UCL Social Networking Sites & Social Science Research Project
  • fb_1.pngtwitter_1.pnggoogle_plus.pngflickr.png
  • A A A

    Archive for the 'Comparative studies' Category

    Know thy selfie

    By Daniel Miller, on 1 April 2014

    Image courtesy of ClaudsClaudio, Creative Commons

    Image courtesy of ClaudsClaudio, Creative Commons

    As noted by last week’s The Economist it seems that every new cultural development is assumed by both journalists and academics to be a sign of our growing superficiality and especially our narcissism. A primary use of Anthropology has been to bolster the idea that it is `other’ societies that represent authenticity and depth. I have lived in tribal and peasant societies and I do not accept that my fellow Londoners are either more superficial, or more narcissistic, or even that they are more concerned with the public appearance of the person, than would the case for most other societies studied by anthropologists. It is no surprise that the most recent `proof’ of this narcissism is held to be the Selfie, presumed to be a key moment in growing infatuation with our own appearance. But once again I think it is the interpretation of the Selfie, not the Selfie itself, that should be condemned as merely superficial. To equate the Selfie with narcissism is to imply that it is an idealised version of the self, directed at the self. This is surely mistaken.

    The Selfie is clearly aimed at others, placed on social media as a form of communication. What is a Selfie without its `likes’? As a school pupil put it:- `But it’s sort of while you are having a conversation, you just send a picture of yourself.’ It is literally a `snap-chat’. More importantly the Selfie is subject to polymedia and cultural variation. With respect to polymedia, the `classic’ young, female, pouting, dressed to party, pose has become strongly associated with Instagram. But there is a whole other genre that is found on the much larger platforms of Snapchat and WhatsApp. For young people in England by far the most common form of Selfie is an image designed to make oneself look as ugly as possible. One common pose is with the camera taking the face from below the chin, right up the nostrils. It is predominantly the same young people who create the Selfie that create this `Uglie’. Many more Uglies are posted that Selfies, but most discussions entirely ignore the more prevalent image. Adults often create a similar dualism, but vicariously. Look at the endless postings of their babies, either highly idealised, or looking as ridiculous as possible. These are not individualistic, rather today they have become highly normative forms. The Uglie relates to English humour and self-deprecation rather than being a universal form and thereby reflect cultural specificity. The single term Selfie also fails to differentiate adult Selfies from teenage usage, the increasingly common group Selfie from the individual. It also ignores the difference between all of these and what might be termed the `meta-Selfie’ where the image is of a person taking a Selfie through the mirror. These are often taken simply because they are a more effective way of showing the whole outfit that an individual is wearing. But at least in the English context they can also become a visual comment, ironic or otherwise, on the taking of the Selfie.

    There are even more reasons for taking Selfies than there are genres, and of course, a Selfie can be superficial. I don’t especially admit a tradition in cultural studies that enjoys taking something denigrated as superficial and then making some pretentious claim for its deep significance. But a recent encounter with a Selfie helped me appreciate that the Selfie certainly has that capacity for depth and profundity. This Selfie is the cover photo for the Facebook profile of someone I interviewed as part of my hospice research. One of the main reasons that people dying of cancer retreat into isolation is that they don’t want others to see the devastation to their own appearance that often comes with chemotherapy, if not from the cancer itself.

    The physical disfigurement is itself debilitating. This forty-two year old even kept his girlfriend away during chemotherapy which had been particularly gruelling and destructive in his case. After the chemotherapy ended he began to put back on some weight. He once again started to look like himself. After six weeks he decided to take precisely that kind of Selfie that is posed in front of the mirror. The stance and facial expression are clearly assertive. As he makes clear he first had to acknowledge to himself that he could once again become a decent human being and only then could he communicate this to others. The distance between knowing something as an external fact and internalising it as an acknowledged truth is circumvented because this particular kind of Selfie can operate on both of these modalities simultaneously. Prior to the existence of this form of Selfie it is unlikely that there is anything he could have done that could so succinctly have communicated to others that he had acknowledged the change in himself to himself.

    In this instance I found myself drawn back to the writings of Sartre whose work on existentialism directly equated issues of self-expression to the freedom to choose the nature and manner of our death. More generally the Selfie seems to fit arguments made by the sociologist Anthony Giddens about self-identity. It is not that we are more obsessed by our public appearance. Compared to say the characters in the world’s first novel from the 11th are almost relaxed. As argued in my and Jolynna’s recent book Webcam, what has perhaps changed is our self-consciousness about this concern with appearance, and therefore the need to not only cultivate our looks, but to simultaneously comment upon that act of cultivation, that suggests we know what we are doing. In England this is ideally done with irony and the Selfie only makes sense when we also include the Uglie in our analysis. But the Selfie can be also a serious and evidently in some cases literally a life-affirming use of a new visual genre that exploits it’s very specific form of self-revelation.

    Visibly invisible: you can always see me

    By Xin Yuan Wang, on 24 March 2014

    The Little Prince is probably the novel which I have read the most times. Each time I read it, I am warmly touched. Amid field work, I am reading it again. My favorite part is the conversation between the fox and the little prince, when the fox tells the little prince that meaning of ‘to tame’ is to ‘establish ties’.

    “Just that,” said the fox. “To me, you are still nothing more than a little boy who is just like a hundred thousand other little boys. And I have no need of you. And you, on your part, have no need of me. To you, I am nothing more than a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes. But if you tame me, then we shall need each other. To me, you will be unique in all the world. To you, I shall be unique in all the world…”

    “My life is very monotonous,” the fox said. “I hunt chickens; men hunt me. All the chickens are just alike, and all the men are just alike. And, in consequence, I am a little bored. But if you tame me, it will be as if the sun came to shine on my life. I shall know the sound of a step that will be different from all the others. Other steps send me hurrying back underneath the ground. Yours will call me, like music, out of my burrow. And then look: you see the grain-fields down yonder? I do not eat bread. Wheat is of no use to me. The wheat fields have nothing to say to me. And that is sad. But you have hair that is the color of gold. Think how wonderful that will be when you have tamed me! The grain, which is also golden, will bring me back the thought of you. And I shall love to listen to the wind in the wheat…”

    I have to quote the whole lot what the fox said,  not only because it is beautifully written, but also it reminders me of a recent talk between myself and  my informant LX about QQ (social media) permission settings.

    LX is a sweet factory girl who is 19-year-old. One day she complained that I was always ‘invisible’ (my QQ status) online, which is true. My QQ default setting is ‘invisible’ which means I can get QQ messages but my QQ contacts don’t know I am online when I log in. To be ‘invisible’ means I won’t be disturbed by other online contacts and it has become an accepted/applied strategy among my informants who have hundreds of QQ contacts to log in as ‘invisible’.

    There are six online status of QQ (see the screenshot below): I am online; Q me (chat with me); Away; Busy; Do not disturb; and Invisible.  For most people (90%) as long as they are online, the status is either ‘online’, or ‘invisible’, or ‘away’ with auto-response. The reason for being ‘invisible’ varies– the main reason is that people do not want to be disturbed or get involved in a conversation, however still want to view others’ Qzone (online profiles) and don’t want to miss any important message. ‘Do not disturb’ as a status is rarely used since people think that is rude.

    QQ status

    I thought there were only six alternatives one can choose until LX taught me that actually there were some other ‘hidden’ options in the advanced permission setting. Right click any QQ contact’s avatar, on the pop-up select box (see screenshot below) there are a few options which enact different operations upon the certain contact, for instance: send instant message, send an Email (QQ offers email service which is the dominant email service my informant used), view chat log (one can check the local chat log, which is the chats that occurred on the current digital device or roaming chat log, which refers to all the chats under the same account occurring on different digital devices), put this contact on top of the contact list, edit the name (QQ names, in most cases, are not real names, as I mentioned in my previous report. As a result users will usually note the real-name if they know it), group the contact, delete the contact, report the contact (for online  harassment), create a desktop shortcut, enter his/her Qzone, check his/her Tencent weibo (twitter-like service QQ offers) etc. and permission setting (see the screen shot below, blue highlighted). In the permission setting, there is one option that says “yin shen dui qi ke jian” (make visible to him/her in invisible status) which means the selected contact can always ‘see’ you even when you are in ‘invisible’ status.

    QQ advanced permission setting

    I felt honored to realize that I am the second person who can ‘see’ LX when she is ‘invisible’ to others on QQ (the first one is her boyfriend).

    It is like you can always see me, and I am always there waiting for you, you know, very close and exclusive.

    LX further explained the significance of ‘visible invisibility’. In return, I set her as the first contact that can ‘see’ me when I am ‘invisible’, which made her very happy. Such mutual advanced permission setting reinforced our relationship.

    ‘To see’ is different from ‘to look.’ The latter happens all the time, however in many cases does not necessarily lead to the former. A senior manager of a local factory told me that the logic of assembly line is that humankind is a part of the machine. I asked him whether he personally knew any of the factory workers. Rather than answer ‘no’, he told me “it’s not necessary”. True, he only needs to know the machine. I am probably the first one (the weird one) who visited the factory workshop and paid more attention to the workers rather than the product, the building, and the machine.

    “All the rural migrants are just alike” as some of my local informants put it. In this small town, in factory workshops, monotonousness on a daily basis is the grand narrative, eclipsing individuality.  Most of the time, my rural migrant friends are ‘invisible’ to most people, even though they certainly did not ‘set’ themselves as ‘invisible’.  Unfortunately unlike on QQ, the default ‘social’ setting of ‘invisible’ cannot easily be changed in their offline life. To live against such daily ‘invisibility’, LX’s skillful usage of QQ allows herself some ‘privileged’ visibility, and in consequence,  an ordinary factory girl who is just like a hundred thousand other rural-to-urban migrant girls shall be unique in all the world, at least in the ‘virtual world’ created by social media.

    The Future of Facebook: What will we learn from the study of Chinese social media?

    By Xin Yuan Wang, on 29 January 2014

    Image courtesy of emreterok, Creative Commons

    Image courtesy of emreterok, Creative Commons

    China is a dreadful desert to Western social media giants such as Facebook and Twitter, however it is a tropical rainforest to many local species. It is curious to note that even though none of the participants in my field site use, or have even heard of Facebook or Twitter, the way they use Chinese social media such as QQ and WeChat provides an interesting parallel to the way UK teenagers in Danny’s study differentiate a range of social media in their daily life, even though as social media QQ, or WeChat are both significantly different from Facebook.

    Among certain groups of Chinese people, like teenagers, QQ seems to be in stasis. For teens with relatively high education and social status that are more willing to try something new and urban middle-class, QQ is not cool at all, just as what Danny reported about Facebook in his previous blog article. It is not rare to find people who have used QQ for more than 10 years in China given QQ started to become popular almost 15 years ago. In fact, QQ could be considered Facebook’s predecessor and to some extent through the study of QQ’s development in China we may ‘foretell’ what will happen in ‘Facebook land’ in the future. Many of my participants have told me that around 10 years ago, QQ represented the coolest thing about urban life because rural migrants who came back to their village during Chinese New Year showed off that they had a QQ account in front of their stunned fellow villagers. After 10 years, when almost half of the Chinese population have QQ accounts, QQ numbers rather than mobile phone numbers are exchanged most frequently as  permanent contact details (it is reported that people change their mobile phone much more frequently than their QQ account). QQ has lost its association with trendy or cool things, especially for urban Chinese people who want to escape from the ‘hustle and bustle’ QQ land which somehow has been associated with rural Chinese. On one hand, some people report that they use QQ less and less in recent years since Wechat’s audio message is more fun and convenient, and WeChat seems to be more in line with urban life. Some report that their closest friends and frequent contacts all moved to WeChat. On the other hand, people admitted that they would always come back to QQ when they wanted to catch up with long-lost relationships, such as old classmates or previous colleagues. As one informant put it, those contacts “didn’t move to other social media,” but remain in the “old home” of QQ. Those contacts may also have started using WeChat or other social media, but from my participants’ perspectives, they ‘belong’ to QQ. These friends may not have updated their social media details because of sparse communication, or are regarded a part of ‘past old days’ in one’s mind and QQ is the PLACE to go.

    That is to say, people didn’t quit QQ because of their engagement with other social media. Rather, QQ survives time and thus obtains a ‘senior’ status, something like an old friend who has witnessed one’s ups-and-downs in life even though they may only meet once a year. QQ may also be regarded like one’s birthplace, which my rural migrant informants only visit during Chinese new year but always remains as one of the most import places in their lives. People don’t dump QQ, but keep it, and use it in a different way.

    So the quick conclusion is QQ seems to be in stasis among certain groups of people not because of ‘being QQ’, but because of the law of ‘nature’ – here let me call this the nature of social media. And it also makes sense if one replaces “QQ” by “Facebook” in this argument.

    And what is the nature of social media? You may need a bit more patience to read through the following academic ‘block’ to get a clearer picture:

    First, stuff becomes more than the material after being used by people. For example the pen from your passed-away grandpa is to you by no means equal to any other pen which was produced on the same factory assembly line. If we have to use jargon, we call the process ‘objectification’ where an object consumed by people is domesticated and becomes part of the person and their relationship to others. That is where material culture starts, and the context in which we study digital technology. Digital technology, as a form of material, is no more sophisticated or mediated than any other object in terms of the relationship between material and human beings. Having said that, however, it is worthwhile to highlight the uniqueness of social media in the way that social media show the relationship between the digital and social relationship in a more visible and obvious way. That is to say, without people’s engagement and usage, social media is next to nothing. In a way, ‘Facebook’ and ‘QQ’ are only half finished goods before being used by people. Social media is produced through the consumption, as the terminology ‘prosumption’ suggested. Thus, it is safe to say social media is highly entangled with the ‘self’ and personal relationship to the degree that it somehow grows with the person and has its own life (Gell’s theory of ‘agency’ also shed light on this argument).

    Furthermore, the concept of ‘polymedia’ describes another feature of social media. Each social media platform finds its niche in specific personal relationships and people take moral responsibility for their choice of different social media. In the case of ‘Facebook’, as Danny suggested, at the moment when people got friend request from their mother, the social medium is transformed into a family-orientated place rather than the place where people share secrets with their close friends. Also the concept ‘remediation’  helps to illustrate the way how certain social media (like QQ and Facebook) become ‘old’ because of the development of other social media. Dialectically, there is no so-called old or new social media without the comparison with others, that is to say people tend to re-define certain social media in the context of polymedia.

    Even though my research is still unfinished, let me ‘jump to the conclusion’ and put my incomplete version of ‘the nature of social media’ here: First, social media as a social agent grow with the person and own their own lives. Second, social media were applied and valued by people in a context of polymedia.

    Having discussed the nature of social media, then, let’s go back to my argument from the beginning – QQ seems to be in stasis among certain group of people not because of ‘being QQ’, but because of the law of ‘nature’, and so does Facebook. It is important to not treat social media as functional technology like we would computers. In terms of technology, new social media are not more advanced than pre-existing ones. It makes sense to say that today’s computers have taken the place of the early bulky computer, whereas we can’t say that a certain social medium is dead completely because its users turn to new ones and use others more actively. The situation in practice is like the way people treat friendship and the attitude toward one’s birthplace. From time to time, my participants in this Chinese town used “old friend” or “lao jia” (hometown) to describe their QQ profiles. For some of them, the usage of WeChat is more frequent and active than the usage of QQ. They report and I have observed that WeChat is more for recent contacts one meets in face-to-face situations, and generally speaking closer friends in a smaller circle. QQ on the other hand is used to keep up with all kinds of friends, acquaintances, and communities (QQ offers a group function, such as ‘class group’  used in one middle school) that one has accumulated over a relatively long term. In some cases QQ has become some people’s digital legacy where they keep the ‘silly self’ of 10 years ago. As one of my informants said she won’t use QQ to communicate with her new friends anymore since “on QQ you will encounter a little girl of 10 years ago”, however it is always good to view that ‘self’ in the past as it remains alive on QQ. QQ has become the PLACE, the legacy. Each generation, each human being owns their own history, and in the digital age, social media have become the place people store their history, and where old friends and memory dwell. I have witnessed it already in the usage of QQ among Chinese people and I don’t see any reason why Facebook will not follow suit.

    Finally, the findings in China, with the absence of Facebook, actually reinforced our essential argument that the study of digital anthropology and this GSMIS project go beyond specific usage of a certain social medium. Social media usage is the point of entrance which allows our digital anthropologists to look into, understand and interpret the social relationship and the relationship between people and technology in different cultures and societies in the digital age.

    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.

    Working class teens switching Facebook for Whatsapp in Brazilian field site

    By Juliano Andrade Spyer, on 9 January 2014

    IMG_5552

    Photo by Juliano Spyer.

    As I have written earlier here, Facebook is a very important part of being young in Baldoíno. If it took a while for everyone here to respond to the street mobilizations that happened nationally during June and July, the (fake) news about the government closing down the internet and consequently Facebook made people here want to protest – more here. Being on “Face”, as Brazilians warmly call the service, is part of what makes someone a person others would want to talk to in my field site. But there has been an almost silent revolution towards the adoption of Whatsapp and informants are spending less time and paying less attention to what happens on Facebook.

    The critical reason for the change doesn’t seem to be what is making UK teens migrate to other services, as Miller pointed out. Among my working class informants, Whatsapp is more useful because it works better on their mobile phones, and the mobile phone tends to be more important for them than the PC. The PC usually belongs to the family so it has to be shared, while the mobile phone is something that is one person’s exclusive possession. It is not just that mobiles are more affordable and can be carried everywhere; they materialize a possibility of having private interactions in a social context that doesn’t allow this to happen very often. Even at home people are constantly being monitored by their neighbors. And the mobile enables stealth conversations among people.

    As I started conducting field work nine months ago, very few people talked about Whatsapp or had it installed on their phones. Now Whatsapp is perhaps the main reason my informants have for choosing a new mobile. They are willing to pay more for equipment that enables them to use this service. If a few months ago a good phone for them should have a camera and a memory card for music, it now should also have Android OS as it is perceived as the best platform to have Whatsapp running.

    The advantage of Whatsapp is that it runs better on their not very powerful smart phones and unstable internet connections. Using Facebook for chatting through mobiles normally is a painful process involving having patience for the program to open and having to deal with misunderstanding as the user could be seen as being online but not all messages would arrive immediately. Whatsapp loads quicker and delivers the results expected in terms of promoting the exchanges of direct messages. And further than that, the service was understood as a sort of Bluetooth solution where people didn’t have to be near each other to exchange files. And exchanging files – music, video clips, voice clips, and photos – is something my informants love doing.

    At first, as I saw Whatsapp becoming the new cool thing, I felt it would be bad for the research. Facebook is mostly used for private communication here, but, because it does more than that, users would chat and then participate on public or semi-public events that I could follow. Whatsapp does not have a timeline for people to post things to anyone interested. Through Whatsapp you are either talking to one person or to a specific group. But to my surprise, I am now feeling that Whatsapp offers a great advantage for anthropologists conducting long term research.

    During this kind of deep engagement with informants, we are able to build trust relationships so I learned I could ask my informants to show me the kinds of conversations they have through Whatsapp. Because Whatsapp is not public, people feel more at ease to “be themselves”, which, among other things, means talking about things and sharing things they wouldn’t if they knew others were looking.

    I will briefly give examples based on the two conversations I had so far with informants about this subject.

    1)    Business / work – Using Facebook at work is not usually appreciated by employers, but they now are having ambiguous feeling about Whatsapp as it is being applied inside companies as an efficient tool to communicate with clients and also with work colleagues. At a hotel resort, for instance,  every cleaner can now be immediately contacted without carrying a walkie-talkie.

    2)    Bizarre humor and sex – a lot of what is exchanged are short clips with different sorts of bizarre images. I could mention, as an example, a man having sex with a goat while singing a popular country song about wanting the girlfriend to follow the guy to town where he is going for work. If there is a pattern about this –as far as I can see – it is that many of such files make reference to the life of working migrants.

    3)    Entrepreneurship – users use the service to help each other in terms of solving problems. A person could promote the ice cream produced by a friend or forward the image of a furniture a friend wants to build to a trusted professional.

    4)    Maintaining a virtual presence – a person had a small surgery on her mouth and shared the image of her face with a close friend to hear her opinion on how she looked; alternatively the person can be at the store, photograph a certain item and ask the opinion of peers before purchasing it.

    5) Exchange local information - Baldoíno does not have a newspaper or a local radio station and yet people are mostly up-to-date about things happening through gossiping networks. Whatsapp became part of this process as it allows the exchange of images such as that of a murdered person or of the difficult work conditions for employees at an important sports event. The photo makes the gossip more trustworthy and real.

    As one of my informants said, after Whatsapp, she now rarely uses Facebook. She has both apps on her mobile and as she rides the bus home after work and school, she first checks the new messages shared on Whatsapp. If there is nothing new she then sees who is online on Whatsapp that she could talk to. In the exceptional case that no one is on and there are no new exchanges, she then opens Facebook to see what is going on over there.

    Photo 1: Sent to my informant by a friend after having a tooth surgery to see how she looked.IMG-20131109-WA0020a

    PHOTO 2: Some friends my informant wanted to buy ice cream and she told them through WhatsApp she had another friend that makes great ice cream. They exchanged quite a few photos, which included the menu with flavours and prices. This image shows the larger size of her friend’s ice cream in comparison to those found in supermarkets.IMG-20131109-WA0016

    Scholarship, integrity and going viral

    By Daniel Miller, on 30 December 2013

    For a professional academic the foundation of reputation must be scholarship and integrity. Academic studies are interpretations, and even what our informants tell us are their interpretations, and may not equate with the underlying reasons for their actions. Nevertheless, we can and should strive for our writing to be well informed, and authoritative as the basis for original insights. This commitment is at the heart of the Global Social Media Impact Study (www.gsmis.org) a team of nine anthropologists in eight countries each spending 15 months collecting data on the use and consequences of social media.

    WHAT WAS THE DATA BEHIND MY BLOG POST?

    As part of our project I have been working north of London in an area I call The Glades (not the real name), a site with a population of around 24,000 people. I have worked there full time since April looking explicitly at the use of social media. The first focus of my research was a hospice and terminally ill patients. The most recent has been with three schools, where I and a colleague have conducted interviews with forty pupils aged 16-18. But the findings I set out in my blog post (24/11/13) were not dependent on those interviews. The trends were emerging right from the start of fieldwork in April last year through the door-to-door interviews (over 150 different informants, each a minimum of forty minutes). I was conducting around the villages which included young people. Ethnography also means the countless informal encounters with people who live in the area. Of particular importance is direct observation and participation, so you know what people are doing and you don’t just rely on what they say they are doing. Many in the team don’t even interview, everything is direct observation and participation, for example, the analysis of informants’ postings.

    If the schools agree, we may also conduct some questionnaires involving much larger numbers, perhaps several thousand. The best academic work in this field, such as that of Barry Wellman or Sonia Livingstone, combines qualitative and quantitative sources. But the post was based on the strength of qualitative rather than quantitative work. Asking the right questions in any future questionnaire depends upon this earlier research. At first, if you merely ask these school pupils why they hardly use Facebook today, they may talk about the functions of Twitter or even claim they care about privacy – because they may realize that this is what adults want them to say. A quantitative survey is often a bad aggregate of these superficial responses. By having long conversations with individuals, under conditions of anonymity, about actual postings and the effects these had on their class or on their families, you can dig deeper. On further discussion, they themselves make clear that these issues of privacy were not really their concern, and in the end they don’t think the newer media are more effective. But rather the key issue is that media used by older people is not a cool site for their own peer to peer interactions. My blog post on ‘The Fall of Facebook‘ was not so much about the decline of Facebook amongst schoolchildren as trying to understand what we can learn from this. Quantitative surveys are fine for simple questions such as ‘what phone do you have?’, but for a subtle issue, such as the motivation for shifting platforms, I believe our work should prove far more reliable than any survey, however extensive.

    WHERE IS THE REPORT?

    So far I have completed 9 out of 15 months fieldwork. Before I write any formal publications, however, I will be reviewing these results, again and again, and we will be continuing to interview young people and engage in participant observation until the end of our data collection in September 2014. I do have one report on an early applied aspect of my findings, though with a very different focus, which may be found here.

    We hope eventually to produce at least ten books of data, an Open Access university course and perhaps teaching material for school children, all free and online. We hope this will be in multiple languages, so that people all around the world can be better informed. Rather than anecdotes about the political impact of Twitter or the effect on privacy of Facebook they will have access to sustained scholarship. They will also come to see how these things differ from region to region. But with data collection continuing until September 2014, we don’t expect to publish reports until 2016. This is why, given the interest in our topic, we keep a blog of interim findings and stories. We would prefer our final reports to go viral rather than our blog posts (there was no press release), but we now appreciate we have no control over this.

    WAS THIS BIG NEWS?

    Well not really, the very reputable Pew Research Centre in the US had published a report called ‘Teens Haven’t Abandoned Facebook (Yet)’ on 15/08/2013. So I was not the first to note these trends. However, while Pew found that in the US Facebook still takes the bulk of teens’ attention, I observed that in The Glades it was now relegated behind its rivals and used for family much more than for peer communication. That is why I could say with confidence that with respect to coolness Facebook is ‘dead and buried’ for these teens. But then their survey ended in Sept 2012. By 5/11/13 Pew had published ‘5 sites teens flock to instead of Facebook‘.

    I don’t think anyone reading my original blog post would be misinformed. I don’t ever suggest that Facebook is doomed. I state clearly that Facebook is expanding in other field-sites and age groups and that these same teens retain Facebook for family purposes. My data overwhelmingly made the case for this loss of cool. The phrase ‘dead and buried’ unambiguously only refers to the way Facebook is never going to be cool again for this age group. If you saw the NBC report on my work, it implies that my findings also reflect trends in the US. Even the ‘opposing’ industry analyst could not deny this loss of cool. What he opposed was the idea that Facebook itself was dead and buried, something I have never ever suggested – though the same report implied that I had.

    GOING VIRAL

    What went viral was not the blog piece, but a version that was re-written by a journalist for an online academic magazine called The Conversation. The journalist gave me the opportunity to review her version, which I checked for factual errors. But, mea culpa, I realize now that I left in elements in her version that perhaps over-simplified the original. For example, my original post recognized that there was some time between a mother’s friending, and the move from Facebook to other media, while the new version implied an immediate effect. I should have corrected and qualified more precisely. I apologize for this and regret that I didn’t. But on the other hand, the journalist in question was only trying to do her job based on the journalistic claim (usually correct) that academic work will not gain popular attention because of the way it is written. Allowing your work to be ‘sexed-up’ seems to be a compromise academics will have to accept if they want to reach those audiences. So I didn’t want to challenge everything she had done. In the future I will be more pedantic about correcting such rewrites. Small shifts in meaning that came with the rewrite became accentuated in later less careful reportage by other journalists. Yet the substance was accurate, and I nowhere imply a demise for Facebook.

    I am not of course happy when a subsequent journalist mistakenly claims that this trend was found in all eight countries, or when European funding is turned by some reports into the project being a study of Europe. Journalists have to work to demanding deadlines, but equally I was not responsible for these mistakes, which simply distort what I had said. I am sure there are journalists who have as much concern with integrity and keeping people properly informed as we do. We will want to work with those journalists in the future as a partnership, with anthropologists having the time for more sustained research, and journalists helping to rewrite for and disseminate to a wider public. Over time genuine positive collaborations are entirely possible and to be welcomed.

    But what happened last week was not that. The reason the post went viral is likely to be due to a combination of factors. In some media, my post was used for more sensationalist purposes to claim that Facebook itself was doomed. This was ‘news’ at a Christmas period when journalists were short of news. Most important was the way items spread easily through the viral impact of digital media. Phrases such as ‘dead and buried’ shifted from a description of Facebook losing its cool for English schoolchildren, to the supposed fate of Facebook as a whole. I soon began to get emails from financial analysts, because in our world there are many people who couldn’t care a less about academic research but care hugely about share prices.

    THE FUTURE

    On reflection, I am relatively sanguine as to the results of this last week but I would much rather go viral with our actual published research results. What clearly should happen now I think is quite obvious. I really, really hope that some of the journalists or indeed readers of this news story will now go out and talk to some teenagers in depth about their use of new media. By its very nature as ethnography our work is highly parochial, based in one place. It would be extremely interesting to know if there are similar trends amongst school pupils in the North of England or in France.

    Meanwhile, on return to London in February, I have another six months to continue this research, expanding on these findings but also exploring in much more detail why these trends develop and what we can learn from them. The eventual report will be hundreds of pages not just a quick blog post. We will never be able to fully control the spin that is put on our results, but the reason we do this work is to keep people informed and it is to be hoped that what happened last week will result in continued interest in the amazing work of the GSMIS team.

    Finally, our field method is participant observation. So being a participant in ‘going viral’ is quite a useful experience. This response has of necessity been immediate, but I will reflect on it over the longer term and hopefully will learn some useful lessons about the nature of viral spread. Going viral just became part of what we study.

    I apologize that I was unable to respond to most inquiries. I am currently in the Caribbean and visiting our field-sites in Trinidad and Chile, but if you have further questions about our research please contact me at d.miller@ucl.ac.uk, though I am not back in the UK until the end of January.

    I’m dreaming of a QQ Christmas

    By Tom McDonald, on 25 December 2013

    Tencent's QZone wishes its users a Merry Christmas in a most unusual style (Image: Tencent)

    Tencent’s QZone wishes its users a Merry Christmas in a most unusual style. Chinese reads: “Playing the mobile phone version is even more fun! Try it.”, “Play again” and “Share your scores” (Image: Tencent)

    Being an anthropologist is an incredible adventure, and one that I am really fortunate to be having. I am enormously privileged to be spending large amounts of time in a culture radically unalike my own, making friends with people who hold completely different views on the world, and, in the process learning a lot about both myself, and also about what makes us human (which is, after all, the point of anthropology).

    However, living in a village in North China also has its difficulties: irregular water supplies, substandard housing and extreme climates, to name but a few. But the thing that really affects me at times is the solitary nature of fieldwork. Being a lone researcher far away from your family and friends is difficult, and especially so on Christmas Day when you know that those you love are at home celebrating together.

    So what is Christmas like in the Chinese countryside? While urban Chinese shopping malls are increasingly adopting lavish Christmas decorations, in my rural Chinese fieldsite it is largely just a normal day. The only material sign of Christmas was a couple of subdued Santa decorations affixed to the door of  a shop that sells snacks to local school children.

    Imagine my delight, then, when I visited QZone (QQ‘s version of Facebook) this morning to be greeted by an image of Santa wearing nothing but a bobble-hat and a pair of underpants. A speech bubble next to the jolly old fellow pleaded “help my find clothes!”

    Clicking on Santa bought me to an arcade-style game where I controlled the semi-dressed Father Christmas with the arrow keys directing him to catch falling snowflakes, baubles and candy canes. Capturing this yuletide precipitation resulted in Santa gradually accumulating both points and items of clothing. At the end of the game these points could be exchanged for a virtual ’Christmas gift’: snowmen, santa hats, Christmas trees, etc., that could be posted with a comment onto the QZone page of a friend. Real stuffed santa gifts were also available for purchase to be delivered to a recipient of one’s choice.

    Over the course of Christmas Day, I have also received many Christmas greetings, or ‘blessings’ (zhufu) from my informants via QQ and WeChat. Many of these greeting were memes featuring dancing Santas, Christmas trees and other festive images. Even QQ’s login pages and mobile app had special Christmas-themed landing pages and QZone skins for one’s homepage.

    It struck me that, in many ways, Christmas as experienced on QQ is even more lively than that on Facebook, which retains it’s sombre blue-and-white page over the festive season. I think this can be partly explained by the fact that many of my informants understand Christmas to be, as they explain to me, ‘your Chinese New Year’ (nimen de guonian). One of the key features of Chinese New Year is a ‘hot and noisy’ (re’nao) atmosphere, when public places fill with people wearing bright new clothes, visiting relatives, setting off firecrackers. The Christmas that appears in Chinese social media seems to be a Christmas that emphasises this ‘hot and noisy’ atmosphere – one full of fun, games, gifting and pleasure.

    It is exciting to see the Chinese appropriating Christmas, and making meaning out of it within their own culture. And for me, at the very least, being able to spending Christmas with a half-naked Santa certainly eases the homesickness.

    Time to face your own voice: voice messaging on Chinese social media

    By Xin Yuan Wang, on 18 December 2013

    By Xinyuan Wang and Tom McDonald

    A WeChat user recording a voice message to send to another user (Photo by Tom McDonald)

    A WeChat user recording a voice message to send to another user (Photo by Tom McDonald)

    Both Tom and Xinyuan noticed that ‘sending voice messages’ (fa yuyin) via Chinese social media platforms WeChat and QQ was very popular in both our north and south China fieldsites. Their informants kept talking about the ability to leave voice messages using these platforms.

    WeChat was the first to introduce the ability to ‘send voice messages’ in its app. This simply involves navigating to the chat screen of the person you wish to send a message to, and then pushing on the record button. This activates the microphone, you speak your message, and then you release the button. The message is then sent to the recipient, and appears as a speech bubble with a loudspeaker symbol amongst the ordinary dialogue (see figure). The recipient has to press the loudspeaker symbol to play the message.

    Informants in both sites have reported that they found voice messaging to be convenient as it eliminates the need to text. In both sites many of our participants reported that they found sending written messages always takes a longer time, and that inputting Chinese characters was a struggle.

    Besides functional advantages of WeChat voice message, it is curious to note that people have developed a strategy of appropriating WeChat voice message in terms of personal expression and relationship negotiation. For example, people believe that voice message is more personal. Many of our informants agreed that voice messages are not suitable for sending to everyone. One of Tom’s informants hinted that sending voice messages would only be appropriate for people who were quite close. Another, a young female office worker, explained that her online communication with her previous boyfriend predominantly featured voice messages. Especially to close friends and lovers, voice messages appear to express much more emotions than text-based channels.

    Also the intonations of voice message matters a lot and help to make things clearer. In some cases, voice message somehow contributes to a better quality conversation. For instance, instead of sending a text message to her boyfriend saying she felt tired and sick, one of Xinyuan’s informants chose to send voice message, which really ‘sounds’ very weak and sick. Another participant showed Xinyuan how to use voice messaging in order to make a ‘white lie’ to a friend since, compared to phone call, one is more able to control one’s emotion and intonation using voice messaging. Similarly, people in Tom’s site reported that compared to phone calls, voice messaging offered the advantage of being able to ‘take one’s words back’ thanks to a feature that, if one is not satisfied with the recording, one is able to delete the voice message before sending it.  It seems that people have realised that some serious arguments from phone calls were actually caused by a wrong word or improper intonation.

    It is also curious to note that the majority of young women in Xinyuan’s site reported that they actually listened to their own voice messages after sending them off. Many expressed surprise at hearing the sound of their own voice since most of them felt somewhat strange about it in the beginning since “it doesn’t sound at all like my voice!”. Scientifically speaking, the reason for such discrepancy is because when people speak they hear their own voice in two different ways – one through the outside sound waves, which also hit other people’s ears, and the other one through the inner bony skull which actually polishes one’s voice with ‘a false sense of bass’.  However, for us it is also interesting to look at the social consequences of hearing one voice regularly. Apparently, people became more aware of their own voice while using voice message. And women (around 80% to 90%) appeared more aware of their voice since fewer male users (around 30% to 40%) told Xinyuan that they regularly listen to their own voice using voice messages.

    It should be noted that unlike Europe or America, where there has been a long history of leaving voice messages thanks to the prevalence of the telephone answering machine, Chinese homes have rarely bought the units. Although the country’s mobile phone providers have started offering voicemail capabilities, there has always been an additional charge for the service, meaning take up has always been low. As such before WeChat introduced voice messaging the practice of talking to machines just hasn’t existed for most Chinese.

    This asynchronous voice messaging represents quite a major change in the way that people communicate, moving from sending messages consisting of Chinese characters or emoticons to sending messages that are primarily aural. But it also raises important questions, such as: Does voice messaging in a way function as a self-training process in terms of speech skill? Or does it contribute to people’s self-recognition through social interaction? And does the effect of voice messaging vary with relation to gender?

    In Miller and Sinanan’s recent Webcam book, the authors noticed that one of the important features of the webcam is that it effectively acts as a mirror, allowing many people their first ever opportunity to see themselves whilst in conversation. It is interesting to note that a similar novel state of communication is taking place in the case of voice messaging among Chinese users that people could actually listen to themselves during the daily communication for the first time. In both sites of China, we found that even though people started to apply voice message mainly because of its functional affordance, they ended up with a new consciousness of their voice as something one can creatively craft in order to send.

    Yes, there are few things harder than facing yourself. Like it or not, it seems that social media in a way has ‘pushed’ us to know more about ourselves and our social relationships. And for many in China this means it may be time to face their own voice.

    Is QQ uniting the many different Chinas?

    By Tom McDonald, on 19 November 2013

    A meme shared by a research participant with the following caption: "I already have you in my heart. Even if there was someone better, I wouldn’t want them." (Original author unknown)

    A meme shared by a research participant with the following caption: “I already have you in my heart. Even if there was someone better, I wouldn’t want them.” (Original author unknown)

    China, it is often said, is a country of great contrasts. While our project has placed researchers in eight different countries around the world to research the impacts of social media, for China we deliberately chose to have two separate researchers and fieldsites: one in the north of China, and another in the south. It made sense to have two fieldsites in China because the country is such a unique case: Facebook and Twitter are inaccessible from the mainland, and the country has instead developed it’s own social media networks to fill the gap: QQ, WeChat and Weibo.

    I have been astounded by the difference between our two Chinese fieldsites. My China North fieldsite is a very small rural town which is characterised by a relatively fixed local population with little inward migration, a strong emphasis on education, adherence to family planning laws, powerful ideals of family and the institution of marriage.

    By contrast, the China South fieldsite where my colleague Xinyuan works is a relatively large urban town, with factories that employ rural migrants from faraway in China’s poorer western provinces. Xinyuan has shown how her participants often avoid family planning laws and show far less concern for the formal education of their children. Their decisions also seem led by more short-term ideals relating to the new pleasures and experiences that migration to urban areas can offer them.

    To all intents and purposes, it seemed as though our fieldsites were two different worlds. At least that was the case until last month, when we moved our attention from day-to-day fieldwork to analysing the content of our participants’ QQ profiles. The results of the exercise was startling: despite all the differences between the north and south China fieldsites, most people create and share very similar types of posts. In China the most popular genres of these posts centring on ideals of either romantic relationships (see above example), or childbirth and child-raising.

    Our task as anthropologists is to try to make sense of whether there is a link between these similar behaviours in our very different fieldsites, and what these phenomena mean for our understanding of society.

    It is very early speculation at this stage, but I have a feeling that these similar postings might be one of the ways in which people across China are able to feel that they share values with each other, despite all the other differences that separate them. It does not matter that the participants from the China North fieldsite do not know our participants in the China South fieldsite, or vice versa. The fact that our informants are mostly writing and sharing the same kinds of posts might mean that they already have more in common than we had previously thought.

    If we are to follow this line of reasoning, then it may be possible to speculate that social media in China is playing an important role in nationalism. But the nationalism I am suggesting here is not the obvious kind (and the one that attracts the most media and academic coverage), which operate on the level of patriotic postings, censorship, or protectionism of the Chinese internet. Rather, the nationalism I am proposing operates at a deeper (and far more subtle and widespread) level. Could it be that these posts play an active role in making Chinese people who are so obviously different in terms of status, background and wealth, feel a little more like each other?

    If this is the case, then we need to also acknowledge that this affinity, rather than being ‘top down’, is expressed and furthered by users themselves every time they write, like or share one of these apparently innocuous posts. However ridiculous it may sound, the idea that a sense of Chinese nationalism might be partly constructed by shared baby photos and romantic memes could take us a step closer to understanding China as it is imagined and experienced by the normal population.

    The Facebook wall as expression of traditional values

    By Elisabetta Costa, on 11 November 2013

    Photo by Elisabetta Costa

    Photo by Elisabetta Costa

    The inhabitants of Dry Rock Town in south-east Turkey have a mix of social, economic, geographical and ethnic backgrounds. The composition of the town is complex, beginning with a heterogeneous population that has lived here for decades and centuries. Additionally, different groups of rural and urban Kurds, Turks and Arabs came to live in the town more recently for different reasons, contributing to the expansion of the city. At the moment the main social differences of the inhabitants can be explained mainly as a consequence of different levels of urbanization. In fact we can see the people now living in Dry Rock Town as distributed along a continuum from more rural to more urban.

    In the last weeks I have worked on the visual analysis of my informants Facebook posts and what has struck me most has been the homogeneity of their Facebook profiles. Although the differences existing in  real life between rural and urban people are evident, their Facebook visual materials look quite similar. It doesn’t matter if a woman or a man has grown up in the main city of the region or in a small village, and they have completely different life-styles. Their Facebook profiles have many things in common and their visual materials are not so different from each other. Traditional values of family, honour and women’s modesty are overtly represented.

    For example, H. is a young Kurdish woman who works in a highly professional environment, grew up in a big city in southeast Turkey, has male friends, drinks alcohol in restaurants, and eventually will freely choose the person she marries. Her Facebook wall is not so different from the one of S., a woman in her early thirties who grew up in a small town, has very few relationships with non-family members, and that is married to a man who was chosen by her family. In both cases, relatives, family members and traditional habits surface as the main objects of the visual materials that appear on their Facebook walls. Pictures of weddings and family gatherings, and self-portraits with relatives are the most represented images.

    The Facebook social network reproduces the social space of the village where there is no space for anonymity. On Facebook everybody is very careful to not damage their own reputation and that of the family because on Facebook everybody knows each other. The practices learned in the anonymous spaces of the big city disappear in the self-representation played out on Facebook. I refer specifically to habits and customs of urban women, such as hanging out with friends, coming home late at night, drinking alcohol, smoking cigarettes, and having intimate relationships before marriage, which are not represented at all on the Facebook wall.

    But as written in a previous post, in contrast with the normativity of the public space, the private chats and the private messages of Facebook are exactly the opposite. People do secretly what they can’t do in the offline world: chatting with girls and boys, flirting, finding lovers, new friends and partners, getting in touch with foreigners, playing games, and being politically active.