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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.

The NRI Club: Non Resident Indians stay connected with Facebook

By Shriram Venkatraman, on 15 December 2013

NRI Club

NRIs (Non Resident Indians) are Indian citizens who have lived outside India for a period of 182 days or more in a year. Most South Indian NRIs in the last two decades are those who have left India for an IT career in the West. They normally get their permanent residency status and settle down in the country that they work in, some proceed to get their citizenship and thus lose their Indian citizenship, but maintain a status that they have an Indian origin. The last few years have seen quite a few of this segment return back to India for various personal and professional reasons. Some of them make a choice to return due to a pressing personal situation back at home (very often induced by their aged parents or parents-in-law) and work for a company here in India. At times this leads to issues and problems settling in India again. These people ruminate over their choice and relive their experiences and life in the West (mostly the United States of America) through their memories. One physical way of doing this is by looking through the pictures/photos they have of their life in the West. Another is to look at the lives of their friends through a combination of pictures, text, videos, friends’ reactions to these found on Facebook, in order to still be an active part of their lives. Facebook (or an equal social networking site, but in the Indian field site people most often use Facebook) acts and serves as a memory to their past lives. Further, it also helps in making sure that one can still live a life and be a part of that network that he/she always was, though he/she lives physically away in another network. Sometimes, this is true the extent that people create two different Facebook profiles-one to maintain their memories and the networks of the past (though a few similar NRIs may be added to this in the present, because only they would understand the situation) and one for today’s network. The following is a typical example of what was described above.

Raghu, aged 47 years, holds a very important top level position for an IT company in India. He took up this position around two years ago, after his return from the US. He relocated to India along with his wife (Prema, aged 43 years) and his two children. He had recently bought an apartment in a posh building here and has his children studying in an International School in this area. His wife works for the same American company that she was with earlier (while in the US) and works from home. Raghu travelled to the US just after his graduation at the age of 21 for pursuing a Masters in Computer Science. He then settled in the US and raised a family of his own. Meanwhile, his parents were in India and his sister was married and settled in Australia. Raghu, tried getting his parents to settle in the US along with him, but failed since they felt they were very comfortable in India. Further, for over 20 years his parents had been shuttling between the US and Australia and now felt tired of this yearly exercise and wanted to be in India. His parents weren’t really keen on moving anywhere. When his parents were travelling, Raghu and his family had weekly telephone calls with them and would speak on Skype maybe only once every two weeks or month. Raghu was always secure in his parents’ well-being as they were with him or his sister for most part of the year and were alone only for a period of a month or so in between trips.

With their decision to get settled in India with no more travel and with their increasing age, Raghu was not too sure of leaving them all by themselves in India. His weekly telephone calls now became proper Skype calls, where he was able to see his parents rather than just hearing their voice. Over Skype, Raghu helped them set up Bill paying services online, so that they never had to go stand in a queue to pay a bill. His sister from Australia also made it a point to come on Skype every week and talk to her parents and more than once every month all of them would get on a conference call. Further, Raghu arranged for his wife Prema’s parents and his own parents live near each other, so that they would take care of each other. As Prema’s parents had bought a brand new apartment and moved into a gated community, Raghu relocated his parents there too, by renting another apartment in the same community. However, even though this plan worked, recent medical issues with Raghu’s father forced him to consider a decision between appointing a nurse/caretaker to look after his parents or returning to India to look after them himself. The frequency of their Skype calls increased and the duration of each call increased too. Both his Prema and Raghu tried convincing his parents to appoint a nurse or to come to the US permanently. The conference calls with Raghu’s parents and sister increased, as did the frequency with which Raghu and his sister spoke on Skype. However, his parents were completely against the appointment of a nurse or moving back to the US and this left him with no choice but to relocate to India after very careful consideration.

Relocation was not easy as his US Company did not have Indian operations, so he had to find work in another IT company. He chose an Indian IT company that wanted someone with the US market experience and interviewed with them over Video conferencing and negotiated his salary and relocation package. He first moved into the apartment complex where his parents and his in-laws lived and later rented out a bigger apartment when his wife and children moved to India. He wasn’t too interested in investing in a house of his own in India, but looking at the boom in the real estate market, just six months ago he bought a huge 4 bedroom apartment in a posh apartment building very close to his workplace.

For the first year and a half, Raghu had a Facebook profile, which only had family, friends (from US) and colleagues (from his previous work connections) in the US. He was absolutely against friending anyone from India or his Indian workplace on Facebook, though he was fine getting connected to them on LinkedIn. His Facebook was exclusively for his US connections for two reasons. Though he had made a choice to relocate to India for his parents sake, his heart was still in the life that he led in the US. His Facebook profile allowed him to experience/re-live his life back in the US. So, Facebook served to rekindle his US memories. Also, through Facebook, he never was out of his US friends’ lives. He was still an active member of the US network that he had built on Facebook. He regularly followed his past community activity such as being a part of the local Hindu temple or giving suggestions to the neighborhood sustainability initiatives. Flipping through the updates and profiles of his friends enabled him to vicariously live the life that he was missing. Further, he wasn’t too sure if his family would like India or if he would himself like his work in India in the long run. So just in case he changed his mind and wanted to relocate back to the US, he wanted to maintain his connections on Facebook.

However, once he moved to the new posh apartment complex, his love for the game of cricket allowed him to socialize with his neighbors, specifically the men (around 15 of them) who played cricket over the week end mornings. Socializing with them helped him learn that almost all of them were like him. Most had returned from the US for the sake of their aged parents and most had their social networking preferences set exclusively for their US memories. Some even maintained two profiles (personal profiles as on Facebook)- one for US and one for India-and they made sure never to mix them. However, their LinkedIn profiles were much more open, as they reflect their professional networks. There seems to be a very clear distinction between their personal and professional choice of networks. While their professional networks seem to be rooted to their presence in physical space, their personal networks seem to be based on their emotional longing.