How poverty affects online personalities on social media

In August 2018, I published an article on First Monday about the advent of online self-representations in the context of impoverished communities.

I believe this is one of the most underresearched aspects of social media. The extent to which poverty and inequality could mirror different kinds of self-representation, either by selfies and short text posts on the Internet.

I took on the example of Brazil’s favelas. First because of the past of these communities in the media. They are since a long time de-humanised, de-personalised, and stereotyped; either in telenovelas, films, and in popular discourse. Based on this background, I could check whether the Internet could allow fresh images to flourish and influence the mainstream society.

I first approached the possibilities of new online ‘subjectivities’ from favelas a few years ago for the Discovery Society. Now, I deepen in how these subjectivities can fructify. I discuss the opportunities surrounding the online favelado in a more practical sense. What can they make it of themselves by being online? Below I clarify some of the conceptual tools I used in this research.

What is personality?

I simplified the understanding of such deep psychologic notion by limiting my interest in a generic form of media expressions on the Internet as models for personality.

Despite so many definitions, my aim was to accept the common sense of organised forms of “accounts”, “patterns of feelings.” In my perception, textual references or imagery could embed many of the attributes of personality:

Personality is a system of parts that is organized, develops, and is expressed in a person’s actions.

Personality is about many things: perception and attention, cognition and memory, neurons and brain circuitry…We try to understand the individual human being as a complex whole…[and] to construct a scientifically credible account of human individuality (McAdams, 2006, p. 2).

Personality is the organized, developing system within the individual that represents the collective action of that individual’s major psychological subsystems (Mayer, 2007, p. 14).

Personality refers to those characteristics of the person that account for consistent patterns of feelings, thinking, and behaving (Pervin, Cervone & John, 2005, p. 6)

Social media and ‘personality’

I placed the existence of online personality in contrast with the persistence of past stigmas related to these communities. So I oppose an external inheritance (representation) to a notion of ‘personality’ that stemming from within; from the sharing of everyday experiences on Facebook or Twitter. To what extent could this internal process of self-representing is enough to unmake a background of inherited stereotypes?

I qualified personality also based on social media interactions. It is true that what we call ‘IT  skills’ involve a range of socially-approved behaviours and goals that point to a rather limited form of consensus; But it is possible to look, for instance, at the occurrence of likes as exercises of personality without believing that those who don’t like it on social media wouldn’t have done it if they could.

Another conceptual difficulty of studying poverty within social technology is to go against these platforms’ design. Its commercialism is embedded in tastes and possibilities of its participants. However, even if the use of filters and geotagging are ways to “show off,” which is not in the best interests of the poorest, it could still reveal if poverty is likeable or accepted.

In the end, I targeted the display of personality directly from the content of users’ publications. On the one hand, this approach has not allowed me to extrapolate to the whole issue of social media usage by favela-based users. On the other, it was not possible to assume that every social user was living de facto in a favela, I had to be limit my use to references to the geographical favela. Let’s see some results.

Representing and self-representing

This repeated display of personality could be captured through practices of representing or self-representing. 

Representing on a media perspective exists in the well-watched telenovelas, for example, which has mirrored the life of millions as soft, sympathetic and suburban-like in Avenida Brasil. Internationally, favelas could be stages for drug dealing and violent police Films such as in films such as City of God or Elite Troop. Those are representations.

Then, self-representing appeared as the opposite of these generalist portraits. If not entirely contradicting this past of injustice and violence seen in the favelas, self-representing constantly pointed to the unmaking of the hegemonic face of poverty.  In this sense, I tried to build
not only how poverty defines online personality, but how it leads to other roles and responsibilities assumed by such producers.

Self-representing, whether by expressions, images, and roles described in this content, led me into three main roles that emerge as the contemporary possibilities of the favelado once he or she assumes the control of its authorship. In my First Monday article, I described these roles in its entirety. Below I give you a brief description:

Favela media producers as leaders

Personality in favelas is historically tied to past models of community leadership. While calling themselves journalists, bloggers, and content producers, media producers from favelas distance themselves from the image of these leaders. In other words, there was no evidence that the former individuals have had any influence over interviewed producers through any platform.

In reality, much of what producers have mentioned is about being themselves with their personal habits and tastes. This ‘individuality’ comes up as opposed to speaking on the citizens’ behalf. Fewer producers have said to feel proud of the individuals that used to speak on behalf of the favela, but in a memorialising way.

Favela media producers as journalists

I did not sight that what I conceptualised as ‘self-representation’ is still an advanced affordance that might not be available for all the citizens, as it was for the interviewees. However, those which have voiced it out had positioned themselves as if belonging to a fusion of journalist and amateur content producer.

In fact, media studies literature has said much on the re-invention of alternative media producers as journalists, as well as on how fluid are the barriers of the profession. But as a self-representation, being a journalist has meant a range of things, from informing (in partnership with the mainstream media or not) to finding what to do, organising events, claiming importance. Poverty as a topic of their practice has been directly associated with each producers’ publication.

Favela media producers as culture promoters

Some content has indeed displayed personality in a more conventional way. By doing what they call ‘showing off’, favela media producers could not escape from posting pictures of their stay in whatever hotel rooms they were in (some of whom do it for the first time), or underlining their consumerism habits.

By doing so, they try to bridge their personality with the average middle-class person personality. The difference is that they also open space for burst pipes leaking water, or for the shootings in their communities. There is much of sharing of the Sunday’s barbecue or the pagode in the middle of the streets as it has of bodies lying on the pavement.

Conclusion: New forms of personalising the periphery

The approximation of poverty from social media platforms happens to the extent that these platforms allow these interspersions between the soft and hard aspect of life; whether the favela personality is based on rap, hip-hop, funk, and on transgender singers or personality as a range of constraints faced on first hand (although it is evident that this is persistently their ‘real’ life.)

Thanks to social media, I argue, personality exists in individuals’ well-known hardship, but as different forms of authorship spread through the Internet, the narrative of pleasure and power mingles one of oppression and fear, being the latter increasingly losing ground to the former.

This phenomenon I called the “personalisation of the periphery” which praises individualism and merit but also allows leadership, journalism, and culture amid an increasingly mediatised battle against urban chaos and violence.

In sum, the online favela tends to reduce the cult of the charismatic community leader. This image might still echo on the mass media, but it says more about the mainstream media inability to truly engage with dwellers’ emerging personalities than it denies the existence of more nuances of the process (the new soap operas do not necessarily address these individuals, as seen in other studies.)

In this way, even under several limitations of social media as a representational tool of poverty, this contrast between soft and hard aspects of the discourse has the fluid personality from these communities as the main phenomenon, which deserves a further exploration.

In times of political crisis, could this favela personality change towards a more politicised self? Could it forge a political voice amid the current right-wing turmoil? Could it stop the capture by consumerist forces? All these questions demand scholars’ engagement in methods and scope.