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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.

Love is… sending 400 texts to your girlfriend everyday

By Elisabetta Costa, on 19 September 2013

Photo by Knight 725 (Creative Commons)

Photo by Knight 725 (Creative Commons)

One of the most surprising pieces of data emerging from the 100 questionnaires I’ve submitted to my informants in our Turkish fielsite regarding their use of communication technologies is the number of text messages (SMS) that teenagers and young people send to their lovers. Indeed some mobile phone companies in Turkey sell SMS bundles for very cheap prices: for example, 12,000 texts for only 10 TL (around £3 GBP) a month. SMS is the most affordable communication channel for young people.

Sending 300-400 SMS a day to the same person is not an extraordinary practice among teenagers and youth who want to communicate with a lover and have to do it far from the gaze and ears of their family members. They write messages during every single moment of the day, while on the toilet, eating lunch, at school, before going to bed and as soon as they wake up in the morning. It seems that SMS is the most suitable communicative channel to have a secret love relationship in a society where premarital relationships are not allowed.

Below is part of a conversation I had with a 23 year-old hairdresser who confessed to me that he sends his girlfriend around 12,000 text messages a month:

Hairdresser: “We communicate all day long and all night long by SMS. I do not sleep so that I can speak with her! I love her too much.”
Me: “What do you write in 400 SMS in a day? Can you give me some example? It’s so difficult for me to imagine it.”
Hairdresser: “We write to each other about what we are doing and with whom we are spending our time. We write our feelings. We write everything. And if we do not have time during the day we send messages to each other during the night. This is love! Yes, this is love!”

There are specific local cultural reasons, beyond the growing romanticism, that explain why young lovers send each other so many messages: until few years ago, women were not allowed to go out, there were no internet and not mobile phones, and men could control women much more easily. Now women are more free, and are more often secretly engaging in romantic relationships with men. The point is that those same technologies  allow men to have intimate relationships with women, at the same time depriving them of the control they had in the past. The main fear of a young man having an illegitimate relationship with a woman is to be betrayed. As many young men told me, they are obsessively jealous. They want to control their girl-friends; they want to know where they are and what they do in every-single moment of the day, and SMS texting is the best way to do it. SMS texting is shaping new ideas of love where romanticism is entangled with new ways of performing masculinity.

Is it bad that facebook became the king of communication among Brazil’s “new middle class” youth?

By Juliano Andrade Spyer, on 9 August 2013

IMG_5320

Teens at the Brazil field site. Photo by Juliano Spyer.

“If one day the sadness and the loneliness knock on your door, open and answer: ‘Hello, I cannot host you, my home is full. In the living room is Happyness, Joy, and Harmony. In one of the rooms is Love. In the other room is Affection and Tenderness. And in the kitchen is Peace and Prosperity. Fortunately the other room is under renovation to receive Victory. Have a lovely afternoon, many kisses, N.’”

Through the course of three months I have been conducting a questionnaire eith informants in my fieldsite about how they use communication services in general. The one question that has been a constant source of insights is the one that inquires about who they communicate with using social networking sites, email, Skype-like services, SMS, land line, mobile, instant messaging, and WhatsApp-like solutions.

Texting - The short text that appears at the start of the article is what texting (SMS) seems to be mostly used for. Texting is not a way of interacting with contacts, but a broadcasting tool used to deliver these kind of uplifting messages to friends and family. I supposed the “normal” function of texting is covered by voice calls through mobile phones, which are accessible to those less confortable with writing and typing on a small device. So those who have free texts on their mobile plans use it to display their affection, specially to those living in different cities from the sender.

Telephone / Skype - Landlines may be used, but only relatively rarely  They are still used by some (older people in the house) to call relatives living away, but it is an expensive service to call mobile phones in general, so the few people that have access to it, either at home or at their work, use it for “institutional calls”, which translates to calling one’s college admin office, a business client, or a government office. Many also know about Skype, but have not started using it because of low internet bandwidth.

Emailing - A lot of people have email. It used to be a tool for keeping in contact with colleagues at the university that lived far away. Its advantage was to enable group communication: everyone would be in sync with the exchanges aiming to coordinate collective activities. And it is free to use by those with access to the internet. But similarly to land lines, email is becoming less important, and is typically only used for “institutional communication”. Student exchanges are currently migrating to Facebook groups.

Mobile phones are today the second most important communication device to my young informants. Mobile phones are great, but they are still costly services considering the amount of communication they want to have. The phone is there, but it is mostly a one-way communication product, as many do not have credit to make calls. In special occasions, they can make collect calls or use a special SMS service that delivers a message to another user asking that person to call back.

Social networking and Facebook

Vianna is among the Brazilian social scientists that criticize the near monopoly-stage Facebook has arrived to in Brazil. “Many people do not venture any more outside the walls of this private social network: they think that there is all there is of the large Network, forgetting that there they live in an environment controlled by a single company, working for free for their business success,” he wrote in a newspaper column [in Portuguese] earlier this year. But I am not so sure that Facebook is able to understand how it is being used.  He says he refuses to call it “Face”, as if it was a personal friend, but calling it “Face” is an evidence of a cultural interpretation.

Social communication at my field site is synonymous to using Facebook together with face-to-face interactions. Facebook – or “Face”, as it is called at my field site – is the perfect tool in many regards: it is the cheapest solution to reach everyone at any time; those that connect occasionally using the services of internet cafes and those who are “always on” through mobile internet plans. It may be conceptualized as a sort of  “polymedia machine” as it condenses different functions (chat, blogging, etc) and also connects the various platforms available for digital communication.

The gift of privacy and anonymity

Among Facebook’s many functions, private chatting it by far the most important among teens and young adults here. As I ask them about how many times they perform different actions, chatting is normally at a higher order of magnitude compared to other actions such as updating status, “liking”, sharing, or commenting.

I must look further into this topic, but so far I know it represents the possibility of totally private communication – one that is not accessible to anybody else but the two interacting at a given moment. Facebook chat allows people to talk to each other away from everyone else’s sight. This seems to be important at a place that has a large group of “natives” (people born and raised, with strong ties with each other) and migrants (those arriving recently and with few social ties). Anonymity and privacy facilitate social interacting under these circumstances.

Facebook is also a solution to being always near some people; a sort of SMS that is free to use and reaches friends everywhere, independently of time, space, and the mobile plan chosen. And it is also private regarding parents and older people in general since older people tend to be less interested and knowledgeble about computers and phones and are also less skilled with writing and reading.

The near future

The mobile phone has  great potential that is not far from being reached. They are becoming a private mobile computer, considering their home computer is shared among the family. Cheap smart phones are already common among teens as it became a prized object of social distinction. The internet connection to phones are also accessible price-wise. The problem, at least at my field site, is that the quality of the connection and the processing capacity of phones are still low. The small screens, complicated apps and tiny keyboards make it more difficult to use the service. And still, many do it.

It is relatively easy to explain why my informants use communication devices the way the do, but I was not be able to anticipate how they use it, considering my user habits tend to be more similar with that of my age group and social class (my habits seem to be more international than Brazilian in that regard). What I believe I can anticipate now is that things are about to “catch on fire”, as Brazilians say it, as mobile internet connections becomes not just available, but friendlier in terms of user interface, processing capacity, and connection speed.

How ‘English’ is social media?

By Daniel Miller, on 1 August 2013

Image by notfrancois (Creative Commons)

Image by notfrancois (Creative Commons)

Many of the pioneers of social anthropology such as Malinowski and Radcliffe-Brown worked from England, and helped define the discipline as the study of the ‘other’. This is probably one of the reasons why there has been some neglect with respect to the anthropology of Englishness. Certainly there are research projects based in the UK, but many of them deal with topics such as English racism or specific issues such as class or gender. So the levels of generalisation that might be made about groups such as The Nuer or The Trobriand Islanders are rarely attempted here. It took something of a maverick in the form of Kate Fox to more directly address the issue in her hilarious and insightful book Watching the English.

But if I want my study of social media to be directly on a par with all the others, I must then address the question of ‘How English is Social Media in England?’ This means also thinking about wider questions of how The English have more traditionally created patterns of sociality and communication. As it happens my fieldsite which, from now on, I propose to call The Glades shocked me in that although it is not far from the highly cosmopolitan and multicultural world of London, it has only around a 1.5% migrant population, making it highly and homogenously English. So even if this hadn’t been the plan I would perforce be studying Englishness. Kate Fox who is consummately English used that very trait to create her work. She tackles the topic with teasing humour and exaggeration and irony. For example she identifies as the core to her findings something she calls the English ‘social dis-ease’, that is their lack of ease with socialising. ‘It is our lack of ease, discomfort and incompetence in the field (minefield) of social interaction; our embarrassment, insularity, awkwardness, perverse obliqueness, emotional constipation, fear of intimacy and general inability to engage in a normal and straightforward fashion with other human beings’ (2004: 401).

For me this raises the question of how far the English use social media to resolve their dilemmas of trying to have communication while carefully preserving their autonomy and distance in order to keep away from embarrassment. Could social media be a form of reticence? Some evidence came from ethnographic encounters with commercial and service institutions. The idea of getting a balance right between involvement and autonomy seems to have become the key life skill in virtually everything. On one morning I listened to a church official talking about their use of social media. He was concerned whether it was appropriate for the church to text people because they might feel the church shouldn’t be intruding into their private lives. That afternoon I was talking with someone whose work is to market local businesses. His dilemma was that if you fail to engage with people, you cannot promote your business, while if you even once step over the boundary of accepted intrusion into customers’ lives, they will often never return. We were trying to ascertain if Facebook provided a useful modus vivendi in this regard. Even in the private domain we encountered people who saw Facebook is ideal for corresponding with neighbours down the street they live in. It was seen as equivalent to the chatting and gossip that occurs in the public domain, while within the comfort and isolation of one’s own private home. Indeed many of those who were most positive about Facebook legitimated it as, in many different ways, a ‘Goldilocks’ platform that is sociable but under such controls that it was not going to be personally or spatially intrusive (for an analogous case see Alana in my book Tales from Facebook).

A similar example would be students and others leaving the village and seeing Facebook as allowing sufficiency of retained contact while giving them space for growing autonomy, this pertained both to family and their ex-school friends. For still younger informants, platforms such as instagram and snapchat found niches within this frame. For example, snapchat indicated that very small tight group within which you demonstrated that you didn’t mind showing very embarrassing shots, though even these only because they are fleeting (the photos disappear within a few seconds). While instagram meant people could comment on photos without being particularly close. Polymedia, that is the range of platforms, may be giving people choices in degrees of closeness and distance. It is early days yet, but all of this suggests that my study must also become an anthropology of the Englishness of Social Media, and that this may well prove a key to understanding my data.

An exemplary case of Polymedia: the advantages of looking at idioms of usage

By Juliano Andrade Spyer, on 4 January 2013

About a month ago I was on an overground train going home from visiting a friend when a teenage mother and her little daughter sitting in front of me caught my attention. Fastened to her pram, the baby girl unsuccessfully attempted to loosen the belts around her torso while repeatedly calling for her mom, trying to attract her attention.

While the baby was moving and making noises, the mom was static; headphones on, her face was immersed in the exchanges she was carrying out through text messages. I couldn’t tell if she was ignoring the calls coming from the baby or was, in reality, sealed-off from the surrounding noises and visual information.

In my memory, these dynamics – a baby fastened to a pushchair attempting to contact her motionless mother – lasted through several stations, but suddenly the mother broke from that trance-like state to carry a brief interaction with the person sitting next to her, who, until that point, was also barely moving, with headphones on and also exchanging text messages.

They were friends and their trance-like state was temporarily suspended while the mother expressed her disappointment with one of the people she had been communicating with through text. She was annoyed that this other person accused her of ending a conversation with an ironic “fine”.

Rapidly and while the friend sitting next to her was still paying attention, the young mother recorded a voice message to the other person demonstrating the correct tone that she supposedly meant, “- I said ‘fine’ [sweet voice] in a nice way and not ‘fine’ [bored voice] in an ironic way… asshole!” And as the girl friend next to her laugh, it became clear that this last word had not been recorded; it was just for her friend to hear.

For the purpose of this blog post, the above exchange is relevant because it shows how the abundance of communication platforms – which constitutes a state of polymedia – favours the creation of idioms of use. Notice that the mom had many alternatives to follow up in that conversation: she could have simply texted back or called the person. Instead, she chose a new solution – a voice message transmitted similarly to a text message.

The point of the notion of polymedia (Madianou and Miller 2012) is that it helps the researcher to reflect about communication strategies and also to formulate hypothesis about how certain social relations are being configured. A state of polymedia is produced when a person has at least half a dozen possible ways to convey a message (through mobile or computer), knows how to use them, and won’t pay more for choosing a certain solution given that the costs will be the same (since the broadband plan has a fixed monthly price).

In this case, for instance, maybe the mom wanted to be seen by her friend as intelligent and a bit “wicked” (by displaying publically how she understood and controlled the channel of communication); and she achieved this goal while also providing a quick reply and avoided a possible confrontation that could happen through a phone call. This can be speculated based on the idiom of usage that she chose to apply.

Reference:

Madianou, M and Miller, D (2012) Migration and New Media. Routledge