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Using social media for teaching social media

TomMcDonald2 February 2015

QQ icon in dock on Mac

QQ: China is just a click away (Photo: Tom McDonald)

This term our research team has been teaching a completely new Master’s module on the Anthropology of Social Media at UCL, with many of the students taking the module being from our fantastic MSc in Digital Anthropology.

In addition to incorporating the results from our own research in each of our fieldsites into our teaching, the students have been doing their own research on social media through mini-practicals taking place every week.

Last week, I wanted the students to experience QQ themselves, to get a feel for the platform, and to get a chance to see and think about how Chinese people interact on these platforms. In order to do this they joined a QQ Group and had a chance to communicate with English-speaking Chinese students in Beijing.

It was really interesting to see the two groups interact – albeit in very different ways – and it seemed from our conversations in the seminars that many people found examining the differences between QQ and non-Chinese social media platforms a useful starting point to think about Chinese practices in communication, social relationships and culture.

The ideal of education and social networking sites

RazvanNicolescu26 February 2014

Schoolroom - Photo by Gerry Balding (Creative Commons)

Schoolroom – Photo by Gerry Balding (Creative Commons)

I have spend quite a while now looking at the impact of social media on the education system in the Italian fieldsite. This blog post will present a few ideas related to the place of education in the local society and some implications for social media.

People in this area conceive education as being the duty of two major institutions: the family and the public education system. While the family is responsible with the moral aspects of education, the different public education services seem to have more functional roles for the individual and the family. Maybe the most important role is considered to be the capacity of public education system to help people attain the desired jobs and social positions.

In a report on education I wrote for the GSMIS I discussed how this works differently at three levels: at the first level we have the hard nucleus of family, represented in many ways through the distinct couple mother-children. At this level, I suggested that public education could be seen as a commodity even if for different reasons that could range from the need to reify the mother-children unity and assure particular relationships within household for more traditional families to a necessary milestone on the road to acquiring a certain sense of self-autonomy in the more progressist families.

At another level, we have the local community where public education is to a great extent still a matter of family in which the role of the teacher or master is usually considered either in terms of the existing social relations within the community or in relation to a bigger ideal of the family. The third level is represented by the region and the state. It is at this level where people could start to say that things are not really working or the forces that play at this level are so powerful and remote so that you have no means to really change or move something.

Social networking sites have an interesting role here as they seem to articulate a sort of vehicle for people to relate to the bigger social issues. Most people use this mostly to make fun of a status-quo that nobody seems to be able to change. Social activists and people involved in politics could use the power of memes and other content on social media to try to send their messages to the higher level of the state in different ways that could be violent in many ways: from the daily accusations of corruption, derision of the public education system, to the realpolitik practised by some important politicians in close relation to social media. Many supporters of such kind of social media violence claim that the only way to change the systems or ‘mentalities’ is to react in a way that could not be ignored by authorities and should determine some reaction.

I will not detail these issues here, I will just mention a few thoughts on social media use among adult people with high education. One of the main things these people are most interested in on social media is to relate to their ex-colleagues or friends from University. This is true especially as most of the people who followed University studies in North Italy remained to live there at least a few years after finishing their studies and before returning to their hometown. The time spent away from home could typically be anywhere between 6 and 10 years, when they tried mainly to find a workplace or to start a family. The main reason for which the majority of 30-40 years old returned to their hometown is related to the fact that they found at least one of these two ideals difficult – either to attain at all or to preserve.

At the same time, recent data from the Italian Ministry of Public Education show that Italians under 35 years of age are by far the least able to find a job. Therefore, it seems that these people returned home just a few years before having a greater chance to find work. As most of these people lack economic resources within the family, their chances of obtaining a job in their hometown is even lower than in the bigger cities from where they returned. At the same time, most of them are not and do not want to take part in the local network of exchanging favours. As a consequence, a sociologist works as a part-time waiter, an engineer seasonally performs as a singer, and many others just do not look for a job anymore. In this context, for them social media responds primarily to their need to relate to the values they share with their ex-colleagues and friends from elsewhere rather than to the local community.

This is similar to Danny’s suggestion that for adult people the use of social networking sites seems to be related to a certain nostalgia and memorization. In this case, nostalgia is related to the ideal of Italian society rather than that of the local society, to its delights and difficulties, and the personal attempts to overcome these.

To conclude, if education acts in different ways at these levels it seems that individuals find themselves in less difficult situations when they do not cut the links between the levels. If high education could be in contradiction with many of the implications of family and local education, social networking sites allow highly educated adults to live locally and relate to distant values. The local tradition of learning a practical skill through apprenticeship has been really challenged by the insistence of the numerous Italian governments and European Union that state education system should respond to the request of labour market. In this context, social networking sites tend to work not upward towards the job market and the political economy but towards the individual need to live locally, which includes relating to ideals that are often in contrast local ones.

QQ and education: children, parents, and schools and communication in China

TomMcDonald22 August 2013

'Summer Holiday Homework' textbook

Chinese textbook entitled ‘Summer Holiday Homework’ used by a middle school student in the North China fieldsite (Photo by Tom McDonald)

In the North China fieldsite, education makes a really neat contrast with Xinyuan’s case that she outlined in her earlier blog post, where she described how the migrant factory workers in her South China fieldsite often seemed to be having children specifically with the objective of sending them to factories at the earliest possible age.

The situation could not be more different here in North China, where education has presented itself as being an overwhelming priority for parents. Although people in the town and the surrounding villages are not in excruciating poverty, they are also by no means wealthy. Nonetheless, doing whatever they can to make sure that their child gets the best education seems to be at the front of parent’s minds. For example, here the summer holidays are not turned over the children’s play, as one may expect. Instead, many children attend tutoring classes (fudao ban). Most of the tutoring classes follow the normal school times of 8-11:30am and 2:30-5:30pm, except they take place an astonishing seven days a week.

Given the importance of educational achievement that parents place on their children, social media seems to play a role that would be best defined as somewhat antagonistic and contradictory to these educational aims. There is a discourse around QQ in the town that assumes it to be bad, and particularly threatening to children’s educational achievement of young people, and so it requires access to be restricted. This is then weighed against more practical benefits offered by the services that mean that they are in fact used by many student, parents and teachers alike.

One of the most common statements that emerged was that parents said their middle school children did not have QQ accounts or mobile phones. Almost every parent of children who did not have QQ or a phone would say ‘it affects study’ (yingxiang xuexi) as the reason for their children not having access to certain types of communication. For example, Mr Li bought a computer in the year 2003 when he was trying to make a go of his photography business. At this time Mr Li’s daughter was about 7 years old. Mr Li decided to setup a QQ account for his daughter. He saw that she was using it a lot and became worried she was playing too much, so he tried encourage his daughter to limit her own use, threatening to change the password if she did not comply. After two days Mr Li went to change the password, and realised it had already been changed. His daughter maintained that she hadn’t changed the password herself, saying to her father ‘hey, how can I not login?’. From this event Mr Li explained that he realised that young people caught on to new technologies very quickly.

Schools themselves also present a somewhat mixed set of messages regarding the use of social networking. Most obviously, the school rules prohibit the use of mobile phones. The reality is, of course, somewhat different. According to one middle school teacher, in a class of around 40 students, one might expect to find around 11 with telephones on their person. The most important reason for confiscating phones is the use of playing online games on phones or using it to send messages via QQ.

On the other hand, there were also examples of cases where schools had been incredibly pro-active in the creation of accounts. One parent explained their main reason for having a QQ account themselves was to hear from the school:

“I do not normally use QQ chat, I mainly use it for communicating with my child’s primary school teachers. My child has just started the second year of primary school, from the start of the first year, if teachers have some materials they just post it all on QQ, and you download it yourself.”

The final interesting twist to this story is that all this parental effort aimed at restricting young people’s access to QQ and mobiles is effectively then reversed when, at the relatively tender age of 15, most children leave home to read vocational college or high school in the nearby city district, about 20km away. This event changes a major part of parent’s views towards communication and it becomes more common for parents to condone the use of QQ or mobiles.

For example, Liu Ting has just finished her middle school examination, and has also managed to secure a place in the top high school in the nearby city. As a reward (jiangli) for her excellent results, her parents said they were going to give her 1000 RMB ($163 USD) cash. However her mother told us that Liu Ting said it was too much, so they came to a compromise of a 500 RMB ($81 USD) reward and a mobile phone for her to use when she started school in the city. Previously she had not been allowed the use of a phone.

These three quite contradictory examples all show different degrees of restriction or condoning of QQ and phone use, and reveal the nuances of shifting relationships between children parents and schools in China.

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.