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Between walls: methodology for comparing Chinese and non-Chinese social media

By Tom McDonald, on 27 July 2014

Comparing two walls: QZone is often referred to as the 'Chinese Facebook', but there are important differences between the two platforms (Photo: Tom McDonald)

Comparing two walls: QZone is often referred to as the ‘Chinese Facebook’, but there are important differences between the two platforms (Photo: Tom McDonald)

Recently our team has been doing a statistical analysis of  our particpants’ social networking use in our different fieldsites around the world. In the future this data will be one of the key ways we will compare between the fieldsites. For most of the fieldsites, the analysis takes place on Facebook using clever computer programs created by Shriram that helps to automate the data collection and make sure that the same techniques are used between all the fieldsites.

But our two fieldsites in North and South China pose a unique problem in terms of methodology. Facebook is inaccessible here in China, and most people use QQ or WeChat as their main social networking platform. Both these platforms are quite different to Facebook in terms of layout and functionality, and neither of them have proper, full APIs that allow you to run the kind of automated statistical analysis we have been attempting on Facebook. This raises an important methodological question: how is it possible to do a comparison between fieldsites when the thing that you are comparing is not the same?

It’s something I have felt that our team has struggled with throughout this project, and often when we have met as a group to discuss the project and our methodology, QQ seems to get pushed into the background. It often feels like Chinese social networks are this great, dark unknown. For a start, their appearance is incredibly different from Facebook, and the fact that many of them only support Chinese language versions makes them almost impenetrable to people who don’t understand the language. Our group’s internal fieldwork manuals, which contain comprehensive instructions that guide the rest of the team through how to research a particular question, are often reduced down to a single sentence for our China fieldsites: “Tom and Xinyuan will have to use local resources.”

This is not a complaint. Rather, it is a testament to how different Chinese social media is from the rest of the world. Also, it is a challenge to think through the comparisons we are trying to make; what kind of data they will provide us with and, most importantly, what conclusions we hope to make from them.

For example, one of the things we are analysing is who are the people who interact (i.e. like, comment) the most with our friends in the fieldsite on their wall. On Facebook this is simple enough, however on QZone we have to count these interactions manually on a wall-like feature called ‘His/Her Happenings’ (ta de dongtai). This is further complicated by the fact that users very rarely use their real name on their account, with most adopting creative pseudonyms such as ‘Lonely cigarette butt’. Also because people tend to repost many more memes on QZone than on Facebook, the ‘likes’ of friends can sometimes get lost between thousands of other likes, which can make it very confusing to count which of the likes come from a participant’s QQ friends.

I am not suggesting that this makes the data derived from our Chinese and non-Chinese fieldsites incomparable to each other. Rather, it points to the fact that any statistical figures that we come up with need to be treated as just one part of the puzzle, and that the very process of trying to produce such statistics highlights the important material differences between the platforms, which are begging to be documented and explained. Such accounts will help to make Chinese social media a little less of a ‘dark unknown’, and will tell us quite a lot about Chinese culture and life in the process.

Furthermore, these differences highlights the danger of simply looking at statistical data, and assuming it demonstrates an ‘absolute truth’. Reality is often more complicated that a simple percentage. Any statistical comparison needs to be tempered with the qualitative data we have been gathering through interviews and participant observation in each of our fieldsites that help to understand how social media is embedded into people’s lives.

Comparison is never simple or easy, especially so with a large global project like this. But I feel certain that the challenges such comparisons involve, and the opportunities they present for cultural understanding make it all the more important to try.

Fitting In: Real methods in anthropology

By Jolynna Sinanan, on 20 May 2014

By Elisabetta Costa, Nell Haynes, Tom McDonald, Daniel Miller, Razvan Nicolescu, Jolynna Sinanan, Juliano Spyer, Shriram Venkatraman, and Xin Yuan Wang

Qzone profile by Amber Wang

Qzone profile by Amber Wang

Most disciplines have formal methods for collecting data. By contrast the critical issue for ethnography is the task of transforming ourselves into the kind of person we need to be in order to conduct successful fieldwork. Someone people in the area feel comfortable with, would wish to make friends with and have confidence in. Since our method is in essence the cultivation of good relationships with our informants. Each of us has had to learn this sensitivity to the field and often change their appearance and behaviour accordingly.

For example Shriram found that when he started his fieldwork in South India he wore a t shirt and jeans. Practically no one would speak to him. But when he tried to go to the other extreme and conduct fieldwork wearing a formal shirt and trousers, he found that most people thought he was trying to sell them something. In one case after patiently explaining to a school the nature of our project and the research he would like to conduct the school teacher apologised but said firmly that the school was not really interesting in purchasing this `anthropology.’ Eventually he took further measures. He pierced both his ears and started wearing hand spun kurtas and `intellectual wear’ to clearly position himself as an academic. After which the fieldwork went just fine.

Juliano has found his fieldsite to be a split between evangelical Christians and others, and he needed neither to look like a `person of God’ or `person of the world’ so instead of dressing like either of these, he went for a European look that managed to be a neutral ‘gringo’ look that meant he could talk with people from both sides. Jolynna, by contrast had to take off most of her clothes, and adorn Carnival costume before those associated with the creation of Carnival camp that she wanted to study would speak to her. Elisa found that she had to shave her legs and underarms more carefully than usual since even to show a single hair where the legs or arms are not covered could be seen as shameful in this part of Turkey. She also found she had to keep the house immaculately clean.

Jolynna Sinanan modelling Carnival costumes. image by Cassie Quarless

Jolynna Sinanan modelling Carnival costumes. image by Cassie Quarless

Tom suffered from the quantity of strong alcohol he was expected to drink in local ‘feasts’ since that was the basis of male solidarity and commensality in the village where he lived. Danny found that he had to retreat from the more participatory nature of ethnography to more formal interviews since that was what people in England seemed to expect of him. On the other hand when looking at the subsequent interviews he didn’t find that the teenagers he worked with at schools had talked to him any differently as a middle aged man that to his colleague Ciara Green who is young woman, so the assumption that he should, for example, talk to boys and her to girls, turned out to be an unwarranted `strategy’. Nell got censored for drinking straight rum without a mixer, but also suffered considerable sunburn from having to hang out for long periods outside in the North Chile sun. Xin Yuan found that she had to dispense with the clothes she normally wears and adopt the bright patterns preferred by local people. Finally Razvan found he had to shift his behaviour and demeanour between four groups he was encountering: the students, the professionals, the friends and those for him his being a husband seemed most appropriate.

Elisabetta Costa in local headscarf

Elisabetta Costa in local headscarf

The other area of sensitivity which proved very variable was how we managed our own Facebook/QQ profiles. For example Jolynna at first tried to follow Danny’s advice and adopted a very neutral passive profile in Trinidad. She soon found this was entirely inappropriate and had to replace it with a very active one in which she posts frequently in order to make people comfortable, while, by contrast, the same strategy was correct for our English site where we post nothing at all in order to affirm that this sites exists solely for the purpose of research. Xin Yuan in the meantime blinged up her QQ profile with music and colour but also postings about her life in England in order to make herself look more interesting.

All of which confirms a basic premise of anthropology that methods are not things you start with. Rather it is only when you have learnt about the nature and preferences of the particular populations you are now living with that you can also determine what are the most appropriate ways of interacting with them and at least try to conform to their expectations.

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.

Social media and mass media: the CCTV Chinese New Year’s Gala

By Tom McDonald, on 23 February 2014

Poetic couplets hung on the door of a village house in preparation for Chinese NewYear (Photo: Tom McDonald)

Poetic couplets hung on the door of a village house in preparation for Chinese New Year (Photo: Tom McDonald)

I passed the recent Chinese New Year in my fieldsite in North China with the Wang family in their rented shopfront-cum-home on the small rural town’s commercial street, with Mr Wang, his wife and son, 16 year old Little Wang, who had just finished his term at the high school in the nearby county-town, and was back home for the school holidays.

One of the most interesting elements of the festival is social media’s relationship with the mass media event of the day (and probably the year), which is the CCTV New Year’s Gala programme produced by China Central Television. The programme is basically a variety show. But at the same time it is the most difficult variety show on the planet to get right, because its 700 million–1000 million viewers (53-76% of the country’s population) are comprised of every generation of Chinese families, who watch the show together as they eat they ‘reunion meal’. As such, the programme makers have to attempt to appeal to all these drastically different audiences. No mean feat when we are talking about elderly people who grew up in the Republican-era, witnessed the Sino-Japanese war, and the founding of the People’s Republic; or middle aged people who were children during the hardships of the cultural revolution, and then saw the enormous transformations bought by the reform-and-opening period; or China’s youth, those born in the 80’s, 90s, and 00’s, often single children, many of whom have grown up with a material aspirations on par with western society. So you end up with a variety show that is a bizarre and wizardly mix of revolutionary songs, trapeze artists, dancers performing to happy hardcore music, magicians, ‘hip’ youth TV hosts, recognised family performers and national pop stars. The show traverses the utterly naff and absolutely incredible. One cannot help but feel that the show tries so hard to appeal to everybody that it is perhaps doomed to failure.

At the Wang’s house we watched and chatted as the show went on, slowly devouring the dinner while Mr Wang and I knocked back baijiu, a fiery Chinese liquour. I soon noticed that Little Wang’s attention had waned, however, and after eating a little food, he left us and moved into the shop area of their house, where the computer is located. Soon after I followed him into the room. I noticed that he was alternating between browsing QZone, and chatting on the QQ Instant Messaging client. He was using the QQ IM client to send New Year’s ‘blessings’ (zhufu) to his classmates, while browsing his QZone. Many of the status updates from his friends were related to the television show. For example, one of the features of the show was a young girl dressed in a flowing white dress who was introduced by the presenters at the start of the programme. The presenters explained that she would spin around on the spot up until midnight (4 hours) to symbolise the changing seasons of the year. Indeed she managed to do this quite successfully. One of Little Wang’s friends had forwarded a meme of a photo of the girl asking ‘spinning girl, have you eaten Xuanmai chewing gum?’. Xuanmai chewing gum recently ran an advertising campaign with the tagline ‘Xuanmai chewing gum, unable to stop’ (xuanmai kouxiangtang, tingbu xialai). The advert featured a young man singing, with powerful sound waves coming out of his mouth, and he was challenged to see how long he could sustain the singing. After eating the chewing gum it seemed to give the man somewhat cosmic powers to continue with his crooning. What is interesting about this case is we can kind of see the spillover from a mass media event onto social media, so while people do not seem to be happy posting about news or other big events, the Spring Festival Evening Party seems to be prime fodder for discussion of QQ, but especially among young people.

There is precedent for this, as traditionally the show is something people often talk about and critique for days after, even offline. But in addition to young people talking about the New Year’s Gala online, I got a feeling during the evening that young people were having a kind of separate New Year’s Eve party on QQ with all their friends. Chinese New Year is a key moment of reunion for Chinese families, and I get a feeling that even this moment of togetherness is being affected by social media as young people are living a large part of their spring festival online with their classmates.

Does this mean that the ‘traditional’ Chinese New Year is at risk? I want to get away from the idea that social media’s presence in the spring festival necessarily has to be good or bad, or even assume that social media is ‘transforming’ the Chinese New Year (anymore than the Chinese New Year is transforming social media). It is not that Little Wang’s practices are heralding the decay of the Chinese New Year, but rather I think it is signalling the importance of classmates being part of that reunion. It seems to be an acknowledgement that family ties are not the only thing that matters, and the deliberate decision for classmates to include each other in their spring festival reunion meals suggests a willingness to apply family ideals to educational peers.

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.

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.

Tencent news: in-app news delivery in QQ and WeChat

By Tom McDonald, on 24 October 2013

Newspapers arrive at the town's Post Office for delivery to local homes and businesses (Photo by Tom McDonald)

Newspapers arrive at the town’s Post Office for delivery to local homes and businesses (Photo by Tom McDonald)

One of the aims of our research is to understand the connection between politics and social media. Before we started our fieldwork we had envisaged this topic would largely revolve around how people made posts relating to specific stories in the news or shared news articles on their own Facebook pages. However, once again, China has surprised us in how different its social media is from it’s Western counterparts. People tend to refrain from making lots of public comments about news online, but both QQ and WeChat’s mobile applications (both made by Tencent) are set up by default to deliver national news items to their user’s mobile devices, with these items appearing in-between other conversations users are having with their friends.

The 'recent conversations' screen in the QQ iPhone app. The fourth contact down (showing the QQ 'penguin' icon surrounded by a tri-coloured circle) is the QQ news centre

The ‘recent conversations’ screen in the QQ iPhone app. The fourth contact down (showing the QQ ‘penguin’ icon surrounded by a tri-coloured circle) is the QQ news centre

The news to each of these in-app news services is written and delivered by the Tencent News centre. Both apps receive three new reports daily, normally containing four stories in each post, and the user receives on-screen notifications when they arrive. Occasionally, especially significant news stories may be afforded their own individual posts.

In general, the news that appears in these stories tends to be middle-brow, and written in quite accessible language, remaining largely free of the formal news about diplomatic meetings and official  language that tends to dominate the main closely government-controlled national news sources such as the  evening TV News Simulcast (Xinwen Lianbo) and People’s Daily. Instead, Tencent’s in-app news consists mostly of stories focusing on a mixture of criminal cases, ongoing government corruption investigations, sex scandals, and scientific discoveries.

It would be easy to view all Chinese media as a propaganda tool, and an extension of the government, and this is the kind of statement that is often repeated by Western media outlets. However, one of the strengths of the ethnographic approach of our fieldwork is that instead of only analysing the content of  social media, we also compare this to how normal people in our fieldsites actually use and talk about these platforms themselves. When I spoke to one of my participants in our China North fieldsite about the in-app news feature I asked him whether he thought the function might have been included at the government’s bequest. He said he didn’t think the government would have forced Tencent to add the in-app news function to their chat tool. Instead, he argued that it was probably the fact that Tencent thought that the news would ‘attract people’ and that they would find it ‘interesting’.

From here in this small town in North China, it is impossible to know exactly what decisions are made faraway in the Tencent News centre. Nonetheless, QQ and WeChat’s in-app news feature has become a particularly significant — if not the main — way in which national news is now consumed for many people who own a smartphone in the town. But also this marks a fundamental change from having to ask for news through ordering the newspaper, or turning on the television, to having the news delivered to your device without requesting it, often appearing as if it were a message from a friend.

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.

Why do eight comparative ethnographies?

By Daniel Miller, on 8 December 2012

Photo: Ed Schipul (Creative Commons)

I suspect that the initial response of most anthropologists to this kind of comparative study will be negative. Our model of work is incredibly specific, insisting upon the integrity, even the holism, of a fieldsite. It is almost as though we try to deny the often almost arbitrary nature of that particular village or town as our selected place of study, by the sheer devotion we have to the integrity of this place – which can become an account of ‘how my people do things’. It’s a bit like marriage, where, in truth there are thousands of people we might have married, but once we are married we create a relationship that is as though it is impossible to imagine that it could have ever been anyone but the beloved spouse. The idea of a comparative anthropological study can also feel like a betrayal of anthropology itself, and of our relationship to ethnography.

So it is important to assert that we intend to confront this prejudice. That we do not intend simply to do eight ethnographies that are just eight times a single piece of work. That would be a betrayal of a different kind. It means that we would be failing to recognise that it is almost unheard of to get the kind of funding that allows for eight simulteneous ethnographies. If this is a most unusual opportunity then we have responsibility to understand what kind of opportunity this in fact is. Elisa in an earlier blog post talks about the excitment of sharing discussion at this early stage. Here I want to refer rather to the potential for analysis at the later stage.

So let’s start from the other end. What can an eight-fold ethnography do that a single ethnography cannot? A blog is not the space to unfold this in any detail but let’s try one example. We will all be studying social network sites, and a core question anyone engaged in such studies must ask themselves, is to what degree the particular usage we observe is a product of the nature of the fieldsite where they work, or the social network site that they also observe. Is this because it is Brazil or because it is Facebook? The problem is that a single ethnography can only surmise on the basis of the evidence of that site which is always a conflation of these two (and of course many more) facets.

By contrast, when eight sites are being studied simulteneously, the indiviudal who is working in Brazil knows far more than just what a Brazilian is doing on Twitter. At pretty much exactly the same time they will know that people in give other place are doing pretty much the exact same thing on Twitter. Or they will know that people in five other places are doing someting rather different on Twitter. Now we are hopefully too sophisticated to simply draw mechanical conclusion. It is possible there is another fator: a common sense of modernity say that all sites share, which prevents us from merely assuming that commonality means we look for a more technological foundation for this behaviour. Nevertheless the way in which our evidence is cited comparatively means that the level of disussion and analysis can start from a significantly higher level than if we were an isolated study with no idea of how our work related to similar investigations in other places.

Furthermore, this situation precisely fits the difference between our project and most traditional projects in that our core focus is on something that, in its infrastructure, does not vary other than the contrast between QQ in China and Facebook which conveniently gives us another way of trying to decide what is because of Facebook itself and what from other factors. So a study that looks at this simulteneously in eight sites works particularly for something that has been introduced across the whole world within a very short time period. All this would at least suggest that a comparative study can actually deepen rather than take away from each individual ethnography. You are not betraying your fieldsite you are actually giving it a much greater significance than it otherwise might have had. At least that’s the idea…