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Is Weibo on the way out? For some in China, it was never in.

TomMcDonald11 May 2015

Weibo: share your thoughts with the word – assuming, of course, you want to. Photo by bfishadow (CC BY 2.0)

Weibo: share your thoughts with the world (assuming, of course, you actually want to). Photo: bfishadow (CC BY 2.0)

I read with interest Celia Hatton’s BBC News article published in February, which hinted that real-name registration on Chinese micro-blogging platform Sina Weibo may be the death knell for the social media platform, which Hatton claims was already losing popularity owing to increasing government control over the platform that was ‘once the only place to find vibrant sources of debate on the Chinese internet’.

Hatton’s argument is important and interesting, and it likely accurately reflects significant changes occurring in social media use in urban China. However based on my experience of carrying out 15 months ethnographic research on social media use in a small rural Chinese Town, it’s also worth bearing in mind that the situation in the Chinese countryside is very different from urban areas. China’s rural populations have tended to display little interest in Weibo.

While Weibo has dominated much media and academic analysis of China social media, in reality ‘most microblog users are mainly young, urban, and middle class, and geographically concentrated in the coastal regions’ as research from Lund University has noted. A separate study (in Chinese) showed that only 5% of microblog users in China live in the countryside, despite the fact that 27.9% of internet users are rural residents.

Why did Weibo never appeal to rural users in the first place? People in the rural town where I conducted my study explained that they preferred social media platforms such as QQ (and to a lesser extent, WeChat) over Weibo. These platforms were popular precisely because they were ‘closed’ platforms, where people could share things only with their friends – most of whom were people they knew in their hometown. For these people the thought of sharing their postings with the entire internet held no appeal whatsoever.

These findings are interesting because they appear to challenge assumptions that people – especially the those at the bottom of Chinese society – would naturally desire to use the internet to ‘express themselves’ to the rest of the world. Rather than presuming that social media are destined to be technologies of liberation, such accounts highlight the importance of also paying attention to how technologies are actually used by rural Chinese people within the context of their own lives, where they are often put to use towards achieving aims and aspirations that may differ greatly from those we expect of them.

Communicating death in an Indian village

ShriramVenkatraman14 August 2013

Photo by Matt Zimmerman (Creative Commons)

Photo by Matt Zimmerman (Creative Commons)

Communicating the occurence of a life event to one’s social group (relatives, friends, colleagues etc.) is something that is seen in most societies around the world. However, the patterns and processes of communicating such events differ between societies. It is not a rarity to find extensive use of Facebook and other social networking sites as major platforms to communicate major life events such as the birth of a child, birthdays (where now reminders from the social networking sites now help to prompt the sending of messages), wedding anniversaries, deaths and so on. Exploring instances of how life events such as news of the death of a close relative or someone important are communicated becomes very interesting and given that one of the areas of focus for the project is to also explore death and memorialization, it definitely becomes an area worth observing.

The death of one of my informant’s grandfather occurred a couple of days ago, right at a time when there was a yearly religious village carnival going on in my field site. This was unexpected, though the village elder who had passed away was paralysed and had been “suffering” for almost a year now. He was 82 years old. The death was now viewed as pollution (theetu) as it had happened right in the middle of a sacred week. Further, given that a lot of money had already been spent on preparing for the celebrations, the idea was to cremate the “dead body” as soon as possible and to go on with the celebrations without cancelling any of the planned events.

Within an hour’s of the death people from at least five to six neighbouring villages and also from the closest city had gathered there to offer their respects to this village elder who had passed away. It was fascinating to see how so many people (between 1500–2000) had assembled within such a short span of time. As it was the death of the head of a lineage (Thala Kattu), the ceremony had to have all the regalia and the ceremonial and ritualistic arrangements befitting the status of the dead person and all this had to be prepared in a very short time. Normally, a dead person’s body is kept in state for at least a day or two so that everyone around the area gets a chance to come  and pay their last respects. Further, the day is also used to make arrangements for the cremation. However, this time it was different, the body had to be taken off from the area as soon as possible as it would halt the religious ceremony. What normally happens over 48 hours happened in just five to six hours. The speed at which communication worked and the news spread was something worth observing/exploring. The reason was very clearly discernible – it was use of mobile technology – cell phone at its best.

The original classical method of spreading the message of someone’s death in this village was to send people in all the four directions to convey the message to their kin in other villages and let the neighbouring village heads know of this, so people could come in to offer their last respects to the dead. Though this was still followed as a ritualistic process in order to maintain their age old practice, the urgency which the situation demanded seemed to be negotiated with the help of cell phones. It was clear that it was a mix of both voice and text that seemed to accomplish things. However, there was a clear distinction of purposes to which the use of voice and/or text was assigned. Communicating the news of death in person to the very senior elderly people and the head of the villages was considered respect and was a formalized unwritten protocol and that was still followed. However, communicating the message of death to middle aged and other elderly people always ensured a voice communication through cell phones as it was once again considered respect to use one’s voice to communicate such messages while text seemed fine with the younger generation. Logistical requirements and their arrangements like flowers, fireworks etc. happened over voice communication on cell phones.

Although an unsaid prohibition of not taking pictures of the dead body was followed, it was pretty much evident that there were a few youngsters (relatives of the now dead village elder) taking pictures of the dead body on their mobile phones. A casual chat revealed that they were planning on sending picture messages to their relatives and friends who were not able to make it to the ceremony. However, they were certain that they would not put it up on their Facebook or other social networking sites as they were only interested in sending this to people to whom this mattered. Putting this news on Facebook or other SNS would be seen as insulting the dead person, in short they were trying to focus their communication to reach the target audience (though marketers use this all the time, but have more of “brand pages” which was not the case here). Further, they did joke that some of their friends would “Like” the picture post, or sometimes even send in unwanted comments and if someone from the family saw that, then it would result in unwanted issues. Further, not all their counterparts or kin used social networking sites, but they had cell phones. The events as they unfolded very clearly revealed the power of technology; however, they also revealed that constant negotiation with the type of technology to use, the purpose of using them and how they were used even during a single event differed widely.

There was an urge to understand if such communication during death worked the same way when telephones found a place in this society too. The idea that communication of a message of death might have changed first when telephones came in which in a way is a gradual process of upgrading from manual news carriers to telephones and then to cell phones is something that most think as being true, as these steps seem to be the logical order. However, very soon it was revealed that most of them in the village here never had a telephone, as telephones (specifically from the government) were pretty hard to secure and their names in the waiting list seemed to have a permanent fixed position, thereby ensuring that most households in the village never had a telephone. The process was a movement from manual carriers directly to cell phones, bypassing the era of telephones. So how did they communicate messages of death to their social circle living in far off places? –  Telegrams. They came in very handy when telephones were not available to the common masses as cell phones are now spread out.

Telegraps were the text messages and forerunner of the today’s text messaging. Telegraphs did have their own lingo as the messages now do, as charges incurred depended on the number of words. It was called “Thandhi” in Tamil. Most villages/small towns in India, as in my fieldsite did associate “Thandhi” with death. They assumed that such urgent messages meant the death of someone they knew, though telegraphic services did carry countless other messages too. But, it was symbolically associated with the announcement of death. This was prevalent in my fieldsite too. However, last month the Indian Telegraphic Service closed shop after 162 years and the idea of symbolically associating it to death had its death then.

The mystery of the young man without a QQ number: accounting for non-users

TomMcDonald24 May 2013

Photo: Tom McDonald

Photo: Tom McDonald

At 5:30am yesterday I was stood on the side of the road in my fieldsite, a small town in Shandong, waiting for the bus. Next to me was a grandmother sat on the side of the road selling cherries. A young man, probably in his early twenties, approached me and politely asked if it was alright to take a picture of us together, a common experience that most foreigners in China will be familiar with.

The man was dressed in cotton cloth trousers, black cotton shoes, and a white T-shirt. He had a slightly unkempt bowl-haircut. It was obvious that he was from the countryside. Indeed, he confirmed that he was from one of the nearby villages and worked in one of the local factories as a labourer.

He pulled out an old, white telephone. The telephone was an affordable Chinese-branded device with a basic colour screen and a cheap built-in camera.

The young man asked the cherry-seller if she would take the photo of us. The cherry-seller tried, but it was apparent that this elderly lady had very limited experience of either operating the phone or photography, so after three failed attempts, and fearing the bus would arrive at any moment I instead proposed “let’s use my phone to take the picture and I’ll send it to you”. I pulled out my iPhone, flipped the screen and took three picture of together. Then I asked him what his QQ number was. He said “I don’t have one”. I asked about Weixin. “None” he replied.

I was momentarily stunned.

I had previously thought that for young labourers such as this were perhaps the most avid users of QQ (in fact Jack Qiu suggests that Chinese social networking is particularly important for the working class in society). And yet, here, in front of me, was a living, breathing exception.

The story ended happily, as on the final attempt the sage grandmother got the hang of the young man’s phone and managed to take a satisfactory picture of the two of us standing next to each other. However, the young man left before I had a chance to ask him why he didn’t have a QQ number. A friend in Beijing offered an explanation when I showed them his photo “this man is very honest,” one proffered, “you can tell by the shape of his nose [referring to Chinese face-reading]. It could be that some people from the countryside think that QQ is a bad thing”.

Is my Beijing friend right? Is there really a moral discourse surrounding the Internet that is enough to keep some young people from using it? Are there more non-users like this young man? And if so, why haven’t Tencent or Sina’s offerings been able to penetrate this part of the market?

One of the benefits of long-term anthropological fieldwork in a normal small town like this is that it offers a chance to uncover groups of people, user experiences and human behaviours that might otherwise go undiscovered if we were to instead use other social science or market research methods. By the end of our fieldwork I hope to have more answers.