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Social media and mass media: the CCTV Chinese New Year’s Gala

Tom McDonald23 February 2014

Poetic couplets hung on the door of a village house in preparation for Chinese NewYear (Photo: Tom McDonald)

Poetic couplets hung on the door of a village house in preparation for Chinese New Year (Photo: Tom McDonald)

I passed the recent Chinese New Year in my fieldsite in North China with the Wang family in their rented shopfront-cum-home on the small rural town’s commercial street, with Mr Wang, his wife and son, 16 year old Little Wang, who had just finished his term at the high school in the nearby county-town, and was back home for the school holidays.

One of the most interesting elements of the festival is social media’s relationship with the mass media event of the day (and probably the year), which is the CCTV New Year’s Gala programme produced by China Central Television. The programme is basically a variety show. But at the same time it is the most difficult variety show on the planet to get right, because its 700 million–1000 million viewers (53-76% of the country’s population) are comprised of every generation of Chinese families, who watch the show together as they eat they ‘reunion meal’. As such, the programme makers have to attempt to appeal to all these drastically different audiences. No mean feat when we are talking about elderly people who grew up in the Republican-era, witnessed the Sino-Japanese war, and the founding of the People’s Republic; or middle aged people who were children during the hardships of the cultural revolution, and then saw the enormous transformations bought by the reform-and-opening period; or China’s youth, those born in the 80’s, 90s, and 00’s, often single children, many of whom have grown up with a material aspirations on par with western society. So you end up with a variety show that is a bizarre and wizardly mix of revolutionary songs, trapeze artists, dancers performing to happy hardcore music, magicians, ‘hip’ youth TV hosts, recognised family performers and national pop stars. The show traverses the utterly naff and absolutely incredible. One cannot help but feel that the show tries so hard to appeal to everybody that it is perhaps doomed to failure.

At the Wang’s house we watched and chatted as the show went on, slowly devouring the dinner while Mr Wang and I knocked back baijiu, a fiery Chinese liquour. I soon noticed that Little Wang’s attention had waned, however, and after eating a little food, he left us and moved into the shop area of their house, where the computer is located. Soon after I followed him into the room. I noticed that he was alternating between browsing QZone, and chatting on the QQ Instant Messaging client. He was using the QQ IM client to send New Year’s ‘blessings’ (zhufu) to his classmates, while browsing his QZone. Many of the status updates from his friends were related to the television show. For example, one of the features of the show was a young girl dressed in a flowing white dress who was introduced by the presenters at the start of the programme. The presenters explained that she would spin around on the spot up until midnight (4 hours) to symbolise the changing seasons of the year. Indeed she managed to do this quite successfully. One of Little Wang’s friends had forwarded a meme of a photo of the girl asking ‘spinning girl, have you eaten Xuanmai chewing gum?’. Xuanmai chewing gum recently ran an advertising campaign with the tagline ‘Xuanmai chewing gum, unable to stop’ (xuanmai kouxiangtang, tingbu xialai). The advert featured a young man singing, with powerful sound waves coming out of his mouth, and he was challenged to see how long he could sustain the singing. After eating the chewing gum it seemed to give the man somewhat cosmic powers to continue with his crooning. What is interesting about this case is we can kind of see the spillover from a mass media event onto social media, so while people do not seem to be happy posting about news or other big events, the Spring Festival Evening Party seems to be prime fodder for discussion of QQ, but especially among young people.

There is precedent for this, as traditionally the show is something people often talk about and critique for days after, even offline. But in addition to young people talking about the New Year’s Gala online, I got a feeling during the evening that young people were having a kind of separate New Year’s Eve party on QQ with all their friends. Chinese New Year is a key moment of reunion for Chinese families, and I get a feeling that even this moment of togetherness is being affected by social media as young people are living a large part of their spring festival online with their classmates.

Does this mean that the ‘traditional’ Chinese New Year is at risk? I want to get away from the idea that social media’s presence in the spring festival necessarily has to be good or bad, or even assume that social media is ‘transforming’ the Chinese New Year (anymore than the Chinese New Year is transforming social media). It is not that Little Wang’s practices are heralding the decay of the Chinese New Year, but rather I think it is signalling the importance of classmates being part of that reunion. It seems to be an acknowledgement that family ties are not the only thing that matters, and the deliberate decision for classmates to include each other in their spring festival reunion meals suggests a willingness to apply family ideals to educational peers.

The NRI Club: Non Resident Indians stay connected with Facebook

Shriram Venkatraman15 December 2013

NRI Club

NRIs (Non Resident Indians) are Indian citizens who have lived outside India for a period of 182 days or more in a year. Most South Indian NRIs in the last two decades are those who have left India for an IT career in the West. They normally get their permanent residency status and settle down in the country that they work in, some proceed to get their citizenship and thus lose their Indian citizenship, but maintain a status that they have an Indian origin. The last few years have seen quite a few of this segment return back to India for various personal and professional reasons. Some of them make a choice to return due to a pressing personal situation back at home (very often induced by their aged parents or parents-in-law) and work for a company here in India. At times this leads to issues and problems settling in India again. These people ruminate over their choice and relive their experiences and life in the West (mostly the United States of America) through their memories. One physical way of doing this is by looking through the pictures/photos they have of their life in the West. Another is to look at the lives of their friends through a combination of pictures, text, videos, friends’ reactions to these found on Facebook, in order to still be an active part of their lives. Facebook (or an equal social networking site, but in the Indian field site people most often use Facebook) acts and serves as a memory to their past lives. Further, it also helps in making sure that one can still live a life and be a part of that network that he/she always was, though he/she lives physically away in another network. Sometimes, this is true the extent that people create two different Facebook profiles-one to maintain their memories and the networks of the past (though a few similar NRIs may be added to this in the present, because only they would understand the situation) and one for today’s network. The following is a typical example of what was described above.

Raghu, aged 47 years, holds a very important top level position for an IT company in India. He took up this position around two years ago, after his return from the US. He relocated to India along with his wife (Prema, aged 43 years) and his two children. He had recently bought an apartment in a posh building here and has his children studying in an International School in this area. His wife works for the same American company that she was with earlier (while in the US) and works from home. Raghu travelled to the US just after his graduation at the age of 21 for pursuing a Masters in Computer Science. He then settled in the US and raised a family of his own. Meanwhile, his parents were in India and his sister was married and settled in Australia. Raghu, tried getting his parents to settle in the US along with him, but failed since they felt they were very comfortable in India. Further, for over 20 years his parents had been shuttling between the US and Australia and now felt tired of this yearly exercise and wanted to be in India. His parents weren’t really keen on moving anywhere. When his parents were travelling, Raghu and his family had weekly telephone calls with them and would speak on Skype maybe only once every two weeks or month. Raghu was always secure in his parents’ well-being as they were with him or his sister for most part of the year and were alone only for a period of a month or so in between trips.

With their decision to get settled in India with no more travel and with their increasing age, Raghu was not too sure of leaving them all by themselves in India. His weekly telephone calls now became proper Skype calls, where he was able to see his parents rather than just hearing their voice. Over Skype, Raghu helped them set up Bill paying services online, so that they never had to go stand in a queue to pay a bill. His sister from Australia also made it a point to come on Skype every week and talk to her parents and more than once every month all of them would get on a conference call. Further, Raghu arranged for his wife Prema’s parents and his own parents live near each other, so that they would take care of each other. As Prema’s parents had bought a brand new apartment and moved into a gated community, Raghu relocated his parents there too, by renting another apartment in the same community. However, even though this plan worked, recent medical issues with Raghu’s father forced him to consider a decision between appointing a nurse/caretaker to look after his parents or returning to India to look after them himself. The frequency of their Skype calls increased and the duration of each call increased too. Both his Prema and Raghu tried convincing his parents to appoint a nurse or to come to the US permanently. The conference calls with Raghu’s parents and sister increased, as did the frequency with which Raghu and his sister spoke on Skype. However, his parents were completely against the appointment of a nurse or moving back to the US and this left him with no choice but to relocate to India after very careful consideration.

Relocation was not easy as his US Company did not have Indian operations, so he had to find work in another IT company. He chose an Indian IT company that wanted someone with the US market experience and interviewed with them over Video conferencing and negotiated his salary and relocation package. He first moved into the apartment complex where his parents and his in-laws lived and later rented out a bigger apartment when his wife and children moved to India. He wasn’t too interested in investing in a house of his own in India, but looking at the boom in the real estate market, just six months ago he bought a huge 4 bedroom apartment in a posh apartment building very close to his workplace.

For the first year and a half, Raghu had a Facebook profile, which only had family, friends (from US) and colleagues (from his previous work connections) in the US. He was absolutely against friending anyone from India or his Indian workplace on Facebook, though he was fine getting connected to them on LinkedIn. His Facebook was exclusively for his US connections for two reasons. Though he had made a choice to relocate to India for his parents sake, his heart was still in the life that he led in the US. His Facebook profile allowed him to experience/re-live his life back in the US. So, Facebook served to rekindle his US memories. Also, through Facebook, he never was out of his US friends’ lives. He was still an active member of the US network that he had built on Facebook. He regularly followed his past community activity such as being a part of the local Hindu temple or giving suggestions to the neighborhood sustainability initiatives. Flipping through the updates and profiles of his friends enabled him to vicariously live the life that he was missing. Further, he wasn’t too sure if his family would like India or if he would himself like his work in India in the long run. So just in case he changed his mind and wanted to relocate back to the US, he wanted to maintain his connections on Facebook.

However, once he moved to the new posh apartment complex, his love for the game of cricket allowed him to socialize with his neighbors, specifically the men (around 15 of them) who played cricket over the week end mornings. Socializing with them helped him learn that almost all of them were like him. Most had returned from the US for the sake of their aged parents and most had their social networking preferences set exclusively for their US memories. Some even maintained two profiles (personal profiles as on Facebook)- one for US and one for India-and they made sure never to mix them. However, their LinkedIn profiles were much more open, as they reflect their professional networks. There seems to be a very clear distinction between their personal and professional choice of networks. While their professional networks seem to be rooted to their presence in physical space, their personal networks seem to be based on their emotional longing.

How teenagers communicate with publicly private messages

Juliano Andrade Spyer30 November 2013

2013-11-01 12.57.36

Teens may use different characters to add layers of information to a name. (Photo by Juliano Spyer)

Through the process of “gutting” profiles I had the opportunity to pay attention to a kind of posting I see often but did not recognize as a type of coded communication. Many of the female young adults and teenagers I friended publish regularly moralizing content that they themselves write. At first sight they are rather uninteresting, looking like an amateurish exercise on writing self-help prose, but a trusted local showed me that there was more to it than I had grasped at first. Lange’s (2007) notions of privately public and publicly private have been helpful to study this phenomenon.

First, let me show you what it is that I am talking about. Here are examples of the content these informants may share at any time and any day:

“When all seems lost, give glory to God”.

“The pain will pass just like the smile will arrive”.

“Today’s tip: ignore offensive words because poison only does you harm if you swallow it”.

“The size of my deception is the size of the trust I gave. There are people that don’t think of others, they only see their own bellybutton.”

“Sometimes change must come from within”.

“To be happy is not to have a perfect life. But to use your tears to irrigate tolerance. Use the losses to refine patience. Use the mistakes to carve serenity. Use pain to lapidate the pleasure. Use the obstacles to cultivate intelligence”.

I arrived at this topic–codes teenagers and young adults use to speak privately in public areas such as Facebook–as my research assistant told me about a recent experience she had related to the use of social media. The story involves her close friend who is 16 years old, that for the purpose of anonymity I will call G16. G16 liked a boy that had a reputation of being a lady-killer. The information reached G16’s mother, who is overly-concerned that her daughter will not sacrifice her future because of an unplanned pregnancy. As G16 refused to friend her mom on Facebook, the mother decided she had the obligation to spy on her daughter. She did so by convincing my assistant’s mother to request that my assistant show them the content G16 posts on Facebook.

This story will make better sense if you have an idea of what Baldoíno, our Brazilian field site, is like. This used to be a fishing village about half century ago. It has steadily grown and has became a sort of working class neighborhood for the manual labor hired by the touristic industry nearby. Students in general are not very interested in studying, but are under the spell of digital communication devices and services. This passion started with Orkut and Messenger, and has now materialized in Facebook. Of course, as Professor Daniel Miller recently pointed out in his blog post, Facebook  is becoming less cool for younger generations.  In Baldoíno, young people are  quickly migrating to the new cool thing: WhatsApp. And my hypothesis is that the absolute fascination with these products is partially about looking cool, but mainly about having the possibility of communicating among themselves and, as much as possible, away from adults like teachers and parents. This sort of privately-public communication is possible partly because older people here are not well trained in reading, writing, using keyboard and mouse, and navigating through computer screens. That is the case of the mothers of G16’s and my assistant. It takes a long time for them to read and even longer to type.

As the mothers pressed my assistant to expose her friend and to break the confidence they have on each other, my assistant decided to cooperate but not to volunteer information either about G16’s life or about how to use Facebook and the local codes of usage. And as expected, the mothers did not spend much time looking at the girl’s timeline as it was much too crowded with written stuff. Instead, they asked to look at G16’s photos. The logic of the request was that, if G16 was dating this guy, they should have photos of each other as a couple. But, as my assistant explained, G16 knew that a picture of that kind would find a way of reaching her mom the same way the gossip about her secret affair did, so she would never expose herself like that.

The attempted spying failed and G16’s mother was then convinced that it was a better strategy to have an honest conversation with her daughter.But the story would have been somehow different if my assistant had been as helpful to the mothers as she was to me. You first need to know that the extensive amount of generic moralizing content was disguised communication. Secondly, you would need to be part of G16’s group of trusted companions to know through face to face communication what was going on in her life. Under such circumstances I could see that there was a lot G16 was saying about her romance on recent postings.

Here are examples of her coded messages (which have been re-written for anonymizing purposes):

“Don’t ever ignore someone that loves, worries about you and misses you. Because maybe one day you may wake up and find out you have missed the moon while counting the stars”.

“I matured a lot recently and learned to acknowledged myself. As new people came to my life, I also decided to let go others that did not add to my well-being. – feeling bothered”

According to my interpreter, the first message was a warning to the boyfriend. She was telling him and others that know him that she was not happy with the little attention he is offering her and telling him she would not tolerate that much longer. The following message suggests that she had decided to let go of him even if his actions do not please her. My assistant speculated that G16’s conversation with her mom had a positive outcome. So writing is a way of hiding things from the older generations here. Together with writing one hides hints of what is going on under the look of a prosaic or philosophic reflection that makes no reference to specific people, places or events. Had it not been for the help and trust of my assistant, I would have never guessed the true meaning.

Reference

Lange, P. G. (2007), Publicly Private and Privately Public: Social Networking on YouTube. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 13: 361–380. doi: 10.1111/j.1083-6101.2007.00400.x

Snapshots from the field: using social media in the Italian fieldsite

Razvan Nicolescu26 November 2013

People walking in the central square of a small town close to the fieldsite during a local feast. Photo by Razvan Nicolescu.

People walking in the central square of a small town close to the fieldsite during a local feast. Photo by Razvan Nicolescu.

Sandra is a 34 year old lawyer and considers herself to be quite successful. She lives with her parents in a big house near the centre of the town. She is expecting a baby sometime next year. When she found out she was pregnant, she and her fiancée decided to get married and build a ‘real’ family. At the same time, the two renounced using Facebook. This was quite simple as they were using the same Facebook account. The two enjoyed the fact they had no secrets between each other and could share the same friends and tastes. Therefore, they thought it would not make sense to use two separate Facebook profiles. However, when they decided to get married they also decided they would not need Facebook anymore. The main reason for this change was that people ‘gossip a lot’ and they do not need to see that online. They sensed that the intimacy of their couple was enough for them and they really had no intention to share this with people other than their closest friends.

Helena is a 28 year old shop assistant. About one year ago she split with her fiancée. This was a quite difficult moment for her as they were together for more than six years and she was still in love with him. The first thing she did when she realised they had really broken up was quit Facebook. She did not want to see her fiancée anymore and most of his male friends. Helena decided to dedicate her time to work. She also went out with her friends and sisters much more rarely than she used to do before. A few months ago she decided to create a new Facebook account. She thinks the new profile is ‘cleaner,’ mainly because she very carefully selected each person she friended. She actually decreased the number of friends from more than four hundred to just over two hundred. Helena thinks she is totally different on Facebook now than she used to be one year ago. She does not advertise much about herself and does not write too much text. However, she ‘shares’ a lot of content uploaded by other people and ‘likes’ up to 15 times a day. She is always connected on Facebook via her Smartphone and also spends a few hours each evening on this social media at her family’s computer.

Tony is an engineer for civil works. He just finished University and is unemployed. He used to collaborate on several small projects in his branch and accumulated some experience. He is trying to find some stable work although he recognizes this is very difficult. He does some volunteering work for one ecological association in the region. He finds Facebook useful for relating with his friends, but rather useless for the things he is most interested in, like finding a job and building a career. Most of his friends are unemployed too. Just around half of them have Smartphones. When they meet in a café or in the square they rarely check their phones for updates or messages. Tony agrees that Facebook is to be checked out at home, and not when you spend time with your friends.

Andy is an IT engineer. He works from home for a big Italian company and also develops software applications as a hobby. He is a technology enthusiast: he loves new IT gadgets, powerful cars, and pieces of software that he could re-assemble and use in complete new ways. Andy is well connected on several different social media: he consistently follows about a dozen blogs and he is quite active on Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram. He reads a few journals online and comments whenever he feels he should. He watches movies online, sometimes a few in a row without pause. He does so many things online that his girlfriend rarely sees him. They do not live together and she says it is difficult to get him out of the house after work any time other than when he is walking his dog. Andy seems quite happy and, as he told me, one important reason for this is the freedom he senses when he realizes he could do almost anything he wants from home.

And we, as anthropologists, should put all these together…

What will we learn from the fall of Facebook?

Daniel Miller24 November 2013

kids computer

Photo by Lucélia Ribeiro (Creative Commons)

The ‘Fall of Facebook’ seems an odd title given this is a social media platform that continues to expand worldwide. Yet there is no doubt that we can and should be commenting on its demise at least for some. This month my focus has been on the sixth formers, that is 16-18 year olds at schools in The Glades, our UK fieldsite. For this group Facebook is not just falling, it is basically dead, finished, kaput, over. It is about the least cool thing you could be associated with on the planet. It has been replaced by a combination of four media, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat and WhatsApp.

Looking back on my career as an academic I have rarely made predictions, partly because when I have, they have almost always turned out to be wrong. In the case of Facebook, however, even when everyone saw it as a university peer group thing, I predicted that Facebook was much more naturally a platform for older persons, not the young, a prediction that was repeated in Tales From Facebook. Just for a change I think this will prove correct, since most of the schoolchildren say they will remain on Facebook, but in essence as a mode of family interaction because their parents and even grandparents are starting to see it as almost an obligation to keep in touch through Facebook. So I don’t expect Facebook to necessarily disappear altogether. Rather it is finally finding its appropriate niche where it will remain. But I think it’s finished for the young in the UK and I suspect other countries will follow.

So what lessons should we learn from this?

  1. The development of new social media is not a story of increasing or better functionality replacing older or worse functionality. Actually most of the schoolkids I am interviewing are perfectly happy to admit that there were various ways in which Facebook works more effectively than things like Twitter or Instagram. As one boy put it ‘I don’t think Twitter is better, I think people just get bored looking at that blue sign.’ Most people feel Facebook is more integrated, better for photo albums, more effective for stalking people’s relationships, and in most respects worked more effectively than those platforms that replaced it. WhatApp is probably a better social messenger service, but then WhatsApp is as much a replacement for texting. The lesson therefore is that when something goes out of fashion, that factor may be more important than the reduction in functionality.
  2. Changes in social media do not reflect the attitudes that other people hoped would be the primary influence in determining such movements. As Facebook became a behemoth, like all media that grow in size, many adults started to hate it and see it as something that ‘represented’ global neo-liberal capitalism, or Americanization or some other of the usual objects of loathing. Even pre-Snowden, they saw it as a mode of global surveillance. They hoped people would leave Facebook because it was an over commercialised and over controlling platform, ideally moving to something more open source and less commercial. In fact, however, young people have replaced Facebook with Instagram, which is of course owned by – Facebook. In short while journalists and activists are highly concerned with issues such as media ownership, most young people couldn’t give a rat’s arse about such matters or who indeed who gets to see what data. It’s simply that it’s no longer cool to be there.
  3. All of which begs the question as to why Facebook lost its cool. Pretty much everyone remembers the shock of that moment when ‘my mother just asked to friend me on Facebook’, and that is probably the single major reason that it lost status. You just can’t be young and free while all the time Mum is watching you. The second reason is simply that there is a desire for the new which allows each new age grade of youth to find their own media, some, such as Snapchat may be short explosive fashions, that may not last, others more foundational, but it is enough that they are new. It is nothing new however that young people care about style and status in relation to their peers, which seems sufficient to explain change in this instance.
  4. This is also our best evidence for the way polymedia (Madianou and Miller 2012) corresponds to the earlier theoretical ideas within structural anthropology. The innovative insight of structural anthropology was that things are not entities; rather they exist through their relationship with that which they are not. Fast forward and we can see this idea transmuted into the ‘ecological’ model of modern media, in which each media is said to occupy a niche that is different from those occupied by the rival or complementary media.

It follows from this that a change in Facebook can arise, not from anything that happens within Facebook itself, but because of changes in the other media it is differentiated from. In my surveys at schools it is now Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp and Snapchat that connect pupils with other young people. Snapchat connects the closest friends, WhatsApp the quite close friends, Twitter the wider friends, while Instagram can include strangers. By contrast, Facebook has become the place where people interact with older people, especially parents and the wider family, or even older siblings who have gone to university. To prevent overgrazing, Facebook has to feed off somewhere else. It has thereby evolved into a very different animal – not that anyone seems to have noticed.

UPDATE
30 December 2013 – Daniel Miller posted a response to the widespread media coverage of this blog article.

Ceramics, forklift trucks and social media

Xin Yuan Wang20 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.

Facebook as freedom

Jolynna Sinanan13 October 2013

Image courtesy of Creative Commons

Image courtesy of Creative Commons

We started this project by thinking about Facebook as an ‘in’ to understanding the social totality of people’s lives. Facebook may be the means, but relationships are the ends. One of the themes that has emerged from Trinidad is how people navigate relationships that are given, for example kinship, family and the community where one grew up in a small town where most people know each other and relationships that are made such as friendships through school, university, work and interest groups.

In other blog posts, I have mentioned aspects of ‘Trinidadian’ uses of Facebook, to ‘fas’ or ‘maco’ (look into) other people’s business and existing through visibility is a major theme of Danny Miller’s Tales from Facebook. To take this further, Facebook could also tap into another Trinidadian theme, that of freedom. Within family relationships for example, bound by obligation and reciprocity, while people value being dutiful to their families, there may be an underlying resentment about being taken for granted.

On Facebook, where one’s social circles collide and congregate in the same space, a person may be friends with most people they have known face-to -face for several years, but it may be the only space where they exist as an individual. My pre-theorising of this comes from two examples from El Mirador. Two ‘hubs’, or clusters of people that I have gotten to know are an Evangelical community church and a group of sales people from the international multi-level marketing company Amway. Both groups strongly emphasise belonging to a community, the church has its usual service on a Sunday morning and Amway business owners have monthly meetings and in the times in between, when the entire group doesn’t get together, members take to Facebook. People in both groups tag each other in events, and individuals post regularly in relation to the interests of the group. Church members post a Bible verse that they know is relevant to another member or one they feel speaks to their situation of the week or an inspirational quote or meme. Amway members post similarly, with motivational quotes of images that encourage their fellow members with their sales and businesses.

A quick look at the timelines of some members of these groups and I can see they are no less active in the lives of their family and friends, multiple people post or comment, the individuals are tagged in non-church or non-Amway activities, but the difference is that the majority of post by the profile owner reflects their independent affiliations and interests, as if to assert “I may be all these different things to different people, but this is me.”

Social media may be a huge source of entertainment or ways to pass the time for vast amounts of people in different contexts such as people on long commutes or shop sellers in the small stalls, but for people who have grown up in less populated places, where they are less anonymous, Facebook might be a ticket to individual freedom.

Why we still need an Anthropology of Europe

Daniel Miller1 October 2013

(By Daniel Miller and Razvan Nicolescu)

Cake – Grano style

Cake – Grano style (Photo by Daniel Miller)

One of the advantages of visiting other field sites is exposure to the incredible contrasts between them. Although Italy and England are both part of the European Union there is almost nothing in common between our respective sites. Both Leeglade (our UK fieldsite) and Grano (our Italian fieldsite) are approximately 16,000 in population. But Leeglade is in every respect a village. There is just one small high street of basic shops. By contrast Grano is clearly a town with many different streets full of shops, probably hundreds of shops in total. There is no manufacturing in Leeglade, while artisanal work is common in Grano.

Most people in Grano live in extended families and own land. Indeed most people in Grano are self-sufficient in home grown olive oil. We have never met a landowner in Leeglade and almost everyone lives in nuclear families or on their own. Furthermore many people in Grano also own empty properties they envisage one day will be occupied by their children, this too is unknown in Leeglade.

Perhaps the biggest contrast is an economic activity and what the money is used for. The owners of most shops in Grano work in their own premises. Shops seem to exist more as places to establish the social position of the owner and an opportunity for them to socialise, rather than as a mechanism for the maximisation of profits. Indeed most things that go on here, including online activity, are really ways to facilitate offline social networking. Partly as a result most people’s incomes are considerably lower than those of the inhabitants of Leeglade. Although in Grano property prices are low, transport and food are cheap so one needs much less to live. By contrast, most of the clothing shops in Grano consist only of extremely expensive clothes, that one would have imagined as well beyond the means of the people who live there. In Leeglade property prices are very high and there are no clothing shops at all.

In Grano people will rarely spend money on a drink outside of the home, saving for items such as very expensive sunglasses and accessories. One reason is that in the summer especially the whole town socialises in the public squares. In Grano between 1 o’clock and 5 o’clock in the afternoon you can hear a pin drop. The shops are closed and no one is moving around the town. In Leeglade this is prime working time. In Grano people are very often invited to somebody else’s house for dinner. In Leeglade people spend a good deal on drinking and entertainment outside of the home, but it is very rare for them to have another person from the village invited to dinner inside the home.

Overall we would suggest that the degree of differences between the two sites are pretty much as they might have been a hundred or two hundred years ago. Some things were once in common but have disappeared. A 90 year-old in Leeglade recalls how, as a child, he saw men literally doff their cap when a carriage with local landowners passed by. The same might have been true in Grano. Today both sites are witnessing an increase in home-based IT work.  But in general a person from Grano would find almost everything about Leeglade astonishing and inexplicable. People in Leeglade would find Grano wonderful as a tourist destination but would have no idea how people live like that whole year. Though the view each has of the other has changed dramatically. Not so long ago people who were studying English were considered to be gaining an entry to a land of bowler hats and conformity, perhaps the most formal place in Europe. Today adverts in Grano for English classes portray England as the land of quirky individualism, the most informal place in Europe, in contrast to the strong social conformity of Grano.

One of the main reasons for insisting upon an ‘Anthropology of Europe’ is that when we experience these differences we also realise the importance of anthropology as a critique of other disciplines with their tendency to extrapolate into universals of human behaviour. The writings of economists and psychologists are likely to fit much more easily with the norms of Leeglade than of Grano, probably because so much of that academic writing takes place in places such as the UK and the US, amounting to a kind of academic imperialism of human norms. Indeed Razvan regards an important contribution of his work as a critique of assumptions in political economy.

We don’t want to make the same mistake in our understanding of social media. Having our nine sites means we are much less likely to privilege any one place as the basis for claims about cognitive or economic imperatives that pertain to overly abstract notions of ‘the Internet’ or even Facebook. Here we can see generalisations at the level of Europe are problematic, but as other blogposts have shown the differences between our two Chinese sites may be even more striking. Sometimes people think that anthropology is just being obtuse or ‘difficult’ because we eschew easy generalisation, and seem to be deliberately siting ourselves as flies in the academic ointments that are proffered to our understanding the world. But comparing our sites we would say quite the opposite. We do not choose to be difficult and relativist. We simply acknowledge the world as we know it to be, and refuse the dishonesty and blindness that wants to wish away these realities because they make academic life harder and make anthropology less popular than ‘science’. We will still strive for generality, theory and analysis, but we do not apologise for the fact that we are really going to struggle to achieve these things, because the integrity of our discipline says that this has to incorporate and not exile the diversity that simply is our contemporary world.

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.

Where did all the kids come from? And where will they go?

Xin Yuan Wang10 July 2013

A young woman and her baby at a local mobile phone shop

A young woman and her baby at a local mobile phone shop

Doing fieldwork always means you need to understand the local people before you look into anything particular. In which vein, most of my time so far has been contributed to knowing people and the local social life which provide essential context for the local social media usage. Here, in this article I’d like to talk about something quite unexpected: kids.

My field site is a small factory town in southeast China where Chinese rural migrants account for two thirds of the local residents. I had the impression that on the high street of my field site, the amount of babies and kids I have seen during the three months is more than the total I have seen during the three years when I was in the UK. It is not a joke; here it is not difficult to find a migrant family with five to seven children, which made me very confused at the first beginning given the well-known Chinese ‘one- child’ policy.

Now let me explain it a bit.The ‘one-child’ policy used to be conducted extremely strictly in China. A typical Chinese word “tou sheng” (give birth secretly) suggests the most popular folk strategy toward the tough policy.

“Years ago, they [local officials] would chase you to the end of the earth if they knew you have a baby secretly in other places, but now nobody bothers to catch people who ‘tou sheng’ outside [their home place].” one of my informants who has three kids told me how things have changed nowadays.

As a result, the rural migrant people seemed to have the “privilege” to have as many kids as they want during their stay at “other places” – they are “floating” in other places with their kids.  The way rural migrant lead their lives seemed to have already gave me the answers for the question “why do people want so many children?” – That is to survive on numbers.

“My mum believes that being a human being is to make human beings. The more the better and as many as possible.”  A man in his 30s told me.

What a philosophy of life. Clear, and strong, and each one can make a go for it. Among my rural migrant people, nobody has ever cared about which kindergarten, primary school, or middle school their children go to. They cared about how many children they have and others have. Many kids will be sent to factories to earn money by their parents when they finish middle school (15-16 years old). It is illegal to employ child labor for factory owners; however they have chosen to turn a blind eye to child labor given that all the kids have fake identification cards showing that they already are 18 years old. Education here is not something for freedom or a better life, but something to prepare potential labor that can read for factories. I once asked people how they can afford to bring up so many kids.

“’To be honest, if you are rich, you bring up kids in a rich way, if you are poor, and then bring up kids in a poor way. The kids of rich guys will learn how to play piano; our kids only need to know how to survive.” A man said.

I knew he meant it.

Here, in this small industrial town, most people work hard and treat each other for survival. There is no tourism agency, no gym, no cinema, and no garden.  Life is a lasting battle for survival, from this generation to the next. It is as grandeur as an epic, however as humble as weeds. The ancient wisdom of the nature has told people how to apply numerical advantage to confront with high mortality and high failure rates.

One day, I was sitting in the mobile phone shop, watching people. A very young lady came to top up her mobile phone. She was pretty, in a pink pullover, carrying her baby on her back. From the cloth baby carrier with colorful embroidery I could immediately tell that she must have come from the Guizhou province. She gave me a 20 RMB (2 pounds) banknote  and I thought she wanted to top up 20 RMB, which is very reasonable since the average cost of mobile phone among migrant people is 100- 200 RMB (10 pounds- 20 pounds). But she told me she only wanted to top up 10 RMB. When I was thinking why she only topped up 10 RMB, a delicate tiny little hand was reaching out from the baby carrier – it is just the most beautiful scene I have ever seen in my field site (see photo). Out of sudden I became very emotional, especially when I overheard the first phone call she made when she left shop was to her friend, saying that she had run out of money, and the baby was sick.

Until now I still felt guilty that I didn’t run out to catch up her and give her some money. Or, should I?  Here, everybody needs help. However, the thing made me sadder was the baby’s future. Where did all the kids come from? And where will they go? I may have known the answers, but I really hope it was not the truth.