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Understanding the Chinese internet: anthropology’s contribution

Tom McDonald23 June 2013

Broadband advertisement in village (Photo: Tom McDonald)

Broadband advertisement in village (Photo: Tom McDonald)

I spent last weekend in Oxford at the China and the New Internet World conference. In addition to presenting some of my PhD research, I found the conference a really valuable opportunity to get an idea of what people who are researching the Chinese internet are working on.

Several things impressed me during the conference. The majority of papers focussed on topics of legislation, censorship, political theory, etc., and a large number of them resorted to quantitative analysis or clever automated computer methods in order to reach often quite grand conclusions about ‘the Chinese internet’.

I must confess that, in comparison to such well-composed papers with finely-honed ‘take-home messages’, my own presentation’s conclusion was slightly more muddled. It is always quite unnerving to have to tell your audience at a conference that your conclusion is that you perhaps don’t really have one.

This got me thinking about the role of anthropology in understanding the Chinese internet. Anthropology is one of the most difficult of disciplines, in that it demands that the anthropologist immerses themselves in the lives of their research participants for an extended amount of time. This often means living alone in difficult and tiring conditions amongst people who often hold radically different beliefs or engage in practices that you at times find disagreeable. Not only that, but once this period is over, the same researcher has to grapple with the task of turning the data collected in the field into something understandable to (mostly) western educated readers.

The problem is that very few people want to do this in their lives. Furthermore, not many people want to read the results of what happens when someone does do this, because typically there are no ‘clean’ conclusions. Such stuff makes slightly uncomfortable reading, in that it often challenges the basic assumptions each of us hold that make us confident that the way that we live our lives are necessarily correct.

The vast majority of papers at the conference concentrated on issues of censorship, democracy and urban middle-classes. But as I listened to these papers I wondered what my friends in my fieldsite, a small town and its surrounding villages in north China might have made of this concern with issues of censorship and privacy. It seemed to me as though all the time us academics had been spending in computer labs, libraries and talking to other academics might actually be working to increase the distance between us, as academics, and the people that we claim to be protecting the interests of.

David Kurt Herold summed this issue up quite nicely in his own conference paper, where he commented:

We need more studies that look at how people in China are using the Internet to do what they want to do, i.e. in what practices are Internet users in China engaging and how are they constructing their own offline and online lives in relation to these practices (Hobart, 2000: 41f)? To ask a leading question: Is politics and the pursuit of democracy really the most important issue for Chinese Internet users, or is it just the most important issue for us researchers?

I am still not sure precisely what is going to come out of my own fieldwork in north China for this project. But I have every reason to expect by virtue of my placement in a very ‘normal’ part of China, that the people I will meet over the next year-and-a-half have every chance of changing the way we understand the Chinese internet, and Chinese people, for the better.

Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the fairest one of all? Social media as framed mirrors

Xin Yuan Wang2 February 2013

Photo by Sukanto Debnath (Creative Commons)

The other day, my previous informant X showed me her latest Facebook status update with a broad smile. The status looked like a quote out of nowhere, which confused me, and the only comment which came from her boyfriend made me even more confused. Even though I could understand each individual word; however the conversation between the post and the comment didn’t make any sense to me at all, there was a clear disconnect. Then X took 5 minutes to explain the whole story, which turned out to be the first time ‘Facebook official claim’ of their relationship which still remained a secret to most of their friends. I was amazed.

Why would people utter tender words of endearment to their lovers on Facebook which otherwise could be done by more private communicative channels? Why should people add confusing posts/comments, which can be only understood by a few intimate friends on Facebook to a huge number of other people? Many studies are concerned about the social media’s potential to destroy privacy, which I would definitely not disagree with. However, in other cases, it seems that those people who are fully aware of the context of social media, intentionally play around with the ‘transparent/private’ features of Facebook to express the most subtle emotions–is this just for fun?

Linguists have long noticed that the existence of ‘indexical signs’ the meaning of which highly depends on the context of social interaction. For example, smoke would be related with many things, but in certain spatio-temporal contexts smoke is an index of fire, however smoke does not ‘stand for’ the fire the way in which the word ‘fire’ refers to fire–here exists a causal rather than symbolic relationship, which ‘points back’ from the index to the referent (Boellstorff 2012:51). Similarly, the indexicality of those wordplays on Facebook, points back to the relationship itself. And the conversation acquires meanings from the ‘Facebook context’, rather than the ‘face value’ of the content. So why bother to post a ‘Facebook official claim’? Partly because the meaning of intimacy comes from the distinction, which suggests the uniqueness of the particular relationship exclusively against other aggregated public/private social relationships on Facebook – that is ‘among all the others, only we can understand what we are talking about’, which gives rise to the establishment of the relationship. In other words, that making things visible is, in itself, constituting relationship. To take this a stage further, Facebook to some extent has become a mirror to make a relationship visible–just like you can’t see yourself without a mirror.

The sociologist Goffman (1975) used the word ‘frame’ to explain how people’s behavior is cued by the frames which constitute the context of action. The Facebook ‘frame’ tells us how to interpret others’ behaviour as well as our own, but mostly, such framed activities are unconsciously embedded in the social expectations and understanding of what is or is not appropriate. The ‘public’ represented by Facebook is more often than not the people one knows privately (at least the anonymity of ‘real-name’ social media is limited compared to the other online communities), and there are consequences of addressing such a large body of social connections through ‘one-to-many’ texts or photos on Facebook rather than other personal communicative channels with particular individuals. Just as Miller argues “we have reached the point where Facebook may be regarded as providing a crucial medium of visibility and public witnessing” (2011:180). In such a frame, as long as people get used to the ‘public gaze’ or ‘participatory surveillance’, they start to develop a strategy to address the ‘public’. As X said “He knows only I know and others don’t know”, also in a way the invisible confused ‘public’ has contributed to the perception of the distinction which has added meaningful significance to their intimate relationship.

So, “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the fairest one of all?” does the fairy tale ring a bell when you look into the framed mirror of Facebook every day? The question why do people ask the mirror matters as much as the mirror’s answer in the eyes of digital anthropologists.

References

Goffman, E. 1975. Frame Analysis. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Miller, D. 2011. Tales from Facebook. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Boellstorff, T. 2012. “Rethinking Digital Anthropology”, in Heather A. Horst & Daniel Miller (eds.) 2012. Digital Anthropology. London: Berg.

Questions matter, and the way you ask them matters too

Xin Yuan Wang15 October 2012

Man walking infront of question mark

Photo: An untrained eye (Creative commons)

I always think that it is the strong and inherent curiosity about people that has lead me down the academic path of anthropology. In the past five weeks, working with a group of passionate, intelligent, and curious people has been such an enjoyable experience for me. I can not tell exactly how many potential research questions we have posed, but it feels like a huge amount, much more than we can hope to answer for the moment. However, even this makes the project more exciting and worth studying.

The current eight week intensive discussion tends to build up collective “common sense” for every researcher on the project before they go off to their individual field sites. This should help to make sure that we will all come back with comparable data, which will help to constitute a ‘big picture’ of the global appropriation of social media. To that extent, we decided to have a “to-do” list of questions that everybody is supposed to work on whilst carrying out their fieldwork.

This list comprised, first of all, of basic questions, such as “How many SNS accounts do you have?”; “What phone do you have and what plan?” or “How many SNS friends do you have?” These questions are short and concrete, making sure that ethnographers will collect basic statistics.

“Clever question” comprise the second level of questions, which means addressing a particular research question in a clever way. The way a question is presented to the participant will significantly affect the answer that they give. To put it in a simple way, the questions you want to ask matter, and the way you ask them matters just as much. For example, instead of asking people vaguely ‘what do you think of online privacy?’ a more specific but ‘purpose-hidden’ way of asking might be ‘what kind of information you will never post online?’ or ‘do you want your mother to be your Facebook/QQ friend?’. These questions are more likely to reveal a more nuanced truth. Clever questions can be very open ended, which are likely to lead to more detailed inquiries and in-depth discussions.

Built on ‘clever questions’, the third level of questions is even more profound and comprehensive given the possible situation that there will be several key informants with whom the ethnographer spends a huge amount of time and has abundant opportunities to conduct participant observation whilst in their company. In which case, these questions will not be confined to the previous structure and go deep into either specific issues, or develop into more portrait-like stories of the informant.

We have been amazed at the diversity and richness of the three-level questions everyone in the group has been contributing, which not only inspires each other but also guarantee the depth and width of our collective thinking. Generally speaking, anthropologists don’t have much reputation in ‘team work’. A lonely wanderer in an alien place is more like to exemplify an archetypal anthropologist. Also, some would argue that participant-observation of anthropology does not necessarily require any question. However, given the scale of this ambitious project we feel it would be useful to apply a well-organized framework and think about questions seriously to guarantee a comparative structure, whilst still retaining a degree of individual autonomy for each fieldworker.