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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.

Visualising Facebook by Daniel Miller and Jolynna Sinanan

By Daniel Miller, on 7 March 2017

Screenshot 2017-03-07 15.43.28

Today marks the publication of a new book called Visualising Facebook, which I have written with Dr Jolynna Sinanan. It is available as a free download from UCL Press and also for purchase in physical form. One of the key arguments from the larger Why We Post project, of which this book is one out of eleven volumes, is that human communication has fundamentally changed. Where previously it consisted almost entirely of either oral or textual forms, today, thanks to social media, it is equally visual. Think literally of Snapchat. So, it is a pity that when you look at the journals and most of the books about social media, they often contain either no, or precious few, actual visual illustrations from social media itself. One of the joys of digital publication is that it is possible to reproduce hundreds of images. So, our book is stuffed to the gills with photographs and memes taken directly from Facebook, which is, after all, our evidence.

For example, as academics, we might suggest that the way women respond to becoming new mothers in Trinidad, is entirely different from what you would find in England. In the book, we can reproduce examples from hundreds of cases, where it is apparent that when an English woman becomes a mother she, in effect, replaces herself on Facebook with images of her new infant. Indeed, these often become her own profile picture for quite some time. By contrast, one can see postings by new mothers in Trinidad, where they are clearly trying to show that they still look young and sexy or glamorous, precisely because they do not want people to feel that these attributes have been lost, merely because they are now new mothers.

In writing this book we examined over 20,000 images. These provide the evidence for many generalisations, such as that Trinidadians seem to care a good deal about what they are wearing when they post images of themselves on Facebook. While, by and large, English people do not. But this becomes much clearer when you can see the actual images themselves. Or we might suggest that English people are given to self-deprecating humour, while Trinidadians are not. Or that in England gender may create a highly repetitive association between males and generic beer, as against women with generic wine. In every case, you can now see exactly what we mean. We also have a long discussion about the importance of memes and why we call them `the moral police of the Internet’. How memes help to establish what people regard as good and bad values. This makes much more sense when you are examining typical memes with that question in your head.

To conclude, given the sheer proportion of social media posting that now consists of visual images, it would seem a real pity to look this gift horse in the mouth. Firstly, it has now become really quite simple to look at tens of thousands of such images in order to come to scholarly conclusions. But equally, it is now much easier to also include hundreds of such images in your publications to help readers have a much better sense of what exactly those conclusions mean and whether they agree with them.

 

This post was originally published on the #NSMNSS blog here.

“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.

Public anthropology: urgent yet undervalued

By Laura Haapio-Kirk, on 17 November 2016

An education in anthropology encourages us to ask deep questions and look beneath the surface.

An education in anthropology encourages us to look beyond cultural assumptions.

In the days following the results of the US presidential election, there has allegedly been a wave of racist attacks and hate crime across the States against Muslims, hispanic Americans, black people, ethnic minorities, and the LGBT community. At the root of such behaviour is deep cultural ignorance and education is one of the most powerful weapons we have against intolerance and fear of the ‘other’. The humanistic sensibilities that an education in anthropology fosters can be paradigm-changing. It seems apparent that a commitment to an engaged public anthropology has never mattered more, or been more feasible in this digitally connected age. Many anthropologists, including the Why We Post team, feel the moral and political imperative to bring anthropology to a wider audience than was previously possible with traditional modes of research dissemination. But as anthropologists situated within today’s hyper-competitive academic job market, how can we navigate the often tenuous balance between public and academic output?

How can we manage to produce high-quality public content at the same time as managing the responsibilities that come with being professional anthropologists working within the demands of the academic job market? This was a question put to me by Alisse Waterston, the president of the American Anthropological Association, after a talk I gave at the IUAES in Dubrovnik back in May. The theme of IUAES this year was ‘world anthropologies and privatisation of knowledge: engaging anthropology in public’, yet my panel was the only one with the explicit theme of how to bring anthropology to the public. The panel convenors, Jenny Ingridsdotter and Kim Kallenberg from Södertörn University in Sweden, explained the difficult balancing act inherent in their academic lives: “In order to pursue an academic career we are encouraged to write peer reviewed articles and engage with research communities. Yet little time is left to engage socially and interactively with local communities or communicate important results to public spheres. As young scholars it might be even more complicated to legitimise designation of time to public output. Still we feel it is really important and at the core at what we do as ethnographers.”

The Why We Post course on FutureLearn runs three times per year.

The Why We Post course on FutureLearn runs three times per year.

I believe that there are several factors that enabled our team to successfully produce large amounts of public output at the same time as writing up their research, publishing, and applying for jobs (all of the 5 post docs have now secured academic employment). Firstly I think it’s important that public engagement shouldn’t be an afterthought to research, but like with Why We Post, should begin from a project’s inception if it is to be successful. Partly this is because the writing skills necessary for communicating to a general public take time to hone, and also because it’s important for researchers to understand early on in their work the kind of field material (video, photographic, textual) they need to record in order to produce engaging content that will appeal to non-anthropologists.

Given our topic of research is the uses and consequences of social media, our project was conceived as having a broad appeal from the outset; with selfies and memes we might be able to bring people to anthropology who otherwise might overlook it. Project leader Daniel Miller envisaged a spectrum of dissemination/engagement methods including open access books, an e-course, and a public-facing website, all of which was made possible by a generous ERC advanced grant which funded the project and has covered my salary as a public engagement fellow and research assistant. I was hired at the three-and-a-half-year mark when the team were in the process of writing up. Working with these talented researchers to produce our public content I saw how it was often difficult for them to juggle the academic and public output, even with the support of a team. The more conversations I had with them, the clearer it became: public engagement in anthropology is currently institutionally undervalued and needs greater recognition within the established modes of evaluation that researchers are subject to. I think that projects with more limited resources than ours would struggle to produce the same range of public output, despite the best intentions of individual researchers to reach beyond the ivory tower.

Can we draw people to anthropology through analysis of popular culture such as the selfie?

Can we draw people to anthropology through analysis of popular culture such as the selfie?

In addition to writing 11 open access books (aimed at both academics and lay readers, with jargon-free text and references kept to footnotes), the Why We Post team agree that producing visual and textual material for the online course was the most time-intensive of our initiatives, taking longer than expected. One of our researchers, Shriram Venkatraman believes that this was mainly down our high production values coupled with our lack of experience in creating such material – and a lack of existing models to follow. We were the first UCL course on FutureLearn and the first comparative anthropological online course of this scale. The sheer amount of material coming from our project also posed a challenge – how do you condense insights from a total of 135 months of ethnographic fieldwork across nine fieldsites into a concise course aimed at a general audience? The answer: a combination of Googledocs, tracked edits, miles of emails, and a lot of good will and humour. Support also came from UCL’s Digital Education team whose expertise in online learning was pivotal in developing a successful course.

Despite the time-intensive nature of scripting and filming course content, Jolynna Sinanan commented that the skills she gained were invaluable: “The time pressure was immense but the skills we learned in filming, writing, developing and translating content for the course were very valuable, especially when gaining public exposure for our research is becoming more important. We are also competing within an academic climate that values producing a high level of quality as well as quantity, so we need to display virtuosity as well as accessibility with our research outputs, from being able to write journal articles to making short films for YouTube.” The skills developed in public engagement can also benefit traditional academic output, as Xinyuan Wang explained: “producing the course actually helped my academic writing as in the course I needed to describe and discuss things in a straightforward and engaging way (which is actually more difficult in many ways than composing an academic paper). After working on the course, my own arguments actually became clearer and better constructed, which is definitely very helpful in my future writing and actually saved time rather than wasted time in the long-run.”

While the process of transforming research findings into public education was both challenging and rewarding, once the team’s contracts were nearing completion and they launched into job searches they faced a new challenge: the academic job market currently does not value online learning in the same way as offline learning. Dr Nell Haynes, our team member who conducted her fieldwork in Northern Chile explained: “The online course is not at all considered to be equal to teaching in-person courses, despite the fact that it actually took much much more time, revision, and creative thinking than preparation for a traditional lecture course. And while there has for some time been a strong movement by anthropologists to have administrations grant more weight (in tenure review and other institutionalised forms of evaluation) to public work, it certainly seems that search committees are often reproducing these very biases. Based on conversations with other job applicants this does seem to be a systemic trend.”

Our course is available in the 7 languages of our fieldsites on UCLeXtend.

Our course is available in the 7 languages of our fieldsites on UCLeXtend.

If we as a discipline do not value public anthropology highly enough, is it any surprise that the public generally have little time for anthropology? How can it be that a discipline which claims to be global and encompassing in outlook is so limited in its output, often failing to give back to the very communities that it draws knowledge from? We decided to make our e-course and website (including 130 films) available in the seven languages of our fieldsites, and we are in the process of arranging translations of our open access books. The hope is that as public awareness of anthropology grows through such efforts, that there will be more demand for the discipline. As Shriram Venkatraman commented: “our effort is just the start of something big. When there is more recognition from within the field for public outreach and the social impact we can create, this will hopefully encourage many more such efforts which will increase the standing of Anthropology in the eyes of the general public.”

It is heartening to see other efforts towards quality and sustained public anthropology, such as the founding of the Public Anthropology Institute (PAI) at Wesleyan University, and we hope that such initiatives garner wide praise among anthropologists. We have a duty to promote the kind of cultural sensitivity that anthropologists take for granted to as broad an audience as possible, so that people who see cultural difference as a potential source of anxiety, might come to appreciate, and even delight in, the multitude of ways there are to be human.

 


Thanks to the Why We Post team for sharing their experiences of the public engagement balancing act. Also thanks to our lively panel at IUAES (Berna Yazici, Laura Korčulanin, Miha Poredoš, Aivita Putnina, Branko Banović, Margarita Barrera, Helleka Koppel, and Pascale Hancart Petitet) who continued conversations with me beyond the conference, and who are involved in projects ranging from public art installations of golden excrement in the ‘Give a Sh*t’ project, to an anthropological radio show in Laos.

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

Why We Post is “the biggest, most ambitious project of its sort”, says The Economist

By Laura Haapio-Kirk, on 14 March 2016

How the world changed social media

Since our launch on the 29th February, the first three open access books in the Why We Post series have been downloaded over 6,000 times! 6,000 downloads in just two weeks makes for a very happy team. The entire series of 11 volumes will continue to be released by UCL Press over the coming year, so keep your eyes peeled.

News has spread far and wide of our project and its ambitious public dissemination strategy comprising not only of our books, but a free e-course and a website with films and stories from our nine fieldsites. In the past two weeks we’ve enjoyed global media coverage and have been thrilled with the response from learners on our course who come from all over the world.

Press round-up (29/02/2016 – 14/03/2016):

 

The medium is the messengers

 

English:

The Economist (05/03/2016  print and online): The Medium is the Messengers: A global study reveals how people fit social media into their lives

“These fly-on-the-wall perspectives refute much received wisdom… ‘Why We Post’ thus challenges the idea that the adoption of social media follows a single and predictable trajectory.”

The Economist – (02/03/2016  online): Babbage Podcast: From headers to footies (from 06:33)

“(Why We Post is) the biggest, most ambitious project of its sort.”

BBC World Service – (29/02/2016 radio): World Business Report (from 4:13)

BBC Click (02/03/2016 radio): What is the Point of Posting on Social Media 

“… a global snapshot of our relationship with the social media… This is a nuanced picture of a world coming to terms with a rapidly evolving way of connecting, or even disconnecting, with something unexpected pretty much everywhere the researchers looked.”

“What’s really heartening about this study and the research is you see people taking the technology seriously, looking at the things it makes possible, the things that it interferes with, the new forms of social exchange that become feasible when you have smart phones and internet and social networks, actually looking at how it affects us as people. It’s really vital that this work continues… It’s a sense of a discipline emerging, or rather that the discipline of anthropology is properly embracing social media as an important part of human society… What they’re doing is identifying core principles, like the fact that social media can help create privacy. It’s a really important insight and that’s not going to change, even if it’s no longer Facebook, it’s something new.” – Bill Thompson, BBC Technology writer

CBBC Newsround (29/03/2016 TV): Two mentions of ‘footies’ on the morning and afternoon programmes.

BBC World Service – (29/02/2016 radio): World Update (from 8:51)

BBC Radio 4  (29/02/2016 radio): Today Programme (from 2:54:32)

Spanish:

BBC Mundo (05/03/2016 online): De “Footies” en Chile a “uglies” en Inglaterra, cómo el mundo cambió las redes

BBC Mundo (09/03/2016 online): La artista argentina de Instagram que engañó a miles de personas

Portuguese:

O Globo (07/03/2016 online and print): Pesquisa mostra diversidade do uso das redes sociais pelo mundo

 

Learners on our course come from all over the world.

Learners on our course come from all over the world.

 

And here are selected comments from learners on our course:

“Thank you for this course. Although I am a journalist and social media user I now have an understanding of the cross-cultural realities of social media… how it is used differently across different cultures.”

“Fantastic course. This has been a great introduction and it seems like it’s almost limitless as to where one could further go from here in these studies.”

“Really enjoyed the course. I found it extremely interesting with edifying discussions! I hope social media evolves into something truly radical rather than merely, ‘a look at me peep show for the digitally besotted’ (John Pilger)”.

The course has just entered its third week, and it’s not too late to sign up! Join the course in English on FutureLearn and in Portuguese, Tamil, Hindi, Spanish, Chinese, Turkish, and Italian on UCLeXtend.

A close-up look at Chinese social media platforms

By Tom McDonald, on 11 February 2016

Tom McDonald and Xinyuan Wang introduce China's social media platforms

Tom McDonald and Xinyuan Wang introduce China’s social media platforms

Chinese social media is remarkable because despite extensive media coverage and academic research, these platforms remain something of an enigma to many non-Chinese people.

While internet censorship within China prevents Chinese users from accessing non-Chinese social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, by contrast the extensive use of Chinese language on Chinese social media is perhaps the main barrier stopping many non-Chinese people seeing what goes on in these spaces.

We think that any informed discussion of the impacts of Chinese social media needs to start with helping people learn about what these platforms are really like. So we made a film introducing the key social media platforms in China, which will appear on our new free online course on the anthropology of social media, launching on 29 February 2016.

In the video, Xinyuan Wang and I introduce the wide variety of social media platforms in China, including QQ, QZone, WeChat, and Sina Weibo. Our description give an idea of the varied functionality of the different platforms: allowing users to instant message their fiends as well as post their thoughts and feelings.

The video also shows some unusual aspects of the same platforms that make Chinese social media especially distinctive: the ability to decorate one’s profile page with fantastic themes, add friends by shaking one’s phone, and also celebrity culture on Weibo.

We also talk about which of these platforms are popular in each of our industrial and rural field sites in China (where we each lived for 15 months conducting research) and we explain some of the reasons that account for this.

We will be exploring these reasons in even greater depth in the free online course and our new free book How The World Changed Social Media, both of which will be released on 29 February, and which you can register to receive reminders for today!

They flirt, they share porn and they gossip

By Juliano Andrade Spyer, on 5 February 2016

Image courtesy:  thegillinator.

Image courtesy:
thegillinator.

The last four months of 2015 were tough. I was locking myself in a claustrophobic student carrel every day, spending 9 hours staring at a computer screen but not being able to finish the final draft of my book. I began having trouble sleeping and pictured a clock ticking everywhere I went. But the source of this anxiety – as I realized later – was a prolonged and unconscious struggle to say something about my research while the evidence was pointing the other way. I wanted very badly to conclude on my book saying that this poor settlement in Brazil had a lot of problems, but that because of social media things are changing for the better. But they aren’t.

This realization came after a long conversation with a friend that kindly took the time to read a previous draft of my book. The last chapter is about the effects of social media on relationships between people that are not relatives or friends. I did not notice this before, but I ordered the cases in a way to construct an argument that social media was empowering locals to protest against injustices. But this friend summarized her impression of that chapter saying that despite all this fuss about social mobility in Brazil, people are still living as second rate citizens. If a relative is murdered, not just they have to accept that the police will not investigate: they also have to keep quiet or risk being subjected to more violence.

The internet and particularly social media is everywhere in this settlement. Teenagers and young people are crazy about it but adults and older folks also share the excitement. There is the enchantment with the new possibilities of being in touch with people and also the pride related to having a computer and to be able to use it. It shows that they are not as “ignorant” [illiterate] as others might have thought and the PC looks good in the living-room next to the flat screen TV. But how much of this represents real change and how much is – as my friend’s commentary indicates –just an appearance of change?

In short, I wanted to sympathise with “the oppressed” and also show the internet is empowering. And in order to claim that, I denied the basic evidence of what they do with social media. It is not about learning, though that happens. (For instance, they are much more interested in reading and writing in order to better use things like Facebook and WhatsApp.) However, their reason for wanting to be on social media is mostly to flirt, to share some (very) gruesome videos and to spy on one another and gossip about it.

Evangelic Christianity is much more clearly responsible for “positive” change there than the internet or social media: the protestant ideology promotes literacy and education, helps people get and keep their jobs, reduces the incidences of alcoholism and family violence. Social media, on the other hand, is usually not for opening and expanding the access to information and to new relationships, but to restore and strengthen local networks. Facebook and WhatsApp are in some cases a possibility for young people to harness the desire to study and move beyond their subordinate position in society, but it is also intensely used for social control – i.e. for spying and spreading rumours attacking people who want to challenge conformity.

The picture I have now is not as neat and “positive”. But perhaps the best contribution an anthropological research has to offer is just that: to challenge generalizations and expose how contradictory human relations can be.

What is the difference between a generalisation and a stereotype?

By Daniel Miller, on 5 January 2016

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All anthropologists would agree that stereotypes cause harm and should be avoided. Yet anthropology mainly consists of generalisations about groups of people: the Nuer do this, the Trobriand Islanders do that, women do something more than men, Norwegians less than the French etc. But today any generalisation may be accused of perpetuating stereotypes. Saying that women do more washing up perpetuates the stereotype that women are associated with domestic labour. Saying that Irish people like Guinness or tell good jokes is said to perpetuate stereotypes.

We may not agree on the meaning of ‘truth’, but anthropology must have integrity, and report all observable generalisations irrespective of how the consequences are regarded. If we try to censor these in order to fit our own politics and values, we would rightly lose any credibility for our scholarship.

For this to be acceptable depends on two key differences between a generalisation and a stereotype. The first is called ‘essentialism’. A stereotype implies that the observation is based on an essential quality of that population, for example that women are ‘naturally’ more suited to washing up, the ‘Irish genes’ makes them funny. By contrast, we as anthropologists are responsible for investigating the historical and cultural reasons for the observed association. If Jews were associated with moneylending, it was not the result of Jewish ‘genes’ but historical prohibitions on Jewish landowning and Christians earning interest. Secondly, a generalisation must never become an assumption about any particular individual. A qualitative observation, as also a statistic, bears on some, but not all, of a population. It may be entirely untrue of that person and so should not be assumed of them.

The Why We Post project is comparative at its core, involving nine anthropologists looking at the same topics simultaneously around the world. In our forthcoming book, ‘How the World Changed Social Media’, we compare individual fieldsites which, for brevity, we refer to by their respective country names. When we say we are comparing our Turkish fieldsite with the Italian one we actually mean a site in southeast Turkey, mainly inhabited by Kurds and Arabs from many different backgrounds, is being compared with a site in the very south of Italy that has little in common with a place such as Milan. This comparative approach allowed us to appreciate the nuances of each fieldsite more fully, both while conducting fieldwork and during analysis.

We often describe things as typical or normative, but we always know that a) even the next town will be different, let alone a separate country b) each fieldsite contains internal differences by gender, income etc., c) even if we then specify a female, middle-class, well-educated English category, a particular individual within that category may show none of the associated traits.

But having established those caveats, we should not flinch from documenting the observable and comparative generalisations that we encounter, and thereby reject the argument that we should not be generalising in case it perpetuates a stereotype. Otherwise we will be unable to contribute to acknowledging, understanding and explaining cultural difference, which is our primary contribution as anthropologists.