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Ceramics, forklift trucks and social media

XinyuanWang20 October 2013

(By Daniel Miller and Xinyuan Wang)

A factory worker who is operating forklift truck in Xinyuan Wang’s fieldsite, and a 12-13th century Jingdezhen ceramics in the Shanghai Museum (photo by Xinyuan Wang)

A factory worker who is operating forklift truck in Xinyuan Wang’s fieldsite, and a 12-13th century Jingdezhen ceramics in the Shanghai Museum (photo by Xinyuan Wang)

For ethnographers working in the field of material culture, people’s values often ‘unintentionally’ reveal themselves in the tiniest of things. Similarly, a day’s field work may be crystallised by some seemingly random lines, or just a word. On this fieldtrip we both felt that a Chinese place name Jingdezhen (景德镇) on the label of beautiful ancient Chinese ceramics in the Shanghai museum somehow made us think about social media in a different way.

Danny’s visit to China started with seeing Tom in the North, followed by Xinyuan in the South, and ended up with a few days in Shanghai (near Xinyuan’s fieldsite). In the Shanghai Museum there are many examples of exquisite and delicate ceramics from one of the most famous pottery making sites in the world: Jingdezhen.

As we stood looking a delicate examples from several centuries ago, Xinyuan recalled that some of her factory informants who currently operate forklift trucks also come from this region of inland China. Furthermore, they used to work in these same ceramic workshops that still produce some of the finest ceramics in the country.  This led to a discussion. Why would people who had previously been associated with one of the world’s finest artisanal products abandoned that craft in order to operate forklift trucks in a noisy and vast factory. What happened?

The key factor as Xinyuan’s informant HH told her was that “making pots is just so boring, sitting in the room, dealing with the mud day after day, and year after year.

It is quite understandable that compared to designing, carving, or painting ceramics, making the bodies of the pot itself, which these workers used to do, is not that stimulating and interesting: it was as repetitious as the work on the assembly line in factories. However what makes such remark interesting is Xinyuan’s observation of her factory friends’ daily usage of social media via their smartphones in workplace. Xinyuan knows these drivers especially well because the demand on their work is intermittent, which means they have spare time in the day. Spare time with nothing to do might in turn have meant this was designated as more boring rather than less boring work. During these days they  not only chat but also go online through their smartphones. So, in effect, the possession of a phone with social media can reverse the whole concept of work. What was once a sign of boredom as an interlude is now a sign that you can engage in the one thing that is pretty much never seen as boring, which is social media.

There is more to this. Social media here is not just defined as less boring because it gives you something to do. The way QQ operates is rather different from Facebook. It is full of pop-ups, multiple channels, which flow easily between looking up people, watching entertainment, gaming and other pursuits. It is a much more evidently exciting activity than Facebook. The material present there is fast moving, bright and modern. This is crucial to the larger and underlying study. Xinyuan’s study of QQ at this particular site was intended to represent the largest migration in world history of 130 million workers. But what Xinyuan has found is actually salaries are not so much greater than in the home lands of these workers and there is employment available to many of them there. Furthemore living in their hometown means greatly reduced costs, so reducing this migration to economic necessities may be quite misleading. It is rather that as people in local shops told us when we were chatting with them, this area, which is much closer to places such as Shanghai, seems more modern, with more potential for interesting lives and exciting times.

This in turn leads to one of the key findings about how rural migrants use social media. Xinyuan originally expected that the key would be the ability of social media to help people retain links back to their place of origin and their wider family. The assumption was that like most other migrations, today this was born of poverty and struggle. Having had to leave their family they would want to stay in touch. People do use social media for this purpose, but they are much more clearly orientated to developing connections in this new site. This is, after, all the main reason they have come: to see another ‘world’ and gain new experiences. So social media is much more about the plethora of new contacts and new people they meet. This is why social media so clearly represents that which is not ‘boring’: not the predestined fate of the past, and why QQ places more emphasis on being exciting and not just a place for social connectivity.

So, ceramics or forklift? Actually, this turns out to be only part of the question. Most of the time people’s choice was not based on the alternative between ceramics or forklift trucks. Rather the key is social media, which represents all the possibility and connectivity which they hope to develop also in their living context. Social media is much more than a technology, just as a place of living is much more than the job you do when living there.

What is social media about?

RazvanNicolescu9 May 2013

Photo by mikeleeorg (Creative Commons)

In this post I will summarise my individual interest in this project and how it relates to my previous work.

In my PhD I discussed a particular and apparently individual reaction to the lack of appropriate alignment of the individual to the external forces that come from society. I showed that in rural southeast Romania existential boredom could be the result of a continuous evaluation of the relation between the individual and his or her designated social position. In particular, people I worked with used to represent this alignment by adopting particular attitudes towards the material culture that surrounded them. If wealthy and hard-working peasants expressed their relative success through sustained work and reticence, most of the dispossessed and unemployed people expressed their disapproval of their current social situation by engaging with a larger spectrum of practices that ranged from being extremely expansive to being annoyingly inactive.

In all these cases, there was a local morality that always justified people’s different attitudes. I argued that this morality was not articulated necessarily simply by the customary village life, or by the local enactments to the various ideological impositions, but this was judged according to people’s social positions. These judgements were usually done in relation to what kind of role a particular individual was supposed to play within the community. In particular, idleness was judged locally as either a right or a shame.

Elsewhere, I showed how Romanian teenagers in a rather affluent neighbourhood in Bucharest engage with media technology in a highly normative way. Even if majority used to declare that media liberated them and offered so many opportunities, their actual online practices showed that they adopted very strict and normative attitudes within their social groups. One of the reasons for this attitude was the fact that their communities and peers actually obliged them to create and follow self-made norms that were meant to protect them from the unpredictability of the online medium. I showed that in spite of the new and exciting opportunities offered by social media, teenagers nevertheless found there the same kind of annoyance and boredom as in the offline world.

I see this project as a continuation of my work. I am interested to explore the use of social networking in relation to the way individuals perceive their social positions. Is social networking simply reproducing these social arrangements, or, by contrary, people use social networking in order to emphasis or to contradict particular aspects of their social positions? Why would the individual present himself or herself in everyday life in different ways in offline and online environments? When is he or she free to actually do this? Will Goffman’s arguments about the presentation of the self be true for social networks, or will we contribute to a more refined understanding of social relations?

Two of the issues that Goffman missed are the individual freedom and the morality that determines the individual to act. Goffman sees the world as a set of principles that the individual has to pursuit if she wants to be successful within any given society. As I showed in my PhD, people’s practices are not necessarily the result of the particular hierarchy of social forces that act upon them, but rather are informed by a sustained individual comment on this hierarchy. My question is how this relation changes when the individual is free to choose between different concurrent representations of the self in the online and the offline worlds. What does freedom mean here?

I also intend to explore what people do actually look for when they either engage enthusiastically with, or, by contrary, are indifferent to social networking. I am interested in the implications of social networking on people’s ideas about how they should live their lives. The hypothesis is that people use social networking in relation to their individual ideas about how they should act in the society. The question is then how does social networking contribute to these ideas.

“I am not alone, loneliness is always with me”

XinyuanWang17 April 2013

the woman was watching a movie on her smartphone while cracking sunflower seeds, and the man has been staring at his screen for a while.

On a train, the Chinese woman watching a movie on her smartphone while cracking sunflower seeds. The man next to her has also been staring at his mobile phone screen for a while.

Now I am in China. Thanks to the taxi detour which sent me to a wrong train station I had to take a slow train rather than a high speed one to go to the fieldsite – which turned out to be coincidentally rewarding since the majority of the passengers on this slow train was Chinese rural migrant workers who exactly fit my research target population.

Let me first contextualize the trip. It was not in a peak period, the capacity of a train carriage is 112 persons, however there were 143 persons in the no.5 carriage when I left. Train staff closed all the windows to prevent people from buying cheaper food from local vendors at each station through an open window which would undercut the food sales on train. As a result the whole carriage smelt like a smoking area since people were allowed to smoke in the vestibules between two carriage’s theoretically with open windows. Although it is difficult to categorize neatly what people were doing; I still managed to do a bit of counting when walking around in my carriage.

Nobody was engaged with any paper-based media, neither with books or reading a newspaper.

About 5-7 people were walking around as well, looking for a seat or just without any clear purpose.

Three groups of people (around 15 people) were playing cards; at least 30 people were staring at the screens of their mobile phones (four – fifths of them used smartphones, and among the smartphones which I managed to see clearly, Lenovo seemed to dominate the market, very few Apple phones were found).

3 – 5 people were chatting on the phone for a long time (more than 15 mins) with ordinary volume, or a even louder volume to make themselves be heard.

15–18 people were cracking 瓜子 guazi (sunflower seeds which were sold with shell and people need to crack the shell with their teeth)

Roughly one quarter of the passengers were engaged in conversation with their neighbors, or just looking around; and another quarter managed to sleep in various positions. When I closed my eyes, all kinds of noises – from the train, the cracking sound of sunflower seeds, people talking, and the shouts of vendors, were mingled together, and became even more overwhelming.

Among all these passengers I was particularly interested a group of  ‘打工仔’ da gong zai (male young migrant workers) who crowed at the entrance to the carriage. There were seven of them, coming from Suzhou to Guangzhou. None of them got a seat ticket, so they needed to stand for almost 10 hours during the trip. When I met them, three of them were playing cards, sitting on the floor in the area between two carriages, and others were smoking. In my last 1-hour trip I gave up my seat in the carriage and moved to the smoking area, standing there, talking with them, passively smoking away. All of them came from the same village in Guangzhou (south China province), and worked in a low-market photography workshop in Suzhou. The oldest one was 24 years old, and the youngest one was only 15 years old. None of them had a high school certificate. All of them had smartphones but they couldn’t use them because they didn’t have enough money left in their phone and couldn’t top them up being outside the city where they bought the SIM card.  In China the majority of mobile services is “pay as you go”, which means no contract is needed and is very convenient for people who only stay in a place for a relatively short period.

It was shocking to find that all of them, even the 15 year old, consumed a lot of cigarettes – on average a package (12 cigarettes) per day, which accounted for one third of their daily expenses (700 RMB per month). When talking about the reason for smoking, one told me “see, we have nothing to do, smoking kills time!” Another added, “What we are smoking are not cigarettes,” and the rest continued “but  寂寞 jimo (loneliness)!” and everybody laughed. The joke about loneliness actually is an online meme – the most frequently quoted line is  我不寂寞,因为寂寞陪者我 wo bu ji mo, ji mo pei zhe wo. “I am not alone, loneliness is always with me”. A joke was definitely not evident enough to reflect how they felt bored or lonely in life, which however expressed itself through the way of the whole carriage of migrant workers doing all kinds of repeated and time-killing activities, such as cracking sunflower seeds, card playing and smoking. After 1 hour of chatting, all of them were more than happy to exchange QQ (the dominant social media in China) numbers with me, and urged me to accept their friend request. It also seemed that QQ in a way functions similar to smoking as one put it this way “it’s so easy to spend a whole night on QQ, gaming or just chatting!”

I am reluctant to jump to any conclusion of the relationship between boredom / loneliness and smoking or QQ usage among rural migrant workers, however after my first encounter with my migrant worker friends I think it would be very interesting to look at this issue in my research afterwards.