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Recent publication: ‘Emotion work via digital visual communication: A comparative study between China and Japan’

Xin Yuan Wang12 August 2021

In the age of the smartphone, communication is becoming more visual. Through the smartphone, the production and circulation of digital visual media have become as costless and accessible as audio and text-based communication. However, as anthropologists, we argue that there is a pressing need to understand local forms of visual communication in the digital age, where the visual has become an essential part of daily communication. A recently published joint article by my colleague Laura Haapio-Kirk and myself addresses this inquiry based on comparative research across China and Japan.

In China and Japan, we are dealing particularly with the rise of visual digital communication among older adults. The ethnographies undertaken across both fieldsites as part of the ASSA project show how visual communication via digital media enables more effective and efficient phatic communication and emotion work. In addition, the ethnographies point to a question about ‘authenticity’ in interpersonal communication. For example, in some cases, the deployment of visual communication via the smartphone is not so much about being able to express ‘authentic’ personal feelings but rather, in being able to effectively establish a digital public façade according to social norms.

A finding from Japan, where Laura Haapio-Kirk conducted fieldwork, focused on stickers being used on the country’s popular LINE messaging platform. These are often personalised in various ways, including through the purchase of tailored sticker sets with a person’s name embedded within the stickers. These are often given as gifts.

A research participant in her late 70s, Wada-san, communicated via LINE messages daily with her daughter who lived in another city, often sending stickers that let her daughter know what she was up to throughout the day. The particular sticker set she downloaded featured a humorous and feisty grandmother character (see photo below). Wada-san’s daughter explained the following: ‘she sends me meaningless things (muimina koto), things that are just part of her daily activities’. Added together, this constant flow of messages made them feel closer in a way that was less burdensome than frequent phone calls throughout the day might be.

 

Figure 1. ‘Grandmother’ LINE sticker set by ©ushiromae.

Similarly, one of the most common genres of communication among research participants in China consists of daily greetings and festival greetings. One of Xinyuan’s research participants, Suiqing, would wake up, select an image of flowers or natural scenery (taken by herself or sourced from the Internet), edit a greeting text which she would overlay on top of the image (such as ‘good morning’ or ‘I wish you a happy day’) and send it to her various WeChat groups, which are overwhelmed with visual greetings (as can be seen below).

Figure 2. A screenshot of a WeChat group conversation among Suiqing’s old work colleagues. The first image reads ‘good morning, good luck, daisy’, the second reads ‘Friendship is the most precious thing, good morning’ and the third reads ‘be happy and joyful’.

To read the open-access article ‘Emotion work via digital visual communication: A comparative study between China and Japan’, please go to: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/20594364211008044

Forget me not – portrait photography in the smartphone age

Xin Yuan Wang16 April 2021

One of my previous blog posts talked about photography as a hobby among older people in China, where the protagonist Mr. Shou brought up the question of the ‘sense of ritual’ in the digital age. In the newly released short video in this blog, I invite you to listen to the same Mr. Shou and what he thinks of his photography, a hobby he has managed to develop as a professional occupation after retirement.

‘Photographic memory’ has long been the subject of anthropological inquiry. In our project’s forthcoming comparative book, The Global Smartphone: beyond a youth technology, we argue that nowadays, smartphone photography is the opposite of traditional photography, whose aim, historically, has been to restore memories. Smartphone photography, on the other hand, is more about taking the opportunity anywhere, anytime to ‘put a frame’ upon anything that people notice in their daily life.

In a way, it is through smartphone photography people experience life. In the short film above, Mr. Shou’s case provides a different angle to this story, enabling us to appreciate the co-existence of both smartphone photography and ‘pre-smartphone’ photography in people’s lives. For example, in Mr. Shou’s case, his professional portrait photography would not reach many people without the successful WeChat blog he runs. Therefore, it is important to observe that ‘smartphone photography’ and ‘pre-smartphone photography’ do not necessarily rival each other, as both of them have found a niche in today’s exuberantly visual world.