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Visibly invisible: you can always see me

By Xin Yuan Wang, on 24 March 2014

The Little Prince is probably the novel which I have read the most times. Each time I read it, I am warmly touched. Amid field work, I am reading it again. My favorite part is the conversation between the fox and the little prince, when the fox tells the little prince that meaning of ‘to tame’ is to ‘establish ties’.

“Just that,” said the fox. “To me, you are still nothing more than a little boy who is just like a hundred thousand other little boys. And I have no need of you. And you, on your part, have no need of me. To you, I am nothing more than a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes. But if you tame me, then we shall need each other. To me, you will be unique in all the world. To you, I shall be unique in all the world…”

“My life is very monotonous,” the fox said. “I hunt chickens; men hunt me. All the chickens are just alike, and all the men are just alike. And, in consequence, I am a little bored. But if you tame me, it will be as if the sun came to shine on my life. I shall know the sound of a step that will be different from all the others. Other steps send me hurrying back underneath the ground. Yours will call me, like music, out of my burrow. And then look: you see the grain-fields down yonder? I do not eat bread. Wheat is of no use to me. The wheat fields have nothing to say to me. And that is sad. But you have hair that is the color of gold. Think how wonderful that will be when you have tamed me! The grain, which is also golden, will bring me back the thought of you. And I shall love to listen to the wind in the wheat…”

I have to quote the whole lot what the fox said,  not only because it is beautifully written, but also it reminders me of a recent talk between myself and  my informant LX about QQ (social media) permission settings.

LX is a sweet factory girl who is 19-year-old. One day she complained that I was always ‘invisible’ (my QQ status) online, which is true. My QQ default setting is ‘invisible’ which means I can get QQ messages but my QQ contacts don’t know I am online when I log in. To be ‘invisible’ means I won’t be disturbed by other online contacts and it has become an accepted/applied strategy among my informants who have hundreds of QQ contacts to log in as ‘invisible’.

There are six online status of QQ (see the screenshot below): I am online; Q me (chat with me); Away; Busy; Do not disturb; and Invisible.  For most people (90%) as long as they are online, the status is either ‘online’, or ‘invisible’, or ‘away’ with auto-response. The reason for being ‘invisible’ varies– the main reason is that people do not want to be disturbed or get involved in a conversation, however still want to view others’ Qzone (online profiles) and don’t want to miss any important message. ‘Do not disturb’ as a status is rarely used since people think that is rude.

QQ status

I thought there were only six alternatives one can choose until LX taught me that actually there were some other ‘hidden’ options in the advanced permission setting. Right click any QQ contact’s avatar, on the pop-up select box (see screenshot below) there are a few options which enact different operations upon the certain contact, for instance: send instant message, send an Email (QQ offers email service which is the dominant email service my informant used), view chat log (one can check the local chat log, which is the chats that occurred on the current digital device or roaming chat log, which refers to all the chats under the same account occurring on different digital devices), put this contact on top of the contact list, edit the name (QQ names, in most cases, are not real names, as I mentioned in my previous report. As a result users will usually note the real-name if they know it), group the contact, delete the contact, report the contact (for online  harassment), create a desktop shortcut, enter his/her Qzone, check his/her Tencent weibo (twitter-like service QQ offers) etc. and permission setting (see the screen shot below, blue highlighted). In the permission setting, there is one option that says “yin shen dui qi ke jian” (make visible to him/her in invisible status) which means the selected contact can always ‘see’ you even when you are in ‘invisible’ status.

QQ advanced permission setting

I felt honored to realize that I am the second person who can ‘see’ LX when she is ‘invisible’ to others on QQ (the first one is her boyfriend).

It is like you can always see me, and I am always there waiting for you, you know, very close and exclusive.

LX further explained the significance of ‘visible invisibility’. In return, I set her as the first contact that can ‘see’ me when I am ‘invisible’, which made her very happy. Such mutual advanced permission setting reinforced our relationship.

‘To see’ is different from ‘to look.’ The latter happens all the time, however in many cases does not necessarily lead to the former. A senior manager of a local factory told me that the logic of assembly line is that humankind is a part of the machine. I asked him whether he personally knew any of the factory workers. Rather than answer ‘no’, he told me “it’s not necessary”. True, he only needs to know the machine. I am probably the first one (the weird one) who visited the factory workshop and paid more attention to the workers rather than the product, the building, and the machine.

“All the rural migrants are just alike” as some of my local informants put it. In this small town, in factory workshops, monotonousness on a daily basis is the grand narrative, eclipsing individuality.  Most of the time, my rural migrant friends are ‘invisible’ to most people, even though they certainly did not ‘set’ themselves as ‘invisible’.  Unfortunately unlike on QQ, the default ‘social’ setting of ‘invisible’ cannot easily be changed in their offline life. To live against such daily ‘invisibility’, LX’s skillful usage of QQ allows herself some ‘privileged’ visibility, and in consequence,  an ordinary factory girl who is just like a hundred thousand other rural-to-urban migrant girls shall be unique in all the world, at least in the ‘virtual world’ created by social media.

Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the fairest one of all? Social media as framed mirrors

By Xin Yuan Wang, on 2 February 2013

Photo by Sukanto Debnath (Creative Commons)

The other day, my previous informant X showed me her latest Facebook status update with a broad smile. The status looked like a quote out of nowhere, which confused me, and the only comment which came from her boyfriend made me even more confused. Even though I could understand each individual word; however the conversation between the post and the comment didn’t make any sense to me at all, there was a clear disconnect. Then X took 5 minutes to explain the whole story, which turned out to be the first time ‘Facebook official claim’ of their relationship which still remained a secret to most of their friends. I was amazed.

Why would people utter tender words of endearment to their lovers on Facebook which otherwise could be done by more private communicative channels? Why should people add confusing posts/comments, which can be only understood by a few intimate friends on Facebook to a huge number of other people? Many studies are concerned about the social media’s potential to destroy privacy, which I would definitely not disagree with. However, in other cases, it seems that those people who are fully aware of the context of social media, intentionally play around with the ‘transparent/private’ features of Facebook to express the most subtle emotions–is this just for fun?

Linguists have long noticed that the existence of ‘indexical signs’ the meaning of which highly depends on the context of social interaction. For example, smoke would be related with many things, but in certain spatio-temporal contexts smoke is an index of fire, however smoke does not ‘stand for’ the fire the way in which the word ‘fire’ refers to fire–here exists a causal rather than symbolic relationship, which ‘points back’ from the index to the referent (Boellstorff 2012:51). Similarly, the indexicality of those wordplays on Facebook, points back to the relationship itself. And the conversation acquires meanings from the ‘Facebook context’, rather than the ‘face value’ of the content. So why bother to post a ‘Facebook official claim’? Partly because the meaning of intimacy comes from the distinction, which suggests the uniqueness of the particular relationship exclusively against other aggregated public/private social relationships on Facebook – that is ‘among all the others, only we can understand what we are talking about’, which gives rise to the establishment of the relationship. In other words, that making things visible is, in itself, constituting relationship. To take this a stage further, Facebook to some extent has become a mirror to make a relationship visible–just like you can’t see yourself without a mirror.

The sociologist Goffman (1975) used the word ‘frame’ to explain how people’s behavior is cued by the frames which constitute the context of action. The Facebook ‘frame’ tells us how to interpret others’ behaviour as well as our own, but mostly, such framed activities are unconsciously embedded in the social expectations and understanding of what is or is not appropriate. The ‘public’ represented by Facebook is more often than not the people one knows privately (at least the anonymity of ‘real-name’ social media is limited compared to the other online communities), and there are consequences of addressing such a large body of social connections through ‘one-to-many’ texts or photos on Facebook rather than other personal communicative channels with particular individuals. Just as Miller argues “we have reached the point where Facebook may be regarded as providing a crucial medium of visibility and public witnessing” (2011:180). In such a frame, as long as people get used to the ‘public gaze’ or ‘participatory surveillance’, they start to develop a strategy to address the ‘public’. As X said “He knows only I know and others don’t know”, also in a way the invisible confused ‘public’ has contributed to the perception of the distinction which has added meaningful significance to their intimate relationship.

So, “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the fairest one of all?” does the fairy tale ring a bell when you look into the framed mirror of Facebook every day? The question why do people ask the mirror matters as much as the mirror’s answer in the eyes of digital anthropologists.

References

Goffman, E. 1975. Frame Analysis. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Miller, D. 2011. Tales from Facebook. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Boellstorff, T. 2012. “Rethinking Digital Anthropology”, in Heather A. Horst & Daniel Miller (eds.) 2012. Digital Anthropology. London: Berg.