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What ordinary Chinese people post on social media after the Tianjin Blast

By Xin Yuan Wang, on 24 August 2015

For two days, my WeChat news feeds has been awash with all kinds of articles and images about the Tianjin blast. But after merely two days, the routine on social media came back, food photos, holiday photos, kids photos, articles teaching you how to deal with the relationship between you and your mother-in-law all came back. People seemed to forget about the disaster already.

A week after the appalling blast in Tianjin, China on 12th August, Zhou, a free-lance journalist and photographer, who I got to know when I was doing field work in Southeast China last year, told me her feelings concerning Chinese social media reaction to this event. She could not hide her disappointment.

Zhou’s remark accords with my own observations of my informants’ posts on both QQ and WeChat, the two Chinese dominant social media platforms. And like Zhou, I heard the news for first time from my personal WeChat. Social media has become the main (if not the first) channel for access to various kinds of information. But unlike traditional channels, social media presents these different kinds of information from news to a whole range of personal conversation together without curation. This clearly contributes to Zhou’s feelings about information fragmentation on social media where significant news becomes diluted by the huge amount of the ‘daily life’ content on social media.

But what exactly ordinary Chinese people post on their personal social media profiles vis-a-vis the blast? After the completion of  15 months fieldwork, I continued to follow two groups on social media on a daily basis. One comprise the rural migrants in a factory town where I did most of my field work (50 persons), and the other one a control group with whom I conducted in-depth interviews in Shanghai (30 persons). The table below shows how remarkably different the Tianjin blast related social media performance are of these two groups of people (All the people in Shanghai use WeChat, and the majority of rural migrants remain with QQ). Taking the four days following the blast (from 13 August to 17th August), on all 80 social media profiles, 44% of postings (42 postings out of 95) were related to the blast, of which almost 53% were posted the day after the blast. In general, there are five themes: News about the blast (36%), Prayers for Tianjin (26%), Hero stories (20%), in-depth analysis (9%), and patriotism postings (9%).

chart_blast

 

The News postings were straightforward, usually news reports with photos and very simply comments by people who shared it, such as “It’s shocking!”, “How terrible!” or “I am so sorry for Tianjin”. 60% of those news-based stories shared on social media came from people in Shanghai.

The ‘Prayers for Tianjin’ postings are those memes with text like ‘pray for Tianjin’  (see screenshots below). Some postings shared on people’s profiles went even moralized by claiming “Tonight we are all from Tianjin and suffer the same suffering, if you are Chinese please share this!”, a bit like “We are Charlie”. The majority (64%) of those memes come from rural migrants.

屏幕快照 2015-08-18 下午8.08.49

The ‘hero stories’ are also widely shared on people’s social media profiles where both people from Shanghai (50%) and rural migrants (50%) seems to show similar interests in stories like how firemen sacrificed their own lives, running into the fire when everybody was fleeting away; or how sniffer dogs worked day and night in order to save human beings.

屏幕快照 2015-08-19 上午11.09.00

In-depth analysis refers to editorials focusing on the cause of the accident. Articles of this kind were only shared only by people from Shanghai, who had education at master-level and above. In one of the articles the government and disaster relief system is strongly challenged. There is explicit criticism of the way that after a disaster people only share ‘pray for ***’ memes on social media, rather than really asking for the truth behind the disaster.

In contrast to the situation of ‘in-depth analysis’, rural migrants contributed all the ‘patriotism’ postings.  One typical ‘patriotism’ (see screenshots below) started with a list of Chinese celebrities and companies who had donated money for the disaster relief, followed by the list of foreign celebrities and companies (such as south Korean stars, Samsung and Apple) who didn’t donate any money for this Tianjin blast. In the end of the article, it was urged that Chinese people should love the state since only the Chinese army can protect them and people who are big fans of foreign stars and foreign products should feel ashamed of themselves. Though I happen to know that one such person, a factory worker, had just spent on whole month salary on a iPhone prior to a blind date with a girl arranged by one of his fellow villages,

屏幕快照 2015-08-19 上午11.49.45

A close inspection of this pattern of posting on social media is revealing then not just about reactions to a disaster, but also key issues in contemporary China, such as the differences created by education and the appeal of nationalist ideology.

It’s not just about Chinese migrant workers

By Xin Yuan Wang, on 22 June 2015

Chinese female migrant workers working in a local reflective vest workshop. Photo by Xinyuan Wang

Chinese female migrant workers working in a local reflective vest workshop. Photo by Xinyuan Wang

A question always strikes me as I write up ethnography and prepare for talks based on my 15 months of fieldwork among Chinese factory workers in southeastern China: what will people learn from Chinese migrant workers’ use of social media? Of course these stories may sound ‘exotic’, but I will see it as a total failure if they are nothing more than novel and exotic in peoples’ eyes.

Ethnography in a way is a storytelling of others’ lives. This technique is also widely used in novel writing, film making, and all forms of the narrative of ‘otherness’. Recently a film came out called Still Alice, a touching film telling the story of an extremely intelligent female linguistic, Alice, in her 50s who suffers from Alzheimer’s. In the film Alice is not only gradually losing all of the professional knowledge she acquired after many years of education and research, but also all the memories of her life, of being a mother, a wife, a woman, even a human being.  My colleagues and friends who watched the film shared the same thought, how lucky we are to still have those memories which, from time to time, we take for granted. And some of them, including myself, even became a bit panicked when we would forget something all of the sudden – OMG, is that an early sign of Alzheimer’s?! Whether being grateful, thoughtful, or even panicked, all of these reactions come from the fact that we are placing ourselves in the story and imagining ourselves living her life. Empathy is the word we use to describe these experiences that bridge other’s stories and our own.

And ‘empathy’ is key for the ethnographer. I still recall the days when I felt desperate about the state of my filedwork, that I had nothing to do but watch ‘stupid’ videos on people’s smartphones with the factory workers or just stare at people’s repetitive movements on the assembly line for hours. All the boredom drove me bananas and I howled to Danny that I couldn’t bear such a dreadful life anymore. What Danny said not only calmed me down but also woke me up: “Don’t forget, if you have enough, you can easily walk out in the near future, but for them, it’s their whole life.

The most unforgettable thing I learned from my fieldwork was not the material I took away for my research, but the personal experience of being able to live those migrant workers’ lives. Through this experience I developed an empathetic respect for other people’s lives and motivations which, in turn, has allowed me to reflect upon, and be grateful for, my own life. However, not everybody has the ‘luxury’ to experience others’ lives like ethnographers do. This further highlights the importance of our research, that we have the opportunity to bring an empathetic understanding of ‘others’ to the public when they read or listen to our research.

People constantly gain knowledge of themselves through understanding others: how we are different from the others, how we are similar to the others, why we are different or similar, these inquiries help us to depict the outline of the ‘self’. This is the main reason for the importance of learning other’s stories, because they allow us to gain perspective on our own lives, to think and feel differently. A good novel or a good film achieves this, so why not ethnography? One could argue that ethnography can do this even better, given its holistic knowledge of the given population and society.

The empathy and thought evoked from an anthropological study of ‘others’ can be very powerful, one of the most famous cases comes from Margaret Mead’s fieldwork in Samoa. Mead’s book Coming of Age in Samoa has sparked years of ongoing and intense debate on various issues such as society, community, social norms, and gender. For example, Mead described how gender is constructed by the local community, in this case one totally different from American society, and argued that masculine and feminine characteristics are based mostly on cultural conditioning. This argument actually influenced the 1960s ‘sexual revolution’ when people in the West started to rethink gender.That’s the real strength of ethnography.

This bares a question for all anthropologists, in what way is your research relevant to an audience who may not necessarily be interested in the specific group or society that is the focus of your research? The knowledge drawn from fieldwork should not be parochial. As we can see in Mead’s case, ethnography about a group of people which seems to bear very limited relevance to people in the West is capable of inspiring people by evoking reflection of the ‘self’, culture, and society.

In some of my talks, as well as at the end of the ethnography I am writing, I always try to remind people that it is not just about Chinese rural migrants. Yes, they are the human faces behind ‘Made in China’, they are said to be part of the biggest migration in human history. However, it is more than that. For example, understanding the ways migrant workers experience social media as the place where real daily life takes place in the context of their appalling offline situation pushes us to think about the complex relationship between online and offline, which is one of the core issues about social media use worldwide. The fantasy images on the social media profiles of Chinese rural migrants may look totally bizarre to you, but the logic of applying imagination to guide, explain, fulfill or strike a balance in daily life is as old as human history – dreams, sexual fantasy, folktale, religion…you name it. So a study of how people play out their fantasies about life with the help of social media and how such experiences impacts people’s lives may not just be relevant in that given population and society. It is not just about Chinese rural migrants, it’s about understanding them as well as gaining understanding of ourselves.

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.