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Archive for the 'Social networking and migration/diaspora' Category

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.

The NRI Club: Non Resident Indians stay connected with Facebook

By Shriram Venkatraman, on 15 December 2013

NRI Club

NRIs (Non Resident Indians) are Indian citizens who have lived outside India for a period of 182 days or more in a year. Most South Indian NRIs in the last two decades are those who have left India for an IT career in the West. They normally get their permanent residency status and settle down in the country that they work in, some proceed to get their citizenship and thus lose their Indian citizenship, but maintain a status that they have an Indian origin. The last few years have seen quite a few of this segment return back to India for various personal and professional reasons. Some of them make a choice to return due to a pressing personal situation back at home (very often induced by their aged parents or parents-in-law) and work for a company here in India. At times this leads to issues and problems settling in India again. These people ruminate over their choice and relive their experiences and life in the West (mostly the United States of America) through their memories. One physical way of doing this is by looking through the pictures/photos they have of their life in the West. Another is to look at the lives of their friends through a combination of pictures, text, videos, friends’ reactions to these found on Facebook, in order to still be an active part of their lives. Facebook (or an equal social networking site, but in the Indian field site people most often use Facebook) acts and serves as a memory to their past lives. Further, it also helps in making sure that one can still live a life and be a part of that network that he/she always was, though he/she lives physically away in another network. Sometimes, this is true the extent that people create two different Facebook profiles-one to maintain their memories and the networks of the past (though a few similar NRIs may be added to this in the present, because only they would understand the situation) and one for today’s network. The following is a typical example of what was described above.

Raghu, aged 47 years, holds a very important top level position for an IT company in India. He took up this position around two years ago, after his return from the US. He relocated to India along with his wife (Prema, aged 43 years) and his two children. He had recently bought an apartment in a posh building here and has his children studying in an International School in this area. His wife works for the same American company that she was with earlier (while in the US) and works from home. Raghu travelled to the US just after his graduation at the age of 21 for pursuing a Masters in Computer Science. He then settled in the US and raised a family of his own. Meanwhile, his parents were in India and his sister was married and settled in Australia. Raghu, tried getting his parents to settle in the US along with him, but failed since they felt they were very comfortable in India. Further, for over 20 years his parents had been shuttling between the US and Australia and now felt tired of this yearly exercise and wanted to be in India. His parents weren’t really keen on moving anywhere. When his parents were travelling, Raghu and his family had weekly telephone calls with them and would speak on Skype maybe only once every two weeks or month. Raghu was always secure in his parents’ well-being as they were with him or his sister for most part of the year and were alone only for a period of a month or so in between trips.

With their decision to get settled in India with no more travel and with their increasing age, Raghu was not too sure of leaving them all by themselves in India. His weekly telephone calls now became proper Skype calls, where he was able to see his parents rather than just hearing their voice. Over Skype, Raghu helped them set up Bill paying services online, so that they never had to go stand in a queue to pay a bill. His sister from Australia also made it a point to come on Skype every week and talk to her parents and more than once every month all of them would get on a conference call. Further, Raghu arranged for his wife Prema’s parents and his own parents live near each other, so that they would take care of each other. As Prema’s parents had bought a brand new apartment and moved into a gated community, Raghu relocated his parents there too, by renting another apartment in the same community. However, even though this plan worked, recent medical issues with Raghu’s father forced him to consider a decision between appointing a nurse/caretaker to look after his parents or returning to India to look after them himself. The frequency of their Skype calls increased and the duration of each call increased too. Both his Prema and Raghu tried convincing his parents to appoint a nurse or to come to the US permanently. The conference calls with Raghu’s parents and sister increased, as did the frequency with which Raghu and his sister spoke on Skype. However, his parents were completely against the appointment of a nurse or moving back to the US and this left him with no choice but to relocate to India after very careful consideration.

Relocation was not easy as his US Company did not have Indian operations, so he had to find work in another IT company. He chose an Indian IT company that wanted someone with the US market experience and interviewed with them over Video conferencing and negotiated his salary and relocation package. He first moved into the apartment complex where his parents and his in-laws lived and later rented out a bigger apartment when his wife and children moved to India. He wasn’t too interested in investing in a house of his own in India, but looking at the boom in the real estate market, just six months ago he bought a huge 4 bedroom apartment in a posh apartment building very close to his workplace.

For the first year and a half, Raghu had a Facebook profile, which only had family, friends (from US) and colleagues (from his previous work connections) in the US. He was absolutely against friending anyone from India or his Indian workplace on Facebook, though he was fine getting connected to them on LinkedIn. His Facebook was exclusively for his US connections for two reasons. Though he had made a choice to relocate to India for his parents sake, his heart was still in the life that he led in the US. His Facebook profile allowed him to experience/re-live his life back in the US. So, Facebook served to rekindle his US memories. Also, through Facebook, he never was out of his US friends’ lives. He was still an active member of the US network that he had built on Facebook. He regularly followed his past community activity such as being a part of the local Hindu temple or giving suggestions to the neighborhood sustainability initiatives. Flipping through the updates and profiles of his friends enabled him to vicariously live the life that he was missing. Further, he wasn’t too sure if his family would like India or if he would himself like his work in India in the long run. So just in case he changed his mind and wanted to relocate back to the US, he wanted to maintain his connections on Facebook.

However, once he moved to the new posh apartment complex, his love for the game of cricket allowed him to socialize with his neighbors, specifically the men (around 15 of them) who played cricket over the week end mornings. Socializing with them helped him learn that almost all of them were like him. Most had returned from the US for the sake of their aged parents and most had their social networking preferences set exclusively for their US memories. Some even maintained two profiles (personal profiles as on Facebook)- one for US and one for India-and they made sure never to mix them. However, their LinkedIn profiles were much more open, as they reflect their professional networks. There seems to be a very clear distinction between their personal and professional choice of networks. While their professional networks seem to be rooted to their presence in physical space, their personal networks seem to be based on their emotional longing.

Facebook, tribes and internal migration in Turkey

By Elisabetta Costa, on 12 December 2013

Photo by Elisabetta Costa

Photo by Elisabetta Costa

In my field-site in south-east Turkey, Facebook is a very important communication tool for keeping alive extended family relationships. On Facebook, people communicate with first, second, and third degree relatives living in different regions of Turkey. The number of relatives that a person has on social media varies between 20 and 300. While parenting and sibling long-distance relationships are usually maintained on the phone and more recently on WhatsApp, extended family relationships are maintained through Facebook. This form of social media seems to be the most appropriate to communicate with distant relatives with whom there is not intimate and close contact.

In South-East Turkey both among Arab and Kurdish populations, tribes have been the main social organization that has captured the attention of anthropologists for several years. What happens to the relationships between members of the same small tribe when they migrate to different parts of the country? The migration of Turkey’s Kurdish and Arab population from the East to the Western Provinces has been massive in the last decades and continues today. Due to this migration, Istanbul became the “the biggest Kurdish city” in Turkey; and all the Western cities of Turkey are inhabited by a big number of Kurds and Arabs.

In Dry Rock Town I have met many people who use Facebook to communicate with relatives living in different parts of the country. Those not belonging to any tribes usually communicate with first degree relatives, e.g. cousins, aunts and uncles. Those who are attached to a tribe organization usually communicate with a bigger number of family members, and this the case of rural people.

M. is a 19 years old Kurdish boy who came to Dry Rock Town from a near village to attend the preparatory classes (Dershane) to be able to pass the university entrance exam. On Facebook he has 200 friends of which 180 are family members living in different parts of Turkey. The ten persons he speaks to most on Facebook are ten cousins who live in Istanbul, Izmir and Cyprus in order to study or work. The remaining 170 are first and second degree relatives distributed among Istanbul, Cyprus, Mersin, Dry Rock Town, and towns in the same province as Dry Rock Town. On Facebook he doesn’t communicate with relatives living in the village. He says he doesn’t have the need to do so because he meets them every weekend and they mainly communicate face by face.

S. is a 24 years old Arab girl who grew up in a village of Dry Rock Town Province and migrated to a town of Western Turkey six years ago with her family. On Facebook she has 90 friends of which 80 are relatives living in different part of Turkey and 10 are school friends. Only one Facebook friend lives in the same town where she lives at the moment. The 10 persons she speaks with most on Facebook are 7 cousins, 1 aunt, and 2 school friends, who live in different parts of Turkey. And the people closest to her, aside from her immediate family, are cousins living all around the country. She doesn’t like the place where she lives now, she feels discriminated because of her south-eastern origins, and she doesn’t have friends there.

The anthropologist Martin Van Bruinessen (2002) ten years ago wrote that tribes and tribalism in Kurdish society were alive and more pervasive than the decades before. To confirm his theory and bring it further I believe that intra-tribe relationships in many cases continue to be the most important ones for a new generation of young adults who experience migration more and more. Thanks to social media, people are able to maintain these relationships despite migration and urbanization processes. While the people I’ve interviewed have continually mentioned to me the existence of their tribe (Aşiret), proving the existence of a strong tribe ideology, only after having looked at their Facebook’s practices did I start to understand what tribe is for them.

Martin van Bruinessen, 2002, ‘Kurds, states and tribes’ in Faleh A. Jabar and Hosham Dawod (eds), Tribes and power: nationalism and ethnicity in the Middle East. London: Saqi.

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.

Ceramics, forklift trucks and social media

By Xin Yuan Wang, on 20 October 2013

(By Daniel Miller and Xinyuan Wang)

A factory worker who is operating forklift truck in Xinyuan Wang’s fieldsite, and a 12-13th century Jingdezhen ceramics in the Shanghai Museum (photo by Xinyuan Wang)

A factory worker who is operating forklift truck in Xinyuan Wang’s fieldsite, and a 12-13th century Jingdezhen ceramics in the Shanghai Museum (photo by Xinyuan Wang)

For ethnographers working in the field of material culture, people’s values often ‘unintentionally’ reveal themselves in the tiniest of things. Similarly, a day’s field work may be crystallised by some seemingly random lines, or just a word. On this fieldtrip we both felt that a Chinese place name Jingdezhen (景德镇) on the label of beautiful ancient Chinese ceramics in the Shanghai museum somehow made us think about social media in a different way.

Danny’s visit to China started with seeing Tom in the North, followed by Xinyuan in the South, and ended up with a few days in Shanghai (near Xinyuan’s fieldsite). In the Shanghai Museum there are many examples of exquisite and delicate ceramics from one of the most famous pottery making sites in the world: Jingdezhen.

As we stood looking a delicate examples from several centuries ago, Xinyuan recalled that some of her factory informants who currently operate forklift trucks also come from this region of inland China. Furthermore, they used to work in these same ceramic workshops that still produce some of the finest ceramics in the country.  This led to a discussion. Why would people who had previously been associated with one of the world’s finest artisanal products abandoned that craft in order to operate forklift trucks in a noisy and vast factory. What happened?

The key factor as Xinyuan’s informant HH told her was that “making pots is just so boring, sitting in the room, dealing with the mud day after day, and year after year.

It is quite understandable that compared to designing, carving, or painting ceramics, making the bodies of the pot itself, which these workers used to do, is not that stimulating and interesting: it was as repetitious as the work on the assembly line in factories. However what makes such remark interesting is Xinyuan’s observation of her factory friends’ daily usage of social media via their smartphones in workplace. Xinyuan knows these drivers especially well because the demand on their work is intermittent, which means they have spare time in the day. Spare time with nothing to do might in turn have meant this was designated as more boring rather than less boring work. During these days they  not only chat but also go online through their smartphones. So, in effect, the possession of a phone with social media can reverse the whole concept of work. What was once a sign of boredom as an interlude is now a sign that you can engage in the one thing that is pretty much never seen as boring, which is social media.

There is more to this. Social media here is not just defined as less boring because it gives you something to do. The way QQ operates is rather different from Facebook. It is full of pop-ups, multiple channels, which flow easily between looking up people, watching entertainment, gaming and other pursuits. It is a much more evidently exciting activity than Facebook. The material present there is fast moving, bright and modern. This is crucial to the larger and underlying study. Xinyuan’s study of QQ at this particular site was intended to represent the largest migration in world history of 130 million workers. But what Xinyuan has found is actually salaries are not so much greater than in the home lands of these workers and there is employment available to many of them there. Furthemore living in their hometown means greatly reduced costs, so reducing this migration to economic necessities may be quite misleading. It is rather that as people in local shops told us when we were chatting with them, this area, which is much closer to places such as Shanghai, seems more modern, with more potential for interesting lives and exciting times.

This in turn leads to one of the key findings about how rural migrants use social media. Xinyuan originally expected that the key would be the ability of social media to help people retain links back to their place of origin and their wider family. The assumption was that like most other migrations, today this was born of poverty and struggle. Having had to leave their family they would want to stay in touch. People do use social media for this purpose, but they are much more clearly orientated to developing connections in this new site. This is, after, all the main reason they have come: to see another ‘world’ and gain new experiences. So social media is much more about the plethora of new contacts and new people they meet. This is why social media so clearly represents that which is not ‘boring’: not the predestined fate of the past, and why QQ places more emphasis on being exciting and not just a place for social connectivity.

So, ceramics or forklift? Actually, this turns out to be only part of the question. Most of the time people’s choice was not based on the alternative between ceramics or forklift trucks. Rather the key is social media, which represents all the possibility and connectivity which they hope to develop also in their living context. Social media is much more than a technology, just as a place of living is much more than the job you do when living there.

Is it bad that facebook became the king of communication among Brazil’s “new middle class” youth?

By Juliano Andrade Spyer, on 9 August 2013

IMG_5320

Teens at the Brazil field site. Photo by Juliano Spyer.

“If one day the sadness and the loneliness knock on your door, open and answer: ‘Hello, I cannot host you, my home is full. In the living room is Happyness, Joy, and Harmony. In one of the rooms is Love. In the other room is Affection and Tenderness. And in the kitchen is Peace and Prosperity. Fortunately the other room is under renovation to receive Victory. Have a lovely afternoon, many kisses, N.’”

Through the course of three months I have been conducting a questionnaire eith informants in my fieldsite about how they use communication services in general. The one question that has been a constant source of insights is the one that inquires about who they communicate with using social networking sites, email, Skype-like services, SMS, land line, mobile, instant messaging, and WhatsApp-like solutions.

Texting - The short text that appears at the start of the article is what texting (SMS) seems to be mostly used for. Texting is not a way of interacting with contacts, but a broadcasting tool used to deliver these kind of uplifting messages to friends and family. I supposed the “normal” function of texting is covered by voice calls through mobile phones, which are accessible to those less confortable with writing and typing on a small device. So those who have free texts on their mobile plans use it to display their affection, specially to those living in different cities from the sender.

Telephone / Skype - Landlines may be used, but only relatively rarely  They are still used by some (older people in the house) to call relatives living away, but it is an expensive service to call mobile phones in general, so the few people that have access to it, either at home or at their work, use it for “institutional calls”, which translates to calling one’s college admin office, a business client, or a government office. Many also know about Skype, but have not started using it because of low internet bandwidth.

Emailing - A lot of people have email. It used to be a tool for keeping in contact with colleagues at the university that lived far away. Its advantage was to enable group communication: everyone would be in sync with the exchanges aiming to coordinate collective activities. And it is free to use by those with access to the internet. But similarly to land lines, email is becoming less important, and is typically only used for “institutional communication”. Student exchanges are currently migrating to Facebook groups.

Mobile phones are today the second most important communication device to my young informants. Mobile phones are great, but they are still costly services considering the amount of communication they want to have. The phone is there, but it is mostly a one-way communication product, as many do not have credit to make calls. In special occasions, they can make collect calls or use a special SMS service that delivers a message to another user asking that person to call back.

Social networking and Facebook

Vianna is among the Brazilian social scientists that criticize the near monopoly-stage Facebook has arrived to in Brazil. “Many people do not venture any more outside the walls of this private social network: they think that there is all there is of the large Network, forgetting that there they live in an environment controlled by a single company, working for free for their business success,” he wrote in a newspaper column [in Portuguese] earlier this year. But I am not so sure that Facebook is able to understand how it is being used.  He says he refuses to call it “Face”, as if it was a personal friend, but calling it “Face” is an evidence of a cultural interpretation.

Social communication at my field site is synonymous to using Facebook together with face-to-face interactions. Facebook – or “Face”, as it is called at my field site – is the perfect tool in many regards: it is the cheapest solution to reach everyone at any time; those that connect occasionally using the services of internet cafes and those who are “always on” through mobile internet plans. It may be conceptualized as a sort of  “polymedia machine” as it condenses different functions (chat, blogging, etc) and also connects the various platforms available for digital communication.

The gift of privacy and anonymity

Among Facebook’s many functions, private chatting it by far the most important among teens and young adults here. As I ask them about how many times they perform different actions, chatting is normally at a higher order of magnitude compared to other actions such as updating status, “liking”, sharing, or commenting.

I must look further into this topic, but so far I know it represents the possibility of totally private communication – one that is not accessible to anybody else but the two interacting at a given moment. Facebook chat allows people to talk to each other away from everyone else’s sight. This seems to be important at a place that has a large group of “natives” (people born and raised, with strong ties with each other) and migrants (those arriving recently and with few social ties). Anonymity and privacy facilitate social interacting under these circumstances.

Facebook is also a solution to being always near some people; a sort of SMS that is free to use and reaches friends everywhere, independently of time, space, and the mobile plan chosen. And it is also private regarding parents and older people in general since older people tend to be less interested and knowledgeble about computers and phones and are also less skilled with writing and reading.

The near future

The mobile phone has  great potential that is not far from being reached. They are becoming a private mobile computer, considering their home computer is shared among the family. Cheap smart phones are already common among teens as it became a prized object of social distinction. The internet connection to phones are also accessible price-wise. The problem, at least at my field site, is that the quality of the connection and the processing capacity of phones are still low. The small screens, complicated apps and tiny keyboards make it more difficult to use the service. And still, many do it.

It is relatively easy to explain why my informants use communication devices the way the do, but I was not be able to anticipate how they use it, considering my user habits tend to be more similar with that of my age group and social class (my habits seem to be more international than Brazilian in that regard). What I believe I can anticipate now is that things are about to “catch on fire”, as Brazilians say it, as mobile internet connections becomes not just available, but friendlier in terms of user interface, processing capacity, and connection speed.

How ‘English’ is social media?

By Daniel Miller, on 1 August 2013

Image by notfrancois (Creative Commons)

Image by notfrancois (Creative Commons)

Many of the pioneers of social anthropology such as Malinowski and Radcliffe-Brown worked from England, and helped define the discipline as the study of the ‘other’. This is probably one of the reasons why there has been some neglect with respect to the anthropology of Englishness. Certainly there are research projects based in the UK, but many of them deal with topics such as English racism or specific issues such as class or gender. So the levels of generalisation that might be made about groups such as The Nuer or The Trobriand Islanders are rarely attempted here. It took something of a maverick in the form of Kate Fox to more directly address the issue in her hilarious and insightful book Watching the English.

But if I want my study of social media to be directly on a par with all the others, I must then address the question of ‘How English is Social Media in England?’ This means also thinking about wider questions of how The English have more traditionally created patterns of sociality and communication. As it happens my fieldsite which, from now on, I propose to call The Glades shocked me in that although it is not far from the highly cosmopolitan and multicultural world of London, it has only around a 1.5% migrant population, making it highly and homogenously English. So even if this hadn’t been the plan I would perforce be studying Englishness. Kate Fox who is consummately English used that very trait to create her work. She tackles the topic with teasing humour and exaggeration and irony. For example she identifies as the core to her findings something she calls the English ‘social dis-ease’, that is their lack of ease with socialising. ‘It is our lack of ease, discomfort and incompetence in the field (minefield) of social interaction; our embarrassment, insularity, awkwardness, perverse obliqueness, emotional constipation, fear of intimacy and general inability to engage in a normal and straightforward fashion with other human beings’ (2004: 401).

For me this raises the question of how far the English use social media to resolve their dilemmas of trying to have communication while carefully preserving their autonomy and distance in order to keep away from embarrassment. Could social media be a form of reticence? Some evidence came from ethnographic encounters with commercial and service institutions. The idea of getting a balance right between involvement and autonomy seems to have become the key life skill in virtually everything. On one morning I listened to a church official talking about their use of social media. He was concerned whether it was appropriate for the church to text people because they might feel the church shouldn’t be intruding into their private lives. That afternoon I was talking with someone whose work is to market local businesses. His dilemma was that if you fail to engage with people, you cannot promote your business, while if you even once step over the boundary of accepted intrusion into customers’ lives, they will often never return. We were trying to ascertain if Facebook provided a useful modus vivendi in this regard. Even in the private domain we encountered people who saw Facebook is ideal for corresponding with neighbours down the street they live in. It was seen as equivalent to the chatting and gossip that occurs in the public domain, while within the comfort and isolation of one’s own private home. Indeed many of those who were most positive about Facebook legitimated it as, in many different ways, a ‘Goldilocks’ platform that is sociable but under such controls that it was not going to be personally or spatially intrusive (for an analogous case see Alana in my book Tales from Facebook).

A similar example would be students and others leaving the village and seeing Facebook as allowing sufficiency of retained contact while giving them space for growing autonomy, this pertained both to family and their ex-school friends. For still younger informants, platforms such as instagram and snapchat found niches within this frame. For example, snapchat indicated that very small tight group within which you demonstrated that you didn’t mind showing very embarrassing shots, though even these only because they are fleeting (the photos disappear within a few seconds). While instagram meant people could comment on photos without being particularly close. Polymedia, that is the range of platforms, may be giving people choices in degrees of closeness and distance. It is early days yet, but all of this suggests that my study must also become an anthropology of the Englishness of Social Media, and that this may well prove a key to understanding my data.

Connecting the dots

By Jolynna Sinanan, on 26 June 2013

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El Mirador has a small and unexpected population that I found to make up a significant part of my research. We all like our comforts away from home, and mine was the little Chinese restaurant on the corner of my street. I noticed that like other restaurants in the town, they specialise in food from Yunnan in the south of China. Throughout my fieldwork, I got to know the family, their 20-something year old daughter Lili in particular and found that similar to Xinyuan Wang’s field site, these transnational migrants also live in El Mirador as a destination, but it is not a place they live in.
Lili’s uncle who own the restaurant, works all day and Skypes his family for a couple of hours in the evening. He then watches movies in his laptop or he invites other extended family to come over for a drink or to play some mah-jong. In quiet hours during the day, Lili Skypes her toddler son in Kunming, where she lives with Lili’s parents-in-law. It turns out that quite a few of their extended relatives also live in El Mirador, and they own restaurants similar to theirs.
Lili happened to leave Trinidad just after me to return to Kunming to visit her family and she asked if I was going to be in China, I should also go and visit her. I spent nearly a week with Lili’s Chinese family Trinidad, who are the other ‘halves’ of her Chinese family in Trinidad. Without drawing a complicated kinship diagram, Lili’s family is one of about 10 families in Trinidad, from Port of Spain to El Mirador to San Fernando, that make up a transnational network of reciprocity, labour and restaurants that specialise in food from Yunnan. One family will migrate to Trinidad for a few years, either on a loan from another family, or they will work for another family when they arrive, or they will borrow materials to help set up their own business, send remittances to Kunming, then move back after 2 or 3 years and an uncle of cousin will come over and pick up where they left off. And the chain continues. Or, a family like Lili’s will migrate with the intention to stay permanently, or emigrate again to Canada or the US.

Consistent with literature on transnational migration for labour, there is an enormous amount of pressure and sacrifice on both halves of the family on both sides of the world. This trip to Kunming was so Lili could visit her son, whom she hasn’t seen in a year and so she could bring him back to Trinidad to live with her and her husband. Lili ensured that the money she sends home is used well and her family make sure that business is going well and she and the other relatives are healthy and ‘happy’. Despite not knowing many Trinidadians, Lili is adjusting to life in Trinidad, she finds living there easier, and even though home is Kunming, she is increasingly feeling like it would be difficult for her to move back there. It has been ok that her son has been living without her while he was small, they Skype a lot and sends gifts, but now that he is starting to remember her and her absence is felt, she feels it is important that he migrate with her.

Being around Lili, in her home and her workplace in Trinidad without her child, being shown his photos and videos on her iPhone and then visiting Lili, her parents, her in-laws, the friends she grew up with and seeing her with her son reminds me with no trace of arrogance, just how important this research is.

The mystery of the young man without a QQ number: accounting for non-users

By Tom McDonald, on 24 May 2013

Photo: Tom McDonald

Photo: Tom McDonald

At 5:30am yesterday I was stood on the side of the road in my fieldsite, a small town in Shandong, waiting for the bus. Next to me was a grandmother sat on the side of the road selling cherries. A young man, probably in his early twenties, approached me and politely asked if it was alright to take a picture of us together, a common experience that most foreigners in China will be familiar with.

The man was dressed in cotton cloth trousers, black cotton shoes, and a white T-shirt. He had a slightly unkempt bowl-haircut. It was obvious that he was from the countryside. Indeed, he confirmed that he was from one of the nearby villages and worked in one of the local factories as a labourer.

He pulled out an old, white telephone. The telephone was an affordable Chinese-branded device with a basic colour screen and a cheap built-in camera.

The young man asked the cherry-seller if she would take the photo of us. The cherry-seller tried, but it was apparent that this elderly lady had very limited experience of either operating the phone or photography, so after three failed attempts, and fearing the bus would arrive at any moment I instead proposed “let’s use my phone to take the picture and I’ll send it to you”. I pulled out my iPhone, flipped the screen and took three picture of together. Then I asked him what his QQ number was. He said “I don’t have one”. I asked about Weixin. “None” he replied.

I was momentarily stunned.

I had previously thought that for young labourers such as this were perhaps the most avid users of QQ (in fact Jack Qiu suggests that Chinese social networking is particularly important for the working class in society). And yet, here, in front of me, was a living, breathing exception.

The story ended happily, as on the final attempt the sage grandmother got the hang of the young man’s phone and managed to take a satisfactory picture of the two of us standing next to each other. However, the young man left before I had a chance to ask him why he didn’t have a QQ number. A friend in Beijing offered an explanation when I showed them his photo “this man is very honest,” one proffered, “you can tell by the shape of his nose [referring to Chinese face-reading]. It could be that some people from the countryside think that QQ is a bad thing”.

Is my Beijing friend right? Is there really a moral discourse surrounding the Internet that is enough to keep some young people from using it? Are there more non-users like this young man? And if so, why haven’t Tencent or Sina’s offerings been able to penetrate this part of the market?

One of the benefits of long-term anthropological fieldwork in a normal small town like this is that it offers a chance to uncover groups of people, user experiences and human behaviours that might otherwise go undiscovered if we were to instead use other social science or market research methods. By the end of our fieldwork I hope to have more answers.