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It’s not just about Chinese migrant workers

By Xin Yuan Wang, on 22 June 2015

Chinese female migrant workers working in a local reflective vest workshop. Photo by Xinyuan Wang

Chinese female migrant workers working in a local reflective vest workshop. Photo by Xinyuan Wang

A question always strikes me as I write up ethnography and prepare for talks based on my 15 months of fieldwork among Chinese factory workers in southeastern China: what will people learn from Chinese migrant workers’ use of social media? Of course these stories may sound ‘exotic’, but I will see it as a total failure if they are nothing more than novel and exotic in peoples’ eyes.

Ethnography in a way is a storytelling of others’ lives. This technique is also widely used in novel writing, film making, and all forms of the narrative of ‘otherness’. Recently a film came out called Still Alice, a touching film telling the story of an extremely intelligent female linguistic, Alice, in her 50s who suffers from Alzheimer’s. In the film Alice is not only gradually losing all of the professional knowledge she acquired after many years of education and research, but also all the memories of her life, of being a mother, a wife, a woman, even a human being.  My colleagues and friends who watched the film shared the same thought, how lucky we are to still have those memories which, from time to time, we take for granted. And some of them, including myself, even became a bit panicked when we would forget something all of the sudden – OMG, is that an early sign of Alzheimer’s?! Whether being grateful, thoughtful, or even panicked, all of these reactions come from the fact that we are placing ourselves in the story and imagining ourselves living her life. Empathy is the word we use to describe these experiences that bridge other’s stories and our own.

And ‘empathy’ is key for the ethnographer. I still recall the days when I felt desperate about the state of my filedwork, that I had nothing to do but watch ‘stupid’ videos on people’s smartphones with the factory workers or just stare at people’s repetitive movements on the assembly line for hours. All the boredom drove me bananas and I howled to Danny that I couldn’t bear such a dreadful life anymore. What Danny said not only calmed me down but also woke me up: “Don’t forget, if you have enough, you can easily walk out in the near future, but for them, it’s their whole life.

The most unforgettable thing I learned from my fieldwork was not the material I took away for my research, but the personal experience of being able to live those migrant workers’ lives. Through this experience I developed an empathetic respect for other people’s lives and motivations which, in turn, has allowed me to reflect upon, and be grateful for, my own life. However, not everybody has the ‘luxury’ to experience others’ lives like ethnographers do. This further highlights the importance of our research, that we have the opportunity to bring an empathetic understanding of ‘others’ to the public when they read or listen to our research.

People constantly gain knowledge of themselves through understanding others: how we are different from the others, how we are similar to the others, why we are different or similar, these inquiries help us to depict the outline of the ‘self’. This is the main reason for the importance of learning other’s stories, because they allow us to gain perspective on our own lives, to think and feel differently. A good novel or a good film achieves this, so why not ethnography? One could argue that ethnography can do this even better, given its holistic knowledge of the given population and society.

The empathy and thought evoked from an anthropological study of ‘others’ can be very powerful, one of the most famous cases comes from Margaret Mead’s fieldwork in Samoa. Mead’s book Coming of Age in Samoa has sparked years of ongoing and intense debate on various issues such as society, community, social norms, and gender. For example, Mead described how gender is constructed by the local community, in this case one totally different from American society, and argued that masculine and feminine characteristics are based mostly on cultural conditioning. This argument actually influenced the 1960s ‘sexual revolution’ when people in the West started to rethink gender.That’s the real strength of ethnography.

This bares a question for all anthropologists, in what way is your research relevant to an audience who may not necessarily be interested in the specific group or society that is the focus of your research? The knowledge drawn from fieldwork should not be parochial. As we can see in Mead’s case, ethnography about a group of people which seems to bear very limited relevance to people in the West is capable of inspiring people by evoking reflection of the ‘self’, culture, and society.

In some of my talks, as well as at the end of the ethnography I am writing, I always try to remind people that it is not just about Chinese rural migrants. Yes, they are the human faces behind ‘Made in China’, they are said to be part of the biggest migration in human history. However, it is more than that. For example, understanding the ways migrant workers experience social media as the place where real daily life takes place in the context of their appalling offline situation pushes us to think about the complex relationship between online and offline, which is one of the core issues about social media use worldwide. The fantasy images on the social media profiles of Chinese rural migrants may look totally bizarre to you, but the logic of applying imagination to guide, explain, fulfill or strike a balance in daily life is as old as human history – dreams, sexual fantasy, folktale, religion…you name it. So a study of how people play out their fantasies about life with the help of social media and how such experiences impacts people’s lives may not just be relevant in that given population and society. It is not just about Chinese rural migrants, it’s about understanding them as well as gaining understanding of ourselves.

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.

Pin down the questions

By Xin Yuan Wang, on 5 September 2014

Construction site

Xinyuan asking questions on a construction site among workers (photo by MF)

You should know that the majority of PhD students feel some regret that they didn’t ask enough questions when they came back from the field.

Danny advised so when we walked past a beautiful bamboo forest last year in October when he came to visit my field site.
At that time, after five-months of fieldwork I was frustrated about the situation that on the one hand, I felt as if I was mining hard on poor ground- there was nothing (no longer) new under the sun! On the other hand, I somehow felt it’s very awkward to ask ‘formal’ questions to the informants who treat  me as a friend and I didn’t want to lose the relaxed atmosphere which I believe allows people to show the ‘true self’.

Well, I see, but I still need some time to figure out HOW” I curled my lip and said.

It is really not easy to ask questions, even though the pre-fieldwork project meeting prepared well HOW to do this. Now, at the last phase of my fieldwork, when I look back and ask myself whether I feel any regrets about ‘asking questions’ during my fieldwork, I think the answer is NO, but with several footnotes.

First, useful questions do not necessarilyhave to be asked in a interview-like formal way or even with a question mark. My strategy is to follow people’s organic conversation flow and ‘harness’ the topic by relevant detailed inquiries or directional claim. That means most of the time my inquiries are impromptu. However, such improvisation is not as random as some laid back chic-chat among friends, it has to point towards the impact of social media. In practice, asking questions in a contextual way to address a research question is a mind-taxing and thought-racing process.

For instance, a factory worker informant of mine used to complain about her boyfriend (who is now her husband) in front of me, in such a situation, as a friend, I am supposed to be a compassionate ally who shares the same bitter hatred, rather than a ‘keep-one’s-nose-clean’ researcher who only takes interest in the phenomenon of ‘men keeping ex-girlfriends’ photos on social media’. I had to control my academic inclinations and insert my ‘questions’ patiently among her unrestricted criticism. As a result my questions output is like:

  • Oh gosh, how come? that’s totally outrageous, I just can’t believe it. but..hey you are great, how can you know his password? my boyfriend never told me his!
  • Really?! so…which means he knew you looked at these photos? I don’t get it, what’s wrong with men? why do they think we can accept those ex- bitches…with a big smile?! I just don’t get it!
  • Relax, you are strong, and I hope he will learn a lesson. By the way, did you give him any warning or at least a hint about this?

Framing questions in this way allows people to relate to the topic and express their own opinions. Look at the contrast to more direct research questions:

  • Do you have your partner’s social media password, if so, could you tell me why and how do you get it?
  • Will you remove your ex partner’s photos on social media profile? if so why? and why do you think some people keep their ex partner’s photos on social media?
  • How do you deal with your partner’s ex-partner’s photos on social media?

Furthermore, all my roundabout inquiries are actually aiming to put pieces together of a bigger puzzle, which is the relationship between intimacy and social media usage. Nevertheless, I am not suggesting that such theatrical questioning can be applied in every case- it works only when a researcher has a relatively comprehensive knowledge of his/her informant as well as the circumstance during the conversation.

The funny thing is after just one month when I came back to the same informant and tried to go through some more interview-like questions she appeared slightly uncomfortable and confused about my question with regards to the intimacy and the usage of social media, and asked me why I was interested in those ‘useless’ things and what for. Clearly she forget that’s the reason I was in my field site and I was a researcher which I had told her one-year ago. Her attitude is understandable as for people who have limited education (like many of her fellow workers in the factory she is a middle-school drop-out) and living experience with academic research, words like ‘research’, ‘questionnaire’, ‘interview’, etc are more often than not very alien and sometimes even horrific. Thus it is safe to say the way to ask questions is as important as, if not more, the questions per se.

Secondly, at the closing phase of my field site I started to ‘push the boundary’ and pin down some questions I did not want to ask for the reasons I just mentioned above. The efforts were not in vain. Even though my informants appeared unsurprisingly uncomfortable and couldn’t give me a articulate answer in many cases. They still gave me some valuable information I couldn’t have gotten just by chatting with them, such as do they visit pornographic websites or describe their social media usage situation in the past five years.

Meanwhile, I spent almost one month in Shanghai to do comparative study among urban and rural (or rural migrant) population. Jingwen Fan, a Shanghai-based artist and media researcher, worked with me to conduct interviews among Shanghainese people. Given that we didn’t have enough time to carry out proper anthropological participant-observation, which I was doing among rural migrants in my field site, our interviews targeted personal friends and relatives of Jingwen Fan and I, with whom we have established strong mutual trust and understanding.

The interviews have been ongoing for more than a month and most of the interviews were filmed with consent. We have a list of 24 questions for the interviews (I will post the list of the questions in my next blog posting), which according to my one-year ‘questioning’ experience will lead to some active interaction and valuable data.  So far, the interviews went very well even though I was slightly worried about what Margaret Mead said, ‘What people say, what people do, and what they say they do are entirely different things’.

We appreciate that most of all of our informants trust us a great deal and actively interact with us by showing us their social media profiles and sharing with us their personal stories without hesitation. And on top of it, the people we interviewed not only expressed themselves very well but also discussed different issues with us passionately. Some of them started an answer by saying “You know what, actually I thought about exactly the same question recently and I also discussed it with my friends…” More often than not, a filmed interview took around three hours.

It is safe to say the difference between the urban and rural population’s performance in formal interviews is mainly due to the difference in educational background and living experience. The average education level among factory workers/ rural migrants in my field site is below middle school, and the average among Shanghai-based informants is university. Given the huge information consumption on a daily basis and the diversity of urban life, the urban population appeared much more confident, open-minded and articulate in talking about the society and themselves. Thus, after conducting the study among different groups of people in China for almost 15 months, I am ready to say that the point of ‘pin down the question’ is not only about ‘asking enough questions’ as Danny advised, but also about ‘asking tailored questions for different informants’

“Watch the World Cup: watch the fun and the world”

By Xin Yuan Wang, on 27 June 2014

Factory officers watching the recorded World Cup online during lunch break in their office. photo by Xinyuan Wang

Factory officers watching recorded World Cup games online during the lunch break in their office. photo by Xinyuan Wang

The ongoing World Cup, as a global event, seems to provide an ideal platform for us, the Global Social Media Impact Study to compare people’s social media engagement worldwide. Here in this busy factory town in south China, there is no pub where people can watch football, there is no football field where people can play football, and I have never ever felt any passion for football during my whole year of field work. Most of the time, I had to train myself to select ‘useful’ information from a huge amount of field notes.  However, this time I was somehow worried that the topic of football over here is somewhat similar to the topic of skiing for people who live in a tropical rain forest.

Not surprisingly, up to the day of writing (24 June) there is very limited content on social media about football or the World Cup among my informants (around two-thirds of them are Chinese rural migrants, working in local factories, one-third are factory managers, local businessman, and few people living in cities), among 100 informants’ QQ profiles (around 179 posts over the World Cup period), there was only five posts about football directly, and the majority of them were about football gambling game as one of the posts said: “I am optimistic about Italy!” XB, an 18-year old factory worker wrote so, and he told me later that the reason he posted so was because he clicked on a QQ football gambling game “by chance”, and invested 10 RMB (1 pound) betting with Italy. However, when I moved to WeChat (a social media applied more by Chinese urban population and middle-class) things became different. When I included my personal social media connections which mainly consist of people living and working in cities like Shanghai, Beijing, Hong Kong, and overseas places, the rate of football related posts is much higher: among 158 posts drawn from 60 people on WeChat, there were more than 30% of football and World Cup related posts. Furthermore, the posts about football varied. There were original posts about watching football in pubs or at home alone or with friends (usually with a set of photos of the beer, the TV screen, the venue, and group photos); posts commenting on the performance of certain players or teams; informative shared links about the game schedule and the line-ups; shared pictures/videos about the world cup, including a great amount of jokes, etc.

The presence (or the absence) of the World Cup on people’s social media profiles (QQ and WeChat) not only showcased different ‘lifestyles’ of the urban Chinese and rural migrants, but also manifested a great difference between the user groups of WeChat and QQ that is WeChat is more urban and QQ is more rural. Even though it is too simplistic to put things in urban-rural dichotomy, it is safe to say that the urban-rural division exists in many obvious ways in China according to my ethnography.

Nevertheless, my inquiry about the ‘social media and the World Cup’ should by no means remain on social media domain since the real strength of field work lies in a comprehensive understanding of people’s daily life. The game-watching experience with my informants and follow-up interviews tell me more about the social connections behind football and the World Cup.

Curiously, even though the visibility of the world cup on social media among rural migrants is extremely low, in my field site, one can still feel some passion for the World Cup, especially among men. ZF, a forklift driver in his 30s, went to bed straight away after work at 5 pm, in order to get up in midnight to watch the games via his computer (given the time difference, most of the games are after midnight China time). Some of ZF’s co-workers in the factory (around 25%) did the same, and “the younger, the crazier” even though most of them “do not understand football” as one of them told me. However the majority of people who showed interest in the World Cup reported that they watched the game alone in their room, which means watching the world cup is not a public event or social event at all in this small town. Such situation limits the possibility of me, as a young woman, of joining the game-watching with my informants: at midnight, a young woman and a young man, both don’t understand football, watching football in a small room where the only furniture is a bed does not sound particularly inviting for me and probably too inviting for the other side.

Having said so, I still managed to watch a recorded game (Columbia Vs. Greece) during the lunch break with four of my informants (three male one female) who are factory officials in the office. During the game-watching, I secretly counted how many times people made remarks on the match per se, and how many time people made remarks on something else. Among roughly 230 remarks over 90 minutes, 1/3 of them are very short remarks about the match per se, such as “Oh he is fast!”, “Shoot!”, “Quick quick”, “that must be painful”, “Come on, that’s fake”. And the other 2/3 of the remarks was sort of ‘football-free’. 

“I like the blue pants!”

“Hey, many of the foreigners are bald, how come?”

“Is that true foreign men always smell, so they have to use perfume?”

“Oh I wish I could run and fight like them, men should be like that”

“Look, the judge running after the players all the time, how tiring, he must be very well paid!”

“Where is Columbia?”

“He is handsome!”

“One of my friends marry to a ‘fu er dai’ (second generation of the rich, refers to people who come from very rich families), and their honeymoon trip was to Greece. The photos she posted on her QQ were just amazingly beautiful. I just don’t get it, I mean, she is not very pretty at all.”

“Oh, foreigners are really crazy, they paint on their face, and dance like this, they are so crazy! Life in the west must be very free and have a lot of fun.”

“I really think Chinese men can’t date foreign women, they are too open to sex, too difficult to control!”

It seems that during the game-watching more conversation were centered on exoticism, masculinity, and gossip, which for whatever reasons were allowed by the encounter of the carnival-like world cup. And for me those conversations where football was absent seemed to be even more interesting in terms of anthropological inquiries about sociality in people’s daily life.

The World Cup watching experience reminds me of the local opera show. From time to time, a local traditional Chinese opera troupe had performance on a makeshift stage, hundreds of people gathered under the stage, however not everybody was interested in the performance; the noise of chatting under the stage was just as loud as the singing on the stage. When the performance was over, more than half of the audience remained at their seats, chatting with each other. I asked some of them whether they were fans of the opera or the troupe, few of them said yes. People told me that they came here because it’s very “re nao” (‘re’ in Chinese means hot, ‘nao’ means noisy, two characters together means ‘bustle’). “Re nao” is a very interesting thing, Chinese people will say “cou re nao” (join the bustle), which takes place in various situations. Basically being bustle and noisy is regarded as something fun. Here, many people come to the performance for the purpose of “cou re nao”, which is joining the bustle, watching the fun. The social interactions in many cases depend on those ‘everyday encounters with people’ – any activity in public which gathers people became a ‘social activity’ automatically. Similarly, people’s interest may be not necessarily in the event, either the world cup or the local opera show. Thus watching the world cup in my field site is more about watching the world and watching the fun.

THE WORLD CUP ON SOCIAL MEDIA WORLDWIDE
This article is part of a special series of blog posts profiling how social media is affecting how ordinary people from communities across the planet experience the 2014 World Cup.

Visibly invisible: you can always see me

By Xin Yuan Wang, on 24 March 2014

The Little Prince is probably the novel which I have read the most times. Each time I read it, I am warmly touched. Amid field work, I am reading it again. My favorite part is the conversation between the fox and the little prince, when the fox tells the little prince that meaning of ‘to tame’ is to ‘establish ties’.

“Just that,” said the fox. “To me, you are still nothing more than a little boy who is just like a hundred thousand other little boys. And I have no need of you. And you, on your part, have no need of me. To you, I am nothing more than a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes. But if you tame me, then we shall need each other. To me, you will be unique in all the world. To you, I shall be unique in all the world…”

“My life is very monotonous,” the fox said. “I hunt chickens; men hunt me. All the chickens are just alike, and all the men are just alike. And, in consequence, I am a little bored. But if you tame me, it will be as if the sun came to shine on my life. I shall know the sound of a step that will be different from all the others. Other steps send me hurrying back underneath the ground. Yours will call me, like music, out of my burrow. And then look: you see the grain-fields down yonder? I do not eat bread. Wheat is of no use to me. The wheat fields have nothing to say to me. And that is sad. But you have hair that is the color of gold. Think how wonderful that will be when you have tamed me! The grain, which is also golden, will bring me back the thought of you. And I shall love to listen to the wind in the wheat…”

I have to quote the whole lot what the fox said,  not only because it is beautifully written, but also it reminders me of a recent talk between myself and  my informant LX about QQ (social media) permission settings.

LX is a sweet factory girl who is 19-year-old. One day she complained that I was always ‘invisible’ (my QQ status) online, which is true. My QQ default setting is ‘invisible’ which means I can get QQ messages but my QQ contacts don’t know I am online when I log in. To be ‘invisible’ means I won’t be disturbed by other online contacts and it has become an accepted/applied strategy among my informants who have hundreds of QQ contacts to log in as ‘invisible’.

There are six online status of QQ (see the screenshot below): I am online; Q me (chat with me); Away; Busy; Do not disturb; and Invisible.  For most people (90%) as long as they are online, the status is either ‘online’, or ‘invisible’, or ‘away’ with auto-response. The reason for being ‘invisible’ varies– the main reason is that people do not want to be disturbed or get involved in a conversation, however still want to view others’ Qzone (online profiles) and don’t want to miss any important message. ‘Do not disturb’ as a status is rarely used since people think that is rude.

QQ status

I thought there were only six alternatives one can choose until LX taught me that actually there were some other ‘hidden’ options in the advanced permission setting. Right click any QQ contact’s avatar, on the pop-up select box (see screenshot below) there are a few options which enact different operations upon the certain contact, for instance: send instant message, send an Email (QQ offers email service which is the dominant email service my informant used), view chat log (one can check the local chat log, which is the chats that occurred on the current digital device or roaming chat log, which refers to all the chats under the same account occurring on different digital devices), put this contact on top of the contact list, edit the name (QQ names, in most cases, are not real names, as I mentioned in my previous report. As a result users will usually note the real-name if they know it), group the contact, delete the contact, report the contact (for online  harassment), create a desktop shortcut, enter his/her Qzone, check his/her Tencent weibo (twitter-like service QQ offers) etc. and permission setting (see the screen shot below, blue highlighted). In the permission setting, there is one option that says “yin shen dui qi ke jian” (make visible to him/her in invisible status) which means the selected contact can always ‘see’ you even when you are in ‘invisible’ status.

QQ advanced permission setting

I felt honored to realize that I am the second person who can ‘see’ LX when she is ‘invisible’ to others on QQ (the first one is her boyfriend).

It is like you can always see me, and I am always there waiting for you, you know, very close and exclusive.

LX further explained the significance of ‘visible invisibility’. In return, I set her as the first contact that can ‘see’ me when I am ‘invisible’, which made her very happy. Such mutual advanced permission setting reinforced our relationship.

‘To see’ is different from ‘to look.’ The latter happens all the time, however in many cases does not necessarily lead to the former. A senior manager of a local factory told me that the logic of assembly line is that humankind is a part of the machine. I asked him whether he personally knew any of the factory workers. Rather than answer ‘no’, he told me “it’s not necessary”. True, he only needs to know the machine. I am probably the first one (the weird one) who visited the factory workshop and paid more attention to the workers rather than the product, the building, and the machine.

“All the rural migrants are just alike” as some of my local informants put it. In this small town, in factory workshops, monotonousness on a daily basis is the grand narrative, eclipsing individuality.  Most of the time, my rural migrant friends are ‘invisible’ to most people, even though they certainly did not ‘set’ themselves as ‘invisible’.  Unfortunately unlike on QQ, the default ‘social’ setting of ‘invisible’ cannot easily be changed in their offline life. To live against such daily ‘invisibility’, LX’s skillful usage of QQ allows herself some ‘privileged’ visibility, and in consequence,  an ordinary factory girl who is just like a hundred thousand other rural-to-urban migrant girls shall be unique in all the world, at least in the ‘virtual world’ created by social media.

The Future of Facebook: What will we learn from the study of Chinese social media?

By Xin Yuan Wang, on 29 January 2014

Image courtesy of emreterok, Creative Commons

Image courtesy of emreterok, Creative Commons

China is a dreadful desert to Western social media giants such as Facebook and Twitter, however it is a tropical rainforest to many local species. It is curious to note that even though none of the participants in my field site use, or have even heard of Facebook or Twitter, the way they use Chinese social media such as QQ and WeChat provides an interesting parallel to the way UK teenagers in Danny’s study differentiate a range of social media in their daily life, even though as social media QQ, or WeChat are both significantly different from Facebook.

Among certain groups of Chinese people, like teenagers, QQ seems to be in stasis. For teens with relatively high education and social status that are more willing to try something new and urban middle-class, QQ is not cool at all, just as what Danny reported about Facebook in his previous blog article. It is not rare to find people who have used QQ for more than 10 years in China given QQ started to become popular almost 15 years ago. In fact, QQ could be considered Facebook’s predecessor and to some extent through the study of QQ’s development in China we may ‘foretell’ what will happen in ‘Facebook land’ in the future. Many of my participants have told me that around 10 years ago, QQ represented the coolest thing about urban life because rural migrants who came back to their village during Chinese New Year showed off that they had a QQ account in front of their stunned fellow villagers. After 10 years, when almost half of the Chinese population have QQ accounts, QQ numbers rather than mobile phone numbers are exchanged most frequently as  permanent contact details (it is reported that people change their mobile phone much more frequently than their QQ account). QQ has lost its association with trendy or cool things, especially for urban Chinese people who want to escape from the ‘hustle and bustle’ QQ land which somehow has been associated with rural Chinese. On one hand, some people report that they use QQ less and less in recent years since Wechat’s audio message is more fun and convenient, and WeChat seems to be more in line with urban life. Some report that their closest friends and frequent contacts all moved to WeChat. On the other hand, people admitted that they would always come back to QQ when they wanted to catch up with long-lost relationships, such as old classmates or previous colleagues. As one informant put it, those contacts “didn’t move to other social media,” but remain in the “old home” of QQ. Those contacts may also have started using WeChat or other social media, but from my participants’ perspectives, they ‘belong’ to QQ. These friends may not have updated their social media details because of sparse communication, or are regarded a part of ‘past old days’ in one’s mind and QQ is the PLACE to go.

That is to say, people didn’t quit QQ because of their engagement with other social media. Rather, QQ survives time and thus obtains a ‘senior’ status, something like an old friend who has witnessed one’s ups-and-downs in life even though they may only meet once a year. QQ may also be regarded like one’s birthplace, which my rural migrant informants only visit during Chinese new year but always remains as one of the most import places in their lives. People don’t dump QQ, but keep it, and use it in a different way.

So the quick conclusion is QQ seems to be in stasis among certain groups of people not because of ‘being QQ’, but because of the law of ‘nature’ – here let me call this the nature of social media. And it also makes sense if one replaces “QQ” by “Facebook” in this argument.

And what is the nature of social media? You may need a bit more patience to read through the following academic ‘block’ to get a clearer picture:

First, stuff becomes more than the material after being used by people. For example the pen from your passed-away grandpa is to you by no means equal to any other pen which was produced on the same factory assembly line. If we have to use jargon, we call the process ‘objectification’ where an object consumed by people is domesticated and becomes part of the person and their relationship to others. That is where material culture starts, and the context in which we study digital technology. Digital technology, as a form of material, is no more sophisticated or mediated than any other object in terms of the relationship between material and human beings. Having said that, however, it is worthwhile to highlight the uniqueness of social media in the way that social media show the relationship between the digital and social relationship in a more visible and obvious way. That is to say, without people’s engagement and usage, social media is next to nothing. In a way, ‘Facebook’ and ‘QQ’ are only half finished goods before being used by people. Social media is produced through the consumption, as the terminology ‘prosumption’ suggested. Thus, it is safe to say social media is highly entangled with the ‘self’ and personal relationship to the degree that it somehow grows with the person and has its own life (Gell’s theory of ‘agency’ also shed light on this argument).

Furthermore, the concept of ‘polymedia’ describes another feature of social media. Each social media platform finds its niche in specific personal relationships and people take moral responsibility for their choice of different social media. In the case of ‘Facebook’, as Danny suggested, at the moment when people got friend request from their mother, the social medium is transformed into a family-orientated place rather than the place where people share secrets with their close friends. Also the concept ‘remediation’  helps to illustrate the way how certain social media (like QQ and Facebook) become ‘old’ because of the development of other social media. Dialectically, there is no so-called old or new social media without the comparison with others, that is to say people tend to re-define certain social media in the context of polymedia.

Even though my research is still unfinished, let me ‘jump to the conclusion’ and put my incomplete version of ‘the nature of social media’ here: First, social media as a social agent grow with the person and own their own lives. Second, social media were applied and valued by people in a context of polymedia.

Having discussed the nature of social media, then, let’s go back to my argument from the beginning – QQ seems to be in stasis among certain group of people not because of ‘being QQ’, but because of the law of ‘nature’, and so does Facebook. It is important to not treat social media as functional technology like we would computers. In terms of technology, new social media are not more advanced than pre-existing ones. It makes sense to say that today’s computers have taken the place of the early bulky computer, whereas we can’t say that a certain social medium is dead completely because its users turn to new ones and use others more actively. The situation in practice is like the way people treat friendship and the attitude toward one’s birthplace. From time to time, my participants in this Chinese town used “old friend” or “lao jia” (hometown) to describe their QQ profiles. For some of them, the usage of WeChat is more frequent and active than the usage of QQ. They report and I have observed that WeChat is more for recent contacts one meets in face-to-face situations, and generally speaking closer friends in a smaller circle. QQ on the other hand is used to keep up with all kinds of friends, acquaintances, and communities (QQ offers a group function, such as ‘class group’  used in one middle school) that one has accumulated over a relatively long term. In some cases QQ has become some people’s digital legacy where they keep the ‘silly self’ of 10 years ago. As one of my informants said she won’t use QQ to communicate with her new friends anymore since “on QQ you will encounter a little girl of 10 years ago”, however it is always good to view that ‘self’ in the past as it remains alive on QQ. QQ has become the PLACE, the legacy. Each generation, each human being owns their own history, and in the digital age, social media have become the place people store their history, and where old friends and memory dwell. I have witnessed it already in the usage of QQ among Chinese people and I don’t see any reason why Facebook will not follow suit.

Finally, the findings in China, with the absence of Facebook, actually reinforced our essential argument that the study of digital anthropology and this GSMIS project go beyond specific usage of a certain social medium. Social media usage is the point of entrance which allows our digital anthropologists to look into, understand and interpret the social relationship and the relationship between people and technology in different cultures and societies in the digital age.

Ceramics, forklift trucks and social media

By Xin Yuan Wang, on 20 October 2013

(By Daniel Miller and Xinyuan Wang)

A factory worker who is operating forklift truck in Xinyuan Wang’s fieldsite, and a 12-13th century Jingdezhen ceramics in the Shanghai Museum (photo by Xinyuan Wang)

A factory worker who is operating forklift truck in Xinyuan Wang’s fieldsite, and a 12-13th century Jingdezhen ceramics in the Shanghai Museum (photo by Xinyuan Wang)

For ethnographers working in the field of material culture, people’s values often ‘unintentionally’ reveal themselves in the tiniest of things. Similarly, a day’s field work may be crystallised by some seemingly random lines, or just a word. On this fieldtrip we both felt that a Chinese place name Jingdezhen (景德镇) on the label of beautiful ancient Chinese ceramics in the Shanghai museum somehow made us think about social media in a different way.

Danny’s visit to China started with seeing Tom in the North, followed by Xinyuan in the South, and ended up with a few days in Shanghai (near Xinyuan’s fieldsite). In the Shanghai Museum there are many examples of exquisite and delicate ceramics from one of the most famous pottery making sites in the world: Jingdezhen.

As we stood looking a delicate examples from several centuries ago, Xinyuan recalled that some of her factory informants who currently operate forklift trucks also come from this region of inland China. Furthermore, they used to work in these same ceramic workshops that still produce some of the finest ceramics in the country.  This led to a discussion. Why would people who had previously been associated with one of the world’s finest artisanal products abandoned that craft in order to operate forklift trucks in a noisy and vast factory. What happened?

The key factor as Xinyuan’s informant HH told her was that “making pots is just so boring, sitting in the room, dealing with the mud day after day, and year after year.

It is quite understandable that compared to designing, carving, or painting ceramics, making the bodies of the pot itself, which these workers used to do, is not that stimulating and interesting: it was as repetitious as the work on the assembly line in factories. However what makes such remark interesting is Xinyuan’s observation of her factory friends’ daily usage of social media via their smartphones in workplace. Xinyuan knows these drivers especially well because the demand on their work is intermittent, which means they have spare time in the day. Spare time with nothing to do might in turn have meant this was designated as more boring rather than less boring work. During these days they  not only chat but also go online through their smartphones. So, in effect, the possession of a phone with social media can reverse the whole concept of work. What was once a sign of boredom as an interlude is now a sign that you can engage in the one thing that is pretty much never seen as boring, which is social media.

There is more to this. Social media here is not just defined as less boring because it gives you something to do. The way QQ operates is rather different from Facebook. It is full of pop-ups, multiple channels, which flow easily between looking up people, watching entertainment, gaming and other pursuits. It is a much more evidently exciting activity than Facebook. The material present there is fast moving, bright and modern. This is crucial to the larger and underlying study. Xinyuan’s study of QQ at this particular site was intended to represent the largest migration in world history of 130 million workers. But what Xinyuan has found is actually salaries are not so much greater than in the home lands of these workers and there is employment available to many of them there. Furthemore living in their hometown means greatly reduced costs, so reducing this migration to economic necessities may be quite misleading. It is rather that as people in local shops told us when we were chatting with them, this area, which is much closer to places such as Shanghai, seems more modern, with more potential for interesting lives and exciting times.

This in turn leads to one of the key findings about how rural migrants use social media. Xinyuan originally expected that the key would be the ability of social media to help people retain links back to their place of origin and their wider family. The assumption was that like most other migrations, today this was born of poverty and struggle. Having had to leave their family they would want to stay in touch. People do use social media for this purpose, but they are much more clearly orientated to developing connections in this new site. This is, after, all the main reason they have come: to see another ‘world’ and gain new experiences. So social media is much more about the plethora of new contacts and new people they meet. This is why social media so clearly represents that which is not ‘boring’: not the predestined fate of the past, and why QQ places more emphasis on being exciting and not just a place for social connectivity.

So, ceramics or forklift? Actually, this turns out to be only part of the question. Most of the time people’s choice was not based on the alternative between ceramics or forklift trucks. Rather the key is social media, which represents all the possibility and connectivity which they hope to develop also in their living context. Social media is much more than a technology, just as a place of living is much more than the job you do when living there.

Two worlds

By Xin Yuan Wang, on 5 September 2013

The bed of my informant CY, which she shares with her little sister (photo by XinYuan Wang)

The bed of my informant CY, which she shares with her little sister (photo by Xin Yuan Wang)

The more that I get to know people here in the South China fieldsite, the more I see the sharp distinction between their offline lives and online lives.  It seems that there are actually two worlds, or two places where my informants live – one is a physical place, and the other social media.

My informant ‘CY’ is 18 years old, lives with her parents and her little brother and little sister. CY’s parents work in the same factory. The whole family lives in two small rooms – CY shares the bed with her little sister in the downstairs room (see image, above).

Every day the family wash themselves in a shared toilet which is without a shower. One plastic bucket and one plastic wash basin serves as a shower set. There is used toilet paper and dirty water on the floor, stains on the wall. However the toilet at home is still much better than the one at work, where people just don’t feel like flushing after using it, which is welcomed by swarms of flies. The air is thick with the stench of sewage and human waste and one has no problem of finding the toilet with the sense of smell hundreds of meters away. At daytime, even indoor temperature is above 38 degree, the air is so warm to the degree that I am afraid the only electric fan stops working because its engine is burning hot. One day, after work, CY was ‘playing’ her smartphone in her room while chatting with me from time to time. She was attracted into the ‘online world’ as if she had forgotten where she was; after a while; she looked up to see me – I was sitting there, sweating like a pig.

“Life outside the mobile phone is unbearable, hum?” she smiled.

Exactly. Life outside the mobile phone! I almost jumped up and cheered when I heard what she said. CY was right, there are two worlds , one is inside the mobile phone, and the other one outside the mobile phone. The one outside is a tedious place with the smell, high temperature and other chaos. To the contrary, the one inside with infinite space is free from any unpleasant smell and weather. CY’s QQ profile is neat, clean with the color of light blue and white. She updated her QZone (status and forward post) at least three times per day. Online CY is surrounded by a group of admirers and the way she talked is as if she was the princess who is waiting for true love. I have never seen CY talk like a princess in any face-to-face situation.  In this big factory, there are hundreds of other ordinary young women just like CY, CY is just one of them and as such pretty ordinary;  However,  she is a princess in her ‘inside’ world online.

Of course the offline world and online world overlap in many cases; half of CY’s online status have a very close relationship with what just happened offline. And the one who interacts with CY most frequently online is her best friend who works in the next-door workshop of the same factory. A great part of the offline world (especially the not so pleasant part) is not reflected in her QQ profile at all. She knows each of her online friends offline, in which vein, one cannot view online and offline as separated in terms of participators. However, my point is that a significant part of my informants’ online world has nothing to do with their offline world, and in most cases, they prefer to ‘live’ in the online world which is much more interesting, pleasant, and purified.

Where did all the kids come from? And where will they go?

By Xin Yuan Wang, on 10 July 2013

A young woman and her baby at a local mobile phone shop

A young woman and her baby at a local mobile phone shop

Doing fieldwork always means you need to understand the local people before you look into anything particular. In which vein, most of my time so far has been contributed to knowing people and the local social life which provide essential context for the local social media usage. Here, in this article I’d like to talk about something quite unexpected: kids.

My field site is a small factory town in southeast China where Chinese rural migrants account for two thirds of the local residents. I had the impression that on the high street of my field site, the amount of babies and kids I have seen during the three months is more than the total I have seen during the three years when I was in the UK. It is not a joke; here it is not difficult to find a migrant family with five to seven children, which made me very confused at the first beginning given the well-known Chinese ‘one- child’ policy.

Now let me explain it a bit.The ‘one-child’ policy used to be conducted extremely strictly in China. A typical Chinese word “tou sheng” (give birth secretly) suggests the most popular folk strategy toward the tough policy.

“Years ago, they [local officials] would chase you to the end of the earth if they knew you have a baby secretly in other places, but now nobody bothers to catch people who ‘tou sheng’ outside [their home place].” one of my informants who has three kids told me how things have changed nowadays.

As a result, the rural migrant people seemed to have the “privilege” to have as many kids as they want during their stay at “other places” – they are “floating” in other places with their kids.  The way rural migrant lead their lives seemed to have already gave me the answers for the question “why do people want so many children?” – That is to survive on numbers.

“My mum believes that being a human being is to make human beings. The more the better and as many as possible.”  A man in his 30s told me.

What a philosophy of life. Clear, and strong, and each one can make a go for it. Among my rural migrant people, nobody has ever cared about which kindergarten, primary school, or middle school their children go to. They cared about how many children they have and others have. Many kids will be sent to factories to earn money by their parents when they finish middle school (15-16 years old). It is illegal to employ child labor for factory owners; however they have chosen to turn a blind eye to child labor given that all the kids have fake identification cards showing that they already are 18 years old. Education here is not something for freedom or a better life, but something to prepare potential labor that can read for factories. I once asked people how they can afford to bring up so many kids.

“’To be honest, if you are rich, you bring up kids in a rich way, if you are poor, and then bring up kids in a poor way. The kids of rich guys will learn how to play piano; our kids only need to know how to survive.” A man said.

I knew he meant it.

Here, in this small industrial town, most people work hard and treat each other for survival. There is no tourism agency, no gym, no cinema, and no garden.  Life is a lasting battle for survival, from this generation to the next. It is as grandeur as an epic, however as humble as weeds. The ancient wisdom of the nature has told people how to apply numerical advantage to confront with high mortality and high failure rates.

One day, I was sitting in the mobile phone shop, watching people. A very young lady came to top up her mobile phone. She was pretty, in a pink pullover, carrying her baby on her back. From the cloth baby carrier with colorful embroidery I could immediately tell that she must have come from the Guizhou province. She gave me a 20 RMB (2 pounds) banknote  and I thought she wanted to top up 20 RMB, which is very reasonable since the average cost of mobile phone among migrant people is 100- 200 RMB (10 pounds- 20 pounds). But she told me she only wanted to top up 10 RMB. When I was thinking why she only topped up 10 RMB, a delicate tiny little hand was reaching out from the baby carrier – it is just the most beautiful scene I have ever seen in my field site (see photo). Out of sudden I became very emotional, especially when I overheard the first phone call she made when she left shop was to her friend, saying that she had run out of money, and the baby was sick.

Until now I still felt guilty that I didn’t run out to catch up her and give her some money. Or, should I?  Here, everybody needs help. However, the thing made me sadder was the baby’s future. Where did all the kids come from? And where will they go? I may have known the answers, but I really hope it was not the truth.