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Why popular anthropology?

Elisabetta Costa27 November 2015

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The core mission of anthropology is the understanding of human behaviour in a world full of cultural and historical diversity. The anthropological commitment to this immense plurality of human and social experiences constitutes a great appreciation and valorisation of diversity. Yet, different cultures, identities and behaviours are organised around hierarchies, and the institutions that shape anthropology and other academic disciplines often reproduce and reinforce them. For example, in the UK, most universities tend to be attended by a minority of privileged students, whereas groups that are historically marginalised tend to be excluded from the process of production and fruition of academic knowledge. Anthropological content is read by few academics, and only very rarely does it reach a wider audience all around the world.

Anthropologists have, at different points in the history of the discipline, investigated the anthropological involvement in the reinforcement of social hierarchies. They have examined how systems of power shape ethnographic practices, the role of the ethnographer in the field, and processes of anthropological writing. However, efforts to extend the accessibility of anthropological knowledge have been too modest so far. Anthropology continues to be an intellectual practice accessible to a small group of academics, largely from a privileged background. The conversation on the diversity of human beings – the ultimate goal of anthropology – is carried out by those who are awarded privileges by this hierarchical system of differences. Unprivileged groups in terms of social classes, gender, sexuality, geographic origins, and ethnic backgrounds are not only often excluded from the production of anthropological knowledge, but also from the fruition of it. The result of this is the reinforcement of social hierarchies that exclude groups that have been historically marginalised.

In this context, a commitment to a wider dissemination of anthropological understanding constitutes a small but significant step towards a more inclusive society, where marginalised groups can also enjoy the opportunities afforded by anthropological knowledge. Digital technologies give unprecedented potential to expand human conversation about humanity, bringing it outside the academic sphere and placing it within the immense flow of information on the internet. Anthropologists can decide to participate in this unbounded exchange, or continue in the safe and protected space of academia. Our commitment to the former is the reason why we are publishing all of our research as open access volumes, why we have launched a free e-course, why we are in the process of building an interactive website featuring films and stories about the people who participated in our research, and why all of the above will be available in the eight languages of our fieldsites. We hope that others will decide to join us on this mission of democratising access to anthropology!

Fieldwork is haunting me, thanks to WhatsApp

Juliano Andrade Spyer3 November 2015

When is the end of fieldwork? (Photo: Merlijn Hoek CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

When is the end of fieldwork? (Photo:
Merlijn Hoek CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

When is it that fieldwork finishes? Thanks to social media, the separation between being in the fieldsite and being in the library is becoming ever more blurred. This is true for anthropologists in general, not just those who study social media, because in many societies platforms like Facebook and WhatsApp have become an important channel of interaction during fieldwork.

In a way, I have carried my fieldsite in Brazil with me back to London. I mostly keep contact through regular exchange of messages with friends from the field. But there is one case that draws me back to the position of fieldworker.

It took me a long time and a lot of effort to be trusted in the village so that people were happy to show me the content that circulates through direct or group messages on WhatsApp. I was particularly happy when one adult woman, who appeared to understood the purpose our research project and resolved to help the research by forwarding the messages she received via WhatsApp to me.

These messages allowed me a glimpse into what this part of Brazilian society – the people now called “the new middle class” – is privately talking about. However, the subjects of the videos exchanged are often distressing. In short, there is a lot of amateur sex and violence (also the subject of this previous post); things that are often not fun to see and that can also carry legal consequences. For instance: the recording of students violently bullying someone is a proof of a crime. This is the kind of material that can land on my phone.

While I could easily tell this informant to stop sending me this content, as a researcher, I feel it would be a pity to close this channel because I am now – thanks to informants like her – in touch with this very private social world. However the constant communication from the fieldsite does pose challenges when it comes to writing-up.

Yesterday I was considering buying a second mobile, so I can leave this one at home and only check the new content every now and then. This way I would be able to distance myself and have more control over this flow of distracting (and occasionally) disturbing content. A new phone would also assure I would retain the many textual conversations and exchanges I had with informants during field work.

But this is just an idea and I am sharing this story here also hoping to hear what others think I should do about this situation. In case you do have something to say, please use the comment area below this blog post.

Many thanks!

What’s special about social media in small places?

Razvan Nicolescu19 September 2015

'Normal friend: 'Wow, how beautiful you are!' / Bestt friend: It's Shrek at the phone says he wants back his face.' Meme shared on Facebook by Comix

‘Normal friend: ‘Wow, how beautiful you are!’ / Best friend: It’s Shrek on the phone, says he wants his face back.’ Meme shared on Facebook by Comix

From the beginning of my fieldwork I kept thinking about why social media seems to be used so differently in my fieldsite – the Italian town of Grano – compared to other places, such as Rome or Milan. Maybe the most immediate answer is that Grano is a small place!

Indeed, with less than 20,000 inhabitants the town is far smaller than many metropolitan place, and here social relations could be much different than elsewhere. But what does this mean exactly? At the same time, social media is known to be a global technology which promises equal chances to access and utilize online resources to all its users. So, what is the implication of this to the existing social relations? To attempt to answer this, I will given a real-life example from my research.

Salvatore is person who is aware of the immense power he has because of social media, but sometimes he is annoyed that he cannot express himself online in the way that he would like. For example, he would never post  photos on Facebook which were taken at parties after drinking too much or behaving ‘stupidly.’ His close friends know this, and they too, would never tag Salvatore in a photo they know he wouldn’t like to be published online. On the other hand, Salvatore equally cannot promote himself on Facebook with a nice photo or accomplishment without his friends mocking him for taking himself too seriously.

Salvatore works as an IT consultant for a medium-sized company in Lecce and is renown as a quiet and refined person. In this context, both situations described above would challenge the image people in his hometown have constructed of him. In contrast, he feels that in Lecce he can be a ‘different person’ (un’altra persona) as people there actually encourage this kind of diversity. He commutes to work everyday and sometimes spends whole weekends in the city staying with friends. However, Salvatore is more interested in taking care that Facebook corresponds to the image he has in his hometown, rather than the one he constructs in the city.

What this story points to is how most people in southeast Italy use public-facing social media so that it reflects the relationships and image they have in their home communities. The problem, then, is that this image may vary significantly with social behavior between rural places, small and medium-sized towns and metropolitan places. Writing on these kinds of differences at the turn of the 20th century, sociologist Georg Simmel shows why that what varies essentially is the balance between ‘the objective spirit’ and ‘the subjective spirit.’ That is, in metropolitan places people have to cope with an avalanche of essentially objective issues, from money economy and commerce to mass-produced commodities, which places emphasis on individuality and rationality. In contrast, people living in rural areas, with the slower more habitual, and fewer flows of life, are closer to the ‘spirit’ (or Geist) of people and objects, and, among other things, this allows for more space for subjectivity in social relations.

My ethnographic material cannot really engage with this theoretical proposition as my research was done in a small place. However, what I can agree with is that people in Grano build relationships based on traditions and institutions which incorporate time, a certain predictability and more opportunities to share this ‘spirit’ that are simply unavailable in bigger places. In this context, most people in Grano sense that social media should reflect these very specific local values exactly because they are quintessentially subjective and thus recognizable, before any global forms and tastes.

Ropa americana online: the local market for used clothing

ucsanha15 August 2015

Screen Shot 2015-08-13 at 16.23.47

A Facebook announcement from an online shop in northern Chile announces “Jackets, Vests, and Sweatshirts”

Ebay, Etsy, Alibaba, and Taobao have changed the way many people around the world shop. Now, you can get virtually any product from anywhere, delivered right to your door. Tom McDonald has even observed companies that have sprung up to make this possible in rural China where even courier services does not deliver (also see his blog about business Facebook pages). But in northern Chile, people aren’t really all that concerned with getting interesting things from far off places. To them, ropa americana [American clothing, code for used goods] is the cheapest and least impressive form of dressing. If one is looking for style, the department stores in the larger cities will do just fine.

But this doesn’t mean that there’s no market for these goods online. Many people, particularly older women, have developed “shops” through Facebook in order to sell used clothing. Just like their counterparts who operate physical used clothing shops in the semi-formal markets around the city, these women buy used clothes in bulk, and sell it to individual consumers. But instead of renting a stall, they take pictures of the individual items to upload to Facebook accounts that they have just for that purpose. When a potential buyer likes and item, they will negotiate a price (usually about $4 for a tshirt, a bit more for jeans or a dress, up to $20 for a coat), and a time and place to meet for the exchange. While new customers may simply ask the price as a comment on the picture, or send a private message through Facebook to arrange a drop-off, regular customers will send WhatsApp messages asking about specific items, hoping to get the best of the best before they even make it to the Facebook page.

Paola, who sells clothes mostly for men told me that a miner requested she meet him as he got off the bus, coming home from his shift at the mine. He had ripped his coat while at work, and was afraid of being very cold between the bus drop off and walking a few blocks home. Paola agreed to meet him at midnight at the bus, for just a few extra dollars.

So while in many ways social media has the ability to expand consumption options globally and allow people access to cosmopolitan goods they might not have imagined a decade ago, it can also take on a form that is distinctly local and personal. Like Paola meeting the miner at his bus, this is just one way that social media can truly strengthen the community bonds that people feel in their local place.

Sharing anthropological discoveries on social media: ‘marketing’ or ‘interactive learning’?

Daniel Miller6 August 2015

Indian teenager using smartphone

Social media and engaging anthropology? (Photo: Pabak Sarkar CC BY 2.0)

Over the last year, people have often asked us questions like “Surely you will market your project using social media?” or, “What exciting campaigns based on social media will make your project a success?”

Well the answer is that indeed we think we have learnt a good deal about social media. What it is useful for, but equally where claims are made that are not borne out by our evidence. We have concluded that this huge emphasis on marketing through social media has far more to do with the wishes and desires of the marketing industry for this to be the case than any sober assessment of what social media actually is.

Looking at our research as a whole, we find quite limited successful employment of social media as a form of mass marketing and promotion. Yes certainly in some cases, but in most of our field sites it’s force is quite limited.

Our primary theorisation of social media is instead as a form of sociality and the formation of small groups for internal discussion. It is not generally a means for trying to reach new or different people but rather for consolidating social groups that are largely known. Some platforms such as LinkedIn and Twitter clearly command a wider presence but even here, social media generally works best for groups that are linked by common interests such as devotees of Star Wars, rather than in reaching a generic audiences.

We are not alone in this. Fore example, even people in business are starting to appreciate that Twitter is not always effective in driving traffic in the direction that they would wish.

So yes, we do envisage a role for social media in the dissemination of our project findings but mainly other than as a tool for mass marketing. We see social media as an important instrument for interactive learning. So people who take our online course will be encouraged to form small groups in which they can discuss the material and make and receive comments about what they are learning.

People who cannot meet physically in class rooms can use social media for discussion. Social media can also harness one’s personal networks to disseminate information in limited ways, and much of the more successful commercial usage we observe in our field sites relates to businesses where personal interaction is also important.

What people seem to imagine is that a project that studies social media will – for that very reason – concentrate on using social media. But we have never been advocates for social media.

The point of our research is to remain open and cautious about our findings, and we are just as comfortable noting the limitations and negative effects of social media as its potentials.

Facebook as a window: managing online appearance

Razvan Nicolescu31 July 2015

Shop window in Grano

Shop window in Grano (Photograph by Razvan Nicolescu)

A particularly common way that many people in the Italian field site thought about Facebook was by comparing it to a shop window (vetrina in Italian). Some did not exactly like the fact that, like a window, ‘everybody can see your personal stuff.’ In contrast, others used this new kind of visibility as an opportunity to actively promote different aspects of their interests. Out of this latter category, teenagers and some local entrepreneurs were by far the most active in this way, followed by artisans, artists, and a few local politicians.

In my forthcoming book, I explain how much of this region’s history explains why people are very concerned with the way social visibility reflects their social status. For example, families have always demonstrated their core moral values by keeping a clean and tidy house. Equally, most women spend considerable time beautifying themselves, selecting their clothes, making sure their outfits are neat and that their family is equally well dressed before they are willing to leave their own home. Dressing reflects the social and economic status people believe they have, even though their actual economic position could be somewhat different (for example, because of the massive unemployment in the region).

So how is this reflected on Facebook? Just as people put all this time and effort into their offline appearance, now many are extremely careful in curating their Facebook page. They do so by being extremely careful in selecting and editing the photos they upload, showing their support for online friends with comments and ‘Likes’ and in general trying to make sure their appearance on Facebook is consistent with how others would see them ‘offline.’ Facebook is considered a very public platform, and therefore people are very considered in how they post.

Among other things, the role if Facebook here is to actually make sure that there are no major differences between how people appear to others ‘offline’ and ‘online,’ for example, by offering adjustments or justifications when this may seem to some that this is not the case. Recently, a friend of mine in the field site had to post a long message on his own timeline to reply to an accusation from one of his online friends (which remained unnamed) who accused him of not being a proper ecologist. This remark was triggered by some of my friend’s recent postings in which he vaguely displayed some sort of sympathy for mass consumption practices.

Similarly, people are increasing aware that when they dress to go out, some of their friends might take a photo of them and upload it on Facebook. Therefore, that particular photo will have an implication beyond the transience of the particular event they have attended to.

In all these cases, the consequence is that Facebook works as a window that opens up a view both towards an exterior appearance of the individual which also reflects on the social norms existing in the local community, and the interior of moral values or domestic family. For both, people follow clear guides to the type and level of visibility they are expected to reach.

Why do young men from lower socio-economic classes prefer shopping online?

Shriram Venkatraman3 July 2015

Shopping1

Photo by Shriram Venkatraman

Most of us on social media have noticed the static advertisements that are displayed on the side panels or the advertisements that intrude upon the videos we watch on Youtube. While some choose to ignore them some view them as an irritating factor that impinges on their personal space/time, and while some see them as distracting to say the least, for others they may be informative. The views are as myriad as the advertisements themselves, and are relative to the social context of the viewer.

However, this post is not about the different kinds of advertisements that get displayed on social media, nor is it about any kind of advertising strategy. My aim is simply to illustrate a finding, namely how advertisements on social media can transform the norms of consumption and shopping for the lower socio-economic classes in some societies by acting as a gateway to online shopping.

Let’s explore the case of how advertisements on Facebook have driven young men from the lower socio- economic classes in Panchagrami, South India, to explore the world of online shopping, and thus escape from subtle discrimination and embarrassment they sometimes face in shopping malls.

The young men of lower socio-economic classes in my field site have a fascination with online shopping. Though, most of them are school dropouts, one investment in particular that appeals to them is a smart phone with a 3G data pack. Access to Facebook or WhatsApp isn’t too far for these youth, as this becomes a natural extension of a 3G connection.

Other than socializing on Facebook, another significant aspect of their activity on Facebook is clicking on the different advertisements, specifically those which display colourful clothes, shoes or hi-tech phones. While at the beginning most did not know how to buy from these e-shopping sites, they didn’t have to look far to find informal tutors to advise them. Most of these tutors were educated IT employees who hailed from the same area and were childhood friends of theirs.

While it may seem as though their shopping on these portals is just a natural extension of them being on the internet or on social media, this turn to online shopping has much deeper facets that require attention.

Why Online Shopping?

While most online shopping still requires plastic money (credit/debit card), the Indian e-shopping portals offer a cash payment model known as ‘cash on delivery’ which perfectly fits the cash economy that dominates this demographic. They don’t have credit cards and some don’t even have a bank account. This model lets them choose and buy products online, then pay in cash only when they receive the products at their doorstep. This service gives them access to things from t-shirts to trousers to slippers etc. through these portals, without the hassle of owning a credit card.

Using e-shopping portals gives them an opportunity to experience better service and feel important. This was of particular importance because of the way they were treated by salesmen in malls who would look down at them when they asked too many questions, or if they asked for choices before they had made a selection. They also felt that, because of their skin colour, salesmen assumed that they could use their power and expertise to force products that they would never have chosen.

They very often said that they felt helpless and like fools when they walked out of a store. They also often felt too intimidated and embarrassed to visit upscale showrooms, and often felt out of place. The salesmen often just assumed that they weren’t worth his or her time because they didn’t see them as a potential sale. So, when they would ask questions, the salesman would obfuscate rather than waste their time.

However, this didn’t happen on e-shopping portals. It patiently showcased anything they wanted or even aspired for. Even though they had enough cash, a salesman always got irritated with them, but e-shopping portals didn’t.

Further, anything you asked for came to your doorstep rather than having to go out looking for it. In addition to convenience, this service has allowed them to showcase their power and status in ways that they previously could not.

The availability of cheaper products on these portals also allows them to consume products specifically intending to give them as gifts to their kins. This gift giving through buying things online automatically builds status among their social circles as well.

However, when it came to buying electronics, like smart phones, they preferred a showroom environment so that they could feel the phone before investing in it. They still used the e-shopping portals to compare models, before going to a showroom. Let’s suppose they want a Sony or HTC phone, first they go to the e-shopping portal and compare the visual features, then ask their IT friends to help them with the features, then they compare prices and look for other models and the associated visuals and features, then, finally, go to Youtube to watch videos of how the phone works. They go back to evaluate the number of stars (gold stars) the phone has received on the e-shopping portal. Finally, they decide on the model they want and go to a showroom in Chennai to get the phone.

Given that they are now equipped with knowledge regarding their intended product for purchase, they are more confident when it comes to shopping in mall showrooms and don’t feel intimidated with either the ambience or the salesmen. They often felt that they knew more than the salesmen after this process of acquiring knowledge about the phone through social media.

In other words the collective social knowledge that social media offers, transforms their shopping experience itself, from just being a passive buyer to an assertive consumer, who wouldn’t be put down so easily.

Such experiences have led them to click on more advertisements, as they realize that it was these advertisements that actually offered them a window to a new shopping experience.

Personal and public aesthetics: What I learned from my own visceral reactions in the field

ucsanha25 June 2015

jair selfie

Photo by Nell Hayes

At first, I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but over the first several months in my fieldsite in northern Chile I began to realize that one of the reasons I never quite felt totally at home was that the aesthetics of the place never quite fit with my own sense of aesthetics. By aesthetics, I mean the effort and thought that people put into the way things look. In my fieldsite, a city of 100,000 inhabitants, I noticed this in public parks and municipal buildings, in both the inside and outside of homes, and in the way people dressed. It was not only an intellectual exercise, but a visceral feeling. If I wore the clothes that I was used to wearing, perhaps a dress or a fitted button down shirt, I felt as if everyone was staring at me because I was dressed with too much care. Perhaps they were right. There wasn’t really anywhere to go looking smart. The only bar in the city had cement floors, cinderblock walls, and heavy metal bands playing live every weekend.

Over time I thought more about the sense of aesthetics in Alto Hospicio, and realized that while I had considered it entirely utilitarian at first, there was something more particular about it. The aesthetic was very much a part of the accessibility and normativity that prevailed in the city. The predominant aesthetic was not nonexistent, nor did it always privilege form above function or the “choice of the necessary” as Bourdieu calls the working class aesthetic. While many people clearly could afford to redecorate their homes or buy expensive clothing from the department stores in the nearby port city, their aesthetic choices leaned toward an appearance that was not too assuming. They didn’t flaunt or show off in any way. It was an aesthetic that was presented as if it were not one, because aspiring to a particular aesthetic would be performing something; a certain kind of pretension. Yet the aesthetic relies on deliberate choices to not be pretentious or striking; to be modest; to be unassuming. This aesthetic then not only predominated in the material world, but also online. Unlike in Brazil, where young people would never post a selfie in front of an unfinished wall, this was precisely the type of place youth in northern Chile might pose. While in Brazil this would associate the person with backwardness that contradicts the type of upward mobility they hope to present, in northern Chile this type of backdrop would add a sense of authenticity to the person and their unassuming lifestyle.

So, in the end, what began as a visceral feeling of discomfort in the field site, actually led to a very important insight. As I told academic friends many times during my fieldwork, “This place is a great site for research, but not at all a great site for living.” Fortunately, even some of the “not at all great” parts of about living in northern Chile helped my research more than I realized at first.

 

Reference

Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste. Richard Nice, trans. New York: Routledge (1984), pp 41, 372, 376.

 

It’s not just about Chinese migrant workers

Xin Yuan Wang22 June 2015

Chinese female migrant workers working in a local reflective vest workshop. Photo by Xinyuan Wang

Chinese female migrant workers working in a local reflective vest workshop. Photo by Xinyuan Wang

A question always strikes me as I write up ethnography and prepare for talks based on my 15 months of fieldwork among Chinese factory workers in southeastern China: what will people learn from Chinese migrant workers’ use of social media? Of course these stories may sound ‘exotic’, but I will see it as a total failure if they are nothing more than novel and exotic in peoples’ eyes.

Ethnography in a way is a storytelling of others’ lives. This technique is also widely used in novel writing, film making, and all forms of the narrative of ‘otherness’. Recently a film came out called Still Alice, a touching film telling the story of an extremely intelligent female linguistic, Alice, in her 50s who suffers from Alzheimer’s. In the film Alice is not only gradually losing all of the professional knowledge she acquired after many years of education and research, but also all the memories of her life, of being a mother, a wife, a woman, even a human being.  My colleagues and friends who watched the film shared the same thought, how lucky we are to still have those memories which, from time to time, we take for granted. And some of them, including myself, even became a bit panicked when we would forget something all of the sudden – OMG, is that an early sign of Alzheimer’s?! Whether being grateful, thoughtful, or even panicked, all of these reactions come from the fact that we are placing ourselves in the story and imagining ourselves living her life. Empathy is the word we use to describe these experiences that bridge other’s stories and our own.

And ‘empathy’ is key for the ethnographer. I still recall the days when I felt desperate about the state of my filedwork, that I had nothing to do but watch ‘stupid’ videos on people’s smartphones with the factory workers or just stare at people’s repetitive movements on the assembly line for hours. All the boredom drove me bananas and I howled to Danny that I couldn’t bear such a dreadful life anymore. What Danny said not only calmed me down but also woke me up: “Don’t forget, if you have enough, you can easily walk out in the near future, but for them, it’s their whole life.

The most unforgettable thing I learned from my fieldwork was not the material I took away for my research, but the personal experience of being able to live those migrant workers’ lives. Through this experience I developed an empathetic respect for other people’s lives and motivations which, in turn, has allowed me to reflect upon, and be grateful for, my own life. However, not everybody has the ‘luxury’ to experience others’ lives like ethnographers do. This further highlights the importance of our research, that we have the opportunity to bring an empathetic understanding of ‘others’ to the public when they read or listen to our research.

People constantly gain knowledge of themselves through understanding others: how we are different from the others, how we are similar to the others, why we are different or similar, these inquiries help us to depict the outline of the ‘self’. This is the main reason for the importance of learning other’s stories, because they allow us to gain perspective on our own lives, to think and feel differently. A good novel or a good film achieves this, so why not ethnography? One could argue that ethnography can do this even better, given its holistic knowledge of the given population and society.

The empathy and thought evoked from an anthropological study of ‘others’ can be very powerful, one of the most famous cases comes from Margaret Mead’s fieldwork in Samoa. Mead’s book Coming of Age in Samoa has sparked years of ongoing and intense debate on various issues such as society, community, social norms, and gender. For example, Mead described how gender is constructed by the local community, in this case one totally different from American society, and argued that masculine and feminine characteristics are based mostly on cultural conditioning. This argument actually influenced the 1960s ‘sexual revolution’ when people in the West started to rethink gender.That’s the real strength of ethnography.

This bares a question for all anthropologists, in what way is your research relevant to an audience who may not necessarily be interested in the specific group or society that is the focus of your research? The knowledge drawn from fieldwork should not be parochial. As we can see in Mead’s case, ethnography about a group of people which seems to bear very limited relevance to people in the West is capable of inspiring people by evoking reflection of the ‘self’, culture, and society.

In some of my talks, as well as at the end of the ethnography I am writing, I always try to remind people that it is not just about Chinese rural migrants. Yes, they are the human faces behind ‘Made in China’, they are said to be part of the biggest migration in human history. However, it is more than that. For example, understanding the ways migrant workers experience social media as the place where real daily life takes place in the context of their appalling offline situation pushes us to think about the complex relationship between online and offline, which is one of the core issues about social media use worldwide. The fantasy images on the social media profiles of Chinese rural migrants may look totally bizarre to you, but the logic of applying imagination to guide, explain, fulfill or strike a balance in daily life is as old as human history – dreams, sexual fantasy, folktale, religion…you name it. So a study of how people play out their fantasies about life with the help of social media and how such experiences impacts people’s lives may not just be relevant in that given population and society. It is not just about Chinese rural migrants, it’s about understanding them as well as gaining understanding of ourselves.

Opening doors: Rural Chinese business promotion on social media

Tom McDonald28 May 2015

A typical shopfront in the North China fieldsite (Photo: Gillian Bolsover)

A typical shopfront in the North China fieldsite (Photo: Gillian Bolsover)

One surprising feature of QQ – the most popular social media platform in the rural Chinese town where I conducted research – is its lack of dedicated ‘business’ profile pages, such as those offered on Facebook.

WeChat, the second most popular social media platform in the town, does allow business owners to set up an official ‘public account’ (gongzhong hao), although registration requires users to submit details and a scanned copy of their business licence, which is enough of a hassle to deter most people I knew from signing up.

An additional cultural explanation also exists for why dedicated business profiles are less common on social media pages: townsfolk operate a far less regimented division between work and leisure.

The town’s shops, restaurants and small businesses are often run by family members. Even owners of larger businesses (like factories) in the town prefer to employ family or close friends wherever possible.

Given the choice, people would rather carry out transactions with friends instead of complete strangers. As such, outsiders coming to the town to conduct business often find themselves spending considerable amounts of time and money establishing friendly relationships with townsfolk before any business agreements can be made.

These factors mean that owners of small businesses in the town are far more willing to operate their business and personal affairs from a single social media account. This is also reflected in the fact that some owners of these businesses use their shop name as their screen-name, and an image of the facade of the shop as their profile picture.

Aside from identifying the store, the convention of including an image of a shopfront also has important symbolic meaning that points to the family. Anthropologist Charles Stafford has noted how doors in China are understood to be important mediating spaces between households and the outside, and that these entrances are also seen to represent the family itself.

All this suggests that rather than Chinese social media lacking a business feature, the platform instead reflects very different cultural understandings of the relationship between commerce and kinship, and is actually rather well suited to the rural Chinese preference that business, family and friendship should be closely intertwined.