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Social media, social distance, and inconsistency

RazvanNicolescu22 January 2014

Photo by Razvan Nicolescu.

Photo by Razvan Nicolescu.

This post is about what people in the Italian fieldsite feel their peers should not do on social media.

Here is a fragment from an interview with a 18 year old student on an issue that was mentioned in different ways by most of the teenagers I talked to:

‘What I don’t like [about Facebook] is… these guys who pretend [on Facebook] they are completely different than how they really are [in realtà]. For example, there are some who [at school] don’t talk to anybody, they are all alone (…) and on Facebook they talk a lot, they talk a lot about themselves, how nice they are, they friend up with many people, they ‘Like’ so many things (…) and in reality they don’t even say ‘hello’… there is this girl, she just passes along without saying anything to you…’

These teenagers are not necessarily complaining about either of these two contrasting attitudes of the person, but rather the difference between the two attitudes. Most of the teenagers I talked to think that the most annoying issues they are exposed to on social media are related to a sort of inconsistency between online and offline presence. They seem to not mind if some of their peers are distant or not very social offline, and not even if some are ‘over-social’ and extremely creative online; rather, they sense an inadequacy whenever they see contrasting behaviours in each of the two worlds, that are not justified or explained somehow. At the same time, the attitude of some teenagers and young people to refuse joining any social media seems to be accepted and sometimes even appreciated.

To give this discussion more context, it is important to note that among teenagers and young people in the Italian fieldsite, Facebook is by far the most used social networking site and WhatsApp is by far the most used mobile app. The two platforms rather complete each other: young people think Facebook is a more resilient tool to present oneself and to communicate with a larger set of peers, while WhatsApp is thought as being appropriate for more transient communication within smaller and more intimate peer-groups such as family and close friends. Additionally, there are several other Internet sites and applications which provide these platforms with multimedia content, most notably YouTube and online photo editors such as PicMonkey, iPiccy, or piZap.

The quote above expresses the common thought that people should be true to their peers on social media, or at least not confuse them too much. But it is also true that teenagers expect confusion and excitement on social media. But they feel that this kind of confusion should come from people who also adopt these attitudes in the classroom or on the streets. Most of the users of social media explore the myriad of options available online and their own creativity in order to strengthen various parts of their personalities. Very often social media is not an extension, but an enabler, or a way of promoting the self that is considered acceptable in each particular community. This is the reason why, for example, when a couple breaks up the most violent manifestations are happening online rather than offline. By removing an ex-lover from the list of online friends and thoroughly reconsidering each of their mutual friends one has to objectify the split in ways that in the offline world are considered either unnecessary or ‘natural’. In another post I will write about the effort people put in translating the ‘natural’, and what this means, into the online environment. For now, my point is simply that while on one hand this process is admired in different ways, on the other, people who appear online in ways that seem to have no equivalent or justification in the offline word are highly sanctioned.

This also represents a critique to the sort of literature and public discourses that judge changes brought by social media in terms of fundamental shifts from a pre-existing cultural logic. This kind of discourse was repeated in different ways for the advent of mobile telephony, the Internet, web-based applications and services, and indeed for describing other similar ‘revolutions’ such as the invention of the printing press, modern public transportation, or television. At least from this ethnography it seems that people just do not fit too easy into this model.

Chinese ‘WeChat’ social media app will make the world look around and shake!

TomMcDonald22 April 2013

A WeChat user gets ready to Shake (Photo: Tom McDonald)

A WeChat user gets ready to Shake (Photo: Tom McDonald)

Two years is a long time in the world of social media. This point has been reinforced to me multiple times in the last few weeks since my return to China. When I was in the country carrying out research for my PhD in 2011, no-one in my fieldsite was talking about WeChat (威信 weixin). Now it seems to be the primary social media app for many.

WeChat is a free smartphone app made by Tencent, the enormous Chinese company that also created QQ. However users do not have to have a QQ account to use it, it is also possible to sign up with a mobile phone number or email address. It is undoubtable that part of WeChat’s popularity has been made possible by the increasing availability of low cost smartphones. The other reason for it’s popularity is the free messaging and sharing of photos that is more akin to Facebook’s smartphone offerings, and is attractive to users because it allows them to circumvent the Chinese telecom company’s expensive text messaging rates.

However our research project aims to go beyond the normal economic or utilitarian explanations about why one platform replaces another that you might read on other technology blogs. Instead we want to use social media to glimpse something about what such changes can tell us about how human beings make social relations. Two features of WeChat are especially relevant in this case.

The first feature is called Look Around (附近的人 fujin de ren), and is actually quite similar in functionality to FourSquare or Grindr in that it potentially connects strangers who are close to each other. It uses a smartphone’s location-based services (GPS) to list all the people nearby also using the app.

Another notable function is Shake (摇一摇 yaoyiyao). Here the user shakes their mobile phone, and the built in motion-sensor in the device detects this movement, immediately displaying a list of users on the network who have shaken their phone at the same moment, regardless of the their location.

These features are notable in that many recent writings on Chinese social relationships emphasise the importance of guanxi, a network of relations that one builds and maintains throughout one’s life. Such accounts frequently emphasise personal connections, and as such being an ‘outsider’ in any society in China without any connections can make it particularly difficult to accomplish even the smallest task.

By contrast, both Look Around and Shake emphasise making friends with complete strangers. This model of social networking seems to also chime with Stafford’s (2000) description of a Chinese view of social relationships as something that is constantly in flux. The degree of uptake of these two features on the app, and by who in our fieldsites, remains to be seen.

The final thing of note with regard to WeChat is that, with this app, Tencent has set it’s sights on a more worldwide audience than ever before, with versions in multiple languages. It will be fascinating to see over the course of our research project whether WeChat will make the rest of the world look around and shake, and if it does, what this will mean for social relations.

Categorising relationships through QQ’s friend lists, or, the problem of where to put one’s wife?

TomMcDonald26 March 2013

A list of a user's different groups of friends on QQ's Instant Messaging client (Photo: Tom McDonald)

A list of a user’s different groups of friends on QQ’s Instant Messaging client (Photo: Tom McDonald)

Listing the social connections of a research participant is a somewhat foundational methodological tool for any anthropologist. In times gone by, the ethnographer was expected to head off into the tropics, preferably dressed entirely in white, to painstakingly assemble kinship diagrams that indicated how members of a particular group were related to each other.

China’s most popular social networking service, QQ, is particularly notable in this respect, because it’s instant messaging client, in the same manner as a somewhat uncouth anthropologist interrogating his participants, forces users to categorise relationships by assigning their online friends to specific groups.

The above photo provides an example of a male office worker in his early 30s living in a small city in China. The names of the groups are as follows. The number of friends assigned to each group are included in brackets

  • My friends 我的好友 (99)
  • Highschool classmates 高中同学 (50)
  • Friends and colleagues 朋友同事 (30)
  • University classmates 大学同学 (45)
  • Wife 老婆 (1)
  • Universal (this is a pun where the user has replaced the one of the characters with a synonym that means ‘auspicious’) 普吉 (10)
  • Enterprise good friends 企业好友 (1)
  • Strangers 陌生人 (82)
  • Blacklist 黑名单 (0)

It should be noted that the ‘My friends’, ‘Strangers’ and  ‘Black list’ are all default categories for the instant messaging client, although users are able to rename them if they wish. Although it is too early to draw any firm conclusions about how the Chinese are categorising relationships at this stage, I would expect that we will see groups of school classmates to be a common theme throughout our participants. This perhaps tells us something about the importance of education in China and the endurance of classmate bonds throughout life.

Also of interest is the number of ‘Strangers’ who have added themselves to this person. I think this will emerge as another important theme as ur research progresses, and it leads me to believe that the friending of strangers might be an important element that distinguishes QQ from western social media platforms.

A final note on the exceptional category ‘Wife’. The fact that this user dedicates an entire list to his spouse may well set him apart as a ‘model husband’ (mofan zhangfu 模范丈夫), but perhaps it could also be indicative of the fact that he doesn’t know where to put his wife amongst all his other friends? I recall an incident from my previous research in China, when one of my informants, upon adding me as a QQ friend, realised that he didn’t have a suitable list to put me in, so after much deliberation, he created a new list, populated solely by me, called ‘Foreigners’.

Maybe I should have stuck with the white outfit after all.