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date: 28 May 2017

An Ethnographic Study of Social Media and Brazilian E-Music since 2008

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Latin American History. Please check back later for the full article.

The burgeoning digital technologies of the early twenty-first century are rapidly changing and engrossing millions of people across the globe. YouTube and Facebook are but two examples of social network sites (SNSs) whose social implications are so vast they deserve concerted research. The artifacts, the media, and their implications call for study within specific social and cultural contexts, for their uses and appropriations vary considerably and can suggest different meanings.

Ethnographic research, begun in 2008, follows people connected to electronic music (e-music) in the largest urban centers of Brazil, namely São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. This study traces the migration of this social group from Orkut (which was at that time the most popular SNS in Brazil, by far) to Facebook, which continues to increase in popularity.

The complex topic of learning how people use social media to build their identities is especially interesting. The utilization of terms such as “identity performance,” “self-presentation,” or “self-representation” may denote radically different approaches to the “phenomenon.” Moreover, a methodological concern arises: It is important to gather data concerning people’s use of Facebook, and this should be done online. Nevertheless, it is also relevant to carry out direct interviews to better understand the dynamics of individuals’ self-performance. This fuels debates about the appropriate “adaptation” of ethnographic methods and techniques to virtual environments.

This ethnographic research evaluates concepts such as “virtual ethnography” and “netnography” that have been used to differentiate off-line and online research methods. This line of research argues that although there are specific characteristics of the computer-mediated communication regarding interaction and particular languages for research “in” and “outside” the Internet, such communication takes place in environments that should no longer be treated as “non-places,” or in terms of “real” versus “virtual” as some approaches suggest; rather these spaces should be viewed as a continuum.

In 2012, in-depth, face-to-face interviews were conducted with five social actors from the e-music scenes mentioned above. The questions were informed by review of both the literature on identity construction in SNSs and that on ethnographic methods applied in digital contexts. The interviews were combined with a close observation of the Facebook profiles of these same people.

The study found that the processes of self-presentation of these social actors on Facebook are linked to the daily performance of certain aspects of their identities—mostly related to music as a way of self-expression—for specific “imagined audiences.” The interviewees carefully manage the impressions they want to create for their connections, trying to maintain or break a supposed “expressive coherence” of their online and off-line selves, hence restoring regimes of visibility and identity construction in contemporary times.