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Understanding the Chinese internet: anthropology’s contribution

By Tom McDonald, on 23 June 2013

Broadband advertisement in village (Photo: Tom McDonald)

Broadband advertisement in village (Photo: Tom McDonald)

I spent last weekend in Oxford at the China and the New Internet World conference. In addition to presenting some of my PhD research, I found the conference a really valuable opportunity to get an idea of what people who are researching the Chinese internet are working on.

Several things impressed me during the conference. The majority of papers focussed on topics of legislation, censorship, political theory, etc., and a large number of them resorted to quantitative analysis or clever automated computer methods in order to reach often quite grand conclusions about ‘the Chinese internet’.

I must confess that, in comparison to such well-composed papers with finely-honed ‘take-home messages’, my own presentation’s conclusion was slightly more muddled. It is always quite unnerving to have to tell your audience at a conference that your conclusion is that you perhaps don’t really have one.

This got me thinking about the role of anthropology in understanding the Chinese internet. Anthropology is one of the most difficult of disciplines, in that it demands that the anthropologist immerses themselves in the lives of their research participants for an extended amount of time. This often means living alone in difficult and tiring conditions amongst people who often hold radically different beliefs or engage in practices that you at times find disagreeable. Not only that, but once this period is over, the same researcher has to grapple with the task of turning the data collected in the field into something understandable to (mostly) western educated readers.

The problem is that very few people want to do this in their lives. Furthermore, not many people want to read the results of what happens when someone does do this, because typically there are no ‘clean’ conclusions. Such stuff makes slightly uncomfortable reading, in that it often challenges the basic assumptions each of us hold that make us confident that the way that we live our lives are necessarily correct.

The vast majority of papers at the conference concentrated on issues of censorship, democracy and urban middle-classes. But as I listened to these papers I wondered what my friends in my fieldsite, a small town and its surrounding villages in north China might have made of this concern with issues of censorship and privacy. It seemed to me as though all the time us academics had been spending in computer labs, libraries and talking to other academics might actually be working to increase the distance between us, as academics, and the people that we claim to be protecting the interests of.

David Kurt Herold summed this issue up quite nicely in his own conference paper, where he commented:

We need more studies that look at how people in China are using the Internet to do what they want to do, i.e. in what practices are Internet users in China engaging and how are they constructing their own offline and online lives in relation to these practices (Hobart, 2000: 41f)? To ask a leading question: Is politics and the pursuit of democracy really the most important issue for Chinese Internet users, or is it just the most important issue for us researchers?

I am still not sure precisely what is going to come out of my own fieldwork in north China for this project. But I have every reason to expect by virtue of my placement in a very ‘normal’ part of China, that the people I will meet over the next year-and-a-half have every chance of changing the way we understand the Chinese internet, and Chinese people, for the better.

Facebook users: do they turn up at polling booths in India?

By Shriram Venkatraman, on 12 April 2013

Photo by Yogesh Mhatre (Creative Commons)

Photo by Yogesh Mhatre (Creative Commons)

An Indian national daily newspaper carried an interesting article recently, on how Facebook users can change the election results in India. It spoke about the impact on digital campaigning that political parties in India were adapting in order to woo supporters.

Based on several sources on Facebook statistics, it would be safe to assume that an average of 60 million people (approx. 5% of Indian population) from India are on Facebook and it would be safe to assume from various other data sources that at least 50% of them are youth and most of them are educated middle class Indians.

Similarly, on an average, from popular news reports it is evident that the voter turnout during elections is between 70 to 75%. However, it is most often criticized that these voters are mostly from the poorer strata of Indian society (both rural and urban) and the numbers constitute very few educated Indian middle class. Further, Indian middle class are also constantly criticized for being armchair critics.

How many of these poor who vote are on Facebook? While numbers at a top level may seem to be significant, they lose significance when diving deep to understand the constitution of the group which finally decides Indian political leadership.

While it is definitely interesting to see the digital campaigning strategies adopted by political parties, these only constitute 50%, the rest is on making sure that the impact created by these strategies turn into votes.  It would be interesting to see how many of these Facebook users turn up at the polling stations, which would truly demonstrate the impact of digital campaigning.

Digital Politics 101

By Shriram Venkatraman, on 22 October 2012

Digital Politics is the representation of the players in a nation’s political scenario, on the internet. Simply put, it is the online version of a nation’s politics and governance. Political leaders all over the world are waking up to the power of the mouse click and the enterprising ones are trying to ensure that they are being presented in a favorable light.

Digital politics came to the forefront in the late 1990s and 2000s, emerging simultaneously with increased globalization of the world. People started migrating to other countries either in search for economic prosperity or to escape a troubled atmosphere back home. However, this dispersed diaspora were still interested in the happenings in their home countries and the ‘no barriers’ benefit of online technology won eager converts amongst these web-savvy immigrants.

The other important reason was that many of the countries in the world were becoming knowledge societies. A knowledge society is where knowledge is a ‘public good’ and not a prerogative of the elite few (UNESCO, 2005). Knowledge societies are characterized by a constant need to acquire and distribute knowledge about all aspects deemed important to an individual. Given that the internet was a revolutionary medium affording quick and cheap information accumulation and dissipation, people took to this medium quickly and various aspects of their lives spilled over to this virtual world. Naturally, politics and government started becoming a part of the tapestry of the digital world.

The dynamics of digital politics is constantly changing as various stakeholders become more sophisticated in how they use the digital platform. It goes without saying that technology has been the most important enabler of this changing dynamics. As technology matures, more avenues for this information exchange have emerged (blogs, social networking sites, twitter etc.) that have in turn influenced what people do with this platform. The web has become an important medium for citizen activism due to its power to reach out to a number of people at a minimal cost. Social activism has in turn provoked responses from the relevant authorities who are realizing the benefits of the internet to reach out to the people. The initial successes brought in more users and as technology became more robust yet simpler to use, even more people joined. This cycle has increased the popularity and reach of the mouse click even to those who are present in remote locations.

How and why people are using the web for political reasons has evolved over time and can be represented as a continuum which have the following stages

Information Acquisition

The first stage witnessed in this continuum is that of information acquisition. As the various countries threw open their boundaries to the outside world, a good number of people migrated to other countries in search of economic prosperity or to escape difficult conditions back home. This diaspora retained their ties with their home countries and the easiest way to acquire information about happenings back home was through the internet. Even for information about one’s place of residence, the internet provides a robust yet relatively less expensive medium for information acquisition.

Voicing of Opinion

The Information Acquisition phase was characterized by a passive, one way flow of information to the seeker. The natural extension of this was sharing this information along with one’s views and opinions with others. The online tools like blogs, social media etc. were the apt medium for this exchange. As this information exchange became viral, it became an instrument of political change. This was recently demonstrated in the ‘Arab spring’ series of citizen revolutions in the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region. This was where the world sat up and took cognizance of the power of mass thought.

Reciprocal Information sharing

As the world realized the potential of online media as thought shaping and information communicating platform, various stakeholders decided to maintain an online presence. This could be for various reasons; some of which are to present authentic information, to bring in transparency in the political mechanism, to present a favorable picture of a leader/political party, publicity, to gather funding from supporters, to reach out to the grassroots directly etc.

As the world becomes increasingly digital, politics is not far behind. The political fraternity has embraced the digital media and political parties, political leaders, lay citizens etc. are taking advantage of the benefits offered by the internet. Social movements have gained impetus from the quick access (to the citizen) provided by the internet and the presence of digital press has converted hesitant users to internet addicts.

References

UNESCO World Report (2005). “Towards Knowledge Societies” Paris: UNESCO