X Close

Global Social Media Impact Study

Home

Project Blog

Menu

Between walls: methodology for comparing Chinese and non-Chinese social media

TomMcDonald27 July 2014

Comparing two walls: QZone is often referred to as the 'Chinese Facebook', but there are important differences between the two platforms (Photo: Tom McDonald)

Comparing two walls: QZone is often referred to as the ‘Chinese Facebook’, but there are important differences between the two platforms (Photo: Tom McDonald)

Recently our team has been doing a statistical analysis of  our particpants’ social networking use in our different fieldsites around the world. In the future this data will be one of the key ways we will compare between the fieldsites. For most of the fieldsites, the analysis takes place on Facebook using clever computer programs created by Shriram that helps to automate the data collection and make sure that the same techniques are used between all the fieldsites.

But our two fieldsites in North and South China pose a unique problem in terms of methodology. Facebook is inaccessible here in China, and most people use QQ or WeChat as their main social networking platform. Both these platforms are quite different to Facebook in terms of layout and functionality, and neither of them have proper, full APIs that allow you to run the kind of automated statistical analysis we have been attempting on Facebook. This raises an important methodological question: how is it possible to do a comparison between fieldsites when the thing that you are comparing is not the same?

It’s something I have felt that our team has struggled with throughout this project, and often when we have met as a group to discuss the project and our methodology, QQ seems to get pushed into the background. It often feels like Chinese social networks are this great, dark unknown. For a start, their appearance is incredibly different from Facebook, and the fact that many of them only support Chinese language versions makes them almost impenetrable to people who don’t understand the language. Our group’s internal fieldwork manuals, which contain comprehensive instructions that guide the rest of the team through how to research a particular question, are often reduced down to a single sentence for our China fieldsites: “Tom and Xinyuan will have to use local resources.”

This is not a complaint. Rather, it is a testament to how different Chinese social media is from the rest of the world. Also, it is a challenge to think through the comparisons we are trying to make; what kind of data they will provide us with and, most importantly, what conclusions we hope to make from them.

For example, one of the things we are analysing is who are the people who interact (i.e. like, comment) the most with our friends in the fieldsite on their wall. On Facebook this is simple enough, however on QZone we have to count these interactions manually on a wall-like feature called ‘His/Her Happenings’ (ta de dongtai). This is further complicated by the fact that users very rarely use their real name on their account, with most adopting creative pseudonyms such as ‘Lonely cigarette butt’. Also because people tend to repost many more memes on QZone than on Facebook, the ‘likes’ of friends can sometimes get lost between thousands of other likes, which can make it very confusing to count which of the likes come from a participant’s QQ friends.

I am not suggesting that this makes the data derived from our Chinese and non-Chinese fieldsites incomparable to each other. Rather, it points to the fact that any statistical figures that we come up with need to be treated as just one part of the puzzle, and that the very process of trying to produce such statistics highlights the important material differences between the platforms, which are begging to be documented and explained. Such accounts will help to make Chinese social media a little less of a ‘dark unknown’, and will tell us quite a lot about Chinese culture and life in the process.

Furthermore, these differences highlights the danger of simply looking at statistical data, and assuming it demonstrates an ‘absolute truth’. Reality is often more complicated that a simple percentage. Any statistical comparison needs to be tempered with the qualitative data we have been gathering through interviews and participant observation in each of our fieldsites that help to understand how social media is embedded into people’s lives.

Comparison is never simple or easy, especially so with a large global project like this. But I feel certain that the challenges such comparisons involve, and the opportunities they present for cultural understanding make it all the more important to try.

Two worlds

XinyuanWang5 September 2013

The bed of my informant CY, which she shares with her little sister (photo by XinYuan Wang)

The bed of my informant CY, which she shares with her little sister (photo by Xin Yuan Wang)

The more that I get to know people here in the South China fieldsite, the more I see the sharp distinction between their offline lives and online lives.  It seems that there are actually two worlds, or two places where my informants live – one is a physical place, and the other social media.

My informant ‘CY’ is 18 years old, lives with her parents and her little brother and little sister. CY’s parents work in the same factory. The whole family lives in two small rooms – CY shares the bed with her little sister in the downstairs room (see image, above).

Every day the family wash themselves in a shared toilet which is without a shower. One plastic bucket and one plastic wash basin serves as a shower set. There is used toilet paper and dirty water on the floor, stains on the wall. However the toilet at home is still much better than the one at work, where people just don’t feel like flushing after using it, which is welcomed by swarms of flies. The air is thick with the stench of sewage and human waste and one has no problem of finding the toilet with the sense of smell hundreds of meters away. At daytime, even indoor temperature is above 38 degree, the air is so warm to the degree that I am afraid the only electric fan stops working because its engine is burning hot. One day, after work, CY was ‘playing’ her smartphone in her room while chatting with me from time to time. She was attracted into the ‘online world’ as if she had forgotten where she was; after a while; she looked up to see me – I was sitting there, sweating like a pig.

“Life outside the mobile phone is unbearable, hum?” she smiled.

Exactly. Life outside the mobile phone! I almost jumped up and cheered when I heard what she said. CY was right, there are two worlds , one is inside the mobile phone, and the other one outside the mobile phone. The one outside is a tedious place with the smell, high temperature and other chaos. To the contrary, the one inside with infinite space is free from any unpleasant smell and weather. CY’s QQ profile is neat, clean with the color of light blue and white. She updated her QZone (status and forward post) at least three times per day. Online CY is surrounded by a group of admirers and the way she talked is as if she was the princess who is waiting for true love. I have never seen CY talk like a princess in any face-to-face situation.  In this big factory, there are hundreds of other ordinary young women just like CY, CY is just one of them and as such pretty ordinary;  However,  she is a princess in her ‘inside’ world online.

Of course the offline world and online world overlap in many cases; half of CY’s online status have a very close relationship with what just happened offline. And the one who interacts with CY most frequently online is her best friend who works in the next-door workshop of the same factory. A great part of the offline world (especially the not so pleasant part) is not reflected in her QQ profile at all. She knows each of her online friends offline, in which vein, one cannot view online and offline as separated in terms of participators. However, my point is that a significant part of my informants’ online world has nothing to do with their offline world, and in most cases, they prefer to ‘live’ in the online world which is much more interesting, pleasant, and purified.