UCL Social Networking Sites & Social Science Research Project
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    The ‘too much information’ paradox

    By Nell Haynes, on 22 March 2014

    Photo by Nell Haynes

    Photo by Nell Haynes

    Here in Northern Chile, Facebook still reigns among social networking sites. Particularly for people over 25, programs like Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitter are rarely used. And through interviews and surveys, as well as actually observing what people here do online, I’m finding that people feel far more comfortable ‘liking’ and commenting on posts rather than creating their own new content.

    During an interview just last night, a man in his late 20s who I will call Sebastian told me he thinks sometimes people post too much information. “I see everything but I don’t write anything… If my friend writes ‘I’m angry’ I just don’t see the point. Why tell everyone? For me I like reading what my friends post, but I hardly ever post anything.” He then made fun of his sister-in-law who was also present for sometimes writing ‘Goodmorning’ or ‘Goodnight’ on Facebook. “It’s just silly. Why do you have to tell everyone something so basic? And sometimes—not you Celia, but others, it’s just annoying when my Facebook is filled with all these pointless posts and I can’t see the interesting things posted about films I want to see or friends in Argentina.” This sentiment has been echoed many times by both men and women from their early 20s to late 60s. In fact, when looking closely at around 50 different Facebook profiles from Northern Chileans, the average person only created a new status message 4 or 5 times in 2 weeks.

    Yet this is not because they are absent from Facebook. The number of comments and likes on status messages and shared links are often in the dozens. So while many people may not ‘see the point’ as Sebastian said, they are still commenting and liking these posts. Why? As Sebastian explained later, “I want my friends to know that I’m paying attention. Some live far away and I don’t call or write them. But I click like on their post and they know I’m here.” I found similar reasoning—appearing to be paying attention—for sharing memes about politics, as I wrote about here.

    But even this explanation leaves a paradox: If everyone is content to simply comment or like posts, who is creating content that they are commenting upon? In my research I have met two of these people who count themselves in the ‘very small percentage’ of people who post regularly, and admittedly, sometimes ‘too much information’. When I asked Alex, a man in his 30s, if most of his friends post as much as him, he told me, “Only about 20%. The others only post what is necessary, and many more only look and hit ‘like’.”

    A few days later he posted a cartoon meme with the text “We all have that friend that posts everything they do all day,” with the comment “That’s me!” The post received 42 likes and no comments. Alex was proud that he posted so much “because I make my friends laugh and I give them something to comment on.” So even though Alex realizes that he is sometimes that annoying friend that everyone complains about posting too much information, he sees it as something of a public service, giving his friends pleasure and something to comment upon. “I mean, what’s the point of Facebook if no one ever writes anything!”

    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.

    When suspension becomes a status symbol

    By Shriram Venkatraman, on 13 February 2014

    Photo By Vince - uvw916a (Creative Commons)

    Photo By Vince – uvw916a (Creative Commons)

    The best part of a longitudinal Anthropological study is being a witness to the changes that happens in the mindset of the people you study over a period of time, in my case just 10 months. When I first came into Panchagrami, there was a group of five young men who had just signed up for a Facebook membership. They were all first generation learners from a rural background. As with most new young Facebook members, I witnessed their constant competition in making and grabbing as many friends as possible on Facebook. The first step they always seemed to take was to friend everyone they knew offline by searching for their names on Facebook. Then they went ahead and friended people who were Friends of Friends and mutual members of a group or a page that they Liked.

    But, this seemed to take a turn a couple of months ago, when one of my informants from this group, casually stated that he was banned from Facebook, meaning that his account was suspended for a couple of days. This was pretty strange and when further probed, he stated that he was thrown out because he had sent Friends request to strangers (read “foreign women”, specifically Caucasians) and Facebook had his account suspended as he seemed to be spamming Friend Requests to people he just didn’t know and who in no way shared any mutual friends with him. This was not the first time this happened to him. In fact, the first time Facebook had his account temporarily suspended he didn’t even know why his account was banned. But, he seemed to understand from the trend of account suspensions, that whenever he sent out numerous friends request to people (women) he didn’t know, his account was automatically suspended, or at least this was what he attributed his temporary account suspension to.

    In a few weeks’ time when hanging out with this group, the others in the group also started boasting of this trend. Each one was boasting about how many times they had their account temporarily suspended in the past one month and the story that went with why their account was suspended. Each of them saw this as a game they played; the more number of times their account was temporarily suspended and the number of days their account got suspended with the story of why their account was suspended earned them brownie points within the group. When asked the reason they did this, they just seemed to want to turn the table on Facebook by changing the “punishment of temporary suspension” for trying to make genuine friends abroad, to merit badges. So, now the yardstick for heroism had shifted from the number of friends they made to the number of times they rebelled and were suspended for trying to make (read “spam”) friends.

    It is also interesting that a couple of these informants have now created a second profile on Facebook just to spam Friend Requests and get their account suspended temporarily in order to increase  status among within their peer group. They also maintain a separate genuine Facebook profile.

    Honor, fame and networked photography

    By Elisabetta Costa, on 14 January 2014

    Photo by Elisabetta Costa

    Photo by Elisabetta Costa

    Social media photography in my field site in south-east Turkey is extremely self-oriented. I have recently been asking friends and informants why people post specific images, and the answer has always been the same: “They want to become popular!” For example food is a very common image on Facebook and it is always represented in similar ways: in special occasions during dinner with friends or family, as soon as the wonderful food is ready and put on the table or on the floor someone takes the picture and posts it on Facebook. In few cases I had to wait up to twenty minutes before eating because everybody wanted to take a picture and upload it on Facebook, or keep it on their phones to show it to friends. When people organise dinner with friends or extended family and the food is particularly good-looking, taking a picture and making it public is a must. As everybody told me, the main goal is to appear awesome and become popular. On Facebook there are not pictures of ordinary food during ordinary dinner, or pictures with amazing food eaten with ordinary family members. It’s always a combination of good food and good people, the best way to impress the public. Even when the picture portrays a group of friends or family members, the picture is more oriented toward increasing the popularity of the person than to strengthening social ties with others.

    In Dry Rock Town people spend hours looking at the Facebook walls of acquaintances and gossiping about them. This activity is socially accepted, and usually done together with friends or relatives. Women especially enjoy their time together in front of a smartphone or preferably a laptop, commenting about other people’s life as based on what they see on their Facebook walls: “She became fat…He got married to that beautiful woman…He is still single…She always wears beautiful clothes…He has a good job…He became rich…She always goes to the hairdresser…etc, etc, etc.” People gossip in particular about acquaintances or distant family members with whom they don’t have daily interactions, and that are Facebook friends of friends. In a town of 80,000 inhabitants where everybody knows all of the families in the town (and consequently everybody recognizes everybody as a member of a family), Facebook is the best way to get updates and have fresh information about other people’s lives. Because of gossiping, chats, and rumors, the content Facebook walls often ends up being what people know about a certain person. For this reason Facebook visual material is accurately chosen and updated in order to improve self-images, increase respectability and honor. Facebook is used as an identity card to present the self to friends of friends, and friends of friends of friends, and eventually the whole town and the extended family.

    People are continuously involved in the practice of updating new pictures that can increase their social reputation. Thus the very practice of posting photos of amazing dinners and holiday trips is one of the main pleasures derived from these activities. It surely increases the their social fame within the town, and with friends and relatives.

    Social media in social spaces

    By Nell Haynes, on 9 December 2013

    Toasting to New Friends (Photo by Nell Haynes)

    Toasting to New Friends (Photo by Nell Haynes)

    The first time I was invited out by friends on a Friday night in my fieldsite in Northern Chile, I was surprised by the ways social media and technology permeated the evening’s events. My new friend Alex* sent me a message on Facebook asking if I would like to go out with he and his friends Andrea and Edith, who I had never met. When he got to my street to pick me up, he sent another Facebook message to let me know. As I walked down the stairs and to the parking lot of my apartment building, I knew I was looking for a Honda because he was constantly posting pictures of it on Facebook. He was standing leaning against the car looking at his Samsung phone. When I got to the car, he began to tell me a story of locking his keys in the car while at Edith’s house. I already knew most of the story though, because someone had made fun of him for locking the keys inside via his Facebook wall about an hour earlier.

    We drove a few blocks to Edith’s house where she and Andrea were waiting, and they hopped in the back seat. We then drove to a karaoke bar where the music was so loud I could barely hear Andrea was make fun of Edith for constantly using Whatsapp. Edith retorted that Andrea was just jealous because she didn’t have Whatsapp on her phone. I looked around and all three of my companions were on their phones. I was about to pull out my own just to fit in when Alex passed me his. On the note app he had written, “”If you get bored let me know and we can leave.” I wrote back “I’m just happy to have friends to hang out with on the weekend!” He laughed and then pulled up an app called LED that made the phone into a scrolling sign of the type that shows stock market prices. He wrote “It’s too loud to talk” and showed everyone at the table. He handed the phone to me to write something and at a loss for anything creative wrote “I can’t hear anything!”

    Shortly after, Alex told the three women we should pose for a picture, and the two others started posing, then switching places, posing again, standing up and posing, so that we ended up with about 10 photos of the three of us. A man Alex knew from work walked past and offered to take a photo of all 4 of us. Again, many pictures were taken with people standing, then sitting, then in a different order. We sat back down and Alex sent everyone the pictures from his phone via Facebook message. About five minutes later he passed his phone around to show the picture of the four of us that he had already put on Instagram. By the end of the night, I was Facebook friends with Edith and Andrea, and Alex and I had started following each other on Instagram.

    While this may seem like just a mundane night out, I was struck by the amount and ways people in Northern Chile were using social media even in the physical presence of their friends. One great thing about starting this project in a new fieldsite is that even seemingly commonplace things surprise me. Among my friends in the United States it would be considered incredibly rude to spend so much time looking at a phone while with others. In my previous fieldsite in Bolivia, very few of my urban middle class friends had smartphones, so messaging would have been done via old-fashioned text messaging and photos would have been posted to Facebook several days later. Many people argue that the influx of social media into time spent physically together spells the demise of substantive relationships. But in this case social media allowed us to interact, overcoming the loud music, to communicate more effectively. Certainly social media is changing friendships, but I think this story demonstrates the ways these media are not separate from “the real world,” but are integrated into the ways people interact when physically present in social spaces.

    *All names have been changed

    Digital public, publics, publicness

    By Jolynna Sinanan, on 5 December 2013

    todays yoof_davity dave

    (image, courtesy of davitydave, Creative Commons)

    Doing what is essentially two simultaneous ethnographies is no simple task (‘Simple’ as in ‘straightforward’, not ‘easy’. Conducting ethnography is generally not easy, but analysing the ‘online’ component can be mistaken for being easy. In the last two weeks, doing ethnography entailed sitting on Facebook for a few hours a day, staring at hundreds of posts and actually calling it work). Now that we have all done a considerable amount of fieldwork and have met quite a few people, we will all also be spending more time on Facebook (or QQ, or QZone) looking at streams of what people post. For us, debates and differentiation between ‘offline’ and ‘online’ are becoming increasingly irrelevant, as each area gives us more information and provides more insight and depth of understanding to the societies we are studying. Looking at posts on Facebook involves a mix of images, text, acknowledgements in the form of comments, tags and likes and sharing of content made and modified by others in links to other material, memes and videos. We aren’t just analysing images taken and posted by individuals, we are also analysing shared and mixed content. Just photos, for example, would be more straightforward: photos are inherently reflexive, they are taken by someone of something, and they are a way of pointing out, describing and judging, yet; the image-maker is also visibly absent from what they have captured.

    So who is all this content for? A general public, groups of publics, or certain individuals? A brief review of other studies on visual practices, photo-sharing and circulation included a study from 2011 by Lindtner et al. on how the sharing of digital media is not just about the exchange, but about social and cultural production, maintaining social ties and identity production. They interrogate the idea of ‘publics’ by drawing on the work of Warner (2001, 2002), which distinguishes between a single public and several publics. Media sharing is aimed towards specific publics, for example, when friends see what other friends have posted there is a sense that ‘this is aimed for me to see’, despite their actual relationship (if any) to the individual (Lindtner, 2011: 5.3). An individual could have several of their networks on Facebook and so each network or ‘digital public’ in this sense is also part of the individual’s impression management (in Goffman’s sense). Aspects of the individual that are being shown through what they post are for specific people in those networks to understand the reference and not others. Some posts I came across that exemplify this are status updates like ‘DON’T LIKE ME?? Have a seat with the rest of bitches waiting for me to give a F#@k’ and ‘I hate how after an argument I think about more clever shit I could of said’ and  ‘The most amazing things happen when you really slow down and look at all the wonders around you and you realize God truly does have a plan.’ A quick look at the likes and comments, especially by those informants I’ve met, says that these are distinct messages to people where close friends know the context.

    A discussion with the other researchers on the project leads us to think that aspects of managing publics will be common and others will be comparative. By looking at the content of shared images, posts and updates, we can start to gauge what MacDougall describes as ‘the range of culturally inflected relationships enmeshed and encoded in the visual’ (2005: 221). So there will be a lot of time procrastinating, I mean, working on Facebook in the months ahead.

     

    References

    Lindtner, Silvia, et al. “Towards a framework of publics: Re-encountering media sharing and its user.” ACM Transactions on Computer-Human Interaction (TOCHI) 18.2 (2011): 5.

    MacDougall, David. The corporeal image: Film, ethnography, and the senses. Princeton University Press, 2005

    What will we learn from the fall of Facebook?

    By Daniel Miller, on 24 November 2013

    kids computer

    Photo by Lucélia Ribeiro (Creative Commons)

    The ‘Fall of Facebook’ seems an odd title given this is a social media platform that continues to expand worldwide. Yet there is no doubt that we can and should be commenting on its demise at least for some. This month my focus has been on the sixth formers, that is 16-18 year olds at schools in The Glades, our UK fieldsite. For this group Facebook is not just falling, it is basically dead, finished, kaput, over. It is about the least cool thing you could be associated with on the planet. It has been replaced by a combination of four media, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat and WhatsApp.

    Looking back on my career as an academic I have rarely made predictions, partly because when I have, they have almost always turned out to be wrong. In the case of Facebook, however, even when everyone saw it as a university peer group thing, I predicted that Facebook was much more naturally a platform for older persons, not the young, a prediction that was repeated in Tales From Facebook. Just for a change I think this will prove correct, since most of the schoolchildren say they will remain on Facebook, but in essence as a mode of family interaction because their parents and even grandparents are starting to see it as almost an obligation to keep in touch through Facebook. So I don’t expect Facebook to necessarily disappear altogether. Rather it is finally finding its appropriate niche where it will remain. But I think it’s finished for the young in the UK and I suspect other countries will follow.

    So what lessons should we learn from this?

    1. The development of new social media is not a story of increasing or better functionality replacing older or worse functionality. Actually most of the schoolkids I am interviewing are perfectly happy to admit that there were various ways in which Facebook works more effectively than things like Twitter or Instagram. As one boy put it ‘I don’t think Twitter is better, I think people just get bored looking at that blue sign.’ Most people feel Facebook is more integrated, better for photo albums, more effective for stalking people’s relationships, and in most respects worked more effectively than those platforms that replaced it. WhatApp is probably a better social messenger service, but then WhatsApp is as much a replacement for texting. The lesson therefore is that when something goes out of fashion, that factor may be more important than the reduction in functionality.
    2. Changes in social media do not reflect the attitudes that other people hoped would be the primary influence in determining such movements. As Facebook became a behemoth, like all media that grow in size, many adults started to hate it and see it as something that ‘represented’ global neo-liberal capitalism, or Americanization or some other of the usual objects of loathing. Even pre-Snowden, they saw it as a mode of global surveillance. They hoped people would leave Facebook because it was an over commercialised and over controlling platform, ideally moving to something more open source and less commercial. In fact, however, young people have replaced Facebook with Instagram, which is of course owned by – Facebook. In short while journalists and activists are highly concerned with issues such as media ownership, most young people couldn’t give a rat’s arse about such matters or who indeed who gets to see what data. It’s simply that it’s no longer cool to be there.
    3. All of which begs the question as to why Facebook lost its cool. Pretty much everyone remembers the shock of that moment when ‘my mother just asked to friend me on Facebook’, and that is probably the single major reason that it lost status. You just can’t be young and free while all the time Mum is watching you. The second reason is simply that there is a desire for the new which allows each new age grade of youth to find their own media, some, such as Snapchat may be short explosive fashions, that may not last, others more foundational, but it is enough that they are new. It is nothing new however that young people care about style and status in relation to their peers, which seems sufficient to explain change in this instance.
    4. This is also our best evidence for the way polymedia (Madianou and Miller 2012) corresponds to the earlier theoretical ideas within structural anthropology. The innovative insight of structural anthropology was that things are not entities; rather they exist through their relationship with that which they are not. Fast forward and we can see this idea transmuted into the ‘ecological’ model of modern media, in which each media is said to occupy a niche that is different from those occupied by the rival or complementary media.

    It follows from this that a change in Facebook can arise, not from anything that happens within Facebook itself, but because of changes in the other media it is differentiated from. In my surveys at schools it is now Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp and Snapchat that connect pupils with other young people. Snapchat connects the closest friends, WhatsApp the quite close friends, Twitter the wider friends, while Instagram can include strangers. By contrast, Facebook has become the place where people interact with older people, especially parents and the wider family, or even older siblings who have gone to university. To prevent overgrazing, Facebook has to feed off somewhere else. It has thereby evolved into a very different animal – not that anyone seems to have noticed.

    UPDATE
    30 December 2013 – Daniel Miller posted a response to the widespread media coverage of this blog article.

    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.

    Love is… sending 400 texts to your girlfriend everyday

    By Elisabetta Costa, on 19 September 2013

    Photo by Knight 725 (Creative Commons)

    Photo by Knight 725 (Creative Commons)

    One of the most surprising pieces of data emerging from the 100 questionnaires I’ve submitted to my informants in our Turkish fielsite regarding their use of communication technologies is the number of text messages (SMS) that teenagers and young people send to their lovers. Indeed some mobile phone companies in Turkey sell SMS bundles for very cheap prices: for example, 12,000 texts for only 10 TL (around £3 GBP) a month. SMS is the most affordable communication channel for young people.

    Sending 300-400 SMS a day to the same person is not an extraordinary practice among teenagers and youth who want to communicate with a lover and have to do it far from the gaze and ears of their family members. They write messages during every single moment of the day, while on the toilet, eating lunch, at school, before going to bed and as soon as they wake up in the morning. It seems that SMS is the most suitable communicative channel to have a secret love relationship in a society where premarital relationships are not allowed.

    Below is part of a conversation I had with a 23 year-old hairdresser who confessed to me that he sends his girlfriend around 12,000 text messages a month:

    Hairdresser: “We communicate all day long and all night long by SMS. I do not sleep so that I can speak with her! I love her too much.”
    Me: “What do you write in 400 SMS in a day? Can you give me some example? It’s so difficult for me to imagine it.”
    Hairdresser: “We write to each other about what we are doing and with whom we are spending our time. We write our feelings. We write everything. And if we do not have time during the day we send messages to each other during the night. This is love! Yes, this is love!”

    There are specific local cultural reasons, beyond the growing romanticism, that explain why young lovers send each other so many messages: until few years ago, women were not allowed to go out, there were no internet and not mobile phones, and men could control women much more easily. Now women are more free, and are more often secretly engaging in romantic relationships with men. The point is that those same technologies  allow men to have intimate relationships with women, at the same time depriving them of the control they had in the past. The main fear of a young man having an illegitimate relationship with a woman is to be betrayed. As many young men told me, they are obsessively jealous. They want to control their girl-friends; they want to know where they are and what they do in every-single moment of the day, and SMS texting is the best way to do it. SMS texting is shaping new ideas of love where romanticism is entangled with new ways of performing masculinity.

    Categorising relationships through QQ’s friend lists, or, the problem of where to put one’s wife?

    By Tom McDonald, on 26 March 2013

    A list of a user's different groups of friends on QQ's Instant Messaging client (Photo: Tom McDonald)

    A list of a user’s different groups of friends on QQ’s Instant Messaging client (Photo: Tom McDonald)

    Listing the social connections of a research participant is a somewhat foundational methodological tool for any anthropologist. In times gone by, the ethnographer was expected to head off into the tropics, preferably dressed entirely in white, to painstakingly assemble kinship diagrams that indicated how members of a particular group were related to each other.

    China’s most popular social networking service, QQ, is particularly notable in this respect, because it’s instant messaging client, in the same manner as a somewhat uncouth anthropologist interrogating his participants, forces users to categorise relationships by assigning their online friends to specific groups.

    The above photo provides an example of a male office worker in his early 30s living in a small city in China. The names of the groups are as follows. The number of friends assigned to each group are included in brackets

    • My friends 我的好友 (99)
    • Highschool classmates 高中同学 (50)
    • Friends and colleagues 朋友同事 (30)
    • University classmates 大学同学 (45)
    • Wife 老婆 (1)
    • Universal (this is a pun where the user has replaced the one of the characters with a synonym that means ‘auspicious’) 普吉 (10)
    • Enterprise good friends 企业好友 (1)
    • Strangers 陌生人 (82)
    • Blacklist 黑名单 (0)

    It should be noted that the ‘My friends’, ‘Strangers’ and  ’Black list’ are all default categories for the instant messaging client, although users are able to rename them if they wish. Although it is too early to draw any firm conclusions about how the Chinese are categorising relationships at this stage, I would expect that we will see groups of school classmates to be a common theme throughout our participants. This perhaps tells us something about the importance of education in China and the endurance of classmate bonds throughout life.

    Also of interest is the number of ‘Strangers’ who have added themselves to this person. I think this will emerge as another important theme as ur research progresses, and it leads me to believe that the friending of strangers might be an important element that distinguishes QQ from western social media platforms.

    A final note on the exceptional category ‘Wife’. The fact that this user dedicates an entire list to his spouse may well set him apart as a ‘model husband’ (mofan zhangfu 模范丈夫), but perhaps it could also be indicative of the fact that he doesn’t know where to put his wife amongst all his other friends? I recall an incident from my previous research in China, when one of my informants, upon adding me as a QQ friend, realised that he didn’t have a suitable list to put me in, so after much deliberation, he created a new list, populated solely by me, called ‘Foreigners’.

    Maybe I should have stuck with the white outfit after all.