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Why is Facebook so important for highly-educated unemployed people?

By Razvan Nicolescu, on 18 December 2014

The satirical blog spinoza.it is a most famous result of the phenomena I am describing in this post. With more than 500k followers on Facebook and more than 600k on Twitter, lines taken over by Italian celebrities like Roberto Benigni, and its own publication line, it is the result of the creativity of highly-educated Italian young adults who are outside the formal employment. The subtitle of the blog reads A very serious blog.

 

According to official data, the unemployment rate in South Italy drops dramatically with age and less dramatically with level of education. In 2013, unemployment was 51% for 15-24 year olds, 30% for 25-34 year olds, and then 16% for 35-44 year olds.  In the same year, unemployment among 15-24 year olds was 56% for people with elementary or no studies, 54% for people with secondary school studies, and then to 50% for people with high school or vocational school. Similarly, for 25-34 year olds, unemployment rate was 36% for people with secondary school studies and 30% for people with graduate studies. It is after 35 years old when people with graduate studies find more work than those with lower studies.

Grano is by no means an exception. Many highly educated that live in the town could not find stable jobs until their late thirties and early forties. As I explain in my forthcoming book on social media use in South Italy, this is due to a combination of factors: firstly, and most importantly, there is no need in the local market for their specialisations: typically graduates in human sciences work on a temporary basis in food, tourism, and retail services. Secondly, specific social and economic conditions prevent people from undergoing professional reconversion or entrepreneurship: the Italian society structures individuals from very little ages to engage in, and be very faithful to, very separate cultural trajectories, such as a very defined difference between working class and public intellectuals. Thirdly, people who were educated many years ago in prestigious universities in Rome, Bologna, or Milano, have a strong reticence to join the local system of networks and favours that could assure to many of them a good workplace, such as public servants.

Therefore, they are faced with the problem of how highly-educated people can do something lucrative while also making use of their very specific, and burning, cultural and social capital? The answer is through Facebook! This is more puzzling as most of these people have ambivalent feelings, or even genuinely hate this particular service.

Let’s take Bianca: she has 42 years old, is unemployed and has a masters degree in geography. She never thought she needed more than her basic Nokia phone to communicate, and joined Facebook just a few months ago. She did that mainly because she needed to be part of the Facebook group created by the small ecological association she is part of. Now, she enjoys posting about social, ecological, and sometimes political issues, where she articulates very penetrating positions. By doing this, she established in Grano her reputation as a strong social and environmental activist.

Salvatore is 36 years old, holds a degree in Letters and never had a stable workplace. He is a quite active member of the local organisation of one of the few left-wing parties. Salvatore is renowned as an intelligent and witty character and loves to upload on Facebook comprehensive political comments and share news accompanied by smart remarks that usually attract a good number of ‘Likes’ or comments.

What we learn from the stories of Bianca and Salvatore, and indeed the online practices of many other young adults that aim to have cultural capital is that all along the period of scarce employment, they have an acute need to express what they sense is their special knowledge, be that thoughts or skills, that is not requested locally. Thus, all these people with time on their hands just started to do this on social media: they found an online niche and specialised themselves in different non-lucrative genres, such as, witty comments about current Italian politics, sharing more philosophical or poetic ideas, or art and photography. These genres are related to a multitude of social and cultural events that take place throughout the year in the region of South Salento. In many cases, unemployed individuals set-up small environmental associations, vocational groups, or start to jointly promote the individual works.

This is possible in a setting in which their nuclear families and the local community provide the basic economic needs, as described here. As one woman in her early forties who never had a stable workplace suggested, if she was not present on Facebook, she would have felt she was completely dependent on her family: physically (she lives in a house owned by her family), educationally (her family supported her university studies for 8 years), and economically. Instead, Facebook was the easiest way to demonstrate to her family, and indeed to the entire community that she was not worthless. Then, social media was really the only place in Grano where she could practice her autonomy and critical thinking.

At the same time, most of the highly-educated unemployed people enjoy positioning themselves out of the otherwise pervasive consistency between the domestic space and the online public sphere that I discussed elsewhere. They use social media in a relatively conspicuous way exactly because they have to express their very particular ideas in the absence of a work environment, suited to their training and knowledge, that would traditionally absorb these. And it is this conspicuity that  gives them the potential to form the next generation of local intelligentsia. It will be only in that distant and unsure future when they might recuperate the social confidence and standing that were shattered by the severe inconsistencies in the present society.

 

 

 

Kurds, ISIS and internet censorship in Turkey

By Elisabetta Costa, on 7 November 2014

Facebook profile picture from south-east Turkey

Facebook profile picture from south-east Turkey

Kurds living in Mardin tend to not use social media for political expression when it involves a direct critique of the Turkish State, Turkish authorities or the Turkish nation. Social media has been described by many Kurds as a powerful tool for political control, as a new form of torture, as a weapon to scare people and prevent them from being politically active. In Turkey’s Kurdistan, the internet and digital technologies are immediately associated with control and persecution by the State. In the last couple of years, the Turkish government has banned and shut down several pages of political parties (see also this international campaign against the Facebook Company). Internet censorship in Turkey has become internationally known, when the ex-Prime Minister Erdogan banned YouTube and Twitter before and after the local election in March 2014.

The tight control over the internet has produced an efficient self-censorship mechanism in Mardin and elsewhere in the region; people tend to not criticize the Turkish government too openly in order to not be prosecuted. However, many Kurds have been using social media to express their support for the Kurdish cause by claiming solidarity with the Kurds living in other countries in the Middle-East. In the last two years, many people have been using an image with the word ‘Rojava’, the Kurdish name for the Siryan Kurdistan, the region inside Syria that started to achieve its autonomy in 2012, as their Facebook profile picture. Within the same period, the region has been under attack several times by Islamic groups, and more recently by ISIS. When ISIS attacked Kobane and PKK/ YPG fighters retaliated by showing resistance, news from independent news sources were circulated on social media, presenting different views on what was occurring. Before then, in the summer of 2014 during ISIS’ invasion of Sinjar in Iraq, many Kurds, together with unions, political parties and local charities, actively used Facebook to organize solidarity campaigns to collect clothes and money for the Yezidi refugees after the attack.

Over the past few months, social media has become a very important source of news for the Kurds living in Turkey. They want to know about ISIS’ attack on Kurds in Syria and Iraq; and Facebook in particular has become the main platform to organize solidarity campaign and to express support towards the Kurds in these two countries.

I don’t want to describe here the complexity of the crisis that is going on now in the Middle-East, but rather, I want to highlight the way Kurds in Turkey use social media. They continuously mediate between what they would like to share freely online, and what they know could be detrimental to them because of the draconian censorship enacted in Turkey. Far from being  the results of rational calculation every time, people have internalised a set of rules which influences what they can share publicly, what they can share on fake profiles and what they can read but not share at all. It’s only by adopting these implicit set of rules that a Kurdish “public sphere under restriction” is continuously created and recreated by social media users, with several consequences. One of these is that on social media the Kurds in Turkey tend to sustain the Kurdish nationalistic cause by expressing support towards the Kurds living in Syria (and Iraq), and they more rarely address the political situation inside Turkey.

The qualitative insights we get from applying questionnaires

By Juliano Andrade Spyer, on 31 August 2014

After our team gathered in London this past May, we came back to the field with four main tasks, one of which is to apply a new questionnaire to one hundred participants. Now that this mission is nearly accomplished, I am surprised by what I learned from the questions that, for various reasons, did not work and also by the ones that did. The application of a questionnaire forced me to contact people outside the groups I am closer to and provided a valuable opportunity to check if the generalizations I have made so far are correct. At the end, the questionnaire showed how quantitative methods could be misleading as people either don’t understand or differently evaluate the questions they are faced with. But they can and should be used in the context of long-term qualitative research as the researcher is then able to learn not just by the responses, but also mainly by the information that is offered beyond what the questionnaire requests.

On this blog post I will present some of the qualitative insights the application of this questionnaire has provided.

Right at the beginning of the conversation we ask the informant how many friends she or he has on their preferred social networking site. My expectation was that teenagers would have thousands of friends while everyone else would have about a few hundred or less. This has been the case among some participants, but as I applied the questionnaire often I heard the following intriguing reply by everyone including teens: – “Oh, I have loads of friends there. About 60…” There are quite a few things that can be unpacked from this answer. One is that I realized my teenage informants were heavy users and they were not representative of the entire group of people in their age group. Besides that, it is intriguing that having 60, 80 or 120 can be perceived as being a great number and I can now ask around to find out why is that so.

Some questions confirmed perceptions the ethnography uncovered. Later on in the questionnaire, we ask how many of the person’s friends on social networking sites the informant has never met face to face. Although I am Brazilian like my informants, their notion of what a Facebook contact should be is clearly different from mine. A “friend” here is everyone you can know, which is a group that includes the people that knows the people each one knows (friends of friends). Very few of my respondents answered that they knew personally everyone from their network. The typical reply was that loads of those they were friends with on Facebook they had added because, among other reasons, they had friends in common. So through sites like Facebook we see that my informants understanding of an acquaintance is much wider and flexible than that of people with my urban middle class background.

My informants have not understood the question that helped me realize this previous observation. Originally our research team wanted to know if informants asked the permission of friends or of family members before adding people to their network of contacts. As I read this question to informants, they replied to it quite quickly and confidently so it was not until almost finishing this task that I saw they had understood something very different from our original intention. They usually answered that they consulted friends before adding new contacts, but they were actually saying that when they receive a request from someone they haven’t met and don’t know, they go to this person’s profile and browse around to find out, among other things, who these people are friends with. Having friends in common is an important aspect in the decision of accepting friendship requests.

Some questions worked out incredibly well. One of these asked: do you feel that the opportunity of interacting with people through the Internet has become a headache? This was clearly understood by everyone and it will be interesting to see after we process the data if there are specific demographic groups that replied affirmatively to it. For example: young married people apparently both enjoy meeting more people and are bothered by having their lives more closely monitored by their partners. Others said that Facebook mixes up together different groups of people and it has become a burden to deal with frequent tensions inside one’s network.

We ask informants whether they think social networking sites are good or bad for education and for work. Although some replied Facebook was bad for education because it captures the attention of students out of their schoolwork, several parents consider it positive for exposing their children to information and knowledge. The answers were even more emphatic about work. As Baldoíno is a working class village, many of my informants here work in hotels, are private security guards or have small businesses and having the possibility of communicating with peers and with business partners easily and without paying is very helpful.

On the whole, my informants could not say whether they had “liked” businesses on Facebook. It is unclear to almost all what the difference is between, for instance, a soap opera and a company, and notions such as “local”, “national” and “international” in regard to the businesses they “liked” were confusing to them. Why shouldn’t Coca Cola be local or national if its products are available locally and their adverts are running on national TV channels? Some informants answered that they have purchased items from the businesses they follow, but what they mean is not that the purchase happened as a consequence of them “liking” the business. They like the product and they express this by “liking” them on Facebook and buying products.

I was surprised to see how the people here understand the Facebook timeline. In my private use of Facebook, friends rarely publish stuff on my timeline; as a whole, we share the understanding that one’s timeline is a private place that should not be used by others unless on specific occasions such as birthdays. Here in Baldoíno leaving messages of all sorts in someone else’s timeline is part of the way Facebook is used and the word “timeline” has become part of the vocabulary people use to talk about social networking online.

The questionnaire ends with two questions about politics and the answers I collected are revealing of the particularities about this place. I think all but one person said she or he had unfriended someone because of political differences. Many said that they have unfriended people because of quarrels motivated by other reasons, but not because of politics. These answers reveal the physical distance that in fact exists between them and local representatives. Politics is a topic not worth quarreling about because there is nothing to gain from it. Government type of politics represent a burden that has to be dealt with every two years during elections and politicians are very present during that time but afterwards they disappear.

Although informants consistently said they didn’t care about politics, most said confidently that social networking sites have made them more politically active. They were very sure about both answers so I started asking what they understood about being politically active. Initially I suspected they meant Facebook allowed them to be more active in their community as they are now able to complain publicly about things they don’t like, but this was not what many were trying to say. By being more active politically they are saying they are better informed about what happens beyond the daily life in their locality. Facebook is a place that disseminates information so they learn about more things that are interesting to them that they don’t get through other media such as the television.

There is a lot more to say about this experience and about how quantitative methods can be a valuable tool to acquire qualitative data, but hopefully the examples offer possibilities for this subject to be discussed further. I am curious to learn how the experience has been for my research colleagues and hope they blog about it here as well.

Questions I get asked everyday…

By Tom McDonald, on 20 July 2014

Tom asking (or maybe being asked) the questions (Photo: Gillian Bolsover)

Tom asking (or maybe being asked) lots of questions (Photo: Gillian Bolsover)

For the past 14 months I’ve been living in this rural town in north China, conducting ethnographic research on how social media is affecting life here.

However, many people in the town have never had a foreign friend before, let alone one that can speak Chinese. People are extremely inquisitive about me and life in the UK, and I generally spend much more of my time answering their constant questions than I am able to ask them my own research questions and hear their answers.

Below are the questions I tend to get asked on an almost daily basis here in the town. I’ve decided to publish them on this blog partly because even though I am really bored of having to answer these questions again and again, they remain interesting both because they reveal some commonly held ideas that many people in the town hold regarding the rest of the world, while also helping us to learn about some of the important concerns of rural Chinese life (food, family, work, history, politics).

  • Why are your eyes blue?
  • Why is your skin white?
  • Why is your hair yellow? Is it dyed?
  • How many brothers and sisters do you have?
  • Do westerners just eat bread and drink milk?
  • Do westerners always eat raw meat?
  • Are you unable to eat Chinese food?
  • Wow! How come you know how to use chopsticks?!
  • What religion are you? Do all westerners believe in Jesus?
  • How much is your salary in a month?
  • What is the average house price in the UK?
  • What is the area/population of the UK?
  • Can you get used to living here?
  • Do you miss home?
  • How old are you?
  • Are you married?
  • Why aren’t you married?
  • Do you like Chinese girls? Are they pretty?
  • Why don’t you get a Chinese wife?
  • How many children are you allowed to give birth to in the UK?
  • Why does Britain always invade other countries and do whatever America does?
  • Do you think the Diaoyu Islands are China’s [territory]?
  • Why are you here?
  • Are you a spy?
  • What cars do you drive in the UK?
  • What is the weather like in the UK?

While some people may interpret these questions as showing that people in my fieldsite know very little about the rest of the world, I think the questions make a lot of sense and actually show how interested in the outside world my friends here are.

In addition, the incredulous looks my friends give me when I ask some of our research questions in our interviews, such as ‘does social media increase or decrease your interaction with people who are significantly richer or poorer than you?’ sometimes makes me think us researchers are the ones who are asking the stupid questions.

But then maybe there is no such thing as a stupid question. Almost anything you ask can help start a dialogue which will end up helping you to learn more about the people in your fieldsite. As the old adage goes: ‘one can but ask…’.

How teenagers communicate with publicly private messages

By Juliano Andrade Spyer, on 30 November 2013

2013-11-01 12.57.36

Teens may use different characters to add layers of information to a name. (Photo by Juliano Spyer)

Through the process of “gutting” profiles I had the opportunity to pay attention to a kind of posting I see often but did not recognize as a type of coded communication. Many of the female young adults and teenagers I friended publish regularly moralizing content that they themselves write. At first sight they are rather uninteresting, looking like an amateurish exercise on writing self-help prose, but a trusted local showed me that there was more to it than I had grasped at first. Lange’s (2007) notions of privately public and publicly private have been helpful to study this phenomenon.

First, let me show you what it is that I am talking about. Here are examples of the content these informants may share at any time and any day:

“When all seems lost, give glory to God”.

“The pain will pass just like the smile will arrive”.

“Today’s tip: ignore offensive words because poison only does you harm if you swallow it”.

“The size of my deception is the size of the trust I gave. There are people that don’t think of others, they only see their own bellybutton.”

“Sometimes change must come from within”.

“To be happy is not to have a perfect life. But to use your tears to irrigate tolerance. Use the losses to refine patience. Use the mistakes to carve serenity. Use pain to lapidate the pleasure. Use the obstacles to cultivate intelligence”.

I arrived at this topic–codes teenagers and young adults use to speak privately in public areas such as Facebook–as my research assistant told me about a recent experience she had related to the use of social media. The story involves her close friend who is 16 years old, that for the purpose of anonymity I will call G16. G16 liked a boy that had a reputation of being a lady-killer. The information reached G16’s mother, who is overly-concerned that her daughter will not sacrifice her future because of an unplanned pregnancy. As G16 refused to friend her mom on Facebook, the mother decided she had the obligation to spy on her daughter. She did so by convincing my assistant’s mother to request that my assistant show them the content G16 posts on Facebook.

This story will make better sense if you have an idea of what Baldoíno, our Brazilian field site, is like. This used to be a fishing village about half century ago. It has steadily grown and has became a sort of working class neighborhood for the manual labor hired by the touristic industry nearby. Students in general are not very interested in studying, but are under the spell of digital communication devices and services. This passion started with Orkut and Messenger, and has now materialized in Facebook. Of course, as Professor Daniel Miller recently pointed out in his blog post, Facebook  is becoming less cool for younger generations.  In Baldoíno, young people are  quickly migrating to the new cool thing: WhatsApp. And my hypothesis is that the absolute fascination with these products is partially about looking cool, but mainly about having the possibility of communicating among themselves and, as much as possible, away from adults like teachers and parents. This sort of privately-public communication is possible partly because older people here are not well trained in reading, writing, using keyboard and mouse, and navigating through computer screens. That is the case of the mothers of G16’s and my assistant. It takes a long time for them to read and even longer to type.

As the mothers pressed my assistant to expose her friend and to break the confidence they have on each other, my assistant decided to cooperate but not to volunteer information either about G16’s life or about how to use Facebook and the local codes of usage. And as expected, the mothers did not spend much time looking at the girl’s timeline as it was much too crowded with written stuff. Instead, they asked to look at G16’s photos. The logic of the request was that, if G16 was dating this guy, they should have photos of each other as a couple. But, as my assistant explained, G16 knew that a picture of that kind would find a way of reaching her mom the same way the gossip about her secret affair did, so she would never expose herself like that.

The attempted spying failed and G16’s mother was then convinced that it was a better strategy to have an honest conversation with her daughter.But the story would have been somehow different if my assistant had been as helpful to the mothers as she was to me. You first need to know that the extensive amount of generic moralizing content was disguised communication. Secondly, you would need to be part of G16’s group of trusted companions to know through face to face communication what was going on in her life. Under such circumstances I could see that there was a lot G16 was saying about her romance on recent postings.

Here are examples of her coded messages (which have been re-written for anonymizing purposes):

“Don’t ever ignore someone that loves, worries about you and misses you. Because maybe one day you may wake up and find out you have missed the moon while counting the stars”.

“I matured a lot recently and learned to acknowledged myself. As new people came to my life, I also decided to let go others that did not add to my well-being. – feeling bothered”

According to my interpreter, the first message was a warning to the boyfriend. She was telling him and others that know him that she was not happy with the little attention he is offering her and telling him she would not tolerate that much longer. The following message suggests that she had decided to let go of him even if his actions do not please her. My assistant speculated that G16’s conversation with her mom had a positive outcome. So writing is a way of hiding things from the older generations here. Together with writing one hides hints of what is going on under the look of a prosaic or philosophic reflection that makes no reference to specific people, places or events. Had it not been for the help and trust of my assistant, I would have never guessed the true meaning.

Reference

Lange, P. G. (2007), Publicly Private and Privately Public: Social Networking on YouTube. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 13: 361–380. doi: 10.1111/j.1083-6101.2007.00400.x

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.

The Facebook wall as expression of traditional values

By Elisabetta Costa, on 11 November 2013

Photo by Elisabetta Costa

Photo by Elisabetta Costa

The inhabitants of Dry Rock Town in south-east Turkey have a mix of social, economic, geographical and ethnic backgrounds. The composition of the town is complex, beginning with a heterogeneous population that has lived here for decades and centuries. Additionally, different groups of rural and urban Kurds, Turks and Arabs came to live in the town more recently for different reasons, contributing to the expansion of the city. At the moment the main social differences of the inhabitants can be explained mainly as a consequence of different levels of urbanization. In fact we can see the people now living in Dry Rock Town as distributed along a continuum from more rural to more urban.

In the last weeks I have worked on the visual analysis of my informants Facebook posts and what has struck me most has been the homogeneity of their Facebook profiles. Although the differences existing in  real life between rural and urban people are evident, their Facebook visual materials look quite similar. It doesn’t matter if a woman or a man has grown up in the main city of the region or in a small village, and they have completely different life-styles. Their Facebook profiles have many things in common and their visual materials are not so different from each other. Traditional values of family, honour and women’s modesty are overtly represented.

For example, H. is a young Kurdish woman who works in a highly professional environment, grew up in a big city in southeast Turkey, has male friends, drinks alcohol in restaurants, and eventually will freely choose the person she marries. Her Facebook wall is not so different from the one of S., a woman in her early thirties who grew up in a small town, has very few relationships with non-family members, and that is married to a man who was chosen by her family. In both cases, relatives, family members and traditional habits surface as the main objects of the visual materials that appear on their Facebook walls. Pictures of weddings and family gatherings, and self-portraits with relatives are the most represented images.

The Facebook social network reproduces the social space of the village where there is no space for anonymity. On Facebook everybody is very careful to not damage their own reputation and that of the family because on Facebook everybody knows each other. The practices learned in the anonymous spaces of the big city disappear in the self-representation played out on Facebook. I refer specifically to habits and customs of urban women, such as hanging out with friends, coming home late at night, drinking alcohol, smoking cigarettes, and having intimate relationships before marriage, which are not represented at all on the Facebook wall.

But as written in a previous post, in contrast with the normativity of the public space, the private chats and the private messages of Facebook are exactly the opposite. People do secretly what they can’t do in the offline world: chatting with girls and boys, flirting, finding lovers, new friends and partners, getting in touch with foreigners, playing games, and being politically active.

Tencent news: in-app news delivery in QQ and WeChat

By Tom McDonald, on 24 October 2013

Newspapers arrive at the town's Post Office for delivery to local homes and businesses (Photo by Tom McDonald)

Newspapers arrive at the town’s Post Office for delivery to local homes and businesses (Photo by Tom McDonald)

One of the aims of our research is to understand the connection between politics and social media. Before we started our fieldwork we had envisaged this topic would largely revolve around how people made posts relating to specific stories in the news or shared news articles on their own Facebook pages. However, once again, China has surprised us in how different its social media is from it’s Western counterparts. People tend to refrain from making lots of public comments about news online, but both QQ and WeChat’s mobile applications (both made by Tencent) are set up by default to deliver national news items to their user’s mobile devices, with these items appearing in-between other conversations users are having with their friends.

The 'recent conversations' screen in the QQ iPhone app. The fourth contact down (showing the QQ 'penguin' icon surrounded by a tri-coloured circle) is the QQ news centre

The ‘recent conversations’ screen in the QQ iPhone app. The fourth contact down (showing the QQ ‘penguin’ icon surrounded by a tri-coloured circle) is the QQ news centre

The news to each of these in-app news services is written and delivered by the Tencent News centre. Both apps receive three new reports daily, normally containing four stories in each post, and the user receives on-screen notifications when they arrive. Occasionally, especially significant news stories may be afforded their own individual posts.

In general, the news that appears in these stories tends to be middle-brow, and written in quite accessible language, remaining largely free of the formal news about diplomatic meetings and official  language that tends to dominate the main closely government-controlled national news sources such as the  evening TV News Simulcast (Xinwen Lianbo) and People’s Daily. Instead, Tencent’s in-app news consists mostly of stories focusing on a mixture of criminal cases, ongoing government corruption investigations, sex scandals, and scientific discoveries.

It would be easy to view all Chinese media as a propaganda tool, and an extension of the government, and this is the kind of statement that is often repeated by Western media outlets. However, one of the strengths of the ethnographic approach of our fieldwork is that instead of only analysing the content of  social media, we also compare this to how normal people in our fieldsites actually use and talk about these platforms themselves. When I spoke to one of my participants in our China North fieldsite about the in-app news feature I asked him whether he thought the function might have been included at the government’s bequest. He said he didn’t think the government would have forced Tencent to add the in-app news function to their chat tool. Instead, he argued that it was probably the fact that Tencent thought that the news would ‘attract people’ and that they would find it ‘interesting’.

From here in this small town in North China, it is impossible to know exactly what decisions are made faraway in the Tencent News centre. Nonetheless, QQ and WeChat’s in-app news feature has become a particularly significant — if not the main — way in which national news is now consumed for many people who own a smartphone in the town. But also this marks a fundamental change from having to ask for news through ordering the newspaper, or turning on the television, to having the news delivered to your device without requesting it, often appearing as if it were a message from a friend.

Things that never appear on Facebook

By Juliano Andrade Spyer, on 4 October 2013

2013-08-20 17.42.01

Photo by Juliano Spyer

On one morning, towards the end of last year, my research assistant here in Baldoíno (our Brazilian fieldsite) a 25 year old college student, was approached by a friend who asked if she had heard of ‘the murder’. About one hour earlier the body of the murderer had been found and taken out of the river. He was the father of four children, a quiet man who killed his wife due to jealousy and shortly after committed suicide. My assistant told me this story as an example of the types of information that spread quicker through face-to-face contact than through digital media – which, here, translates to Facebook. But this story eventually arrived on Facebook and was openly discussed.

I started thinking about the speed at which information is transmitted at the beginning of my fieldwork when another young informant mentioned how surprised she was at the knowledge her mother had about things that happened in the community. ‘I’m the one who’s on Facebook’, she told me, ‘but she knows much more that I do’. Everything her mother hears come from her trusted network of friends and family members. I want to argue that my initial ethnographic evidence suggests that face-to-face communication is more efficient because there are certain types of information that does not arrive at Facebook at all (or at least not to its public spaces of communication).

About a month ago, a truck had been improperly parked in Baldoíno’s main street. While the driver was unloading goods, the vehicle started to roll down the road and hit two children. Both were taken to the hospital with severe injuries. One of them, a nine year old girl, lost part of her arm as a consequence of the accident. This happened in the early morning while children and teenagers were walking to school. Teens are the most active users of technology here and one of the things they love doing is taking photos and recording videos. On that day, the village looked like a contained but tense swarm of bees as people formed small groups on the streets to exchange information about the accident, what caused it and who was responsible for it. But surprisingly, not one bit of this event made it to Facebook.

So, how come certain events arrive at Facebook and others don’t?

The day of the accident with the truck, I passed by a store where a trusted research participant works. The moment I came in, a police officer and the truck driver were leaving the store after discussing with her about what she had witnessed. After they left, she told me: ‘It is true, I wasn’t here at the time of the accident, but even if I had been, I would’ve said the same thing, that I didn’t see anything that happened.’ Then she developed her argument explaining she knew the driver, and that he is from the village and is friends with “dangerous people”. She does not feel that the police will protect here. The police won’t prevent a criminal from attacking her or someone from her family out of vengeance, so ‘we must know when to be quiet’, she concluded.

The logic about the spreading of information is that potentially hazardous news must be kept in the domain of verbal conversation (which likely includes some direct chatting on Facebook using it’s ‘messages’ function). This solution allows the person to participate on the network of communication without leaving traces of the exact information or opinion she or he shared. Things that are not threatening but equally violent such as a passionate murder can be used openly on Facebook because the subject is of collective interest and will increase the attention given by peers and other people from the same community.

Different types of news

By Razvan Nicolescu, on 29 August 2013

Photo by Gabriela Nicolescu

Photo by Gabriela Nicolescu

There are two local newspapers and a regional one in the Italian town where I am conducting fieldwork. They appear once a week before the weekend and are distributed freely in the main hot spots of the town, like cafés and retail units. The biggest one is published in a few thousand copies, a significant number when one considers  the town’s population is almost 20,000. Its editorial line is strongly on the social side, so that more popular themes like politics are not discussed. While the main editorial team is composed by a few men who work pro-bono for the publication, anybody in the local community can contribute as author. The editors encourage this kind of public involvement through a series of initiatives such as local writing contests or symbolic prizes offered to prestigious Italian journalists. Last year around one hundred people from the local community wrote at least one article for the journal, out of which more than a dozen were considered constant contributors.

The impact of this journal on the social life of the town is amazing. Almost every adult who enjoys reading newspapers reads carefully at least the main column on the front page which represents the subject of the week. This could be then debated over a few weeks in different public spaces, in the subsequent numbers of the journal, or in various other local media, such as Facebook. People usually trust the information in the journal much more than the news coming from more distant sources such as national journals or the RAI. It seems to represent a sort of undeniable proof for the different social issues within the local community.

I will not discuss here the intellectual and cultural issues that are at stake with this journal as neither my research is interested in these sorts of disputes. Rather, I am interested in how  the local population relates to this particular media and how different this relationship is when the same content is made available on Facebook. There is a whole discussion on the role of social media in the current Italian society, see, for example, the way the political movement MoVimento 5 Stelle (Movement 5 Stars) has constructed much of its political success on the massive popular mobilisation through the internet and social media. However, I will limit this posting to a few considerations on how people in the small town relate to the news on Facebook.

If teenagers and some young people could easily have 800-1,200 Facebook friends, most of the adult population have somewhere between a few tens and 200. The only adults who reach the teenagers’ numbers of online connections are particular public actors such as artists, social activists, entrepreneurs, or people involved in different ways in media. Their Facebook profile is almost the same: they post on different social issues or share joking posts and let their online connections  comment or disseminate this information. As these actors recognise that their audience is very eclectic, which also implies they do not necessarily share the same the political or social views, they usually prefer to not moderate these conversations. Their most common explanation is they do not afford to loose connections or their interventions are less important than the initial postings. At the same time, if some people enjoy participating to the online debates, most of the audience does not. They rather prefer to discuss the different issues offline, within the family, or in particular circles of friends. It is here where Facebook seems to act like a newspaper. Like journals wait for clients in an empty caffe, Facebook pages wait for people to access them when they don’t have anything else to do.

However, the type of information individuals gather from the two sources are very different. If in the local newspaper people are interested in the public news, in Facebook users tend to look for the private persons who are interested in news. To wait for public news on Facebook is nonsense. This might be interesting for different activists or entrepreneurs, but most of the people seem to spend huge amounts of time online just trying to find the information that is most private and available in a relatively public environment. The reasons could be pure friendship or curiosity. What is important is that most of the time in the private world of Facebook, news is unimportant if it do not serve to better understand your peers.