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

By Tom McDonald, on 24 October 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who built the internet?

By Juliano Andrade Spyer, on 31 January 2013

Photo by quinn anya (Creative Commons)

Photo by quinn anya (Creative Commons)

A debate sparkled recently after president Barack Obama said the internet was the result of a government project. Analysts from mainstream media shared their perspectives suggesting that corporations, some intelligent people, everyone or indeed the government should claim responsibility for starting this communication revolution and the topic became a series of posts at the anthropological blog Savage Minds. But amid these conflicting views there is room left for at least one more position: that no one invented the internet.

Yes, the US government paid for Arpanet, the “Eve” of computer networks, but it was not meant to be a communication device for people. As Kevin Kelly has argued earlier, nobody predicted the arrival of the internet and actually, he adds, until quite recently many people doubted that a form of entertainment based on typing would convince more than a handful of enthusiasts to give up TV.

One of the ways of conceiving the internet is as a tool for group communication. Shirky* explains that networked computer communication combines the interactivity of telephones and the reach of television or radio to provide a solution for many people to interact with each other. And this particular element – the possibility of group conversations – was brought to Arpanet by chance as one of the computer engineers installed extra officially a program for email.

The point is that, until then, this email-like program allowed people sharing the same computer to leave messages to one another (computers were quite expensive in the 1960s). As Arpanet connected various computers, this service opened unforeseen possibilities. Suddenly people living apart in different cities could communicate in an interesting fashion: not just it was possible to have more than two participants, they did not have to be simultaneously connected.

As the story about the internet is reviewed, one particular bit seems to always be present: after the installation of this first email program, email quickly became the primary reason for people using the network. It is said that in less than two years, ¾ of the data circulating through connected computers consisted of this kind of text messages meant for humans to use. I feel that what makes this minimal bit of historic data relevant is that it portrays our own surprise with this new communication tool. In other words, what is surprising here is that Arpanet ostensibly belonged to the military, but was quietly re-purposed to serve a different function without anybody even knowing about it.

This argument is similar but significantly different from Steven Johnson’s, who defended the internet as a product of a collective effort. The difference is that for him there is an intention attracting the multiple collaborators working together – as in projects like Linux – whereas through this new perspective, there wasn’t one or not the same kind of intention.

So maybe the argument here is that the internet, in similarity to cities, languages and cultures, resulted not from our abity to gaze at the future and forge new scientific miracles, but rather from something everyone has and is very parochial and simple: our drive for social interaction.

* Shirky, Clay. Here Comes Everybody: How change happens when people come together. Penguin, 2009.