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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.

My WhatsApp field trip

By Daniel Miller, on 14 February 2013

Trinidadian woman using mobile phone at a carnival (Photo by Daniel Miller)

Trinidadian woman using mobile phone at a carnival (Photo by Daniel Miller)

One of the advantages of working in Trinidad is that somehow it always manages to feel ahead of the game when it comes to the adoption of new communications. It thereby gives us some ideas about where these will go but also how far this is likely to be a universal shift or something more specific to this island. My recent research trip to Trinidad seemed to be defined as the ‘What’s App’ trip. When I left England I had the feeling that WhatsApp was something that was about to happen, people were just hearing about it and wondering if it could be useful or important. Within a week in Trinidad it was obvious that there was a very different situation here. Most young people seemed to have WhatsApp, assumed that most others would have it, and treated it a though it had always been here as an established presence within polymedia. There is every likelihood that this will become an established global phenomenon, but as so often happens, I found myself entranced by the very specific ways it fitted neatly into a quite specific Trinidadian niche. But this is worth highlighting since this tension between comparative generalisation and local specificity will be at the heart of our next five years venture with our eight simultaneous and comparative ethnographies.

The local particularities pertains to the established position of Blackberry. BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) – the platform’s internal messaging system has dominated Trinidadian communications for quite some years. The forthcoming book on Webcam (written with Jolynna Sinanan) includes an analysis of BBM and why it works so well in Trinidad. Amongst the other key points is that with BBM you know a) if the person has read your message b) if they are on their phones, i.e. could have picked up the message and yet for some reason didn’t, or could have replied and didn’t. This means that you can infer something immediately about the nature of your relationship which has not been the case with, for example, with Facebook (until very recently). There are also opportunities for group discussion, and the nature of the quick-fire response suits certain kinds of banter and ‘sexting’.

For most Trinidadians, What App is simply an extension of BBM into non-Blackberry phones. Those with Blackberry assume their first choice of communication is BBM and then if their friend has another smartphone What App and sometimes Facebook messaging is mentioned as a third choice. BBM/Whats App have certain properties of social networking. They allow for constant status updates and various levels of groups or options to message all of one’s BBM contacts. But there is a further dimension. In my writing about Trinidad I discuss a tension between egalitarian transience which seems to fit BBM, and status-conscious transcendence. Trinidadians who can afford it are very interested in the status of iPhones and Samsung Galaxy. So a key attraction of WhatApp is that it resolves this tension. They can have a higher status phone while retaining the sociality represented by BBM and WhatsApp. Whether this is all about the special nature of sociality in Trinidad or a trait that merely reflects the speed of Trinidadian adoption is something that will have to wait until we see what is happening in all the other countries. The difference that this project makes is usually one just ends with that sort of question. In our case we will get an answer.