Losing weight without a diet: manipulating a type of brain cell gets results in mice

By Alison Major, on 2 August 2017

Today’s guest post is by Nicholas Lesica, Wellcome Trust Senior Research Fellow at UCL and author of A Conversation about Healthy Eating. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

File 20170727 27682 1wo3mnt
Evidence for a link between obesity and brain inflammation is getting stronger.
Suzanne Tucker/Shutterstock

Nicholas A Lesica, UCL

A new study has found something remarkable: the activation of a particular type of immune cell in the brain can, on its own, lead to obesity in mice. This striking result provides the strongest demonstration yet that brain inflammation may be a cause, rather than a consequence, of obesity. It also provides promising leads for new anti-obesity therapies.

The evidence linking brain inflammation to obesity has been building for some time. Consistent overeating causes stress and damage to cells in the body and brain. This damage results in a response from the immune system that has a wide range of effects.

Some of these effects help to reduce the problems caused by overeating, but others seem to make things worse. For example, in the hypothalamus – the part of the brain that controls, among other things, eating and activity – inflammation causes problems such as leptin resistance that interfere with the regulation of body weight.

Computer Hope
The hypothalamus controls eating and physical activity.
stefan3andrei/Shutterstock

Leptin is a hormone that is released by fat cells and provides the brain with information about the amount of energy stored as body fat. Normally, neurons in the hypothalamus that are sensitive to leptin will use this information to regulate eating and activity as needed to maintain body fat within some desired range.

In obesity, however, these neurons become insensitive to leptin. As a result, they no longer trigger the decrease in hunger and increase in energy expenditure that are necessary to lose excess weight. This is why the vast majority of attempts by obese people to lose weight fail– inflammation causes the brain to fight against it every step of the way.

So brain inflammation clearly plays an important role in sustaining obesity. But could it also be one of the primary causes of obesity in the first place? The onset of brain inflammation coincides with the other changes that take place in the body and brain as a result of overeating and weight gain. But whether brain inflammation actually causes the development of obesity is not yet clear. The results of the new study, however, demonstrate that the activation of a particular type of brain immune cell, microglia, initiates a cascade of events that do indeed lead directly to obesity.

Manipulating microglia in mice

In the study, researchers at the University of California, San Francisco and the University of Washington performed experiments on mice. They found that altering the activity of microglia in the hypothalamus allowed them to control the body weight of the mice independent of diet.

The researchers began by testing the effects of reducing either the number of microglia or their level of activity. They found that both manipulations cut the weight gain that resulted from putting the mice on high-fat diet in half.

They then tested the effects of increasing the activity of microglia. They found that this manipulation caused obesity even in mice that were on a normal diet. This latter result is particularly surprising. The fact that obesity can be induced through microglia – rather than directly through neurons themselves – is an indication of how strongly the brain’s supporting cells can exert control over its primary functions.

Computer Hope
Obesity can be induced by manipulating microglia.
Janson George/Shutterstock

So artificial brain inflammation can cause obesity in mice. Of course, that doesn’t mean that natural, diet-induced brain inflammation does cause obesity in humans. But these new results suggest that this idea is worth taking seriously, particularly given that fact that potential solutions to the obesity crisis are in short supply.

The ConversationThis new study alone has already identified several possible targets for anti-obesity drugs. Intriguingly, one of the same drugs that was used in the study to decrease activity in microglia is also being tested in human cancer trials, so initial indications of its effects on body weight should be available soon. But either way, a deeper understanding of the role of brain inflammation will help to clarify the causes of obesity. And hopefully prompt ideas about how it can be avoided in the first place.

Nicholas A Lesica, Wellcome Trust Senior Research Fellow, UCL

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Reflections on publishing Memorandoms by James Martin

By Alison Major, on 17 July 2017

Today’s Guest Post is by Tim Causer, editor of Memorandoms by James Martin and Senior Research Associate at the Bentham Project.

Memorandoms_of_James_MartinThose of us researching the history of convict transportation to Australia are extraordinarily fortunate in terms of resources, as some of the most important have, for several years, been available digitally on an open-access basis. For instance, we can search colonial-era newspapers in the National Library of Australia’s Trove, or consult the Tasmanian convict records, a body of material unique in its detail about the tens of thousands of ordinary people transported to Van Diemen’s Land.

As a callow undergraduate at the University of Aberdeen, making a first foray into Australian history fourteen years ago, such resources were the stuff of dreams. The university library’s holdings on Australian history were largely limited to landmark secondary texts such as Russel Ward’s The Australian Legend (1958) and A. G. L. Shaw’s Convicts and the Colonies (1966). The most recent work we had to hand was almost two decades old: Robert Hughes’s blockbuster, The Fatal Shore (1986). Hughes’s brilliant, terrible book is beautifully written, but is ultimately frequently misleading. But a major strength of The Fatal Shore’s was its use of convict narratives, giving it an immediacy rare in many earlier histories which relied heavily upon parliamentary papers and official correspondence.

Convict narratives fall into two main types. The first, and most common, are those published in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, during or around the period in which convicts were transported to the Antipodes. For instance, two of the most well-known are Martin Cash’s The Bushranger of Van Diemen’s Land (1870) and Mark Jeffrey’s A Burglar’s Life (1893), both of which were ghost-written by the former convict James Lester Burke.

Of course, published narratives such as these present issues of interpretation. How much of Cash’s autobiography is authentically his voice, and how much is that of Burke? Ghost-writers often sanitised their subject’s life into a redemption parable, walking the fine line between titillation while still seeking to attract a respectable audience. Those narratives written by the few transported for political offences—male, middle-class, well-educated authors—are unrepresentative of the experiences of the majority of convicts. There is also a racial and gender imbalance, with the overwhelming majority of narratives dealing with the lives of white convict men—Reverend James Cameron’s partly-fictionalised biography of the Spanish transportee, Adelaide de Thoreza, is a rare exception.

The second type of narrative exists only in manuscript. They are often more exciting to deal with: they were not written for publication, do not have to meet the conventions of any genre, and are often more revealing, explicit, and subversive. For instance, the Irish convict Laurence Frayne’s narrative is a graphic account of his punishment and contains a sustained character assassination of James Morisset, a commandant of the Norfolk Island penal station during the 1830s, which would never have been fit to print.

Memorandoms by James Martin is one such unpublished manuscript which, thanks to UCL Press, is now available in open-access for the first time. The Memorandoms tells the story of the most famous of all escapes from Australia by transported convicts, that led by William and Mary Bryant. On the night 28 March 1791 the Bryants with their two infant children, James Martin, and six other male convicts stole a fishing boat and sailed out of Sydney Harbour and out into the Pacific. They reached Kupang in Timor on 8 June, though were subsequently identified as escaped convicts and the survivors were shipped back to England to face trial—where James Boswell lobbied the government for their release.

The group’s 69-day, 3,000-mile journey has been the subject of two television series, poetry, novels, and innumerable history books, with a focus on Mary Bryant. Yet the modern historical accounts are frequently unsatisfactory and derivative; what then, the reader might wonder, could be said about this story that has not been said so many times before?

Quite a bit, it turns out. Memorandoms by James Martin is the only extant first-hand account of the escape, and it provides a fresh perspective to this often formulaically-told tale. Despite the Memorandoms being spare and prosaic, it provides a sense of the hardship of the journey, the terror of those in the boat as it is pummelled by storms and churning seas, and of the party’s fascination and fear in their encounters with Indigenous Australians and Torres Strait Islanders. The Memorandoms also strikingly reveals just how far some modern historians have departed from the historical record when telling the story.

Memorandoms by James Martin is also important in a second sense: it is the only known narrative written by a member of the first cohort of convicts sent to New South Wales with the First Fleet 1788. The Memorandoms was acquired at some point by one of Britain’s great philosophers, Jeremy Bentham, one of the first and most influential critics of transportation to Australia. The vast Bentham archive is, of course, held in UCL’s Special Collections, and the Memorandoms is but one of the many jewels in the College’s collections.

Now, thanks to UCL Press, the Memorandoms manuscripts are available for the first time, and for free; readers can now access the original narrative for themselves, rather than mediated by some rather dubious historical accounts. The colour reproductions bring the document to life in a way which would not otherwise be captured by publishing a transcript, and I am inordinately grateful to UCL Press for bringing the Memorandoms out in this way. My younger self in Aberdeen would have been thrilled to have had a resource like this to hand, and I hope that those who today may not have ready access to unpublished narratives like the Memorandoms will be equally pleased.

Why the suburbs are important

By Alison Major, on 4 April 2017

Today’s excerpt, by Mark Clapson of the University of Westminster, is the foreword of Suburban Urbanities, a multi-contributor volume edited by Laura Vaughan, UCL Bartlett.

In recent years there has been much debate within urban studies as to which came first in the evolution of human settlements, the countryside or the city. There was always a third context to this discussion, however, and that was the suburb. Life beyond the city walls was a distinctive feature of ancient urban civilisations from Persia to Minoan Crete, and today in the Anglophone world the suburban population is a majority. How surprising, then, that few scholars have attempted to understand the nature and agency of suburban living as a dominant characteristic of human settlements. This was symptomatic of a wider academic indifference and even hostility towards ‘the suburban’ which has only (ridiculously) recently been challenged by a new generation of scholars who take suburbs seriously.

Suburban Urbanities is a hugely important contribution to understanding our suburban world. Drawing upon scholarship within the now rapidly expanding field of suburban studies, synthesising historical geography with space syntax theories and methods, and the sociology of everyday life, it sheds new light on the historic and spatial evolution of the city. It shows that suburbia is not a synchronic caricature of a life-less-lived, but a dynamic context of metropolitan agency and creativity. As an historic process, suburbanisation is not something that evolved beyond the city to suck the life out of it, but was intertwined with trajectories of growth, with the socioeconomic patterning and structuring of cities large and small. It is impossible to grasp the meaning of class relations, of gendered lifestyles, of ethnic segregation and integration, of urban economies and patterns of mobility and communications, without placing suburbia at the forefront of the analysis. The universality of the themes of Suburban Urbanities is obvious: the dynamics of growth are significant historically because suburbs are starting points in change over time, not the end of the line. Old suburbs were once new, and today’s new suburbs, springing up rapidly across the world, will one day be old. As dynamic environments they continue to act as vectors of social, economic and political development, locally, nationally and globally.

The book is timely in another important sphere, and that is the personal subjectivity of suburbanites. To those who live in them, suburban lives have meaning. Back in 2013, I went for a walk in Fort Totten, an AfricanAmerican suburb of Washington, DC. On a sweltering August lunchtime, as I took photographs of the comfortable suburban homes of middle-class black people in roads that were empty except for flowering trees and parked cars, a woman’s voice called out to me with a gentle but audible ‘good afternoon’. Across her neatly trimmed front lawn I began chatting with a woman in her sixties who was taking tea with a friend on her veranda. She had left downtown DC in 1976 and as she stated with some passion, ‘I couldn’t wait to get out’. Fort Totten had its problems, but it was an attractive and spacious place to raise children, and well connected to the city. Her story is an important one because it is one of millions of inconvenient truths being ushered out of view by the current urban policies that demonise suburbia, and by the retro-fitting of suburbs that were, until very recently, doing just fine. Myriad examples of successful suburban living and suburban happiness and of triumph over social exclusion can be found if academics want to look for them. Suburban Urbanities looks for them, and understands that they are part of an ongoing pattern of human settlement that stretches from the ancient past to the present, and will persist long into the future.

Talking to the BBC about social media in China

By Alison Major, on 23 March 2017

Today’s guest blog is by Tom McDonald of Assistant Professor at Hong Kong University. He is author of Social Media in Rural China

Earlier this month, I was very fortunate to be interviewed by the BBC on my research onto the use of technology in China. The article that was published as a result of the interview is a good example of ‘public anthropology’,

Photo: Gillian Bolsover

Photo: Gillian Bolsover

showing how the discipline’s research can made relevant to a wider audience.

This commitment to engaging with the public through anthropology is something that is also mirrored in two books that I published last year: Social Media in Rural China and How the World Changed Social Media (the latter is co-authored with the rest of the Why We Post team). Both of these volumes tried to respond to the immense interest in social media from the general public, by writing in an accessible and open style. We chose to keep all citations and the discussion of wider academic issues to endnotes. Many readers seem to have enjoyed this style of easy-to-understand writing.

A central aim of the book Social Media in Rural China was to try and help non-Chinese audiences, who have limited experience of Chinese social media and find it hard to imagine what they are like, to understand the nature of these platforms and the kind of social effects they are bringing to a small rural community in China.

Given this, it’s also been surprising to see how the book has been received in Hong Kong and Mainland China. I’ve gained a lot from discussing sections of the book with undergraduate and postgraduate students—most of whom are Chinese—in my Local Cultures, Global Markets and New Media and Digital Culture courses. Readers are often interested to understand a “foreigner’s” reflections on contemporary rural China.

Photo: Gillian Bolsover

Photo: Gillian Bolsover

This feedback will be particularly useful as I put together articles for academic journals over the coming months. In this way, I am extremely fortunate to have the opportunity to balance two quite different forms of writing: academic writing aimed at fellow researchers in universities, and a more accessible writing for a general public which can also inspire articles such as the one that appeared on the BBC.

This post originally appeared on the Global Social Media Impact Study blog. It has been re-posted with permission.

Why commemorate Guido Gezelle?

By Alison Major, on 21 March 2017

Today’s guest post is by Paul Vincent, an award-winning translator and scholar who has published two volumes of translated poetry with UCL Press: Herman Gorter: Poems of 1890, A Selection, which explores the work of seminal Dutch poet Herman Gorter, and, more recently, the multi-translator volume Poems of Guido Gezelle. This excerpt, to celebrate World Poetry Day, is taken from the introduction of  Poems of Guido Gezelle.

Plant
fountain
shoot that roots
jet that spatters
tempest above all deeps
storm across all plains
wild rosetrees blow
stems of alder catkins bare

Deepest distance
farthest depth

calyx that quivers in the cup of both my palms
and darling as the daisy
As the poppy red
O my wild poppy

Paul van Ostaijen (1896–1928), translated by James Holmes

 

This acclamation of Gezelle by an Expressionist of a succeeding generation is typical of the awe with which he has been regarded in his home culture. The writer August Vermeylen sees his significance for Flemish literature in biblical terms – that the poet himself would have no doubt found blasphemous: ‘In the beginning was Gezelle; and Gezelle was the Word …’

However, amid the polemics and recriminations that seem inescapable accompaniments to literary commemorations nowadays, the Flanders-based Dutch writer Benno Barnard recently sparked controversy by suggesting that Gezelle had little to say to him as a reader at the end of the twentieth century.2 Invidious comparisons were made between the official funds being lavished on the Gezelle centenary and the less generous subsidy afforded the twentieth anniversary of the death of the ‘worthier’ irreverent modernist Louis-Paul Boon (1912–79). The puzzled outside observer might wonder why it has to be Gezelle or Boon, and why this tiny corner of Europe that produced two extraordinary originals cannot rejoice in its own cultural richness and diversity.

There are more encouraging signs: it is refreshing to see that the commemorative exhibition organised by the poet’s home town of Bruges celebrates not only the pious regionalist and nationalist icon, but also the polyglot cosmopolitan, as reflected in his extensive library.

The English reader without Dutch has no need to grope for a context for much of Gezelle’s work: his love of regional speech and folklore, and his attraction for the minute details of nature that he shares with Robert Burns (1759–96), like Gezelle a gardener’s son. His Franciscan sense of the brotherhood of Nature sometimes suggests the poetry of John Clare (1793– 1860), while the devotional dimension and formal experiment (for example, onomatopoeia) suggest the sprung rhythms and spiritual questing of fellow priest Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844–89). The Anglophile Gezelle visited England several times on church duties, and one can only speculate on the impact Hopkins’s work might have had on Gezelle, had it been published during his lifetime. Kindred spirits, and in the case of Burns a possible partial influence – but Gezelle, great writer that he was, is much more than the sum of influences. It is hard to dissent from Jozef Deleu’s comments in a recent anthology:

There is no poet who has made our language sing in such an incomparable way. The wonder of the poet Gezelle is his gift of wonderment. Childlike and naive, he spends his life in the midst of nature. He has no explanation for all the wonders that strike his eye and ear, but throughout his life they move him to praise the Creator. Gezelle is always uninhibited and unrestrained in his rapture. When he is overwhelmed by solitude and sadness, his language is just as musical as when he is in joyful mood. His poetry is carried by a Romantic sense of life, but lucidity and simplicity are its most essential features. Gezelle the poet is both a seeker and a finder. Whatever he touches with his word, regains the purity of the first day. That makes him unique.

In selecting poems for the present anthology, my aim was to give as representative a picture as possible of Gezelle’s large poetic output (based on source-language anthologies, critical views and personal preferences), from devotional, through narrative to celebratory and expressionistic. I also wished to include as wide as possible a spectrum of translators in English. It is particularly gratifying to be able to include a number of expert dialect versions, two in Lowland Scots (‘Twa Aivers’ and ‘To…?’) and one Yorkshire flavoured (‘Farmer Nick’). What this volume cannot, of course, do is do justice to the range and versatility of ‘the at least five Gezelles’ identified by André Lefevere (journalist, linguist, educator, priest, experimental poet). I can only offer a window on the last and, arguably, greatest of these: the lyric poet.

International Women’s Day Excerpt: Women on excavation

By Alison Major, on 8 March 2017

Today’s excerpt, to celebrate International Women’s Day, is from The Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology: Characters and Collections, edited by Alice Stevenson.

On 10 March 1923, the London Illustrated News ran a double-page spread with the headline ‘Men who perform the “spade work” of history: British names famous in the field of archaeology’. Many familiar faces from Egyptology were featured, including Flinders Petrie, Howard Carter, and F. L. Griffith. What this feature completely overlooked, as many histories of ‘Great Discoveries’ have, is the important contribution made by female archaeologists. Indeed, many excavations in Egypt and Sudan were dependent upon them.

During field seasons Hilda Petrie engaged in one of the most important activities on excavation: the recording of finds and the inking onto objects of the record of their findspot. Many objects in the Petrie Museum bear her handwriting and these form indispensable keys that allow us to associate those things with the records, plans and photographs that document the circumstances of their discovery. Throughout her career Hilda additionally undertook the surveying and planning of sites, inked drawings for publication and edited her husband’s text. Hilda was also instrumental in raising funds for expeditions. For these reasons, Petrie dedicated his final memoirs of a life in archaeology ‘to my wife, on whose toil most of my work has depended’.

Many other female pioneers in archaeology also acquired their first experiences of fieldwork on Petrie digs. This included Gertrude Caton-Thompson, who not only made ground-breaking discoveries in Egyptian prehistory, but additionally went on to demonstrate definitively the indigenous African origins of Great Zimbabwe in the face of hostile criticism from the largely male academy. Other regular field collaborators included artists such as Winifred Brunton and Annie Quibell, whose toil on site is often little recognized, but was crucial to the success of field seasons.

An Excerpt for Valentines Day: Romantic relationships on social media

By Alison Major, on 14 February 2017

Today’s excerpt is from Social Media in Industrial China by Xinyuan Wang, UCL Deprtment of Anthropology.

Every day after work, a group of young female factory workers leaves the factory plant together, hand in hand. All of them are unmarried young women, and gossip about relationships is always the most popular topic. Girls chatter avidly on the 10-minute walk from factory to dormitories; everybody is trying to contribute something to the daily ‘gossip time’:

‘Hey, did you hear that he just asked for her QQ number? I was surprised that he wanted to add her on QQ!’

‘Really? I didn’t know he was keen on her. Oh no – it is really bad news for his ex-girlfriend. A few days ago I just saw her new QQ status … sounds like she really regrets the break-up. Look, look … ’

The girl then took out her smartphone, showing her friends the evidence she had spotted on QQ.

The very action of men and women adding each other on QQ can easily be interpreted as romance, since, in the words of one girl, ‘QQ is not used for talking business or other things; QQ is for you to fall in love (tan lian ai)’. It has become almost a consensus among young people that one of the major functions of social media is to develop and maintain romantic relationships. Xiao Lin, a 20-year-old factory worker, sent me QQ messages explaining how QQ helped him to become a better lover:

I am much more bold and romantic on QQ … you just wouldn’t say those sweet words face to face … And I used lots of cute stickers when we were chatting on QQ, which made her find me really funny.

Many young migrant workers, like Xiao Lin, think they can be a better lover on social media. Vivid stickers and emojis enrich people’s expression; an element of time delay allows more scope for strategic communication. Behind the screens of their smartphones, people feel more empowered and confident. Rather than a diminished form of intimate interaction, romantic relationships on social media have become an efficient modality combining elements of voice, image and text, as well as emoji and stickers. There is another reason why social media is regarded a place for romantic love: a public display of love offline is usually frowned upon in GoodPath. Walking hand in hand was the most intimate interaction that one could spot on the street. When Xiao Yu, a 21-year-old hairdresser’s apprentice, posted photos of herself kissing her boyfriend on QQ, she perceived QQ to be a romantic and liberating place where one can feel free to display intimacy as the ‘public’ was different:

In big cities people won’t make a fuss [about kissing in public]. But here some traditional people would dislike it … but the good thing is they are not on my QQ!

Xiao Yu’s kiss photographs elicited many comments. Rather than feeling embarrassed, she felt that was exactly what she was looking for: ‘… When you posted something like that, you just knew what people would comment. If I am not sure, then I won’t post it,’ Xiao Yu explained. To the question ‘do you think about what kind of reaction you will receive when you post something on social media?’, the majority of participants, both in GoodPath and in Shanghai, said yes. Moreover in many cases the imagined audience and presupposed reaction justify the posting. A few days later, Xiao Yu finally uttered the real reason why she posted the kiss photos – to warn another girl to stay away from her boyfriend as she assumed the girl had been stalking her.11 ‘It’s so annoying, she is still flirting with him (Xiao Yu’s boyfriend) on his Qzone. Is she blind? I am pretty sure she saw the kiss photo on my Qzone.’

In romantic relationships, surveillance on social media can lead to jealousy in various ways. For instance, a delayed reply to a WeChat message can make the romantic partner feel unimportant, especially when he or she can see on other social media platforms that their partner is online. Situations such as that described by Cai, a 22-year-old waitress in a restaurant, are very common: ‘I sent him a message half hour ago; he didn’t reply, but ten minutes ago, he updated his QQ status … that made me feel upset.’ She was always online throughout the day when working at the restaurant; the multiple social media platforms her boyfriend used allowed her to connect with him constantly, but such an environment also made it more difficult for her boyfriend to hide anything from her. Many young people share similar insecurities about their romantic relationships, As Zhu, a factory worker aged 20, complained: ‘She [his girlfriend] never mentioned our relationship on her QQ. My gut feeling is she is not that committed, or maybe she is hiding something from me?’

Because social media profiles are continuously subjected to scrutiny to a greater extent than most offline spaces, for many young people such as Zhu a romantic relationship gained its ‘legitimacy’ by a public announcement on social media. However, in practice, the attempt to make a public announcement may backfire. Lujia, a factory worker, set up a QQ group of 78 contacts in order to win the trust of his new girlfriend. He explained:

My girlfriend said she was not sure about my love, unless I showed it in public (gong kai); Once I set up the QQ group and show my love for her she will believe me.

On this QQ group, every few hours Lujia wrote something along the lines of ‘ … darling you are the most beautiful woman in my life and I love you so much’. Clearly not everybody thought Lujia’s declaration of love quite as sweet as his partner did, and most people soon quit the group. As one former member complained, he thought QQ was his own place to do whatever he wanted … But why should I read screenfuls of such goosebump-arousing nonsense?’ What was evident in Lujia’s case was that ‘audiences’ felt extremely disturbed and offended. Unlike posting something on one’s own social media profile, Lujia’s QQ group messaging, which constantly tried to grab people’s attention to witness something of little relevance for them, was way too aggressive and inappropriate.

However, in most cases some subtle strategies regarding the public display of love on QQ had been applied. It was very common to see a couple talk to each other in a way that others would not be able to understand without knowing the context of the dialogue. For example, a conversation between a young couple on Qzone that could be seen by all the online contacts was:

‘Don’t forget you promised me that you wouldn’t tell her about that.’

‘Yes I promised, and I didn’t tell her about that at all, quite the opposite, I told her that you said those three words on my birthday, and she was so delightfully surprised. I told you she liked you.’

Even though substantial information from the above correspondence was very limited, everyone who read the dialogue got the message that these two people were close to each other and that their relationship was exclusive. That is exactly the reason why, rather than this taking place on the seemingly more convenient and private basis of one-to-one chatting, the couple chose to talk secretly ‘in public’. Such ‘coded’ intimate talk on QQ between lovers skilfully displayed love in public without disturbing others too much.

The self-exposure of personal relationships on social media is not always about positive emotions. Having arguments on social media, for example, is regarded as a fatal hit to a romantic relationship. Huang Ling, a 19-year-old factory worker, explained the problem:

Each time, when we had some friction, he would update his QQ status immediately with things like ‘please introduce girls to me, I need a girlfriend, blah blah … I really hated him for that!

Two weeks after their break-up, Huang Ling was still complaining about her ex’s outrageous QQ usage, and every female friend of hers expressed the same resentment. As one of her close female friends remarked, ‘How could he say so regardless of the place and the situation (chang he)?! He just wanted her to lose face’. Ling applied some ‘media sanctions’ to cope with the break-up’s aftermath. First of all she locked her Qzone, which means nobody could view it except herself.

I need some space you know. I don’t want people to gossip about my break-up. Even though they do it out of kindness, I still find it so annoying.

Huang Ling’s elder cousin even called her very late at night to ask her what had happened when he saw her ‘unusual’ QQ status update. She felt embarrassed to explain the reason to her friends and relatives, and therefore locked the only channel (Qzone) from which most of her friends got news about her. After four days Huang Ling reopened her Qzone, having already deleted all her previous QQ status updates. Meanwhile Huang Ling’s updates on WeChat were very remarkable, even dramatic. During the four ‘non-QQ’ days she uploaded a large number of emotional remarks on WeChat. One day she even uploaded a photo of her arm, carved by herself with a steel ruler (Fig. 4.3). The two ‘bloody’ Chinese characters she carved on her skin were hate (hen) and love (ai). It seems that only carving her own skin would fully express her strong feelings about the frustrating break-up. She told me:

Because some of my family members are on Qzone, I don’t want to scare my relatives and other friends. Whereas the circle of friends on WeChat is much smaller; most of them are just colleagues at the factory, so it won’t cause me too much trouble. And he [the ex-boyfriend] will see the photo either way as he is also my WeChat friend.

If we view Huang Ling’s story together with the accounts of Xiao Yu’s careless display of a kiss photo on Qzone and Lujia’s less successful public display of love on QQ group, a more comprehensible picture emerges. First of all, we need to recognise that social media provides many possibilities; it enables people to practise romantic relationships online with much greater freedom than in offline situations. Social media has also become an essential arena in which romantic relationships take place in daily life. However, a more liberating place online does not equal fewer social norms. New norms about what is appropriate or inappropriate on social media dealing with romantic relationships emerged almost immediately. For instance, the release of private problems between couples on social media usually brought immense embarrassment, serving to trigger even worse consequences than in an offline situation. Sociologist Erving Goffman12 used the word ‘frame’ to explain how people’s behaviour is cued by elements that constitute the context of action. In the frame of social media, people were not only aware of the private/public nature of social media, but also intentionally played around with it to express the exclusiveness and intimacy of relationships – even though not everyone was successful at first.

Also, from the frequently applied and highly valued public displays of love on social media, we see how on social media the perceived public gaze is just as strong as in the offline situation. Online, young rural migrants may be free from the disapproval and judgement of senior relatives and fellow villagers, yet their peers’ opinions or those of even strangers were highly valued, and can also cause concern. Regardless of what kind of social rules one follows, as long as there are ‘others’ the risk of ‘losing face’ always exists, and sometimes the uncertainty of who is watching online exacerbates the anxiety.

Another point that emerged from the varied use of social media in romantic relationships is that, in order to make sense of sociality on social media, a whole range of available communication tools must be taken into account. As suggested by the concept of ‘polymedia’,13 it makes no sense to study only one particular media platform in isolation – the meaning and use of any one of them is relative to the others. As is clearly shown in Huang Ling’s situation, her choice of WeChat only made sense in comparison with the role that QQ and mobile phones played in her social life. Furthermore, in a polymedia environment, once one has either the smartphone or a personal computer, the decision which media to use is no longer much affected by either access or cost; instead it becomes a social and moral choices. For instance, in Lujia’s case, his choice of using QQ group messaging to declare his love for his girlfriend had been regarded as very inappropriate. The approach of polymedia, as well as the arguments put forward about new social norms on social media, are not confined to the analysis of romantic relationships on social media.

Call for Proposals: FRINGE series

By Chris J Penfold, on 17 October 2016

The aim of the FRINGE Series is to integrate elusive subjects (‘fringe’) within the the discipline of Area Studies into existing research agendas (centre). Our belief is that reconceptualising the fringe-centre relationship can contribute to breaking down the implicit dichotomy these terms currently represent. ‘Problematising the fringe-centre relationship’ in this context means seeking insight into the complexity of particular contexts, on the one hand, and mastery of discipline-based analysis, on the other

The FRINGE series seeks to publish collective volumes and invites proposals that:

  1. Suggest innovative take on area studies;

  2. Resolve tensions between contextualisation and comparison;

  3. Host research that is trans-regional and cross-disciplinary;

  4. Build a research agenda by focusing on subjects deemed ‘fringy’ yet essential for understanding the workings of the centre:

    1. Fluid
    2. Resistant to articulation
    3. Invisible
    4. Neutral, or residing in
    5. Grey zones,
    6. Elusive in other ways.

Please contact Akosua Bonsu or visit this page for more information.

Taking Why We Post to China

By Daniel Miller, on 12 October 2016

Taking Why We Post to China

Although the Why We Post project is primarily an attempt to study the use and consequences of social media, there were other broader aims. Particularly, the hope that the project would show that while the discipline of anthropology might have originally developed for the study of tribal peoples or ethnic minorities, it is also the most effective means of understanding a global, contemporary and highly dynamic phenomenon such as social media. This would be an especially important message for the largest population of the world, China, where anthropology retains a rather conservative position within the university systems and there is a real chance that it will not survive let alone take its proper position as an effective and vanguard approach to the contemporary world.

As it happens, it is hard to think of two more effective means of making this point than our two books on social media in China. In particular, Tom McDonald’s study in rural China has a consistent narrative about how even such small rural towns are actually thoroughly imbued with digital transformations and tend to have better connectivity today than the village he comes from in Yorkshire. It is a still clearer point for Xinyuan Wang who effectively demolishes most stereotypes about Chinese society – for example the commitment to education and kin – by showing the distinctive nature of not some small exception, but the 250 million Chinese represented by her study of new factory workers. The comparison between these two books, Social Media in Rural China and Social Media in Industrial China, showcases the diversity of contemporary Chinese society and how can we better grasp the nuance and depth of a changing society through a contextualised understanding of the evolving nature of Chinese social media.

IMG_9462_2-496x279

To share our findings we organised a trip to four major centres (Hong Kong, Guangzhou, Beijing, and Shanghai) and nine separate institutions. At a major anthropology and sociology department such as in Hong Kong University, Sun Ya-sen University in Guangzhou, and the Chinese Academy of Social Science in Beijing we could highlight our key point about this potential for anthropology itself in working with dynamic and shifting new media. But it was equally important to talk to Communication Departments such as at the Baptist University of Hong Kong, the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and the Communication University of China in Beijing so that students in that discipline were exposed to the potentials of ethnographic fieldwork. Our audiences ranged from arts and humanities at NYU in Shanghai, to philosophy students in Fudan University of Shanghai. We also visited the People’s Press who had published Xinyuan’s translation of the Digital Anthropology book and where I realised that my fellow authors included both the present and all the past presidents of China.

IMG_9522-496x372

We carried out a live online book launch from Hong Kong (which you can watch again here) and opened an exhibition about the project at Hong Kong University where Tom now teaches. We also made sure that all the films on the Chinese version of our website were stored on UCL servers, rather than on YouTube which is blocked in China, so that students in mainland China could access them. Our trip attracted interest from Chinese local media including two of the largest Chinese online news agents, PengPai news and Tencent News, as well as the most popular English TV channel in Shanghai, Shanghai ICS, helping our message to reach more than ten thousand Chinese people within a few days.

IMG_9560_2-496x372

On a more personal level there were two striking responses. One was the delight of audiences when they realised that Tom would be lecturing in Chinese which was important to convince them that he could be an effective fieldworker in China. The other was the way young female students were clearly inspired by the elegant and articulate but also poignant presentation by Xinyuan and they made clear that they didn’t just want to emulate our way of working, but saw her as a model for what women in China could become in the future.

This post, by Daniel Miller, originally appeared on the Global Social Media Impact Study blog and is reposted with permission.

Life Within Social Media: Stories from Social Media in Industrial China

By Alison Major, on 30 September 2016

Today’s guest blog is by Xinyuan Wang, author of Social Media in Industrial China

In recent decades China has witnessed the largest ever migration in human history. By 2015 the number of Chinese people who had left rural villages to work in factories and cities had risen to 277 million. If Chinese migrant workers were the population of a country, it would be the fourth largest in the world, and they are the human faces behind ‘Made-in-China’. While ‘Made-in-China’ products have become pervasive in our daily life, the people who produce them remain mysterious; however, a new open access book Social Media in Industrial China, reveals that Chinese factory workers actually exhibit an unexpected and sophisticated use of social media to bridge the gap between their rural roots and their industrial lives.

Xinyuan Wang, the author of the book, is a digital anthropologist from UCL who spent 15 months undertaking fieldwork in a small factory town in southeast China, living in one of the factories and tracking the use of social media. By studying this marginalized population, who have, in many ways, embraced the potential of social media to the fullest, this in-depth study sheds light not just on Chinese social media usage, but also on the nature of contemporary China.

Homeland on social media

Hua, a factory worker in her early 30s, has a strong emotional attachment to the beautiful mountain that frames her home village. During her periods as a factory worker, she misses her home village terribly. Her account on the Chinese social media platform QQ is rich in images of her home village; she has uploaded a large number of photographs of her home village into an album called ‘homeland’ (jiaxiang).

Curiously, however, when asked whether she plans to move back to her home village, Hua’s answer is always negative. As well as a lack of job opportunities there, she also feels that her exposure to modern China means that she can no longer go back to ’boring and backward’ country life.

Sometimes, when I felt sad or deflated, I will have a look at those photos … as if I visited my homeland,’ Hua said.

The homeland album is very popular among Chinese migrant workers, and most of them admitted that, even though they miss their home village, they felt unable to return after their exposure to the realities of modern China.

These rural migrants are often referred to as a ‘floating population’ — the hukou (household registration) policy implemented by the government means that they are unable to create a permanent home in the city. A consequence of this is that they are constantly looking for temporary employment, unable to settle in a single place. Hukou policy divides the Chinese population into rural or urban residents dependent on their place of birth and allocates social resources accordingly, which means rural migrants are unable to enjoy the social welfare benefits that their counterparts in cities receive.

Even when faced with rural-urban divide and severe social discrimination, rural migrants, especially the younger generation, still regard migrating to urban areas as the only way to participate in modern life, and rural life is seen as ‘backward’ and ‘boring’. In this situation, people’s attitude towards their homeland is very ambiguous.

Home village is a place you always miss, but not really a place you want to return to,’ as Hua said. Like Hua, many rural migrants see their home village more as a spiritual comfort than a practical option. On social media, all the bad memories and negative associations of village life and homeland seemed to be expunged, leaving only ideal, purified images that give people comfort. They may not be physically in the villages of their origin but, wherever the floating rural migrants are, they take their homeland with them.

However, homeland is not the only place that is rebuilt on social media. To many, social media is also where they actually live, as Xinyuan argues in her book.

Life outside the smartphone is unbearable

Lily, a 19-year-old factory girl, spends almost every single waking hour on QQ when she is working on the factory assembly line. Lily’s QQ profile is a stylish, curated space with lots of beautiful photos and pop music that she has collected online. Online, Lily is popular and she talks as if she were a princess who is waiting for true love: “In my life I have always dreamt about my true love. He will treat me very well, protect me from all the uncertainty, displacement, sadness, and loneliness. However, I always know that that person will never turn up.” However, Lily never talks in this manner offline.

Lily lives with her parents and younger brother and sister in a small factory town. They live in two small single rooms without heating, hot water or air conditioning; they share the only toilet with two other rural migrant families. In summer, when indoor temperatures regularly pass 38°C, the family wash themselves in the shared bathroom; a plastic bucket and washbasin function as a shower. The walls are heavily stained, and there is soiled toilet paper and stagnant water on the floor. In winter, when temperatures fall below freezing, the family head to a nearby public bath to shower once a week.

One day after work Lily was ‘working with’ her QQ via a smartphone, a Huawei model that she had purchased for 1,850 RMB (US$308). Captivated and absorbed by her ‘online world’, she eventually looked up and saw Xinyuan.

Life outside the mobile phone is unbearable, huh?’ Lily observed.

Lily’s insight forced Xinyuan to address the question that became central to her work in industrial China: where do people live? In this small factory town, Xinyuan has met many young rural migrants who have moved geographically closer to a modern China, but it appears that it is only online that they actually arrive there. For many migrant workers, social media has become the place where they can visualise and, in a way, achieve their aspiration towards modernity. On a wider scale, Xinyuan’s study witnessed not just rural-urban migration, but also a parallel migration from offline to online.

The study demonstrates the need to understand where people live, without assuming that the offline is necessarily more ‘real’ or more material. Whilst people in the West have become concerned about the authenticity of social connections on social media, for some migrant workers the situation is the opposite — it is online where they have found the most genuine relationships, even with strangers. The story of Feige, a 37-year-old forklift truck driver, presents a typical example.

‘Purer’ relationships on social media

Feige is a member of 15 QQ groups, though he only actively participates in three. Members of these groups are, on the whole, factory workers with backgrounds similar to Feige’s. Though he had never met the members of these groups offline, they seemed to know much more about him than his colleagues. Feige is extremely popular amongst his online friends. Members of the groups have great affection for him, finding him funny and smart, and always asking for his opinions on social events and news.

They [online friends] like me and talk with me because they really like me, not because I am rich so that they can borrow money from me, or I am powerful so that they can get a job from me. Here everything is much purer, without power and money involved,’ Feige explained.

Feige regards his online friendships as ‘purer’ (geng chun) than his offline relationships, as online there are no pragmatic concerns involved. That friendship on social media has been valued highly by Feige is not rare among rural migrants; for migrant workers such as him, who are often frustrated by their social status, social media provides new possibilities of sociality free from social hierarchy and discrimination.

It is on social media where Chinese migrant workers have experienced a real sense of ‘friendship’; in offline situations, kinship and regional relationships, such as between fellow villagers, are dominant. It is interesting to note that, rather than being the threat to privacy that many in the Western world perceive, social media has actually increased the experience of privacy for most migrant workers. In an environment where offline private space is usually limited, and any effort of avoiding the public gaze can be misinterpreted and stigmatized as an attempt to cover something shameful, the online world offers people much needed personal space and freedom.

The stories of Lily and Feige are just two examples from Social Media in Industrial China; Xinyuan’s field work provides many more absorbing accounts of how social media impacts the lives of rural migrants. Using these real-life tales as a basis, the book illustrates the social media landscape in China and explores the impact of social media on people’s lives. From personal development, social relationships, gender and education, to commerce, privacy, ancestor and deity worshipping and political participation, many of Xinyuan’s discoveries challenge the West’s perception of both China and its inhabitants, explaining why it is time to reassess exactly what we think we know about China and the evolving role of social media.

About Xinyuan Wang

Xinyuan Wang is a PhD candidate at the Dept. of Anthropology at UCL. She obtained her MSc from the UCL’s Digital Anthropology Programme. She is an artist in Chinese traditional painting and calligraphy. She translated (Horst and Miller Eds.) Digital Anthropology into Chinese and contributed a piece on Digital Anthropology in China. A fuller version of this piece appeared on Medium.

If you like what you’ve just read, then we’d recommend that you download Social Media in Industrial China by Xinyuan Wang which is available to download for free here.