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What is an anthropological global generalisaion?

By Daniel Miller, on 17 August 2014

Image courtesy of Lindsay Campbell, Creative Commons

Image courtesy of Lindsay Campbell, Creative Commons

Perhaps the biggest problem of our entire project is that every time anyone asks us a question we have nine different answers, which is not what the person asking the question wants to hear. As our project becomes better known we are all constantly asked for the ‘results’ of our study in the form of  ‘does social media do this?’ or ‘is Facebook having that impact?’ With very few exceptions people want and expect a simple and clear answer. But any answer we give that fitted such questions would be in effect an ‘anthropological global generalisation’ and it’s not clear what such a thing could be. As a recent blog post noted, Chinese social media are not even the same platforms and so can be constantly rendered peripheral by answers in the form of ‘Facebook does this – but not in China’.

We also recently posted a study of how the World Cup appeared on social media in all nine sites. We have no evidence that this was used as ‘news’ by others, although we felt the results were fascinating. We might publish an academic paper using this information but other people find it difficult to know what to do with nine different answers. Of course, for us the single most important academic result should be an insistence on acknowledging these differences. Not because it suits us as anthropologists but because it is the truth about social media. They are different in each site. But endless reiteration of this point reduces us to being never more than the critics of psychologists, economists and pundits generally. This is important and we now have a vast amount of evidence that they are wrong in pretty much everything they say, to the degree that they ignore such differences. But this isn’t the only thing we want to say. Furthermore it is empirically evident from our study that there are many ‘sort-of’ generalisations we could and should make. We too are interested to find out that some things are more generalisable than others, often unexpectedly so.

When we met for a month in May we attempted an initial solution to this problem. We sat together, proposed, argued and discussed our findings to see what generalisations we could come up with. In the end we tentatively suggested around 30. Since that time I have put many of them up on my own twitter account at @DannyAnth. As Tweets they are both succinct and wildly over generalised. But at least this forces us to confront the issue. What we discovered was that there might be a solution as long as we are prepared to make certain compromises and this might be worthwhile in order for our work to be actually taken up and used. Even for educational purposes people want something other than nine different answers. We felt it will be safe to make generalisations partly because there will be nine books with enough detail to show how there exists another finer level of detail available to anyone who wants a more honest account of our findings. Secondly we found a mode of expressing ourselves of the ‘Yes-But’ variety.

What transpired was that we had no generalisations at all that didn’t require caveats. Even if something seemed generally the case for most of us, there would be one site, often in Turkey or rural China where this was conspicuously not the case. So the compromise was to have a mode that linked each generalisation to its caveat, that is a footnote that could slightly expand on this point and take note of which places this generalisation did not hold in. In May these took the following form:-

5) Social media should not be viewed as a simple extension of prior uses of the Internet.

Footnote: For example, prior uses of the internet caused concerns about anonymity, while with social media concern has shifted more to privacy. Though with exceptions, for instance we find Facebook used to create anonymity in India and Turkey.

6) Social science has tended to see modern life as an inexorable movement from communal living to more individualism. Social media, by contrast, may lead to re-connections between people or entirely novel connections.

Footnote: In our South China site we find the more conventional movement largely from communal to more autonomous life through social media. The meaning of individualism also varies from site to site.

7) Our studies suggest that in some areas groups continue to be the key units of social media usage. For example the family in Italy and low income Brazil, the caste in India and the tribe in South-East Turkey. 

Footnote: For example, the acceptance of friending depends on groups beyond the individual. In China QQ organises friends lists and most people have one dedicated to the family. Trinidad and England seem to accord better with the notion of ego-centred networking. In Turkey we see both group control and also the creation of ego-centred networks through anonymous profiles.

Even here we have the additional problem that, of course, we didn’t study ‘Turkey’ or ‘England’ but just sites of around 25k in each case. To use national tags is itself problematic. But without them we once again fall into the trap of being ‘correct’ but useless to non-anthropologists. When we complete our fieldwork we will return to this issue. Whatever we do will require compromise all of which will lead us to be criticised, not least by other anthropologists. There will inevitably be different levels of dissemination from the full and detailed expression of our differences to the over generalised statements without which we will never transcend our anthropological audience. In practice even a book of 80k words feels like an overgeneralised account when you have done 15 months fieldwork.

We believe this exercise is important not only for our project but for the future of anthropology more generally. Help and suggestions, for example of good precedents in making anthropological global generalisations, would be very welcome.

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.

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

By Xin Yuan Wang, on 18 December 2013

By Xinyuan Wang and Tom McDonald

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Algorithms and homogenization

By Elisabetta Costa, on 8 November 2012

 

The general goal of our project is to investigate on the social effects of Facebook in seven different countries. We want to understand how Facebook, as a global phenomenon, is locally appropriated in seven different small towns. It’s comparative research, so we are interested in finding out differences and similarities emerging from these places. The argument that Facebook is always an invention and creation of its users (Miller) does not imply that the social network does not have its own infrastructure or architecture that produces some sort of homogenization.

In the field of Internet studies some scholars aim to find out how technologies shape and constitute the everyday life of people through the understanding of algorithms and codes that constitute the way the technology works. This kind of research might be very intriguing. For example yesterday I posted something on my Facebook page. Apparently it was not so appealing to my Facebook friends and for this reason I did not receive any feedback. After almost thirty minutes I published a second post more provocative and (apparently) more attractive as in few minutes I received a lot of comments. At the same time Facebook kept visualizing the first post in my friends’ news feed section, the uninteresting one. I thought: “Facebook is so sweet! It doesn’t want me to think that nobody is interested in what I write. It tries to convince my friends to make some comments or at least say ‘I like’”

Facebook is built to prompt people to write comments and give feedback to their friends. If I post something Facebook will help me to receive comments. Facebook has been designed to build networks and create social relationships. The more we connect the more profits Facebook makes.

Facebook does lead people to act in certain ways and not in others. If algorithms and codes are the central mechanism of social network sites, it is surely very interesting to investigate on the intentions of computer scientists and designers. Technologies, material objects and digital platforms always embed the intentions of their producers. However Facebook is presumably appropriated in a way that wasn’t intended and expected by its designers. This has been the case of every artifact, material object and technology in the course of the history.

I am very thrilled in finding out about infrastructures and architectures, such as Facebook’s algorithms. But infrastructures are always used differently in different contests. For this reason I believe that being aware of the way the algorithms work does not give us much information about the social impact of Facebook. Rather a comparative research project about the use of social network sites can give us much more insights about the regularities and the cultural homogenization brought by Facebook in different social contests.