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The Future of Facebook: What will we learn from the study of Chinese social media?

By Xin Yuan Wang, on 29 January 2014

Image courtesy of emreterok, Creative Commons

Image courtesy of emreterok, Creative Commons

China is a dreadful desert to Western social media giants such as Facebook and Twitter, however it is a tropical rainforest to many local species. It is curious to note that even though none of the participants in my field site use, or have even heard of Facebook or Twitter, the way they use Chinese social media such as QQ and WeChat provides an interesting parallel to the way UK teenagers in Danny’s study differentiate a range of social media in their daily life, even though as social media QQ, or WeChat are both significantly different from Facebook.

Among certain groups of Chinese people, like teenagers, QQ seems to be in stasis. For teens with relatively high education and social status that are more willing to try something new and urban middle-class, QQ is not cool at all, just as what Danny reported about Facebook in his previous blog article. It is not rare to find people who have used QQ for more than 10 years in China given QQ started to become popular almost 15 years ago. In fact, QQ could be considered Facebook’s predecessor and to some extent through the study of QQ’s development in China we may ‘foretell’ what will happen in ‘Facebook land’ in the future. Many of my participants have told me that around 10 years ago, QQ represented the coolest thing about urban life because rural migrants who came back to their village during Chinese New Year showed off that they had a QQ account in front of their stunned fellow villagers. After 10 years, when almost half of the Chinese population have QQ accounts, QQ numbers rather than mobile phone numbers are exchanged most frequently as  permanent contact details (it is reported that people change their mobile phone much more frequently than their QQ account). QQ has lost its association with trendy or cool things, especially for urban Chinese people who want to escape from the ‘hustle and bustle’ QQ land which somehow has been associated with rural Chinese. On one hand, some people report that they use QQ less and less in recent years since Wechat’s audio message is more fun and convenient, and WeChat seems to be more in line with urban life. Some report that their closest friends and frequent contacts all moved to WeChat. On the other hand, people admitted that they would always come back to QQ when they wanted to catch up with long-lost relationships, such as old classmates or previous colleagues. As one informant put it, those contacts “didn’t move to other social media,” but remain in the “old home” of QQ. Those contacts may also have started using WeChat or other social media, but from my participants’ perspectives, they ‘belong’ to QQ. These friends may not have updated their social media details because of sparse communication, or are regarded a part of ‘past old days’ in one’s mind and QQ is the PLACE to go.

That is to say, people didn’t quit QQ because of their engagement with other social media. Rather, QQ survives time and thus obtains a ‘senior’ status, something like an old friend who has witnessed one’s ups-and-downs in life even though they may only meet once a year. QQ may also be regarded like one’s birthplace, which my rural migrant informants only visit during Chinese new year but always remains as one of the most import places in their lives. People don’t dump QQ, but keep it, and use it in a different way.

So the quick conclusion is QQ seems to be in stasis among certain groups of people not because of ‘being QQ’, but because of the law of ‘nature’ – here let me call this the nature of social media. And it also makes sense if one replaces “QQ” by “Facebook” in this argument.

And what is the nature of social media? You may need a bit more patience to read through the following academic ‘block’ to get a clearer picture:

First, stuff becomes more than the material after being used by people. For example the pen from your passed-away grandpa is to you by no means equal to any other pen which was produced on the same factory assembly line. If we have to use jargon, we call the process ‘objectification’ where an object consumed by people is domesticated and becomes part of the person and their relationship to others. That is where material culture starts, and the context in which we study digital technology. Digital technology, as a form of material, is no more sophisticated or mediated than any other object in terms of the relationship between material and human beings. Having said that, however, it is worthwhile to highlight the uniqueness of social media in the way that social media show the relationship between the digital and social relationship in a more visible and obvious way. That is to say, without people’s engagement and usage, social media is next to nothing. In a way, ‘Facebook’ and ‘QQ’ are only half finished goods before being used by people. Social media is produced through the consumption, as the terminology ‘prosumption’ suggested. Thus, it is safe to say social media is highly entangled with the ‘self’ and personal relationship to the degree that it somehow grows with the person and has its own life (Gell’s theory of ‘agency’ also shed light on this argument).

Furthermore, the concept of ‘polymedia’ describes another feature of social media. Each social media platform finds its niche in specific personal relationships and people take moral responsibility for their choice of different social media. In the case of ‘Facebook’, as Danny suggested, at the moment when people got friend request from their mother, the social medium is transformed into a family-orientated place rather than the place where people share secrets with their close friends. Also the concept ‘remediation’  helps to illustrate the way how certain social media (like QQ and Facebook) become ‘old’ because of the development of other social media. Dialectically, there is no so-called old or new social media without the comparison with others, that is to say people tend to re-define certain social media in the context of polymedia.

Even though my research is still unfinished, let me ‘jump to the conclusion’ and put my incomplete version of ‘the nature of social media’ here: First, social media as a social agent grow with the person and own their own lives. Second, social media were applied and valued by people in a context of polymedia.

Having discussed the nature of social media, then, let’s go back to my argument from the beginning – QQ seems to be in stasis among certain group of people not because of ‘being QQ’, but because of the law of ‘nature’, and so does Facebook. It is important to not treat social media as functional technology like we would computers. In terms of technology, new social media are not more advanced than pre-existing ones. It makes sense to say that today’s computers have taken the place of the early bulky computer, whereas we can’t say that a certain social medium is dead completely because its users turn to new ones and use others more actively. The situation in practice is like the way people treat friendship and the attitude toward one’s birthplace. From time to time, my participants in this Chinese town used “old friend” or “lao jia” (hometown) to describe their QQ profiles. For some of them, the usage of WeChat is more frequent and active than the usage of QQ. They report and I have observed that WeChat is more for recent contacts one meets in face-to-face situations, and generally speaking closer friends in a smaller circle. QQ on the other hand is used to keep up with all kinds of friends, acquaintances, and communities (QQ offers a group function, such as ‘class group’  used in one middle school) that one has accumulated over a relatively long term. In some cases QQ has become some people’s digital legacy where they keep the ‘silly self’ of 10 years ago. As one of my informants said she won’t use QQ to communicate with her new friends anymore since “on QQ you will encounter a little girl of 10 years ago”, however it is always good to view that ‘self’ in the past as it remains alive on QQ. QQ has become the PLACE, the legacy. Each generation, each human being owns their own history, and in the digital age, social media have become the place people store their history, and where old friends and memory dwell. I have witnessed it already in the usage of QQ among Chinese people and I don’t see any reason why Facebook will not follow suit.

Finally, the findings in China, with the absence of Facebook, actually reinforced our essential argument that the study of digital anthropology and this GSMIS project go beyond specific usage of a certain social medium. Social media usage is the point of entrance which allows our digital anthropologists to look into, understand and interpret the social relationship and the relationship between people and technology in different cultures and societies in the digital age.

Different types of news

By Razvan Nicolescu, on 29 August 2013

Photo by Gabriela Nicolescu

Photo by Gabriela Nicolescu

There are two local newspapers and a regional one in the Italian town where I am conducting fieldwork. They appear once a week before the weekend and are distributed freely in the main hot spots of the town, like cafés and retail units. The biggest one is published in a few thousand copies, a significant number when one considers  the town’s population is almost 20,000. Its editorial line is strongly on the social side, so that more popular themes like politics are not discussed. While the main editorial team is composed by a few men who work pro-bono for the publication, anybody in the local community can contribute as author. The editors encourage this kind of public involvement through a series of initiatives such as local writing contests or symbolic prizes offered to prestigious Italian journalists. Last year around one hundred people from the local community wrote at least one article for the journal, out of which more than a dozen were considered constant contributors.

The impact of this journal on the social life of the town is amazing. Almost every adult who enjoys reading newspapers reads carefully at least the main column on the front page which represents the subject of the week. This could be then debated over a few weeks in different public spaces, in the subsequent numbers of the journal, or in various other local media, such as Facebook. People usually trust the information in the journal much more than the news coming from more distant sources such as national journals or the RAI. It seems to represent a sort of undeniable proof for the different social issues within the local community.

I will not discuss here the intellectual and cultural issues that are at stake with this journal as neither my research is interested in these sorts of disputes. Rather, I am interested in how  the local population relates to this particular media and how different this relationship is when the same content is made available on Facebook. There is a whole discussion on the role of social media in the current Italian society, see, for example, the way the political movement MoVimento 5 Stelle (Movement 5 Stars) has constructed much of its political success on the massive popular mobilisation through the internet and social media. However, I will limit this posting to a few considerations on how people in the small town relate to the news on Facebook.

If teenagers and some young people could easily have 800-1,200 Facebook friends, most of the adult population have somewhere between a few tens and 200. The only adults who reach the teenagers’ numbers of online connections are particular public actors such as artists, social activists, entrepreneurs, or people involved in different ways in media. Their Facebook profile is almost the same: they post on different social issues or share joking posts and let their online connections  comment or disseminate this information. As these actors recognise that their audience is very eclectic, which also implies they do not necessarily share the same the political or social views, they usually prefer to not moderate these conversations. Their most common explanation is they do not afford to loose connections or their interventions are less important than the initial postings. At the same time, if some people enjoy participating to the online debates, most of the audience does not. They rather prefer to discuss the different issues offline, within the family, or in particular circles of friends. It is here where Facebook seems to act like a newspaper. Like journals wait for clients in an empty caffe, Facebook pages wait for people to access them when they don’t have anything else to do.

However, the type of information individuals gather from the two sources are very different. If in the local newspaper people are interested in the public news, in Facebook users tend to look for the private persons who are interested in news. To wait for public news on Facebook is nonsense. This might be interesting for different activists or entrepreneurs, but most of the people seem to spend huge amounts of time online just trying to find the information that is most private and available in a relatively public environment. The reasons could be pure friendship or curiosity. What is important is that most of the time in the private world of Facebook, news is unimportant if it do not serve to better understand your peers.

Something we take for granted in the digital age

By Xin Yuan Wang, on 14 December 2012

Photo: Enkhtuvshin’s 5DmkII (Creative Commons)

The other day I was talking with my friend via Skype, whilst at the same time using my smartphone to check some information. I couldn’t find it anywhere. At last, I had to hang up the call and return to the library to find my phone, before suddenly realising that I was, in fact, holding my phone, talking to it when I was trying to find it. This anecdote provoked much laughter from my friends. However it may be more than a joke. Why didn’t I notice the phone? Obviously the mediation of technology in this communication has been ignored, which would be regarded as another example of the humility of things - “the more effective the digital technology, the more we tend to lose our consciousness of the digital as a material and mechanical process” (Horst & Miller 2012: 25). As such, it is no surprise speed at which people now have taken the digital for granted in the digital age.

Despite the popularity and saturation of digital technologies in many places, no generation of human beings has yet lived their whole life span in this digital age. Many of the earlier writings concerned the digital media (the Internet, cyberspace) as a “virtual” place. As the opposite of the “real”, “virtual” seems less real, and thus less valid to represent the authenticity of humanity. Then why bother to study a “virtual” place? It is safe to say that human kind have never just lives in a tangible world since the very beginning of human culture. ‘Virtuality’ is neither new, nor specific, to the digital world. We all live in a culturally and spiritually structured world which involves a huge amount of imaginative aspects: the legend of the tribe, the memory of the ancestors, or forms of art, etc. Culture, as shared systems of imagination and practice, shapes people’s idea of kinship, identity, community, and society – in sum, the very deepest assumptions about being a human being in the world. In this regard, the digital world ontologically does not differ from any other worlds at all.

Nevertheless there is something unique about the digital. Digital has created an ‘always-on’ lifestyle (see boyd 2011:72), in which the boundary between online and offline has become blurred. Being ‘always-on’ does not literally mean always-on the Internet, but rather always having the capacity of being connected. Also being ‘always-on’ does not necessarily means being always accessible. You can leave the phone unanswered or ignore the messages on IM (instant message), and individuals have quickly developed a sophisticated strategy for communication with a whole palette of possible digital communicative channels (see the idea of polymedia). The primary concern of media choice has shifted from an emphasis on the affordances of media to an emphasis upon the social and emotional consequences which as been articulated by the media choice: one medium may be good for arguing or avoiding arguments; one may be suitable for flirting or communicating secrets, so on and so forth. ‘Always-on’ and ‘polymedia’ would mean different things in different social milieu, but one thing is for sure: we can no longer just examine the binary opposition of online or offline; or concentrate on one single medium to analyze people’s communication in the digital age.

References

boyd, danah. 2011. “Participating in the Always-On Lifestyle”, in Graham Meike & Sherman Young (eds) Media Convergence. Pp. 71-76.

Horst, Heather A. & Daniel Miller. 2012. Digital Anthropology. London: Berg.

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.