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A close-up look at Chinese social media platforms

By Tom McDonald, on 11 February 2016

Tom McDonald and Xinyuan Wang introduce China's social media platforms

Tom McDonald and Xinyuan Wang introduce China’s social media platforms

Chinese social media is remarkable because despite extensive media coverage and academic research, these platforms remain something of an enigma to many non-Chinese people.

While internet censorship within China prevents Chinese users from accessing non-Chinese social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, by contrast the extensive use of Chinese language on Chinese social media is perhaps the main barrier stopping many non-Chinese people seeing what goes on in these spaces.

We think that any informed discussion of the impacts of Chinese social media needs to start with helping people learn about what these platforms are really like. So we made a film introducing the key social media platforms in China, which will appear on our new free online course on the anthropology of social media, launching on 29 February 2016.

In the video, Xinyuan Wang and I introduce the wide variety of social media platforms in China, including QQ, QZone, WeChat, and Sina Weibo. Our description give an idea of the varied functionality of the different platforms: allowing users to instant message their fiends as well as post their thoughts and feelings.

The video also shows some unusual aspects of the same platforms that make Chinese social media especially distinctive: the ability to decorate one’s profile page with fantastic themes, add friends by shaking one’s phone, and also celebrity culture on Weibo.

We also talk about which of these platforms are popular in each of our industrial and rural field sites in China (where we each lived for 15 months conducting research) and we explain some of the reasons that account for this.

We will be exploring these reasons in even greater depth in the free online course and our new free book How The World Changed Social Media, both of which will be released on 29 February, and which you can register to receive reminders for today!

They flirt, they share porn and they gossip

By Juliano Andrade Spyer, on 5 February 2016

Image courtesy:  thegillinator.

Image courtesy:
thegillinator.

The last four months of 2015 were tough. I was locking myself in a claustrophobic student carrel every day, spending 9 hours staring at a computer screen but not being able to finish the final draft of my book. I began having trouble sleeping and pictured a clock ticking everywhere I went. But the source of this anxiety – as I realized later – was a prolonged and unconscious struggle to say something about my research while the evidence was pointing the other way. I wanted very badly to conclude on my book saying that this poor settlement in Brazil had a lot of problems, but that because of social media things are changing for the better. But they aren’t.

This realization came after a long conversation with a friend that kindly took the time to read a previous draft of my book. The last chapter is about the effects of social media on relationships between people that are not relatives or friends. I did not notice this before, but I ordered the cases in a way to construct an argument that social media was empowering locals to protest against injustices. But this friend summarized her impression of that chapter saying that despite all this fuss about social mobility in Brazil, people are still living as second rate citizens. If a relative is murdered, not just they have to accept that the police will not investigate: they also have to keep quiet or risk being subjected to more violence.

The internet and particularly social media is everywhere in this settlement. Teenagers and young people are crazy about it but adults and older folks also share the excitement. There is the enchantment with the new possibilities of being in touch with people and also the pride related to having a computer and to be able to use it. It shows that they are not as “ignorant” [illiterate] as others might have thought and the PC looks good in the living-room next to the flat screen TV. But how much of this represents real change and how much is – as my friend’s commentary indicates –just an appearance of change?

In short, I wanted to sympathise with “the oppressed” and also show the internet is empowering. And in order to claim that, I denied the basic evidence of what they do with social media. It is not about learning, though that happens. (For instance, they are much more interested in reading and writing in order to better use things like Facebook and WhatsApp.) However, their reason for wanting to be on social media is mostly to flirt, to share some (very) gruesome videos and to spy on one another and gossip about it.

Evangelic Christianity is much more clearly responsible for “positive” change there than the internet or social media: the protestant ideology promotes literacy and education, helps people get and keep their jobs, reduces the incidences of alcoholism and family violence. Social media, on the other hand, is usually not for opening and expanding the access to information and to new relationships, but to restore and strengthen local networks. Facebook and WhatsApp are in some cases a possibility for young people to harness the desire to study and move beyond their subordinate position in society, but it is also intensely used for social control – i.e. for spying and spreading rumours attacking people who want to challenge conformity.

The picture I have now is not as neat and “positive”. But perhaps the best contribution an anthropological research has to offer is just that: to challenge generalizations and expose how contradictory human relations can be.

What is the difference between a generalisation and a stereotype?

By Daniel Miller, on 5 January 2016

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All anthropologists would agree that stereotypes cause harm and should be avoided. Yet anthropology mainly consists of generalisations about groups of people: the Nuer do this, the Trobriand Islanders do that, women do something more than men, Norwegians less than the French etc. But today any generalisation may be accused of perpetuating stereotypes. Saying that women do more washing up perpetuates the stereotype that women are associated with domestic labour. Saying that Irish people like Guinness or tell good jokes is said to perpetuate stereotypes.

We may not agree on the meaning of ‘truth’, but anthropology must have integrity, and report all observable generalisations irrespective of how the consequences are regarded. If we try to censor these in order to fit our own politics and values, we would rightly lose any credibility for our scholarship.

For this to be acceptable depends on two key differences between a generalisation and a stereotype. The first is called ‘essentialism’. A stereotype implies that the observation is based on an essential quality of that population, for example that women are ‘naturally’ more suited to washing up, the ‘Irish genes’ makes them funny. By contrast, we as anthropologists are responsible for investigating the historical and cultural reasons for the observed association. If Jews were associated with moneylending, it was not the result of Jewish ‘genes’ but historical prohibitions on Jewish landowning and Christians earning interest. Secondly, a generalisation must never become an assumption about any particular individual. A qualitative observation, as also a statistic, bears on some, but not all, of a population. It may be entirely untrue of that person and so should not be assumed of them.

The Why We Post project is comparative at its core, involving nine anthropologists looking at the same topics simultaneously around the world. In our forthcoming book, ‘How the World Changed Social Media’, we compare individual fieldsites which, for brevity, we refer to by their respective country names. When we say we are comparing our Turkish fieldsite with the Italian one we actually mean a site in southeast Turkey, mainly inhabited by Kurds and Arabs from many different backgrounds, is being compared with a site in the very south of Italy that has little in common with a place such as Milan. This comparative approach allowed us to appreciate the nuances of each fieldsite more fully, both while conducting fieldwork and during analysis.

We often describe things as typical or normative, but we always know that a) even the next town will be different, let alone a separate country b) each fieldsite contains internal differences by gender, income etc., c) even if we then specify a female, middle-class, well-educated English category, a particular individual within that category may show none of the associated traits.

But having established those caveats, we should not flinch from documenting the observable and comparative generalisations that we encounter, and thereby reject the argument that we should not be generalising in case it perpetuates a stereotype. Otherwise we will be unable to contribute to acknowledging, understanding and explaining cultural difference, which is our primary contribution as anthropologists.

Why popular anthropology?

By Elisabetta Costa, on 27 November 2015

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The core mission of anthropology is the understanding of human behaviour in a world full of cultural and historical diversity. The anthropological commitment to this immense plurality of human and social experiences constitutes a great appreciation and valorisation of diversity. Yet, different cultures, identities and behaviours are organised around hierarchies, and the institutions that shape anthropology and other academic disciplines often reproduce and reinforce them. For example, in the UK, most universities tend to be attended by a minority of privileged students, whereas groups that are historically marginalised tend to be excluded from the process of production and fruition of academic knowledge. Anthropological content is read by few academics, and only very rarely does it reach a wider audience all around the world.

Anthropologists have, at different points in the history of the discipline, investigated the anthropological involvement in the reinforcement of social hierarchies. They have examined how systems of power shape ethnographic practices, the role of the ethnographer in the field, and processes of anthropological writing. However, efforts to extend the accessibility of anthropological knowledge have been too modest so far. Anthropology continues to be an intellectual practice accessible to a small group of academics, largely from a privileged background. The conversation on the diversity of human beings – the ultimate goal of anthropology – is carried out by those who are awarded privileges by this hierarchical system of differences. Unprivileged groups in terms of social classes, gender, sexuality, geographic origins, and ethnic backgrounds are not only often excluded from the production of anthropological knowledge, but also from the fruition of it. The result of this is the reinforcement of social hierarchies that exclude groups that have been historically marginalised.

In this context, a commitment to a wider dissemination of anthropological understanding constitutes a small but significant step towards a more inclusive society, where marginalised groups can also enjoy the opportunities afforded by anthropological knowledge. Digital technologies give unprecedented potential to expand human conversation about humanity, bringing it outside the academic sphere and placing it within the immense flow of information on the internet. Anthropologists can decide to participate in this unbounded exchange, or continue in the safe and protected space of academia. Our commitment to the former is the reason why we are publishing all of our research as open access volumes, why we have launched a free e-course, why we are in the process of building an interactive website featuring films and stories about the people who participated in our research, and why all of the above will be available in the eight languages of our fieldsites. We hope that others will decide to join us on this mission of democratising access to anthropology!

Why We Post: The Anthropology of Social Media

By Laura Haapio-Kirk, on 25 November 2015

 

The Why We Post project is now moving into its final stages at full speed, gearing up for our public launch on February 29th 2016. On this date we will release the first three of eleven open access books, a free e-course, and an interactive website. You can now register for our course on FutureLearn (English language version) and on UCLeXtend (in Chinese, Hindi, Tamil, Spanish, Italian, Turkish, and Portuguese).

Over 4,300 people have signed up to the course within the first week, sparking discussions around the research which are absolutely fascinating and encouraging to see. Students come from all over the world and range from having a general interest in social media, to being professionally invested in it, from people who have never heard of anthropology, to those who are doing PhDs in the subject. The breadth of learner backgrounds is extraordinary and will no doubt contribute to the vibrancy of the course.

The course consists of a range of learning materials including texts, images, video lectures, and video discussions. There are further materials on our website for learners who want to dig even deeper, including around a hundred films made in the fieldsites and many stories which bring our research to life.

If you want to help us transform global research into global education, then spread the word. Follow the project on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, and tweet with the hashtag #whywepost.

Sign up for the free e-course Why We Post: The Anthropology of Social Media. We can’t wait to meet you!


 

Promotional film by Cassie Quarless.

Online relationships with strangers can be ‘purer’ than with offline friends

By Xin Yuan Wang, on 26 October 2015

“Internet dog” by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia.

As illustrated in the cartoon ‘On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog’, published by The New Yorker in 1993, the anonymity afforded by online communication raises interesting questions about authenticity and trust. I encountered such concerns at a media workshop where I talked about the high levels of anonymity on Chinese social media platform QQ. One member of the audience asked: “Don’t you think, in a highly mediated and anonymous environment, people are worried about the authenticity of communication?”

From what I can gather from my research, the answer is no.

To address her question I quoted a migrant factory worker called Feige who lived in the factory town where I conducted my fieldwork:

They [online friends] like you and talk with you because they really like you being you, not because you are rich so that they can borrow money from you, or you are powerful so that they can get a job from you. Here [online] everything is much purer, without power and money involved.

Feige is a member of many QQ groups and has his own fans who like to hear his opinions on everything. He sees entirely online friendships as ‘purer’ (chun) relationships, since they do not necessitate pragmatic concerns that often feature heavily in offline relationships. For Chinese migrant factory workers like Feige who are often frustrated by their position in society, social media provides new possibilities of sociality which are free from social hierarchy and social discrimination.

Curiously, strangers online also boast a preferable situation in some factory owners’ eyes. Billionaire factory owners in my field site sometimes avoided attending school reunions in fear of requests for financial help from their old classmates but some were happy to talk with online strangers on WeChat to release the stress which they believed could not be displayed to their subordinates and family members.

Ms. Cheng, a wealthy factory owner, told me:

I feel that nowadays society is very pragmatic. Sometimes I feel very confused and frustrated. Everyone says that the relationship between old classmates is the purest because there are no benefits or interests involved. But in my case, this was not true. After my middle school reunion I had at least six or seven phone calls from people who attended asking for money or other various kinds of help.

Ms. Cheng dared not attend any further school reunions after her unpleasant experience. However, she found a supportive community by joining a WeChat group where mothers share their experience of raising children. Here she could share her struggles of dealing with her two teenage children. This was a huge support which she felt she could not obtain from her family.

At home everybody is busy with the factory stuff…but there (WeChat mothers’ group) I am just a mother, not a factory owner. I show my weakness and get a lot of comfort…I don’t know exactly who they are, but I know they are all mothers like me who share the same problems.

Chinese migrant workers and factory owners probably lie at the two extremes of the wealth spectrum in the industrial China field site, however both appear to be similarly willing to befriend and communicate with strangers online. Here we can witness how relationships which are mediated by technology turn out to be the more ‘authentic’ compared to offline relationships which in many cases are highly mediated (or ‘polluted’ as people say) by factors such as wealth and social status. The cases from China provide us with a new perspective on online relationships. Here ‘anonymity’ by no means refers to the opposite of ‘authenticity’, just as ‘mediation’ by no means suggests less or more ‘authenticity’.

Normativity and social visibility

By Jolynna Sinanan, on 14 October 2015

image courtesy of sneugle, creative commons

It has been exactly a year since finishing 15 months of fieldwork in Trinidad. Stories for this blog have moved further and further away from cool stuff that was coming out of the field and living in Trinidad, to the far less exciting but far more intense process of endlessly thinking and rethinking the material and drafting and redrafting articles, book chapters, and books (yes, all plural) from three years of research.

So it’s kind of like experiencing the weather from the ground, how it looks and what it feels like, and then looking at the weather from the sky and how the movement of clouds influences what is happening below. This is what moving from the field to writing feels like, moving from experience and observation to the more abstract.

I have been drawing on my field work in Trinidad for, among other things, edited book chapters on different topics, from emotions and technology to social networks in small communities to social media and ethnography. What has been most striking about working on these condensed pieces of writing and stories from the field is the focus of on the everyday, what is normal in the places we lived and what people in those places take for granted. When we started this project in 2012, we didn’t want to look at isolated, spectacular social media events that seemed to be the thing at the moment, whether it was the Kony 2012 campaign or the Ice Bucket Challenge, although these sort of one off things did appear throughout the research. We were far more interested in normal social media practices and if something came up that everybody talked about, shared or commented on, we were able to contextualise it in everyday relations.

Yet, it is these types of spectacular social media events that attract the most attention. It’s like reading about media in media, which reminds me more of the anxieties of post-modernism and post-post-modernism of the 1990s, where social phenomena is likened to simulacra. From the comparative studies of nine societies (a lot of people) one of our key conclusions is that the use of social media can be generalised as being generally unspectacular. There is a previous blog post on how memes can be a visual means to reinforce social norms and morally acceptable behaviour. Humorous memes also provide a safe and popular way for people to express their views without coming across as too self-righteous or taking oneself too seriously.

Memes are just one example of visual posts, others that show food, outfits, places and events again show the everyday. The more exciting or idealised aspects of the everyday, but the everyday nonetheless. And when the idealised aspects of the everyday are shown, they usually conform to a shared sense of what living the good life means, around consumption and lifestyle, which is particularly important given that for several research participants, especially in the Brazilian, Chinese, Indian and Trinidadian field sites, upward mobility is a genuine aspiration. Again, not surprising that aspirations around lifestyle would be more obvious in the sites in countries that are commonly called ‘developing’ or in ‘the global south’.

The other half of posting (at least visual posts) around social norms is that the audience for these posts are one’s social peers and networks, social media simply makes these forms of expression more visible. Prior to social media, normativity and social visibility have had a long interrelationship and was explored with much more depth by thinkers such as Georg Simmel and more recently Agnes Heller. One of our findings summed up in once sentence is that people care what other people think and say about them, especially if they are from small towns where more people know each other and live alongside one another. There might be social media events that capture participants’ attention for a short time, but by and large, social media usage is, well, normal.

Surveying Social Relationships

By Daniel Miller, on 2 October 2015

One of the chapters of our forthcoming book How the World Changed Social Media, which will be published as an Open Access book by UCL Press in February 2016, describes a survey consisting of 43 questions we asked 1199 respondents (mainly around 100 per fieldsite).

Just occasionally this survey produced results which were commensurate with our general ethnographic data, for example, this chart showing the average number of friends is well matched by what our informants say about how generally sociable they feel people are in the place where they live.

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Similarly this figure of whether people use social media to develop new relationships makes sense to us. In some places such as Brazil or Trinidad it is because prior to social media people typically developed friendships through the mechanism of becoming friends with the friends of already established friends or relatives, and this is something that social media lends itself to. By contrast the issue in industrial China is that factory workers, who are constantly shifting from place to place, grow to rely on their online connections as the place for developing friendship, partly because opportunities are quite limited for friendship offline.

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But in other cases the results of this survey are clearly incompatible with what we know from our ethnographies, and we will always favour the authority of 15 months living with a community over a mere survey. It will not be hard for you to spot the problem in the next figure. This is the high number of people in our rural Chinese site who mention siblings as the people who most often post on their walls. The problem is, of course, that given the one family per child policy, most of these young people don’t have siblings. McDonald suggests this is a combination of two factors. Firstly those who do have siblings perhaps share a very close relationship with them. But, this figure also represents a practice in China where it is common to refer to one’s cousins as siblings. It was just one of many examples where we found that our survey could be very misleading unless you had the ethnographic background to understand how and why people had interpreted our questions in a particular and often unpredicted way.

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Personal and public aesthetics: What I learned from my own visceral reactions in the field

By Nell Haynes, on 25 June 2015

jair selfie

Photo by Nell Hayes

At first, I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but over the first several months in my fieldsite in northern Chile I began to realize that one of the reasons I never quite felt totally at home was that the aesthetics of the place never quite fit with my own sense of aesthetics. By aesthetics, I mean the effort and thought that people put into the way things look. In my fieldsite, a city of 100,000 inhabitants, I noticed this in public parks and municipal buildings, in both the inside and outside of homes, and in the way people dressed. It was not only an intellectual exercise, but a visceral feeling. If I wore the clothes that I was used to wearing, perhaps a dress or a fitted button down shirt, I felt as if everyone was staring at me because I was dressed with too much care. Perhaps they were right. There wasn’t really anywhere to go looking smart. The only bar in the city had cement floors, cinderblock walls, and heavy metal bands playing live every weekend.

Over time I thought more about the sense of aesthetics in Alto Hospicio, and realized that while I had considered it entirely utilitarian at first, there was something more particular about it. The aesthetic was very much a part of the accessibility and normativity that prevailed in the city. The predominant aesthetic was not nonexistent, nor did it always privilege form above function or the “choice of the necessary” as Bourdieu calls the working class aesthetic. While many people clearly could afford to redecorate their homes or buy expensive clothing from the department stores in the nearby port city, their aesthetic choices leaned toward an appearance that was not too assuming. They didn’t flaunt or show off in any way. It was an aesthetic that was presented as if it were not one, because aspiring to a particular aesthetic would be performing something; a certain kind of pretension. Yet the aesthetic relies on deliberate choices to not be pretentious or striking; to be modest; to be unassuming. This aesthetic then not only predominated in the material world, but also online. Unlike in Brazil, where young people would never post a selfie in front of an unfinished wall, this was precisely the type of place youth in northern Chile might pose. While in Brazil this would associate the person with backwardness that contradicts the type of upward mobility they hope to present, in northern Chile this type of backdrop would add a sense of authenticity to the person and their unassuming lifestyle.

So, in the end, what began as a visceral feeling of discomfort in the field site, actually led to a very important insight. As I told academic friends many times during my fieldwork, “This place is a great site for research, but not at all a great site for living.” Fortunately, even some of the “not at all great” parts of about living in northern Chile helped my research more than I realized at first.

 

Reference

Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste. Richard Nice, trans. New York: Routledge (1984), pp 41, 372, 376.

 

How did we choose our field sites?

By Tom McDonald, on 18 June 2015

Our project field site locations

Our project field site locations

A question we are often asked is how we selected our field sites for the project. Why these nine sites? Why are there no sites from Africa, or the ex-Soviet block or South East Asia?

We call this a global study, meaning that we include sites from all around the world, but clearly that does not mean it is a comprehensive study.

There was an initial desire to include the biggest populations and emergent economies such as Brazil, China and India. We never intended to work in North America simply because that area is already hugely overrepresented in the study of social media.

Beyond that, however, much of the selection had to depend on whether there were suitable people available to carry out this research. The initial proposal included a study in Africa but the person designated was not available. We could only employ people trained in anthropology who could also make a commitment to live in these field sites for 15 months and in a very specific timeframe. So logistics was a significant factor in determining the specific nine sites.

Another important factor is funding. Through the generosity of a government-funded research centre in Santiago and the Wenner-Gren foundation, we were able to include two additional team members beyond the original ERC funding, providing the project with one study in Chile and a second study in China.

That being said, this project has always been particularly open and collective in nature. We have gained much from learning about social media use in other parts of the world not covered by our study, and see collaboration as naturally extending beyond our own research team. As part of these efforts, we have also developed a project directory where academic researchers from any institution are able to list their own on-going research on social media in different global contexts.