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Harassment and social media

By Elisabetta Costa, on 6 August 2014

Photo by Elisabetta Costa

Photo by Elisabetta Costa

 

As soon as I arrived in my field site, I was told by my first informants that Facebook is often used to prove to other people that their life is happy, full of happy relationships and lived accordingly with moral codes, especially when these codes are not followed in ‘real’ life. I genuinely understood what meant last month when one of my closest friends, a 27 year old Kurdish woman who came to work in Mardin from a nearby city, told me this story: her landlord and friend started to flirt with her although he had already a wife and three children, and one secret lover with whom he was regularly seeing on the weekend when his wife was busy looking after the kids. The love of two women was not enough for him, and the man started to invite my friend late in the night, by sending her messages via SMS and WhatsApp. After three days of harassing invitations and receiving negative but polite answers from the girl, she blocked his phone number. Then the man started to call her from anonymous phone numbers; the girl stopped the second number too and the man stopped harassing her. After a couple of weeks, the man called my friend and ordered her to leave the house without giving her any explanation. In one week, she had to find a new flat and to move all her furniture and belongings into a new place. She was basically evicted from her house because she didn’t agree to have an affair with the landlord.

During those weeks I followed Facebook postings of the landlord who is my friend on Facebook, and I have been surprised to see the way he had completely changed his behaviour online. For the whole year, he posted pictures of holiday trips with friends, food and politics; and suddenly he started to post pictures of him with his wife and wrote romantic and sweet words about his love for her. For the whole month, he was only sharing pictures and poetry portraying his happy family life and his happy marriage.

Men who cheat on their wives and harass girls are defined as şerefsiz (men without honour) by people in my field-site; and being without honour is one of the most common and worst derogatory definitions given to men. As people here take Facebook quite seriously, this social media platform is used as an important tool to prevent others from negatively gossiping about them and to improve their respectability. The days after the girl didn’t agree to have an affair with him, the man’s main concern was to protect his reputation, to avoid the spreading of rumors about him, and to protect the relationship with his wife. And Facebook was the most appropriate tool to do it.

The prejudice of shallowness

By Razvan Nicolescu, on 4 April 2014

Photo by Stefanie Maria (Creative Commons)

Photo by Stefanie Maria (Creative Commons)

Isabella has 28 years old and is engaged (fidanzata) for eight years with a man from a nearby town. In this part of Italy these long engagements are quite common. Actually, Isabella has the most recent engagement in her close circle of friends, who are all engaged for 10 or 12 years. The marriage is thought of as something that should be built on solid grounds, typically a stable workplace and a house. Customarily, the man first builds a house, furnishes it at least partially and then the couple organize the wedding ceremony. In the context of difficult economic circumstances and high social uncertainty these conditions for even thinking of a marriage are quite difficult to be attained.

Isabella is happy that she works full-time as a shop assistant and has time to also study for her undergraduate degree. She is proud she will most probably graduate this year. She started to study Letters at the University of Salento eight years ago. All along this time, her fidanzato supported her determination to complete her studies even against the will of her family. However, during this time the couple was not able to save money for the marriage. He always worked on a temporary basis as a builder and her current job as shop assistant is the first stable job any of them ever had. They estimate that the wedding ceremony alone would cost them at least 10,000 EURO. They come from modest families who could not raise even a small part of this sum. The plan is that Isabella should graduate first and then they could start saving money for the wedding. This means the two could get married in at least two or three years.

Until then, and as most of the fidanzati in the town, the two live separately each with their own families. They also work in the same towns where they live. As the two towns are situated about ten miles away one from the other, they currently do not manage to see each other too often during work days – which here are Monday to Saturday. The two compensate this by spendings the weekends together, living alternatively at one of their parents’ house This arrangement also allows them spending more time with their friends.

Isabella’s closest friends are six female ex-colleagues from her secondary school in Grano who happen to be all engaged with six men from the town of her fidanzato. He is actually a cousin of her best colleague from her secondary school class. She remembers that this was her favourite group of friends since she was a teenager. She always enjoyed the fact that they had the same tastes and very similar passions on a gendered basis. I will not detail this here, but is important to mention that the group itself and this shared intimacy within its strict confines is what makes Isabella feel safe and comfortable.

Whatsapp is important in keeping this sense of intimacy. The group of friends use three main Whatsapp groups: ‘the group of girls,’ ‘the group of boys’ and the group for all of them which is also the least used. Girls use their group most intensively by far: they may start the day with a simple buona giornata (‘good morning’), a question, or a video clip. At least two hours until work starts, roughly at 10:00, there is an energetic exchange of messages and updates inside this group. The boys use their group rather irregularly, with typical peaks such as the ones around the dates when Juventus Torino is playing. What is important for this discussion is that Isabella senses that her fidanzamento depends on the unity of the group of her female friends and this unity currently knows a substantive support because of Whatsapp. Isabella sees that many women of her age become less attached to their peers when they start to work or move closer to their marriage, and therefore, she is extremely happy that Whatsapp allows her reinforce what she senses she needs most.

At the same time, these people who could have a noisy aperitivo in large groups of twelve-fifteen people in late summer evenings could easily be accused of a certain shallowness. A typical criticism is that they ‘stay too much on’ their Smartphones when they are supposed to be together. This blog post goes against these prejudices and social condemnations by suggesting a few reasons why these could simply not be true. Beautiful well-dressed women and jovial men could cheerfully manipulate their Smartphones not because they are more distant one from another but because actually they want to be much closer.

Is QQ uniting the many different Chinas?

By Tom McDonald, on 19 November 2013

A meme shared by a research participant with the following caption: "I already have you in my heart. Even if there was someone better, I wouldn’t want them." (Original author unknown)

A meme shared by a research participant with the following caption: “I already have you in my heart. Even if there was someone better, I wouldn’t want them.” (Original author unknown)

China, it is often said, is a country of great contrasts. While our project has placed researchers in eight different countries around the world to research the impacts of social media, for China we deliberately chose to have two separate researchers and fieldsites: one in the north of China, and another in the south. It made sense to have two fieldsites in China because the country is such a unique case: Facebook and Twitter are inaccessible from the mainland, and the country has instead developed it’s own social media networks to fill the gap: QQ, WeChat and Weibo.

I have been astounded by the difference between our two Chinese fieldsites. My China North fieldsite is a very small rural town which is characterised by a relatively fixed local population with little inward migration, a strong emphasis on education, adherence to family planning laws, powerful ideals of family and the institution of marriage.

By contrast, the China South fieldsite where my colleague Xinyuan works is a relatively large urban town, with factories that employ rural migrants from faraway in China’s poorer western provinces. Xinyuan has shown how her participants often avoid family planning laws and show far less concern for the formal education of their children. Their decisions also seem led by more short-term ideals relating to the new pleasures and experiences that migration to urban areas can offer them.

To all intents and purposes, it seemed as though our fieldsites were two different worlds. At least that was the case until last month, when we moved our attention from day-to-day fieldwork to analysing the content of our participants’ QQ profiles. The results of the exercise was startling: despite all the differences between the north and south China fieldsites, most people create and share very similar types of posts. In China the most popular genres of these posts centring on ideals of either romantic relationships (see above example), or childbirth and child-raising.

Our task as anthropologists is to try to make sense of whether there is a link between these similar behaviours in our very different fieldsites, and what these phenomena mean for our understanding of society.

It is very early speculation at this stage, but I have a feeling that these similar postings might be one of the ways in which people across China are able to feel that they share values with each other, despite all the other differences that separate them. It does not matter that the participants from the China North fieldsite do not know our participants in the China South fieldsite, or vice versa. The fact that our informants are mostly writing and sharing the same kinds of posts might mean that they already have more in common than we had previously thought.

If we are to follow this line of reasoning, then it may be possible to speculate that social media in China is playing an important role in nationalism. But the nationalism I am suggesting here is not the obvious kind (and the one that attracts the most media and academic coverage), which operate on the level of patriotic postings, censorship, or protectionism of the Chinese internet. Rather, the nationalism I am proposing operates at a deeper (and far more subtle and widespread) level. Could it be that these posts play an active role in making Chinese people who are so obviously different in terms of status, background and wealth, feel a little more like each other?

If this is the case, then we need to also acknowledge that this affinity, rather than being ‘top down’, is expressed and furthered by users themselves every time they write, like or share one of these apparently innocuous posts. However ridiculous it may sound, the idea that a sense of Chinese nationalism might be partly constructed by shared baby photos and romantic memes could take us a step closer to understanding China as it is imagined and experienced by the normal population.

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.

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.

The role of social networking and technology in relationship difficulties

By Tom McDonald, on 25 February 2013

Photo by Asela (Creative Commons)

Photo by Asela (Creative Commons)

I heard a fascinating piece on BBC Radio 4’s Today program this morning on how men often find it difficult to understand relationship problems, which can lead to a worse outcome for them and their families if the relationship ends.

Towards the end of the interview Ruth Sutherland, the chief executive of Relate, a leading relationship support organisation in the UK explained that since men often find it more difficult to talk about relationships, service providers and counselling organisations ought to think of more suitable ways to engage with these men.

One example Sutherland gave was that men most often accessed her charity’s website looking for relationship advice using their smartphones whilst they are on their lunchbreak at work. Whilst Sutherland’s example is really powerful and obviously makes sense in the context of the UK, in other cultures family relationships operate in very different ways, and often each culture posseses a host of unique institutions that also impact upon relationships. Therefore it will be interesting to see how, over the course of our research project, social networking and technology helps to negotiate difficulties and ambivalence in family relationships.