the everyday, such as Martín-Barbero (1993), emphasising practices and the shared construction of a quotidian “ways of doing”.

Martín-Barbero’s proposal to move from media to mediations is valuable in this context: first, it addressed media and mediations specifically from a Latin American perspective, acknowledging the particular version of modernity and the contexts where mass media were received and understood. Second, his conviction that we should understand how people use media to change their lives shifted the scope from objects to processes, recognising both the materiality of media and the cultural, political, and historical contexts of their use. And, finally, Martín-Barbero’s influential intervention provides a theoretical base from which to consider people’s everyday use of media with a more nuanced understanding of “the popular”: “The importance of the popular does not rest on its authenticity or beauty but rather on its sociocultural representativity and on its capacity to make material and to express the ways of living and thinking of the underclasses.” [9]

Martín-Barbero’s argument accords well with our intention to align our work within a lineage of “epistemologies from the south” (de Sousa Santos, 2014). In that sense, we hope to contribute to the growing literature that problematizes Western conceptions of the digital and data-centric approaches (Arora, 2019; Ricaurte, 2019; Couldry and Mejias, 2019; Livingstone, 2019).

 

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A brief note on methodology

This paper is part of a larger, on-going ethnographic project, and is a preliminary attempt to reflect on the particularities of the use of digital technologies in the Global South. In early 2019, we completed a first study of the use of WhatsApp in Mexico, where we carried out in-depth interviews with 20 participants from different educational backgrounds, ages, genders, and classes — students, domestic workers, entrepreneurs, housewives. We partnered with a team of local scholars who set up and organised the interviews following a protocol we provided. All participants lived in Mexico City, and were recruited using a combination of techniques: snowball, social media and specific targeting. More than a representative sample, we were interested in capturing some of the variety of uses of WhatsApp and the diversity of narratives about them, along with the lived experiences of using the app.

The interviews took place in March 2019 in different cafes in Mexico City, designed to facilitate the participation of people from diverse parts of the city. Interviews ranged from 45 minutes to 150 minutes and were transcribed and analysed using an open-code approach that focused on areas such as personal experiences, group activities, multimodality and perceptions and routines in WhatsApp use.

 

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WhatsApp in Mexico, a short biography

Most participants in our study had trouble recalling when they started using WhatsApp. Their responses were similar: “forever?”, “it has been there since the beginning” or “it seems that I have always used it”.

When Facebook purchased it in 2014, WhatsApp was already popular among Mexicans. Both economic and sociotechnical reasons explain this success: the zero rate offered by mobile companies for data when using the app, its multimodality, and cultural presence, create the conditions for its popularity among diverse sections of the population in Mexico.

In the early 2000s mobile phones were affordable only to the middle and upper classes. Rates were high and calling a phone line or making inter-state calls were prohibitively expensive. Mobile communication in the early 2000s was, therefore, a luxury. The use of SMS in contrast, represented the cheapest alternative for mobile communication.

In 2005, the BlackBerry Messenger system was introduced becoming the first mobile device/plan that offered free, unlimited texting as part of the monthly package. BlackBerry was already popular among entrepreneurs, politicians, and businessmen. It became fashionable among the middle and upper classes, and aspirational Mexican youth precisely because it had BlackBerry Messenger, which allowed messages to be exchanged without incurring additional cost. When smartphones were first introduced in 2007, their first target market was this segment of the population already using BlackBerry. The shift from BlackBerries to smartphones posed a challenge for users moving from one system to another because of the problem of interoperability — BlackBerry Messenger, worked only with BlackBerry devices. WhatsApp, launched in 2009, was the first app that worked on both smartphones and BlackBerries. Moreover, WhatsApp was one of the earliest mobile messenger systems with a near zero cost for sending messages (free for iOS and with a very low cost in their Android version launched in 2010). By the time smartphones became common in Mexico, WhatsApp was already the most used mobile instant messaging system and an integral part of the mobile communication experience. In countries like Mexico, however, a significant section of the population had no access to either a computer or earlier models of mobile phones and therefore most current users were introduced to chats and instant messaging systems through WhatsApp. Millions of users in the Global South are now accessing the Internet for the first time through their increasingly cheap smartphones (Arora, 2019). By achieving a critical mass, apps such as WhatsApp have secured their key position in the digital ecology, both as a communicative tool and an entire sociotechnical arrangement combining economic, communicative, social and cultural elements — a critical infrastructure (Plantin, et al., 2018).

Two aspects of the economic infrastructure of WhatsApp are important here: firstly, mobile operators frequently offer zero-rated data for WhatsApp and Facebook use. Significantly, this allows users to access services without compromising affordable data plans. Most of our participants do not have data plans, preferring to top-up on a monthly basis, investing just enough funds to have a “WhatsApp for free” bundle. Such promotions allow users with different incomes, data allowances, and devices, access to WhatsApp without further economic or technical restrictions, with the result that anyone who owns a smartphone, regardless of their socioeconomic position, uses WhatsApp. While access to more sophisticated devices and larger data allowances improve and diversify the use of different apps, WhatsApp has become the lowest common denominator, almost synonymous with mobile communication, shaping smartphone user experience. As one of our participants, a young student in her second year of university told us: “The only reason why I wanted to have a smartphone was in order to be able to use WhatsApp”. Secondly, this pervasiveness and availability of the app at zero-cost makes WhatsApp a convenient economic tool for people on low incomes, since it is not only used for personal communication but also, importantly, for economic transactions, work-related activities, community-organisation, entertainment, and information exchange, as we will see in the following section.

It is difficult to overemphasise the significance of WhatsApp in regions such as Latin America. For example, a report on Mexico, published in 2016 by the Groupe Spéciale Mobile Association (GSMA), the trade body that represents the interests of mobile network operators worldwide, identifies WhatsApp as the most common social network in Mexico. While there are other instant messaging apps in the market (Telegraph, Viber, Line, Facebook Messenger, WeChat, etc.) and their presence and impact are distributed in different regions unevenly, WhatsApp is still the most used app for instant messaging worldwide. According to Latinobarómetro, a Chilean ONG that surveys the use of technologies in Latin America, 60 percent of the entire population in Mexico uses WhatsApp. WhatsApp is the most used platform, more than Facebook, in all the countries in the region except Peru, Nicaragua and Guatemala [10].

Such statistics reveal the importance of WhatsApp in everyday life in countries like Mexico and Latin America. It has become a central economic and communicative infrastructure across classes and literacy, since, for users with low literacy levels, it allows communication through calls, audio clips, videos, and video calls, and by using iconic forms such as emojis, stickers, gifs, and memes. More importantly, WhatsApp has become an essential mediation tool for social, economic, and cultural life, as demonstrated by the ethnographic sketches below.

 

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WhatsApp as a technology of life: Ethnographic vignettes

WhatsApp has attained a central role in the critical infrastructure that comprises the means of organising diverse aspects of everyday life, including employment, maintenance of familial relations, and offering security while traversing different parts of the city. This, in turn, is indicative of both the centrality of the app in people’s lives and their ambivalence regarding the app. Moreover, these vignettes will demonstrate the importance of ethnography for examining the complexity and richness of the use of WhatsApp as a technology of life.

WhatsApp as a work technology

While WhatsApp groups are relatively common in the workplace, to communicate with colleagues and form teams, it is also a key facilitator of organising work and work-related activity. Lara, a 26-year-old participant in our study, works part-time in a cafeteria. To make ends meet, she sells coffee beans on the side, and for this she set up a “Broadcast list” in WhatsApp — a broadcast list is similar to a group with the difference that the person who sets it up can send messages to the list with everyone receiving it as a personal message. Such lists are useful, allowing a message to be sent just once to different recipients while controlling the communication flow that tend to lose focus when is collective. Lara’s broadcast list continually changes as she adds or deletes names. She sends weekly messages to this list so customers can place their order. Mar, another participant who uses such list, owns a family restaurant selling take away food. She uses WhatsApp to communicate with clients who order food after checking the day’s menu in a photo she sends the list every day. Around 35 customers place orders daily using the app. She started using the broadcast list, when the “group” feature she had utilised previously was corrupted by non-food-related material such as ‘praying chains’ and memes, which turned away potential customers. Now every client has a direct contact with her even if she sends the same message to almost 70 members of her list. In places with an informal economy, WhatsApp has become key to finding and maintaining customers since it allows the flexibility of asynchronous, but instant, messaging, mobility, and a written record of orders, combined with a personal approach.

A very different experience is that of Rosa’s, a 44-year-old domestic worker with three children and six grandchildren. She lives with her mother in law and her late husband’s aunt in a small house on the periphery of Mexico City. She started using a mobile phone only two years ago when her 17-year-old daughter taught her how to use it. She owns a very basic and cheap smartphone and WhatsApp is the most important app for her. She belongs to different support and friends groups, especially from her church, and she communicates daily with her family using the app. In addition, WhatsApp is also a work tool for her. She constantly receives messages with specific instructions from the owner of the house where she works. While the app provides a way to avoid potential fallouts or friction with her employer, for instance by informing her boss if she is delayed, more commonly, the information flows the opposite way. Rosa receives messages from her employer that demand immediate responses, from sudden cancelations (“don’t come today”) to “urgent” last-minute requests, such as going to the house on Sunday to walk the dog. The constant availability on WhatsApp adds pressure for Rosa by offering her boss the opportunity to impose on and limit the organisation of her life. For her, being contactable any time of the day, throughout the week, conflates personal, social, and work time creating “peer-surveillance”, enabled by the “read” sign on WhatsApp.

WhatsApp as digital kinship technology

It is not an exaggeration to claim that almost everyone in Mexico belongs to a family WhatsApp group. All our participants are part of at least one, if not several, as sometimes people have one group for each parent, or they are with the extended family and sometimes with a nuclear one. At other times they belong to something more specific, such as a group only for cousins. Varying in size and configuration, these groups share common features; they are used to keep in touch with dispersed family members who tend to be active, usually the older generation. These groups are both a source of joy and support on the one hand, and anxiety and trouble on the other. Each group develops its own dynamics and rituals, from saying good morning to the grandmother regularly, to celebrating members birthdays and achievements, dynamics that reproduce and reinforce traditional familial subtleties. When there is a disagreement or a quarrel, it is not uncommon for a family member to leave the group. He or she returns once the problem has been resolved, and this could happen multiple times. In that sense, WhatsApp not only reproduces particular familial dynamics but also creates new responsibilities and tacit arrangements that impact the off-line behaviour of families.

The availability and pervasive use of WhatsApp creates certain expectations and pressures, creating a new form of control: “if I don’t answer to my mother right away, she gets annoyed”, said one participant. Rosa admitted to regularly asking her daughter to let her read her messages. Rosa worries about her daughter, constantly giving her advice and setting boundaries to her digital practices. For example, she once asked her to delete a provocative photo on Facebook and, on another occasion, Rosa told her daughter to be careful with the information she exchanged on WhatsApp. Offering advice on the use of WhatsApp has become a way to reinforcing specific family values and moral codes.

A more extreme example is that of Aldo, a tall, athletic, educated, middle-class 28-year-old, with a postgraduate degree from one of the best Mexican universities, who has travelled and lived overseas, and works for the government. He is one of the few of our participants with a fixed data plan and a cutting-edge smartphone whose girlfriend, another young professional, has persuaded him to use WhatsApp regularly. This young couple has created a dependency relationship that uses WhatsApp compulsively to “check on the other”, and have constant arguments on WhatsApp, sometimes ‘shouting’ at each other using voice messages. Some time before the interview, Aldo decided to delete WhatsApp following a quarrel, as his girlfriend was jealous and suspicious of him “talking” to other women using the app. But he admitted to doing the same to her, also controlling her use of WhatsApp and constantly checking on her. Subsequently he had to reinstall the app as she was annoyed about not being able to communicate with Aldo herself. WhatsApp can thus be the source of suspicious and controlling sousveillance as much as an essential tool to maintain intimate relationships. This is perhaps a common feature of all family groups, in which the app brings people together, reinforcing kinship and a sense of belonging while also providing the forum for (dis)agreements and the arena where those situations are managed and discussed.

WhatsApp as a security technology

In countries like Mexico, where violence is common, creating and sustaining safety networks is essential, particularly in big urban spaces such as Mexico City. There are multiple ways WhatsApp is used as a security technology. For instance, it is common for people to track relatives and friends on their journeys through the city to ensure they reach their destinations safely. Women, in particular, set up groups to share information about possible threats, support each other and exchange tips on places to go to or avoid, how to behave in certain situations, and what to do in an emergency. Families are always connected, with members posting updates about their wellbeing and safety. Personal security is then linked to the constant connection WhatsApp offers and the availability of the wider network of trusted people at all times. These “networks of trust” could be diverse: family members, friends, co-workers, acquaintances, neighbours, sometimes including some form of “authority” figure such as the police, lawyers or doctors. These groups are always on stand-by, ready to be activated in case of need. But, on occasion, the exchange of information is abused (for example incorrectly accusing someone on the basis of “suspicious” activity, behaviour or appearance). An environment that is perceived to be unsafe, together with membership in several trusted networks that remain constantly connected, could lead to both positive and negative outcomes. It is possible that the combination of a pervasive violence and the relative ease with which such groups can be activated contribute to vigilante mob violence recently reported in the press. As O’Connor and Weatherall remind us: “people are more susceptible to the influence of those they trust — in particular, those who they think have formed reliable beliefs in the past.” [11]

WhatsApp as a micromanaging technology

Micro-management of resources and sharing of information is a common practice. Juan, a 28-year-old participant works on a consultancy company. He uses WhatsApp to communicate with his team at work. While the company he works for provides a number of tools for management and communication (Skype, Microsoft Office, etc.), he prefers to use WhatsApp Desktop (a version of the app that works in the computer), because he mostly uses it on his work computer and not his phone. He spends the whole day sending important information to his teammates; from spread sheets, newspaper articles or pdfs, information that he gathers from different online sources as part of his job. Juan has also set up a different WhatsApp group, with exactly the same members as the work group, with whom he ‘curates’ and shares memes. Having two groups with the same people allows him to separate his work-related activities from his social connections with colleagues.

These vignettes indicate a subtle and complex phenomenology of WhatsApp in everyday life, and they suggest that the app is much more than a mere tool for instant messaging. The app seems more than a platform, having become the main facilitator for organising work, orchestrating the informal economy, coordinating safe progress in unsafe environments, and managing intimate relations — in other words, for being in the world. WhatsApp is thus a “technology of life”.

WhatsApp groups as life mediations

Groups are, therefore at the center of how people use WhatsApp in Mexico. The main experience of the app is thus not as a personal messaging system but as collective tool for everyday life. This collective though, includes not just online practices in WhatsApp, it traverses different platforms and, importantly, it is constructed by a combination of online and off-line connections. Laly, a 23-year-old, described how, at a family meal at her parents, everyone sends memes, while sharing jokes and talking both face-to-face and also with WhatsApp groups. This suggests on the one hand a reproduction of the gregariousness of Mexican society in which family and personal networks form the core of the social experience. WhatsApp groups are not merely reinforcing existing forms of socialisation but also facilitating new ones. Particularly noteworthy here is the granularity, adaptability and constant morphing relationships between members, the perceived goals (or lack of them), and the resolution of conflicts and discrepancies.

As we have seen, WhatsApp is more a collective infrastructure for social life than a mere instant messaging application. Moreover, the meaning and relevance of WhatsApp seems influenced by a combination of factors — technical, socio-technical and socio-cultural. Comprehending the lived experience of WhatsApp, therefore, requires engaging with the app’s use beyond studying the content or the frequency of the messages exchanged on the platform.

 

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Towards reframing research agendas: Two interventions

Intervention I: A different path than data-driven research

Over the last 30 years, academic study of digital cultures has identified areas of concern, developed and applied concepts to tackle a range of issues from political economy to ethics to the role of digital technologies in contemporary politics. During this time, it has updated its interests, questions and methods in its attempt to keep up with the rapid development of these technologies. Driving this research are scholars’ preoccupations, the methods they have used, the affordances of the technologies and their impact, which together have contributed to the emergence of a research agenda, to which media and corporate discussions of the technologies have also contributed. A consequence of this desire to keep up with the rapid technological developments has been the shaping of a fast-paced, future-driven academic inquiry. This shapes the research agenda in very particular ways. In this environment, “data-driven” approaches have proliferated, encouraging scholars to focus on platforms such as Twitter “for which user data is more readily available than for Facebook, let alone for Snapchat, WhatsApp, and Telegram.” [12] As Zuboff (2019) has noted, ”data-centric“ approaches have become mainstream in digital media inquiries. While this has generated useful insights, it is important to acknowledge that the automatic extraction of data for research purposes also falls into the right to take approach that surveillance capitalism has been exploiting. The emphasis on “digital methods” determines, and consequently limits, the types of research queries for which answers could be sought. Following Milan and Treré, we also worry that “the conceptual and methodological toolbox available to datafication scholars is only partially able to grasp the obscure developments, the cultural richness, and the vibrant creativity emerging at the margins of the empire.” [13] Such exclusive focus risks marginalising or overlooking other areas of the world and other populations for whom other technologies matter more — or differently — or where the same technologies have been adapted otherwise. We are motivated by events, evidence, and reports that indicate different and interesting modalities of technological use that, we believe, require different frameworks, modes of engagement and methodologies that are attentive to local political-cultural milieus.

Such interventions also demand methodological refinements. While apps with public APIs have allowed communication between users to be transformed into datapoints and therefore, to be stored, compiled, aggregated, sorted, exported, and analysed, there are fundamental digital mediations that remain largely obscured precisely because they cannot easily become data, at least in “automated” and “extractable” form. There is a connection between the claims about what data can do and the epistemic horizons and available methods that these data-politics make possible and reinforce. The relationship between such available forms of data and research methodologies (and academic trends) deserves to be noted as it also speaks to how methods and techniques have politics and work in ways that “colonise” academic inquiry by reducing the available questions and directing the possible answers.

It is possible that there is relatively less research on WhatsApp because in developed societies it is just one among many alternatives available for mobile communication, even if it is the most popular, as in Spain or Germany. Flat rates and unlimited data plans are more common in certain locations and therefore the use of apps is not limited by economic constrains (with notable exceptions — see Thornham and Gómez Cruz, 2017). Moreover, the app is possibly considered less important because it is perceived as a technology more for the private rather than the public sphere. Nevertheless, it is precisely the semi-public form of communication, the encryption of chats, the flexibility afforded by the creation of “groups”, and its multi-modality, that makes WhatsApp a quintessential research object if we want to understand digital culture(s) from a non-data-logic standpoint, using a non-media-centric perspective, especially in the Global South.

Intervention II: Ethnographic studies of technologies of life

The second intervention addresses the approach and scope of our studies of the digital beyond a data-centric approach. Following Kember and Zylinska’s argument that “mediation can be seen as another term for ‘life’, for being-in and emerging with the world” [14], we suggest that some mediations, some “lives” (and their technologies), can only be grasped with an holistic and immersive approach that situates the studied phenomena in broader socio-, political, and economic contexts. If, as Frosh argues, “media are systems for the production and disclosure of worlds” [15], we need to complement our data-based enquiries with those that are context/historically based. Ethnography is particularly well suited for this task.

Researchers interested in the digital are usually future-oriented, energised by the next development, the next revolution: Artificial intelligence, blockchain, machine learning. While these topics remain extremely significant, some of the most important challenges engendered by the digital have their origins in the past and have consequences in the present. We need to develop strategies to consider how life is shaped and supported by “older” technologies used in new ways, and in different regions. As our vignettes show, this includes being attentive to domains of familial and social lives, as they actually exist, and engaging with not just online sociality, but also how this enables the re/organisation of various aspects of the everyday. In other words, we need to rethink questions on technology and society in such a way that they reflect the realities and preoccupations of the regions in which we situate our studies (Sassen, 2016).

In that sense, WhatsApp illustrates how this rethinking can respond to global challenges. For example, concerns about social media and “misinformation”, need to recognise WhatsApp not in the context of some absolute truth that is either believed or refuted but as facilitating networks of trust that are constituted not so much by the technology and its affordances as by the broader socio-cultural and political milieus in which they are embedded. Networks of trust are formed and sustained by larger forces and practices than those merely technological; they are rooted in kinship, communities, histories, and societies. That is why cultural settings, social relations, as well as digital mediations, are all essential to understanding how these networks are formed and what these networks can activate, from distinct, large-scale developments such as mob violence or political participation, to the banal and quotidian practices of “digital kinship” (Sinanan and Hjorth, 2018). WhatsApp enacts entire economies of attention, kinship and ‘worlding’ that are combined with specific economic infrastructures and a sense of belonging.

 

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Conclusions

We suggest a WhatsApp research agenda that is attentive to aspects such as the relationship between family dynamics and mediated practices, personal relationships and trust, mediated communication and constant interaction as enabling feelings of personal security, encrypted messaging apps as semi-public arenas. WhatsApp groups and multimodality are key elements that demand closer examination in order to understand these technologies of life within specific historical and cultural milieus. Such sophisticated understanding could be a more effective way to tackle some of the challenges currently being posed by WhatsApp and similar apps such as WeChat in China (Chen, et al., 2018).

The latter half of 2018 witnessed a renewed interest in WhatsApp. News reports in and about different countries outside the West and the Anglosphere ran headline stories on the app and the various social and political consequences of its use. These news stories covered phenomena in developing countries (Brazil, India, Mexico, Ecuador, Colombia), identifying WhatsApp as a key contributor. All these were negative reports that raised questions about WhatsApp’s role in misinformation. The consequences of such misinformation ranged from concerns about the elections in Brazil, the spread of rumours in India and Mexico about gangs of kidnappers, and, more serious, mob violence, inter-ethnic conflict, and mass killings in India, Sri Lanka, and Myanmar. Headlines such as: “Death by WhatsApp” (India Today), “Disinformation spreads on WhatsApp ahead of Brazilian election” (New York Times), “How WhatsApp helped turn an Indian village into a lynch mob” (BBC) or “Burned to death because of a rumour on WhatsApp” (BBC) illustrate the manner in which news reports located WhatsApp as the main vehicle for the escalation of misinformation that resulted in group polarisation and the formation of angry mobs in these regions.

When dealing with the use of technologies in the Global South, we need to go beyond exoticization and fully engage with what those regions and populations can teach us about digital technologies in contexts of diversity, inequality and forms of economic, physical, and social insecurity. Our goal is to situate and contextualise WhatsApp within a wider discussion about academic inquiry into digital culture, one that acknowledges the particularities and specific contexts where technologies are used, instead of focusing on the consequences of that use. We believe that there is a need to focus our investigations not on issues such as misinformation or mob violence, but on everyday technological practices that can lead to certain configurations of action, some clearly negative and newsworthy, others very positive, but less visible and constantly present. Therefore, our intention is to move away from the moral panics and consider the app’s relevance in all aspects of everyday life, as a technology of life.

We have to take technologies such as WhatsApp seriously for these reasons: it shapes and is shaped by specific forms of mediations and practices that reinforce it as a central platform of the everyday, outside the Global North; largely invisible to data gathering instruments that promote specific epistemic cultures, it is therefore, investigated relatively less often, thereby inhibiting the development of alternative epistemic cultures; and finally, WhatsApp is currently shaping specific social and political configurations and enabling particular responses to every day challenges in the Global South. End of article

 

About the authors

Edgar Gómez Cruz is a Senior Lecturer in Media (Digital Cultures) at the School of the Arts and Media at the University of New South Wales in Sydney. He has published widely on a number of topics relating to digital culture, particularly in the areas of digital practices, digital ethnography, and visual cultures. His recent publications include De la cultura Kodak a la imagen en red: Una etnografia sobre imagen digital (From Kodak culture to networked image: An ethnography of digital photography practices) [Barcelona: UOC Press, 2012], as well as the co-edited volumes Digital photography and everyday life: Empirical studies on material visual practices (London: Routledge, 2016) and Refiguring techniques in visual digital research (Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017).
E-mail: e [dot] gomezcruz [at] unsw [dot] edu [dot] au

Ramaswami Harindranath is Professor of Media at the School of Arts and Media, University of New South Wales, Sydney. His main publications include Audience-citizens: The media, public knowledge and interpretive practice (New Dehli: Sage Publications India, 2009); Perspectives on global cultures (Maidenhead: Open University Press, 2006); and The Crash controversy: Censorship campaigns and film reception (London: Wallflower Press, 2001). He also co-edited Studying digital media audiences: perspectives from Australasia (New York: Routledge, 2017) and Transnational lives and the media: Re-imagining diaspora (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007). He is one of the editors of the journal Postcolonial studies.
E-mail: r [dot] hari [at] unsw [dot] edu [dot] au

 

Notes

1. https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2019/jul/03/instagram-whatsapp-facebook-media-files-outage.

2. https://www.dw.com/es/apocalipsis-cibern%C3%A9tico-la-ca%C3%ADda-de-whatsapp-facebook-e-instagram/g-49463117.

3. Coleman, 2010, p. 457.

4. Milan and Treré, 2019, p. 323.

5. https://www.businessofapps.com/data/whatsapp-statistics/.

6. Tenhunen, 2008, p. 516.

7. Doron and Jeffrey, 2013, p. 215.

8. Rai, 2015, p. 989.

9. Martín-Barbero, 1993, p. 74.

10. http://www.latinobarometro.org/latdocs/INFORME_2018_LATINOBAROMETRO.pdf.

11. O’Connor and Weatherall, 2019, p. 182.

12. Poell, et al., 2018, p. 47.

13. Milan and Treré, 2019, p. 321.

14. Kember and Zylinska, 2012, p. 23.

15. Frosh, 2018, p. xiii.

 

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Editorial history

Received 26 November 2019; accepted 8 December 2019.


Creative Commons License
This paper is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

WhatsApp as ‘technology of life’: Reframing research agendas
by Edgar Gómez Cruz and Ramaswami Harindranath.
First Monday, Volume 25, Number 1 - 6 January 2020
https://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/10405/8318
doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.5210/fm.v25i1.10405





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