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Archive for the 'China (North)' Category

Talking to the BBC about social media in China

By Tom McDonald, on 14 March 2017

Earlier this month, I was very fortunate to be interviewed by the BBC on my research onto the use of technology in China. The article that was published as a result of the interview is a good example of ‘public anthropology’, showing how the discipline’s research can made relevant to a wider audience.

This commitment to engaging with the public through anthropology is something that is also mirrored in two books that I published last year: Social Media in Rural China and How the World Changed Social Media (the latter is co-authored with the rest of the Why We Post team). Both of these volumes tried to respond to the immense interest in social media from the general public, by writing in an accessible and open style. We chose to keep all citations and the discussion of wider academic issues to endnotes. Many readers seem to have enjoyed this style of easy-to-understand writing.

Photo: Gillian Bolsover

Photo: Gillian Bolsover

A central aim of the book Social Media in Rural China was to try and help non-Chinese audiences, who have limited experience of Chinese social media and find it hard to imagine what they are like, to understand the nature of these platforms and the kind of social effects they are bringing to a small rural community in China.

Given this, it’s also been surprising to see how the book has been received in Hong Kong and Mainland China. I’ve gained a lot from discussing sections of the book with undergraduate and postgraduate students—most of whom are Chinese—in my Local Cultures, Global Markets and New Media and Digital Culture courses. Readers are often interested to understand a “foreigner’s” reflections on contemporary rural China.

Photo: Gillian Bolsover

Photo: Gillian Bolsover

This feedback will be particularly useful as I put together articles for academic journals over the coming months. In this way, I am extremely fortunate to have the opportunity to balance two quite different forms of writing: academic writing aimed at fellow researchers in universities, and a more accessible writing for a general public which can also inspire articles such as the one that appeared on the BBC.

Taking Why We Post to China

By Daniel Miller, on 11 October 2016

IMG_9212

Although the Why We Post project is primarily an attempt to study the use and consequences of social media, there were other broader aims. Particularly, the hope that the project would show that while the discipline of anthropology might have originally developed for the study of tribal peoples or ethnic minorities, it is also the most effective means of understanding a global, contemporary and highly dynamic phenomenon such as social media. This would be an especially important message for the largest population of the world, China, where anthropology retains a rather conservative position within the university systems and there is a real chance that it will not survive let alone take its proper position as an effective and vanguard approach to the contemporary world.

As it happens, it is hard to think of two more effective means of making this point than our two books on social media in China. In particular, Tom McDonald’s study in rural China has a consistent narrative about how even such small rural towns are actually thoroughly imbued with digital transformations and tend to have better connectivity today than the village he comes from in Yorkshire. It is a still clearer point for Xinyuan Wang who effectively demolishes most stereotypes about Chinese society – for example the commitment to education and kin – by showing the distinctive nature of not some small exception, but the 250 million Chinese represented by her study of new factory workers. The comparison between these two books, Social Media in Rural China and Social Media in Industrial China, showcases the diversity of contemporary Chinese society and how can we better grasp the nuance and depth of a changing society through a contextualised understanding of the evolving nature of Chinese social media.

Daniel Miller at the People's Press who are publishing Chinese versions of the books.

Daniel Miller at the People’s Press who are publishing Chinese versions of the books.

To share our findings we organised a trip to four major centres (Hong Kong, Guangzhou, Beijing, and Shanghai) and nine separate institutions. At a major anthropology and sociology department such as in Hong Kong University, Sun Ya-sen University in Guangzhou, and the Chinese Academy of Social Science in Beijing we could highlight our key point about this potential for anthropology itself in working with dynamic and shifting new media. But it was equally important to talk to Communication Departments such as at the Baptist University of Hong Kong, the Chinese University of HongKong, and the Communication University of China in Beijing so that students in that discipline were exposed to the potentials of ethnographic fieldwork. Our audiences ranged from arts and humanities at NYU in Shanghai, to philosophy students in Fudan University of Shanghai. We also visited the People’s Press who had published Xinyuan’s translation of the Digital Anthropology book and where I realised that my fellow authors included both the present and all the past presidents of China.

Tom McDonald

Tom McDonald delivers his talk on social media in rural China.

We carried out a live online book launch from Hong Kong (which you can watch again here) and opened an exhibition about the project at Hong Kong University where Tom now teaches. We also made sure that all the films on the Chinese version of our website were stored on UCL servers, rather than on YouTube which is blocked in China, so that students in mainland China could access them. Our trip attracted interest from Chinese local media including two of the largest Chinese online news agents, PengPai news and Tencent News, as well as the most popular English TV channel in Shanghai, Shanghai ICS, helping our message to reach more than ten thousand Chinese people within a few days.

Xinyuan Wang explain the dual migration from rural to urban and from offline to online.

Xinyuan Wang explains the dual migration from rural to urban and from offline to online in industrial China.

On a more personal level there were two striking responses. One was the delight of audiences when they realised that Tom would be lecturing in Chinese which was important to convince them that he could be an effective fieldworker in China. The other was the way young female students were clearly inspired by the elegant and articulate but also poignant presentation by Xinyuan and they made clear that they didn’t just want to emulate our way of working, but saw her as a model for what women in China could become in the future.

Why We Post Tour of Chinese Universities

By Xin Yuan Wang, on 12 September 2016

Daniel Miller China Tour

Between 12th-24th September 2016, Professor Daniel Miller and two researchers on the Why We Post project, Tom McDonald and Xinyuan Wang, will give a series of talks about the findings of the project at nine top universities in HongKong, Guangzhou, Beijing, and Shanghai. This China tour also include the launch (13th September) of the two newly released open-access books: Social Media in Industrial China (Wang, 2016) and Social Media in Rural China (McDonald, 2016). If you can’t be with us in Hong Kong, do join our live-streamed launch and put your questions to the authors.

China was the only country in the Why We Post project with two research sites. One of the reasons for this was because China maintains a greater degree of separation and autonomy in their use of popular digital media when compared to the rest of the world, therefore a global comparative study of social media required close scrutiny of particularly Chinese forms of social media such as QQ, WeChat, and Weibo.

The project includes a considerable amount of material on China such as the two newly released open-access books by UCL Press; one of the five weeks of the Anthropology of Social Media e-course; and a series of films set in the Chinese fieldsites. All of our short films (more than 100) about the uses of social media from our nine field sites have Chinese subtitles, and our website and e-course are both available in Chinese. Bringing an anthropological understanding of Chinese social media in the context of a comparative study back to China is a big commitment the project’s ultimate goal of turning global research into free global education.

Despite there being Chinese universities that teach anthropology, they have tended to see anthropology as a discipline that deals mainly with minority populations. We believe that the more a population becomes modern and urban and indeed digital, the more we need anthropology. This is because most of life now happens in the private sphere. In a little village perhaps it’s easier to see what’s going on from a surface glance. In a modern city where everyone goes to their own private home after work it is much more difficult. So you need research that is not afraid to follow people into the places where they actually live, which may be inside their smartphones, their social media profiles, as well as inside their homes. Otherwise we will not understand the modern world at all. Asking people questions via superficial surveys is not enough. Anthropologists spend many months living with people in order to be sure they understand what is really going on.

We believe that digital technologies including social media may be more formative of life in China than in almost any other country. While China has great and honourable traditions, the development of what we think of as modern China is relatively recent and relatively fast, taking place at the exact same time that new digital technologies are becoming an integral part of people’s lives. So whether we’re talking about the infrastructure of new cities or the spread of inexpensive smartphones, digital technologies are ubiquitous to the new China, and this means it is particularly important to understand their use and their consequences from a deep and engaged anthropological approach.

We hope that this China tour will introduce digital anthropology as a research tool to the Chinese academy. It is also hoped that the debates and talks will help to formulate key questions for future study within Chinese anthropology. We hope that China will play a key role in these future studies commensurate with its importance as a modern population that is embracing every form of new digital technology, and hopefully also embracing anthropology as the best means for observing and understanding their consequences.

The table below contains details of the talks in this China tour. For further updated information (in Chinese) please see here: http://uclwhywepost.isitestar.vip

巡回演讲安排 Brief Schedule of the China Tour

What’s our conclusion? Introducing ‘scalable sociality’

By Daniel Miller, on 16 June 2015

Scalable Sociality Infographic

Scalable Sociality

Right now we are finishing the last of our eleven volumes from this project, a book which will be called How the World Changed Social Media. Not surprisingly, people are starting to ask about our conclusions. There are of course many of these, and the website will also showcase these ‘discoveries’, but as anthropologists our primary concern is to determine the consequences of social media (or what used to be called social networking sites) for our own core concern which is sociality – the study of how people associate with each other.

We have concluded that the key to understanding this question is through what we will call ‘scalable sociality.’ Prior to social media, we mainly had private and public media.

Social networking sites started with platforms such as Friendster, QZone and then Facebook as a kind of broadcasting to a defined group rather than to the general public, in a sense scaling downwards from public broadcast.

By contrast some of the recent social media such as WhatsApp and WeChat are taking private communications such as telephones and messaging services that were mainly one-to-one and scaling upwards. Often these now also form groups, though generally smaller ones. Also these are generally not a single person’s network. All members of the group can post equally to all the others.

If we imagine two parameters – one consisting of the scale from private to public and the other from the smallest group of two up to the biggest group of public broadcast – then as new platforms are continually being invented they encourage the filling of niches and gaps along these two scales. As a result, we can now have greater choice over the degree of privacy or size of group we may wish to communicate with or interact with. This is what we mean by scalable sociality.

However this is just an abstract possibility. What people actually do is always a result of local norms and factors. In each society where we conducted fieldwork, we saw entirely different configurations of these scales as suits that area.

In our South Indian site these mainly reflect traditional groups such as caste and family. In our factory China site an entirely new society of floating workers create largely new norms of group interactivity including their first experience of true privacy. While in our rural Chinese site the main difference is that it is possible to now include strangers on the one hand and to extend various social ‘circles’ on the other. In our English site people specialise in the exact calibration of sociality that is neither too close, nor too distant.

Nonetheless, all of these are variants that can be understood as exploiting this new potential given by social media for an unprecedented scalable sociality.

Opening doors: Rural Chinese business promotion on social media

By Tom McDonald, on 28 May 2015

A typical shopfront in the North China fieldsite (Photo: Gillian Bolsover)

A typical shopfront in the North China fieldsite (Photo: Gillian Bolsover)

One surprising feature of QQ – the most popular social media platform in the rural Chinese town where I conducted research – is its lack of dedicated ‘business’ profile pages, such as those offered on Facebook.

WeChat, the second most popular social media platform in the town, does allow business owners to set up an official ‘public account’ (gongzhong hao), although registration requires users to submit details and a scanned copy of their business licence, which is enough of a hassle to deter most people I knew from signing up.

An additional cultural explanation also exists for why dedicated business profiles are less common on social media pages: townsfolk operate a far less regimented division between work and leisure.

The town’s shops, restaurants and small businesses are often run by family members. Even owners of larger businesses (like factories) in the town prefer to employ family or close friends wherever possible.

Given the choice, people would rather carry out transactions with friends instead of complete strangers. As such, outsiders coming to the town to conduct business often find themselves spending considerable amounts of time and money establishing friendly relationships with townsfolk before any business agreements can be made.

These factors mean that owners of small businesses in the town are far more willing to operate their business and personal affairs from a single social media account. This is also reflected in the fact that some owners of these businesses use their shop name as their screen-name, and an image of the facade of the shop as their profile picture.

Aside from identifying the store, the convention of including an image of a shopfront also has important symbolic meaning that points to the family. Anthropologist Charles Stafford has noted how doors in China are understood to be important mediating spaces between households and the outside, and that these entrances are also seen to represent the family itself.

All this suggests that rather than Chinese social media lacking a business feature, the platform instead reflects very different cultural understandings of the relationship between commerce and kinship, and is actually rather well suited to the rural Chinese preference that business, family and friendship should be closely intertwined.

Is Weibo on the way out? For some in China, it was never in.

By Tom McDonald, on 11 May 2015

Weibo: share your thoughts with the word – assuming, of course, you want to. Photo by bfishadow (CC BY 2.0)

Weibo: share your thoughts with the world (assuming, of course, you actually want to). Photo: bfishadow (CC BY 2.0)

I read with interest Celia Hatton’s BBC News article published in February, which hinted that real-name registration on Chinese micro-blogging platform Sina Weibo may be the death knell for the social media platform, which Hatton claims was already losing popularity owing to increasing government control over the platform that was ‘once the only place to find vibrant sources of debate on the Chinese internet’.

Hatton’s argument is important and interesting, and it likely accurately reflects significant changes occurring in social media use in urban China. However based on my experience of carrying out 15 months ethnographic research on social media use in a small rural Chinese Town, it’s also worth bearing in mind that the situation in the Chinese countryside is very different from urban areas. China’s rural populations have tended to display little interest in Weibo.

While Weibo has dominated much media and academic analysis of China social media, in reality ‘most microblog users are mainly young, urban, and middle class, and geographically concentrated in the coastal regions’ as research from Lund University has noted. A separate study (in Chinese) showed that only 5% of microblog users in China live in the countryside, despite the fact that 27.9% of internet users are rural residents.

Why did Weibo never appeal to rural users in the first place? People in the rural town where I conducted my study explained that they preferred social media platforms such as QQ (and to a lesser extent, WeChat) over Weibo. These platforms were popular precisely because they were ‘closed’ platforms, where people could share things only with their friends – most of whom were people they knew in their hometown. For these people the thought of sharing their postings with the entire internet held no appeal whatsoever.

These findings are interesting because they appear to challenge assumptions that people – especially the those at the bottom of Chinese society – would naturally desire to use the internet to ‘express themselves’ to the rest of the world. Rather than presuming that social media are destined to be technologies of liberation, such accounts highlight the importance of also paying attention to how technologies are actually used by rural Chinese people within the context of their own lives, where they are often put to use towards achieving aims and aspirations that may differ greatly from those we expect of them.

Password sharing: I get by on QQ with a little help from my friends

By Tom McDonald, on 17 February 2015

Group of Chinese schoolchildren

Friendship is only a shared password away. (Photo by Athena Lao, CC BY 2.0)

One of the surprising features of my conversations with primary and middle school students in our rural fieldsite in the north of China was the number who said that the pressures of schoolwork meant they didn’t have any time to ‘care for’ (zhaogu) their social media profiles. Many spoke of the importance of needing to ‘invest time’ (touru shijian) and ‘invest money’ (touru qian) in their QQ account or QQ online games in order to achieve high levels or status on these platform.

For this reason, a number of people that I spoke to, particularly middle school students, told me that they would ask their friends to ‘look after’ their account, or various parts of the games that they played.

Having somebody else responsible for looking after one’s QQ account constituted a very significant indicator of trust, and this seemed especially so in the case of school children. A high proportion of middle school students told me they shared their social media passwords with other people, most often their close friends.

Often when I asked middle school students who it was that they shared their QQ password with, a considerable number of male students would use the term ‘senior male fellow student’ (shixiong) which often indicates incredibly close relationships (similar to ‘best buddies’ or ‘best mates’); whereas for female middle school students, it was often the case that they said the person they shared their social media password with was a female best friend (guimi). In both cases, it seemed that if QQ passwords were shared with friends then it was far more likely that these people were of the same gender as the people doing the sharing.

This not only highlights a different attitude towards privacy on social media, but it also speaks to how platforms can be used to cement long-lasting friendships for young people.

Using social media for teaching social media

By Tom McDonald, on 2 February 2015

QQ icon in dock on Mac

QQ: China is just a click away (Photo: Tom McDonald)

This term our research team has been teaching a completely new Master’s module on the Anthropology of Social Media at UCL, with many of the students taking the module being from our fantastic MSc in Digital Anthropology.

In addition to incorporating the results from our own research in each of our fieldsites into our teaching, the students have been doing their own research on social media through mini-practicals taking place every week.

Last week, I wanted the students to experience QQ themselves, to get a feel for the platform, and to get a chance to see and think about how Chinese people interact on these platforms. In order to do this they joined a QQ Group and had a chance to communicate with English-speaking Chinese students in Beijing.

It was really interesting to see the two groups interact – albeit in very different ways – and it seemed from our conversations in the seminars that many people found examining the differences between QQ and non-Chinese social media platforms a useful starting point to think about Chinese practices in communication, social relationships and culture.

A talk at Oxford Internet Institute

By Xin Yuan Wang, on 18 November 2014

by Shriram and Xinyuan

Our research Shriram and Xinyuan giving an talk about social media in India and China at Oxford Internet Institution

Our research Shriram and Xinyuan giving an talk about social media in India and China at Oxford Internet Institute

It is always good practice to exchange knowledge and ideas with scholars from other fields, as it adds immense value and vision to the research at hand. New Media and Social Media are fields that attract scholars from various other areas of study. The bridging of interdisciplinary ideas that this area of research induces is phenomenal. For example, while social media can be approached from an anthropological point of view, it can at the same time also be approached from a Big Data perspective. In a previous blog post Xinyuan talked about the difference between ‘Big Data’ and digital ethnography.

A couple of weeks ago, two of our researchers (Shriram and Xinyuan) were invited by Professor Ralph Schroeder, a Big Data theorist, from the Oxford Internet Institute (OII) to give a talk on social media in China and India, from an anthropological perspective. This opportunity, which is one of our earliest since our return from our intense 15 months of fieldwork provided great value in understanding and evaluating aspects related to disseminating our research results.

One of our first significant points of contribution was to address the need to study social media in a more traditional anthropological way. This also flowed from the strength of ethnographic evidence that the nine field sites generated over the last 15 months. Ethnographic evidence needs to be presented in a context based ‘thick description’, which anthropology does, allowing researchers present the field site in a rich descriptive and detailed format. This allows the readers/audience understand the situation/context better. The process of communicating such detailed description also brought us another opportunity to transition to a multimedia based approach. Xinyuan showed a 4.5 mins documentary film clip about her field site, Good Path town, a small factory town in southeastern China and the way she did ethnography among Chinese rural migrants who work and live in the factory town as factory workers. The result of using a visual platform to describe one’s field site was extremely positive. When the audience really saw the population and the field in the short clip, the subject no longer stayed as alienated or abstract but became far more humanized and engaging. The positive feedback received has also further encouraged us in our long-term dissemination plan for the project, which also involves a multimedia approach to report on our analyses and findings.

The discussion section was also inspiring. The questions varied from censorship in China to the influence of gender in the use of social media in India; and a few questions touched the very core issue of this comparative project, which was on how to draw conclusions from the ethnography of nine different sites.

Even from the two field sites (India and China), let alone the total nine field sites of the whole project, our audience had already strongly acknowledged the huge differences in the way people use social media as well as the impact of social media usage in local peoples’ daily life. Though the presentations were not intended to be comparative, the format in which they were delivered played a role in giving rise to a few interesting questions that leaned towards a comparison of general issues between China and India. For example: after listening to our presentations, students found that the use of social media in India was strongly influenced by the reality of offline life, however in China among Chinese rural migrants, social media offered a platform where people can simply set up a new world where they can enjoy an ideal life where their offline lives (including their social status are largely irrelevant. Although it’s always risky to over-generalize claims of totally different uses of social media by lower socio-economic groups in India and China, the ethnographic evidence gathered from our 15 months field research allowed our study to showcase the diversity of social media usage in different cultures and societies. Social media itself is by no means a unified or universal concept and its meanings are way more diverse than we can imagine. In short, this opportunity helped both the parties (OII and GSMIS scholars) to explore and understand social media in a much deeper context through an anthropological perspective that is contextually and fieldwork based.

‘Writing up’: social media, disconnection and writing ethnography

By Tom McDonald, on 26 October 2014

Villagers from the township taking part in a local festival (Photo: Tom McDonald)

Villagers from the township taking part in a local festival (Photo: Tom McDonald)

Our entire team have now returned from the field and are already stuck into the process of turning our research into books, which we plan to publish in January 2016.

For me it’s an enormously strange to transition to go from the excitement of village life to the relative sedateness of a life spent largely in the company of Microsoft Word everyday.

You could be forgiven for thinking that living in a rural Chinese town would be a positively tranquil experience, but looking back on my 15 months of fieldwork in the town from afar, it all seems to condense into one single blur. My friends in the town seemed to always be unexpectedly arriving at my door, endlessly calling me on the phone, inviting me out to impromptu dinners, or for walks around the countryside, trips to places, or to join in at local events and festivals. By contrast, life in London is comparatively tranquil: with more time to finally concentrate on writing articles and publications, combined with the familiar rhythm of academic life in the department.

But it’s not that all my friends from the town have disappeared completely. My phone receives a constant trickle of messages from my friends in the town. Contrast this with the early days of anthropology, where leaving the fieldsite really meant leaving the fieldsite, and anthropologists would bid farewell to the tribe the had been studying in some far-flung corner of the world and had little expectation (or indeed way) of remaining in touch. Even if I wanted to cut myself of from my fieldsite, social media makes it difficult to do so. Keeping in touch with my participants and hearing from them the latest news about their lives, relationships, exam successes, etc., means that there is always more information to be added to the ethnographies, and also speaks volumes with regards how much social media is fundamentally changing the experience of anthropological fieldwork itself.