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Social media and strangers: what chatting to ‘the other’ tells us about ourselves

By Tom McDonald, on 26 January 2014

Virginia Indian chief with tattoos. Engraving by Theodor de Bry, 1590. (Copyright expired)

Virginia Indian chief with tattoos. Engraving by Theodor de Bry, 1590. (Copyright expired)

The issue of strangers goes right to the very heart of anthropology, and was one of the first things I learnt about as an undergraduate at UCL. This fixation on ‘the other’ owed much to the Judeo-Christian tradition, which set about comparing inhabitants of newly discovered lands to apparently ‘civilised’ Christian westerners. Early European settlers to the Americas returned to Europe with fantastical descriptions and drawings of the indigenous Americans as exotic and mysterious peoples. Lurid and imaginative details of cannibalism, sexual promiscuity, and primitivism featured heavily in these early images. The extent to which these reports were true did not particularly matter. Instead this act of ‘othering’ was effective because it both preserved the integrity of the notion of a Christian moral self, while also making ‘the other’ something to be studied and understood. The universalism–relativism conundrum that much of anthropology rests on springs from this: anthropology bases much of its enquiries on the fact that we are all human, and therefore in some sense comparable, whilst acknowledging that at the same time we are all different from each other.

This is particularly true with China’s most popular social network QQ, which has been designed to make it easy for users to add complete strangers, in addition to more established communicating with friends. Many of my friends here in the North China fieldsite acknowledge that strangers often add them on QQ. The interactions my research participants have with strangers online and how they choose to handle these strangers, contribute to their understanding of themselves.

Some of my female friends in the fieldsite tell me that when any stranger sends them a friend request on QQ they will never accept. For example, one young woman who works in the local health station flatly tells me  “I don’t add strangers” every time I see her.

However, there is equally a sense among other informants that strangers are not only a force to be kept at a distance, but also that they can be communicated with, and even that one may be able to use strangers (or strangeness) for one’s advantage. One of the most important moments where this becomes made clear is the issue of avatars as profile pictures. The overwhelming majority of my participants choose to use an avatar such as a photo of a model or a cartoon character and a ‘net name’, rather than their own picture or real name on QQ Instant Messenger (where the profile can be seen on the public search).

Li Wei, a 20 year-old male who helps out in the town’s small wedding photo studio explained:

Li Wei: My QZone has [my real] photos, but I won’t use it on my QQ Instant Messenger profile picture, I think that’s stupid.

Me: Why is it stupid?

Li Wei: There is no sense of mystery. For example, if a friend adds you, then as soon as they see your photo they know who you are, there is no feeling of mystery. If he looks at your photo and doesn’t know you, he’ll ask you.

Me: Why do you want people to feel you are very mysterious? Why do you not want them to know?

Li Wei: Most friends know who you are, unless you don’t know them.

Me: So, if I understand correctly, you don’t want people to know who you are, because they already know who you are?!

Li Wei: Normally, with someone you know, if they see your avatar they will know who you are. Even if you use a fake profile picture they will know who you are. Unless you’re speaking indiscreetly with net-friends, not like chatting with strangers, you don’t want them to see you.

Li Wei’s view shows us that a simple opposition between us and ‘the stranger’, or as anthropology would define it, the group and the ‘radical alterity,’ doesn’t really work. The stranger is not just a dangerous other, to be kept at bay, as the early European settlers may have viewed native Americans. Rather, Li Wei’s words reveal that the stranger is actually something we might want to be. Sometimes being a stranger is something people cling to, at other times it should be something that is seen right through.

I have a feeling that my informants who use QQ hold that a real test of friendship is that your real friends will know that the profile picture of cartoon boy with blonde hair, and the user name ‘lonely cigarette butt’ actually represents you.

A view of otherness that understands the stranger not just as being an unknown individual, but rather as a quality that people actively manipulate, experiment with, and appropriate into their own life has the potential to challenge the universalism–relativism dichotomy and contribute to helping us to understand how human beings come to terms with the fact that we are all different, and yet all the same.