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What ordinary Chinese people post on social media after the Tianjin Blast

XinyuanWang24 August 2015

For two days, my WeChat news feeds has been awash with all kinds of articles and images about the Tianjin blast. But after merely two days, the routine on social media came back, food photos, holiday photos, kids photos, articles teaching you how to deal with the relationship between you and your mother-in-law all came back. People seemed to forget about the disaster already.

A week after the appalling blast in Tianjin, China on 12th August, Zhou, a free-lance journalist and photographer, who I got to know when I was doing field work in Southeast China last year, told me her feelings concerning Chinese social media reaction to this event. She could not hide her disappointment.

Zhou’s remark accords with my own observations of my informants’ posts on both QQ and WeChat, the two Chinese dominant social media platforms. And like Zhou, I heard the news for first time from my personal WeChat. Social media has become the main (if not the first) channel for access to various kinds of information. But unlike traditional channels, social media presents these different kinds of information from news to a whole range of personal conversation together without curation. This clearly contributes to Zhou’s feelings about information fragmentation on social media where significant news becomes diluted by the huge amount of the ‘daily life’ content on social media.

But what exactly ordinary Chinese people post on their personal social media profiles vis-a-vis the blast? After the completion of  15 months fieldwork, I continued to follow two groups on social media on a daily basis. One comprise the rural migrants in a factory town where I did most of my field work (50 persons), and the other one a control group with whom I conducted in-depth interviews in Shanghai (30 persons). The table below shows how remarkably different the Tianjin blast related social media performance are of these two groups of people (All the people in Shanghai use WeChat, and the majority of rural migrants remain with QQ). Taking the four days following the blast (from 13 August to 17th August), on all 80 social media profiles, 44% of postings (42 postings out of 95) were related to the blast, of which almost 53% were posted the day after the blast. In general, there are five themes: News about the blast (36%), Prayers for Tianjin (26%), Hero stories (20%), in-depth analysis (9%), and patriotism postings (9%).

chart_blast

 

The News postings were straightforward, usually news reports with photos and very simply comments by people who shared it, such as “It’s shocking!”, “How terrible!” or “I am so sorry for Tianjin”. 60% of those news-based stories shared on social media came from people in Shanghai.

The ‘Prayers for Tianjin’ postings are those memes with text like ‘pray for Tianjin’  (see screenshots below). Some postings shared on people’s profiles went even moralized by claiming “Tonight we are all from Tianjin and suffer the same suffering, if you are Chinese please share this!”, a bit like “We are Charlie”. The majority (64%) of those memes come from rural migrants.

屏幕快照 2015-08-18 下午8.08.49

The ‘hero stories’ are also widely shared on people’s social media profiles where both people from Shanghai (50%) and rural migrants (50%) seems to show similar interests in stories like how firemen sacrificed their own lives, running into the fire when everybody was fleeting away; or how sniffer dogs worked day and night in order to save human beings.

屏幕快照 2015-08-19 上午11.09.00

In-depth analysis refers to editorials focusing on the cause of the accident. Articles of this kind were only shared only by people from Shanghai, who had education at master-level and above. In one of the articles the government and disaster relief system is strongly challenged. There is explicit criticism of the way that after a disaster people only share ‘pray for ***’ memes on social media, rather than really asking for the truth behind the disaster.

In contrast to the situation of ‘in-depth analysis’, rural migrants contributed all the ‘patriotism’ postings.  One typical ‘patriotism’ (see screenshots below) started with a list of Chinese celebrities and companies who had donated money for the disaster relief, followed by the list of foreign celebrities and companies (such as south Korean stars, Samsung and Apple) who didn’t donate any money for this Tianjin blast. In the end of the article, it was urged that Chinese people should love the state since only the Chinese army can protect them and people who are big fans of foreign stars and foreign products should feel ashamed of themselves. Though I happen to know that one such person, a factory worker, had just spent on whole month salary on a iPhone prior to a blind date with a girl arranged by one of his fellow villages,

屏幕快照 2015-08-19 上午11.49.45

A close inspection of this pattern of posting on social media is revealing then not just about reactions to a disaster, but also key issues in contemporary China, such as the differences created by education and the appeal of nationalist ideology.

Pin down the questions

XinyuanWang5 September 2014

Construction site

Xinyuan asking questions on a construction site among workers (photo by MF)

You should know that the majority of PhD students feel some regret that they didn’t ask enough questions when they came back from the field.

Danny advised so when we walked past a beautiful bamboo forest last year in October when he came to visit my field site.
At that time, after five-months of fieldwork I was frustrated about the situation that on the one hand, I felt as if I was mining hard on poor ground- there was nothing (no longer) new under the sun! On the other hand, I somehow felt it’s very awkward to ask ‘formal’ questions to the informants who treat  me as a friend and I didn’t want to lose the relaxed atmosphere which I believe allows people to show the ‘true self’.

Well, I see, but I still need some time to figure out HOW” I curled my lip and said.

It is really not easy to ask questions, even though the pre-fieldwork project meeting prepared well HOW to do this. Now, at the last phase of my fieldwork, when I look back and ask myself whether I feel any regrets about ‘asking questions’ during my fieldwork, I think the answer is NO, but with several footnotes.

First, useful questions do not necessarilyhave to be asked in a interview-like formal way or even with a question mark. My strategy is to follow people’s organic conversation flow and ‘harness’ the topic by relevant detailed inquiries or directional claim. That means most of the time my inquiries are impromptu. However, such improvisation is not as random as some laid back chic-chat among friends, it has to point towards the impact of social media. In practice, asking questions in a contextual way to address a research question is a mind-taxing and thought-racing process.

For instance, a factory worker informant of mine used to complain about her boyfriend (who is now her husband) in front of me, in such a situation, as a friend, I am supposed to be a compassionate ally who shares the same bitter hatred, rather than a ‘keep-one’s-nose-clean’ researcher who only takes interest in the phenomenon of ‘men keeping ex-girlfriends’ photos on social media’. I had to control my academic inclinations and insert my ‘questions’ patiently among her unrestricted criticism. As a result my questions output is like:

  • Oh gosh, how come? that’s totally outrageous, I just can’t believe it. but..hey you are great, how can you know his password? my boyfriend never told me his!
  • Really?! so…which means he knew you looked at these photos? I don’t get it, what’s wrong with men? why do they think we can accept those ex- bitches…with a big smile?! I just don’t get it!
  • Relax, you are strong, and I hope he will learn a lesson. By the way, did you give him any warning or at least a hint about this?

Framing questions in this way allows people to relate to the topic and express their own opinions. Look at the contrast to more direct research questions:

  • Do you have your partner’s social media password, if so, could you tell me why and how do you get it?
  • Will you remove your ex partner’s photos on social media profile? if so why? and why do you think some people keep their ex partner’s photos on social media?
  • How do you deal with your partner’s ex-partner’s photos on social media?

Furthermore, all my roundabout inquiries are actually aiming to put pieces together of a bigger puzzle, which is the relationship between intimacy and social media usage. Nevertheless, I am not suggesting that such theatrical questioning can be applied in every case- it works only when a researcher has a relatively comprehensive knowledge of his/her informant as well as the circumstance during the conversation.

The funny thing is after just one month when I came back to the same informant and tried to go through some more interview-like questions she appeared slightly uncomfortable and confused about my question with regards to the intimacy and the usage of social media, and asked me why I was interested in those ‘useless’ things and what for. Clearly she forget that’s the reason I was in my field site and I was a researcher which I had told her one-year ago. Her attitude is understandable as for people who have limited education (like many of her fellow workers in the factory she is a middle-school drop-out) and living experience with academic research, words like ‘research’, ‘questionnaire’, ‘interview’, etc are more often than not very alien and sometimes even horrific. Thus it is safe to say the way to ask questions is as important as, if not more, the questions per se.

Secondly, at the closing phase of my field site I started to ‘push the boundary’ and pin down some questions I did not want to ask for the reasons I just mentioned above. The efforts were not in vain. Even though my informants appeared unsurprisingly uncomfortable and couldn’t give me a articulate answer in many cases. They still gave me some valuable information I couldn’t have gotten just by chatting with them, such as do they visit pornographic websites or describe their social media usage situation in the past five years.

Meanwhile, I spent almost one month in Shanghai to do comparative study among urban and rural (or rural migrant) population. Jingwen Fan, a Shanghai-based artist and media researcher, worked with me to conduct interviews among Shanghainese people. Given that we didn’t have enough time to carry out proper anthropological participant-observation, which I was doing among rural migrants in my field site, our interviews targeted personal friends and relatives of Jingwen Fan and I, with whom we have established strong mutual trust and understanding.

The interviews have been ongoing for more than a month and most of the interviews were filmed with consent. We have a list of 24 questions for the interviews (I will post the list of the questions in my next blog posting), which according to my one-year ‘questioning’ experience will lead to some active interaction and valuable data.  So far, the interviews went very well even though I was slightly worried about what Margaret Mead said, ‘What people say, what people do, and what they say they do are entirely different things’.

We appreciate that most of all of our informants trust us a great deal and actively interact with us by showing us their social media profiles and sharing with us their personal stories without hesitation. And on top of it, the people we interviewed not only expressed themselves very well but also discussed different issues with us passionately. Some of them started an answer by saying “You know what, actually I thought about exactly the same question recently and I also discussed it with my friends…” More often than not, a filmed interview took around three hours.

It is safe to say the difference between the urban and rural population’s performance in formal interviews is mainly due to the difference in educational background and living experience. The average education level among factory workers/ rural migrants in my field site is below middle school, and the average among Shanghai-based informants is university. Given the huge information consumption on a daily basis and the diversity of urban life, the urban population appeared much more confident, open-minded and articulate in talking about the society and themselves. Thus, after conducting the study among different groups of people in China for almost 15 months, I am ready to say that the point of ‘pin down the question’ is not only about ‘asking enough questions’ as Danny advised, but also about ‘asking tailored questions for different informants’

“Watch the World Cup: watch the fun and the world”

XinyuanWang27 June 2014

Factory officers watching the recorded World Cup online during lunch break in their office. photo by Xinyuan Wang

Factory officers watching recorded World Cup games online during the lunch break in their office. photo by Xinyuan Wang

The ongoing World Cup, as a global event, seems to provide an ideal platform for us, the Global Social Media Impact Study to compare people’s social media engagement worldwide. Here in this busy factory town in south China, there is no pub where people can watch football, there is no football field where people can play football, and I have never ever felt any passion for football during my whole year of field work. Most of the time, I had to train myself to select ‘useful’ information from a huge amount of field notes.  However, this time I was somehow worried that the topic of football over here is somewhat similar to the topic of skiing for people who live in a tropical rain forest.

Not surprisingly, up to the day of writing (24 June) there is very limited content on social media about football or the World Cup among my informants (around two-thirds of them are Chinese rural migrants, working in local factories, one-third are factory managers, local businessman, and few people living in cities), among 100 informants’ QQ profiles (around 179 posts over the World Cup period), there was only five posts about football directly, and the majority of them were about football gambling game as one of the posts said: “I am optimistic about Italy!” XB, an 18-year old factory worker wrote so, and he told me later that the reason he posted so was because he clicked on a QQ football gambling game “by chance”, and invested 10 RMB (1 pound) betting with Italy. However, when I moved to WeChat (a social media applied more by Chinese urban population and middle-class) things became different. When I included my personal social media connections which mainly consist of people living and working in cities like Shanghai, Beijing, Hong Kong, and overseas places, the rate of football related posts is much higher: among 158 posts drawn from 60 people on WeChat, there were more than 30% of football and World Cup related posts. Furthermore, the posts about football varied. There were original posts about watching football in pubs or at home alone or with friends (usually with a set of photos of the beer, the TV screen, the venue, and group photos); posts commenting on the performance of certain players or teams; informative shared links about the game schedule and the line-ups; shared pictures/videos about the world cup, including a great amount of jokes, etc.

The presence (or the absence) of the World Cup on people’s social media profiles (QQ and WeChat) not only showcased different ‘lifestyles’ of the urban Chinese and rural migrants, but also manifested a great difference between the user groups of WeChat and QQ that is WeChat is more urban and QQ is more rural. Even though it is too simplistic to put things in urban-rural dichotomy, it is safe to say that the urban-rural division exists in many obvious ways in China according to my ethnography.

Nevertheless, my inquiry about the ‘social media and the World Cup’ should by no means remain on social media domain since the real strength of field work lies in a comprehensive understanding of people’s daily life. The game-watching experience with my informants and follow-up interviews tell me more about the social connections behind football and the World Cup.

Curiously, even though the visibility of the world cup on social media among rural migrants is extremely low, in my field site, one can still feel some passion for the World Cup, especially among men. ZF, a forklift driver in his 30s, went to bed straight away after work at 5 pm, in order to get up in midnight to watch the games via his computer (given the time difference, most of the games are after midnight China time). Some of ZF’s co-workers in the factory (around 25%) did the same, and “the younger, the crazier” even though most of them “do not understand football” as one of them told me. However the majority of people who showed interest in the World Cup reported that they watched the game alone in their room, which means watching the world cup is not a public event or social event at all in this small town. Such situation limits the possibility of me, as a young woman, of joining the game-watching with my informants: at midnight, a young woman and a young man, both don’t understand football, watching football in a small room where the only furniture is a bed does not sound particularly inviting for me and probably too inviting for the other side.

Having said so, I still managed to watch a recorded game (Columbia Vs. Greece) during the lunch break with four of my informants (three male one female) who are factory officials in the office. During the game-watching, I secretly counted how many times people made remarks on the match per se, and how many time people made remarks on something else. Among roughly 230 remarks over 90 minutes, 1/3 of them are very short remarks about the match per se, such as “Oh he is fast!”, “Shoot!”, “Quick quick”, “that must be painful”, “Come on, that’s fake”. And the other 2/3 of the remarks was sort of ‘football-free’. 

“I like the blue pants!”

“Hey, many of the foreigners are bald, how come?”

“Is that true foreign men always smell, so they have to use perfume?”

“Oh I wish I could run and fight like them, men should be like that”

“Look, the judge running after the players all the time, how tiring, he must be very well paid!”

“Where is Columbia?”

“He is handsome!”

“One of my friends marry to a ‘fu er dai’ (second generation of the rich, refers to people who come from very rich families), and their honeymoon trip was to Greece. The photos she posted on her QQ were just amazingly beautiful. I just don’t get it, I mean, she is not very pretty at all.”

“Oh, foreigners are really crazy, they paint on their face, and dance like this, they are so crazy! Life in the west must be very free and have a lot of fun.”

“I really think Chinese men can’t date foreign women, they are too open to sex, too difficult to control!”

It seems that during the game-watching more conversation were centered on exoticism, masculinity, and gossip, which for whatever reasons were allowed by the encounter of the carnival-like world cup. And for me those conversations where football was absent seemed to be even more interesting in terms of anthropological inquiries about sociality in people’s daily life.

The World Cup watching experience reminds me of the local opera show. From time to time, a local traditional Chinese opera troupe had performance on a makeshift stage, hundreds of people gathered under the stage, however not everybody was interested in the performance; the noise of chatting under the stage was just as loud as the singing on the stage. When the performance was over, more than half of the audience remained at their seats, chatting with each other. I asked some of them whether they were fans of the opera or the troupe, few of them said yes. People told me that they came here because it’s very “re nao” (‘re’ in Chinese means hot, ‘nao’ means noisy, two characters together means ‘bustle’). “Re nao” is a very interesting thing, Chinese people will say “cou re nao” (join the bustle), which takes place in various situations. Basically being bustle and noisy is regarded as something fun. Here, many people come to the performance for the purpose of “cou re nao”, which is joining the bustle, watching the fun. The social interactions in many cases depend on those ‘everyday encounters with people’ – any activity in public which gathers people became a ‘social activity’ automatically. Similarly, people’s interest may be not necessarily in the event, either the world cup or the local opera show. Thus watching the world cup in my field site is more about watching the world and watching the fun.

THE WORLD CUP ON SOCIAL MEDIA WORLDWIDE
This article is part of a special series of blog posts profiling how social media is affecting how ordinary people from communities across the planet experience the 2014 World Cup.