UCL Social Networking Sites & Social Science Research Project
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    Strategies of scarcity and supply: water and bandwidth

    By Tom McDonald, on 24 July 2013

    The water tankered makes a delivery (Photo: Tom McDonald)

    The water tankered makes a delivery (Photo: Tom McDonald)

    Fieldwork normally involves bearing some hardships, however I never thought that at the start of my research in China that water would have been an issue of concern here. Nor did I consider that it might be able to tell us something about social networking use.

    I was surprised, then, when I found out that the urban town area of the fieldsite has not had a piped water supply for the past year.

    This situation is slightly ridiculous when one considers that there is a large, well-stocked reservoir two kilometres distance from the town.

    reservoir-lake

    According to some local residents, the problems started last year when workmen dug up the pipe in order to lay the new, wide asphalt road that runs north-south through the town.

    For the past year, the town’s government have been paying for two water bowsers and four people to collect water from the neighbouring town and deliver it here once every two days. The only perk to the current situation is that because the service is so poor, the government provides the water free of charge.

    Not having a regular water service makes life really tough. Limitations in water supply provoke people to clearly prioritise the things that they must do against the things that they would perhaps like to do. People’s houses are awash with buckets and tankards for storing water. Water for cooking or for dinking tends to come before, say, washing clothes or having a shower. Similar coping mechanisms and prioritizing seem to exist for internet use.

    I think the case of the limited water supply is also useful for thinking about the way some people experience social media and the internet seen here in China. I was really drawn to the paper Blanchette gave at the UCL Department of Anthropology a couple of years ago where he outlined A Material History of Bits, making very clear the physical limitations of the digital, in contradiciton to how we sometimes assume it to be a potentially ‘unlimited’ object. I would say this is made almost even more clear in the China North fieldsite where the actual amount of bandwidth available becomes patently obvious for people in the same way as water does.

    The internet does have it’s specificities though: one of the clear things that is coming out of our surveys is the significance of different modes of access and I think there are analogies to be made between the ways villagers cope with limitations imposed upon them in terms of various resources and their often incredibly lofty aspirations of what they wish to achieve.

    The vast majority of our informants (over three-quarters) were China Mobile customers. While those who travelled regularly with work and business tended to have packages that afforded larger bandwidth allowances, and roaming outside of the province, the remaining half of these customers had packages that severely limited the mobile access that they had to the internet. These were normally packages that varied in cost between 10–20 RMB per month, offering between 30–70 megabyte bandwidth allowance respectively.

    How was this experienced in people’s everyday lives? Just like with water, people developed clear and intelligent strategies in order to prioritise which things they believed to be essential. One lady in a village, explained that she had the 30 megabyte bandwidth package for 5 RMB a month said that she tended to only use QQ on her phone, because if she used both QQ and WeChat she would go over her limit, and all her friends were on QQ.

    Others sometimes failed to understand the concept that there were distinct limits to the amount of bandwidth and resources available. A young man working in the town explained that he once watched a streamed movie with his girlfriend using his phone, without realizing that doing that would push him over the bandwidth limit. He had to pay 200RMB for the single month’s bill. He explained to me that he didn’t know about it, and wondered why he hadn’t just paid for his girlfriend to go to the cinema with him, at least that way he wouldn’t have strained his neck, he joked.

    For others, they developed ways to get around such restrictions using their existing connections. One of the town’s young male hairdressers, joked to his friend that he willing to allow his assistant to pay his own phone bill in order to remove the block on his phone. The manager of a photocopying shop in the town used his connections in China Unicom (he was an authorized reseller/top-up point) to get a very low-cost 2G phone card (around 10RMB per month) that allowed him virtually free nationwide calls, and then relied on the broadband internet connection in his shop, which he spent most of every day in anyway.

    While readers in the west are typically used to very generous bandwidth allowances offered by telecoms companies, it is important to remember that here in China, economic constraints such as bandwidth remain a very real barrier to social networking use for many. In this sense, we can see links with Shriram’s previous blog post where he mention’s electricity cuts as a major challenge facing people in his fieldsite. These regimes of shortages create economies where peoople may have to make difficult decisions about who they will communicate with, and how they will communicate with them.