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Research questions the notion of the Internet as more democratic and liberating

Feb 28 2018

How are the virtual worlds associated with the internet threaded into the cultural fabric of a city?

This question guides the research of Karem Said, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Anthropology at Stanford. Focusing on how internet use varies across gender, class, and other social markers in areas affected by the Arab Spring, Said seeks to challenge the idea that the internet is a universal, equalizing presence in society. Rather, she argues that the internet is as influenced by cultural context and social status as any other form of media.

Currently a graduate dissertation fellow at the Clayman Institute for Gender Research, Said focuses her ethnographic research in Tunis, Tunisia, specifically on the low-income neighborhood of Hay Ettadhamon along the western periphery of the city. She is researching how relationships on and offline –  particularly those of women and children – contribute to how the city takes shape. Said believes the way women sustain their relationships and form new ones online extends the critical role women have played in integrating peripheral neighborhoods into the greater cultural fabric of Tunis.

Said was born and raised in an Egyptian-American family in Houston, Texas. She was an undergraduate at Trinity University, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in English literature in 2000. Though the road to her Ph.D. program has not been linear, it has been extremely rewarding. Said worked as an editorial assistant and journalist before earning her master’s degree in Sociology-Anthropology from The American University in Cairo. While in Egypt, she continued doing some reporting for Voice of America before deciding that she wanted to do research that was more in-depth than the fast pace of radio or newspaper reporting allowed. The aftermath of the 2011 revolutionary uprising in Egypt and the 2013 military coup caused her to change her research destination to Tunisia, where she began the project she is working on today.

Said is particularly interested in using her work to challenge notions of the internet as inherently liberating and transparent. Household access to the internet has only recently opened up to low-income people of Tunis, and there remains significant differences in how Tunisian people from various positions in society use the internet. Similar to heterogeneous interpretations of film or television programs, online experiences vary across gender, age, and class lines. In Hay Ettadhamon, there was a sharp increase in the number of internet cafes – many of them women-owned – following the revolutionary uprising. The uprising both loosened the government restrictions on who could open such establishments and dismantled the one-party surveillance apparatus that closely monitored the lives of Tunisian people. These changes, combined with the crucial factor of lower internet prices, eventually led to more people investing in phones, tablets, and laptops. Such widespread internet use provided an access point for Said to make her anthropological intervention and to assert that internet use and accessibility are not universal experiences, but are as classed, gendered, and affected by various social positions as any other resource.

Said draws upon an existing anthropological concept of digital infrastructure to refer to robust social structures that allow for the exchange of digital content, as well as for the understanding of how online relationships shape infrastructure. Said remarked that most low-income people in the country were not using the internet on a regular basis during the 2010-2011 uprising. It was only after the uprising that internet use in Hay Ettadhamon and similar areas became as indispensable as water and electricity, making this change in society truly infrastructural. Said’s methodology included a mixture of qualitative interviews, online research, and participant observation, specifically in computer science at three preparatory schools in different neighborhoods of Hay Ettadhamon. In trying to make sense of these locations, Said attended to discrepancies between student behavior at school, clientele at internet cafes, and the social life of surrounding neighborhoods. 

Speaking to the way identity shapes internet use, Said explained how online activity itself is gendered. During the thick of the 2010-2011 uprising, for example, Tunisian researchers found that young men of the area dominated protests and demonstrations while young women more often found their political voices online through social media. In her own subsequent research, Said considered how the presence of women in public space varies heavily across the lower-income areas of Tunis, despite women’s steady stream of activity on Facebook, most Tunisian people’s social media platform of choice. This speaks to the alternative means of self-expression and entering the public discourse certain Tunisian women have found. Sifting through online posts made by residents in Hay Ettadhamon, Said found that many women post ethical and Islamic-themed content that encourages sensitivity toward vulnerable populations and offers advice on how to treat others, as well as posts about Tunisian women and men, Tunisian food, beauty products, and fitness.

Said's timely dissertation work contributes several important lessons to gender research today. The research offers insigtful analyses about the gendered dimensions of internet use, particularly following periods of social change. Despite the social barriers they face offline, Said's research demonstrates how women have been able to build close connections and mediated relationships between each other and the rest of Tunis online. This digital infrastructure work speaks to the crucial role women have played in this area's sociocultural integration into the rest of the city. Their online activity also works to connect them to an international register beyond Tunisia. 

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