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What’s the point of ethnographic fieldwork?

TomMcDonald28 August 2014

Learning from each other in the North China fieldsite (Photo: Tom McDonald)

Learning from each other in the North China fieldsite (Photo: Tom McDonald)

Being an anthropologist is one of the strangest jobs in the world.

For the last 15 months, I’ve been living in a small rural town in North China, where I have been doing ethnographic fieldwork on the impact of social media in the town. In a few days time I will say a final farewell to my friends here, and head back to London.

This is not the kind of job where you can clock-off and go home at 5pm. There are no weekends. Instead it’s a job that demands that we, as ethnographers, join our lives with the people that we study. This means living, eating, talking, playing, exercising, laughing, showering (yes… showering) and doing everything else together. By getting close to people in the fieldsite I hope that I can understand more than if I had solely relied on questionnaires or interviews (although I’ve done plenty of those too).

But these experiences also require something else: sometimes it’s necessary to give up a little bit of yourself to get closer to people who are different to you. Ethnography demands a kind of flexibility, an ability to accommodate those who differ from ourselves in order to try to understand why these differences exist in the first place. In the past 15 months I have often found myself doing things I would rather not do, eating things I’d rather not eat, and drinking things I’d rather not drink. However being able to set aside some of my own self-imposed limits, limits that make me the person that I am, is something that has definitely helped me to make friends here. Also, doing so has let me to explore other possibilities of being human that I never before knew were possible.

This character of accommodating difference has not been a one-way thing. The people of my fieldsite have been overwhelmingly generous in letting me into their lives, and eager to ask questions about my own life. Furthermore, during this time I’ve often made many social slip-ups that might have upset people, maybe said things I didn’t know people would take offence at, or perhaps asked questions that pry a little too much. Throughout, people have been incredibly understanding and patient with me as I slowly learn more about how they do things here. This spirit of mutual understanding has helped me learn so much about people’s lives and what is important to them here in rural China, and in the coming year I’ll share more of these findings. However for now I just want to concentrate on why we need ethnography.

Despite the many scientific and technological advances of the last century, it is obvious to me that we still live in a world that is largely governed by misunderstanding and fear. When we see people who are different from us, it scares us because their presence raises the possibility that our own way of doing things might not necessarily be the best, or even the correct way.

I firmly believe that if we are to hope to solve so many of the challenges facing today’s world, then our best chance is through mutual conversation, dialogue and learning. And although on one hand it may seem entirely superfluous to send a researcher to live in a rural town in China in order to study social media use, the question we need to ask ourselves should not be whether we can afford to do such ethnographic fieldwork, but rather whether we can afford not to?

This blog post is dedicated, with thanks, to the people of the North China fieldsite.

What is an anthropological global generalisaion?

DanielMiller17 August 2014

Image courtesy of Lindsay Campbell, Creative Commons

Image courtesy of Lindsay Campbell, Creative Commons

Perhaps the biggest problem of our entire project is that every time anyone asks us a question we have nine different answers, which is not what the person asking the question wants to hear. As our project becomes better known we are all constantly asked for the ‘results’ of our study in the form of  ‘does social media do this?’ or ‘is Facebook having that impact?’ With very few exceptions people want and expect a simple and clear answer. But any answer we give that fitted such questions would be in effect an ‘anthropological global generalisation’ and it’s not clear what such a thing could be. As a recent blog post noted, Chinese social media are not even the same platforms and so can be constantly rendered peripheral by answers in the form of ‘Facebook does this – but not in China’.

We also recently posted a study of how the World Cup appeared on social media in all nine sites. We have no evidence that this was used as ‘news’ by others, although we felt the results were fascinating. We might publish an academic paper using this information but other people find it difficult to know what to do with nine different answers. Of course, for us the single most important academic result should be an insistence on acknowledging these differences. Not because it suits us as anthropologists but because it is the truth about social media. They are different in each site. But endless reiteration of this point reduces us to being never more than the critics of psychologists, economists and pundits generally. This is important and we now have a vast amount of evidence that they are wrong in pretty much everything they say, to the degree that they ignore such differences. But this isn’t the only thing we want to say. Furthermore it is empirically evident from our study that there are many ‘sort-of’ generalisations we could and should make. We too are interested to find out that some things are more generalisable than others, often unexpectedly so.

When we met for a month in May we attempted an initial solution to this problem. We sat together, proposed, argued and discussed our findings to see what generalisations we could come up with. In the end we tentatively suggested around 30. Since that time I have put many of them up on my own twitter account at @DannyAnth. As Tweets they are both succinct and wildly over generalised. But at least this forces us to confront the issue. What we discovered was that there might be a solution as long as we are prepared to make certain compromises and this might be worthwhile in order for our work to be actually taken up and used. Even for educational purposes people want something other than nine different answers. We felt it will be safe to make generalisations partly because there will be nine books with enough detail to show how there exists another finer level of detail available to anyone who wants a more honest account of our findings. Secondly we found a mode of expressing ourselves of the ‘Yes-But’ variety.

What transpired was that we had no generalisations at all that didn’t require caveats. Even if something seemed generally the case for most of us, there would be one site, often in Turkey or rural China where this was conspicuously not the case. So the compromise was to have a mode that linked each generalisation to its caveat, that is a footnote that could slightly expand on this point and take note of which places this generalisation did not hold in. In May these took the following form:-

5) Social media should not be viewed as a simple extension of prior uses of the Internet.

Footnote: For example, prior uses of the internet caused concerns about anonymity, while with social media concern has shifted more to privacy. Though with exceptions, for instance we find Facebook used to create anonymity in India and Turkey.

6) Social science has tended to see modern life as an inexorable movement from communal living to more individualism. Social media, by contrast, may lead to re-connections between people or entirely novel connections.

Footnote: In our South China site we find the more conventional movement largely from communal to more autonomous life through social media. The meaning of individualism also varies from site to site.

7) Our studies suggest that in some areas groups continue to be the key units of social media usage. For example the family in Italy and low income Brazil, the caste in India and the tribe in South-East Turkey. 

Footnote: For example, the acceptance of friending depends on groups beyond the individual. In China QQ organises friends lists and most people have one dedicated to the family. Trinidad and England seem to accord better with the notion of ego-centred networking. In Turkey we see both group control and also the creation of ego-centred networks through anonymous profiles.

Even here we have the additional problem that, of course, we didn’t study ‘Turkey’ or ‘England’ but just sites of around 25k in each case. To use national tags is itself problematic. But without them we once again fall into the trap of being ‘correct’ but useless to non-anthropologists. When we complete our fieldwork we will return to this issue. Whatever we do will require compromise all of which will lead us to be criticised, not least by other anthropologists. There will inevitably be different levels of dissemination from the full and detailed expression of our differences to the over generalised statements without which we will never transcend our anthropological audience. In practice even a book of 80k words feels like an overgeneralised account when you have done 15 months fieldwork.

We believe this exercise is important not only for our project but for the future of anthropology more generally. Help and suggestions, for example of good precedents in making anthropological global generalisations, would be very welcome.

Between walls: methodology for comparing Chinese and non-Chinese social media

TomMcDonald27 July 2014

Comparing two walls: QZone is often referred to as the 'Chinese Facebook', but there are important differences between the two platforms (Photo: Tom McDonald)

Comparing two walls: QZone is often referred to as the ‘Chinese Facebook’, but there are important differences between the two platforms (Photo: Tom McDonald)

Recently our team has been doing a statistical analysis of  our particpants’ social networking use in our different fieldsites around the world. In the future this data will be one of the key ways we will compare between the fieldsites. For most of the fieldsites, the analysis takes place on Facebook using clever computer programs created by Shriram that helps to automate the data collection and make sure that the same techniques are used between all the fieldsites.

But our two fieldsites in North and South China pose a unique problem in terms of methodology. Facebook is inaccessible here in China, and most people use QQ or WeChat as their main social networking platform. Both these platforms are quite different to Facebook in terms of layout and functionality, and neither of them have proper, full APIs that allow you to run the kind of automated statistical analysis we have been attempting on Facebook. This raises an important methodological question: how is it possible to do a comparison between fieldsites when the thing that you are comparing is not the same?

It’s something I have felt that our team has struggled with throughout this project, and often when we have met as a group to discuss the project and our methodology, QQ seems to get pushed into the background. It often feels like Chinese social networks are this great, dark unknown. For a start, their appearance is incredibly different from Facebook, and the fact that many of them only support Chinese language versions makes them almost impenetrable to people who don’t understand the language. Our group’s internal fieldwork manuals, which contain comprehensive instructions that guide the rest of the team through how to research a particular question, are often reduced down to a single sentence for our China fieldsites: “Tom and Xinyuan will have to use local resources.”

This is not a complaint. Rather, it is a testament to how different Chinese social media is from the rest of the world. Also, it is a challenge to think through the comparisons we are trying to make; what kind of data they will provide us with and, most importantly, what conclusions we hope to make from them.

For example, one of the things we are analysing is who are the people who interact (i.e. like, comment) the most with our friends in the fieldsite on their wall. On Facebook this is simple enough, however on QZone we have to count these interactions manually on a wall-like feature called ‘His/Her Happenings’ (ta de dongtai). This is further complicated by the fact that users very rarely use their real name on their account, with most adopting creative pseudonyms such as ‘Lonely cigarette butt’. Also because people tend to repost many more memes on QZone than on Facebook, the ‘likes’ of friends can sometimes get lost between thousands of other likes, which can make it very confusing to count which of the likes come from a participant’s QQ friends.

I am not suggesting that this makes the data derived from our Chinese and non-Chinese fieldsites incomparable to each other. Rather, it points to the fact that any statistical figures that we come up with need to be treated as just one part of the puzzle, and that the very process of trying to produce such statistics highlights the important material differences between the platforms, which are begging to be documented and explained. Such accounts will help to make Chinese social media a little less of a ‘dark unknown’, and will tell us quite a lot about Chinese culture and life in the process.

Furthermore, these differences highlights the danger of simply looking at statistical data, and assuming it demonstrates an ‘absolute truth’. Reality is often more complicated that a simple percentage. Any statistical comparison needs to be tempered with the qualitative data we have been gathering through interviews and participant observation in each of our fieldsites that help to understand how social media is embedded into people’s lives.

Comparison is never simple or easy, especially so with a large global project like this. But I feel certain that the challenges such comparisons involve, and the opportunities they present for cultural understanding make it all the more important to try.

Questions I get asked everyday…

TomMcDonald20 July 2014

Tom asking (or maybe being asked) the questions (Photo: Gillian Bolsover)

Tom asking (or maybe being asked) lots of questions (Photo: Gillian Bolsover)

For the past 14 months I’ve been living in this rural town in north China, conducting ethnographic research on how social media is affecting life here.

However, many people in the town have never had a foreign friend before, let alone one that can speak Chinese. People are extremely inquisitive about me and life in the UK, and I generally spend much more of my time answering their constant questions than I am able to ask them my own research questions and hear their answers.

Below are the questions I tend to get asked on an almost daily basis here in the town. I’ve decided to publish them on this blog partly because even though I am really bored of having to answer these questions again and again, they remain interesting both because they reveal some commonly held ideas that many people in the town hold regarding the rest of the world, while also helping us to learn about some of the important concerns of rural Chinese life (food, family, work, history, politics).

  • Why are your eyes blue?
  • Why is your skin white?
  • Why is your hair yellow? Is it dyed?
  • How many brothers and sisters do you have?
  • Do westerners just eat bread and drink milk?
  • Do westerners always eat raw meat?
  • Are you unable to eat Chinese food?
  • Wow! How come you know how to use chopsticks?!
  • What religion are you? Do all westerners believe in Jesus?
  • How much is your salary in a month?
  • What is the average house price in the UK?
  • What is the area/population of the UK?
  • Can you get used to living here?
  • Do you miss home?
  • How old are you?
  • Are you married?
  • Why aren’t you married?
  • Do you like Chinese girls? Are they pretty?
  • Why don’t you get a Chinese wife?
  • How many children are you allowed to give birth to in the UK?
  • Why does Britain always invade other countries and do whatever America does?
  • Do you think the Diaoyu Islands are China’s [territory]?
  • Why are you here?
  • Are you a spy?
  • What cars do you drive in the UK?
  • What is the weather like in the UK?

While some people may interpret these questions as showing that people in my fieldsite know very little about the rest of the world, I think the questions make a lot of sense and actually show how interested in the outside world my friends here are.

In addition, the incredulous looks my friends give me when I ask some of our research questions in our interviews, such as ‘does social media increase or decrease your interaction with people who are significantly richer or poorer than you?’ sometimes makes me think us researchers are the ones who are asking the stupid questions.

But then maybe there is no such thing as a stupid question. Almost anything you ask can help start a dialogue which will end up helping you to learn more about the people in your fieldsite. As the old adage goes: ‘one can but ask…’.

Online and under the covers: the World Cup and social media in rural China

TomMcDonald27 June 2014

Post young man from North China fieldsite on his WeChat profile. Caption reads "Essential preparation for watching football." From left to right is beer, red bull, yoghurt, cigarettes and plate of red dates.

Post young man from North China fieldsite made on his WeChat profile. Caption reads “Essential preparation for watching football.” From left to right is beer, red bull, yoghurt, cigarettes and plate of red dates.

On first glance, taking a look around this small rural town in North China, the World Cup seems like it is a world away.

Being a football fan in the town has always been a minority pursuit. In general, adults don’t do much sport here: most are busy with work and family commitments. For those who do play sports, basketball, badminton and table tennis tend to be more popular, with both the primary and middle school having basic outside facilities for these sorts of activities. There is a gravel football pitch attached to the primary school, but this is rarely used by the school itself.

The town has its own unofficial amateur football team, a loose group of young men, (reminiscent of Sunday pub football teams) who organise evening practices on the middle school football pitch, and occasional matches through a QQ instant messaging group. Several times during the summer of 2013, the school tried to stop the team playing football altogether on the pitch, citing safety concerns. During the winter, the grim weather and shorter days mean members of the football team abandon evening practice altogether, preferring to play football on better artificial pitches in the nearby county-town during the weekend. This small group of hardcore football fans formed the bulk of my exposure to the World Cup, but they used social media to do it in a way that made it largely unobservable to most others.

Kicking-off: a World Cup under the covers
On the day that the World Cup started, I was awoken at 3:50 am by the sound of a WeChat message on my phone by the side of the bed. A short while after another arrived. And then another. And another. I reached over and, bleary-eyed, gazed at my phone screen. Four of my friends from the town had set up a WeChat conversation named ‘The world accelerating’ (jiasu shijie) and were talking between themselves on it. It took a second until I could figure out what they were doing: sending messages to each other talking about the opening game of the World Cup, while the game unfolded.

One of the major downsides of the World Cup being located in Brazil is the staggering inconvenience this happens to have caused Chinese football fans. There is a 11-hour time difference between Brasília and Beijing, and this means that all of the matches kick-off somewhere between midnight and 6am local time, making it extremely difficult for young men to make time for watching football between normal patterns of work, family and sleep. For this reason this World Cup, more than any I have ever witnessed in China, is one that relies enormously on the internet.

‘The world accelerating’ WeChat group chat was important because it allows this small group of men to feel like they are watching football together. There is no place in the town that they could gather to watch the game (all businesses in the town close at 9pm, and unlike Chinese cities there are no bars here). Even though many of these men were watching at home they still made this a real group experience. This was furthered by the fact that their conversations were almost completely conducted via the WeChat’s asynchronous voice messaging feature (which is quite a contrast to the normal conversations on the football team’s QQ group which is conducted almost entirely through text).

The friendliness and companionship of these young men was really prevalent when listening to these world cup messages. There was a real since of ‘blokey’ fun behind it all. The voice messages are all in thick local dialect, interspersed with exuberant swearing, such as “that shot was the bull’s p*nis!” (nage qiu hen niubi). Bits of chat about work between friends, who also co-operate with each other in business was interrupted with someone excitedly saying “It’s starting, it’s starting…” at the commencement of the game. Despite it being 4am, and each of them being in their beds at home, the WeChat atmosphere it reminded me of watching football matches in pubs in the UK.

The group was also full of other matey lad banter. One person leaves a voice message saying “Come on, bottoms up, bottoms up” (kuaidian, ganbei ganbei) suggesting alcohol consumption. Someone posts pictures of pretty young Chinese women. It’s perhaps gratifying that even at 4 am in rural China you can get beer, girls and football – at least via WeChat.

The fact that all this takes place in the middle of the night makes it all the more magical. There is something almost improper about it. At one moment one of them leaves a We Chat message of him shouting excitedly, and one of the others jokes “don’t wake up your wife!” (bie ba ni xifu naoxing). I have a wonderful mental image of all these men, in their 20s and 30s, under the covers in bed, smartphone in one hand chatting to friend, tablet in the other watching the match. Or in dark hotel rooms with the TV on at the end of the bed, with droopy-eyed and struggling to stay awake. As one person told me “If you don’t watch with friends, it’s no fun” (bu gen pengyou yiqi kan, jiubu hao wan). Having friends around via WeChat is perhaps one of the ways to get you through this. At the end of the match, one of the young guys even said, “OK OK, everyone go to bed. Everybody’s tired”

The internet World Cup
IMG_1282Apart from this small group of avid fans who are willing to stay up late into the night watching these games, for others only vaguely interested in football, social media becomes a key point through which World Cup information is disseminated nationwide. As mentioned in a previous blogpost, QQ and WeChat both combine news delivery with social media. Both platforms have heavily featured World Cup related stories. Between 13-16 June 2014 inclusive, 8 out of the 37 news stories on QQ Tencent news were World Cup related, on WeChat that figure was 9 out of 37. On the first day of the tournament, QQ mobile featured a special ‘startup screen’ (kind of similar to a Google doodle) of the QQ penguin logo made up of lots of football players. The QQ homepage has a special section dedicated to the World Cup, where entire matches and compilations of goal-scoring moments can be watched at a more suitable time.

Despite the challenges of football being a minority pursuit here in this rural Chinese town, and the difficulties of following the World Cup given the time difference between Brazil and China, I have nonetheless been struck by how people are using social media and the internet to create the kind of tournament experience that appeals to them, and most importantly, share in that experience with their friends.

THE WORLD CUP ON SOCIAL MEDIA WORLDWIDE
This article is part of a special series of blog posts profiling how social media is affecting how ordinary people from communities across the planet experience the 2014 World Cup.

Thinking of writing cultures

RazvanNicolescu15 June 2014

Project team selfie (Photograph by Xinyuan)

Project team selfie (Photograph by Xinyuan)

This blog post will try to give just a short glimpse of what our collective work means and how we envisage doing it.

This May, the entire project team reunited in London. This came after roughly twelve months fieldwork for each of us. Imagine nine anthropologists (Elisabetta Costa, Nell Haynes, Tom McDonald, Daniel Miller, Razvan Nicolescu, Jolynna Sinanan, Juliano Spyer, Shriram Venkatraman, and Xinyuan Wang) sitting at the same table and each trying to talk in a way that would make sense for the rest of the team while also addressing very different individual issues and concerns. In a way, this task was very similar with one of the main underlying thoughts since the beginning of the project: how to make our ethnographies really comparable?

We started by structuring our individual presentations into themes and focused more on ‘what went wrong’ or ‘what we didn’t do’ rather than on the positive aspects of our fieldwork. We felt we needed this exercise, as on the one hand we identified common issues and workarounds and on the other hand the kind of feedback we each received was incredibly effective. This was also one occasion to realise how much we have done so far: tens of questionnaires, exploratory interviews, in-depth interviews, close work with local schools and in a few cases (Turkey, Trinidad, and India) with local Universities, gathering of specific quantitative and demographic data, and so on. Besides, each of us followed their individual research interest, updated on a monthly basis the research blog, and circulated inside the team a total of around 70,000 words in monthly reports.

Next, based on our continuous discussions we started to draw a list with the main preliminary insights of the project. We qualified as ‘insights’ the kind of information based on ethnographic evidence that, even if could be strongly relativized between all the nine sites, it is nevertheless essential in understanding the impact of social networking sites on our society. After a few rounds of refinement and clarifications we ended up with around thirty preliminary insights that we will begin to publish on this blog. The idea beyond this is that we recognize that the earlier we put our findings in the public domain and under critical scrutiny the more social science will benefit.

Then, we started to work on a list of tasks that we all have to do in the last three months of fieldwork. We ended up in defining 20 tasks, mostly qualitative, that respond to issues we overlooked so far or we decided collectively we have to have. Some of these are: we redrew parts of the in-depth interview grid, we defined a few common mechanisms to work on and to analyze the online material, and created a second short questionnaire to be done by the end of the fieldwork. Sometimes the endless debates on the various nuances and particular issues in each fieldsite had to be closed down by mechanisms such as democratic votes inside the project team: by voting, we collectively decided whether we will address that particular topic as a collective as part of the mandatory deliverables or it will remain to be further investigated by just some of us.

There are so many other things we worked on during this month and I do not have space to discuss here: gathering user generated content, producing short films on the main themes in each fieldsite, the course we’ll collectively teach at UCL/Anthropology in the second term of the next academic year, discussion on research ethics, methodologies, and data analysis, AAA conference this year, dissemination plan and our collective publications, as detailed here by Danny, the strategy for our online presence, and so on.

By the end of the month, when my colleagues also prepared their panel for the RAI conference on Anthropology and Photography, we all agreed that going through such an immense quantity of data and ideas, process, and plan our further common actions in a relatively short period of time was the real success.

 

Filmmaking and photography in anthropological research

TomMcDonald12 June 2014

Baby in fieldsite using Kiki Wang's camera (Photo: Tom McDonald)

Child in north China fieldsite explores Kiki Wang’s camera (Photo: Tom McDonald)

As part of the project’s ambitious plans for telling people about the findings of our research, I’m fortunate to have been able to collaborate with the incredibly talented and creative Gillian Bolsover and Kiki Wang who have just finished a short visit to the north China fieldsite, in order to produce a series of photographs and films with the aim of bringing the ethnography to life for people all around the world.

It’s been a particularly intensive week of work for us all, as I have been taking both of them around many places in the fieldsite, trying to introduce them to as many of my friends here as possible and to help them to capture as many different aspects of life in the town and villages as we can.

But I’ve found the exercise to be useful in another sense; it has forced me to reflect on the key relationships and friendships that I have made with people in the town during the past year of fieldwork. These people have been both great and wonderfully understanding about participating in our photos and films. I had assumed that they would be reticent about the process, but often they have been really positive about appearing in the films and see it as a chance to tell people around the world about their hometown and their lives. Traditional anthropological papers and books have always attempted to tell the stories of ‘faraway others’, but it is a shame that so few people tend to read ethnography. I hope that through these photos and videos I can bring the lives of the people in our fieldsite who have been so generous in participating in this project to more people and in different formats.

Having two fresh pairs of eyes in my fieldsite has also helped in other ways. Speaking with Gillian and Kiki over the past week and hearing their opinions on my fieldsite has made me reconsider aspects of my own ethnography and many times they have asked my research participants questions that I had never thought of.

It will take some time for the final results to be ready; however, what I have seen so far suggests they will be a success in every way. The entire experience of working with photographers and filmmakers has confirmed my belief in the value of collaborative anthropological research projects, which draw on the skills of people from all kinds of backgrounds. Before last week I was hesitant about conducting research that involved taking photos and making films, but now I honestly can’t imagine doing research without it.

Social media and mass media: the CCTV Chinese New Year’s Gala

TomMcDonald23 February 2014

Poetic couplets hung on the door of a village house in preparation for Chinese NewYear (Photo: Tom McDonald)

Poetic couplets hung on the door of a village house in preparation for Chinese New Year (Photo: Tom McDonald)

I passed the recent Chinese New Year in my fieldsite in North China with the Wang family in their rented shopfront-cum-home on the small rural town’s commercial street, with Mr Wang, his wife and son, 16 year old Little Wang, who had just finished his term at the high school in the nearby county-town, and was back home for the school holidays.

One of the most interesting elements of the festival is social media’s relationship with the mass media event of the day (and probably the year), which is the CCTV New Year’s Gala programme produced by China Central Television. The programme is basically a variety show. But at the same time it is the most difficult variety show on the planet to get right, because its 700 million–1000 million viewers (53-76% of the country’s population) are comprised of every generation of Chinese families, who watch the show together as they eat they ‘reunion meal’. As such, the programme makers have to attempt to appeal to all these drastically different audiences. No mean feat when we are talking about elderly people who grew up in the Republican-era, witnessed the Sino-Japanese war, and the founding of the People’s Republic; or middle aged people who were children during the hardships of the cultural revolution, and then saw the enormous transformations bought by the reform-and-opening period; or China’s youth, those born in the 80’s, 90s, and 00’s, often single children, many of whom have grown up with a material aspirations on par with western society. So you end up with a variety show that is a bizarre and wizardly mix of revolutionary songs, trapeze artists, dancers performing to happy hardcore music, magicians, ‘hip’ youth TV hosts, recognised family performers and national pop stars. The show traverses the utterly naff and absolutely incredible. One cannot help but feel that the show tries so hard to appeal to everybody that it is perhaps doomed to failure.

At the Wang’s house we watched and chatted as the show went on, slowly devouring the dinner while Mr Wang and I knocked back baijiu, a fiery Chinese liquour. I soon noticed that Little Wang’s attention had waned, however, and after eating a little food, he left us and moved into the shop area of their house, where the computer is located. Soon after I followed him into the room. I noticed that he was alternating between browsing QZone, and chatting on the QQ Instant Messaging client. He was using the QQ IM client to send New Year’s ‘blessings’ (zhufu) to his classmates, while browsing his QZone. Many of the status updates from his friends were related to the television show. For example, one of the features of the show was a young girl dressed in a flowing white dress who was introduced by the presenters at the start of the programme. The presenters explained that she would spin around on the spot up until midnight (4 hours) to symbolise the changing seasons of the year. Indeed she managed to do this quite successfully. One of Little Wang’s friends had forwarded a meme of a photo of the girl asking ‘spinning girl, have you eaten Xuanmai chewing gum?’. Xuanmai chewing gum recently ran an advertising campaign with the tagline ‘Xuanmai chewing gum, unable to stop’ (xuanmai kouxiangtang, tingbu xialai). The advert featured a young man singing, with powerful sound waves coming out of his mouth, and he was challenged to see how long he could sustain the singing. After eating the chewing gum it seemed to give the man somewhat cosmic powers to continue with his crooning. What is interesting about this case is we can kind of see the spillover from a mass media event onto social media, so while people do not seem to be happy posting about news or other big events, the Spring Festival Evening Party seems to be prime fodder for discussion of QQ, but especially among young people.

There is precedent for this, as traditionally the show is something people often talk about and critique for days after, even offline. But in addition to young people talking about the New Year’s Gala online, I got a feeling during the evening that young people were having a kind of separate New Year’s Eve party on QQ with all their friends. Chinese New Year is a key moment of reunion for Chinese families, and I get a feeling that even this moment of togetherness is being affected by social media as young people are living a large part of their spring festival online with their classmates.

Does this mean that the ‘traditional’ Chinese New Year is at risk? I want to get away from the idea that social media’s presence in the spring festival necessarily has to be good or bad, or even assume that social media is ‘transforming’ the Chinese New Year (anymore than the Chinese New Year is transforming social media). It is not that Little Wang’s practices are heralding the decay of the Chinese New Year, but rather I think it is signalling the importance of classmates being part of that reunion. It seems to be an acknowledgement that family ties are not the only thing that matters, and the deliberate decision for classmates to include each other in their spring festival reunion meals suggests a willingness to apply family ideals to educational peers.

The Future of Facebook: What will we learn from the study of Chinese social media?

XinyuanWang29 January 2014

Image courtesy of emreterok, Creative Commons

Image courtesy of emreterok, Creative Commons

China is a dreadful desert to Western social media giants such as Facebook and Twitter, however it is a tropical rainforest to many local species. It is curious to note that even though none of the participants in my field site use, or have even heard of Facebook or Twitter, the way they use Chinese social media such as QQ and WeChat provides an interesting parallel to the way UK teenagers in Danny’s study differentiate a range of social media in their daily life, even though as social media QQ, or WeChat are both significantly different from Facebook.

Among certain groups of Chinese people, like teenagers, QQ seems to be in stasis. For teens with relatively high education and social status that are more willing to try something new and urban middle-class, QQ is not cool at all, just as what Danny reported about Facebook in his previous blog article. It is not rare to find people who have used QQ for more than 10 years in China given QQ started to become popular almost 15 years ago. In fact, QQ could be considered Facebook’s predecessor and to some extent through the study of QQ’s development in China we may ‘foretell’ what will happen in ‘Facebook land’ in the future. Many of my participants have told me that around 10 years ago, QQ represented the coolest thing about urban life because rural migrants who came back to their village during Chinese New Year showed off that they had a QQ account in front of their stunned fellow villagers. After 10 years, when almost half of the Chinese population have QQ accounts, QQ numbers rather than mobile phone numbers are exchanged most frequently as  permanent contact details (it is reported that people change their mobile phone much more frequently than their QQ account). QQ has lost its association with trendy or cool things, especially for urban Chinese people who want to escape from the ‘hustle and bustle’ QQ land which somehow has been associated with rural Chinese. On one hand, some people report that they use QQ less and less in recent years since Wechat’s audio message is more fun and convenient, and WeChat seems to be more in line with urban life. Some report that their closest friends and frequent contacts all moved to WeChat. On the other hand, people admitted that they would always come back to QQ when they wanted to catch up with long-lost relationships, such as old classmates or previous colleagues. As one informant put it, those contacts “didn’t move to other social media,” but remain in the “old home” of QQ. Those contacts may also have started using WeChat or other social media, but from my participants’ perspectives, they ‘belong’ to QQ. These friends may not have updated their social media details because of sparse communication, or are regarded a part of ‘past old days’ in one’s mind and QQ is the PLACE to go.

That is to say, people didn’t quit QQ because of their engagement with other social media. Rather, QQ survives time and thus obtains a ‘senior’ status, something like an old friend who has witnessed one’s ups-and-downs in life even though they may only meet once a year. QQ may also be regarded like one’s birthplace, which my rural migrant informants only visit during Chinese new year but always remains as one of the most import places in their lives. People don’t dump QQ, but keep it, and use it in a different way.

So the quick conclusion is QQ seems to be in stasis among certain groups of people not because of ‘being QQ’, but because of the law of ‘nature’ – here let me call this the nature of social media. And it also makes sense if one replaces “QQ” by “Facebook” in this argument.

And what is the nature of social media? You may need a bit more patience to read through the following academic ‘block’ to get a clearer picture:

First, stuff becomes more than the material after being used by people. For example the pen from your passed-away grandpa is to you by no means equal to any other pen which was produced on the same factory assembly line. If we have to use jargon, we call the process ‘objectification’ where an object consumed by people is domesticated and becomes part of the person and their relationship to others. That is where material culture starts, and the context in which we study digital technology. Digital technology, as a form of material, is no more sophisticated or mediated than any other object in terms of the relationship between material and human beings. Having said that, however, it is worthwhile to highlight the uniqueness of social media in the way that social media show the relationship between the digital and social relationship in a more visible and obvious way. That is to say, without people’s engagement and usage, social media is next to nothing. In a way, ‘Facebook’ and ‘QQ’ are only half finished goods before being used by people. Social media is produced through the consumption, as the terminology ‘prosumption’ suggested. Thus, it is safe to say social media is highly entangled with the ‘self’ and personal relationship to the degree that it somehow grows with the person and has its own life (Gell’s theory of ‘agency’ also shed light on this argument).

Furthermore, the concept of ‘polymedia’ describes another feature of social media. Each social media platform finds its niche in specific personal relationships and people take moral responsibility for their choice of different social media. In the case of ‘Facebook’, as Danny suggested, at the moment when people got friend request from their mother, the social medium is transformed into a family-orientated place rather than the place where people share secrets with their close friends. Also the concept ‘remediation’  helps to illustrate the way how certain social media (like QQ and Facebook) become ‘old’ because of the development of other social media. Dialectically, there is no so-called old or new social media without the comparison with others, that is to say people tend to re-define certain social media in the context of polymedia.

Even though my research is still unfinished, let me ‘jump to the conclusion’ and put my incomplete version of ‘the nature of social media’ here: First, social media as a social agent grow with the person and own their own lives. Second, social media were applied and valued by people in a context of polymedia.

Having discussed the nature of social media, then, let’s go back to my argument from the beginning – QQ seems to be in stasis among certain group of people not because of ‘being QQ’, but because of the law of ‘nature’, and so does Facebook. It is important to not treat social media as functional technology like we would computers. In terms of technology, new social media are not more advanced than pre-existing ones. It makes sense to say that today’s computers have taken the place of the early bulky computer, whereas we can’t say that a certain social medium is dead completely because its users turn to new ones and use others more actively. The situation in practice is like the way people treat friendship and the attitude toward one’s birthplace. From time to time, my participants in this Chinese town used “old friend” or “lao jia” (hometown) to describe their QQ profiles. For some of them, the usage of WeChat is more frequent and active than the usage of QQ. They report and I have observed that WeChat is more for recent contacts one meets in face-to-face situations, and generally speaking closer friends in a smaller circle. QQ on the other hand is used to keep up with all kinds of friends, acquaintances, and communities (QQ offers a group function, such as ‘class group’  used in one middle school) that one has accumulated over a relatively long term. In some cases QQ has become some people’s digital legacy where they keep the ‘silly self’ of 10 years ago. As one of my informants said she won’t use QQ to communicate with her new friends anymore since “on QQ you will encounter a little girl of 10 years ago”, however it is always good to view that ‘self’ in the past as it remains alive on QQ. QQ has become the PLACE, the legacy. Each generation, each human being owns their own history, and in the digital age, social media have become the place people store their history, and where old friends and memory dwell. I have witnessed it already in the usage of QQ among Chinese people and I don’t see any reason why Facebook will not follow suit.

Finally, the findings in China, with the absence of Facebook, actually reinforced our essential argument that the study of digital anthropology and this GSMIS project go beyond specific usage of a certain social medium. Social media usage is the point of entrance which allows our digital anthropologists to look into, understand and interpret the social relationship and the relationship between people and technology in different cultures and societies in the digital age.

Social media and strangers: what chatting to ‘the other’ tells us about ourselves

TomMcDonald26 January 2014

Virginia Indian chief with tattoos. Engraving by Theodor de Bry, 1590. (Copyright expired)

Virginia Indian chief with tattoos. Engraving by Theodor de Bry, 1590. (Copyright expired)

The issue of strangers goes right to the very heart of anthropology, and was one of the first things I learnt about as an undergraduate at UCL. This fixation on ‘the other’ owed much to the Judeo-Christian tradition, which set about comparing inhabitants of newly discovered lands to apparently ‘civilised’ Christian westerners. Early European settlers to the Americas returned to Europe with fantastical descriptions and drawings of the indigenous Americans as exotic and mysterious peoples. Lurid and imaginative details of cannibalism, sexual promiscuity, and primitivism featured heavily in these early images. The extent to which these reports were true did not particularly matter. Instead this act of ‘othering’ was effective because it both preserved the integrity of the notion of a Christian moral self, while also making ‘the other’ something to be studied and understood. The universalism–relativism conundrum that much of anthropology rests on springs from this: anthropology bases much of its enquiries on the fact that we are all human, and therefore in some sense comparable, whilst acknowledging that at the same time we are all different from each other.

This is particularly true with China’s most popular social network QQ, which has been designed to make it easy for users to add complete strangers, in addition to more established communicating with friends. Many of my friends here in the North China fieldsite acknowledge that strangers often add them on QQ. The interactions my research participants have with strangers online and how they choose to handle these strangers, contribute to their understanding of themselves.

Some of my female friends in the fieldsite tell me that when any stranger sends them a friend request on QQ they will never accept. For example, one young woman who works in the local health station flatly tells me  “I don’t add strangers” every time I see her.

However, there is equally a sense among other informants that strangers are not only a force to be kept at a distance, but also that they can be communicated with, and even that one may be able to use strangers (or strangeness) for one’s advantage. One of the most important moments where this becomes made clear is the issue of avatars as profile pictures. The overwhelming majority of my participants choose to use an avatar such as a photo of a model or a cartoon character and a ‘net name’, rather than their own picture or real name on QQ Instant Messenger (where the profile can be seen on the public search).

Li Wei, a 20 year-old male who helps out in the town’s small wedding photo studio explained:

Li Wei: My QZone has [my real] photos, but I won’t use it on my QQ Instant Messenger profile picture, I think that’s stupid.

Me: Why is it stupid?

Li Wei: There is no sense of mystery. For example, if a friend adds you, then as soon as they see your photo they know who you are, there is no feeling of mystery. If he looks at your photo and doesn’t know you, he’ll ask you.

Me: Why do you want people to feel you are very mysterious? Why do you not want them to know?

Li Wei: Most friends know who you are, unless you don’t know them.

Me: So, if I understand correctly, you don’t want people to know who you are, because they already know who you are?!

Li Wei: Normally, with someone you know, if they see your avatar they will know who you are. Even if you use a fake profile picture they will know who you are. Unless you’re speaking indiscreetly with net-friends, not like chatting with strangers, you don’t want them to see you.

Li Wei’s view shows us that a simple opposition between us and ‘the stranger’, or as anthropology would define it, the group and the ‘radical alterity,’ doesn’t really work. The stranger is not just a dangerous other, to be kept at bay, as the early European settlers may have viewed native Americans. Rather, Li Wei’s words reveal that the stranger is actually something we might want to be. Sometimes being a stranger is something people cling to, at other times it should be something that is seen right through.

I have a feeling that my informants who use QQ hold that a real test of friendship is that your real friends will know that the profile picture of cartoon boy with blonde hair, and the user name ‘lonely cigarette butt’ actually represents you.

A view of otherness that understands the stranger not just as being an unknown individual, but rather as a quality that people actively manipulate, experiment with, and appropriate into their own life has the potential to challenge the universalism–relativism dichotomy and contribute to helping us to understand how human beings come to terms with the fact that we are all different, and yet all the same.