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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

Illustrating ASSA’s Findings With Comics: Part 2

Georgiana Murariu22 June 2021

By Georgiana Murariu & Laura Haapio-Kirk

In this blog post, we present the second comic in our series illustrating key findings from the ASSA project. ‘The Next Step’, based on research by Alfonso Otaegui, drawn by John Cei Douglas, and scripted by ourselves, can be seen below in both English and Spanish.

Alfonso Otaegui did his fieldwork in Santiago, the capital of Chile, where he spent a year volunteering at a cultural centre in the city, teaching older adults how to use smartphones. Alfonso has recently written about Chile’s increasing digitalisation of services and the government’s aim to become ‘paperless’ soon. Many of his research participants expressed the anxiety that soon they might be left with no choice but to use a smartphone to access specific services, even if they do not feel confident using one.

Alfonso has also written about how the COVID-19 pandemic has further accelerated the imposition of digital services upon people in Chile. Older people are not only strongly encouraged to become digitally savvy by their government, but also by their own family and other acquaintances in order to stay connected during the pandemic.

Alfonso’s experience teaching smartphones at the cultural centre has given him a wealth of insight into the sorts of things older people struggle with when they first learn how to use the device. One of the common struggles older adults encounter when learning to use the device is the experience of anxiety facing too many options, for example on a menu that offers several calls to action illustrated through icons. While doing an exercise on sharing an image, several students would be distracted by the vast array of other possibilities/icons.

It’s not all negative, however – far from it: Alfonso found that once older people had mastered the smartphone, their developing digital skills opened up all sorts of possibilities for them. As Alfonso put it in the short video below, at any given time, they are two taps away from frustration, and two taps away from empowerment.

It is this journey towards digital literacy that we wanted to illustrate in the comic below.

To script the comic, we used material from Alfonso’s photos, research, anecdotes and the short film above, deciding to create a character that combined many of the experiences of his participants. Using the direct quote “pa,pa,pa, it’s done!”, which came from an individual in Alfonso’s research, we shaped a character and narrative around this particular moment of frustration, which you can see below in both English and Spanish:

‘The Next Step’

‘¿Y ahora, cómo sigo?’