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The myth of ‘un-edited’ photos on QQ albums of Chinese rural migrants

By Xin Yuan Wang, on 20 January 2015

screen shot of one-day trip album of a factory worker

In the analysis of  visual content on people’s social media profiles, I found many of my informants (around 70%) have uploaded a great amount of un-edited photos to their online album. Furthermore, many of them told me that not only they themselves, but also many of their close friends and relatives all fancy uploading all the photos from their mobile phones or cameras to their Qzones. Even those who did not upload all the photos to their Qzone told me that it was a commonplace phenomenon among their QQ friends. ‘Un-edited photos’ is a “myth” which I have acknowledged a long time ago, however have never managed to get a satisfying explanation.

My curiosity about this myth climbed to the peak when one day I found that my informant Dawei just uploaded 248 photos about his one-day trip to a nearby sightseeing mountain area (1 hour drive from where Dawei lives). Dawei visited this place with his family (wife and son) and a family of his ‘lao xiang’ (literally means, old countryside guy, refers to people from the same original rural area) who came to visit his family during the national Day Festival (7 days holiday in early October). I further clicked into his album, there are 20 web pages of photos, and each web page illustrates 12 photos (see the screenshot above).

It seems that from the first moment they met each other to the last moment when they said goodbye, EVERYTHING (not only people but also food, car, trees, bridges, river, stones, etc) was recorded by photos. Plus, there are several photos of everything they encountered. For instance, the 12 photos on page 16 reconstruct the situation at that moment: They came across a stone bridge and people took three photos with similar pose, (blue photos) the orange photos were brook and plant under the bridge, the green one was the view from the bridge. And those six red ones were taken when people came across the bridge and met an artificial tree root with calligraphy on it.

As an ethnographer, who probably is supposed to take as many photos as possible and use photos to recapture some specific moments, I find my informants’ obsession of photography and their of visual data collection on the scene put me to utter shame. But why do people do this? They not only took hundreds of photos, but also uploaded ALL OF THEM online.  I am more than confused.

I asked more than 30 people at my field site about the same question. And listed below are answers I received:

1. “Lan” (Laziness) – it is the first reason given by 90% of my informants without thinking. It seems that people regard selecting photos as a big trouble, and no one is bothered to spend some time on it.

Well, I am lazy, you know, uploading all of them is just easy and convenient” as one put it.

2. “No Memory Limit online” – 60% of my informants added this as a second reason. Given most of my informants’ technology resource, this reason is very true and pragmatic. The digital terminals that most rural migrant people can afford are a Smartphone (cheap ones), and a digital camera in some well-off families.  However both of these two digital terminals have limited memory space. The only place where people can store a great amount of digital material for free is their Qzone. So, let me put it this way: even though none of my informants has ever heard about ‘cloud storage’, their QQ have actually been used as ‘unlimited cloud disk’ for years even before the idea of ‘cloud storage’ was getting popular worldwide.

Once a few weeks, all the photos on my mobile phone have to be deleted since there is memory limit”, as LXD said, he uploaded all the ‘have-to-go’ mobile photos to his QQ online album.

I will upload all of them to my Qzone, so that people on the photos can go and view their photos” ZGY, also used QQ as a collective album which everybody has access to.

3. “They are all memories” – When have been asked “but I am still confused that why did people still keep those somewhat unnecessary photos?” 30% of my informants came back to the first reason ‘laziness’ and showed no intentions to further discuss this somewhat ‘stupid question’, however the rest gave me some more interesting reasons.

Don’t you think those photos, no matter bad or good, were all memories?” WYL, asked me in reply. And she is the not the only one, more than 50% of people hold the opinion that photo is one of best forms of memories and will be valuable in the future.

You may think they are unnecessary now, but all of them will be valuable after 10 years. So keep them.”  CC, an 18-year-old girl, said in a grave and earnest way as if she has already experienced several ten years.

My friend came to visit me all the way from his place of working; it is such a unique ‘yuanfen’ (karma). I would like keep all of them, so that when you look at them many years later, you can still remember the details thanks to the photos which have recorded your trip completely.” Dawei said, he is the one who has uploaded 248 photos about his one-day trip.

It seems that photos of each moment are regarded as the result of certain karma, no matter the photo itself is good or not.  Once I was viewing one of my informants’ online albums with her and her friends, I found people were still so excited about their trip last year, and thanks to the hundreds of photos, people can even recalled what kind of beer they drank, and how many bottles they drank on that day.  A consistent set of hundreds of photo worked like a time machine, creating a special space-time; pulling people back into that flow of time which has been locked in the photos.  Also given the fact that for my informants going outside for tourist purposes (even a one-day trip) is such a luxury thing which only happened once or twice a year, people have all the reasons to cherish each photo which they took during the trip.

4. “That’s more confident and sincere” – XM, a 23 year-old factory worker, told me that she thought “people who select photos are not confident enough, because they tried to only illustrate the best part and hide the bad, however people who have no problem of uploading all of their photos are more confident about themselves since they would like to share even not perfect aspects of themselves with others.” XM’s opinion is quiet unique and interesting, even though no other person has expressed the exactly same opinion, many people agreed that they will take those who share ‘ugly’ photos of themselves as more sincere people.

There are so many fake things in Chinese society, I hate hypocritical person, I am not a hypocritical person, so I will let everybody see the real me, at least online.” Apparently, ZF feels very proud of himself being sincere and he actually take the social media as the place to show a real him.

5. ‘Narcissism’ – YZY told me that “I knew I am not good-looking, but I am still a little bit narcissistic”. The reason of ‘narcissism’ is not novel at all since so many scholars have pointed it out that ‘narcissism’ was one of the main reasons of people’s photo uploading. However, my informants are a group of people who can rarely have people’s attention in their everyday life. For most of the time, they have paid attention to their managers, officers, and urban people etc. Thus social media has become somehow the only place where allows them to be narcissistic.

Of course there is no fixed  answer for the myth of ‘un-editied’ photos. However various reasons given by my informants have definitely showed us how social media album can be used differently among digital-less and low-income population and the meaning of photos can be valued by different group of people differently.

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.

What’s the point of ethnographic fieldwork?

By Tom McDonald, on 28 August 2014

Learning from each other in the North China fieldsite (Photo: Tom McDonald)

Learning from each other in the North China fieldsite (Photo: Tom McDonald)

Being an anthropologist is one of the strangest jobs in the world.

For the last 15 months, I’ve been living in a small rural town in North China, where I have been doing ethnographic fieldwork on the impact of social media in the town. In a few days time I will say a final farewell to my friends here, and head back to London.

This is not the kind of job where you can clock-off and go home at 5pm. There are no weekends. Instead it’s a job that demands that we, as ethnographers, join our lives with the people that we study. This means living, eating, talking, playing, exercising, laughing, showering (yes… showering) and doing everything else together. By getting close to people in the fieldsite I hope that I can understand more than if I had solely relied on questionnaires or interviews (although I’ve done plenty of those too).

But these experiences also require something else: sometimes it’s necessary to give up a little bit of yourself to get closer to people who are different to you. Ethnography demands a kind of flexibility, an ability to accommodate those who differ from ourselves in order to try to understand why these differences exist in the first place. In the past 15 months I have often found myself doing things I would rather not do, eating things I’d rather not eat, and drinking things I’d rather not drink. However being able to set aside some of my own self-imposed limits, limits that make me the person that I am, is something that has definitely helped me to make friends here. Also, doing so has let me to explore other possibilities of being human that I never before knew were possible.

This character of accommodating difference has not been a one-way thing. The people of my fieldsite have been overwhelmingly generous in letting me into their lives, and eager to ask questions about my own life. Furthermore, during this time I’ve often made many social slip-ups that might have upset people, maybe said things I didn’t know people would take offence at, or perhaps asked questions that pry a little too much. Throughout, people have been incredibly understanding and patient with me as I slowly learn more about how they do things here. This spirit of mutual understanding has helped me learn so much about people’s lives and what is important to them here in rural China, and in the coming year I’ll share more of these findings. However for now I just want to concentrate on why we need ethnography.

Despite the many scientific and technological advances of the last century, it is obvious to me that we still live in a world that is largely governed by misunderstanding and fear. When we see people who are different from us, it scares us because their presence raises the possibility that our own way of doing things might not necessarily be the best, or even the correct way.

I firmly believe that if we are to hope to solve so many of the challenges facing today’s world, then our best chance is through mutual conversation, dialogue and learning. And although on one hand it may seem entirely superfluous to send a researcher to live in a rural town in China in order to study social media use, the question we need to ask ourselves should not be whether we can afford to do such ethnographic fieldwork, but rather whether we can afford not to?

This blog post is dedicated, with thanks, to the people of the North China fieldsite.