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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.