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.

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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Why We Post Tour of Chinese Universities

By Alison Major, on 12 September 2016

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

Between 12th-24th September 2016, Professor Daniel Miller and two researchers on the Why We Post project, Tom McDonald and Xinyuan Wang, will give a series of talks about the findings of the project at nine top universities in HongKong, Guangzhou, Beijing, and Shanghai. This China tour also include the launch (13th September) of the two newly released open-access books: Social Media in Industrial China (Wang, 2016) and Social Media in Rural China(McDonald, 2016). If you can’t be with us in Hong Kong, do join our live-streamed launch and put your questions to the authors.

China was the only country in the Why We Post project with two research sites. One of the reasons for this was because China maintains a greater degree of separation and autonomy in their use of popular digital media when compared to the rest of the world, therefore a global comparative study of social media required close scrutiny of particularly Chinese forms of social media such as QQ, WeChat, and Weibo.

The project includes a considerable amount of material on China such as the two newly released open-access books by UCL Press; one of the five weeks of the Anthropology of Social Media e-course; and a series of films set in the Chinese fieldsites. All of our short films (more than 100) about the uses of social media from our nine field sites have Chinese subtitles, and ourwebsite and e-course are both available in Chinese. Bringing an anthropological understanding of Chinese social media in the context of a comparative study back to China is a big commitment the project’s ultimate goal of turning global research into free global education.

Despite there being Chinese universities that teach anthropology, they have tended to see anthropology as a discipline that deals mainly with minority populations. We believe that the more a population becomes modern and urban and indeed digital, the more we need anthropology. This is because most of life now happens in the private sphere. In a little village perhaps it’s easier to see what’s going on from a surface glance. In a modern city where everyone goes to their own private home after work it is much more difficult. So you need research that is not afraid to follow people into the places where they actually live, which may be inside their smartphones, their social media profiles, as well as inside their homes. Otherwise we will not understand the modern world at all. Asking people questions via superficial surveys is not enough. Anthropologists spend many months living with people in order to be sure they understand what is really going on.

We believe that digital technologies including social media may be more formative of life in China than in almost any other country. While China has great and honourable traditions, the development of what we think of as modern China is relatively recent and relatively fast, taking place at the exact same time that new digital technologies are becoming an integral part of people’s lives. So whether we’re talking about the infrastructure of new cities or the spread of inexpensive smartphones, digital technologies are ubiquitous to the new China, and this means it is particularly important to understand their use and their consequences from a deep and engaged anthropological approach.

We hope that this China tour will introduce digital anthropology as a research tool to the Chinese academy. It is also hoped that the debates and talks will help to formulate key questions for future study within Chinese anthropology. We hope that China will play a key role in these future studies commensurate with its importance as a modern population that is embracing every form of new digital technology, and hopefully also embracing anthropology as the best means for observing and understanding their consequences.

The table below contains details of the talks in this China tour. For further updated information (in Chinese) please see here: http://uclwhywepost.isitestar.vip

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About the Author

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.

 

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

Un Manjar: Viral Chilean slang

By Alison Major, on 22 August 2016

manjarsh-496x330Today’s guest blog is by Nell Haynes, Visiting Assistant Professor at Northwestern University and author of Social Media in Northern Chile.

In Chile, “manjar” is a kind of sweet sauce, similar to dulce de leche or caramel. It’s often used as filling in layer cakes or atop pancakes. It is almost universally loved for its smooth rich flavour. But ‘manjar’ is also used in slang to mean ‘rich’ or ‘sweet’ in other contexts as well. One may refer to a delicious holiday meal as ‘un manjar’ or equally to their love interest.

I had heard these uses of the word in Chile, and also being a fan of the sweet sauce, it made sense that it stood in for something to be savored. Yet when I attended a concert by American rock band Faith No More in Santiago, I was bewildered by the crowd’s repeated chanting of ‘un manjar! un manjar!’. Sure, the music was good, something to be savoured in the moment, but the food metaphor just didn’t seem apt to me. And the fact that it was being chanted in unison by thousands rather than whispered with a wink as that especially attractive acquaintance passed by, puzzled me even more.

But then I realised it was simply the buzz word of the moment. And not because of some fluke, but because, as is usual these days, social media had set off the trend, much as I explained for the resurgence of The Rhythm of the Night in Chilean night clubs in 2015.

In this instance, ‘manjar’ was thrown into heavy circulation when a youtube video surfaced of a Chilean campesino [person from the countryside] taking a long swig of very cheap wine, and then in a slow gruffy voice, proclaiming ‘un manjarsh’. Because of his accent and stereotypical campesino look, the man’s drunken proclamation was hilarious to young youtube viewers and as the video was passed around, use of the word ‘manjar’ shifted from occasional to self-consciously inserted into any possible exchange. Not only in spoken language, but Whatsapp messages, Facebook posts, Tweets, .gifs, memes, and even parody videos flooded Chileans’ internet. After a week or two the joke subsided, though when casually used, even several months later, the word still conjures the video of the campesino and his wine.

So, sure, this is just another story in grand quantity about how a word, idea, or image goes viral, has a short-lived moment in the spotlight, then fades from memory. But in this case, it also tells us something about nationalism and popular culture. Because manjar is considered something of a staple food in Chile, to call a person, food, or drink ‘un manjar’ not only says that the object is desirable, but that the person speaking about it does so from a particular position of being a ‘true Chilean.’ In some ways, urban youth may be lampooning the campesino with wine, but they are also identifying a similarity between him and themselves as Chileans. And when shouting it at an international rock concert, it claims the space and music as Chilean, not foreign, appropriating such rock music into a ‘true Chilean’ repertoire. I suppose it would be something like Americans chanting ‘apple pie’ at a U2 concert, claiming them as their own.

About the Author

Nell Haynes is Visiting Assistant Professor at Northwestern University, and author of Social Media in Northern Chile. Previously, she was Post-Doctoral Fellow at Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile in Santiago, and  received her Ph.D. in Anthropology from the American University in 2013. Her research addresses themes of performance, authenticity, globalization, and gendered and ethnic identification in Bolivia and Chile.

Anything but selfies…

By Daniel Miller, on 15 August 2016

different-genres-of-selfies-768x1000In every respect we are delighted with the launch of our project. We now engage in daily interaction with the thousands of students registered on our FutureLearn course, plus many thousands more on the translated versions on UCL eXtend. The almost 20,000 downloads of our books is a real boost for Open Access.

But there has been one element that I found rather irritating. Here is a project that dealt with tensions on the Syrian-Turkish border, 250 million Chinese factory workers, the nature of Englishness, transformations in human communication, politics, gender, and education. Yet almost every single media enquiry, and we are happy that there were so many, seemed to focus upon the selfie and almost inevitably mentioned a specific kind of selfie taken in Chile of people’s feet. Which is why, given the choice, I would love to answer questions about our project on any topic under the sun – other than bloody selfies.

But as an anthropologist I have to transcend any personal feelings and always ask ‘why?’. My explanation is going to be as benign as I can make it – what I would like to believe to be the case – though certainly it may be otherwise. My supposition is that the selfie is iconic of social media because it speaks to the single dominant story we want to tell ourselves and which, by creating anxiety, also sells newspapers. We tend to argue that social media is the latest stage in an inevitable journey from the kind of intense kinship-based sociality studied by anthropologists to the fragmented narcissistic individualists studied as a kind of modern pathology by sociologists and psychologists. So the media and others find it strange that it is anthropologists, the group who are supposed to represent the other end of this story – kinship and tribes – who are talking about the selfie. Perhaps this represents a kind of profound disconnect.

It may then follow that the best way anthropology can be presented as a repudiation of this simple story is by noting that as anthropologists we have refused to regard the selfie as this icon of the fall of humanity from the graces of proper and intense sociality. A photo of unpretentious feet is the opposite of the self-absorbed look-at-me selfie of the face. If this explanation is correct it would be parallel to my early blog post about the ‘no-make-up selfie’ where adults in my fieldsite only started posting selfies when they found a cancer charity-based model which seemed to repudiate the association between the selfie and supposed teenage self-centeredness.

We do indeed repudiate the simple story of a decline in humanity and indeed we try and show why even these teenagers are more complex, mature and social than this story implied. If this is the case then I should be happy that the media has made our point so succinctly. Hopefully once that point has burst the selfie boil, this then clears the way for the media and others to focus on the way we tell a hugely different story of highly socialised and diverse social media that has important consequences for almost every other aspect of our lives. For example, the way we use our analysis to critique the very concept of ‘superficiality’ which is the premise of much of this discussion of the selfie. Perhaps now we can argue that in most respects social media takes society in the opposite direction: more social, less individual, closer to the way society is represented by anthropology and less close to the pathologies of the individual studied in psychology. At least that is the story I hope we will eventually be allowed to tell.

About the author

Daniel Miller is Professor of Anthropology at UCL and author of 37 books including How the World Changed Social Media,  Social Media in an English VillageThe Comfort of Things, Stuff, Tales from Facebook and A Theory of Shopping.  Find out more about the Why We Post series at  https://www.ucl.ac.uk/ucl-press/why-we-post.

This post is an updated/adapted version of a post that originally appeared on the Global Social Media Impact Study blog, using the title ‘Anything but Selfies’. It has been re-posted with permission.

Social media and Brexit

By Daniel Miller, on 28 June 2016

Screen Shot 2016-06-27 at 14.22.03One of the common claims made about social media is that it has facilitated a new form of political intervention aligned with the practices and inclinations of the young. Last week I attended the launch of an extremely good book by Henry Jenkins and his colleagues called By Any Media Necessary which documents how young people use social and other media to become politically involved, demonstrating that this is real politics not merely ‘slacktivism’, a mere substitute for such political involvement.

And yet, currently I am seeing social media buzzing with young people advocating a petition to revoke the Brexit vote, which only highlights the absence of a similar ‘buzz’ prior to the vote. I await more scholarly studies in confirmation, but my impression is that we did not see the kind of massive activist campaign by young people to prevent Brexit that we saw with campaigns behind Bernie Sanders in the US and Jeremy Corbyn in the UK.

The failure to create an attractive activist-led mass social media campaign to get young people to vote for Remain is reflected in the figures; although 18-24 year-olds were the most favourable segment towards Remain, only 36% of this group actually voted at all. As such, Brexit represents a catastrophic failure in young people’s social media, from which we need to learn. Being based in ethnography, our Why We Post project argued that we need to study the absence of politics in ordinary people’s social media as much as focusing on when it does appear. But the key lesson is surely that just because social media can facilitate young people’s involvement in politics doesn’t mean it will, even when that politics impacts upon the young.

One possibility is that social media favours a more radical idealistic agenda. By contrast, even though the impact of Brexit might be greater and more tangible, the remain campaign was led by a conservative prime minister, backing a Europe associate with bureaucracy and corporate interest, and was a messy grouping of people with different ideological perspectives, that made it perhaps less susceptible to the social media mechanisms of aggregated sharing.

At the same time I would claim that our work can help us to understand the result. My own book Social Media in an English Village is centred on the way English people re-purposed social media as a mechanism for keeping ‘others’, and above all one’s neighbours, at a distance. I cannot demonstrate this but I would argue that by supporting Brexit the English were doing in politics at a much larger scale exactly what my book claims they were doing to their neighbours at a local level: expressing a sense that ‘others’ were getting too close and too intrusive and needed to be pushed back to some more appropriate distance. And it is this rationale which may now have devastated the prospects for young people in England.

About the author

Daniel Miller is Professor of Anthropology at UCL and author of 37 books including Social Media in an English VillageThe Comfort of Things, Stuff, Tales from Facebook and A Theory of Shopping.  Find out more about the Why We Post series at  https://www.ucl.ac.uk/ucl-press/why-we-post.

This post originally appeared on the Global Social Media Impact Study blog, using the title ‘Social Media and Brexit’. It has been re-posted with permission.