UCL Social Networking Sites & Social Science Research Project
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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.

    Social media and mass media: the CCTV Chinese New Year’s Gala

    By Tom McDonald, on 23 February 2014

    Poetic couplets hung on the door of a village house in preparation for Chinese NewYear (Photo: Tom McDonald)

    Poetic couplets hung on the door of a village house in preparation for Chinese New Year (Photo: Tom McDonald)

    I passed the recent Chinese New Year in my fieldsite in North China with the Wang family in their rented shopfront-cum-home on the small rural town’s commercial street, with Mr Wang, his wife and son, 16 year old Little Wang, who had just finished his term at the high school in the nearby county-town, and was back home for the school holidays.

    One of the most interesting elements of the festival is social media’s relationship with the mass media event of the day (and probably the year), which is the CCTV New Year’s Gala programme produced by China Central Television. The programme is basically a variety show. But at the same time it is the most difficult variety show on the planet to get right, because its 700 million–1000 million viewers (53-76% of the country’s population) are comprised of every generation of Chinese families, who watch the show together as they eat they ‘reunion meal’. As such, the programme makers have to attempt to appeal to all these drastically different audiences. No mean feat when we are talking about elderly people who grew up in the Republican-era, witnessed the Sino-Japanese war, and the founding of the People’s Republic; or middle aged people who were children during the hardships of the cultural revolution, and then saw the enormous transformations bought by the reform-and-opening period; or China’s youth, those born in the 80’s, 90s, and 00’s, often single children, many of whom have grown up with a material aspirations on par with western society. So you end up with a variety show that is a bizarre and wizardly mix of revolutionary songs, trapeze artists, dancers performing to happy hardcore music, magicians, ‘hip’ youth TV hosts, recognised family performers and national pop stars. The show traverses the utterly naff and absolutely incredible. One cannot help but feel that the show tries so hard to appeal to everybody that it is perhaps doomed to failure.

    At the Wang’s house we watched and chatted as the show went on, slowly devouring the dinner while Mr Wang and I knocked back baijiu, a fiery Chinese liquour. I soon noticed that Little Wang’s attention had waned, however, and after eating a little food, he left us and moved into the shop area of their house, where the computer is located. Soon after I followed him into the room. I noticed that he was alternating between browsing QZone, and chatting on the QQ Instant Messaging client. He was using the QQ IM client to send New Year’s ‘blessings’ (zhufu) to his classmates, while browsing his QZone. Many of the status updates from his friends were related to the television show. For example, one of the features of the show was a young girl dressed in a flowing white dress who was introduced by the presenters at the start of the programme. The presenters explained that she would spin around on the spot up until midnight (4 hours) to symbolise the changing seasons of the year. Indeed she managed to do this quite successfully. One of Little Wang’s friends had forwarded a meme of a photo of the girl asking ‘spinning girl, have you eaten Xuanmai chewing gum?’. Xuanmai chewing gum recently ran an advertising campaign with the tagline ‘Xuanmai chewing gum, unable to stop’ (xuanmai kouxiangtang, tingbu xialai). The advert featured a young man singing, with powerful sound waves coming out of his mouth, and he was challenged to see how long he could sustain the singing. After eating the chewing gum it seemed to give the man somewhat cosmic powers to continue with his crooning. What is interesting about this case is we can kind of see the spillover from a mass media event onto social media, so while people do not seem to be happy posting about news or other big events, the Spring Festival Evening Party seems to be prime fodder for discussion of QQ, but especially among young people.

    There is precedent for this, as traditionally the show is something people often talk about and critique for days after, even offline. But in addition to young people talking about the New Year’s Gala online, I got a feeling during the evening that young people were having a kind of separate New Year’s Eve party on QQ with all their friends. Chinese New Year is a key moment of reunion for Chinese families, and I get a feeling that even this moment of togetherness is being affected by social media as young people are living a large part of their spring festival online with their classmates.

    Does this mean that the ‘traditional’ Chinese New Year is at risk? I want to get away from the idea that social media’s presence in the spring festival necessarily has to be good or bad, or even assume that social media is ‘transforming’ the Chinese New Year (anymore than the Chinese New Year is transforming social media). It is not that Little Wang’s practices are heralding the decay of the Chinese New Year, but rather I think it is signalling the importance of classmates being part of that reunion. It seems to be an acknowledgement that family ties are not the only thing that matters, and the deliberate decision for classmates to include each other in their spring festival reunion meals suggests a willingness to apply family ideals to educational peers.

    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.

    Social media and strangers: what chatting to ‘the other’ tells us about ourselves

    By Tom McDonald, on 26 January 2014

    Virginia Indian chief with tattoos. Engraving by Theodor de Bry, 1590. (Copyright expired)

    Virginia Indian chief with tattoos. Engraving by Theodor de Bry, 1590. (Copyright expired)

    The issue of strangers goes right to the very heart of anthropology, and was one of the first things I learnt about as an undergraduate at UCL. This fixation on ‘the other’ owed much to the Judeo-Christian tradition, which set about comparing inhabitants of newly discovered lands to apparently ‘civilised’ Christian westerners. Early European settlers to the Americas returned to Europe with fantastical descriptions and drawings of the indigenous Americans as exotic and mysterious peoples. Lurid and imaginative details of cannibalism, sexual promiscuity, and primitivism featured heavily in these early images. The extent to which these reports were true did not particularly matter. Instead this act of ‘othering’ was effective because it both preserved the integrity of the notion of a Christian moral self, while also making ‘the other’ something to be studied and understood. The universalism–relativism conundrum that much of anthropology rests on springs from this: anthropology bases much of its enquiries on the fact that we are all human, and therefore in some sense comparable, whilst acknowledging that at the same time we are all different from each other.

    This is particularly true with China’s most popular social network QQ, which has been designed to make it easy for users to add complete strangers, in addition to more established communicating with friends. Many of my friends here in the North China fieldsite acknowledge that strangers often add them on QQ. The interactions my research participants have with strangers online and how they choose to handle these strangers, contribute to their understanding of themselves.

    Some of my female friends in the fieldsite tell me that when any stranger sends them a friend request on QQ they will never accept. For example, one young woman who works in the local health station flatly tells me  “I don’t add strangers” every time I see her.

    However, there is equally a sense among other informants that strangers are not only a force to be kept at a distance, but also that they can be communicated with, and even that one may be able to use strangers (or strangeness) for one’s advantage. One of the most important moments where this becomes made clear is the issue of avatars as profile pictures. The overwhelming majority of my participants choose to use an avatar such as a photo of a model or a cartoon character and a ‘net name’, rather than their own picture or real name on QQ Instant Messenger (where the profile can be seen on the public search).

    Li Wei, a 20 year-old male who helps out in the town’s small wedding photo studio explained:

    Li Wei: My QZone has [my real] photos, but I won’t use it on my QQ Instant Messenger profile picture, I think that’s stupid.

    Me: Why is it stupid?

    Li Wei: There is no sense of mystery. For example, if a friend adds you, then as soon as they see your photo they know who you are, there is no feeling of mystery. If he looks at your photo and doesn’t know you, he’ll ask you.

    Me: Why do you want people to feel you are very mysterious? Why do you not want them to know?

    Li Wei: Most friends know who you are, unless you don’t know them.

    Me: So, if I understand correctly, you don’t want people to know who you are, because they already know who you are?!

    Li Wei: Normally, with someone you know, if they see your avatar they will know who you are. Even if you use a fake profile picture they will know who you are. Unless you’re speaking indiscreetly with net-friends, not like chatting with strangers, you don’t want them to see you.

    Li Wei’s view shows us that a simple opposition between us and ‘the stranger’, or as anthropology would define it, the group and the ‘radical alterity,’ doesn’t really work. The stranger is not just a dangerous other, to be kept at bay, as the early European settlers may have viewed native Americans. Rather, Li Wei’s words reveal that the stranger is actually something we might want to be. Sometimes being a stranger is something people cling to, at other times it should be something that is seen right through.

    I have a feeling that my informants who use QQ hold that a real test of friendship is that your real friends will know that the profile picture of cartoon boy with blonde hair, and the user name ‘lonely cigarette butt’ actually represents you.

    A view of otherness that understands the stranger not just as being an unknown individual, but rather as a quality that people actively manipulate, experiment with, and appropriate into their own life has the potential to challenge the universalism–relativism dichotomy and contribute to helping us to understand how human beings come to terms with the fact that we are all different, and yet all the same.

    How to gut and prepare a QQ/Facebook profile

    By Daniel Miller, on 29 October 2013

    Knife and tomotoes on chopping board

    Photo by Iñigo Cañedo (Creative Commons)

    ‘How to gut and prepare a QQ/Facebook Profile’
    By Chef Daniele Milieu

    (This is a version of an old Breton recipe I learnt from my grandmother.)

    First catch your QQ/Facebook profile.

    I will assume that you have all already landed some nice fresh fat profiles to work with.

    The Equipment:
    The specific tool I have used for this work is called Evernote. There is a premium paid for version, but as a cheapskate I used the free download, until that was full (now I pay for it). Once it is downloaded then when you go on to Facebook/QQ and use the ‘add to evernote’ function to select images and/or text. I tag them with details of the informant and with keywords.

    Thus began a several page case-study in how to analyse postings. This was sent to the team a month back as the start to a group discussion about methodology. The reason was as follows. As a nine-site comparative project we are trying to undertake much of our work in a coordinated fashion. So for most of the time fieldworkers are concentrating on the same topic across the various sites. The plan this month has been to work on the analysis of what we can see online. Which is why we needed an agreed methodology. Obviously for a study of social media we need to engage with the actual things that people post. As qualitative rather than quantitative workers the public are often highly suspicious of our findings as ‘unscientific’ While we may not count many things we often do choose to be quite systematic. We are clear that we don’t just want to give impressionist accounts, that claim our informants post mostly jokes or pose with cars. We want to ensure that we carefully determine what they do post and not just what we think they are posting. So what followed in these ‘gutting’ instructions was several pages about how to work on the last 20 posts of each profile, and how to ‘sample’ photographic materials so that we felt comfortable that we were dealing with what they actually favour and not our guess work. These methods were further developed in conversations around the team. They raised many issues? For example it would be good to know the language terms they use in describing their friends postings, but how can we record this so as to see which postings they are describing at the time?

    One might think that analysing online content is something we could do once we go home. It’s a waste of valuable ethnographic time to do this while we are still in the field. But our reasoning is that looking systematically at actual posting will lead to further questions that we will want to discuss directly with the informants themselves. So this seems a sensible thing to do as we move towards our half-way mark of fieldwork. It’s too late to gain these insights once we have finished. We need to look closely and carefully at actual postings now, so that we are forced into a more honest acknowledgment of their content and can use these to engage in further and hopefully deeper discussions with our informants. At present I have worked on a selection of profiles from The Glades and also from our Trinidad fieldwork. The differences are highly instructive and seem to reinforce our hope that material posted online can complement traditional ethnography as means of trying to characterise comparative society and the values and forms that we try to account for in our analysis.

    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.

    QQ & WeChat: a threat to marriage in China?

    By Tom McDonald, on 24 September 2013

    Photo by flowcomm (Creative Commons)

    Photo by flowcomm (Creative Commons)

    Writing in the 1970s, Margery Wolf noted the pressures faced by rural Chinese women when they married. Women would typically leave their home village, where they were well cared for by their own family, and move into their husband’s village. As outsiders in this new place, women were positioned at the very bottom of society. They had no social network and were faced with the very difficult task of having to form social connections with other women in the village who they believed they could trust in order to survive.

    This old social phenomenon has taken a somewhat different spin with the advent of new social media in the small town and villages that make up our North China fieldsite. I have noticed that many women report their communication networks get smaller in adulthood. Particularly worth emphasising is that in many of the responses to our questionnaires, young women told me that they moved away from social networking once they got married. I have a hunch this may have something to do with important aspects of female morality and forms of exclusion from the public sphere. For example, it was very rare for women in our fieldsite to use their own photos as their avatars or in their QZone profiles, and many women practiced ‘locking’ access to some or all of their QZone albums (QZone does not offer the same fine-grained privacy controls seen in Facebook) with a security question to test their familiarity, such as ‘What is my name?’.

    One such example came from Mrs Hu, a 30 year old married woman with a young son, who runs a shop in the town. She explained to me that social media use carries with it certain dangers. There was an occasion when one of her male ‘online friends’ (wangyou) sent her a QQ message saying: ‘I have changed a QQ number, add my other QQ number.’ She asked him why he wanted her to add the other number [havng a second QQ account can be a cause for suspicion]. He replied that it was ‘because my wife knows’ (yinwei wo laopo zhidao). She explained to me that this made her angry, because she had never met the man, and she told me she sent the man a message saying ‘I have no special connections with you, what does it matter if your wife knows?’. Following this occasion, she became far more careful with who she became friends with via social media, and even went to the trouble of reassigning the gender of her QQ and WeChat profiles to male in an effort to detract male strangers from ‘friending’ her.

    While women in the town have tended to opt to more carefully control who they communicate with following marriage, and to limit their visibility on social networks, the situation is somewhat different for men – instead we tend to see a larger amount of social networking and media use amongst men once they get married.

    Part of this may be down to a traditional expectation that men are supposed to earn money for the family, and therefore be spend more time outside home. There is a saying in Chinese that ‘women live on the inside, and men live on the outside’ (nv zhu nei, nan zhu wai). There is a common perception in my fieldsite that men need ‘connections’ (guanxi) and a wider set of connections in order to achieve this. Men are expected to be somewhat more ‘overtly expansive’ in relationships than women.

    This is where social media comes in. It is becoming clear to me that one of the main differences between Chinese social media (QQ, WeChat) and their non-Chinese counterparts (Facebook, Twitter, etc) is that the Chinese social media appears to be much more strongly oriented towards making new friends, especially with strangers. However, as well as this fitting into the accepted ideal of socially extravert males, it also seems to be conducive to extra-marital affairs.

    An example of this comes from Mr Wang, also in his thirties. I had heard from others that Wang was a particularly ‘chaotic’ person. One day I bumped into him sitting and chatting in a store. We became friends and added each other via WeChat’s ‘shake’ (yao-yi-yao) function. He told me that he only uses WeChat during the day, and avoids using it at night-time. “If my wife knows I use WeChat she will smash my phone” he told me with a smile.

    In a society as concerned with marriage as China, it goes without saying that social media is having an enormous impact in transforming this social institutions. The two cases I have provided here are extreme ones, but I would say that here in the North China fieldsite many people seem to believe that social media can be especially damaging to marriage. Perhaps this is most forcefully proved by the fact that relatively few of our participants seem to communicate with their spouses via social media, instead preferring to call or even more rarely, text.

    Two worlds

    By Xin Yuan Wang, on 5 September 2013

    The bed of my informant CY, which she shares with her little sister (photo by XinYuan Wang)

    The bed of my informant CY, which she shares with her little sister (photo by Xin Yuan Wang)

    The more that I get to know people here in the South China fieldsite, the more I see the sharp distinction between their offline lives and online lives.  It seems that there are actually two worlds, or two places where my informants live – one is a physical place, and the other social media.

    My informant ‘CY’ is 18 years old, lives with her parents and her little brother and little sister. CY’s parents work in the same factory. The whole family lives in two small rooms – CY shares the bed with her little sister in the downstairs room (see image, above).

    Every day the family wash themselves in a shared toilet which is without a shower. One plastic bucket and one plastic wash basin serves as a shower set. There is used toilet paper and dirty water on the floor, stains on the wall. However the toilet at home is still much better than the one at work, where people just don’t feel like flushing after using it, which is welcomed by swarms of flies. The air is thick with the stench of sewage and human waste and one has no problem of finding the toilet with the sense of smell hundreds of meters away. At daytime, even indoor temperature is above 38 degree, the air is so warm to the degree that I am afraid the only electric fan stops working because its engine is burning hot. One day, after work, CY was ‘playing’ her smartphone in her room while chatting with me from time to time. She was attracted into the ‘online world’ as if she had forgotten where she was; after a while; she looked up to see me – I was sitting there, sweating like a pig.

    “Life outside the mobile phone is unbearable, hum?” she smiled.

    Exactly. Life outside the mobile phone! I almost jumped up and cheered when I heard what she said. CY was right, there are two worlds , one is inside the mobile phone, and the other one outside the mobile phone. The one outside is a tedious place with the smell, high temperature and other chaos. To the contrary, the one inside with infinite space is free from any unpleasant smell and weather. CY’s QQ profile is neat, clean with the color of light blue and white. She updated her QZone (status and forward post) at least three times per day. Online CY is surrounded by a group of admirers and the way she talked is as if she was the princess who is waiting for true love. I have never seen CY talk like a princess in any face-to-face situation.  In this big factory, there are hundreds of other ordinary young women just like CY, CY is just one of them and as such pretty ordinary;  However,  she is a princess in her ‘inside’ world online.

    Of course the offline world and online world overlap in many cases; half of CY’s online status have a very close relationship with what just happened offline. And the one who interacts with CY most frequently online is her best friend who works in the next-door workshop of the same factory. A great part of the offline world (especially the not so pleasant part) is not reflected in her QQ profile at all. She knows each of her online friends offline, in which vein, one cannot view online and offline as separated in terms of participators. However, my point is that a significant part of my informants’ online world has nothing to do with their offline world, and in most cases, they prefer to ‘live’ in the online world which is much more interesting, pleasant, and purified.

    QQ and education: children, parents, and schools and communication in China

    By Tom McDonald, on 22 August 2013

    'Summer Holiday Homework' textbook

    Chinese textbook entitled ‘Summer Holiday Homework’ used by a middle school student in the North China fieldsite (Photo by Tom McDonald)

    In the North China fieldsite, education makes a really neat contrast with Xinyuan’s case that she outlined in her earlier blog post, where she described how the migrant factory workers in her South China fieldsite often seemed to be having children specifically with the objective of sending them to factories at the earliest possible age.

    The situation could not be more different here in North China, where education has presented itself as being an overwhelming priority for parents. Although people in the town and the surrounding villages are not in excruciating poverty, they are also by no means wealthy. Nonetheless, doing whatever they can to make sure that their child gets the best education seems to be at the front of parent’s minds. For example, here the summer holidays are not turned over the children’s play, as one may expect. Instead, many children attend tutoring classes (fudao ban). Most of the tutoring classes follow the normal school times of 8-11:30am and 2:30-5:30pm, except they take place an astonishing seven days a week.

    Given the importance of educational achievement that parents place on their children, social media seems to play a role that would be best defined as somewhat antagonistic and contradictory to these educational aims. There is a discourse around QQ in the town that assumes it to be bad, and particularly threatening to children’s educational achievement of young people, and so it requires access to be restricted. This is then weighed against more practical benefits offered by the services that mean that they are in fact used by many student, parents and teachers alike.

    One of the most common statements that emerged was that parents said their middle school children did not have QQ accounts or mobile phones. Almost every parent of children who did not have QQ or a phone would say ‘it affects study’ (yingxiang xuexi) as the reason for their children not having access to certain types of communication. For example, Mr Li bought a computer in the year 2003 when he was trying to make a go of his photography business. At this time Mr Li’s daughter was about 7 years old. Mr Li decided to setup a QQ account for his daughter. He saw that she was using it a lot and became worried she was playing too much, so he tried encourage his daughter to limit her own use, threatening to change the password if she did not comply. After two days Mr Li went to change the password, and realised it had already been changed. His daughter maintained that she hadn’t changed the password herself, saying to her father ‘hey, how can I not login?’. From this event Mr Li explained that he realised that young people caught on to new technologies very quickly.

    Schools themselves also present a somewhat mixed set of messages regarding the use of social networking. Most obviously, the school rules prohibit the use of mobile phones. The reality is, of course, somewhat different. According to one middle school teacher, in a class of around 40 students, one might expect to find around 11 with telephones on their person. The most important reason for confiscating phones is the use of playing online games on phones or using it to send messages via QQ.

    On the other hand, there were also examples of cases where schools had been incredibly pro-active in the creation of accounts. One parent explained their main reason for having a QQ account themselves was to hear from the school:

    “I do not normally use QQ chat, I mainly use it for communicating with my child’s primary school teachers. My child has just started the second year of primary school, from the start of the first year, if teachers have some materials they just post it all on QQ, and you download it yourself.”

    The final interesting twist to this story is that all this parental effort aimed at restricting young people’s access to QQ and mobiles is effectively then reversed when, at the relatively tender age of 15, most children leave home to read vocational college or high school in the nearby city district, about 20km away. This event changes a major part of parent’s views towards communication and it becomes more common for parents to condone the use of QQ or mobiles.

    For example, Liu Ting has just finished her middle school examination, and has also managed to secure a place in the top high school in the nearby city. As a reward (jiangli) for her excellent results, her parents said they were going to give her 1000 RMB ($163 USD) cash. However her mother told us that Liu Ting said it was too much, so they came to a compromise of a 500 RMB ($81 USD) reward and a mobile phone for her to use when she started school in the city. Previously she had not been allowed the use of a phone.

    These three quite contradictory examples all show different degrees of restriction or condoning of QQ and phone use, and reveal the nuances of shifting relationships between children parents and schools in China.

    Strategies of scarcity and supply: water and bandwidth

    By Tom McDonald, on 24 July 2013

    The water tankered makes a delivery (Photo: Tom McDonald)

    The water tankered makes a delivery (Photo: Tom McDonald)

    Fieldwork normally involves bearing some hardships, however I never thought that at the start of my research in China that water would have been an issue of concern here. Nor did I consider that it might be able to tell us something about social networking use.

    I was surprised, then, when I found out that the urban town area of the fieldsite has not had a piped water supply for the past year.

    This situation is slightly ridiculous when one considers that there is a large, well-stocked reservoir two kilometres distance from the town.

    reservoir-lake

    According to some local residents, the problems started last year when workmen dug up the pipe in order to lay the new, wide asphalt road that runs north-south through the town.

    For the past year, the town’s government have been paying for two water bowsers and four people to collect water from the neighbouring town and deliver it here once every two days. The only perk to the current situation is that because the service is so poor, the government provides the water free of charge.

    Not having a regular water service makes life really tough. Limitations in water supply provoke people to clearly prioritise the things that they must do against the things that they would perhaps like to do. People’s houses are awash with buckets and tankards for storing water. Water for cooking or for dinking tends to come before, say, washing clothes or having a shower. Similar coping mechanisms and prioritizing seem to exist for internet use.

    I think the case of the limited water supply is also useful for thinking about the way some people experience social media and the internet seen here in China. I was really drawn to the paper Blanchette gave at the UCL Department of Anthropology a couple of years ago where he outlined A Material History of Bits, making very clear the physical limitations of the digital, in contradiciton to how we sometimes assume it to be a potentially ‘unlimited’ object. I would say this is made almost even more clear in the China North fieldsite where the actual amount of bandwidth available becomes patently obvious for people in the same way as water does.

    The internet does have it’s specificities though: one of the clear things that is coming out of our surveys is the significance of different modes of access and I think there are analogies to be made between the ways villagers cope with limitations imposed upon them in terms of various resources and their often incredibly lofty aspirations of what they wish to achieve.

    The vast majority of our informants (over three-quarters) were China Mobile customers. While those who travelled regularly with work and business tended to have packages that afforded larger bandwidth allowances, and roaming outside of the province, the remaining half of these customers had packages that severely limited the mobile access that they had to the internet. These were normally packages that varied in cost between 10–20 RMB per month, offering between 30–70 megabyte bandwidth allowance respectively.

    How was this experienced in people’s everyday lives? Just like with water, people developed clear and intelligent strategies in order to prioritise which things they believed to be essential. One lady in a village, explained that she had the 30 megabyte bandwidth package for 5 RMB a month said that she tended to only use QQ on her phone, because if she used both QQ and WeChat she would go over her limit, and all her friends were on QQ.

    Others sometimes failed to understand the concept that there were distinct limits to the amount of bandwidth and resources available. A young man working in the town explained that he once watched a streamed movie with his girlfriend using his phone, without realizing that doing that would push him over the bandwidth limit. He had to pay 200RMB for the single month’s bill. He explained to me that he didn’t know about it, and wondered why he hadn’t just paid for his girlfriend to go to the cinema with him, at least that way he wouldn’t have strained his neck, he joked.

    For others, they developed ways to get around such restrictions using their existing connections. One of the town’s young male hairdressers, joked to his friend that he willing to allow his assistant to pay his own phone bill in order to remove the block on his phone. The manager of a photocopying shop in the town used his connections in China Unicom (he was an authorized reseller/top-up point) to get a very low-cost 2G phone card (around 10RMB per month) that allowed him virtually free nationwide calls, and then relied on the broadband internet connection in his shop, which he spent most of every day in anyway.

    While readers in the west are typically used to very generous bandwidth allowances offered by telecoms companies, it is important to remember that here in China, economic constraints such as bandwidth remain a very real barrier to social networking use for many. In this sense, we can see links with Shriram’s previous blog post where he mention’s electricity cuts as a major challenge facing people in his fieldsite. These regimes of shortages create economies where peoople may have to make difficult decisions about who they will communicate with, and how they will communicate with them.