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Illustrating ASSA’s findings with comics – part 4

Georgiana Murariu27 September 2021

By Georgiana Murariu and Laura Haapio-Kirk

In this blog post, we present the fourth comic in our ASSA comics series, this time set in Kyoto, one of Laura Haapio-Kirk’s fieldsites. Laura undertook fieldwork here for 16 months on the intersection of ageing and smartphone use and a significant part of her research focused on the rise of visual digital communication among older adults.

One of the findings in our project is related to the rise of social media and smartphones: we found that visual digital media such as emoji and stickers have become an integral element of conversation. Increasingly conversations do not necessarily need either voice or text. It is among older women in particular that Laura found these visual elements to be perceived mostly positively, as a quick and easy way of expressing care. Stickers also mean one is less likely to make mistakes such as typos, and they also help maintain the right atmosphere in a conversation, which is very important in Japan. On the dominant messaging app called LINE, billions of emojis and stickers are sent back and forth every day. However, it is not just stickers that help uphold social norms and etiquette – one’s ‘digital public façade’ can also be upheld through their style of digital communication.

In the comic below based on one of Laura’s participants, we meet Hiro-san, a man in his early 50s who finds the smartphone convenient, but also finds that his style of communication does not fit with what is expected of him when using the smartphone. Hiro-san prefers to write long messages, just as if he was writing an email as he is used to doing in his working life. However, increasingly this style of communication does not fit with the rapid and constant exchanges he is part of in groups on LINE. He also thinks the fact that people can see when one has read a message puts more social pressure on the individual to respond quickly. In response to this sense of pressure, he develops a ‘tortoise’ persona who replies slowly, writing long messages without the use of stickers. ‘Becoming a tortoise’ online frees him from the pressure to fit in with the popular style of messaging which he feels is far too fast-flowing for him.

When this particular participant explained his ‘tortoise’ persona to Laura, she immediately could see the potential of developing the story in a comics format. Laura sent some ideas to John Cei Douglas, the artist we are collaborating with, exploring the possibility of showing the character physically changing into a tortoise costume. John responded with panels that build suspense by showing elements of the costume sequentially, only revealing the full effect in the final panel. One challenging aspect of illustrating this story was how best to show Hiro san’s long messages. Instead of presenting these long text messages visually, John has instead shown the abundance of short and quick reactive messages that Hiro-san was concerned about. We hope that the comic conveys in a playful way how smartphones can both facilitate connection and also be sites for disconnection for those who feel that they do not fit in.

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