Report of the Study day “Web and micro-transformations”

The Internet and Social Micro-Transformations
Pantheon-Sorbonne University

By Claire Lebrun (Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne Univ.) – 9.02.2018

The term Social Network was first used by the British sociologist and anthropologist John Barnes in his article « Class and Committees in a Norwegian Island Parish », published in 1954. If social networks became a huge part of our environment, are they reshaping human relations on the Internet? A reunited group of linguists, ethnographers and historians, from France, Greece, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Belgium and Tunisia, presented micro-studies focused on micro-transformations of societies throughout the digital era, and built a general view of communities’ behaviors on social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, and Instagram. This international seminar was led by Leda Mansour (Chair of Dialogue Between the Cultures – Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne Univ.) who has been working since 2016 on the role of Twitter and online media in the creation of a Saudi public space.

Firstly, studies showed that what stands online is a symbolical repetition of what matters offline. Defining himself as a researcher in phase with his era, Frederic Clavert (Luxemburg Univ.) has been working on the impact of social network on collective memory with a study on the centenary of the WWI since April 2014. His actual data base counts five million tweets. He notably analyses the politicization of the network in May 2016 as the scenography chosen to commemorate the battle of Verdun was judged inappropriate, making a huge controversy used by the French far right.
Thus social networks shape new ways to communicate, while technology and real life cohabit together. The sociologist Pierre Mercklé who published in 2011 The sociology of social networks defends a quantitative analysis of the interactions between people of a same community, and how that has been influencing their behavior. Instead, the linguist Laurence Rosier  (Univ. Libre de Bruxelles) defended a micro study based on a heterogeneous corpus of 500 Facebook posts and focusing on how an unique person’s writing reveals a generational “web trolling” language. Since 2009, she has been analyzing an “idiolecte » –a particular use of a language -, from a stranger’s Facebook profile, “Joe Bassin” an ironical name referring to the French singer Joe Dassin.

But social networks remain a mirror of real life structures. The sociologist Fabienne Soldini (CNRS) analyzed a Forum dedicated to books created in 2008 and named Livraddict. With more than 55 000 members in 2018, the club’s ethic policy claims its refusal of cultural hierarchy. However, Soldini shows that instead of abolishing it, the Forum shifted it. She identified two types of challenges; the first one is elitist as the aim is to grow our classical literature culture, what Bourdieu called the “bonne volonté culturelle”. The second one is popular, dedicated to a book marathon, and quantifying the value of a good reader. Internet has democratized knowledge but still maintains a social and cultural hierarchy throughout the way people use it.

Moreover, studies showed that social networks became a strong tool for people to gather and resist. The Syrian researcher Wissam Al Nasser (Sciences-Po Aix) worked on the campaign and against-campaign of the Syrian elections in May 2014. His study focused on the electoral Facebook and Youtube pages of Bashar Al-Assad Sawa (together), and the Facebook Page of the opposition named Bloody Elections. The campaign of Al Assad had communication experts, as the Facebook page got 320.000 followers, lots of likes, and repetition of nice comments. Pictures of the Syrian dictator showed him rebuilding the city, studying texts, or with his children. But Nasser noticed a “hashtag war” online on #sawa to gain visibility, a war led by the opposition and influential personalities. In the end, the number of likes were significant of Al Assad victory. Syrians have been intensively using social networks in the context of a devastating war.

Mariem Guellouz (Paris-Descartes Univ.) follows LGBTQ+militancy in Tunisia by analyzing construction and circulation of homophobic insults on social networks, specifically on the Facebook pages of the associations Shams, Damj and Mawjoudin. In 2016, the TV channel Hiwar invited militants for the first time, which drew hate speech on social networks. If LGBT militants stopped hiding after the revolution, they can’t manifest on the public place, but they still cannot demonstrate in the public sphere, while precarious movements like anti racism and feminism are now legitimized.

Laurence Larochelle (Paris 3 Sorbonne Nouvelle Univ.) introduced her work on Turkish TV shows and the community of Greek fans on social networks. Since the beginning of the economic crisis in Greece, local production of series has been interrupted. The twenty five women interviewed testify of mockery from their families for their interest in the TV show.  Stigmatized, the fans gathered together on a Facebook group (that counts 80,000 members), creating sometimes a second account to stay unnoticed by their circle. Thus, they became a community that interact daily and live-comment the show. Generally, the web stands as a refuge platform, and by gathering people, creates new form of social collectivization.

Finally, the Internet represents an open window on society’s transformation, which social networks can influence. Specialists in the Press Discourses, Laura Calabrese (Univ. Libre de Bruxelles) and Jeremy Jenard (Univ. Libre de Bruxelles) worked on the numerical comment, the form of interaction the most used by the internet users. They conducted a study of 1,200 comments posted under two generalist press articles about feminism from The Guardian and El Pais. In the context of the “post-truth era” and mistrust towards traditional journalism, their study compares comments on the newspaper’s website and on Facebook. It appears that social media are playing a role, as they became the principal source of information in many developed countries, while they are in fact a personal communication tool. Indeed, interactions in the Facebook comments are ignoring the content of the article, but debating on feminism in general. The confusion between public and private sphere is maintaining the tangle between what is factual and what is not.
If Internet can blur human’s vision, it can also expand it. Ghayda Aljuwaiser (Sheffield Hallam and King Abdulaziz Univ.) made a study on two decades of online practices, from 1998 to 2018. She focused on the case of Saudi women. She interviewed twelve Saudi women aged between 24 and 43, single or married, from the Upper middle class of Riyadh, Dammam and Jeddah. While Internet arrived in Saudi Arabia in 1998, Facebook in 2004, and Twitter (in English) in 2006, the social networks are a tool that Saudi women master. Recent movements took Twitter to demand the end to guardianship rules. In parallel of the Sahwamovement, Saudi women get to have relaxed gender communication with men or to be unveiled online, even if they are generally scared at first. However, if social networks are a way to open to the outside world and reshape women identities, censorship still dominates on the online sphere, and opinions towards women rights and feminism are not fixed.
Saudi Arabia faces huge changes nowadays that can be observed on social networks. A specialist in Saudis museography, Virginia Cassola (CEFAS) studied the social digital communication of Saudi Arabia’s Heritage throughout the promotion of their first Antic Pre-Islamic art exhibition on Instagram. The first museums in Saudi Arabia were replaced in 1999 by the National Museum and in 2003, an Archaeological commission was created. Saudi Arabia wants to show it had its own history, and posted since this summer 201 pictures about the Forum. The pictures of pre-Islamic sites are the most liked by the Saudis, as one got 1382 likes, which is the biggest number of likes on their account. Mostly, eleven ulemas have been photographed near pre-Islamic objects.

Catherine Ghosn (Toulouse 1 Capitole Univ.) concluded the workshop by a perspective synthesis. It appeared clear that what matters online is a repetition of a symbolical stake offline. In particular, when communities are underrepresented, social networks become strong tools of socialization, and so on of resistance. On the methodological aspect, numerical ethnography has been rehabilitated as a true immersion in the external field that constitutes the Internet.

As a universal conclusion, if countries we come from are diverse, the way we use social networks remains common.

Cite this article as: Claire Lebrun, “Report Of the Study Day « Web and micro-transformations »,” in Orients Occidents مشارق ومغارب, 16/02/2018,


Laisser un commentaire

Votre adresse e-mail ne sera pas publiée. Les champs obligatoires sont indiqués avec *

Ce site utilise Akismet pour réduire les indésirables. En savoir plus sur comment les données de vos commentaires sont utilisées.