For over a decade now, the use of digital tools and internet connectivity has greatly developed among households, including among working classes. Yet very few studies exist on this part of the population’s specific uses of digital technology. In the context of the Poplog project, which counts Télécom ParisTech among its partners, Dominique Pasquier, a researcher in sociology, has studied this question through interviews and with help from a data set from Facebook accounts.*
Among low-income households, internet connectivity figures have skyrocketed. According to INSEE (the French national institute for statistics and economic studies), in 2006, 47.9% of employees and 37% of manual workers had access to the Internet at home. These figures rose to 88% among manual workers and 91.5% among employees. Within 10 years, internet use became fully integrated into the daily lives of working classes.
Yet, within the social sciences, barely any studies have focused on how the working classes relate to digital technology. “There is no reason to believe that internet uses are the same at the top and bottom of the social ladder,” explains Dominique Pasquier, researcher in sociology at Télécom ParisTech and Director of Research at the CNRS (the French national center for scientific research).
This observation is what led to the creation of the Poplog project. Funded by the ANR (the French National Research Agency), the partners for this project include Télécom ParisTech, the Centre Atlantique de Philosophie and Université de Bretagne Occidentale. The researchers looked at the use of digital technology among working classes with stable employment. Unlike very low-income classes that live on the outskirts of urban areas, the studied individuals live in rural areas and most own their own home. “This fraction of the population consists primarily of traditional families, there are very few single-parent families,” Dominique Pasquier explains. “In general, few have earned degrees and they work as manual workers or employees.”
In the framework of this project, in order to study this category of the population and its relationship with digital tools, Dominique Pasquier looked specifically at how they use Facebook.
Data from Facebook accounts as research material
The researcher in sociology first attempted to collect information using various survey methods, particularly interviews. Yet very few people responded positively to requests for interviews. These difficulties are common in general sociology, according to Dominique Pasquier, especially when the study focuses on working classes. “These individuals do not have a clear understanding of what sociology is and do not see the point of these discussions,” she notes. “And this is a group that primarily welcomes family to their homes, but not strangers. Therefore, we face a rejection phenomenon.”
This problem was avoided thanks to another project called Algopol, led by the Center for Social Analysis and Mathematics, Orange Labs France Télécom, LIAFA and Linkfluence from 2012 to 2015. The team carried out a major survey on the Facebook networks and recorded and anonymized data from approximately 15,000 accounts. Only 50 of the 15,000 accounts matched the social profiles Poplog was interested in. This number was suited to a qualitative study of the data.
“The principle was that I was not allowed to meet the people who owned these accounts,” Dominique Pasquier explains. “The only information I had was their age, sex, municipality of residence, number of friends and the content they exchanged, excluding personal photos.” Yet this limited content was sufficient for conducting a sociological analysis of this data. Especially since this content complemented the information obtained during the interviews. “The two different formats do not provide the same insights,” the researcher continues. “The Facebook data reveals discussions in which the sociologist was not involved. Whereas during an interview, the person wants to give a good impression of themselves and therefore will not talk about certain subjects.”
Certain topics related to the use of digital technology was only available in the interviews, such as searches for information or online purchases. On the other hand, some topics were only available on Facebook, such as employment problems, or difficulties related to undesired singleness, a reality that affects unskilled male workers in particular.
Significant variations in how Facebook is used
“The 50 accounts were exactly what I was looking for: adults between 30 and 50 years old who live in rural areas and are manual workers or work in personal care services,” Dominique Pasquier explains. “This is where we saw that the uses of Facebook are extremely varied.” There were many different types of users: some attempt to use the social network but do not know what to say, do not receive enough feedback and give up. Others try their hardest to attract attention, sharing ready-made catchphrases and impressive links. Some are very prolific in sharing events from their daily life, whereas others never talk about this aspect.
However, certain behaviors and phenomena were frequently observed throughout this selection of accounts. “There is a whole set of phrases about life that express a kind of circulating common ethic. During the interviews, people called them ‘quotes’,” Dominique Pasquier explains. “Furthermore, when someone posts a status update, those who respond are intergenerational and both male and female.”
Finally, some things men shared about romantic difficulties, situations of undesired singleness or separation, caught Dominique Pasquier’s attention. She analyzed these comments and how others responded to it. “Some of what was shared was very aggressive, with misogynistic remarks. In this case, the comment always brought a response from the poster’s contacts, especially from women, who counteracted the remarks.”
The researcher’s goal was to analyze both what is shared on the social network and others’ reactions to it: “I analyze this content as things the individuals considered worthy of sharing and making known to their Facebook contacts who, in the context of this group of individuals from working classes with stable employment, are primarily made up of close friends and family.”
A different use of digital tools
“I think this survey also demonstrates that these individuals are faring well with the internet, but in a completely different way,” Dominique Pasquier explains. “In the case of Facebook, the social network is mainly used to maintain a kinship group.”
Through these interviews and analysis, the researcher noticed other specific features in the use of digital tools among the studied population. “It is a social universe that presents different uses and it is important for the public authorities to be aware of this,” says Dominique Pasquier. Public policy is indeed moving towards establishing fully digital means of communication via email with social assistance institutions like Pôle Emploi and the Caisse d’Allocations Familiales. This digital transformation poses a problem. In the course of her study, the researcher observed that the individuals she surveyed did not use email as a means of interpersonal communication; they used it only to make purchases. “These email addresses are shared by spouses or the entire family. With all the online purchases, the emails from Pôle Emploi will be lost among hundreds of spam emails and ads,” the researcher observes. “There is also a sort of rage that develops among this population, because of this inability to contact each other.”
This shows how important it is to continue this work on the issue of digital technology and its use by working classes… while remaining vigilant. Although many sociology students are interested in studying digital corpora, these types of materials pose methodological problems. “Much of the data is anonymous, we often do not know who has produced it,” Dominique Pasquier explains. “Also, we often do not realize that 50% of online participation is produced by 1% of the population, by heavy contributors. We therefore mistake anecdotal occurrences for mass social phenomena.” Yet despite these challenges, digital data has “enormous potential, since we can work on large volumes of data and network phenomena…” Offering enough information to provide an understanding of how certain social groups are structured.
The Poplog project and Dominique Pasquier’s research were presented at the Methods for the Analysis of Online Participation Seminar, organized by i3, a joint CNRS research unit of which Télécom ParisTech is a member. This seminar, which will run through June 2018, focuses on issues surrounding methods for processing digital data for research in the humanities and social sciences. The discussions focus on how the corpus is formed, analysis methods and the relationship between digital data and conventional survey methods.