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The prejudice of shallowness

By Razvan Nicolescu, on 4 April 2014

Photo by Stefanie Maria (Creative Commons)

Photo by Stefanie Maria (Creative Commons)

Isabella has 28 years old and is engaged (fidanzata) for eight years with a man from a nearby town. In this part of Italy these long engagements are quite common. Actually, Isabella has the most recent engagement in her close circle of friends, who are all engaged for 10 or 12 years. The marriage is thought of as something that should be build on solid grounds, typically a stable workplace and a house. Customarily, the man first builds a house, furnishes it at least partially and then the couple organize the wedding ceremony. In the context of difficult economic circumstances and high social uncertainty these conditions for even thinking of a marriage are quite difficult to be attained.

Isabella is happy that she works full-time as a shop assistant and has time to also study for her undergraduate degree. She is proud she will most probably graduate this year. She started to study Letters at the University of Salento eight years ago. All along this time, her fidanzato supported her determination to complete her studies even against the will of her family. However, the couple was not able to save money for the marriage. He always worked on a temporary basis as a builder and her current job as shop assistant is the first stable job any of them ever had. They estimate that the wedding ceremony alone would cost them at least 10,000 EURO. They come from modest families who could not raise even a small part of this sum. The plan is that Isabella should graduate first and then they could start saving money for the wedding. This means the two could get married in at least two or three years.

Until then, and as most of the fidanzati in the town, the two live separately each with their own families. They also work in the same towns where they live. As the two towns are situated about ten miles away one from the other, they currently do not manage to see each other too often during work days – which here are Monday to Saturday. The two compensate this by spendings the weekends together, living alternatively at one of their parents’ house This arrangement also allows them spending more time with their friends.

Isabella’s closest friends are six female ex-colleagues from her secondary school in Grano who happen to be all engaged with six men from the town of her fidanzato. He is actually a cousin of her best colleague from her secondary school class. She remembers that this was her favourite group of friends since she was a teenager. She always enjoyed the fact that they had the same tastes and very similar passions on a gendered basis. I will not detail this here, but is important to mention that the group itself and this shared intimacy within its strict confines is what makes Isabella feel safe and comfortable.

Whatsapp is important in keeping this sense on intimacy. The group of friends use three main Whatsapp groups: ‘the group of girls,’ ‘the group of boys’ and the group for all of them which is also the least used. Girls use their group most intensively by far: they may start the day with a simple buona giornata (‘good morning’), a question, or a video clip. At least two hours until work starts, roughly at 10:00, there is an energetic exchange of messages and updates inside this group. The boys use their group rather irregularly, with typical peaks such as the ones around the dates when Juventus Torino is playing. What is important for this discussion is that Isabella senses that her fidanzamento depends on the unity of the group of her female friends and this unity currently knows a substantive support because of Whatsapp. Isabella sees that many women of her age become less attached to their peers when they start to work or move closer to their marriage, and therefore, she is extremely happy that Whatsapp allows her reinforce what she senses she needs most.

At the same time, these people who could have a noisy aperitivo in large groups of twelve-fifteen people in late summer evenings could easily be accused of a certain shallowness. A typical criticism is that they ‘stay too much on’ their Smartphones when they are supposed to be together. This blog post goes against these prejudices and social condemnations by suggesting a few reasons why these could simply not be true. Beautiful well-dressed women and jovial men could cheerfully manipulate their Smartphones not because they are more distant one from another but because they really want to be much more closer.

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.

Chinese ‘WeChat’ social media app will make the world look around and shake!

By Tom McDonald, on 22 April 2013

A WeChat user gets ready to Shake (Photo: Tom McDonald)

A WeChat user gets ready to Shake (Photo: Tom McDonald)

Two years is a long time in the world of social media. This point has been reinforced to me multiple times in the last few weeks since my return to China. When I was in the country carrying out research for my PhD in 2011, no-one in my fieldsite was talking about WeChat (威信 weixin). Now it seems to be the primary social media app for many.

WeChat is a free smartphone app made by Tencent, the enormous Chinese company that also created QQ. However users do not have to have a QQ account to use it, it is also possible to sign up with a mobile phone number or email address. It is undoubtable that part of WeChat’s popularity has been made possible by the increasing availability of low cost smartphones. The other reason for it’s popularity is the free messaging and sharing of photos that is more akin to Facebook’s smartphone offerings, and is attractive to users because it allows them to circumvent the Chinese telecom company’s expensive text messaging rates.

However our research project aims to go beyond the normal economic or utilitarian explanations about why one platform replaces another that you might read on other technology blogs. Instead we want to use social media to glimpse something about what such changes can tell us about how human beings make social relations. Two features of WeChat are especially relevant in this case.

The first feature is called Look Around (附近的人 fujin de ren), and is actually quite similar in functionality to FourSquare or Grindr in that it potentially connects strangers who are close to each other. It uses a smartphone’s location-based services (GPS) to list all the people nearby also using the app.

Another notable function is Shake (摇一摇 yaoyiyao). Here the user shakes their mobile phone, and the built in motion-sensor in the device detects this movement, immediately displaying a list of users on the network who have shaken their phone at the same moment, regardless of the their location.

These features are notable in that many recent writings on Chinese social relationships emphasise the importance of guanxi, a network of relations that one builds and maintains throughout one’s life. Such accounts frequently emphasise personal connections, and as such being an ‘outsider’ in any society in China without any connections can make it particularly difficult to accomplish even the smallest task.

By contrast, both Look Around and Shake emphasise making friends with complete strangers. This model of social networking seems to also chime with Stafford’s (2000) description of a Chinese view of social relationships as something that is constantly in flux. The degree of uptake of these two features on the app, and by who in our fieldsites, remains to be seen.

The final thing of note with regard to WeChat is that, with this app, Tencent has set it’s sights on a more worldwide audience than ever before, with versions in multiple languages. It will be fascinating to see over the course of our research project whether WeChat will make the rest of the world look around and shake, and if it does, what this will mean for social relations.

Something we take for granted in the digital age

By Xin Yuan Wang, on 14 December 2012

Photo: Enkhtuvshin’s 5DmkII (Creative Commons)

The other day I was talking with my friend via Skype, whilst at the same time using my smartphone to check some information. I couldn’t find it anywhere. At last, I had to hang up the call and return to the library to find my phone, before suddenly realising that I was, in fact, holding my phone, talking to it when I was trying to find it. This anecdote provoked much laughter from my friends. However it may be more than a joke. Why didn’t I notice the phone? Obviously the mediation of technology in this communication has been ignored, which would be regarded as another example of the humility of things - “the more effective the digital technology, the more we tend to lose our consciousness of the digital as a material and mechanical process” (Horst & Miller 2012: 25). As such, it is no surprise speed at which people now have taken the digital for granted in the digital age.

Despite the popularity and saturation of digital technologies in many places, no generation of human beings has yet lived their whole life span in this digital age. Many of the earlier writings concerned the digital media (the Internet, cyberspace) as a “virtual” place. As the opposite of the “real”, “virtual” seems less real, and thus less valid to represent the authenticity of humanity. Then why bother to study a “virtual” place? It is safe to say that human kind have never just lives in a tangible world since the very beginning of human culture. ‘Virtuality’ is neither new, nor specific, to the digital world. We all live in a culturally and spiritually structured world which involves a huge amount of imaginative aspects: the legend of the tribe, the memory of the ancestors, or forms of art, etc. Culture, as shared systems of imagination and practice, shapes people’s idea of kinship, identity, community, and society – in sum, the very deepest assumptions about being a human being in the world. In this regard, the digital world ontologically does not differ from any other worlds at all.

Nevertheless there is something unique about the digital. Digital has created an ‘always-on’ lifestyle (see boyd 2011:72), in which the boundary between online and offline has become blurred. Being ‘always-on’ does not literally mean always-on the Internet, but rather always having the capacity of being connected. Also being ‘always-on’ does not necessarily means being always accessible. You can leave the phone unanswered or ignore the messages on IM (instant message), and individuals have quickly developed a sophisticated strategy for communication with a whole palette of possible digital communicative channels (see the idea of polymedia). The primary concern of media choice has shifted from an emphasis on the affordances of media to an emphasis upon the social and emotional consequences which as been articulated by the media choice: one medium may be good for arguing or avoiding arguments; one may be suitable for flirting or communicating secrets, so on and so forth. ‘Always-on’ and ‘polymedia’ would mean different things in different social milieu, but one thing is for sure: we can no longer just examine the binary opposition of online or offline; or concentrate on one single medium to analyze people’s communication in the digital age.

References

boyd, danah. 2011. “Participating in the Always-On Lifestyle”, in Graham Meike & Sherman Young (eds) Media Convergence. Pp. 71-76.

Horst, Heather A. & Daniel Miller. 2012. Digital Anthropology. London: Berg.