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A talk at Oxford Internet Institute

Xin Yuan Wang18 November 2014

by Shriram and Xinyuan

Our research Shriram and Xinyuan giving an talk about social media in India and China at Oxford Internet Institution

Our research Shriram and Xinyuan giving an talk about social media in India and China at Oxford Internet Institute

It is always good practice to exchange knowledge and ideas with scholars from other fields, as it adds immense value and vision to the research at hand. New Media and Social Media are fields that attract scholars from various other areas of study. The bridging of interdisciplinary ideas that this area of research induces is phenomenal. For example, while social media can be approached from an anthropological point of view, it can at the same time also be approached from a Big Data perspective. In a previous blog post Xinyuan talked about the difference between ‘Big Data’ and digital ethnography.

A couple of weeks ago, two of our researchers (Shriram and Xinyuan) were invited by Professor Ralph Schroeder, a Big Data theorist, from the Oxford Internet Institute (OII) to give a talk on social media in China and India, from an anthropological perspective. This opportunity, which is one of our earliest since our return from our intense 15 months of fieldwork provided great value in understanding and evaluating aspects related to disseminating our research results.

One of our first significant points of contribution was to address the need to study social media in a more traditional anthropological way. This also flowed from the strength of ethnographic evidence that the nine field sites generated over the last 15 months. Ethnographic evidence needs to be presented in a context based ‘thick description’, which anthropology does, allowing researchers present the field site in a rich descriptive and detailed format. This allows the readers/audience understand the situation/context better. The process of communicating such detailed description also brought us another opportunity to transition to a multimedia based approach. Xinyuan showed a 4.5 mins documentary film clip about her field site, Good Path town, a small factory town in southeastern China and the way she did ethnography among Chinese rural migrants who work and live in the factory town as factory workers. The result of using a visual platform to describe one’s field site was extremely positive. When the audience really saw the population and the field in the short clip, the subject no longer stayed as alienated or abstract but became far more humanized and engaging. The positive feedback received has also further encouraged us in our long-term dissemination plan for the project, which also involves a multimedia approach to report on our analyses and findings.

The discussion section was also inspiring. The questions varied from censorship in China to the influence of gender in the use of social media in India; and a few questions touched the very core issue of this comparative project, which was on how to draw conclusions from the ethnography of nine different sites.

Even from the two field sites (India and China), let alone the total nine field sites of the whole project, our audience had already strongly acknowledged the huge differences in the way people use social media as well as the impact of social media usage in local peoples’ daily life. Though the presentations were not intended to be comparative, the format in which they were delivered played a role in giving rise to a few interesting questions that leaned towards a comparison of general issues between China and India. For example: after listening to our presentations, students found that the use of social media in India was strongly influenced by the reality of offline life, however in China among Chinese rural migrants, social media offered a platform where people can simply set up a new world where they can enjoy an ideal life where their offline lives (including their social status are largely irrelevant. Although it’s always risky to over-generalize claims of totally different uses of social media by lower socio-economic groups in India and China, the ethnographic evidence gathered from our 15 months field research allowed our study to showcase the diversity of social media usage in different cultures and societies. Social media itself is by no means a unified or universal concept and its meanings are way more diverse than we can imagine. In short, this opportunity helped both the parties (OII and GSMIS scholars) to explore and understand social media in a much deeper context through an anthropological perspective that is contextually and fieldwork based.

All in the pose

Jolynna Sinanan25 August 2014

Image courtesy of J.G.

Image courtesy of J.G.

Danny and I are in the midst of looking at hundreds of Facebook profiles and in his case, Twitter and Instagram feeds as well to start writing the first book to come out of the project so far, What They Post. The project has always intended to be an anthropology of social media, but as we presented at the Royal Anthropological Institute a couple of months ago, instead of studying social media, we can also see social media as an unprecedented opportunity to study the wider anthropological context.

This is the premise of the book we’re (or at least I’m) muddling through at the moment. By looking at visual posts on social media- photos and self-generated or collaborated images (memes etc.) we can see an alternate route to doing ethnography. We are comparing our two field sites, The Glades in the UK and El Mirador in Trinidad. We’re not comparing Trinidad to the UK, it would defeat the purpose to take the values and cosmology of one society as the bedrock to which all others are compared. In our study, the use of social media by the English looks just as ‘exotic’ as uses of social media in China, Turkey or India. By looking at what people post, we can demonstrate the contrast between Trinidadian and English posting as the best way of showing that posting is in many respects Trinidadian and English.

We have now looked at thousands of images posted on social media and are starting to work with about ten comparative themes. Some are directly taken from the content of images, such as counting how many times alcoholic drinks appear, either with people or images of drink alone. Others are bigger themes that have been more subject to academic study we have big question marks next to that will need deeper analysis, where an images says something about gender or class but we’re not sure what yet.

One of the themes that has stood out to us is the way that women pose in photos. Danny has noticed a pattern where women over the age of around 30, do not overtly pose. They may try to look pretty, attractive or feminine, but they don’t show their bodies in any particular way. Posing years seem to be for teenagers and young adults, but certainly not for adult women.

It is quite the opposite in Trinidad. Women of all ages post images of themselves on Facebook, they pose to the side, they show their behind, they may have a hand of their hip or a leg slightly turned out diagonally from the body, but they show themselves.

And this is where it is very important to not take the values of any one society as the cornerstone to compare others. We have all seen countless journalistic articles that feed into the anxieties we have with the introduction of any new media, usually from a psychological perspective. That social media encourages, or brings out latent narcissistic tendencies, that we are all obsessed with our own image and we are all become more exhibitionist, photographing and sharing everything that we do.

But when I ask women why they post photos of themselves, I get a number of responses like ‘I was in a good mood’, ‘I felt like it’, ‘I liked my make-up’ or ‘I liked how I looked that day’ followed by ‘and I wanted to remember it.’ Trinidad is a society where people strive to be seen and we can’t contextualise that desire in contexts of Western mediatisation or celebrity phenomenon. Because of its own history and experience of modernity, being seen is to be acknowledged that one exists as a person. Visibility has far more existentialist implications in Trinidad than simply wanting fame.

I would also argue that Trinidadian women are generally kinder to themselves and to each other about their bodies. You don’t have to have a certain look to post lots of selfies, young women aren’t ridiculed by their peers for posting selfies or posing in photos if they aren’t thin or pretty enough, they don’t need to look like celebrities to celebrate themselves. Trinidadian women generally have a healthier sense of body image than we have observed with their UK counterparts and it all comes across when we take a comparative look at the photos they post.

Englishness, the World Cup and the Glades

Daniel Miller27 June 2014

Football fandom in the Glades, images by Daniel Miller

Football fandom in the Glades. Images by Daniel Miller

Viewing the world cup from the perspective of  a relatively homogeneous English site, The Glades, a dual village with a total population of 24,000, North of London, seems to bring out the ‘Englishness’ of this site compared to others around the globe.

At the time of writing England are already out of the World Cup, and most of the overheard conversation is about failure. England is ranked below the two teams, Italy and Uruguay, that beat them. Most experts felt they played quite well. So the results are pretty much in accordance with expectations. But this is not how things are seen here. Social bonding seems most effective when everyone agrees that England are ‘rubbish’. The humour on social media is typically self-deprecating, for example, a picture of the tour bus on sale with signs such as ‘only used twice’.

On social media we looked at all posting on 30 Instagram, 40 Twitter and 65 Facebook accounts during one week. This provided very clear support for my earlier claim that Facebook is no longer a peer to peer media for youth but has migrated to older people. Of the forty teenage Facebook profiles only one person used it for extensive football comment and this was because all his Twitter posts were set to also show on Facebook. Two others made a single relevant posting, one posted twice and that was it. World Cup references are more common for older users of Facebook with two people posting 11 times and one six times.

Instagram is only used to post ones own photos so the World Cup was not relevant. The core to young peoples posting today is Twitter. Of forty teenage sites, of those who posted during this week there were 5 males who posted frequent comments throughout the week. 11 males made just a few comments often around 3 to 5 while only 1 male made no comments at all. Of the females none posted extensively, half posted a few and half posted no world cup related tweets. Males tend to post either exclamations at events, general comments such as: ‘Why were Uruguay and Italy so poor against Costa Rica?’ Also popular is humour or critical remarks, such as:

‘I don’t get all the people that say England are good, we are shit, you just don’t want to admit it… when was the last time we won anything?’

‘Any coincidence that nations who sing their anthems with pride and feeling put in spirited performances, rather than our pathetic effort?’

Humour, as well as being self-deprecating, is often sarcastic, such as:

‘”BREAKING – Steven Gerrard to retire from international football after the World Cup” what a shame.’

Females add a gendered perspective, with posting such as: ‘why are all the Uruguay player’s shirts so so so tight? lol’, or cute pictures of the Brazilian player Oscar. If they comment on the football itself it may be apologetically such as ‘Uhh ohhhhh!! trust it to be Suarez (like i actually know what i’m talking about)’. Only those who comment extensively tend to mention games other than those played by England, or if they have connections such as family in Portugal and therefore support that team.

As well as self-deprecation the English qualities of modesty and reticence are much in evidence. There is relatively little public display. Across the two villages only 3 shops had extensive world cup influenced windows (see photos), 3 more had minimal and around 80 had none. Apart from an electrician, it was either the most traditional English butcher and pub or ethnic minority restaurants (Indian or Chinese) that had displays. There was only one example of commercial exploitation, a supermarket that had a selection called ‘tastes of the world cup’ with Brazilian watermelon Ivory Coast cocoa etc. Less than 1% of homes or cars displayed flags.

Going to pubs during the games when England were not playing one rarely saw more than 3 or 4 people that looked like they might have come especially to watch that game. During the England game one pub was crowded with 140 people another less than half that. The atmosphere was subdued. Apart from the collective shouting and celebration when the English goal was scored, there were no instances of people making remarks loud enough for anyone to hear other than their own companions.

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.

Our timetable and publishing plans

Daniel Miller3 June 2014

Photo by XinYuan Wang

Photo by XinYuan Wang

With all of us (apart from Nell who started later) having completed a year’s fieldwork, we met in London for consultation for the month of May. On 1 June everyone returned to the field for 3 months of further research. During May we also discussed our plans for publications and wider dissemination.

We don’t just want to research new media, we also want to use its unprecedented capacities for ensuring that our work reaches audiences who we believe will be fascinated to know more about how social media operates across the world.

We also want this exercise in E-education to move beyond official education institutions, such as university and school, to reach anyone who would wish to be better informed about social media.

Obviously since we haven’t even finished the initial research phase this is very tentative and likely to change and evolve as we proceed. But at least this provided us with some guide as to what we might hope to achieve, and an approximate answer to the increasingly common question by others as to when they might expect to see results from the research. We certainly aren’t promising to abide by either the dates or the scale of what follows here, but who knows – we just might.

By Sept 2014, all fieldwork will be complete (other than Nell who finishes in May 2015).

Danny Miller and Jolynna Sinanan will have largely finished work on a book called What They Post, that is a comparison between what people in Trinidad and England post on social media, showing the marked differences between the two places.

By May 2015, We aim to complete the drafts of nine additional books (one for each fieldsite) of around 70 thousand words each. These will be popular and accessible accounts of what we have learnt about social media in each site. They will all have the same chapter headings, but our ethnographies have shown that the content will remain extremely diverse. Tentative chapters we have discussed might include Facebook/QQ, Polymedia – relating these to other social media, the impact on relationships, and answers to 10 questions people typically ask us, e.g. impacts on politics, inequality, gender and education. Also there is likely to be a chapter in each book on quantitative surveys and questionnaires. Most of these chapters will include 2 or 3 stories about individuals from our fieldsites who help us to illustrate the points being made.

January 2016 Launch of all our materials as Open Access to the general public through a site designed for web/phone/tablet. We hope that this will include a considerable amount of material designed to be more accessible and less academic. This will include a) short YouTube videos taken in our fieldsites by a mix of professional film makers and local informants, b) (if we can afford them) animations and infographics to explain our more theoretical points, c) a presentation of our main general insights with qualifications and caveats given the diversity of our sites. d) data from our more quantitative materials e) shorter texts that make some of the book material available in clear language. We hope to provide various guided routes through these online materials, e.g. organised by fieldsite or by theme. Our ideal would be to have much of this more accessible material available in all the languages of all our sites. Though we don’t expect these translations will be complete at the launch in January 2016.

As part of this site we would include the ten books already mentioned and (if finished) an additional comparative volume. All will be published under a Creative Commons licence. In addition we are considering the idea of creating a free MOOC or Open Access university course, possibly with UCL or perhaps Coursera. This will include lectures enhanced by these others materials such as the books and the films. We would also consider a paid version of this course for credit, including interactivity and examination within the UCL system. But this depends upon many other forces outside of our control.

At this point we believe we can achieve some version of the above. But the quality will be much better if we can gain additional funding or sponsorship which we are currently seeking (so if you know of anyone…….). We are also happy to work with volunteers who would like to contribute to these aims, e.g. helping with infographics or translation.

Further/Future Publications:-

The initial books are to be written in a popular rather than academic style and concentrate upon what each site has taught us about the use and consequences of social media. All the members of the team would also, however, wish to write a second, more academic book, in which we turn this around and ask how working with social media and ethnography has allowed us as anthropologists to learn about the fieldsites and the people who live there. Each of us also has particular themes we are interested in such as gender, education, the hospice, work/family balance, visibility etc. We also expect to write more academic journal papers, and potentially  comparative edited volumes on particular themes such as education, politics and gender.

A final component would be more theoretical academic publications that consider the implications of this study at a higher level, for example, our conceptualisation of sociality, what this teaches us about being human and the potential for comparative anthropology. But this is on the far horizon and we may have a better idea of such mountains when we have successfully navigated the foothills.

School fights, moral judgments and racial commentary

Jolynna Sinanan22 April 2014

front page headline from Trinidad and Tobago's 'Newsday', 19.03.2014

front page headline from Trinidad and Tobago’s ‘Newsday’, 19.03.2014

(note: this blog post contains language around racial categorisation that may be offensive when taken out of context)

In the last month, the circulation of two videos of school yard fights on social media have become the subject of attention by the national news media. The first video, captured on a phone outside a prestigious school in the capital city, Port of Spain, shows a group of girls outside the school yard in a confrontation, which escalates into a fight between two girls, kicking, pulling hair and shoving each other to the ground. The crowd of girls cheers them on, and a passing off-duty policeman tries to break up the fight. Some of the crowd turn on him and yell at him for trying to break up the fight. The second is another group of girls in a high school in the rural town of Toco inside a classroom, one springs off a table onto a girl who has been swearing at her and they struggle on the ground.

Fights between school children are nothing new. They occur in all sectors of society, between boys or girls, between private and public school students alike. The reaction to the fights across the country reflected normative concerns around good versus bad parenting and the decline in morals for kids today. Yet, the stakes are much higher for what these judgement calls imply in Trinidadian society.

The legacy of colonialism is not far away in the consciousness of Trinidadians. From the formation of the society of indentured East Indians and ex-enslaved Africans, there has always been benign (and in periods such as the Black Power movement) overt antagonism between Indo- and Afro-Trinidadians. Yet, the country has also been an exemplary one for the potential of a pluralistic, genuinely cosmopolitan and ethnically mixed society to exist cohesively and peacefully. It is quite common for families to be made up of Afro- and Indo- Trinidadians of Hindu, Muslim and various Christian beliefs. Race and class in Trinidad is an extremely complex topic, way beyond the scope of a brief blog post. There is a well-established argument that despite the appearance of antagonism based on race, the real conflict in Trinidad is based on class (Yelvington, 2010, Meighoo, 2003, Singh, 1994,  )

The concern that arises from the circulation of videos such as these resonates with an argument that Daniel Miller and myself raised in Webcam. To summarise, video footage as evidence has a fruitful contradiction. On the one hand, the visible evidence that we see as real-time captured footage on a phone attests to the truth of the event and on the other hand, the truth that appears on film has more potential to be fabricated and false- especially when taken out of context. The hazard of the rapid circulation of such videos is the moral discourse that is generated by the ‘truth’ of what appears in the videos. If taken as evidence, comments such as these, which appeared on Facebook confirm that girls who are in school yard fights are undisputedly certain sorts of girls.

“These little black children!”

“I don’t apologise for my words, but damn shameful disgraceful old n***a behaviour”

“typical poor black ppl children … not an indian child there … child mudda (mother) with bout 6 chilren for bout 5 different man and one child she eh (isn’t) sure who is d fadda (the father) is … black people need to wake d f*** up before its too late”

And the comments go on, each with at least three ‘likes’. But this is Facebook and the people who leave comments have their names (or pseudonyms) and profile picture clearly visible. A quick scan through the commentators’ profiles where few have tight security settings shows that all of the commentators who comment on race are themselves Afro-Trinidadians.

This brief observation speaks to a well-discussed themes in critical race studies, of internalised racism and institutionalised racism. Face-to-face, when racial observations are brought up in everyday conversations, they are more peppered with humour and are generally good-natured, even if they reflect more harmful racial stereotyping. Yet, comments on Facebook redrew the boundaries of what is said and accepted in public. Offline, none of the conversations around the incidents contained the severity of condemnation of the online comments. Symbolic interactionalism based on racial categorisation has a long history in Trinidad and the visibility provided by the affordances of Facebook adds another dimension to deeply messy areas of race and class.

Bibliography:

Yelvington, K. (2010). Producing power: Ethnicity, gender, and class in a Caribbean workplace. Temple University Press.

Meighoo, K. P. (2003). Politics in a’half made society’: Trinidad and Tobago, 1925-2001. Kingston: Ian Randle Publishers.

Singh, K. (1994). Race and class struggles in a colonial state: Trinidad 1917-1945 (p. 226). Calgary: University of Calgary Press.

The prejudice of shallowness

Razvan Nicolescu4 April 2014

Photo by Stefanie Maria (Creative Commons)

Photo by Stefanie Maria (Creative Commons)

Isabella has 28 years old and is engaged (fidanzata) for eight years with a man from a nearby town. In this part of Italy these long engagements are quite common. Actually, Isabella has the most recent engagement in her close circle of friends, who are all engaged for 10 or 12 years. The marriage is thought of as something that should be built on solid grounds, typically a stable workplace and a house. Customarily, the man first builds a house, furnishes it at least partially and then the couple organize the wedding ceremony. In the context of difficult economic circumstances and high social uncertainty these conditions for even thinking of a marriage are quite difficult to be attained.

Isabella is happy that she works full-time as a shop assistant and has time to also study for her undergraduate degree. She is proud she will most probably graduate this year. She started to study Letters at the University of Salento eight years ago. All along this time, her fidanzato supported her determination to complete her studies even against the will of her family. However, during this time the couple was not able to save money for the marriage. He always worked on a temporary basis as a builder and her current job as shop assistant is the first stable job any of them ever had. They estimate that the wedding ceremony alone would cost them at least 10,000 EURO. They come from modest families who could not raise even a small part of this sum. The plan is that Isabella should graduate first and then they could start saving money for the wedding. This means the two could get married in at least two or three years.

Until then, and as most of the fidanzati in the town, the two live separately each with their own families. They also work in the same towns where they live. As the two towns are situated about ten miles away one from the other, they currently do not manage to see each other too often during work days – which here are Monday to Saturday. The two compensate this by spendings the weekends together, living alternatively at one of their parents’ house This arrangement also allows them spending more time with their friends.

Isabella’s closest friends are six female ex-colleagues from her secondary school in Grano who happen to be all engaged with six men from the town of her fidanzato. He is actually a cousin of her best colleague from her secondary school class. She remembers that this was her favourite group of friends since she was a teenager. She always enjoyed the fact that they had the same tastes and very similar passions on a gendered basis. I will not detail this here, but is important to mention that the group itself and this shared intimacy within its strict confines is what makes Isabella feel safe and comfortable.

Whatsapp is important in keeping this sense of intimacy. The group of friends use three main Whatsapp groups: ‘the group of girls,’ ‘the group of boys’ and the group for all of them which is also the least used. Girls use their group most intensively by far: they may start the day with a simple buona giornata (‘good morning’), a question, or a video clip. At least two hours until work starts, roughly at 10:00, there is an energetic exchange of messages and updates inside this group. The boys use their group rather irregularly, with typical peaks such as the ones around the dates when Juventus Torino is playing. What is important for this discussion is that Isabella senses that her fidanzamento depends on the unity of the group of her female friends and this unity currently knows a substantive support because of Whatsapp. Isabella sees that many women of her age become less attached to their peers when they start to work or move closer to their marriage, and therefore, she is extremely happy that Whatsapp allows her reinforce what she senses she needs most.

At the same time, these people who could have a noisy aperitivo in large groups of twelve-fifteen people in late summer evenings could easily be accused of a certain shallowness. A typical criticism is that they ‘stay too much on’ their Smartphones when they are supposed to be together. This blog post goes against these prejudices and social condemnations by suggesting a few reasons why these could simply not be true. Beautiful well-dressed women and jovial men could cheerfully manipulate their Smartphones not because they are more distant one from another but because actually they want to be much closer.

Visibility in the society pages of social media

Jolynna Sinanan19 March 2014

Photo by Jolynna Sinanan

Photo by Jolynna Sinanan

I have passed the 10 month point in fieldwork where I am perhaps getting a bit too comfortable with being in Trinidad. Like hundreds of thousands of Trinidadians this month, all my responsibilities and commitments have come second to the greatest show on earth: Carnival. Although Carnival is the height of the Trinidadian calendar year, it is experienced by Trinidadians is different ways. The parades of people you see on the streets in bikinis, beads and feathers (‘pretty mas’, or ‘pretty masquerade’) that resemble Brazilian Carnival, is a transformed version of Carnival that emerged in the 1980s as part of the state strategy to attract more tourism. It’s a strategy that has worked, thousands of tourists come each year paying up to £6000 to ‘play’ mas with the biggest and most popular groups, or as they’re locally known, bands. Prior to the 1980s, playing mas was a uniquely Trinidadian event that resembled the mix of the callalloo* nation. There were elements of theatre, Amerindian ritual and African dancing and drumbeats and costumes were embodiments of political commentary that mocked upper classes or foreign influences such as American seamen who were based in Trinidad in the Second World War. Many people tend to agree that mas had political potential and social commentary. But what of it today?

February has been a rich month for fieldwork as everybody has an opinion on Carnival. Common discourse and normative values emphasise that contemporary Carnival is vulgar, it’s not really Trinidadian, all the wining (a dance where the main movement is gyrating the hips) and carrying on is indecent. A lot of women agree with this view, but it is undeniable that each year, hundreds of thousands of Trinidadian women play mas. I have been discussing this with Dr Dylan Kerrigan at the University of the West Indies, a fellow anthropologist who has expertise on gender, masculinities and Carnival. We agree that Carnival has retained fractions of its potential for political subversion, perhaps now, not along the lines of race and class, but along the lines of gender. Carnival is the month of the year when a woman of any background, age and race can be extremely scantily clad, dance with whoever she likes and you don’t hear a peep from male onlookers or spectators. Yet, purchasing the space for freedom has an explicit economic dimension, paying for the pre-Carnival parties (fetes) and to play mas with big bands with their own food, drinks, portable bathrooms and security is an investment for a fun (safe) time. The demarcation of expensive fetes and bands makes sure that people of certain levels of society remain in their respective groupings. The one big contradiction to the prestige of going to expensive fetes and playing with big bands is that at this time of year, banks give special loans just for Carnival. People save money over a year (or two) or take out loans to visibly occupy spaces they don’t the rest of the year. Which brings me back to the ongoing theme of visibility.

I thought that if so much money is being spent on parties and costumes, surely this is the time of year Facebook would be inundated with selfies and mirror shots. Carnival is the pinnacle of the year to be seen by others. With the prestige of fetes and bands, comes with being photographed. Danny Miller is currently doing an in depth study of one such photography company that takes photos in fetes and uploads them to social media and their own website, reminiscent of the society pages in newspapers and magazines. Trinidad is a small society with few print magazine publications. The biggest and most expensive bands publish their own magazines after Carnival, displaying photos of masqueraders on Carnival Monday or Tuesday. Anybody who plays mas with these bands could be potentially snapped for the magazine. The photos I have seen on Facebook of masqueraders have mostly been tagged by others. The extreme few selfies have been ‘before going out’ shots. I saw many people with camera phones on the day, but there is an etiquette of visibility that photos of you are posted by others. What is the point of being the show and being the spectacle for your own gaze, otherwise?

Contemporary society pages are now the pages of social media. Four major social photography companies regularly post photos of events they have photographed on Facebook and people can tag themselves. The brands of photographers and the brands of fetes and bands is another aspect of how Facebook is made Trinidadian, through emulating the society pages of print magazines.

*Callalloo: a local dish made of mixed vegetables and cooked together, but also a local idiom for the mixed culture of Trinidad.

Time to face your own voice: voice messaging on Chinese social media

Xin Yuan Wang18 December 2013

By Xinyuan Wang and Tom McDonald

A WeChat user recording a voice message to send to another user (Photo by Tom McDonald)

A WeChat user recording a voice message to send to another user (Photo by Tom McDonald)

Both Tom and Xinyuan noticed that ‘sending voice messages’ (fa yuyin) via Chinese social media platforms WeChat and QQ was very popular in both our north and south China fieldsites. Their informants kept talking about the ability to leave voice messages using these platforms.

WeChat was the first to introduce the ability to ‘send voice messages’ in its app. This simply involves navigating to the chat screen of the person you wish to send a message to, and then pushing on the record button. This activates the microphone, you speak your message, and then you release the button. The message is then sent to the recipient, and appears as a speech bubble with a loudspeaker symbol amongst the ordinary dialogue (see figure). The recipient has to press the loudspeaker symbol to play the message.

Informants in both sites have reported that they found voice messaging to be convenient as it eliminates the need to text. In both sites many of our participants reported that they found sending written messages always takes a longer time, and that inputting Chinese characters was a struggle.

Besides functional advantages of WeChat voice message, it is curious to note that people have developed a strategy of appropriating WeChat voice message in terms of personal expression and relationship negotiation. For example, people believe that voice message is more personal. Many of our informants agreed that voice messages are not suitable for sending to everyone. One of Tom’s informants hinted that sending voice messages would only be appropriate for people who were quite close. Another, a young female office worker, explained that her online communication with her previous boyfriend predominantly featured voice messages. Especially to close friends and lovers, voice messages appear to express much more emotions than text-based channels.

Also the intonations of voice message matters a lot and help to make things clearer. In some cases, voice message somehow contributes to a better quality conversation. For instance, instead of sending a text message to her boyfriend saying she felt tired and sick, one of Xinyuan’s informants chose to send voice message, which really ‘sounds’ very weak and sick. Another participant showed Xinyuan how to use voice messaging in order to make a ‘white lie’ to a friend since, compared to phone call, one is more able to control one’s emotion and intonation using voice messaging. Similarly, people in Tom’s site reported that compared to phone calls, voice messaging offered the advantage of being able to ‘take one’s words back’ thanks to a feature that, if one is not satisfied with the recording, one is able to delete the voice message before sending it.  It seems that people have realised that some serious arguments from phone calls were actually caused by a wrong word or improper intonation.

It is also curious to note that the majority of young women in Xinyuan’s site reported that they actually listened to their own voice messages after sending them off. Many expressed surprise at hearing the sound of their own voice since most of them felt somewhat strange about it in the beginning since “it doesn’t sound at all like my voice!”. Scientifically speaking, the reason for such discrepancy is because when people speak they hear their own voice in two different ways – one through the outside sound waves, which also hit other people’s ears, and the other one through the inner bony skull which actually polishes one’s voice with ‘a false sense of bass’.  However, for us it is also interesting to look at the social consequences of hearing one voice regularly. Apparently, people became more aware of their own voice while using voice message. And women (around 80% to 90%) appeared more aware of their voice since fewer male users (around 30% to 40%) told Xinyuan that they regularly listen to their own voice using voice messages.

It should be noted that unlike Europe or America, where there has been a long history of leaving voice messages thanks to the prevalence of the telephone answering machine, Chinese homes have rarely bought the units. Although the country’s mobile phone providers have started offering voicemail capabilities, there has always been an additional charge for the service, meaning take up has always been low. As such before WeChat introduced voice messaging the practice of talking to machines just hasn’t existed for most Chinese.

This asynchronous voice messaging represents quite a major change in the way that people communicate, moving from sending messages consisting of Chinese characters or emoticons to sending messages that are primarily aural. But it also raises important questions, such as: Does voice messaging in a way function as a self-training process in terms of speech skill? Or does it contribute to people’s self-recognition through social interaction? And does the effect of voice messaging vary with relation to gender?

In Miller and Sinanan’s recent Webcam book, the authors noticed that one of the important features of the webcam is that it effectively acts as a mirror, allowing many people their first ever opportunity to see themselves whilst in conversation. It is interesting to note that a similar novel state of communication is taking place in the case of voice messaging among Chinese users that people could actually listen to themselves during the daily communication for the first time. In both sites of China, we found that even though people started to apply voice message mainly because of its functional affordance, they ended up with a new consciousness of their voice as something one can creatively craft in order to send.

Yes, there are few things harder than facing yourself. Like it or not, it seems that social media in a way has ‘pushed’ us to know more about ourselves and our social relationships. And for many in China this means it may be time to face their own voice.

QQ & WeChat: a threat to marriage in China?

Tom McDonald24 September 2013

Photo by flowcomm (Creative Commons)

Photo by flowcomm (Creative Commons)

Writing in the 1970s, Margery Wolf noted the pressures faced by rural Chinese women when they married. Women would typically leave their home village, where they were well cared for by their own family, and move into their husband’s village. As outsiders in this new place, women were positioned at the very bottom of society. They had no social network and were faced with the very difficult task of having to form social connections with other women in the village who they believed they could trust in order to survive.

This old social phenomenon has taken a somewhat different spin with the advent of new social media in the small town and villages that make up our North China fieldsite. I have noticed that many women report their communication networks get smaller in adulthood. Particularly worth emphasising is that in many of the responses to our questionnaires, young women told me that they moved away from social networking once they got married. I have a hunch this may have something to do with important aspects of female morality and forms of exclusion from the public sphere. For example, it was very rare for women in our fieldsite to use their own photos as their avatars or in their QZone profiles, and many women practiced ‘locking’ access to some or all of their QZone albums (QZone does not offer the same fine-grained privacy controls seen in Facebook) with a security question to test their familiarity, such as ‘What is my name?’.

One such example came from Mrs Hu, a 30 year old married woman with a young son, who runs a shop in the town. She explained to me that social media use carries with it certain dangers. There was an occasion when one of her male ‘online friends’ (wangyou) sent her a QQ message saying: ‘I have changed a QQ number, add my other QQ number.’ She asked him why he wanted her to add the other number [havng a second QQ account can be a cause for suspicion]. He replied that it was ‘because my wife knows’ (yinwei wo laopo zhidao). She explained to me that this made her angry, because she had never met the man, and she told me she sent the man a message saying ‘I have no special connections with you, what does it matter if your wife knows?’. Following this occasion, she became far more careful with who she became friends with via social media, and even went to the trouble of reassigning the gender of her QQ and WeChat profiles to male in an effort to detract male strangers from ‘friending’ her.

While women in the town have tended to opt to more carefully control who they communicate with following marriage, and to limit their visibility on social networks, the situation is somewhat different for men – instead we tend to see a larger amount of social networking and media use amongst men once they get married.

Part of this may be down to a traditional expectation that men are supposed to earn money for the family, and therefore be spend more time outside home. There is a saying in Chinese that ‘women live on the inside, and men live on the outside’ (nv zhu nei, nan zhu wai). There is a common perception in my fieldsite that men need ‘connections’ (guanxi) and a wider set of connections in order to achieve this. Men are expected to be somewhat more ‘overtly expansive’ in relationships than women.

This is where social media comes in. It is becoming clear to me that one of the main differences between Chinese social media (QQ, WeChat) and their non-Chinese counterparts (Facebook, Twitter, etc) is that the Chinese social media appears to be much more strongly oriented towards making new friends, especially with strangers. However, as well as this fitting into the accepted ideal of socially extravert males, it also seems to be conducive to extra-marital affairs.

An example of this comes from Mr Wang, also in his thirties. I had heard from others that Wang was a particularly ‘chaotic’ person. One day I bumped into him sitting and chatting in a store. We became friends and added each other via WeChat’s ‘shake’ (yao-yi-yao) function. He told me that he only uses WeChat during the day, and avoids using it at night-time. “If my wife knows I use WeChat she will smash my phone” he told me with a smile.

In a society as concerned with marriage as China, it goes without saying that social media is having an enormous impact in transforming this social institutions. The two cases I have provided here are extreme ones, but I would say that here in the North China fieldsite many people seem to believe that social media can be especially damaging to marriage. Perhaps this is most forcefully proved by the fact that relatively few of our participants seem to communicate with their spouses via social media, instead preferring to call or even more rarely, text.

Audience vs. Community in blogs and Facebook

Jolynna Sinanan5 August 2013

audience

Image courtesy of GlowPlug, Creative Commons

Having finished fieldwork for the time being has brought with it some time to reflect, read and think about what all this data will become once it grows up and leaves my head into the world. As part of this project, I have also had the chance to present some initial findings and have some discussion with other researchers at Tembusu College at the National University of Singapore. From this visit, I am now working on a short project on Singaporean lifestyle (or fashion, depending on how you characterise the genre) blogs, which has given me the opportunity to pre-theorise sociality and Facebook (often framed in terms around ‘community’, see Miller, 2011, Zhang, Jiang and Carroll, 2010) and sociality and blogs (often framed in terms of publics and audiences, see Myers, 2010, Dean, 2010, Papacharissi, 2007).

As a social space, Facebook has remained far less elusive than blogs. Through the site’s idioms, “friends”, “timeline”, “sharing” and “liking”, there are inclusive connotations, which markes the user (profile owner) as the centre of their social universe. Groups can be categorised as “good friends”, “acquaintances” and networks separated into sub-categories, to give order to the open-plan space where people from separate domains of one’s life congregate (Postill and Pink, 2012). Normative anxieties around Facebook are often about which people are going to see what activities and privacy settings can be adjusted down to the access of individuals to certain posts and photos.

In contrast, blogs are framed as very personally created entities, as diary entries, opinions, tips and trends floating around the World Wide Web aimlessly for anybody’s access (Papacharissi, 2007, Livingstone, 2008). Yet, some studies, and in particular those of teenage girls’ blogs, argue that being visibly public is more about creating safe and closed spaces akin to community and friendship than about a narcissistic desire to simply put oneself on display in front of others (Lövheim, 2011, Mazarella, 2005).

I might note that most of the studies on blogs quoted are based on textual analyses of blogs as data from the US. From my short research trip to Singapore, I argue that lifestyle blogs lie somewhere in between sociality as community and as (public) audience. Lifestyle blogs indeed have a different emphasis than Facebook, the authors are ‘micro-celebrities’ who entertain as much as they inform. The authors we have looked at are women, which also presents an interesting intersection of aesthetics, consumption and citizenship.

As I have suggested in previous posts, ‘political’ activity on Facebook falls into two categories: very political in the forms of activism and commentary and non-existent, where not even a “like” or a “share” is given to any post that could be read as political. Both visibility and invisibility of political activity on Facebook have implications for forms of citizenship in Trinidad. In the study of Singaporean blogs, we are seeing something very different, where again, ethnographic context is everything. Contemporary literature on Singapore describe a mix of values, for example, Singapore has a “unique combination of liberalised economic values, alongside elements of cultural traditionalism and authoritarian statehood” (Lewis, 2011: 22). Lifestyle has symbolic, spatial, economic, class and gender aspects and is also a form of expression of citizenship. As Professor Miller and I describe in the upcoming book Webcam, Trinidadians are self-conscious about their culture, especially in its presentation to the rest of the world. Similarly, in Singapore, the presentation of self is significant in a self-conscious culture (Clammer, 1994: 197*). The potential comparison of these ontologies across different platforms such as webcam, blogs and Facebook makes me wish I had another 8 years on this project.

*Clammer discusses shopping in Japan, from our research in Singapore, we suggest a similar conclusion applies

Bibliography:

Clammer, John, 1994 ‘Chapter 10: Aesthetics of the Self: Shopping and Social Being in Contemporary Urban Japan’, in Shields, Rob (ed.) Lifestyle Shopping: The Subject of Consumption, New York: Routledge

Dean, Jodi, 2010, Blog Theory, Cambridge: Polity

Lewis, Tania, 2011, ‘Making Over Culture? Lifestyle Television and Contemporary Pedagogies of Selfhood in Singapore, Communication, Politics & Culture, 44: 1, pp 21-33

Lövheim, Mia, 2011, ‘Young Women’s Blogs as Ethical Spaces’, Information, Communication & Society, 14: 3, pp 338-354

Mazarella, Sharon R. (ed.) 2005, Girl Wide Web, Girls, the Internet and the Negotiation of Identity, New York: Peter Lang

Miller, Daniel, 2011, Tales From Facebook, Cambridge: Polity

Miller, Daniel and Sinanan, Jolynna, Webcam, Cambridge: Polity

Myers, Greg, 2010, The Discourse of Blogs and Wikis, London and New York: Continuum International Publishing Group

Papacharissi, Zizzi, 2007 ‘Chapter 2: Audiences as Media Producers: Content Analysis of 260 Blogs’, in Tremayne, Mark (ed.) Blogging, Citizenship and the Future of Media, New York and Abdingdon: Taylor and Francis

Postill, John and Pink, Sarah, 2012, ‘Social Media Ethnography: The Digital Researcher in a Messy Web’, Media International Australia, 145, pp 86-93

Zhang, Shaoke, Jiang, Hao and Carroll John M, 2010, ‘Social Identity in Facebook Community Life’, International Journal of Virtual Communities and Social Networking, 2: 4