UCL Social Networking Sites & Social Science Research Project
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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.

    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.

    Digital Politics and the Media

    By Shriram Venkatraman, on 12 November 2012

    Photo: hjl (Creative Commons)

    When talking about Digital Politics, the role of the media cannot be overemphasized. Whether it is as a platform for party/leader promotion or as a medium of social revolution, the press plays an important role as a conduit of information to all stakeholders. In the digital world, the role of the press has not diminished with the translation from offline to the virtual. Digital press takes a plethora of forms: news channel websites, e-newspapers, opinion blogs/columns, polls about current happenings, web TVs, to name but a few. These cater to different kinds of people – from the traditional newspaper addict to the eager web junkie; web novices to the technologically advanced, and so on. The big advantage of the web is the availability of a combination of different formats like audio, static visual, dynamic visuals etc. It is also easier for the press to reach out to their viewers and make the process more interactive. Thus, the digital medium is opening up exciting avenues for more robust news coverage and cutting edge journalism.

    Here, it is important to note what the press can do and cannot do. The press can act as a medium to bring knowledge to the people about the happenings in the world. It can also be used as a medium for lay people to express their criticism, opinion, appreciation etc. for the happenings around them. Finally, it can be used as a medium to publicize a political party, its leaders etc. or to bring down a rival party and the latter’s leaders.

    However, digital press (just like their offline avatars) cannot be news creators. While, they can amplify or negate the impact of a particular incident, their credibility lies in the fact that the event actually happened and is not a piece of someone’s imagination. Similarly, the press cannot be the solution to a particular problem. Whilst they can drum up an issue to make the relevant people take notice, they cannot offer solutions themselves. Finally, the press cannot do anything that impinges on the fundamental rights of the people (like promoting hate campaigns, clamping down on free speech etc.).