A A A

The qualitative insights we get from applying questionnaires

By Juliano Andrade Spyer, on 31 August 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s the point of ethnographic fieldwork?

By Tom McDonald, on 28 August 2014

Learning from each other in the North China fieldsite (Photo: Tom McDonald)

Learning from each other in the North China fieldsite (Photo: Tom McDonald)

Being an anthropologist is one of the strangest jobs in the world.

For the last 15 months, I’ve been living in a small rural town in North China, where I have been doing ethnographic fieldwork on the impact of social media in the town. In a few days time I will say a final farewell to my friends here, and head back to London.

This is not the kind of job where you can clock-off and go home at 5pm. There are no weekends. Instead it’s a job that demands that we, as ethnographers, join our lives with the people that we study. This means living, eating, talking, playing, exercising, laughing, showering (yes… showering) and doing everything else together. By getting close to people in the fieldsite I hope that I can understand more than if I had solely relied on questionnaires or interviews (although I’ve done plenty of those too).

But these experiences also require something else: sometimes it’s necessary to give up a little bit of yourself to get closer to people who are different to you. Ethnography demands a kind of flexibility, an ability to accommodate those who differ from ourselves in order to try to understand why these differences exist in the first place. In the past 15 months I have often found myself doing things I would rather not do, eating things I’d rather not eat, and drinking things I’d rather not drink. However being able to set aside some of my own self-imposed limits, limits that make me the person that I am, is something that has definitely helped me to make friends here. Also, doing so has let me to explore other possibilities of being human that I never before knew were possible.

This character of accommodating difference has not been a one-way thing. The people of my fieldsite have been overwhelmingly generous in letting me into their lives, and eager to ask questions about my own life. Furthermore, during this time I’ve often made many social slip-ups that might have upset people, maybe said things I didn’t know people would take offence at, or perhaps asked questions that pry a little too much. Throughout, people have been incredibly understanding and patient with me as I slowly learn more about how they do things here. This spirit of mutual understanding has helped me learn so much about people’s lives and what is important to them here in rural China, and in the coming year I’ll share more of these findings. However for now I just want to concentrate on why we need ethnography.

Despite the many scientific and technological advances of the last century, it is obvious to me that we still live in a world that is largely governed by misunderstanding and fear. When we see people who are different from us, it scares us because their presence raises the possibility that our own way of doing things might not necessarily be the best, or even the correct way.

I firmly believe that if we are to hope to solve so many of the challenges facing today’s world, then our best chance is through mutual conversation, dialogue and learning. And although on one hand it may seem entirely superfluous to send a researcher to live in a rural town in China in order to study social media use, the question we need to ask ourselves should not be whether we can afford to do such ethnographic fieldwork, but rather whether we can afford not to?

This blog post is dedicated, with thanks, to the people of the North China fieldsite.

All in the pose

By Jolynna Sinanan, on 25 August 2014

Image courtesy of J.G.

Image courtesy of J.G.

Danny and I are in the midst of looking at hundreds of Facebook profiles and in his case, Twitter and Instagram feeds as well to start writing the first book to come out of the project so far, What They Post. The project has always intended to be an anthropology of social media, but as we presented at the Royal Anthropological Institute a couple of months ago, instead of studying social media, we can also see social media as an unprecedented opportunity to study the wider anthropological context.

This is the premise of the book we’re (or at least I’m) muddling through at the moment. By looking at visual posts on social media- photos and self-generated or collaborated images (memes etc.) we can see an alternate route to doing ethnography. We are comparing our two field sites, The Glades in the UK and El Mirador in Trinidad. We’re not comparing Trinidad to the UK, it would defeat the purpose to take the values and cosmology of one society as the bedrock to which all others are compared. In our study, the use of social media by the English looks just as ‘exotic’ as uses of social media in China, Turkey or India. By looking at what people post, we can demonstrate the contrast between Trinidadian and English posting as the best way of showing that posting is in many respects Trinidadian and English.

We have now looked at thousands of images posted on social media and are starting to work with about ten comparative themes. Some are directly taken from the content of images, such as counting how many times alcoholic drinks appear, either with people or images of drink alone. Others are bigger themes that have been more subject to academic study we have big question marks next to that will need deeper analysis, where an images says something about gender or class but we’re not sure what yet.

One of the themes that has stood out to us is the way that women pose in photos. Danny has noticed a pattern where women over the age of around 30, do not overtly pose. They may try to look pretty, attractive or feminine, but they don’t show their bodies in any particular way. Posing years seem to be for teenagers and young adults, but certainly not for adult women.

It is quite the opposite in Trinidad. Women of all ages post images of themselves on Facebook, they pose to the side, they show their behind, they may have a hand of their hip or a leg slightly turned out diagonally from the body, but they show themselves.

And this is where it is very important to not take the values of any one society as the cornerstone to compare others. We have all seen countless journalistic articles that feed into the anxieties we have with the introduction of any new media, usually from a psychological perspective. That social media encourages, or brings out latent narcissistic tendencies, that we are all obsessed with our own image and we are all become more exhibitionist, photographing and sharing everything that we do.

But when I ask women why they post photos of themselves, I get a number of responses like ‘I was in a good mood’, ‘I felt like it’, ‘I liked my make-up’ or ‘I liked how I looked that day’ followed by ‘and I wanted to remember it.’ Trinidad is a society where people strive to be seen and we can’t contextualise that desire in contexts of Western mediatisation or celebrity phenomenon. Because of its own history and experience of modernity, being seen is to be acknowledged that one exists as a person. Visibility has far more existentialist implications in Trinidad than simply wanting fame.

I would also argue that Trinidadian women are generally kinder to themselves and to each other about their bodies. You don’t have to have a certain look to post lots of selfies, young women aren’t ridiculed by their peers for posting selfies or posing in photos if they aren’t thin or pretty enough, they don’t need to look like celebrities to celebrate themselves. Trinidadian women generally have a healthier sense of body image than we have observed with their UK counterparts and it all comes across when we take a comparative look at the photos they post.

What is an anthropological global generalisaion?

By Daniel Miller, on 17 August 2014

Image courtesy of Lindsay Campbell, Creative Commons

Image courtesy of Lindsay Campbell, Creative Commons

Perhaps the biggest problem of our entire project is that every time anyone asks us a question we have nine different answers, which is not what the person asking the question wants to hear. As our project becomes better known we are all constantly asked for the ‘results’ of our study in the form of  ‘does social media do this?’ or ‘is Facebook having that impact?’ With very few exceptions people want and expect a simple and clear answer. But any answer we give that fitted such questions would be in effect an ‘anthropological global generalisation’ and it’s not clear what such a thing could be. As a recent blog post noted, Chinese social media are not even the same platforms and so can be constantly rendered peripheral by answers in the form of ‘Facebook does this – but not in China’.

We also recently posted a study of how the World Cup appeared on social media in all nine sites. We have no evidence that this was used as ‘news’ by others, although we felt the results were fascinating. We might publish an academic paper using this information but other people find it difficult to know what to do with nine different answers. Of course, for us the single most important academic result should be an insistence on acknowledging these differences. Not because it suits us as anthropologists but because it is the truth about social media. They are different in each site. But endless reiteration of this point reduces us to being never more than the critics of psychologists, economists and pundits generally. This is important and we now have a vast amount of evidence that they are wrong in pretty much everything they say, to the degree that they ignore such differences. But this isn’t the only thing we want to say. Furthermore it is empirically evident from our study that there are many ‘sort-of’ generalisations we could and should make. We too are interested to find out that some things are more generalisable than others, often unexpectedly so.

When we met for a month in May we attempted an initial solution to this problem. We sat together, proposed, argued and discussed our findings to see what generalisations we could come up with. In the end we tentatively suggested around 30. Since that time I have put many of them up on my own twitter account at @DannyAnth. As Tweets they are both succinct and wildly over generalised. But at least this forces us to confront the issue. What we discovered was that there might be a solution as long as we are prepared to make certain compromises and this might be worthwhile in order for our work to be actually taken up and used. Even for educational purposes people want something other than nine different answers. We felt it will be safe to make generalisations partly because there will be nine books with enough detail to show how there exists another finer level of detail available to anyone who wants a more honest account of our findings. Secondly we found a mode of expressing ourselves of the ‘Yes-But’ variety.

What transpired was that we had no generalisations at all that didn’t require caveats. Even if something seemed generally the case for most of us, there would be one site, often in Turkey or rural China where this was conspicuously not the case. So the compromise was to have a mode that linked each generalisation to its caveat, that is a footnote that could slightly expand on this point and take note of which places this generalisation did not hold in. In May these took the following form:-

5) Social media should not be viewed as a simple extension of prior uses of the Internet.

Footnote: For example, prior uses of the internet caused concerns about anonymity, while with social media concern has shifted more to privacy. Though with exceptions, for instance we find Facebook used to create anonymity in India and Turkey.

6) Social science has tended to see modern life as an inexorable movement from communal living to more individualism. Social media, by contrast, may lead to re-connections between people or entirely novel connections.

Footnote: In our South China site we find the more conventional movement largely from communal to more autonomous life through social media. The meaning of individualism also varies from site to site.

7) Our studies suggest that in some areas groups continue to be the key units of social media usage. For example the family in Italy and low income Brazil, the caste in India and the tribe in South-East Turkey. 

Footnote: For example, the acceptance of friending depends on groups beyond the individual. In China QQ organises friends lists and most people have one dedicated to the family. Trinidad and England seem to accord better with the notion of ego-centred networking. In Turkey we see both group control and also the creation of ego-centred networks through anonymous profiles.

Even here we have the additional problem that, of course, we didn’t study ‘Turkey’ or ‘England’ but just sites of around 25k in each case. To use national tags is itself problematic. But without them we once again fall into the trap of being ‘correct’ but useless to non-anthropologists. When we complete our fieldwork we will return to this issue. Whatever we do will require compromise all of which will lead us to be criticised, not least by other anthropologists. There will inevitably be different levels of dissemination from the full and detailed expression of our differences to the over generalised statements without which we will never transcend our anthropological audience. In practice even a book of 80k words feels like an overgeneralised account when you have done 15 months fieldwork.

We believe this exercise is important not only for our project but for the future of anthropology more generally. Help and suggestions, for example of good precedents in making anthropological global generalisations, would be very welcome.

On death and desserts: Mourning heroes on Facebook

By Nell Haynes, on 11 August 2014

chumbeque

Photo courtesy of Creative Commons

On 5 December 2013, Nelson Mandela died. At the time, I was reviewing about 50 different Facebook accounts of people living in my Northern Chile fieldsite to see in a systematic way, what exactly they posted about on Facebook. I noted that only a few posted about Nelson Mandela. Those that did made funny ironic references to actor Morgan Freeman, who portrayed the South African politician in a film biography, while more politically socialist users posted old photos of the politician alongside their hero Fidel Castro. Yet these posts represented only 6 of the 50 users I was concentrating on, or 12%.

That same week Paul Walker, a film actor of The Fast and the Furious fame, also died. More than 20 of the users whose activity I was observing posted about his death on Facebook. As with Mandela’s death, no one linked to obituaries or news articles, but instead posted photos of the actor, or at times posted photos of their own cars with quotes from The Fast and the Furious or other commentary suggesting that the films had inspired their love of automobiles.

From this, along with Presidential elections which had just taken place in Chile, I got a sense that people were much more likely to post something on Facebook when they felt personally affected by it. While people recognized the significant contributions of Mandela to peace and humanitarian efforts, he had not affected Chileans’ daily lives, while Walker had been an important hero for many people. One young man posted about both. On the day of Mandela’s death he simply wrote “QDEP Morgan Freeman” [Rest in Peace Morgan Freeman] in an ironic and humorous attempt to conflate the politician with the actor who had portrayed him. A few days later, when news of Walker broke, he wrote, “I’m watching The Fast and the Furious on TNT (television channel)…in honor of the movies that inspired my Honda, and more importantly in memory of Paul Walker.” Clearly this user had reserved the more sincere and personal message for Walker who he characterized as an inspiration.

My insight that personal connection was more important than world impact has been put to the test again with the unfortunate death of a local celebrity. Arturo Mejía Koo, the son of Chinese immigrants to the region, was locally known as the authority on chembeques—a kind of pastry made of corn flour and honey. Though chembeques can be found in almost any outdoor market in the region, Koo’s shop was something of a pilgrimage point for those who love the dessert. Perhaps then, it’s not surprising that Facebook has been littered with homages to Koo. At the time of this writing, about 1/5 of the posts that appear on my Facebook timeline are related to Koo’s death. People post links to the local paper’s story with a simple comment of a frowning face, or no comment at all. Others post links with the comment “Noooooooooooooooo!!!” Responses are lacking in eloquence, but the sheer number of them is impressive.

Among my highly educated, urban, middle-class friends in the United States, posting about the death of a highly iconic politician such as Mandela was an act of both proclaiming political stance and being “in the know.” Yet in Chile, it is much more important to be “in the know” about local events. While in both places I see memes that circulate with text such as “If you didn’t eat/watch/play [insert local favorite], you didn’t grow up in [insert local area],” Northern Chileans take to heart this mentality. They experience the death of world icons with a grain of irony, likely owing to the distance they perceive between that person’s life and their own. Yet a local hero’s death is experienced as a personal heartfelt loss.

This makes clear that for most Northern Chileans, Facebook is an outlet for performing personal and local affiliations, rather than a platform for interacting with global discourses. Mandela’s death was noteworthy for a few because he was a world figure. Yet lacking in a personal connection, emotions were expressed through irony or affiliations with other more regionally relevant politicians. Walker’s death was important for some because he had been a Hollywood hero, yet was still expressed at a distance through reference to his film roles. But in the instance of Koo’s death huge numbers of people in the region feel personally affected because eating his pastries had been an important part of local belonging. Facebook then was an appropriate place to express the very simple emotions of sadness and disbelief that emerged from the loss that felt so personal. The outpouring of public response to Koo’s death then demonstrates the ways that Facebook may reflect local affiliations much more strongly than global awareness.

Harassment and social media

By Elisabetta Costa, on 6 August 2014

Photo by Elisabetta Costa

Photo by Elisabetta Costa

 

As soon as I arrived in my field site, I was told by my first informants that Facebook is often used to prove to other people that their life is happy, full of happy relationships and lived accordingly with moral codes, especially when these codes are not followed in ‘real’ life. I genuinely understood what meant last month when one of my closest friends, a 27 year old Kurdish woman who came to work in Mardin from a nearby city, told me this story: her landlord and friend started to flirt with her although he had already a wife and three children, and one secret lover with whom he was regularly seeing on the weekend when his wife was busy looking after the kids. The love of two women was not enough for him, and the man started to invite my friend late in the night, by sending her messages via SMS and WhatsApp. After three days of harassing invitations and receiving negative but polite answers from the girl, she blocked his phone number. Then the man started to call her from anonymous phone numbers; the girl stopped the second number too and the man stopped harassing her. After a couple of weeks, the man called my friend and ordered her to leave the house without giving her any explanation. In one week, she had to find a new flat and to move all her furniture and belongings into a new place. She was basically evicted from her house because she didn’t agree to have an affair with the landlord.

During those weeks I followed Facebook postings of the landlord who is my friend on Facebook, and I have been surprised to see the way he had completely changed his behaviour online. For the whole year, he posted pictures of holiday trips with friends, food and politics; and suddenly he started to post pictures of him with his wife and wrote romantic and sweet words about his love for her. For the whole month, he was only sharing pictures and poetry portraying his happy family life and his happy marriage.

Men who cheat on their wives and harass girls are defined as şerefsiz (men without honour) by people in my field-site; and being without honour is one of the most common and worst derogatory definitions given to men. As people here take Facebook quite seriously, this social media platform is used as an important tool to prevent others from negatively gossiping about them and to improve their respectability. The days after the girl didn’t agree to have an affair with him, the man’s main concern was to protect his reputation, to avoid the spreading of rumors about him, and to protect the relationship with his wife. And Facebook was the most appropriate tool to do it.

What does poverty look like on social media?

By Razvan Nicolescu, on 2 August 2014

Teenager from a low income family using Facebook (Photograph by Razvan Nicolescu)

Teenager from a low income family using Facebook (Photograph by Razvan Nicolescu)

This blog post is part of a much larger theme of the impact of social media on low income populations. This is most debated among social media theorists and activists and is also one of the research objectives of the Global Social Media Impact Study. I will give just a few insights on this issue from the Italian fieldsite.

First, we should keep in mind that low income is not necessarily related to poverty in Grano.  I will briefly explain why. Indeed, the unemployment figures for the local population seem to be close to recent ones for the southern Italy: that is unemployment of almost 22%, with unemployment among youth at 61%. However, relatively much less people believe they are poor. This is related to a rewarding combination of the following mechanisms: closer kin relations, which also imply efficient redistribution of material goods and possessions within the nuclear family; alternative sources of income, such as from subsistence agriculture; and the possibility to dramatically reduce the costs of living with no direct impact on social status. I will not detail these here, but I’ll give a typical example: let’s take a family of a middle-aged couple with two children where only one parent is employed on a part-time basis. The family could either own their house or live in the same house with their own parents; the grandmother is cooking for the entire family and at least one other parent or sibling can contribute fresh vegetables from their campagna (a small house and agricultural lot outside the city) or produce their own olive oil for the entire year. The costs for education and healthcare could be decreased and the family can afford to send their children on a weekly basis to private courses of English Language or football. Such a family would normally not consider themselves poor and will always point to other people who have a lower standard of life than their own.

In this post I will refer to people from this latter category, who normally agree they have outstanding economic difficulties. It is this group of people for whom at least one of the first two mechanisms described above does not exist or does not function for different reasons. Regarding the use of social media, the first thing that blatantly differentiates them from other people in the town is the cost of technology. Most people living in difficult economic conditions simply cannot afford to pay for an Internet connection (which is at least 20 EURO/month), a cheap second-hand laptop (around 60-80 EURO), and do not have any interest in acquiring a Smartphone. Instead, just a few of them use free Internet services offered by the public library or the local employment office.

Then, it is interesting how this situation changes for the couples with children and especially when the children turn 12-13 years old. It is this period when parents start to realise they have to buy their children a Smartphone and allow them to be present on Facebook with the majority of their school colleagues. Moreover, most of the parents encourage their children to use social media as they see this as an imperative alignment with their peers. It is then when one of the parents – usually the mother – might start to also use Facebook.

I could not see any major difference in the use of social media among teenagers coming from different economic backgrounds. However, for parents who normally have a much more limited set of peers, social classes seem to have daunting barriers in the online environment. In this context, for the families living in difficult economic conditions adults’ online presence never takes-off and is definitely much more restricted than for other people in the same age group.

It is interesting that young adults (e.g. early 20-year olds) coming from impoverished backgrounds continue to use social media in a way that aims to level off the social differences within their peers. At the same time, this offers their younger siblings and families more convincing grounds to cover up these differences when it is their turn. In this context, what does poverty on social media look like? The short answer is that poverty is portrayed in most cases as a more or less distant and ‘third-party’ issue in which the implication of the self is vaguely hinted at: poverty in different parts of the world, poverty in Italy, poverty as driven by politicians or egotistic economic systems. It is interesting to think why most of these postings and comments do not belong to people who are actually under difficult economic conditions.

It is also interesting to think about the absence of talking about and showing one’s own poverty online. Among teenagers and young people to reveal in any way how poor they actually are is perceived as seriously affecting their prospects to venture up the social scale and out of poverty.

Note on the above photo: Giorgia is a 16 years old girl, she lives with her parents and her five brothers in a modest council house in the centre of Grano. Nobody in her family has a stable job and they depend on weekly help from the church. She is friends on Facebook with both her parents and her three older brothers. None of them ever suggested on Facebook they were poor; their close friends just know that and they see no reason why they would bring this up online.

Between walls: methodology for comparing Chinese and non-Chinese social media

By Tom McDonald, on 27 July 2014

Comparing two walls: QZone is often referred to as the 'Chinese Facebook', but there are important differences between the two platforms (Photo: Tom McDonald)

Comparing two walls: QZone is often referred to as the ‘Chinese Facebook’, but there are important differences between the two platforms (Photo: Tom McDonald)

Recently our team has been doing a statistical analysis of  our particpants’ social networking use in our different fieldsites around the world. In the future this data will be one of the key ways we will compare between the fieldsites. For most of the fieldsites, the analysis takes place on Facebook using clever computer programs created by Shriram that helps to automate the data collection and make sure that the same techniques are used between all the fieldsites.

But our two fieldsites in North and South China pose a unique problem in terms of methodology. Facebook is inaccessible here in China, and most people use QQ or WeChat as their main social networking platform. Both these platforms are quite different to Facebook in terms of layout and functionality, and neither of them have proper, full APIs that allow you to run the kind of automated statistical analysis we have been attempting on Facebook. This raises an important methodological question: how is it possible to do a comparison between fieldsites when the thing that you are comparing is not the same?

It’s something I have felt that our team has struggled with throughout this project, and often when we have met as a group to discuss the project and our methodology, QQ seems to get pushed into the background. It often feels like Chinese social networks are this great, dark unknown. For a start, their appearance is incredibly different from Facebook, and the fact that many of them only support Chinese language versions makes them almost impenetrable to people who don’t understand the language. Our group’s internal fieldwork manuals, which contain comprehensive instructions that guide the rest of the team through how to research a particular question, are often reduced down to a single sentence for our China fieldsites: “Tom and Xinyuan will have to use local resources.”

This is not a complaint. Rather, it is a testament to how different Chinese social media is from the rest of the world. Also, it is a challenge to think through the comparisons we are trying to make; what kind of data they will provide us with and, most importantly, what conclusions we hope to make from them.

For example, one of the things we are analysing is who are the people who interact (i.e. like, comment) the most with our friends in the fieldsite on their wall. On Facebook this is simple enough, however on QZone we have to count these interactions manually on a wall-like feature called ‘His/Her Happenings’ (ta de dongtai). This is further complicated by the fact that users very rarely use their real name on their account, with most adopting creative pseudonyms such as ‘Lonely cigarette butt’. Also because people tend to repost many more memes on QZone than on Facebook, the ‘likes’ of friends can sometimes get lost between thousands of other likes, which can make it very confusing to count which of the likes come from a participant’s QQ friends.

I am not suggesting that this makes the data derived from our Chinese and non-Chinese fieldsites incomparable to each other. Rather, it points to the fact that any statistical figures that we come up with need to be treated as just one part of the puzzle, and that the very process of trying to produce such statistics highlights the important material differences between the platforms, which are begging to be documented and explained. Such accounts will help to make Chinese social media a little less of a ‘dark unknown’, and will tell us quite a lot about Chinese culture and life in the process.

Furthermore, these differences highlights the danger of simply looking at statistical data, and assuming it demonstrates an ‘absolute truth’. Reality is often more complicated that a simple percentage. Any statistical comparison needs to be tempered with the qualitative data we have been gathering through interviews and participant observation in each of our fieldsites that help to understand how social media is embedded into people’s lives.

Comparison is never simple or easy, especially so with a large global project like this. But I feel certain that the challenges such comparisons involve, and the opportunities they present for cultural understanding make it all the more important to try.

It’s OK to send my boss a WhatsApp message!

By Shriram Venkatraman, on 25 July 2014

Image Courtesy Bhupinder Nayyar (Creative Commons)

Image Courtesy Bhupinder Nayyar (Creative Commons)

Mahesh, 28, an ITES (Information Technology Enabled Services) professional met with me for lunch in one of Chennai’s well-known vegetarian restaurants. He works three days a week from his company’s branch office located in the Indian field site – Panchagrami – and two days from the company’s Chennai office located close to this restaurant.

Over special vegetarian Thali meals, we discussed his life, his ambitions, his family, his presence on social media etc. When I called him up to schedule an interview, he arranged for us to meet for lunch before his work shift that started at 2 PM. Though we met at around 12:30 PM, he seemed pretty relaxed and unrushed and the lunch interview kept going until around 1:45 PM, when he excused himself to let his boss know that he would be running late for work by approximately 30 minutes. He got his smart phone, a Samsung Galaxy out of his pocket and typed something into it and sent out a communication in less than 20 seconds. I was pretty surprised because, it normally takes at least a minute for an official communication to be typed and sent over an official email server with all the salutations normally required in an official communication. So, wondering if he had already typed an email to his boss, I asked him what he let his boss know, to which he replied that he just sent a WhatsApp message to his boss letting him know that he was delayed over a meeting and would report in shortly. This triggered a conversation that was extremely informative. I asked him why he didn’t email his boss and why did he choose to operate and communicate over WhatsApp.

Soon, it became extremely clear that WhatsApp was fine enough for communicating mundane official matters such as informing that one was running late to the office or to a meeting or to meet at lunch etc. and that it was replacing what Short Messaging Service (SMS) did originally. However, important official communication always happened through official email. But, communicating to one’s immediate boss on mundane official matters now moved from text messages to WhatsApp messages. So, why did this happen? Because everyone is now on WhatsApp, almost all have a smart phone connected to the internet with WhatsApp as an application, which people would keep checking on a constant basis compared to SMS and WhatsApp is free to use. These factors led to people using WhatsApp messages more often than SMS.

Naturally, the next question was geared towards Facebook (FB). I asked him if his boss was his friend on Facebook and were they on FB messenger on an always signed-in mode. He replied ‘yes’. So, why did he still choose to communicate over WhatsApp rather than Facebook? He considered WhatsApp more official compared to Facebook. It seems like one of his teammates had actually sent a message to his boss over FB and was frowned upon, as somehow FB just didn’t seem official enough and equated everyone to a being just a ‘friend’, thus breaking hierarchies, while hierarchy was still maintained over WhatsApp. So, did people in his team ever communicate with their boss over FB? They did for more for personal communication such as ‘liking’ something, forwarding a moral message, spreading the word about an office party or get together etc. but nothing related to an official one-to-one or one-to-many sort of communication. He made sure to add that he would never communicate to his boss’s boss over WhatsApp, it had to always be over an email. The vertical span of use of media seemed extremely interesting.

I was immediately reminded of the concept of polymedia, termed by Madianou and Miller, 2012 and also on how an important person in a network influences others in the network to choose media through which people communicate to him. In this case, Mahesh had three ways of communicating with his boss – over email, over SMS or over WhatsApp (in this case was influenced by the boss, who was fine with communication over WhatsApp and had added it to the list of official communication tools).

This soon became an important question, and interviews with several other IT/ITES professionals revealed something similar. So, why are certain media perceived to retain hierarchy while others don’t? Stay tuned to find out…

Questions I get asked everyday…

By Tom McDonald, on 20 July 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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