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Between walls: methodology for comparing Chinese and non-Chinese social media

By Tom McDonald, on 27 July 2014

Comparing two walls: QZone is often referred to as the 'Chinese Facebook', but there are important differences between the two platforms (Photo: Tom McDonald)

Comparing two walls: QZone is often referred to as the ‘Chinese Facebook’, but there are important differences between the two platforms (Photo: Tom McDonald)

Recently our team has been doing a statistical analysis of  our particpants’ social networking use in our different fieldsites around the world. In the future this data will be one of the key ways we will compare between the fieldsites. For most of the fieldsites, the analysis takes place on Facebook using clever computer programs created by Shriram that helps to automate the data collection and make sure that the same techniques are used between all the fieldsites.

But our two fieldsites in North and South China pose a unique problem in terms of methodology. Facebook is inaccessible here in China, and most people use QQ or WeChat as their main social networking platform. Both these platforms are quite different to Facebook in terms of layout and functionality, and neither of them have proper, full APIs that allow you to run the kind of automated statistical analysis we have been attempting on Facebook. This raises an important methodological question: how is it possible to do a comparison between fieldsites when the thing that you are comparing is not the same?

It’s something I have felt that our team has struggled with throughout this project, and often when we have met as a group to discuss the project and our methodology, QQ seems to get pushed into the background. It often feels like Chinese social networks are this great, dark unknown. For a start, their appearance is incredibly different from Facebook, and the fact that many of them only support Chinese language versions makes them almost impenetrable to people who don’t understand the language. Our group’s internal fieldwork manuals, which contain comprehensive instructions that guide the rest of the team through how to research a particular question, are often reduced down to a single sentence for our China fieldsites: “Tom and Xinyuan will have to use local resources.”

This is not a complaint. Rather, it is a testament to how different Chinese social media is from the rest of the world. Also, it is a challenge to think through the comparisons we are trying to make; what kind of data they will provide us with and, most importantly, what conclusions we hope to make from them.

For example, one of the things we are analysing is who are the people who interact (i.e. like, comment) the most with our friends in the fieldsite on their wall. On Facebook this is simple enough, however on QZone we have to count these interactions manually on a wall-like feature called ‘His/Her Happenings’ (ta de dongtai). This is further complicated by the fact that users very rarely use their real name on their account, with most adopting creative pseudonyms such as ‘Lonely cigarette butt’. Also because people tend to repost many more memes on QZone than on Facebook, the ‘likes’ of friends can sometimes get lost between thousands of other likes, which can make it very confusing to count which of the likes come from a participant’s QQ friends.

I am not suggesting that this makes the data derived from our Chinese and non-Chinese fieldsites incomparable to each other. Rather, it points to the fact that any statistical figures that we come up with need to be treated as just one part of the puzzle, and that the very process of trying to produce such statistics highlights the important material differences between the platforms, which are begging to be documented and explained. Such accounts will help to make Chinese social media a little less of a ‘dark unknown’, and will tell us quite a lot about Chinese culture and life in the process.

Furthermore, these differences highlights the danger of simply looking at statistical data, and assuming it demonstrates an ‘absolute truth’. Reality is often more complicated that a simple percentage. Any statistical comparison needs to be tempered with the qualitative data we have been gathering through interviews and participant observation in each of our fieldsites that help to understand how social media is embedded into people’s lives.

Comparison is never simple or easy, especially so with a large global project like this. But I feel certain that the challenges such comparisons involve, and the opportunities they present for cultural understanding make it all the more important to try.

“Why aren’t they protesting?”: low-income Brazilian’s views on the World Cup

By Juliano Andrade Spyer, on 27 June 2014

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Teens and their cool smartphones on the act of shooting a selfie displaying their best looks combined with the national colours during the Mexico-Brazil match. Photo by Juliano Spyer

I am living about two hours away by bus from the stadium where Holland humiliated Spain (5-1) and Thomas Mueller stole the spotlight from Cristiano Ronaldo after Portugal’s 4-0 defeat to Germany. Yet the World Cup has not impacted significantly upon the lives of those living in this working-class village I call Baldoíno. In general, my informants believe the allegations of overspending and misuse of public money in building the infrastructure for the tournament to be true, but instead of protesting and complaining they exhibit considerable excitement about the event itself. My impression, based on 14 months living here, is that this apparently contradictory position is understandable because as well as the problems they face there are also good reasons to celebrate.

Baldoíno is already in a celebratory mood, not particularly because of the World Cup, but because June is the month of festivals including those in homage to Saint John and Saint Peter. Though important across the nation, they are much more celebrated here in the Northeast of the country than in other parts. But aside from the days of Brazil matches and these popular festivities, life hasn’t changed significantly here: everyone is working and shops are open during normal hours. The main change the World Cup brought is that schools are closed during the 40+ days of the tournament, a decision that obliged parents to monitor their children while at work.

Group gatherings and online communication

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An evangelical Christian couple and their friends and family are watching the game through the new TV set at the top of their unfinished three floor home. Photo by Juliano Spyer

The feeling that nothing special is happening is evident both online and offline on those days when Brazil is not playing. Then the World Cup disappears from everyone’s newsfeeds just as if the competition were taking place elsewhere. But when the team is scheduled to perform, businesses close about one hour before the match and employees are generally released from duty. As they gather to watch the game, they also connect with wider groups of family and friends through status updates and other online actions. Humour is not just an element of this conversation but almost the reason for it to take place. Here are some quotes of status updates the on  17 June, the day Brazil and Mexico tied 0-0, which resemble the mood of the conversations happening among people sitting together:

The result was not what we expected, but the mess [with friends at home] was awesome! Go Brazil!!

You can run an anti-doping exam on this goalkeeper and find that he has hot pepper on his blood…

What a game, bro. It’s tough!

At that same night, I went online to share my own photos and differently from the previous or the following days, most of my newsfeed was about the game. Here are the types of interactions that I noticed:

  • Updates posted about the game including snapshots taken during the match and predictions of the final score; also general comments about things happening in the village related to the game;
  • Humorous memes about various subjects such as sport commentators’ meaningless remarks, or about a particular player’s physical attributes shared by women;
  • And photo albums about their day watching the game which attracted the attention of various circles of friends to tag, like, comment, and share these photos;
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The writing of this meme compares the national glories mentioned at the Brazil anthem with the physical attributes of national team player Hulk.

What’s there to celebrate?

As we approach the last matches of the initial phase of the tournament, international newspapers such as The New York Time (here) and The Wall Street Journal (here) reported that the apocalyptical predictions about the World Cup did not happen. Air travelers have been able to reach their destinations with no more than the normal problems; the stadiums have been finished on time for the matches and are operating accordingly; and there hasn’t been strikes or massive protests similar to those that happened about this time last year. In addition, there are three further causes to why my informants are also choosing to be positive about the event:

  • For most, the idea that the country is in poor condition is more abstract than real. Their families have lived through generations without having the means to buy consumer goods that mark social distinction. Today items such as cool TV sets, cars, microwave ovens, and tablets are no  longer exclusive to upper-class households. The perception seems to be that the alleged corruption scandals have not harmed low-income Brazilians since their lives are better now.
  • Corruption, social injustice, and exploitation are not new experiences for them, so the understanding appears to be they must take what is positive from unfortunate circumstances. Everyone I ask say they believe the corruption allegations are true, but that there is nothing to be done about them now. As an informant explained: it would be a waste not to enjoy the spectacle that has already been paid for.
  • I also feel that many in the village share a certain pride for the fact such important event is happening in their country and also that Brazil is among the best in the world at this popular sport. Although they are aware that they are more exposed to social injustices than the middle and upper classes, there is a shared sense of personal achievement that becomes more apparent with the World Cup happening here and not elsewhere. The honour of hosting such event reflects this group’s feeling of economic growth. This perception has been amplified by the fact the competition has been exciting and that so far the national team has been performing, if not brilliantly, at least satisfyingly and no worse than rivals such as Germany and Argentina.

It’s not just about football

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On this comic meme, President Dilma says”We are keeping our eyes on you that keep posting on Facebook that “there won’t be a World Cup” but have already booked to go to a barbecue and watch the matches with friends.”

The point that combines these arguments is that low-income Brazilians in my field site are not exclusively celebrating football, but also the success of having had a collective and apparently lasting movement upward. None of my working class informants can afford tickets to World Cup matches, but they have been given a privileged position at stadiums thanks to the popularization of cable programming, high definition TVs and digital transmission. In common with what happens within the football stadiums, they will be together with a lot of people and consume mostly the same foods and drinks commonly served at these venues: various grilled meat dishes, beer and colas.

Brazilians are internationally known for loving football and playing it with passion and creativity. Football is also associated with class mobility, as historically it has allowed people, especially non-whites with less economic means, to earn visibility and wealth. Now contemporary low-income Brazilians may be celebrating that they no longer need football to acquire relative wealth and visibility. I am not suggesting everyone in Baldoíno has the same experience in terms of economic growth. Many are still struggling to enter the formal workforce due to various limitations including poor schooling and disinterest for having regular jobs. But as a group, they can finally sit and enjoy the games at the comfort of their homes through their new TV sets. And the social media is here to make this reality visible and hence more lasting.

THE WORLD CUP ON SOCIAL MEDIA WORLDWIDE
This article is part of a special series of blog posts profiling how social media is affecting how ordinary people from communities across the planet experience the 2014 World Cup.

“It ain’t ova till its ova”: Spectacular sports and social media – the World Cup in El Mirador

By Jolynna Sinanan, on 27 June 2014

The town I have called El Mirador is the gateway to one of the most remote regions in Trinidad. Just ten minutes from the town centre, you are surrounded by bush, farming land and fishing villages. Most of the year, it’s a quiet sleepy place. The town is hub; just as many people work outside of the town as the amount of people that work in the town, in local businesses or in the public sector. As an area that developed in the second half of the twentieth century, it also has more of a mixed population than other parts of Trinidad. Like many country towns around the world, normative views are fairly conservative. Political opinion is split fairly equally between the largely East Indian-supported party the UNC and the mostly African-supported party, PNM.

In a usually un-extraordinary place, the town comes alive around events; religious holidays, Christmas and Carnival. Shop fronts transform, local up-market bars and eateries hold themed nights and the World Cup is an additional reason to do what Trinidadians know best: have a good time.

In the first ten days of the World Cup, which ended with a national long weekend of the Corpus Christi and Labour Day public holidays, I watched matches in three family homes, one restaurant and two bars in the town. Facebook is the dominant social media in El Mirador and out of the 250 Facebook friends I have accumulated as part of the Global Social Media Impact Study, 13 posted about the World Cup regularly, as it unfolded. These informants were aged between 17 and 23. For informants in their late 20s and above, the World Cup didn’t seem to impact on how they post. An additional 26 people were tagged in posts and through conversations with informants and, to use the local term: through ‘macoing’ (looking into other people’s business) profiles on Facebook, those tagged watched a game or two in a group with the person who tagged them. I took note of 53 posts and all together, there were more than 100 comments, usually banter, commentary, jokes or discussion, 17 memes and 4 videos. 3 of the local bars I followed advertised World Cup screenings and 3 chain businesses had World Cup promotions.

Advertisements by local bars on Facebook

Advertisements by local bars on Facebook

After the first week, commentary died down a little and since Trinidad isn’t competing this year, the favourite teams appear to be Latin American countries (Brazil, Argentina and Chile) and African competitors (Cote D’Ivoire and Cameroon)

Facebook posts supporting South American and African teams

Facebook posts supporting South American and African teams

If we follow Tomlinson’s idea that how people view global sports can be better understood if we understand a site’s economic and political dimensions (2006: 2), Trinidad’s history and geographical location can explain the popularity of these teams. There is absolutely no interest or support for the English and US teams but I would only be speculating the reasons why at this point.

When I look closer at the comments and memes, the social media trend in El Mirador in respect to the World Cup becomes clearer, the event is appreciated as a spectacle. The temporary nature of the event attracts attention and fascination, which is probably why even though the competition is getting more intense at it draws towards the finals, the attention on social media is waning. lthough the second week may have just dipped in posts and will increase again towards the finals. How Trinidadians experience temporality and transience has been explored in quite a lot of depth (Birth, 2007, 1999, Miller, 1994) as well as the spectacular, which culminates at the time of Carnival (Ho, 2000). The build up to the event is often enjoyed as much as the event itself, as we see for example with pre-Carnival parties (‘fetes’) which start after Christmas and end the weekend before Carnival Monday. The widest advertising for those is not on mainstream media, but through Facebook events with open invitations.

The nature of posts reflect Trinidadian social life characterised banter and hanging out. The matches are something to comment on and talk about with no particular reason than just to enjoy socialising.

World Cup banter on Facebook

World Cup banter on Facebook

Memes appeal to humour and skill and precision of sportsmanship is appreciated in its moment, as a spectacle.

Some of the funny memes circulated on Facebook

Some of the funny memes circulated on Facebook

Commentary and posts are funny, good natured or used to start a conversation with others, although there was an odd racially-based or post with more political commentary.

World Cup posts with racial and political slurs

World Cup posts with racial and political humour

Clockwise from top: World cup screening in a local bar, a couple enjoy the game in a restaurant, a proud Messi supporter, an outdoor World Cup ‘lime’, Hindu prayers with a match in the background

On weekends in particular, the ‘lime’ (a Trinidadian term for hanging out) moves from social media and watching matches at home, to watching them with others in their homes or in public bars or restaurants.

In the upcoming weeks we will see if commenting on the World Cup on social media will decline or intensify as the competition heats up. It will then be school holidays and judging from the long weekend where there were less World Cup posts, Trinidadians in El Mirador may leave World Cup sociality on social media to being out more and enjoying the World Cup in the company of others.

References

Birth, Kevin K. Bacchanalian sentiments: Musical experiences and political counterpoints in Trinidad. Duke University Press, 2007.

Birth, Kevin. “Any Time is Trinidad Time”: Social Meanings and Temporal Consciousness. University Press of Florida, 1999.

Ho, Christine GT. “Popular culture and the aesthetization of politics: Hegemonic struggle and postcolonial nationalism in Trinidad carnival.” Transforming Anthropology 9.1 (2000): 3-18.

Miller, Daniel. Modernity, an ethnographic approach. Berg Publishers, 1994.

Tomlinson, Alan, and Christopher Young, eds. National identity and global sports events: Culture, politics, and spectacle in the Olympics and the football World Cup. SUNY Press, 2006.

THE WORLD CUP ON SOCIAL MEDIA WORLDWIDE
This article is part of a special series of blog posts profiling how social media is affecting how ordinary people from communities across the planet experience the 2014 World Cup.

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.