Situating Social Media in Rural India
In this post, Sandeep Mertia, one of the researchers who received the Social Media Research grant for 2014, introduces his proposed work.
Situating Social Media in Rural India: Towards a Non-Essentialist Understanding of Social Media and Digital Technologies
Why rural people, especially the youth, are attracted to social media and how do they use it?
Why would an ICT engineer-cum-STS (Science & Technology Studies) researcher be interested in asking this question which perhaps has obvious responses such as – a natural stage of technological development, progress towards becoming an ‘information society’, pervasiveness of social networking sites, improved infrastructure in rural areas, etc.?
My problem begins with these responses.
These responses are a part of the larger discourse on technology (or techno-science) in India which is loaded with technological determinism, i.e., seeing technology as a neutral and universal driver of development and social change. A striking example of this is the Indian ICT4D and e-Governance steamroller which continues to thrive despite several hype cycles, empirical voids and grounded criticism from constructivist and sociological studies . I’ve previously done fieldwork on some such projects using STS (or constructivist) approaches .
While the problems of technological determinism, digital divide and the larger politics of knowledge and development  are multifaceted and evoke extreme opinions ranging from technophilia to dystopia, there are some key ideas like interpretive flexibility of technology and context sensitive appropriation and access , which could help us engage in a nuanced debate on the relationships of society and technology. In case of ICTs, the interpretive flexibility is further problematized by their ability to liquidate space and time. Moreover, social media with its user intensive, mediated, participatory and networked culture, I think, becomes a fitting site/artefact/ecology for debating co-construction of technology and culture , .
In my previous experiences of ethnographic research on rural ICT4D projects, I was quite surprised to observe a peculiar interest among some people towards social media, especially Facebook. Some young people in the villages visited telecentres (or kiosks) only to access Facebook. Few of them even used their cell phones to access internet and social media. The projects as such with their top-down transfer-of-technology like policy, have failed to deliver their developmental goals and yet, at another level they have created, through their telecentres, new information ecosystems, albeit unhealthy ones (in ecological sense of the term). While the state and the NGO blame the illiteracy, unawareness and resistance to change in villages for the failure of high-tech e-governance services, I observed the rural people – both users and non-users – re-constructing the meanings of digital technologies and a few those who have managed to gain access appropriating it contextually, and thus co-evolving with a new material culture. Simply put, people in the villages were not being objects of development which the state or even NGOs imagine them to be, and were engaging with the new digital technologies as per their own context. An interesting analogy can be made with the case of Television adoption – which the state thought would promote ‘national integrity, scientific temper, education’ etc. but was culturally embraced in unexpected ways even in the Doordarshan days in rural India .
The observations pertaining to social media in villages were made during fieldwork for research projects with different objectives. For the current research fellowship, I wish to dig deeper into the rural material culture and situate social media in the complex village society and its information ecology—which includes traditional communication, myths, gossips, newspapers, television and mobile phones. I aim to conduct ethnographic research in three villages of Rajasthan, where I’ve done my previous fieldwork, to understand what internet and social media access mean for the people there, and why and how are they accessing it. I’ll reflexively modify my inquiry based on the data from the field.
Apart from the established benefits of ethno-methodologies in studying culture, including technological culture, one critical reason behind my choice of an ethnographic village study, instead of the emerging ‘virtual’ or ‘digital’ ethnography methods, is that the ‘social’ of the social media, I believe, has to come from the field instead of the discourse which is unrepresentative of rural people. And that to my mind is going to be my biggest challenge – to grasp the emic understanding of social media and technologies.
 See, Saith, A., Vijayabaskar, M., & Gayathri, V. (Eds.). (2008). ICTs and Indian Social Change. New Delhi: SAGE Publications; Sreekumar, TT (2011). ICTs and Development in India – Perspectives on the Rural Network Society. London: Anthem Press; Madon, S. (2009). E-Governance for Development – A Focus on Rural India. London: Palgrave Macmillan; Mazzarella, W. (2010). Beautiful Balloon: the Digital Divide and the Charisma of New Media in India. American Ethnologist, 37(4), 783-804; Warschauer, M. (2003). Technology and Social Inclusion. Cambridge: MIT Press; to name a few.
 See, Mertia, S. (2013). Exploring the Caste, Gender & Politics of Technology – An Ethnographic Inquiry into e-Governance in Rural Rajasthan. Conference Paper: 39th All India Sociological Conference, Research Committee on Science, Technology and Society. Mysore: Karnataka State Open University. Accessible from: <https://www.academia.edu/5583559/Exploring_the_Caste_Gender_and_Politics_of_Technology_–_An_Ethnographic_Enquiry_into_e-Governance_in_Rural_Rajasthan>.
 See, for example, Smith, J. (2009). Science and Technology for Development. London: Zed Books.
 See, Bijker, W. E., Hughes, T. P., & Pinch, T. J. (Eds.). (1987). The Social Construction of Technological Systems: New Directions in the Sociology and History of Technology. Cambridge: MIT Press.
 See, Fuchs, C. (2014). Social Media – A Critical Introduction. London: Sage Publication Ltd.; Gillespie, T., Boczkowski, P. J., & Foot, K. A. (Eds.). (2014). Media Technologies – Essays on Communication, Materiality, and Society. Cambridge: MIT Press.
 I recently came across a similar project being carried out by the Digital Anthropology group at UCL. However, their focus seems to be more on ‘effects’ rather than co-construction or materiality, which are my interest areas. Accessed on May 28, 2014, from: <http://www.ucl.ac.uk/global-social-media>.
 See, Johnson, K. (2000). Television & Social Change in Rural India. New Delhi: Sage Publications.