UCL Social Networking Sites & Social Science Research Project
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    Is QQ uniting the many different Chinas?

    By Tom McDonald, on 19 November 2013

    A meme shared by a research participant with the following caption: "I already have you in my heart. Even if there was someone better, I wouldn’t want them." (Original author unknown)

    A meme shared by a research participant with the following caption: “I already have you in my heart. Even if there was someone better, I wouldn’t want them.” (Original author unknown)

    China, it is often said, is a country of great contrasts. While our project has placed researchers in eight different countries around the world to research the impacts of social media, for China we deliberately chose to have two separate researchers and fieldsites: one in the north of China, and another in the south. It made sense to have two fieldsites in China because the country is such a unique case: Facebook and Twitter are inaccessible from the mainland, and the country has instead developed it’s own social media networks to fill the gap: QQ, WeChat and Weibo.

    I have been astounded by the difference between our two Chinese fieldsites. My China North fieldsite is a very small rural town which is characterised by a relatively fixed local population with little inward migration, a strong emphasis on education, adherence to family planning laws, powerful ideals of family and the institution of marriage.

    By contrast, the China South fieldsite where my colleague Xinyuan works is a relatively large urban town, with factories that employ rural migrants from faraway in China’s poorer western provinces. Xinyuan has shown how her participants often avoid family planning laws and show far less concern for the formal education of their children. Their decisions also seem led by more short-term ideals relating to the new pleasures and experiences that migration to urban areas can offer them.

    To all intents and purposes, it seemed as though our fieldsites were two different worlds. At least that was the case until last month, when we moved our attention from day-to-day fieldwork to analysing the content of our participants’ QQ profiles. The results of the exercise was startling: despite all the differences between the north and south China fieldsites, most people create and share very similar types of posts. In China the most popular genres of these posts centring on ideals of either romantic relationships (see above example), or childbirth and child-raising.

    Our task as anthropologists is to try to make sense of whether there is a link between these similar behaviours in our very different fieldsites, and what these phenomena mean for our understanding of society.

    It is very early speculation at this stage, but I have a feeling that these similar postings might be one of the ways in which people across China are able to feel that they share values with each other, despite all the other differences that separate them. It does not matter that the participants from the China North fieldsite do not know our participants in the China South fieldsite, or vice versa. The fact that our informants are mostly writing and sharing the same kinds of posts might mean that they already have more in common than we had previously thought.

    If we are to follow this line of reasoning, then it may be possible to speculate that social media in China is playing an important role in nationalism. But the nationalism I am suggesting here is not the obvious kind (and the one that attracts the most media and academic coverage), which operate on the level of patriotic postings, censorship, or protectionism of the Chinese internet. Rather, the nationalism I am proposing operates at a deeper (and far more subtle and widespread) level. Could it be that these posts play an active role in making Chinese people who are so obviously different in terms of status, background and wealth, feel a little more like each other?

    If this is the case, then we need to also acknowledge that this affinity, rather than being ‘top down’, is expressed and furthered by users themselves every time they write, like or share one of these apparently innocuous posts. However ridiculous it may sound, the idea that a sense of Chinese nationalism might be partly constructed by shared baby photos and romantic memes could take us a step closer to understanding China as it is imagined and experienced by the normal population.

    The ‘true meaning’ of Christmas

    By Tom McDonald, on 24 December 2012

    The sacred and the profane double juxtaposed in a Facebook post (Source: GodVine/Unknown)

    Complaining about the excessive consumerism of Christmas seems to have become as traditional a past-time as putting up one’s christmas tree, or stuffing the turkey. Christmas and materialism have always seemed somehow opposed to each other, Christmas was supposed to be a celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, which somehow seemed diluted by the fact that people in Western societies appeared more concerned with rounds of shopping and what appeared to be excessive consumption on gifts, crackers, and shiny sparkly things.

    And yet, it cannot be ignored that this is how people actually seem to be concerned with experiencing Christmas. In his essay on the rituals of Christmas giving, James Carrier (1993: 55-74) looked at how people wrapped and gifted presents. He argues that the wrapping of the present was an act that appropriated an otherwise commercial gift, and made it something of the gift-giver’s own. This transformed the gift from a material good to something with a capacity to express love and care between human beings, and thus appropriate for a fundamental aspect of human behaviour: gift exchange (see Mauss 1967).

    On the face of it, God and social networking appear to have similarly little in common. The rituals and rites associated with the former are anthropology’s bread-and-butter; whilst the latter is frequently derided as being mundane and of little consequence, inherently unsuitable for anthropological research. And yet, we similarly cannot ignore the fact that this is, for many, an important space where connections with the sacred are contemplated, enacted and observed. And in this sense I do not necessarily mean those events that gain mass-media coverage, such as Pope Benedict’s twitter feed.

    Instead, I am more interested in something like religious memes, religious messages that normal people themselves encounter and share through their online networks (see the example above). These are occasions where user-generated religious themed messages might be created, posted or shared. At the moment, I have little idea what these things mean. But when we start our 15 month period of fieldwork researching the effect social networking is having in seven different countries next year, I think it would be reasonable to expect that this phenomena (either from Christianity or other forms of religious expressions) is something we might encounter and want to understand more deeply.

    I think anthropology carries with it a pledge: that we take people’s opinions, expressions and beliefs seriously, regardless of what these may be, try to live inside these opinions and understand them for what they are. We do this by living closely with people, and sharing their life for a prolonged period of time. This is not just in order to execute an act of scientific analysis, but is also, first and foremost, a duty that we owe to our research participants.

    Whatever your beliefs, I hope you have a very happy Christmas, New Year and holiday period.

    References

    Carrier, J (1993) The rituals of Christmas giving In: Miller, D (ed.) Unwrapping Christmas. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

    Mauss, M. (1967 [1928]). The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies (I. Cunnison, Trans.). New York: W. W. Norton & Company.