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Archive for the 'Separation' Category

“The Value of Social Media” at the AAA conference

By Nell Haynes, on 10 December 2016

Daniel Miller talking at the AAA conference. Photo by Nell Haynes.

Daniel Miller talking at the AAA conference. Photo by Nell Haynes.

From the Why We Post Team, Nell Haynes, Tom McDonald, and Daniel Miller attended the American Anthropological Association conference in snowy Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA at the end of November. All participated in a session organized by Heather Horst, and Robert Foster, titled “The Value of Social Media.” The session explored the use and meaning of social media through anthropological conceptions of value, which have advanced our understanding of practices that are meaningful to people and the worlds they inhabit. 

Danny began the session with his talk on how social media may be used to create anthropological value. He related his ideas to those of Nancy Munn’s early anthropological research on the Trobriand Islands in which she suggested that social relations expanded an individual’s or group’s status, while something like witchcraft shrinks it. Indeed, the idea of anthropology is to expand knowledge, but there exist “witches” that work in contrast. He suggested these witches include obfuscating language, the tendency of anthropologists to be very individually focused, and the idea of criticism and critique without regard for actual solutions. But, he suggested that social media is a key way in which anthropologists might find value in their work. Both as a topic and as a medium for reaching wide student audiences, social media may actually demonstrate that anthropology helps us to understand the contemporary world, as well as become the means through which students from across the world can connect to other students, engage in discussions about anthropology, on platforms like FutureLearn and UCLeXtend, where the Why We Post Project’s online courses are based.

Nell Haynes used her fieldwork in Northern Chile to explore ideas of value that are not necessarily based in economics and currency. Looking at adult women who sell used clothing and home items through Facebook pages, Nell explained that the motivation for these women was not increased income, but social connections with other women that they create through their commercial activity. In essence, social media has opened not only new spaces for economic activity, but has given opportunities to women whose social worlds were once more confined to the family. For these older women, the “value” of their economic pursuits on social media do not correspond to the exchange value of the goods they sell, but rather the value of the social relationships gained, sustained, and strengthened through selling.

Tom McDonald talking at the AAA conference. Photo by Nell Haynes.

Tom McDonald talking at the AAA conference. Photo by Nell Haynes.

Tom presented on his research in Rural China, examining how hierarchies become overtly expressed on China’s most popular social media platform – QQ – in the form of level status conferred upon users through collecting points and virtual currency. He discussed the changing attitude of rural Chinese townsfolk towards these levels, showing how desires to accumulate levels influence their practices of internet use in everyday life, giving a cultural explanation for the appeal of these systems. In fact, users’ accounts of level accumulation cross between emphasizing honest effort and intentional distortion, and in so doing place value on the practice’s aspect of self-cultivation. Tom argued that individual internet users are able to transform social media use from a wasteful habit that incurs the disapproval of other family members into a virtuous activity.

The session was well-attended and inspired rousing discussion about a topics ranging from the role of critique in anthropology, to the ways that algorithms may influence social media users. Later in the day, with an equally exciting crowd, Danny presented on the project as a whole and the ways in which the anthropology of social media contributes to broader understandings of the discipline as well as understanding what it means to be human. In his talk, the keynote address for DANG or the Digital ANthropology Group of AAA, he focused on the “theory of attainment,” which posits that rather than suggesting, with each technological advancement we decry “the end of humanity” or entering a “post-human state,” instead what we define as human must take technological advancement into account. As such a definition of humanity takes into consideration human’s persistent ability to attain new advancement.

Overall, it was a productive and informative conference. Tom, Nell, and Danny only wished that more of the team could have been there with them.

Online relationships with strangers can be ‘purer’ than with offline friends

By Xin Yuan Wang, on 26 October 2015

“Internet dog” by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia.

As illustrated in the cartoon ‘On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog’, published by The New Yorker in 1993, the anonymity afforded by online communication raises interesting questions about authenticity and trust. I encountered such concerns at a media workshop where I talked about the high levels of anonymity on Chinese social media platform QQ. One member of the audience asked: “Don’t you think, in a highly mediated and anonymous environment, people are worried about the authenticity of communication?”

From what I can gather from my research, the answer is no.

To address her question I quoted a migrant factory worker called Feige who lived in the factory town where I conducted my fieldwork:

They [online friends] like you and talk with you because they really like you being you, not because you are rich so that they can borrow money from you, or you are powerful so that they can get a job from you. Here [online] everything is much purer, without power and money involved.

Feige is a member of many QQ groups and has his own fans who like to hear his opinions on everything. He sees entirely online friendships as ‘purer’ (chun) relationships, since they do not necessitate pragmatic concerns that often feature heavily in offline relationships. For Chinese migrant factory workers like Feige who are often frustrated by their position in society, social media provides new possibilities of sociality which are free from social hierarchy and social discrimination.

Curiously, strangers online also boast a preferable situation in some factory owners’ eyes. Billionaire factory owners in my field site sometimes avoided attending school reunions in fear of requests for financial help from their old classmates but some were happy to talk with online strangers on WeChat to release the stress which they believed could not be displayed to their subordinates and family members.

Ms. Cheng, a wealthy factory owner, told me:

I feel that nowadays society is very pragmatic. Sometimes I feel very confused and frustrated. Everyone says that the relationship between old classmates is the purest because there are no benefits or interests involved. But in my case, this was not true. After my middle school reunion I had at least six or seven phone calls from people who attended asking for money or other various kinds of help.

Ms. Cheng dared not attend any further school reunions after her unpleasant experience. However, she found a supportive community by joining a WeChat group where mothers share their experience of raising children. Here she could share her struggles of dealing with her two teenage children. This was a huge support which she felt she could not obtain from her family.

At home everybody is busy with the factory stuff…but there (WeChat mothers’ group) I am just a mother, not a factory owner. I show my weakness and get a lot of comfort…I don’t know exactly who they are, but I know they are all mothers like me who share the same problems.

Chinese migrant workers and factory owners probably lie at the two extremes of the wealth spectrum in the industrial China field site, however both appear to be similarly willing to befriend and communicate with strangers online. Here we can witness how relationships which are mediated by technology turn out to be the more ‘authentic’ compared to offline relationships which in many cases are highly mediated (or ‘polluted’ as people say) by factors such as wealth and social status. The cases from China provide us with a new perspective on online relationships. Here ‘anonymity’ by no means refers to the opposite of ‘authenticity’, just as ‘mediation’ by no means suggests less or more ‘authenticity’.

The immigrants ‘crisis’ and the limits of Facebook

By Razvan Nicolescu, on 18 May 2015

Photomontage realised by Vento Rebelle and posted on their Facebook page on the 20 April 2015.

Photomontage realised by Vento Ribelle and posted on their Facebook page on the 20 April 2015 and shared by left-wing individuals in Grano.

This post is prompted by the continuous tragedy represented by the immigration from North Africa on the shores of south Europe. Data shows that over 23,000 people have died since the turn of the millennium in attempting to reach Europe, most of whom drowned in the Mediterranean Sea. This is about 50% more than the official estimations.

The most dangerous route is the one between North Africa and South Italy (mainly the Isle of Lampedusa) estimated to have seen almost 8,000 deaths in this time interval, followed by the Eastern Mediterranean route (between Greece and Turkey), and the West Mediterranean one (between Canary Islands and Spain).

In Italian media, the most common term used to describe this phenomenon is ‘tragedy’, and the Mediterranean Sea is deplored as a ‘cemetery’ or ‘battle camp’. The Italian authorities are undertaking the enormous effort to save the lives of immigrants and direct them to the overpopulated reception centres. Very recenlty the Italian Navy saved 4,000 migrants from the Strait of Sicily and one migrant woman gave birth to a baby girl on an Italian warship. In 2014 the operation ‘Mare Nostrum’ operated by the Italian authorities cost 144 mil EUR and was estimated to save more than 150,000 people in 421 sea interventions. According to the Italian officials, the number of people in Italian reception centres is currently almost 70,000, out of which 14,000 are unaccompanied children.

Since I started fieldwork in April 2013, the issue of immigration on the southern Italian shores was a central concern in Italian media. This was equally reflected on Facebook: each time a tragedy happened people used to share news and moving photos from mainstream journals on the platform. Most people who posted personal comments were deploring the existing situation and accused the larger international context of not taking appropriate action. The political left accused the immorality of Western world that did nothing to reduce poverty, inequality, and stop the numerous conflicts in Africa and Middle East, while the political right accused Europe of virtually leaving the southern countries of the continent alone in their fight to stop the death toll caused by illegal immigration.

Some directed their criticisms towards European Union and officials who did not recognize this as a European crisis and left some of the most impoverished countries, such as Italy, Spain, and Greece to solve it by themselves. Others accused the politicization of the crisis, as they saw that most political interventions, especially those from outside Italy, do not focus on the reasons of this crisis, but on ways to reduce immigration and requests for asylum.

But overall, most people in Grano had a profound sense of helplessness when confronted with the press reports on the never-ending tragedies. The general sense was that this was a humanitarian crisis that nobody really had control over; Italian authorities were simply obligated to react promptly and save lives.

This is one example when public social media mirrors the mainstream media. Both average people in Grano and leading editors in national journals share the sense that their voices are not heard by policy makers and that there is little will from the international community to solve some of the issues that cause migration in the first place.

In this context, the problem raised by this post is the inefficiency of social media to really influence the international agendas in the short term. The fact that people can act extremely fast on social media gave many the idea that their governments and international players should also act more promptly than they used to. And when they see this is not happening, many are disillusioned. They see that higher political forces simply disregard their concerns as expressed on social media.

Many people in Grano contrast this to the efficiency of some transnational agencies and influential social activists that use social media to sustain and promote their respective projects, whether these are political or humanitarian. The frustration comes from the fact that a media that is announced as being global and effective in nature, proves to be extremely limited and ineffective for most people.

This is reflected in one of the findings of the Global Social Media Impact Study that argues that most of the time, rather than representing global forms of socialization and information, social media is extremely local and specific.

In Grano, Facebook encompasses a strong emphasis on the local through photography of local sea and landscape, food, and traditions, and opens to broader issues through memes with moral implications, anecdotal content, and criticisms of the (usually) national politics. In this equation, the wave of people seeking a better life in Europe is seen as a ‘crisis’ and social media reflects the inertia of conventional media and European society at large.

Note: This seems to be the biggest social and humanitarian problem in contemporary Europe; it seems to be a response to the process of self-closure that sociologists and historians have remarked Europe has undergone in the last century. In this sense, it is a revolution. One main difference to the anti-governmental movements in recent years is that the migrants’ revolution is not promoted on social media, maybe because it does not have leaders, but there are common people who want to tell us something. The first step is to listen to them.

Questions I get asked everyday…

By Tom McDonald, on 20 July 2014

Tom asking (or maybe being asked) the questions (Photo: Gillian Bolsover)

Tom asking (or maybe being asked) lots of questions (Photo: Gillian Bolsover)

For the past 14 months I’ve been living in this rural town in north China, conducting ethnographic research on how social media is affecting life here.

However, many people in the town have never had a foreign friend before, let alone one that can speak Chinese. People are extremely inquisitive about me and life in the UK, and I generally spend much more of my time answering their constant questions than I am able to ask them my own research questions and hear their answers.

Below are the questions I tend to get asked on an almost daily basis here in the town. I’ve decided to publish them on this blog partly because even though I am really bored of having to answer these questions again and again, they remain interesting both because they reveal some commonly held ideas that many people in the town hold regarding the rest of the world, while also helping us to learn about some of the important concerns of rural Chinese life (food, family, work, history, politics).

  • Why are your eyes blue?
  • Why is your skin white?
  • Why is your hair yellow? Is it dyed?
  • How many brothers and sisters do you have?
  • Do westerners just eat bread and drink milk?
  • Do westerners always eat raw meat?
  • Are you unable to eat Chinese food?
  • Wow! How come you know how to use chopsticks?!
  • What religion are you? Do all westerners believe in Jesus?
  • How much is your salary in a month?
  • What is the average house price in the UK?
  • What is the area/population of the UK?
  • Can you get used to living here?
  • Do you miss home?
  • How old are you?
  • Are you married?
  • Why aren’t you married?
  • Do you like Chinese girls? Are they pretty?
  • Why don’t you get a Chinese wife?
  • How many children are you allowed to give birth to in the UK?
  • Why does Britain always invade other countries and do whatever America does?
  • Do you think the Diaoyu Islands are China’s [territory]?
  • Why are you here?
  • Are you a spy?
  • What cars do you drive in the UK?
  • What is the weather like in the UK?

While some people may interpret these questions as showing that people in my fieldsite know very little about the rest of the world, I think the questions make a lot of sense and actually show how interested in the outside world my friends here are.

In addition, the incredulous looks my friends give me when I ask some of our research questions in our interviews, such as ‘does social media increase or decrease your interaction with people who are significantly richer or poorer than you?’ sometimes makes me think us researchers are the ones who are asking the stupid questions.

But then maybe there is no such thing as a stupid question. Almost anything you ask can help start a dialogue which will end up helping you to learn more about the people in your fieldsite. As the old adage goes: ‘one can but ask…’.

Online and under the covers: the World Cup and social media in rural China

By Tom McDonald, on 27 June 2014

Post young man from North China fieldsite on his WeChat profile. Caption reads "Essential preparation for watching football." From left to right is beer, red bull, yoghurt, cigarettes and plate of red dates.

Post young man from North China fieldsite made on his WeChat profile. Caption reads “Essential preparation for watching football.” From left to right is beer, red bull, yoghurt, cigarettes and plate of red dates.

On first glance, taking a look around this small rural town in North China, the World Cup seems like it is a world away.

Being a football fan in the town has always been a minority pursuit. In general, adults don’t do much sport here: most are busy with work and family commitments. For those who do play sports, basketball, badminton and table tennis tend to be more popular, with both the primary and middle school having basic outside facilities for these sorts of activities. There is a gravel football pitch attached to the primary school, but this is rarely used by the school itself.

The town has its own unofficial amateur football team, a loose group of young men, (reminiscent of Sunday pub football teams) who organise evening practices on the middle school football pitch, and occasional matches through a QQ instant messaging group. Several times during the summer of 2013, the school tried to stop the team playing football altogether on the pitch, citing safety concerns. During the winter, the grim weather and shorter days mean members of the football team abandon evening practice altogether, preferring to play football on better artificial pitches in the nearby county-town during the weekend. This small group of hardcore football fans formed the bulk of my exposure to the World Cup, but they used social media to do it in a way that made it largely unobservable to most others.

Kicking-off: a World Cup under the covers
On the day that the World Cup started, I was awoken at 3:50 am by the sound of a WeChat message on my phone by the side of the bed. A short while after another arrived. And then another. And another. I reached over and, bleary-eyed, gazed at my phone screen. Four of my friends from the town had set up a WeChat conversation named ‘The world accelerating’ (jiasu shijie) and were talking between themselves on it. It took a second until I could figure out what they were doing: sending messages to each other talking about the opening game of the World Cup, while the game unfolded.

One of the major downsides of the World Cup being located in Brazil is the staggering inconvenience this happens to have caused Chinese football fans. There is a 11-hour time difference between Brasília and Beijing, and this means that all of the matches kick-off somewhere between midnight and 6am local time, making it extremely difficult for young men to make time for watching football between normal patterns of work, family and sleep. For this reason this World Cup, more than any I have ever witnessed in China, is one that relies enormously on the internet.

‘The world accelerating’ WeChat group chat was important because it allows this small group of men to feel like they are watching football together. There is no place in the town that they could gather to watch the game (all businesses in the town close at 9pm, and unlike Chinese cities there are no bars here). Even though many of these men were watching at home they still made this a real group experience. This was furthered by the fact that their conversations were almost completely conducted via the WeChat’s asynchronous voice messaging feature (which is quite a contrast to the normal conversations on the football team’s QQ group which is conducted almost entirely through text).

The friendliness and companionship of these young men was really prevalent when listening to these world cup messages. There was a real since of ‘blokey’ fun behind it all. The voice messages are all in thick local dialect, interspersed with exuberant swearing, such as “that shot was the bull’s p*nis!” (nage qiu hen niubi). Bits of chat about work between friends, who also co-operate with each other in business was interrupted with someone excitedly saying “It’s starting, it’s starting…” at the commencement of the game. Despite it being 4am, and each of them being in their beds at home, the WeChat atmosphere it reminded me of watching football matches in pubs in the UK.

The group was also full of other matey lad banter. One person leaves a voice message saying “Come on, bottoms up, bottoms up” (kuaidian, ganbei ganbei) suggesting alcohol consumption. Someone posts pictures of pretty young Chinese women. It’s perhaps gratifying that even at 4 am in rural China you can get beer, girls and football – at least via WeChat.

The fact that all this takes place in the middle of the night makes it all the more magical. There is something almost improper about it. At one moment one of them leaves a We Chat message of him shouting excitedly, and one of the others jokes “don’t wake up your wife!” (bie ba ni xifu naoxing). I have a wonderful mental image of all these men, in their 20s and 30s, under the covers in bed, smartphone in one hand chatting to friend, tablet in the other watching the match. Or in dark hotel rooms with the TV on at the end of the bed, with droopy-eyed and struggling to stay awake. As one person told me “If you don’t watch with friends, it’s no fun” (bu gen pengyou yiqi kan, jiubu hao wan). Having friends around via WeChat is perhaps one of the ways to get you through this. At the end of the match, one of the young guys even said, “OK OK, everyone go to bed. Everybody’s tired”

The internet World Cup
IMG_1282Apart from this small group of avid fans who are willing to stay up late into the night watching these games, for others only vaguely interested in football, social media becomes a key point through which World Cup information is disseminated nationwide. As mentioned in a previous blogpost, QQ and WeChat both combine news delivery with social media. Both platforms have heavily featured World Cup related stories. Between 13-16 June 2014 inclusive, 8 out of the 37 news stories on QQ Tencent news were World Cup related, on WeChat that figure was 9 out of 37. On the first day of the tournament, QQ mobile featured a special ‘startup screen’ (kind of similar to a Google doodle) of the QQ penguin logo made up of lots of football players. The QQ homepage has a special section dedicated to the World Cup, where entire matches and compilations of goal-scoring moments can be watched at a more suitable time.

Despite the challenges of football being a minority pursuit here in this rural Chinese town, and the difficulties of following the World Cup given the time difference between Brazil and China, I have nonetheless been struck by how people are using social media and the internet to create the kind of tournament experience that appeals to them, and most importantly, share in that experience with their friends.

THE WORLD CUP ON SOCIAL MEDIA WORLDWIDE
This article is part of a special series of blog posts profiling how social media is affecting how ordinary people from communities across the planet experience the 2014 World Cup.

Facebook, tribes and internal migration in Turkey

By Elisabetta Costa, on 12 December 2013

Photo by Elisabetta Costa

Photo by Elisabetta Costa

In my field-site in south-east Turkey, Facebook is a very important communication tool for keeping alive extended family relationships. On Facebook, people communicate with first, second, and third degree relatives living in different regions of Turkey. The number of relatives that a person has on social media varies between 20 and 300. While parenting and sibling long-distance relationships are usually maintained on the phone and more recently on WhatsApp, extended family relationships are maintained through Facebook. This form of social media seems to be the most appropriate to communicate with distant relatives with whom there is not intimate and close contact.

In South-East Turkey both among Arab and Kurdish populations, tribes have been the main social organization that has captured the attention of anthropologists for several years. What happens to the relationships between members of the same small tribe when they migrate to different parts of the country? The migration of Turkey’s Kurdish and Arab population from the East to the Western Provinces has been massive in the last decades and continues today. Due to this migration, Istanbul became the “the biggest Kurdish city” in Turkey; and all the Western cities of Turkey are inhabited by a big number of Kurds and Arabs.

In Dry Rock Town I have met many people who use Facebook to communicate with relatives living in different parts of the country. Those not belonging to any tribes usually communicate with first degree relatives, e.g. cousins, aunts and uncles. Those who are attached to a tribe organization usually communicate with a bigger number of family members, and this the case of rural people.

M. is a 19 years old Kurdish boy who came to Dry Rock Town from a near village to attend the preparatory classes (Dershane) to be able to pass the university entrance exam. On Facebook he has 200 friends of which 180 are family members living in different parts of Turkey. The ten persons he speaks to most on Facebook are ten cousins who live in Istanbul, Izmir and Cyprus in order to study or work. The remaining 170 are first and second degree relatives distributed among Istanbul, Cyprus, Mersin, Dry Rock Town, and towns in the same province as Dry Rock Town. On Facebook he doesn’t communicate with relatives living in the village. He says he doesn’t have the need to do so because he meets them every weekend and they mainly communicate face by face.

S. is a 24 years old Arab girl who grew up in a village of Dry Rock Town Province and migrated to a town of Western Turkey six years ago with her family. On Facebook she has 90 friends of which 80 are relatives living in different part of Turkey and 10 are school friends. Only one Facebook friend lives in the same town where she lives at the moment. The 10 persons she speaks with most on Facebook are 7 cousins, 1 aunt, and 2 school friends, who live in different parts of Turkey. And the people closest to her, aside from her immediate family, are cousins living all around the country. She doesn’t like the place where she lives now, she feels discriminated because of her south-eastern origins, and she doesn’t have friends there.

The anthropologist Martin Van Bruinessen (2002) ten years ago wrote that tribes and tribalism in Kurdish society were alive and more pervasive than the decades before. To confirm his theory and bring it further I believe that intra-tribe relationships in many cases continue to be the most important ones for a new generation of young adults who experience migration more and more. Thanks to social media, people are able to maintain these relationships despite migration and urbanization processes. While the people I’ve interviewed have continually mentioned to me the existence of their tribe (Aşiret), proving the existence of a strong tribe ideology, only after having looked at their Facebook’s practices did I start to understand what tribe is for them.

Martin van Bruinessen, 2002, ‘Kurds, states and tribes’ in Faleh A. Jabar and Hosham Dawod (eds), Tribes and power: nationalism and ethnicity in the Middle East. London: Saqi.

QQ & WeChat: a threat to marriage in China?

By Tom McDonald, on 24 September 2013

Photo by flowcomm (Creative Commons)

Photo by flowcomm (Creative Commons)

Writing in the 1970s, Margery Wolf noted the pressures faced by rural Chinese women when they married. Women would typically leave their home village, where they were well cared for by their own family, and move into their husband’s village. As outsiders in this new place, women were positioned at the very bottom of society. They had no social network and were faced with the very difficult task of having to form social connections with other women in the village who they believed they could trust in order to survive.

This old social phenomenon has taken a somewhat different spin with the advent of new social media in the small town and villages that make up our North China fieldsite. I have noticed that many women report their communication networks get smaller in adulthood. Particularly worth emphasising is that in many of the responses to our questionnaires, young women told me that they moved away from social networking once they got married. I have a hunch this may have something to do with important aspects of female morality and forms of exclusion from the public sphere. For example, it was very rare for women in our fieldsite to use their own photos as their avatars or in their QZone profiles, and many women practiced ‘locking’ access to some or all of their QZone albums (QZone does not offer the same fine-grained privacy controls seen in Facebook) with a security question to test their familiarity, such as ‘What is my name?’.

One such example came from Mrs Hu, a 30 year old married woman with a young son, who runs a shop in the town. She explained to me that social media use carries with it certain dangers. There was an occasion when one of her male ‘online friends’ (wangyou) sent her a QQ message saying: ‘I have changed a QQ number, add my other QQ number.’ She asked him why he wanted her to add the other number [havng a second QQ account can be a cause for suspicion]. He replied that it was ‘because my wife knows’ (yinwei wo laopo zhidao). She explained to me that this made her angry, because she had never met the man, and she told me she sent the man a message saying ‘I have no special connections with you, what does it matter if your wife knows?’. Following this occasion, she became far more careful with who she became friends with via social media, and even went to the trouble of reassigning the gender of her QQ and WeChat profiles to male in an effort to detract male strangers from ‘friending’ her.

While women in the town have tended to opt to more carefully control who they communicate with following marriage, and to limit their visibility on social networks, the situation is somewhat different for men – instead we tend to see a larger amount of social networking and media use amongst men once they get married.

Part of this may be down to a traditional expectation that men are supposed to earn money for the family, and therefore be spend more time outside home. There is a saying in Chinese that ‘women live on the inside, and men live on the outside’ (nv zhu nei, nan zhu wai). There is a common perception in my fieldsite that men need ‘connections’ (guanxi) and a wider set of connections in order to achieve this. Men are expected to be somewhat more ‘overtly expansive’ in relationships than women.

This is where social media comes in. It is becoming clear to me that one of the main differences between Chinese social media (QQ, WeChat) and their non-Chinese counterparts (Facebook, Twitter, etc) is that the Chinese social media appears to be much more strongly oriented towards making new friends, especially with strangers. However, as well as this fitting into the accepted ideal of socially extravert males, it also seems to be conducive to extra-marital affairs.

An example of this comes from Mr Wang, also in his thirties. I had heard from others that Wang was a particularly ‘chaotic’ person. One day I bumped into him sitting and chatting in a store. We became friends and added each other via WeChat’s ‘shake’ (yao-yi-yao) function. He told me that he only uses WeChat during the day, and avoids using it at night-time. “If my wife knows I use WeChat she will smash my phone” he told me with a smile.

In a society as concerned with marriage as China, it goes without saying that social media is having an enormous impact in transforming this social institutions. The two cases I have provided here are extreme ones, but I would say that here in the North China fieldsite many people seem to believe that social media can be especially damaging to marriage. Perhaps this is most forcefully proved by the fact that relatively few of our participants seem to communicate with their spouses via social media, instead preferring to call or even more rarely, text.

Strategies of scarcity and supply: water and bandwidth

By Tom McDonald, on 24 July 2013

The water tankered makes a delivery (Photo: Tom McDonald)

The water tankered makes a delivery (Photo: Tom McDonald)

Fieldwork normally involves bearing some hardships, however I never thought that at the start of my research in China that water would have been an issue of concern here. Nor did I consider that it might be able to tell us something about social networking use.

I was surprised, then, when I found out that the urban town area of the fieldsite has not had a piped water supply for the past year.

This situation is slightly ridiculous when one considers that there is a large, well-stocked reservoir two kilometres distance from the town.

reservoir-lake

According to some local residents, the problems started last year when workmen dug up the pipe in order to lay the new, wide asphalt road that runs north-south through the town.

For the past year, the town’s government have been paying for two water bowsers and four people to collect water from the neighbouring town and deliver it here once every two days. The only perk to the current situation is that because the service is so poor, the government provides the water free of charge.

Not having a regular water service makes life really tough. Limitations in water supply provoke people to clearly prioritise the things that they must do against the things that they would perhaps like to do. People’s houses are awash with buckets and tankards for storing water. Water for cooking or for dinking tends to come before, say, washing clothes or having a shower. Similar coping mechanisms and prioritizing seem to exist for internet use.

I think the case of the limited water supply is also useful for thinking about the way some people experience social media and the internet seen here in China. I was really drawn to the paper Blanchette gave at the UCL Department of Anthropology a couple of years ago where he outlined A Material History of Bits, making very clear the physical limitations of the digital, in contradiciton to how we sometimes assume it to be a potentially ‘unlimited’ object. I would say this is made almost even more clear in the China North fieldsite where the actual amount of bandwidth available becomes patently obvious for people in the same way as water does.

The internet does have it’s specificities though: one of the clear things that is coming out of our surveys is the significance of different modes of access and I think there are analogies to be made between the ways villagers cope with limitations imposed upon them in terms of various resources and their often incredibly lofty aspirations of what they wish to achieve.

The vast majority of our informants (over three-quarters) were China Mobile customers. While those who travelled regularly with work and business tended to have packages that afforded larger bandwidth allowances, and roaming outside of the province, the remaining half of these customers had packages that severely limited the mobile access that they had to the internet. These were normally packages that varied in cost between 10–20 RMB per month, offering between 30–70 megabyte bandwidth allowance respectively.

How was this experienced in people’s everyday lives? Just like with water, people developed clear and intelligent strategies in order to prioritise which things they believed to be essential. One lady in a village, explained that she had the 30 megabyte bandwidth package for 5 RMB a month said that she tended to only use QQ on her phone, because if she used both QQ and WeChat she would go over her limit, and all her friends were on QQ.

Others sometimes failed to understand the concept that there were distinct limits to the amount of bandwidth and resources available. A young man working in the town explained that he once watched a streamed movie with his girlfriend using his phone, without realizing that doing that would push him over the bandwidth limit. He had to pay 200RMB for the single month’s bill. He explained to me that he didn’t know about it, and wondered why he hadn’t just paid for his girlfriend to go to the cinema with him, at least that way he wouldn’t have strained his neck, he joked.

For others, they developed ways to get around such restrictions using their existing connections. One of the town’s young male hairdressers, joked to his friend that he willing to allow his assistant to pay his own phone bill in order to remove the block on his phone. The manager of a photocopying shop in the town used his connections in China Unicom (he was an authorized reseller/top-up point) to get a very low-cost 2G phone card (around 10RMB per month) that allowed him virtually free nationwide calls, and then relied on the broadband internet connection in his shop, which he spent most of every day in anyway.

While readers in the west are typically used to very generous bandwidth allowances offered by telecoms companies, it is important to remember that here in China, economic constraints such as bandwidth remain a very real barrier to social networking use for many. In this sense, we can see links with Shriram’s previous blog post where he mention’s electricity cuts as a major challenge facing people in his fieldsite. These regimes of shortages create economies where peoople may have to make difficult decisions about who they will communicate with, and how they will communicate with them.

Connecting the dots

By Jolynna Sinanan, on 26 June 2013

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El Mirador has a small and unexpected population that I found to make up a significant part of my research. We all like our comforts away from home, and mine was the little Chinese restaurant on the corner of my street. I noticed that like other restaurants in the town, they specialise in food from Yunnan in the south of China. Throughout my fieldwork, I got to know the family, their 20-something year old daughter Lili in particular and found that similar to Xinyuan Wang’s field site, these transnational migrants also live in El Mirador as a destination, but it is not a place they live in.
Lili’s uncle who own the restaurant, works all day and Skypes his family for a couple of hours in the evening. He then watches movies in his laptop or he invites other extended family to come over for a drink or to play some mah-jong. In quiet hours during the day, Lili Skypes her toddler son in Kunming, where she lives with Lili’s parents-in-law. It turns out that quite a few of their extended relatives also live in El Mirador, and they own restaurants similar to theirs.
Lili happened to leave Trinidad just after me to return to Kunming to visit her family and she asked if I was going to be in China, I should also go and visit her. I spent nearly a week with Lili’s Chinese family Trinidad, who are the other ‘halves’ of her Chinese family in Trinidad. Without drawing a complicated kinship diagram, Lili’s family is one of about 10 families in Trinidad, from Port of Spain to El Mirador to San Fernando, that make up a transnational network of reciprocity, labour and restaurants that specialise in food from Yunnan. One family will migrate to Trinidad for a few years, either on a loan from another family, or they will work for another family when they arrive, or they will borrow materials to help set up their own business, send remittances to Kunming, then move back after 2 or 3 years and an uncle of cousin will come over and pick up where they left off. And the chain continues. Or, a family like Lili’s will migrate with the intention to stay permanently, or emigrate again to Canada or the US.

Consistent with literature on transnational migration for labour, there is an enormous amount of pressure and sacrifice on both halves of the family on both sides of the world. This trip to Kunming was so Lili could visit her son, whom she hasn’t seen in a year and so she could bring him back to Trinidad to live with her and her husband. Lili ensured that the money she sends home is used well and her family make sure that business is going well and she and the other relatives are healthy and ‘happy’. Despite not knowing many Trinidadians, Lili is adjusting to life in Trinidad, she finds living there easier, and even though home is Kunming, she is increasingly feeling like it would be difficult for her to move back there. It has been ok that her son has been living without her while he was small, they Skype a lot and sends gifts, but now that he is starting to remember her and her absence is felt, she feels it is important that he migrate with her.

Being around Lili, in her home and her workplace in Trinidad without her child, being shown his photos and videos on her iPhone and then visiting Lili, her parents, her in-laws, the friends she grew up with and seeing her with her son reminds me with no trace of arrogance, just how important this research is.

Categorising relationships through QQ’s friend lists, or, the problem of where to put one’s wife?

By Tom McDonald, on 26 March 2013

A list of a user's different groups of friends on QQ's Instant Messaging client (Photo: Tom McDonald)

A list of a user’s different groups of friends on QQ’s Instant Messaging client (Photo: Tom McDonald)

Listing the social connections of a research participant is a somewhat foundational methodological tool for any anthropologist. In times gone by, the ethnographer was expected to head off into the tropics, preferably dressed entirely in white, to painstakingly assemble kinship diagrams that indicated how members of a particular group were related to each other.

China’s most popular social networking service, QQ, is particularly notable in this respect, because it’s instant messaging client, in the same manner as a somewhat uncouth anthropologist interrogating his participants, forces users to categorise relationships by assigning their online friends to specific groups.

The above photo provides an example of a male office worker in his early 30s living in a small city in China. The names of the groups are as follows. The number of friends assigned to each group are included in brackets

  • My friends 我的好友 (99)
  • Highschool classmates 高中同学 (50)
  • Friends and colleagues 朋友同事 (30)
  • University classmates 大学同学 (45)
  • Wife 老婆 (1)
  • Universal (this is a pun where the user has replaced the one of the characters with a synonym that means ‘auspicious’) 普吉 (10)
  • Enterprise good friends 企业好友 (1)
  • Strangers 陌生人 (82)
  • Blacklist 黑名单 (0)

It should be noted that the ‘My friends’, ‘Strangers’ and  ‘Black list’ are all default categories for the instant messaging client, although users are able to rename them if they wish. Although it is too early to draw any firm conclusions about how the Chinese are categorising relationships at this stage, I would expect that we will see groups of school classmates to be a common theme throughout our participants. This perhaps tells us something about the importance of education in China and the endurance of classmate bonds throughout life.

Also of interest is the number of ‘Strangers’ who have added themselves to this person. I think this will emerge as another important theme as ur research progresses, and it leads me to believe that the friending of strangers might be an important element that distinguishes QQ from western social media platforms.

A final note on the exceptional category ‘Wife’. The fact that this user dedicates an entire list to his spouse may well set him apart as a ‘model husband’ (mofan zhangfu 模范丈夫), but perhaps it could also be indicative of the fact that he doesn’t know where to put his wife amongst all his other friends? I recall an incident from my previous research in China, when one of my informants, upon adding me as a QQ friend, realised that he didn’t have a suitable list to put me in, so after much deliberation, he created a new list, populated solely by me, called ‘Foreigners’.

Maybe I should have stuck with the white outfit after all.