X Close

Global Social Media Impact Study

Home

Project Blog

Menu

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’

‘Work-bound’ people and digital travel

XinyuanWang4 December 2013

IMAG3938

(Photo by Xin Yuan Wang)

One of the research foci of our project is the usage of social media among disabled, house-bound people. As the profile of Dr. Karamath in Tales from Facebook (Miller 2011), and the story of Amanda Baggs in Digital Anthropology (Ginsburg 2013) suggest, social media, or internet in a broader context, allow disabled people a ‘bigger’ life. For example, allowing people to express themselves better, to communicate with friends more conveniently, and even a gain a ‘second life’. Even though I have encountered people who have disabled relatives in their  rural hometowns and heard people talking about disability caused by factory work, so far in my fieldsite I have only met one person who has a slight problem in his left leg.  I found that it is difficult to find similar examples of appropriation of digital technology among disabled persons at my field site given that most residents live here for the purpose of working.

However, from time to time I witnessed another kind of ‘bound’ situation which is not caused by physical disability among my ‘working class’ informants. I called it ‘work-bound’. WDG, is a local grocery shop keeper in his early 40s. His shop opens from 6:30 am to 10:30pm (16 hours), seven days a week. He cooks in the shop, has three meals in the shop and even sleep in the shop since otherwise thieves will visit during the night. He and his family (his parents, his wife and two children) virtually live in the shop 365 days per year. Even though the rent for his shop is not very expensive (around 2000 pounds per year), he still can’t afford to close the shop for a whole day, so it is open every day of the year. He told me that for 4 years, he only closed the shop once since he needed to send his mother to hospital on that day.  WDG is not alone; most shop keepers at my field site see ‘closing shop for holiday’ as a total waste of time and money. WDG is always busy at his shop. People come to post parcels, top-up mobile phone or game points, and buy food and drinks throughout the day. For the purpose of doing business, three years ago WDG installed a desk computer at his shop. Thus, he spends most of everyday sitting in front of his computer. It is curious to note that besides pages for mobile phone and digital game top-up, another ‘always open’ webpage is Google Earth, where he checks different places in the world from time to time. One day, knowing that I study in London, WDG skillfully googled the London map and asked me to show him where I lived in London. He also asked me to show him around UCL campus, and the British museum nearby. The whole family crowded in front of the computer screen to see the Google map of London, or to use their words, to ‘visit’ London. I was just amazed and moved at people’s pure joy that came from the virtual tour of London in their 12 square meter shop which they were confined to 365 days per year, 24 hours per day.

Compared with small shop keepers, factory workers have relatively longer ‘off-work’ time. People who work in factories have two days holiday per month. However one cannot take two consecutive days, which means that most of them can’t afford a holiday longer than one day. This month I was invited to join a group of my factory friends’ trip to a nearby sightseeing place. From the field site to that place, high speed train takes four hours for one-way, however ordinary train takes almost 9 hours. Nevertheless, the high speed train ticket costs around 20 pounds more than the ordinary one, so my friends decided to take the slow train without thinking twice. Therefore, they will spend almost 18 hours in transit, and less than 12 hours at the sightseeing attraction. On Saturday, they managed to leave a half day earlier to catch the afternoon train. On the train out, they played cards for almost 9 hours – everyone was so excited about the card playing, even though when they arrived at midnight, everybody was exhausted. The worst thing was in order to save money, they booked a very cheap guest house in a night club district near the train station, and there were stereos blasting in the district until 4 o’clock in the morning. Even though everybody managed to get up at 7 am, no one had enough energy to do any sightseeing for the rest of the day. After cans of redbull, we managed to finish the main sightseeing place in the morning, but after lunch, none were willing to move anymore. Thus, we wisely did a couple of things to kill the rest of our 5 hours in that city – sitting at KFC, staring at our smartphones, uploading photos to QQ and Wechat, and some even played the Wechat online game “tian tian ku pao” while others slept with their heads resting on the table. The communication between people at the site was very limited, it seemed that everybody felt too tired to talk with each other. Finally, one remarked, “I have never felt playing QQ and Wechat was a blessing as much as today!”  it was a joke which made people laugh. However the fact that my friends came all the way to a sightseeing place to spend a whole uninterrupted afternoon with their smartphones was not a joke at all. Life moved on after the one-day trip, my friends arrived at 6:30 the next morning and had to go straight to work at 7:30am. I checked all of their social media profiles and found that none of them mentioned how tiring the trip really was. Instead, they used beautiful and delightful words to describe how happy they were and how interesting the place was. I felt like going to the place by merely looking at the warm smiles on the beautiful photos, failing to realize that the place we went to together was actually the same place they talked about on their social media profiles.

The two ‘trips’ which both took place in November made me to think about the connection and question what digital media means to people in these two trips? It seemed that on the one hand, digital media allows people to experience the world in a way that will never happen without the technology otherwise; on the other hand, digital media have become such a significant and overwhelming part of people’s lives to the degree that people somehow need to reconstruct their offline world through the online world. The digital not only in certain degree freed people from their ‘work-bound’ offline life, but also significantly powered them to construct a much more interesting image of their offline life via social media. Furthermore, I can’t help but wonder what will happen if one day my shop keeper friend WDG finally has the chance to go and visit London, what he will do during his stay in London? Will he still spend a decent time on Google earth or his QQ profile every day given the ‘window’ offered by Google earth has long been the only familiar and unfailing way for him to see the world?

References

Ginsburg, Faye 2013 “Disability in the Digital Age”, in Digital Anthropology 2013. Heather A. Horst & Daniel Miller (ed.) London: Berg.

Miller, Daniel 2011. Tales from Facebook. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Social media as ageist?

JolynnaSinanan30 May 2013

Left- an old man is choosing an 'old people phone'; right- the interface of the 'old people phone'. Photo by Xin Yuan Wang

Left- an old man is choosing an ‘old people phone’; right- the interface of the ‘old people phone’. (Photo by Xin Yuan Wang)

By Jolynna Sinanan and Xin Yuan Wang

We had the opportunity to talk comparatively about what is coming out of our respective fieldwork, when Jolynna took a detour through China on her way home from her second round of fieldwork in Trinidad to visit Xin Yuan. We found a number of complimentary themes and parallels from our field sites and our discussions with our informants. Trinidad and the region of China where Xin Yuan is doing her fieldwork are similar in that there are large amount of intra-state migrants (in Xin Yuan’s field site, rural migrants amount to two thirds of the local total population), whose main social networks remain in their home towns. This suggests that these groups may need social media mostly in terms of developing social networks in their area of destination as well as for their contacts who remain in their home towns. Of course, it is too early at this stage to talk about the social consequences of the appropriation of social media among migrants, which we definitely aim to address at the end of the project.

However, some very obvious parallels did express themselves clearly enough in Jolynna’s short research visit, and pushed us to think WHY. For example, we both found that there are very few to no people over the age of 50 using social media, or even seem interested in using social media (in Xin Yuan’s case, she found so far, that nobody over the age of 45 is using social media and Jolynna has only one informant over 60 who uses Facebook). We discussed a couple of factors to why this is the case: A) illiteracy (especially in Xin Yuan’s case amongst older rural migrants in China); B) older people as being more  technophobic; and C) the dominance of face to face relations for older people. The first two factors are to do with people’s capability and willingness to use digital technologies, however the last reason has more to do with people’s perception of social life and the social normativity around the questions such as “which kind of social connection really matters in one’s everyday life”.

Firstly, in both of our field sites, older people are more invisible in the smartphone market. From her observations and discussions with informants, Xin Yuan has found that many older locals and migrants are illiterate and they are mostly interested in a phone that can meet the basic functions of making and receiving calls. They are generally not interested in smartphones because they ‘don’t see the need’. Their need for the main functions of making and receiving calls plus the extra need for easier usage is reflected in the phones, which is called the ‘old people phone’, available in the industrial town at a very low price (around 300 RMB, equals to 30 pounds). This kind of mobile phone is designed for easy usage, buttons and screens are larger, the screen itself is not cluttered with graphics, the phone also allows for two SIM cards, there is a clear SOS button, which calls the number of the person’s choosing if they need to reach them urgently and the incoming call alert is particularly loud (see figure above). The phone also doesn’t need to be charged as often as a regular phone, battery life can last up to a month as older people here tend to associate the phone with a landline telephone, which remains plugged in and doesn’t need to be charged. Yet, in Trinidad, there are very few phones especially for older people on offer. Landline phones with larger numbers can still be found, but mobile phone shops cater more for younger customers, they have all sorts of ‘fad’ phones on offer, of different colors and camera functions to upload photos directly onto SNSs and the newest iPhones, Samsung Galaxies and Blackberries dominate display cabinets.

More so, older people in Xin Yuan’s field site don’t seem to have the desire to make friends beyond their immediate living areas, where they keep mainly face-to-face communication. Xin Yuan suggests that this reflects the old saying that “yuanqin buru jinlin” (close neighbours are better than faraway relatives), perhaps because it is only their neighbors that they would turn to for day to day support, which they can’t rely on faraway relatives for. It is a very pragmatic attitude towards social relationships, since one can only survive within a stable social network where they can turn for help in a tough ‘real life’ situation.

It is no surprise to find that the social networks of older people are more or less shrinking in both Jolynna and Xin Yuan’s field sites. Like China, Trinidad is an extremely family-oriented society, but there is more of a pattern that the elderly are engaged more in face-to-face relations with their immediate and extended families, unless their relatives live abroad. Children of the elderly visit very often, everyday or once every two days if they live nearby and at least in El Mirador, sociality for older people still resolves more around the town market place, which is a bustling hub on the weekends.

This project sought to explore social media through an anthropological lens, where, as Daniel Miller emphasized in an earlier post, context is everything. So far, in our respective field sites of a semi-urban town in Trinidad and an industrial town in China that is a hub for rural migrant workers; older people aren’t using social media as much as we might have thought. Social media doesn’t seem to be a priority for a demographic of people whose relationships are predominantly face-to-face in closer and more immediate circles of neighbours and family, perhaps in the face of smaller, more localised social networks or a lack of the need or desire to make and keep new friends.