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Talking to the BBC about social media in China

By Tom McDonald, on 14 March 2017

Earlier this month, I was very fortunate to be interviewed by the BBC on my research onto the use of technology in China. The article that was published as a result of the interview is a good example of ‘public anthropology’, showing how the discipline’s research can made relevant to a wider audience.

This commitment to engaging with the public through anthropology is something that is also mirrored in two books that I published last year: Social Media in Rural China and How the World Changed Social Media (the latter is co-authored with the rest of the Why We Post team). Both of these volumes tried to respond to the immense interest in social media from the general public, by writing in an accessible and open style. We chose to keep all citations and the discussion of wider academic issues to endnotes. Many readers seem to have enjoyed this style of easy-to-understand writing.

Photo: Gillian Bolsover

Photo: Gillian Bolsover

A central aim of the book Social Media in Rural China was to try and help non-Chinese audiences, who have limited experience of Chinese social media and find it hard to imagine what they are like, to understand the nature of these platforms and the kind of social effects they are bringing to a small rural community in China.

Given this, it’s also been surprising to see how the book has been received in Hong Kong and Mainland China. I’ve gained a lot from discussing sections of the book with undergraduate and postgraduate students—most of whom are Chinese—in my Local Cultures, Global Markets and New Media and Digital Culture courses. Readers are often interested to understand a “foreigner’s” reflections on contemporary rural China.

Photo: Gillian Bolsover

Photo: Gillian Bolsover

This feedback will be particularly useful as I put together articles for academic journals over the coming months. In this way, I am extremely fortunate to have the opportunity to balance two quite different forms of writing: academic writing aimed at fellow researchers in universities, and a more accessible writing for a general public which can also inspire articles such as the one that appeared on the BBC.

From Facebook to ‘fakebook’ – who controls the information on social media?

By Xin Yuan Wang, on 24 November 2016

A young Chinese factory worker reading on his smartphone

A young Chinese factory worker reading on his smartphone.

Mark Zuckerberg finally said that Facebook plans to have a more effective control of misinformation, which is a sharp reversal in tone from the comment he made immediately after the US election that the “the idea that fake news on Facebook…influenced the election in any way is a pretty crazy idea.” The fake news that circulated widely on Facebook is believed to have influenced the US election. It is reported that some fake news was created by teenagers in Macedonia who cashed in by catering fake news to demand, and many more were posted by ‘alt-right’ people who cooked up stories on platforms such as 8chan, 4chan, and social media.

The story of how fake news circulated on Facebook reminds me of what I have witnessed about the information consumption on social media among Chinese factory workers during my 15 months of field work in a small factory town in southeast China. Certainly, in many ways the two cases are incomparable, whereas the pattern of information dissemination seems to bear certain similarities.

For Chinese factory workers whose average education level is below middle school (most of them dropped out of school before the age of 17), social media has become the most important, if not the only, information resource. Therefore, social media actually plays an extremely important role in those less-educated people’s communication and (informal) education. What are the consequences of people being dependent on social media as their major information resource? Well, first of all, there will be a higher chance that the information people get will become unbalanced. For people who simultaneously consume news from other traditional media with ‘gatekeepers’, such as TV, newspapers, and magazines, social media is only one of the tools to get news.  Therefore, even if there are fake news stories on social media, the reliability of that news will be constantly tested in a more rounded information environment and any possible hazard of fake news will be diluted in a more balanced ‘informational ecology’ – just like natural purification. However, if social media has become the only or the major information resource, the risk of fake news can be amplified. Generally speaking, the higher education people receive, the lower the chance that social media will become their only or major information resource.

To add another layer to the problem. Unlike traditional media where information is distributed in a relatively neutral way, information on social media is not only filtered by customised algorithms based on users’ personal information, but is also filtered by people’s personal social network online – that is to say, each social media contact is a potential news agent who feeds you news on a daily basis. To give an example, as written in the book Social Media in Industrial China based on my research, a comparison of the shared postings on 145 social media profiles of factory workers and 55 profiles of middle-class Chinese in Shanghai shows that there is almost no information flow between two different social groups. Over a period of four months only one out of 6,000 articles (0.03 per cent) was found to have been shared in both groups, though 5.1 per cent of articles were shared within the factory workers group and 1.6 per cent within the Shanghai group. In the case of factory workers, the possibility of the same information being shared within the social group with similar social-economic status is 170 times higher than the possibility of it being shared across groups with different socio-economic statuses.

Also, the amount of fake news I encountered on factory workers’ social media profiles was much more than that on the  profiles of middle-class Chinese. Most of the fake news were sensational and dramatic stories about conspiracy, romance, or crime. Even though a few factory workers commented that they could imagine that there were certain ‘untruth’ elements in those news items, most people who shared the news believed the news was based on true stories and those who were not 100% sure certainly enjoyed the reading – as a kind of entertainment. “I would say there must be some truth in it (fake news) otherwise there won’t be so many people sharing it, right? Well, at least I feel for the story, that matters,” a 25-year-old male factory worker told me.

So while there is now the debate about how a social media company can take responsibility to control fake news on social media, for all intents and purposes one also has to acknowledge that in many cases, the most powerful information control comes from people’s sociality – on social media there is a certain truism: ‘who you know may decide what you know’. Among like-minded friends, on social media one receives news that is in most cases only confirming the beliefs shared by the social group one belongs to.

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!

What’s our conclusion? Introducing ‘scalable sociality’

By Daniel Miller, on 16 June 2015

Scalable Sociality Infographic

Scalable Sociality

Right now we are finishing the last of our eleven volumes from this project, a book which will be called How the World Changed Social Media. Not surprisingly, people are starting to ask about our conclusions. There are of course many of these, and the website will also showcase these ‘discoveries’, but as anthropologists our primary concern is to determine the consequences of social media (or what used to be called social networking sites) for our own core concern which is sociality – the study of how people associate with each other.

We have concluded that the key to understanding this question is through what we will call ‘scalable sociality.’ Prior to social media, we mainly had private and public media.

Social networking sites started with platforms such as Friendster, QZone and then Facebook as a kind of broadcasting to a defined group rather than to the general public, in a sense scaling downwards from public broadcast.

By contrast some of the recent social media such as WhatsApp and WeChat are taking private communications such as telephones and messaging services that were mainly one-to-one and scaling upwards. Often these now also form groups, though generally smaller ones. Also these are generally not a single person’s network. All members of the group can post equally to all the others.

If we imagine two parameters – one consisting of the scale from private to public and the other from the smallest group of two up to the biggest group of public broadcast – then as new platforms are continually being invented they encourage the filling of niches and gaps along these two scales. As a result, we can now have greater choice over the degree of privacy or size of group we may wish to communicate with or interact with. This is what we mean by scalable sociality.

However this is just an abstract possibility. What people actually do is always a result of local norms and factors. In each society where we conducted fieldwork, we saw entirely different configurations of these scales as suits that area.

In our South Indian site these mainly reflect traditional groups such as caste and family. In our factory China site an entirely new society of floating workers create largely new norms of group interactivity including their first experience of true privacy. While in our rural Chinese site the main difference is that it is possible to now include strangers on the one hand and to extend various social ‘circles’ on the other. In our English site people specialise in the exact calibration of sociality that is neither too close, nor too distant.

Nonetheless, all of these are variants that can be understood as exploiting this new potential given by social media for an unprecedented scalable sociality.

Is Weibo on the way out? For some in China, it was never in.

By Tom McDonald, on 11 May 2015

Weibo: share your thoughts with the word – assuming, of course, you want to. Photo by bfishadow (CC BY 2.0)

Weibo: share your thoughts with the world (assuming, of course, you actually want to). Photo: bfishadow (CC BY 2.0)

I read with interest Celia Hatton’s BBC News article published in February, which hinted that real-name registration on Chinese micro-blogging platform Sina Weibo may be the death knell for the social media platform, which Hatton claims was already losing popularity owing to increasing government control over the platform that was ‘once the only place to find vibrant sources of debate on the Chinese internet’.

Hatton’s argument is important and interesting, and it likely accurately reflects significant changes occurring in social media use in urban China. However based on my experience of carrying out 15 months ethnographic research on social media use in a small rural Chinese Town, it’s also worth bearing in mind that the situation in the Chinese countryside is very different from urban areas. China’s rural populations have tended to display little interest in Weibo.

While Weibo has dominated much media and academic analysis of China social media, in reality ‘most microblog users are mainly young, urban, and middle class, and geographically concentrated in the coastal regions’ as research from Lund University has noted. A separate study (in Chinese) showed that only 5% of microblog users in China live in the countryside, despite the fact that 27.9% of internet users are rural residents.

Why did Weibo never appeal to rural users in the first place? People in the rural town where I conducted my study explained that they preferred social media platforms such as QQ (and to a lesser extent, WeChat) over Weibo. These platforms were popular precisely because they were ‘closed’ platforms, where people could share things only with their friends – most of whom were people they knew in their hometown. For these people the thought of sharing their postings with the entire internet held no appeal whatsoever.

These findings are interesting because they appear to challenge assumptions that people – especially the those at the bottom of Chinese society – would naturally desire to use the internet to ‘express themselves’ to the rest of the world. Rather than presuming that social media are destined to be technologies of liberation, such accounts highlight the importance of also paying attention to how technologies are actually used by rural Chinese people within the context of their own lives, where they are often put to use towards achieving aims and aspirations that may differ greatly from those we expect of them.

Cooking Soup Online and Being a Good Mother

By Xin Yuan Wang, on 9 March 2015

soup images on social media

Images of soup on Chinese social media

In order to analyze people’s postings on QQ or WeChat I had to spend a lot of time viewing and recording my informants’ online postings, especially the photos and other images they posted on their social media profiles, and then categorize different kinds of images into different genres.

Among all the images, ‘food’ photos turned out to be one of the major genres which people frequently post online. ‘You are what you eat’- food is such an important part of Chinese perceived cultural experience, the use of food to express sophisticated social norms is highly developed in China (1). As Kao Tzu, a Chinese ancient philosopher said, ‘Shi Se Xing Ye’ (the appetite for food and sex is human nature). And a Chinese saying goes ‘Min Yi Shi Wei Tian’ (Food is the paramount necessity of the people).The importance of food in everyday life is also reflected in greetings. For instance, instead of asking “How are you?” it is quite normal to ask “Have you eaten?” Division of a stove is symbolic of family division (2). One of the most insightful anthropological discussions of communal dining in China is Waston’s (1987) study on Sihkpuhn (to eat from the same pot) banquet in a Hong Kong village. As Waston argues, eating from the same pot serves to ‘legitimize a social transition’, for instance, a marriage without Sihkpuhn feast is not considered legitimate; the social birth of males and heir adoption are both marked and celebrated by Sihkpuhn feast. This is why the family reunion meal is so important for every family member, it is not only a time to enjoy delicious and various foods and drinks, but an occasion to unite a family together. Every family member in the reunion dinner, eating from the same pot, represents a family collectivity and is therefore “eating for others”. It also seems that, especially among rural migrants, food and the feeling of ‘being at home’ when one is working far away from one’s homeland is closely connected.

All the previous study on Chinese food as above seems to have provided the convincing reason of ‘why food postings are so popular among Chinese people on social media’. However, curiously, when I counted the ‘food’ photos and images I found there is one specific kind of Chinese food was most popular among young mothers, which is soup. Why soup? The answer seems go beyond the Chinese social norms about ‘food’ in general- there must be something more specifically about mothering.

During my field work, I found that one of the typical criteria of a ‘good mother’ among my informants is to ‘cook well’ as many of them put it. From time to time, people told me that the thing they miss most when working outside is their mother’s cooking. Here the social implication of mother-child bond through the image of mother’s cooking seems to go beyond the real taste of the food. It is widely believed that food is a kind of medicine which helps to strike the balance of the ‘Qi’ (air, vitality) of one’s body in daily life, according to the philosophy of Chinese cuisine. In addition, among all kinds of Chinese cuisine, soup is unquestionably regarded as the one which can nourish one’s ‘Qi’ best. In my field site, the best way people could treat, me as they believed, was to feed me a lot of homemade food in overwhelming and non-stop manner. And from time to time it felt extremely difficult to say no when women started their lines like “oh it took me the whole day/ whole afternoon to prepare and cook this soup, and you have to have some, very good for you body!” Cooking a decent soup usually requires a very long time, a lot of patience, delicate heat control and decent knowledge of food material.

In a way, the process of preparing and cooking a decent soup is similar to ‘mothering’ – it’s always time-consuming, and you need a lot of patience, understanding and good control of the ‘heat’ in the relationship. Thus the frequent sharing of soup photos seems to just reinforced the widely accepted image of a good mother.

It’s universal that women feel anxious about becoming a mother, and a wise strategy to deal with such anxiety among young mothers in my field site seems to be posting a lot of ‘soup’ photos on their social media profiles. That is to say, before they cook the ‘real’ soup for their kid, they have cooked the soup online to prepare to be a good mother.

Reference:

(1) Watson, James L. 1987. “From the Common Pot: Feasting with Equals in Chinese Society”, in Anthropos, 1987 (82): 389-401.

(2) Stafford, Charles. 1995. The Roads of Chinese Childhood: Learning and Identification in Angang. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p4

The World Cup on social media worldwide

By Nell Haynes, on 27 June 2014

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Photo by Jolynna Sinanan

In these weeks, many of the world’s eyes are trained on the new football stadiums in towns around Brazil as one of the great global sports spectacles unfolds in its most recent manifestation. Of course not all are watching just to cheer on their national team or see who wins. Many are curious (and critical) about the ways the global football federation, FIFA, has commodified the event. Some are hoping for a glimpse of why so many people discuss the art of Messi and Ronaldo rather than being bothered with the details of the offside rule. Still others are attentive to news about human rights abuses that have targeted poor urban neighbourhoods, sex workers, and workers in informal economies, especially given local protests aimed at government spending on the event. Some have a new appreciation of Brazilian music as a result of programmes dedicated to the event. But these groups are not mutually exclusive. Many people who love football are also interested in this wider context, both cheering their ream and reading biting critiques (or indeed, critiques about biting). What is new is the degree to which we can directly listen into these conversations on social media

Many of us are inspired by the ideal that football is becoming a truly global game, spanning continents, class, race, religion and, outside the world cup, even gender. Sadly the evidence found by the Global Social Media Impact study does not support such a lofty transformation. We also find little to suggest that football is an aspect of a growing homogenization of the world. These reports make clear that cultural differences are reflected even in the ways people experience the World Cup. For example, in south-eastern Italy, watching football is a private family event held in the home, while in Trinidad, known for Carnival and spectacle, World Cup viewing is indeed a social event. In Chile, no matter how you watch the match, showing your national pride by wearing a red shirt and yelling local slang is practically a law while the English are relatively sedate.

Our primary focus, however, is on the coverage within social media. This shows that given the time difference with Brazil, World Cup viewing in China is often solitary, with friends only able to chat through social media messaging. Indian fathers use the World Cup as a chance to bond with children over YouTube videos of players’ techniques. And working class Brazilians use social media to celebrate their upward mobility as individuals and a nation, and great pride that the event is happening in their own nation, even if they could never dream of being able to attend a game.

In most cases there is little to suggest that people transcend local interest to celebrate this as a global event. Rather we see how sport becomes an expression for intense nationalism. In Turkey lack of local representation results in apathy. On the other hand while Chinese migrant factory workers may not engage, some men in the more settled village population of China do seem to use football to connect with the wider world, and in several of our sites football does provide an opportunity for local social bonding and enjoyment. This may not correspond to what has now often referred to as the “beautiful game,” although in compensation most sporting enthusiasts have found the level of football itself is much more open and exciting than in the previous World Cup. And indeed our reports positively suggest that watching how people discuss the World Cup on social media is actually a rather good way of understanding how the world around us is changing if always in terms of these constellations of local concerns.

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.

“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.

Online and under the covers: the World Cup and social media in rural China

By Tom McDonald, on 27 June 2014

Post young man from North China fieldsite on his WeChat profile. Caption reads "Essential preparation for watching football." From left to right is beer, red bull, yoghurt, cigarettes and plate of red dates.

Post young man from North China fieldsite made on his WeChat profile. Caption reads “Essential preparation for watching football.” From left to right is beer, red bull, yoghurt, cigarettes and plate of red dates.

On first glance, taking a look around this small rural town in North China, the World Cup seems like it is a world away.

Being a football fan in the town has always been a minority pursuit. In general, adults don’t do much sport here: most are busy with work and family commitments. For those who do play sports, basketball, badminton and table tennis tend to be more popular, with both the primary and middle school having basic outside facilities for these sorts of activities. There is a gravel football pitch attached to the primary school, but this is rarely used by the school itself.

The town has its own unofficial amateur football team, a loose group of young men, (reminiscent of Sunday pub football teams) who organise evening practices on the middle school football pitch, and occasional matches through a QQ instant messaging group. Several times during the summer of 2013, the school tried to stop the team playing football altogether on the pitch, citing safety concerns. During the winter, the grim weather and shorter days mean members of the football team abandon evening practice altogether, preferring to play football on better artificial pitches in the nearby county-town during the weekend. This small group of hardcore football fans formed the bulk of my exposure to the World Cup, but they used social media to do it in a way that made it largely unobservable to most others.

Kicking-off: a World Cup under the covers
On the day that the World Cup started, I was awoken at 3:50 am by the sound of a WeChat message on my phone by the side of the bed. A short while after another arrived. And then another. And another. I reached over and, bleary-eyed, gazed at my phone screen. Four of my friends from the town had set up a WeChat conversation named ‘The world accelerating’ (jiasu shijie) and were talking between themselves on it. It took a second until I could figure out what they were doing: sending messages to each other talking about the opening game of the World Cup, while the game unfolded.

One of the major downsides of the World Cup being located in Brazil is the staggering inconvenience this happens to have caused Chinese football fans. There is a 11-hour time difference between Brasília and Beijing, and this means that all of the matches kick-off somewhere between midnight and 6am local time, making it extremely difficult for young men to make time for watching football between normal patterns of work, family and sleep. For this reason this World Cup, more than any I have ever witnessed in China, is one that relies enormously on the internet.

‘The world accelerating’ WeChat group chat was important because it allows this small group of men to feel like they are watching football together. There is no place in the town that they could gather to watch the game (all businesses in the town close at 9pm, and unlike Chinese cities there are no bars here). Even though many of these men were watching at home they still made this a real group experience. This was furthered by the fact that their conversations were almost completely conducted via the WeChat’s asynchronous voice messaging feature (which is quite a contrast to the normal conversations on the football team’s QQ group which is conducted almost entirely through text).

The friendliness and companionship of these young men was really prevalent when listening to these world cup messages. There was a real since of ‘blokey’ fun behind it all. The voice messages are all in thick local dialect, interspersed with exuberant swearing, such as “that shot was the bull’s p*nis!” (nage qiu hen niubi). Bits of chat about work between friends, who also co-operate with each other in business was interrupted with someone excitedly saying “It’s starting, it’s starting…” at the commencement of the game. Despite it being 4am, and each of them being in their beds at home, the WeChat atmosphere it reminded me of watching football matches in pubs in the UK.

The group was also full of other matey lad banter. One person leaves a voice message saying “Come on, bottoms up, bottoms up” (kuaidian, ganbei ganbei) suggesting alcohol consumption. Someone posts pictures of pretty young Chinese women. It’s perhaps gratifying that even at 4 am in rural China you can get beer, girls and football – at least via WeChat.

The fact that all this takes place in the middle of the night makes it all the more magical. There is something almost improper about it. At one moment one of them leaves a We Chat message of him shouting excitedly, and one of the others jokes “don’t wake up your wife!” (bie ba ni xifu naoxing). I have a wonderful mental image of all these men, in their 20s and 30s, under the covers in bed, smartphone in one hand chatting to friend, tablet in the other watching the match. Or in dark hotel rooms with the TV on at the end of the bed, with droopy-eyed and struggling to stay awake. As one person told me “If you don’t watch with friends, it’s no fun” (bu gen pengyou yiqi kan, jiubu hao wan). Having friends around via WeChat is perhaps one of the ways to get you through this. At the end of the match, one of the young guys even said, “OK OK, everyone go to bed. Everybody’s tired”

The internet World Cup
IMG_1282Apart from this small group of avid fans who are willing to stay up late into the night watching these games, for others only vaguely interested in football, social media becomes a key point through which World Cup information is disseminated nationwide. As mentioned in a previous blogpost, QQ and WeChat both combine news delivery with social media. Both platforms have heavily featured World Cup related stories. Between 13-16 June 2014 inclusive, 8 out of the 37 news stories on QQ Tencent news were World Cup related, on WeChat that figure was 9 out of 37. On the first day of the tournament, QQ mobile featured a special ‘startup screen’ (kind of similar to a Google doodle) of the QQ penguin logo made up of lots of football players. The QQ homepage has a special section dedicated to the World Cup, where entire matches and compilations of goal-scoring moments can be watched at a more suitable time.

Despite the challenges of football being a minority pursuit here in this rural Chinese town, and the difficulties of following the World Cup given the time difference between Brazil and China, I have nonetheless been struck by how people are using social media and the internet to create the kind of tournament experience that appeals to them, and most importantly, share in that experience with their friends.

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.

Social media and mass media: the CCTV Chinese New Year’s Gala

By Tom McDonald, on 23 February 2014

Poetic couplets hung on the door of a village house in preparation for Chinese NewYear (Photo: Tom McDonald)

Poetic couplets hung on the door of a village house in preparation for Chinese New Year (Photo: Tom McDonald)

I passed the recent Chinese New Year in my fieldsite in North China with the Wang family in their rented shopfront-cum-home on the small rural town’s commercial street, with Mr Wang, his wife and son, 16 year old Little Wang, who had just finished his term at the high school in the nearby county-town, and was back home for the school holidays.

One of the most interesting elements of the festival is social media’s relationship with the mass media event of the day (and probably the year), which is the CCTV New Year’s Gala programme produced by China Central Television. The programme is basically a variety show. But at the same time it is the most difficult variety show on the planet to get right, because its 700 million–1000 million viewers (53-76% of the country’s population) are comprised of every generation of Chinese families, who watch the show together as they eat they ‘reunion meal’. As such, the programme makers have to attempt to appeal to all these drastically different audiences. No mean feat when we are talking about elderly people who grew up in the Republican-era, witnessed the Sino-Japanese war, and the founding of the People’s Republic; or middle aged people who were children during the hardships of the cultural revolution, and then saw the enormous transformations bought by the reform-and-opening period; or China’s youth, those born in the 80’s, 90s, and 00’s, often single children, many of whom have grown up with a material aspirations on par with western society. So you end up with a variety show that is a bizarre and wizardly mix of revolutionary songs, trapeze artists, dancers performing to happy hardcore music, magicians, ‘hip’ youth TV hosts, recognised family performers and national pop stars. The show traverses the utterly naff and absolutely incredible. One cannot help but feel that the show tries so hard to appeal to everybody that it is perhaps doomed to failure.

At the Wang’s house we watched and chatted as the show went on, slowly devouring the dinner while Mr Wang and I knocked back baijiu, a fiery Chinese liquour. I soon noticed that Little Wang’s attention had waned, however, and after eating a little food, he left us and moved into the shop area of their house, where the computer is located. Soon after I followed him into the room. I noticed that he was alternating between browsing QZone, and chatting on the QQ Instant Messaging client. He was using the QQ IM client to send New Year’s ‘blessings’ (zhufu) to his classmates, while browsing his QZone. Many of the status updates from his friends were related to the television show. For example, one of the features of the show was a young girl dressed in a flowing white dress who was introduced by the presenters at the start of the programme. The presenters explained that she would spin around on the spot up until midnight (4 hours) to symbolise the changing seasons of the year. Indeed she managed to do this quite successfully. One of Little Wang’s friends had forwarded a meme of a photo of the girl asking ‘spinning girl, have you eaten Xuanmai chewing gum?’. Xuanmai chewing gum recently ran an advertising campaign with the tagline ‘Xuanmai chewing gum, unable to stop’ (xuanmai kouxiangtang, tingbu xialai). The advert featured a young man singing, with powerful sound waves coming out of his mouth, and he was challenged to see how long he could sustain the singing. After eating the chewing gum it seemed to give the man somewhat cosmic powers to continue with his crooning. What is interesting about this case is we can kind of see the spillover from a mass media event onto social media, so while people do not seem to be happy posting about news or other big events, the Spring Festival Evening Party seems to be prime fodder for discussion of QQ, but especially among young people.

There is precedent for this, as traditionally the show is something people often talk about and critique for days after, even offline. But in addition to young people talking about the New Year’s Gala online, I got a feeling during the evening that young people were having a kind of separate New Year’s Eve party on QQ with all their friends. Chinese New Year is a key moment of reunion for Chinese families, and I get a feeling that even this moment of togetherness is being affected by social media as young people are living a large part of their spring festival online with their classmates.

Does this mean that the ‘traditional’ Chinese New Year is at risk? I want to get away from the idea that social media’s presence in the spring festival necessarily has to be good or bad, or even assume that social media is ‘transforming’ the Chinese New Year (anymore than the Chinese New Year is transforming social media). It is not that Little Wang’s practices are heralding the decay of the Chinese New Year, but rather I think it is signalling the importance of classmates being part of that reunion. It seems to be an acknowledgement that family ties are not the only thing that matters, and the deliberate decision for classmates to include each other in their spring festival reunion meals suggests a willingness to apply family ideals to educational peers.