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Football World Cup 2014: observations from Panchagrami

Shriram Venkatraman27 June 2014

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Cricket, cinema, politics and religion are things that interest Tamils the most. This is not only reflected in their offline lives but can be witnessed online too, especially on Facebook. Now, where does football fit into all of this? Though football isn’t something that is entirely ignored, it really doesn’t scale up as cricket does. It is one game which is constantly encouraged in schools during the physical training hours next to cricket, but, it really doesn’t have the same following as cricket does. However, it is nonetheless more popular than hockey, which is India’s national sport.

Most men would tell you that they were exposed to football during their school days, but, as a sport the interest in it gets restricted to their school/college days, compared to their interest in cricket which is carried on to their adult life. However, the scenario is not all bad as there are people who do follow football feverishly and know each team’s statistics by heart, but, the numbers just don’t match cricket. Chennai, the nearest city to my fieldsite – Panchagrami – has a Manchester United clothing shop in a famous mall and people do shop there, some for its brand value and a few as fans.

The Ground Reality
So, how does the recent FIFA World Cup 2014, score in this scenario? While Brazil wakes up to football, it’s almost bed time in India. The live telecast of the World Cup starts only at around 9:30 PM which is almost past dinner time for most folks in Tamil Nadu, India. The first match at 9:30 PM isn’t too tough to follow, but the next slot is close to midnight and the slots thereafter most often takes a toll on people who work. They go back to work like zombies if they stay awake watching the entire series the night before. So, people following the live action of every single match is rare.

These night slots come at a disadvantage not only to fans but also to the hospitality industry. Star hotels, restaurants and bars do play the matches live, but most have a time constraint and normally don’t go over midnight. Though replays of matches do take place in the afternoon, football isn’t really treated as a great marketing option during weekdays, though weekends are slightly different. There is only one five-star hotel in Chennai which has taken football to be a serious way of marketing and attracting fans to dine in and has activities related to the sport 24/7. While a few others do consider this an attractive marketing option, most places haven’t really bothered too much with the idea. Bars and restaurants in Chennai (specifically those in star-rated hotels) play football on their television sets, however, most go on only till about midnight and close down, so catching the live telecast from Brazil in public places is difficult for most people here.

The other issue is with the concept of bars in Tamil Nadu. The bars here are of two different kinds, the first type is attached to the local government-run alcohol shops called TASMAC. But, most middle class men prefer not to frequent this bar and opt to take alcohol home. Further, there isn’t any facility here to watch football. The second kind of bars are those that are mostly present in star-rated hotels or exclusive bars/restaurants and can be pretty costly compared to the local government-owned alcohol shops. So, people frequenting them would normally be people travelling on business or upper middle class/rich folks. However, irrespective of the bar one frequents, if one decides to drive back home, with the stiffening of rules against drunk-driving, one is almost certain to get caught by the law and shell out loads of money (either as a fine or at least in terms of corruption to avoid a fine). Some clubs do offer football viewing during dinner for its members, while most often the television sets in gymnasiums play them as an option along with cinema songs.

A World Cup 2014 arrangement at a star-rated hotel in Chennai:

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The scenario in coffee shops is not too different. Though some do have replays of football matches instead of cinema songs, most prefer cinema songs to match replays. Most often one can catch some advertisement/sign or symbol related to the World Cup in the form of a commercial product. Coffee shops don’t spend money putting together advertisements or banners of the Football World cup, but willingly display beverages bearing the symbols of the World Cup.

For example, Coca Cola cans which have the World Cup advertisement on them.

Pic4 The constant scene of people who watch windows of shops/showrooms with a television set playing a live stream of the cricket World Cup matches isn’t seen with the FIFA World Cup. Though, the time at which the matches are played might be one reason, the other would be that football just doesn’t interest people here as cricket does. Private viewings in homes do take place in Chennai. However, except for a few nights in the season, most stop watching past midnight during weekdays, due to work day schedules. The only store which has a dedicated football brand Manchester United also only plays matches of the team and not the FIFA World Cup, as a store associate expressed his concern of attracting too much of crowd, if the matches were shown in the store. However, the time of live relay of such matches was also something that did not work out in their favour.

Pic5 One definitely cannot ignore the World Cup as there are vinyl hoardings and the media (print, radio and television) constantly relays news of the World Cup. Most often people seem to prefer watching news slots of the matches or just get the scores from the internet rather than watching it live. Discussions at offices or schools on football aren’t as frequent as they are regarding cricket.

The World Cup on Tamil Television news

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However, it does have its own reflection on social media, and especially on Facebook. Private chats and groups on football do exist. Most often one needs to get invited to these groups, where discussions between Facebook friends happen. Being a part of such a group was clearly enlightening, as it gave the opportunity to witness conversations first hand. Members keep checking for scores online and run their own analysis of teams. They also share links of popular articles related to the teams they love or hate or just about the World Cup itself. Some even run voting options such as the one below Pic7 Pic8

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The Scene in Panchagrami

By contrast to the above scene in Chennai, Panchagrami, which lies in the outskirts of Chennai offers a completely different scenario. What hits one is that there are absolutely no vinyl hoardings of football. Further, there are no commercial enterprises that offer an overt advertisement related to football. The only place which has a public viewing of football matches is a star-rated hotel at Panchagrami, situated on a major highway. It offers football match viewing between 7 PM and 11:30 PM every day available only at the roof-top garden restaurant, opened newly at the hotel. However, the screen where the match is projected is pretty small and unclear.

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Interviews with the restaurant staff revealed that when families dine in, they really don’t pay too much attention to the matches and most aren’t bothered about them. Some have even requested the staff to change channels (to play cinema songs) as the sport seemed boring to them. However, the staff were ready to admit that excitement picks up only when groups of young men come in to dine and specifically only when they consume alcohol. This normally seems to happen on weekends rather than weekdays. Every evening there are men who travel on business who dine in at the hotel and sit alone to watch the game, just until they finish dinner, most often out of boredom rather than an interest for the sport. The same was true of a coffee shop in the area too; they were content playing cinema songs rather than the World Cup as they felt that cinema songs were much better received by their customers. When probed deeper, they did say that a few customers mostly men, sometimes requested the staff to change channels for a few minutes to update themselves on news related to the football World Cup. Again, timing for catching live action of the World Cup just isn’t suitable for most people nor does it suit the business.

The corner tea shops are normally the spaces where communication of world news is witnessed through informal discussions. Frequenting some of these tea shops revealed that people did speak about cricket in the last week and never once mentioned Football. Informal chats with a few in these tea shops revealed that they just didn’t care about it and were content getting a glimpse of it from the local newspapers.

Most of my informants in the past week were posting pictures of their favourite cricket/cinema stars and political figures. They even Liked pages of their favourite stars, teams or political leaders. I haven’t found even a single posting on football. Even IT workers staying here weren’t really bothered putting up posts on Facebook about football. Interviewing my younger group of informants, revealed a few interesting findings on why they don’t post anything about football.

  1. None of their friends were interested in it.
  2. They wouldn’t get as many Likes if they post about football rather than cricket
  3. It doesn’t allow girls to Like/Comment on their posts – while they did say that the chances of women Liking/Commenting on a post related to cricket was more. In other words, they meant that football was more masculine and could keep away women from actively participating in their profile (through Commenting/Liking).

However, a few did say that they did receive WhatsApp messages from some of their work/college friends about football and most of these friends were from Chennai and some weren’t even native Tamils and hailed from West Bengal or Kerala where football is much more popular. So, while some reeled off statistics they had collected from their office colleagues and from newspapers, they did accept that the discussions on football weren’t as intense as cricket.

The online forums/discussion groups of upper middle class residential apartments also did not have any messages asking for people to join in a public viewing of the sport. However, talking to an International school in the area revealed that they had football coaching sessions over weekends. Attending a few sessions over the last couple of weekends showed that the fathers normally encouraged their sons who were attending coaching sessions to watch World Cup matches. There was a strong family (father-son) bonding that was visible through their discussions on Football on the practise ground. Some were constantly referring to a few You Tube videos of player interviews and techniques. But, other than a few matches they watched during weekends at home or at a Star hotel, most agreed that watching live action of the World Cup just didn’t suit their schedule or timing. However, they did catch up with the scores on the internet.

There were a few men who did agree that they used football as an excuse to go out drinking (alcohol) together as a group. But they just didn’t bother posting about it online, as they didn’t want their wives to know that they were out boozing in the pretext of watching Football.

Most of my male informants did agree that they had played football and liked the game, but it was soon very clear that playing a sport needn’t necessarily transition to following the sport.

Interviewing and constantly checking for updates on Facebook profiles of my informants about their interest in football revealed yet another dimension – women loved cricket more than they did football. None discussed football. Football, they said was very masculine and somehow it just didn’t suit them. However, they did accept that if they had grown up watching football as they did cricket, maybe they would have loved it and changed their favourites. But, it just doesn’t seem to be happening in the near future.

In conclusion, football still hasn’t diffused into the boundaries of Panchagrami as it has in Chennai. As the area transitions, there might be a greater number of Football fans in Panchagrami. Further, the timings do hinder those who might want to give it a try in Panchagrami. As the final match of the World Cup gets closer, maybe people would be much more interested and would start following the World cup. However, at least people catch a glimpse of it in newspapers or on television sets and do update themselves and the situation isn’t as bad as hockey – supposedly India’s national sport – of which people know much less than they know of football.

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.

Seeing red: watching the World Cup in Northern Chile

ucsanha27 June 2014

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Neighborhood children celebrate Chile’s victory. Photo by Nell Haynes

The very first night I spent in my fieldsite in Northern Chile, the national team qualified for the World Cup. I had no TV, no radio, and internet only through my smartphone. But I knew every time the team scored. Horns honked, dogs barked, whistles cut through the evening air, a dull roar of shouts bouncing off one another between the small homes, and six floor apartment buildings hung around the city like the fog that rolls in every afternoon from the Pacific Ocean. When the opposing team scored, you could hear the low rumble of grumbling viewers. By the game’s end, the horns were honking again, fireworks were being set off, and I ventured to my balcony to see people waving large flags in the street.

After nine months in this working class city of 100,000 people, football is back, and it is everywhere. Though advertising in general is limited, people find individual ways to visibly express their excitement about World Cup. The single bar in the city has no signs outside or inside advertising that they will be open for games. Restaurants have no specials. This is possibly because people tend to watch at home with friends and family, grilling meat, and drinking beer, rather than watch in in a more public place. Or perhaps people feel inclined to watch from home because there is no incentive to watch in a public place. Either way, the result is clear. When I watched one afternoon game at the bar, I was one of only 5 patrons (all the others being 20-30 something men who seemed to know the bartender on duty). In fact, the family and friends joining together in each private home usually outnumbered those gathered in the bar.

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A small crowd watches Chile vs. Netherlands in the local bar. Photo by Jair Correa.

The few instances of businesses advertising World Cup specials were limited to interntional companies. The hardware store (owned by US company Home Depot), and one supermarket (owned by Walmart) had special giveaways advertised, and of course the Coca Cola and Becker beer cans on sale throughout the country are decorated with football themed designs. But on a local level nothing commercialized about the World Cup. Instead, people have individually created visible practices associated with supporting their national team—wearing red football jerseys, setting off fireworks, and posting a great deal on social networking sites. These posts began about a week before the World Cup began, in anticipation.

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A World Cup themed display in Sodimac Homecenter. Photo by Nell Haynes

Many of the Facebook posts were typically Chilean in style, in that they were humorous memes. Some compared the team’s coach, Jorge Sampaoli, who is bald, to bald reggaetón singer Pitbull. Others, in anticipation of a match against the Australian team, featured pictures of kangaroos in compromising positions. Others posted sarcastic cartoons about the blindness with which Chileans follow football, or “Survival Guides” for those uninterested in the games. Politically involved young people often posted links to articles about the protests in Brazil, often followed by an image supporting the Chilean team, and commenting on their sense of feeling torn between the game they love and the capitalist exploitations behind the event. “Vamos Chile…..a pesar que el trasfondo del mundial es una mierda no pueden negar que el futbol es hermoso sobretodo cuando gana chile” [Let’s go Chile…..it’s a shame that the transformation of the World Cup is shitty, but they can’t negate that football is beautiful and above all when chile wins”

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A popular meme circulating before and during the Chile vs. Australia match.

On the day of the game, posts turned more personal. Young men and middle-aged mothers alike post on Facebook invitations to friends to watch the game in their homes, often enticing them with photos of beer or food accompanied by a Chilean flag or football. Local businesses such as Chinese restaurants suggest customers should “put their orders in now to go along with The Red” (the nickname for the national team).

The experience of watching the games was captured in photos posted on Facebook and Instagram. These usually consist of people wearing red football jerseys, red, white, and blue wigs, hats that look like footballs, and other variations on festive attire, while standing next to a large television displaying a match. Others display the meats being grilled while watching the game. Even those stuck at work during games. Posted selfies at their desk while draped in the national flag. The large percentage of men working in mining operations several hours outside of the city were not left out. A few hours later, after they’ve finished their twelve hour shift, workers in the nearby copper mines post their cell phone videos of hundreds of their coworkers erupting as they watch a goal being scored from the company dining hall.

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An Instagram photo shared during the Chile vs. Spain game.

But more telling than these orchestrated photos and videos were the immediate reactions to the game that were posted in simple messages on Facebook. When there was something to cheer about, my Facebook feed instantly filled with simple statements of “conchetumare” (a somewhat all-purpose expletive), “weon!” (somewhat equivalent to ‘dude’), “vamos chile mierda” [let’s go chile. shit!], and  of course, “goooollllll” after every score.

After the games, Instagram and Facebook again filled with photos of people celebrating in the streets. Huge crowds gathered in plazas to set off fireworks, sing fight songs, and generally continue the party. People posted videos of the national hymn being sung at the start of the game. These were not just young people, but grandparents and mothers carrying young children. Of course, the posts stopped about two hours after the game ended, but I could still hear the singing and fireworks through my closed window late into the night.

And then, the next day, in further, but subdued celebration, memes reappeared teasing opponents who lost, or chastising referees blamed for a Chilean loss. After defeating current world champion, Spain, a photo of an airplane bearing the Spanish flag, with “gentlemen, start your engines” was shared by many people.

Overall, on non-game days, about 20% of posts are related to the world cup. On game days, this rises slowly until they peak during the actual game the make up more than 60% of posts from the 90 people I follow on Facebook. Similarly, among Instagram users from my fieldsite, about 80% of photos posted during game time have something to do with the game. Clearly, for many people, life stopped in order to watch the game. Yet, in order to actively participate in a community of fans, social networking provided an outlet for humor, pride, predictions, and even gut reactions to plays. This may have something to do with the fact that people are watching in small groups in private spaces, rather than large numbers gathering in the local bar. While family members got up to dance and toot horns after each goal scored when I watched from friends’ homes, they seemed to want a more collective experience. This desire was summed up by my friend’s uncle, who after Chile’s win over Spain quickly declared, “Let’s all go outside and see what’s going on in the streets. If there’s a party happening we need to be a part of it.”

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A mashup of photos of people literally partying in the street after the Chilean team beat Spain, posted on both Instagram and Facebook.

It is also worth noting that the number of posts on either social media site that reference support for a team other than Chile is almost non-existent. There is a somewhat large population of Colombian immigrants in the fieldsite, and thus, the Colombian team has had a few posts in it’s support. By overwhelmingly, the posts reference the team of the poster’s home nation. The World Cup is not about the world, but about Chile’s place in it, and Facebook, rather than acting as a window to a “global civil society” (Tomlinson and Young 2006:1) rather functions much as Anderson described early national newspapers as foundational to a sense of community as a nation. In fact the simultaneity he described (1983:37) has gone into warp speed as people have moved from reading the same daily news items, to being able to immediately comment on an acquaintance’s “conchatumadre” just seconds after a Chilean player scores. This Saturday, Chile will battle home team Brazil in the second round of the tournament, and might be eliminated. If that happens it will be interesting to see if excitement and Facebook posts continue, as people in my fieldsite cheer on other South American teams, or if the exit of the Chilean team will mean an absence of attention to the World Cup both in media consumption, and social media curation. Then again, maybe predictions will be right and we’ll never get a chance to know, because Chile will win it all!

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A widely shared image of how Chile could pass through the rounds to win the World Cup.

References

Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities. London: Verso, 1983.

Tomlinson, Alan, and Christopher Young, eds. National identity and global sports events: Culture, politics, and spectacle in the Olympics and the football World Cup. SUNY Press, 2006.

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.

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

Tom McDonald27 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.

Tencent news: in-app news delivery in QQ and WeChat

Tom McDonald24 October 2013

Newspapers arrive at the town's Post Office for delivery to local homes and businesses (Photo by Tom McDonald)

Newspapers arrive at the town’s Post Office for delivery to local homes and businesses (Photo by Tom McDonald)

One of the aims of our research is to understand the connection between politics and social media. Before we started our fieldwork we had envisaged this topic would largely revolve around how people made posts relating to specific stories in the news or shared news articles on their own Facebook pages. However, once again, China has surprised us in how different its social media is from it’s Western counterparts. People tend to refrain from making lots of public comments about news online, but both QQ and WeChat’s mobile applications (both made by Tencent) are set up by default to deliver national news items to their user’s mobile devices, with these items appearing in-between other conversations users are having with their friends.

The 'recent conversations' screen in the QQ iPhone app. The fourth contact down (showing the QQ 'penguin' icon surrounded by a tri-coloured circle) is the QQ news centre

The ‘recent conversations’ screen in the QQ iPhone app. The fourth contact down (showing the QQ ‘penguin’ icon surrounded by a tri-coloured circle) is the QQ news centre

The news to each of these in-app news services is written and delivered by the Tencent News centre. Both apps receive three new reports daily, normally containing four stories in each post, and the user receives on-screen notifications when they arrive. Occasionally, especially significant news stories may be afforded their own individual posts.

In general, the news that appears in these stories tends to be middle-brow, and written in quite accessible language, remaining largely free of the formal news about diplomatic meetings and official  language that tends to dominate the main closely government-controlled national news sources such as the  evening TV News Simulcast (Xinwen Lianbo) and People’s Daily. Instead, Tencent’s in-app news consists mostly of stories focusing on a mixture of criminal cases, ongoing government corruption investigations, sex scandals, and scientific discoveries.

It would be easy to view all Chinese media as a propaganda tool, and an extension of the government, and this is the kind of statement that is often repeated by Western media outlets. However, one of the strengths of the ethnographic approach of our fieldwork is that instead of only analysing the content of  social media, we also compare this to how normal people in our fieldsites actually use and talk about these platforms themselves. When I spoke to one of my participants in our China North fieldsite about the in-app news feature I asked him whether he thought the function might have been included at the government’s bequest. He said he didn’t think the government would have forced Tencent to add the in-app news function to their chat tool. Instead, he argued that it was probably the fact that Tencent thought that the news would ‘attract people’ and that they would find it ‘interesting’.

From here in this small town in North China, it is impossible to know exactly what decisions are made faraway in the Tencent News centre. Nonetheless, QQ and WeChat’s in-app news feature has become a particularly significant — if not the main — way in which national news is now consumed for many people who own a smartphone in the town. But also this marks a fundamental change from having to ask for news through ordering the newspaper, or turning on the television, to having the news delivered to your device without requesting it, often appearing as if it were a message from a friend.

Facebook for fitness: a case study from India

Shriram Venkatraman18 September 2013

Photo by Bharfot (Creative Commons)

Photo by Bharfot (Creative Commons)

The following is a case study of a fitness enthusiast (a small business owner as well – owns a gym) in our Indian fieldsite who shares his passion for body building and subtly influences his business members through Facebook.

Krishna, aged 28, is a body building enthusiast who just loves fitness to the extent that it was natural for him to start his fitness centre/gym immediately after he graduated. While pursuing his Bachelors in Business Administration at a college close to the fieldsite, he took on several part time jobs, all in the field of fitness, at various privately owned and community gyms both in the city of Chennai and in the villages surrounding it, working in a wide spectrum of roles from being an instructor to looking after the administration. He learnt through being an apprentice to various well known instructors. He read most of the well-known fitness magazines that his work place subscribed to. He was not just an instructor who only preached, but  was also a walking proof  by practicing his own ideals on fitness. He participated very actively in most of the state-based fitness competitions and has even won a few of them, which further added to his credibility.

He surrounded himself with friends (mostly young men) who were also interested in fitness and he seemed to have influenced most of them to get into body building, and even compete in a few city/state and national level competitions themselves. His network which mostly consisted of people who were seriously into fitness and body building, now seemed to have influenced him in turn by respectfully addressing him as their “Master”. They do this even now, and the gym members seemed to have forgotten his real name and just address him as their Master. His personal attention to the fitness of his friends seemed to go a long way. He volunteered to help them compete in competitions and thereby spread around this idea (in a way popularising himself as a brand too, as he did not have a business at that time). Hence, it was natural for him to look out for an opportunity to expand his passion and with a good business sense he turned his network of friends into clients. He started his own gym and had a ready network of friends who naturally joined the gym. A member of his network seemed to have even helped him with procuring the equipments, while one helped him with a bank loan and another with the space for the gym.

Now he is a the owner of this small business, who owns and runs an 1800 square foot gym in a rented area. The gym functions in an artificially created shed in the terrace of a building owned by his friend’s dad. Thanks to his friend’s influence, he pays a rent which is at least 60% less than the market price. He charges his members a very reasonable amount as his gym does not have any electronic equipment and is not air conditioned. His network expanded considerably and so did the gym membership, the membership roster boasts of approximately 200 members on a rotational basis. Given that this is a men-only gym with very limited facilities, this number seems to be significant. Also most most of the gyms for body building use rather than usual aerobic fitness regimes.

As body building requires huge amounts of motivation and inspirational stories and pictures, it required a significant amount of time to ensure that his members are motivated to turn up to the gym every day. Following up with them was itself a huge task. Cell phones helped him in this task, where calling members individually and talking to them personally and messaging them inspirational quotes helped, however sending inspirational pictures of body builders with quotes in them were not possible with the phone that he had. So, he turned to a cheaper but an effective and valuable option: Facebook.

He made sure to add most of his old members as his friends on Facebook and also  asked every new member their Facebook ID and made sure to add all of them as his friends on Facebook. He send all his Facebook friends, who are his clients, pictures of body builders with inspirational quotes. He also sends them personal messages and pictures that he downloads from the internet. As a member of other international fitness groups on Facebook, he has all of these pictures and quotable quotes falling into his lap. He also shares stories of people in unfortunate circumstances and who have made it big and relates them to fitness. His way of caring, motivating and influencing his members/clients was now becoming easier. He says that he knows his members welcome this because, when they open their Facebook page every morning, they see a positive message with the picture of a strong man, which creates a positive energy in them to face the day and, in a way, subtlety influences them and reminds them of fitness and his gym.

He says his membership churn-over has reduced considerably since he adopted Facebook to communicate with them and has definitely helped in reducing a considerable amount of time/money spent over phone in motivating members to turn up for fitness. This method he feels is very non-intrusive. Further, he is now able to use his time effectively to concentrate on other business details and with Facebook groups, he uses them as a knowledge network to know the latest developments in the body building world, which has also brought down his magazine subscription charges. He prints out pictures of body builders and inspirational quotes that he gets on Facebook and now pastes them in his gym, to motivate those working out in the gym. Of course, he also relies on phone to communicate with people with whom Facebook doesn’t work or who are not into Facebook. He says his presence on Facebook also has helped him attract new members in the area. So when people search for gyms in the area, his name stands out with the area name. His Facebook ID is a combination of the name of the gym and his name, as well and with his geographical details are given, it’s pretty certain that his name stands out when people search for a gym in this area. Surprisingly, he doesn’t have a page for his gym and he says he doesn’t want to create one simply for the reason that his clients would then be clients and lose personal touch with him if he has a page instead of his profile. A profile makes sure his clients are his friends and it shows he cares for them.

Strategies of scarcity and supply: water and bandwidth

Tom McDonald24 July 2013

The water tankered makes a delivery (Photo: Tom McDonald)

The water tankered makes a delivery (Photo: Tom McDonald)

Fieldwork normally involves bearing some hardships, however I never thought that at the start of my research in China that water would have been an issue of concern here. Nor did I consider that it might be able to tell us something about social networking use.

I was surprised, then, when I found out that the urban town area of the fieldsite has not had a piped water supply for the past year.

This situation is slightly ridiculous when one considers that there is a large, well-stocked reservoir two kilometres distance from the town.

reservoir-lake

According to some local residents, the problems started last year when workmen dug up the pipe in order to lay the new, wide asphalt road that runs north-south through the town.

For the past year, the town’s government have been paying for two water bowsers and four people to collect water from the neighbouring town and deliver it here once every two days. The only perk to the current situation is that because the service is so poor, the government provides the water free of charge.

Not having a regular water service makes life really tough. Limitations in water supply provoke people to clearly prioritise the things that they must do against the things that they would perhaps like to do. People’s houses are awash with buckets and tankards for storing water. Water for cooking or for dinking tends to come before, say, washing clothes or having a shower. Similar coping mechanisms and prioritizing seem to exist for internet use.

I think the case of the limited water supply is also useful for thinking about the way some people experience social media and the internet seen here in China. I was really drawn to the paper Blanchette gave at the UCL Department of Anthropology a couple of years ago where he outlined A Material History of Bits, making very clear the physical limitations of the digital, in contradiciton to how we sometimes assume it to be a potentially ‘unlimited’ object. I would say this is made almost even more clear in the China North fieldsite where the actual amount of bandwidth available becomes patently obvious for people in the same way as water does.

The internet does have it’s specificities though: one of the clear things that is coming out of our surveys is the significance of different modes of access and I think there are analogies to be made between the ways villagers cope with limitations imposed upon them in terms of various resources and their often incredibly lofty aspirations of what they wish to achieve.

The vast majority of our informants (over three-quarters) were China Mobile customers. While those who travelled regularly with work and business tended to have packages that afforded larger bandwidth allowances, and roaming outside of the province, the remaining half of these customers had packages that severely limited the mobile access that they had to the internet. These were normally packages that varied in cost between 10–20 RMB per month, offering between 30–70 megabyte bandwidth allowance respectively.

How was this experienced in people’s everyday lives? Just like with water, people developed clear and intelligent strategies in order to prioritise which things they believed to be essential. One lady in a village, explained that she had the 30 megabyte bandwidth package for 5 RMB a month said that she tended to only use QQ on her phone, because if she used both QQ and WeChat she would go over her limit, and all her friends were on QQ.

Others sometimes failed to understand the concept that there were distinct limits to the amount of bandwidth and resources available. A young man working in the town explained that he once watched a streamed movie with his girlfriend using his phone, without realizing that doing that would push him over the bandwidth limit. He had to pay 200RMB for the single month’s bill. He explained to me that he didn’t know about it, and wondered why he hadn’t just paid for his girlfriend to go to the cinema with him, at least that way he wouldn’t have strained his neck, he joked.

For others, they developed ways to get around such restrictions using their existing connections. One of the town’s young male hairdressers, joked to his friend that he willing to allow his assistant to pay his own phone bill in order to remove the block on his phone. The manager of a photocopying shop in the town used his connections in China Unicom (he was an authorized reseller/top-up point) to get a very low-cost 2G phone card (around 10RMB per month) that allowed him virtually free nationwide calls, and then relied on the broadband internet connection in his shop, which he spent most of every day in anyway.

While readers in the west are typically used to very generous bandwidth allowances offered by telecoms companies, it is important to remember that here in China, economic constraints such as bandwidth remain a very real barrier to social networking use for many. In this sense, we can see links with Shriram’s previous blog post where he mention’s electricity cuts as a major challenge facing people in his fieldsite. These regimes of shortages create economies where peoople may have to make difficult decisions about who they will communicate with, and how they will communicate with them.

New-Age Spiritual Gurus and Social Media

Shriram Venkatraman13 February 2013

It is not rare to see the social media presence of new-age spiritual Gurus in India. They have a steady following on several social networking sites. From Facebook fan pages and groups to Twitter to Youtube channels, you name it and they have it!

Transcendent and immanent omnipresence, a spiritual nature of the soul in Indian philosophy, now finds itself rightly expressed through social media. With such high intense publicity, it seems like several such Gurus are driven by an incessant need to achieve the dream of several beauty pageant participants – namely ‘world peace’.

Though there is nothing wrong in the branding that they wish to achieve in order to either bring in more followers or maintain their supportes – in other words an e-spiritual capital (or call it the i-spiritual capital, or prefix any other vowel that denotes the digital medium) that they build through their social media presence – it doesn’t take long to figure out the conversion of this e/i-Spiritual capital to an economic capital on the digital arena.  Most of their presence on social media are followed by links to their websites which more or less advertises the Guru and does an awesome spiritual marketing, pitching in their e-shops and souvenir items that was until recently only traded in US dollars.

Rituals on the Facebook pages range from chanting (typing) the Guru’s name every morning, noon and night to expressing how an ideal life should be led on this earth. The pages cater to mostly the devotees and followers who are not residents in India. The digital medium is thus used to build memories of the Guru across space and time. Some of the best personal branding social media presence run by volunteers is that of these new-age spiritual Gurus. No wonder that they now advise CEOs and corporate entities on how to run businesses!

Entrepreneurs and Social Media

Shriram Venkatraman14 January 2013

Photo by Camille Rose (Creative Commons)

Online Social networking use by businesses is already quite well established. With newer avenues, business expansion and marketing ideas to a ready audience of other net-workers happens effortlessly, even for cash strapped small scale businesses. Entrepreneurs and social entrepreneurs are finding avenues to market and spread the word about their ventures, and create brand value at almost no cost by using social network or media websites. The social network, fan and follower base that these entrepreneurs end up building for their local businesses through globalised internet tools is inspiring.

For example, a local kiosk chain in India, which serves wraps for people to eat was at some point of time known more from its Facebook page than through other means. In fact, the owner of this chain uses Facebook and other social networking sites as his main marketing and branding tool. A strategy adopted by such new food chain entrepreneurs with limited budget in India is to get a few well known newspapers or magazines carry an article about them in the Lifestyle section. They make sure to mention their brand’s Facebook or Twitter page in such articles and end up getting a considerable number of fans or followers online. How much of this converts to business is an aspect to consider, but, the mission of creating a brand value at almost no cost is accomplished.

The use of social network as a knowledge network by entrepreneurs and social entrepreneurs is yet another area of interest. With existence of several interest groups and knowledge sharing groups or networks, it is well known that these social networks have gone on to help several of its members by bringing together strangers separated by physical distances onto a common platform. Entrepreneurs and Social Entrepreneurs have found this platform an extremely viable medium through which knowledge of business processes, technicalities, laws, organisation culture and so on can be shared extensively in a cost effective manner.