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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.

The World Cup on social media worldwide

By Nell Haynes, on 27 June 2014

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Photo by Jolynna Sinanan

In these weeks, many of the world’s eyes are trained on the new football stadiums in towns around Brazil as one of the great global sports spectacles unfolds in its most recent manifestation. Of course not all are watching just to cheer on their national team or see who wins. Many are curious (and critical) about the ways the global football federation, FIFA, has commodified the event. Some are hoping for a glimpse of why so many people discuss the art of Messi and Ronaldo rather than being bothered with the details of the offside rule. Still others are attentive to news about human rights abuses that have targeted poor urban neighbourhoods, sex workers, and workers in informal economies, especially given local protests aimed at government spending on the event. Some have a new appreciation of Brazilian music as a result of programmes dedicated to the event. But these groups are not mutually exclusive. Many people who love football are also interested in this wider context, both cheering their ream and reading biting critiques (or indeed, critiques about biting). What is new is the degree to which we can directly listen into these conversations on social media

Many of us are inspired by the ideal that football is becoming a truly global game, spanning continents, class, race, religion and, outside the world cup, even gender. Sadly the evidence found by the Global Social Media Impact study does not support such a lofty transformation. We also find little to suggest that football is an aspect of a growing homogenization of the world. These reports make clear that cultural differences are reflected even in the ways people experience the World Cup. For example, in south-eastern Italy, watching football is a private family event held in the home, while in Trinidad, known for Carnival and spectacle, World Cup viewing is indeed a social event. In Chile, no matter how you watch the match, showing your national pride by wearing a red shirt and yelling local slang is practically a law while the English are relatively sedate.

Our primary focus, however, is on the coverage within social media. This shows that given the time difference with Brazil, World Cup viewing in China is often solitary, with friends only able to chat through social media messaging. Indian fathers use the World Cup as a chance to bond with children over YouTube videos of players’ techniques. And working class Brazilians use social media to celebrate their upward mobility as individuals and a nation, and great pride that the event is happening in their own nation, even if they could never dream of being able to attend a game.

In most cases there is little to suggest that people transcend local interest to celebrate this as a global event. Rather we see how sport becomes an expression for intense nationalism. In Turkey lack of local representation results in apathy. On the other hand while Chinese migrant factory workers may not engage, some men in the more settled village population of China do seem to use football to connect with the wider world, and in several of our sites football does provide an opportunity for local social bonding and enjoyment. This may not correspond to what has now often referred to as the “beautiful game,” although in compensation most sporting enthusiasts have found the level of football itself is much more open and exciting than in the previous World Cup. And indeed our reports positively suggest that watching how people discuss the World Cup on social media is actually a rather good way of understanding how the world around us is changing if always in terms of these constellations of local concerns.

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.

“Watch the World Cup: watch the fun and the world”

By Xin Yuan Wang, on 27 June 2014

Factory officers watching the recorded World Cup online during lunch break in their office. photo by Xinyuan Wang

Factory officers watching recorded World Cup games online during the lunch break in their office. photo by Xinyuan Wang

The ongoing World Cup, as a global event, seems to provide an ideal platform for us, the Global Social Media Impact Study to compare people’s social media engagement worldwide. Here in this busy factory town in south China, there is no pub where people can watch football, there is no football field where people can play football, and I have never ever felt any passion for football during my whole year of field work. Most of the time, I had to train myself to select ‘useful’ information from a huge amount of field notes.  However, this time I was somehow worried that the topic of football over here is somewhat similar to the topic of skiing for people who live in a tropical rain forest.

Not surprisingly, up to the day of writing (24 June) there is very limited content on social media about football or the World Cup among my informants (around two-thirds of them are Chinese rural migrants, working in local factories, one-third are factory managers, local businessman, and few people living in cities), among 100 informants’ QQ profiles (around 179 posts over the World Cup period), there was only five posts about football directly, and the majority of them were about football gambling game as one of the posts said: “I am optimistic about Italy!” XB, an 18-year old factory worker wrote so, and he told me later that the reason he posted so was because he clicked on a QQ football gambling game “by chance”, and invested 10 RMB (1 pound) betting with Italy. However, when I moved to WeChat (a social media applied more by Chinese urban population and middle-class) things became different. When I included my personal social media connections which mainly consist of people living and working in cities like Shanghai, Beijing, Hong Kong, and overseas places, the rate of football related posts is much higher: among 158 posts drawn from 60 people on WeChat, there were more than 30% of football and World Cup related posts. Furthermore, the posts about football varied. There were original posts about watching football in pubs or at home alone or with friends (usually with a set of photos of the beer, the TV screen, the venue, and group photos); posts commenting on the performance of certain players or teams; informative shared links about the game schedule and the line-ups; shared pictures/videos about the world cup, including a great amount of jokes, etc.

The presence (or the absence) of the World Cup on people’s social media profiles (QQ and WeChat) not only showcased different ‘lifestyles’ of the urban Chinese and rural migrants, but also manifested a great difference between the user groups of WeChat and QQ that is WeChat is more urban and QQ is more rural. Even though it is too simplistic to put things in urban-rural dichotomy, it is safe to say that the urban-rural division exists in many obvious ways in China according to my ethnography.

Nevertheless, my inquiry about the ‘social media and the World Cup’ should by no means remain on social media domain since the real strength of field work lies in a comprehensive understanding of people’s daily life. The game-watching experience with my informants and follow-up interviews tell me more about the social connections behind football and the World Cup.

Curiously, even though the visibility of the world cup on social media among rural migrants is extremely low, in my field site, one can still feel some passion for the World Cup, especially among men. ZF, a forklift driver in his 30s, went to bed straight away after work at 5 pm, in order to get up in midnight to watch the games via his computer (given the time difference, most of the games are after midnight China time). Some of ZF’s co-workers in the factory (around 25%) did the same, and “the younger, the crazier” even though most of them “do not understand football” as one of them told me. However the majority of people who showed interest in the World Cup reported that they watched the game alone in their room, which means watching the world cup is not a public event or social event at all in this small town. Such situation limits the possibility of me, as a young woman, of joining the game-watching with my informants: at midnight, a young woman and a young man, both don’t understand football, watching football in a small room where the only furniture is a bed does not sound particularly inviting for me and probably too inviting for the other side.

Having said so, I still managed to watch a recorded game (Columbia Vs. Greece) during the lunch break with four of my informants (three male one female) who are factory officials in the office. During the game-watching, I secretly counted how many times people made remarks on the match per se, and how many time people made remarks on something else. Among roughly 230 remarks over 90 minutes, 1/3 of them are very short remarks about the match per se, such as “Oh he is fast!”, “Shoot!”, “Quick quick”, “that must be painful”, “Come on, that’s fake”. And the other 2/3 of the remarks was sort of ‘football-free’. 

“I like the blue pants!”

“Hey, many of the foreigners are bald, how come?”

“Is that true foreign men always smell, so they have to use perfume?”

“Oh I wish I could run and fight like them, men should be like that”

“Look, the judge running after the players all the time, how tiring, he must be very well paid!”

“Where is Columbia?”

“He is handsome!”

“One of my friends marry to a ‘fu er dai’ (second generation of the rich, refers to people who come from very rich families), and their honeymoon trip was to Greece. The photos she posted on her QQ were just amazingly beautiful. I just don’t get it, I mean, she is not very pretty at all.”

“Oh, foreigners are really crazy, they paint on their face, and dance like this, they are so crazy! Life in the west must be very free and have a lot of fun.”

“I really think Chinese men can’t date foreign women, they are too open to sex, too difficult to control!”

It seems that during the game-watching more conversation were centered on exoticism, masculinity, and gossip, which for whatever reasons were allowed by the encounter of the carnival-like world cup. And for me those conversations where football was absent seemed to be even more interesting in terms of anthropological inquiries about sociality in people’s daily life.

The World Cup watching experience reminds me of the local opera show. From time to time, a local traditional Chinese opera troupe had performance on a makeshift stage, hundreds of people gathered under the stage, however not everybody was interested in the performance; the noise of chatting under the stage was just as loud as the singing on the stage. When the performance was over, more than half of the audience remained at their seats, chatting with each other. I asked some of them whether they were fans of the opera or the troupe, few of them said yes. People told me that they came here because it’s very “re nao” (‘re’ in Chinese means hot, ‘nao’ means noisy, two characters together means ‘bustle’). “Re nao” is a very interesting thing, Chinese people will say “cou re nao” (join the bustle), which takes place in various situations. Basically being bustle and noisy is regarded as something fun. Here, many people come to the performance for the purpose of “cou re nao”, which is joining the bustle, watching the fun. The social interactions in many cases depend on those ‘everyday encounters with people’ – any activity in public which gathers people became a ‘social activity’ automatically. Similarly, people’s interest may be not necessarily in the event, either the world cup or the local opera show. Thus watching the world cup in my field site is more about watching the world and watching the fun.

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.

Online and under the covers: the World Cup and social media in rural China

By Tom McDonald, on 27 June 2014

Post young man from North China fieldsite on his WeChat profile. Caption reads "Essential preparation for watching football." From left to right is beer, red bull, yoghurt, cigarettes and plate of red dates.

Post young man from North China fieldsite made on his WeChat profile. Caption reads “Essential preparation for watching football.” From left to right is beer, red bull, yoghurt, cigarettes and plate of red dates.

On first glance, taking a look around this small rural town in North China, the World Cup seems like it is a world away.

Being a football fan in the town has always been a minority pursuit. In general, adults don’t do much sport here: most are busy with work and family commitments. For those who do play sports, basketball, badminton and table tennis tend to be more popular, with both the primary and middle school having basic outside facilities for these sorts of activities. There is a gravel football pitch attached to the primary school, but this is rarely used by the school itself.

The town has its own unofficial amateur football team, a loose group of young men, (reminiscent of Sunday pub football teams) who organise evening practices on the middle school football pitch, and occasional matches through a QQ instant messaging group. Several times during the summer of 2013, the school tried to stop the team playing football altogether on the pitch, citing safety concerns. During the winter, the grim weather and shorter days mean members of the football team abandon evening practice altogether, preferring to play football on better artificial pitches in the nearby county-town during the weekend. This small group of hardcore football fans formed the bulk of my exposure to the World Cup, but they used social media to do it in a way that made it largely unobservable to most others.

Kicking-off: a World Cup under the covers
On the day that the World Cup started, I was awoken at 3:50 am by the sound of a WeChat message on my phone by the side of the bed. A short while after another arrived. And then another. And another. I reached over and, bleary-eyed, gazed at my phone screen. Four of my friends from the town had set up a WeChat conversation named ‘The world accelerating’ (jiasu shijie) and were talking between themselves on it. It took a second until I could figure out what they were doing: sending messages to each other talking about the opening game of the World Cup, while the game unfolded.

One of the major downsides of the World Cup being located in Brazil is the staggering inconvenience this happens to have caused Chinese football fans. There is a 11-hour time difference between Brasília and Beijing, and this means that all of the matches kick-off somewhere between midnight and 6am local time, making it extremely difficult for young men to make time for watching football between normal patterns of work, family and sleep. For this reason this World Cup, more than any I have ever witnessed in China, is one that relies enormously on the internet.

‘The world accelerating’ WeChat group chat was important because it allows this small group of men to feel like they are watching football together. There is no place in the town that they could gather to watch the game (all businesses in the town close at 9pm, and unlike Chinese cities there are no bars here). Even though many of these men were watching at home they still made this a real group experience. This was furthered by the fact that their conversations were almost completely conducted via the WeChat’s asynchronous voice messaging feature (which is quite a contrast to the normal conversations on the football team’s QQ group which is conducted almost entirely through text).

The friendliness and companionship of these young men was really prevalent when listening to these world cup messages. There was a real since of ‘blokey’ fun behind it all. The voice messages are all in thick local dialect, interspersed with exuberant swearing, such as “that shot was the bull’s p*nis!” (nage qiu hen niubi). Bits of chat about work between friends, who also co-operate with each other in business was interrupted with someone excitedly saying “It’s starting, it’s starting…” at the commencement of the game. Despite it being 4am, and each of them being in their beds at home, the WeChat atmosphere it reminded me of watching football matches in pubs in the UK.

The group was also full of other matey lad banter. One person leaves a voice message saying “Come on, bottoms up, bottoms up” (kuaidian, ganbei ganbei) suggesting alcohol consumption. Someone posts pictures of pretty young Chinese women. It’s perhaps gratifying that even at 4 am in rural China you can get beer, girls and football – at least via WeChat.

The fact that all this takes place in the middle of the night makes it all the more magical. There is something almost improper about it. At one moment one of them leaves a We Chat message of him shouting excitedly, and one of the others jokes “don’t wake up your wife!” (bie ba ni xifu naoxing). I have a wonderful mental image of all these men, in their 20s and 30s, under the covers in bed, smartphone in one hand chatting to friend, tablet in the other watching the match. Or in dark hotel rooms with the TV on at the end of the bed, with droopy-eyed and struggling to stay awake. As one person told me “If you don’t watch with friends, it’s no fun” (bu gen pengyou yiqi kan, jiubu hao wan). Having friends around via WeChat is perhaps one of the ways to get you through this. At the end of the match, one of the young guys even said, “OK OK, everyone go to bed. Everybody’s tired”

The internet World Cup
IMG_1282Apart from this small group of avid fans who are willing to stay up late into the night watching these games, for others only vaguely interested in football, social media becomes a key point through which World Cup information is disseminated nationwide. As mentioned in a previous blogpost, QQ and WeChat both combine news delivery with social media. Both platforms have heavily featured World Cup related stories. Between 13-16 June 2014 inclusive, 8 out of the 37 news stories on QQ Tencent news were World Cup related, on WeChat that figure was 9 out of 37. On the first day of the tournament, QQ mobile featured a special ‘startup screen’ (kind of similar to a Google doodle) of the QQ penguin logo made up of lots of football players. The QQ homepage has a special section dedicated to the World Cup, where entire matches and compilations of goal-scoring moments can be watched at a more suitable time.

Despite the challenges of football being a minority pursuit here in this rural Chinese town, and the difficulties of following the World Cup given the time difference between Brazil and China, I have nonetheless been struck by how people are using social media and the internet to create the kind of tournament experience that appeals to them, and most importantly, share in that experience with their friends.

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.

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.