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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.

Chinese ‘WeChat’ social media app will make the world look around and shake!

By Tom McDonald, on 22 April 2013

A WeChat user gets ready to Shake (Photo: Tom McDonald)

A WeChat user gets ready to Shake (Photo: Tom McDonald)

Two years is a long time in the world of social media. This point has been reinforced to me multiple times in the last few weeks since my return to China. When I was in the country carrying out research for my PhD in 2011, no-one in my fieldsite was talking about WeChat (威信 weixin). Now it seems to be the primary social media app for many.

WeChat is a free smartphone app made by Tencent, the enormous Chinese company that also created QQ. However users do not have to have a QQ account to use it, it is also possible to sign up with a mobile phone number or email address. It is undoubtable that part of WeChat’s popularity has been made possible by the increasing availability of low cost smartphones. The other reason for it’s popularity is the free messaging and sharing of photos that is more akin to Facebook’s smartphone offerings, and is attractive to users because it allows them to circumvent the Chinese telecom company’s expensive text messaging rates.

However our research project aims to go beyond the normal economic or utilitarian explanations about why one platform replaces another that you might read on other technology blogs. Instead we want to use social media to glimpse something about what such changes can tell us about how human beings make social relations. Two features of WeChat are especially relevant in this case.

The first feature is called Look Around (附近的人 fujin de ren), and is actually quite similar in functionality to FourSquare or Grindr in that it potentially connects strangers who are close to each other. It uses a smartphone’s location-based services (GPS) to list all the people nearby also using the app.

Another notable function is Shake (摇一摇 yaoyiyao). Here the user shakes their mobile phone, and the built in motion-sensor in the device detects this movement, immediately displaying a list of users on the network who have shaken their phone at the same moment, regardless of the their location.

These features are notable in that many recent writings on Chinese social relationships emphasise the importance of guanxi, a network of relations that one builds and maintains throughout one’s life. Such accounts frequently emphasise personal connections, and as such being an ‘outsider’ in any society in China without any connections can make it particularly difficult to accomplish even the smallest task.

By contrast, both Look Around and Shake emphasise making friends with complete strangers. This model of social networking seems to also chime with Stafford’s (2000) description of a Chinese view of social relationships as something that is constantly in flux. The degree of uptake of these two features on the app, and by who in our fieldsites, remains to be seen.

The final thing of note with regard to WeChat is that, with this app, Tencent has set it’s sights on a more worldwide audience than ever before, with versions in multiple languages. It will be fascinating to see over the course of our research project whether WeChat will make the rest of the world look around and shake, and if it does, what this will mean for social relations.