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.

    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.

    Social media and the sense of autonomy

    By Razvan Nicolescu, on 23 October 2013

    Photo by Razvan Nicolescu

    Photo by Razvan Nicolescu

    This post is about the usage of social media among teenagers in the Italian fieldsite and in particular about the idea of self-autonomy. The first thing to say is quite obvious: that is, most teenagers’ usage of social media happens between two main forces that act simultaneously and most of the time in opposite directions. On one hand, their peers encourage an active usage of new technology and social media, and on the other hand, parents and schools tend to drastically discourage and limit this usage. While online friends require more online interactivity and participation, families and teachers encourage more offline involvement. These kinds of misunderstandings are largely discussed in the anthropological literature (see for example Livingstone, Ito, or the Digital Youth Project) and I will not dwell here on this topic.

    Another important issue related to teenagers’ usage of social media is that, like when playing in the playground, social media provides the setting where they learn and practice sociality inside the various peer-groups they adhere to and with no significant help or guidance from adults. At the same time, the famous psychologist Jean Piaget argued that roughly between 12 and 14 years old teenagers engage on the road from an ego-centric to a de-centered understanding of the world. In social terms, this process corresponds to a movement from a rather concrete to a more abstract understanding of relationships. Whether it is driven by an individual fascination or by a social imperative for the newly discovered relationships, may be debated. What is really important, I argue, is that the individual is entering int0 a vast system of communication and relations with a large number of peers in a relatively short period of time. There seems to be little time and space to filter out ideas and to be very strict in following some pre-defined rules for communicating, in adults’ terms. Instead, teenagers seem to sort out these rules on the go, while being active on social media.

    Paulina is a 14 years old. She has been on Facebook for two years. She has around 800 friends on this platform, her profile is public, and she does not differentiate too much between her online friends. She is usually online two to three hours a day and logged into her Facebook account. She admits she does many other things online, including homework, however, most of the time she is busy answering different requests or messages she receives on Facebook. She does that because she feels she has to respond to these requests and she has to be quick if she wants her own thoughts to be heard. She is not interested if other people look at her online profile and why they would do that.

    Paulina’s mother opposes most of these ideas. She has had a Facebook profile for around two years, but she was never too active on it. She has around 80 Facebook friends, most of them mothers. Actually, one of the reasons many parents started using Facebook was to friend their children so they could watch over their online behavior. She could not understand why her daughter would just post ‘everything’ on Facebook. She is quite confused in particular by the fact that her daughter seems to not make any choices in what to post and what to not post online, or in differentiating somehow between the audience of these posts. A private quarrel could go online, as well as an important prize at school. After some time of trying to control her daughter online, she gave up and started to mind more her own Facebook friends.

    This story is very typical for the Italian town: teenagers introducing their parents to Facebook and young people introducing their parents to computer and skype. In a way, this seems to correspond to the process described by the term polymedia. However, when teenagers started to be active on twitter, things changed dramatically: they suddenly evaded the more socially accepted peer-to-peer communication for a much stranger one. Most parents do not even bother to ask their children what they do on twitter, not to mention trying to go to the site. Meanwhile, teenagers enjoy their newly discovered autonomy that corresponds to a sort of abstractization of social relations as detailed above. In any case, many teenagers seem to think that while Facebook became rather normative and predictable, twitter allows them to be more autonomous and innovative. And rules seem to be more difficult to be enforced here.

    Facebook for fitness: a case study from India

    By Shriram Venkatraman, on 18 September 2013

    Photo by Bharfot (Creative Commons)

    Photo by Bharfot (Creative Commons)

    The following is a case study of a fitness enthusiast (a small business owner as well – owns a gym) in our Indian fieldsite who shares his passion for body building and subtly influences his business members through Facebook.

    Krishna, aged 28, is a body building enthusiast who just loves fitness to the extent that it was natural for him to start his fitness centre/gym immediately after he graduated. While pursuing his Bachelors in Business Administration at a college close to the fieldsite, he took on several part time jobs, all in the field of fitness, at various privately owned and community gyms both in the city of Chennai and in the villages surrounding it, working in a wide spectrum of roles from being an instructor to looking after the administration. He learnt through being an apprentice to various well known instructors. He read most of the well-known fitness magazines that his work place subscribed to. He was not just an instructor who only preached, but  was also a walking proof  by practicing his own ideals on fitness. He participated very actively in most of the state-based fitness competitions and has even won a few of them, which further added to his credibility.

    He surrounded himself with friends (mostly young men) who were also interested in fitness and he seemed to have influenced most of them to get into body building, and even compete in a few city/state and national level competitions themselves. His network which mostly consisted of people who were seriously into fitness and body building, now seemed to have influenced him in turn by respectfully addressing him as their “Master”. They do this even now, and the gym members seemed to have forgotten his real name and just address him as their Master. His personal attention to the fitness of his friends seemed to go a long way. He volunteered to help them compete in competitions and thereby spread around this idea (in a way popularising himself as a brand too, as he did not have a business at that time). Hence, it was natural for him to look out for an opportunity to expand his passion and with a good business sense he turned his network of friends into clients. He started his own gym and had a ready network of friends who naturally joined the gym. A member of his network seemed to have even helped him with procuring the equipments, while one helped him with a bank loan and another with the space for the gym.

    Now he is a the owner of this small business, who owns and runs an 1800 square foot gym in a rented area. The gym functions in an artificially created shed in the terrace of a building owned by his friend’s dad. Thanks to his friend’s influence, he pays a rent which is at least 60% less than the market price. He charges his members a very reasonable amount as his gym does not have any electronic equipment and is not air conditioned. His network expanded considerably and so did the gym membership, the membership roster boasts of approximately 200 members on a rotational basis. Given that this is a men-only gym with very limited facilities, this number seems to be significant. Also most most of the gyms for body building use rather than usual aerobic fitness regimes.

    As body building requires huge amounts of motivation and inspirational stories and pictures, it required a significant amount of time to ensure that his members are motivated to turn up to the gym every day. Following up with them was itself a huge task. Cell phones helped him in this task, where calling members individually and talking to them personally and messaging them inspirational quotes helped, however sending inspirational pictures of body builders with quotes in them were not possible with the phone that he had. So, he turned to a cheaper but an effective and valuable option: Facebook.

    He made sure to add most of his old members as his friends on Facebook and also  asked every new member their Facebook ID and made sure to add all of them as his friends on Facebook. He send all his Facebook friends, who are his clients, pictures of body builders with inspirational quotes. He also sends them personal messages and pictures that he downloads from the internet. As a member of other international fitness groups on Facebook, he has all of these pictures and quotable quotes falling into his lap. He also shares stories of people in unfortunate circumstances and who have made it big and relates them to fitness. His way of caring, motivating and influencing his members/clients was now becoming easier. He says that he knows his members welcome this because, when they open their Facebook page every morning, they see a positive message with the picture of a strong man, which creates a positive energy in them to face the day and, in a way, subtlety influences them and reminds them of fitness and his gym.

    He says his membership churn-over has reduced considerably since he adopted Facebook to communicate with them and has definitely helped in reducing a considerable amount of time/money spent over phone in motivating members to turn up for fitness. This method he feels is very non-intrusive. Further, he is now able to use his time effectively to concentrate on other business details and with Facebook groups, he uses them as a knowledge network to know the latest developments in the body building world, which has also brought down his magazine subscription charges. He prints out pictures of body builders and inspirational quotes that he gets on Facebook and now pastes them in his gym, to motivate those working out in the gym. Of course, he also relies on phone to communicate with people with whom Facebook doesn’t work or who are not into Facebook. He says his presence on Facebook also has helped him attract new members in the area. So when people search for gyms in the area, his name stands out with the area name. His Facebook ID is a combination of the name of the gym and his name, as well and with his geographical details are given, it’s pretty certain that his name stands out when people search for a gym in this area. Surprisingly, he doesn’t have a page for his gym and he says he doesn’t want to create one simply for the reason that his clients would then be clients and lose personal touch with him if he has a page instead of his profile. A profile makes sure his clients are his friends and it shows he cares for them.

    Cigarettes and alcohol: towards healthier relationships through social networking?

    By Tom McDonald, on 24 November 2012

    Social drinking in a chinese karaoke (Photo: Tom McDonald)

    It is 11:42 on a Tuesday night, in the height of Red Mountain Town summer, and I find myself standing in a darkened, noisy and stifling, private room four by ten feet in size. Running along one side of the room is a fitted sofa covered in vinyl padding that is supposed to imitate leather, and opposite it a flat screen television. In the space in between is a table, holding a semi-decimated feast of beer bottles, fruit platters, sesame seeds, and cigarette packets. In the corners of the room, above the television, hang two oversized speakers, blaring out distorted music. The room is walled with a smooth glittery surface, constructed from opaque, black-silvery backed tempered glass, set into which are metal purple and red fluorescent lights, and plain strips of metal detailing.

    There are seven people in the room, mostly tubby men and women in their forties or fifties; respectable businessmen, engineers, nurses, and retired townsfolk. Their faces are entirely smeared in birthday cake, a bizarre combination of clotted cream, and light fluffy primrose-yellow sponge, as if they were characters straight out of a ‘Laurel and Hardy’ custard-pie fight gone awry. They are maladroitly dancing to the corrosive 2005 Euro-trance song ‘Axel F‘ by Crazy Frog, in an almost paraplegic conjunction of un-coordinated hand waving, and leg shuffling, whilst on the television, askew decade-old video footage shows young nubile bikini-clad Chinese women writhing, out of time with the music, on the stage of an anonymous crowd-filled nightclub in an unidentified Chinese city. In front of me, one portly woman, a divorcee, grabs her boyfriend, a scrawny forty year old moustachioed ferret-like man, and they break into a mini-waltz, which they manage to sustain for about thirty seconds before reverting to their discombobulated convulsive gyrations. One man breaks off from his bopping to stand by the light switch, eagerly turning it on and off repeatedly, plunging the room in and out of darkness in a disordered strobe effect.

    A corpulent fellow, heavily exuding sweat, grabs me, throws his arm around my shoulder while thrusting a bottle of Kingway beer into my hand, “Bottoms up!” he bellows into my ear over the music, knocks back his head, and with concentrative purpose, glugs down the beer as if he were a baby suckling fervently on his mother’s teat. I do not want him to feel I am spurning his generosity, so I follow immediately, despite having long before lost track of how much I have had to drink tonight. The warm, additive-soaked beer gushes past my pharynx, and down my throat, as I put in a concerted deglutitive effort. I am out of practice, though, and find simultaneously breathing through my nose, while swallowing the drink and maintaining eye contact with the heavily perspiring man unexpectedly problematic. When I reach the point of asphyxiation I involuntarily gag, foamy carbonated beer erupts from my mouth and down my neck. No sooner than I have drawn the bottle away from my face, though, that another man, who I am unaware is standing behind me claws a handful of cake into his palm, and swings it towards my face, as if applying a chloroform-soaked towel to an unsuspecting kidnap victim, roughly smearing the syrupy mixture over my face, and ears, and most of my clothes.

    I take a moment to remind myself where I am. ‘Heaven on Earth Karaoke parlour’ in Red Mountain Town. I wonder for a moment how on earth did it come to be, that out of all the places in the world, I should have ended up here? Then another, altogether more interesting question popped into my head: how on earth did it come to be, that ‘Heaven on Earth Karaoke parlour’ should have ended up to be like this?

    The above fieldnotes were made as part of my PhD research into the structures of hospitality in a medium sized town in south-west China. The thesis examines the way in which everyday hosting activities, such those described in the karaoke parlour above, become significant by their adoption of certain material and behavioural structures of hospitality that are partly homologous to forms of hosting in popular religious life and traditional ways of receiving visitors into the home.

    Central to many forms of hosting in Chinese society, especially between adult males, are alcohol (Chau, 2008:493) and cigarettes (Wank, 2000). My own friends in Red Mountain Town would often wax lyrical about what they perceived to be the country’s ‘alcohol culture’ (jiu wenhua 酒文化). This concern with using alcohol to comfort others extends to the afterlife: during the tomb sweeping festival my friends would leave a cup of liquor on their ancestors’ tombs for their deceased relatives to consume.

    I, on the other hand, did not always see their hospitality in a wholly favourable light, doubtless because my own attitudes have been shaped by the far less positive national discourse surrounding alcohol and smoking that exist here in Britain. However, China too is starting to become aware of the problems that these specific forms of sociality bring. Commercial alcohol production in the country has increased from 0.4 kg beverage alcohol per person in 1952, to an estimated 42.5 kg per person by 2005 (Cochrane et al., 2003). Rates of diabetes and lung cancer in China are increasing at amongst the fastest speeds in the world, and I witnessed first hand the distress, heartbreak and loss that these diseases bought to families in the town.

    Nevertheless, this problem seems to be a social one. Alcohol and cigarettes appear to be inseparable from the creation of friendships in China. Which is why social networking is of particular interest. On QQ, China’s most popular social networking service, it is possible to give one’s friends ‘virtual’  gifts of alcohol and cigarette lighters (amongst other things).

    Gifting french red wine on QQ (Image © QQ)

    This raises a question of whether China’s youth are increasingly tiring of some of the social behaviours of older generations. Are options to gift virtual versions of such objects ways in which they are seeking new forms of sociality, at once different from other generations, whilst still remaining identifiable with ‘traditional’ Chinese culture?

    Of course, it is impossible to tell from this one piece of evidence, but given that our study of social networking will have an important welfare element, I hope that through the ethnographic encounter I will be able to find out in what ways social networking might be influencing these established means of relating to each other.

    References
    Chau, A. Y. (2008). The Sensorial Production of the Social. Ethnos, 73(4), 485-504.
    Cochrane, J., Chen, H., Conigrave, K. M., & Hao, W. (2003). Alcohol use in China. Alcohol and Alcoholism, 38(6), 537-542.
    Wank, D. L. (2000). Cigarettes and Domination in Chinese Business Networks: Institutional Change during the Market Transition. In D. S. Davis (Ed.), The consumer revolution in urban China (pp. 268-286). Berkeley; London: University of California Press.

    This is not a user study

    By Jolynna Sinanan, on 24 October 2012

    Photo: Frederick Dennstedt (Creative Commons)

    Our project is about social networking. We all agree on that. It’s also about contributing to social sciences. We also agree on that. So far, every question we have discussed and asked ourselves along the way has come back to the conclusion ‘whatever we say has to be ethnographically informed.’ If it’s in our field site, we look at it, if it comes up as important to the context of our informants and their social worlds, we look at it.

    Yet, when we have referred to social network sites or have discussed how we might look at different ones, we inevitably end up gearing our thoughts towards imagining how facebook might look and be used out there in the field. We insist that this is not a study of facebook and its users, it really isn’t. (A quarter of our project will be looking at QQ in China). So how can we do a project about social networks and SNS without making it just about usage?

    What we have come up with so far, to keep with the anthropology equivalent of the Hippocratic oath to our fidelity to ethnography is this. We start with our SNS, facebook, or QQ, or Orkut or whatever the dominant site is in the field. When we start looking at its usage and start to identify trends or patterns, we then start to think about the wider sphere of the media of social relationships. Where does the SNS fit in with other sites? Where does it fit in with texting or emails or webcam for example? And then we widen our lens further to think about the totality of social relationships within that context. What is Trinidadian friendship or experiences of motherhood like? How are the expectations and the norms of these relationships similar or different to friendship or experiences of motherhood in Turkey or China or Brazil? And for that, we then need to consider all the possible things that might come up for us to better understand these relationships.

    For example, this makes my first task of understanding friendship and teenage girls in my fieldsite in Trinidad very easy. If friends spend a lot of time bonding over their mutual love of Robert Pattinson, I read Twilight because Twilight will be my ‘in’ to be able to better understand friendships between teenage girls in small town Trinidad. The idea of looking at anything that may come up as important to better understand the totality of social relationships in our field site actually sounds quite fun. It also means we aren’t just looking at usage of facebook. Unfortunately, it also means that I might have to read Twilight.