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The Future of Facebook: What will we learn from the study of Chinese social media?

Xin Yuan Wang29 January 2014

Image courtesy of emreterok, Creative Commons

Image courtesy of emreterok, Creative Commons

China is a dreadful desert to Western social media giants such as Facebook and Twitter, however it is a tropical rainforest to many local species. It is curious to note that even though none of the participants in my field site use, or have even heard of Facebook or Twitter, the way they use Chinese social media such as QQ and WeChat provides an interesting parallel to the way UK teenagers in Danny’s study differentiate a range of social media in their daily life, even though as social media QQ, or WeChat are both significantly different from Facebook.

Among certain groups of Chinese people, like teenagers, QQ seems to be in stasis. For teens with relatively high education and social status that are more willing to try something new and urban middle-class, QQ is not cool at all, just as what Danny reported about Facebook in his previous blog article. It is not rare to find people who have used QQ for more than 10 years in China given QQ started to become popular almost 15 years ago. In fact, QQ could be considered Facebook’s predecessor and to some extent through the study of QQ’s development in China we may ‘foretell’ what will happen in ‘Facebook land’ in the future. Many of my participants have told me that around 10 years ago, QQ represented the coolest thing about urban life because rural migrants who came back to their village during Chinese New Year showed off that they had a QQ account in front of their stunned fellow villagers. After 10 years, when almost half of the Chinese population have QQ accounts, QQ numbers rather than mobile phone numbers are exchanged most frequently as  permanent contact details (it is reported that people change their mobile phone much more frequently than their QQ account). QQ has lost its association with trendy or cool things, especially for urban Chinese people who want to escape from the ‘hustle and bustle’ QQ land which somehow has been associated with rural Chinese. On one hand, some people report that they use QQ less and less in recent years since Wechat’s audio message is more fun and convenient, and WeChat seems to be more in line with urban life. Some report that their closest friends and frequent contacts all moved to WeChat. On the other hand, people admitted that they would always come back to QQ when they wanted to catch up with long-lost relationships, such as old classmates or previous colleagues. As one informant put it, those contacts “didn’t move to other social media,” but remain in the “old home” of QQ. Those contacts may also have started using WeChat or other social media, but from my participants’ perspectives, they ‘belong’ to QQ. These friends may not have updated their social media details because of sparse communication, or are regarded a part of ‘past old days’ in one’s mind and QQ is the PLACE to go.

That is to say, people didn’t quit QQ because of their engagement with other social media. Rather, QQ survives time and thus obtains a ‘senior’ status, something like an old friend who has witnessed one’s ups-and-downs in life even though they may only meet once a year. QQ may also be regarded like one’s birthplace, which my rural migrant informants only visit during Chinese new year but always remains as one of the most import places in their lives. People don’t dump QQ, but keep it, and use it in a different way.

So the quick conclusion is QQ seems to be in stasis among certain groups of people not because of ‘being QQ’, but because of the law of ‘nature’ – here let me call this the nature of social media. And it also makes sense if one replaces “QQ” by “Facebook” in this argument.

And what is the nature of social media? You may need a bit more patience to read through the following academic ‘block’ to get a clearer picture:

First, stuff becomes more than the material after being used by people. For example the pen from your passed-away grandpa is to you by no means equal to any other pen which was produced on the same factory assembly line. If we have to use jargon, we call the process ‘objectification’ where an object consumed by people is domesticated and becomes part of the person and their relationship to others. That is where material culture starts, and the context in which we study digital technology. Digital technology, as a form of material, is no more sophisticated or mediated than any other object in terms of the relationship between material and human beings. Having said that, however, it is worthwhile to highlight the uniqueness of social media in the way that social media show the relationship between the digital and social relationship in a more visible and obvious way. That is to say, without people’s engagement and usage, social media is next to nothing. In a way, ‘Facebook’ and ‘QQ’ are only half finished goods before being used by people. Social media is produced through the consumption, as the terminology ‘prosumption’ suggested. Thus, it is safe to say social media is highly entangled with the ‘self’ and personal relationship to the degree that it somehow grows with the person and has its own life (Gell’s theory of ‘agency’ also shed light on this argument).

Furthermore, the concept of ‘polymedia’ describes another feature of social media. Each social media platform finds its niche in specific personal relationships and people take moral responsibility for their choice of different social media. In the case of ‘Facebook’, as Danny suggested, at the moment when people got friend request from their mother, the social medium is transformed into a family-orientated place rather than the place where people share secrets with their close friends. Also the concept ‘remediation’  helps to illustrate the way how certain social media (like QQ and Facebook) become ‘old’ because of the development of other social media. Dialectically, there is no so-called old or new social media without the comparison with others, that is to say people tend to re-define certain social media in the context of polymedia.

Even though my research is still unfinished, let me ‘jump to the conclusion’ and put my incomplete version of ‘the nature of social media’ here: First, social media as a social agent grow with the person and own their own lives. Second, social media were applied and valued by people in a context of polymedia.

Having discussed the nature of social media, then, let’s go back to my argument from the beginning – QQ seems to be in stasis among certain group of people not because of ‘being QQ’, but because of the law of ‘nature’, and so does Facebook. It is important to not treat social media as functional technology like we would computers. In terms of technology, new social media are not more advanced than pre-existing ones. It makes sense to say that today’s computers have taken the place of the early bulky computer, whereas we can’t say that a certain social medium is dead completely because its users turn to new ones and use others more actively. The situation in practice is like the way people treat friendship and the attitude toward one’s birthplace. From time to time, my participants in this Chinese town used “old friend” or “lao jia” (hometown) to describe their QQ profiles. For some of them, the usage of WeChat is more frequent and active than the usage of QQ. They report and I have observed that WeChat is more for recent contacts one meets in face-to-face situations, and generally speaking closer friends in a smaller circle. QQ on the other hand is used to keep up with all kinds of friends, acquaintances, and communities (QQ offers a group function, such as ‘class group’  used in one middle school) that one has accumulated over a relatively long term. In some cases QQ has become some people’s digital legacy where they keep the ‘silly self’ of 10 years ago. As one of my informants said she won’t use QQ to communicate with her new friends anymore since “on QQ you will encounter a little girl of 10 years ago”, however it is always good to view that ‘self’ in the past as it remains alive on QQ. QQ has become the PLACE, the legacy. Each generation, each human being owns their own history, and in the digital age, social media have become the place people store their history, and where old friends and memory dwell. I have witnessed it already in the usage of QQ among Chinese people and I don’t see any reason why Facebook will not follow suit.

Finally, the findings in China, with the absence of Facebook, actually reinforced our essential argument that the study of digital anthropology and this GSMIS project go beyond specific usage of a certain social medium. Social media usage is the point of entrance which allows our digital anthropologists to look into, understand and interpret the social relationship and the relationship between people and technology in different cultures and societies in the digital age.

Time to face your own voice: voice messaging on Chinese social media

Xin Yuan Wang18 December 2013

By Xinyuan Wang and Tom McDonald

A WeChat user recording a voice message to send to another user (Photo by Tom McDonald)

A WeChat user recording a voice message to send to another user (Photo by Tom McDonald)

Both Tom and Xinyuan noticed that ‘sending voice messages’ (fa yuyin) via Chinese social media platforms WeChat and QQ was very popular in both our north and south China fieldsites. Their informants kept talking about the ability to leave voice messages using these platforms.

WeChat was the first to introduce the ability to ‘send voice messages’ in its app. This simply involves navigating to the chat screen of the person you wish to send a message to, and then pushing on the record button. This activates the microphone, you speak your message, and then you release the button. The message is then sent to the recipient, and appears as a speech bubble with a loudspeaker symbol amongst the ordinary dialogue (see figure). The recipient has to press the loudspeaker symbol to play the message.

Informants in both sites have reported that they found voice messaging to be convenient as it eliminates the need to text. In both sites many of our participants reported that they found sending written messages always takes a longer time, and that inputting Chinese characters was a struggle.

Besides functional advantages of WeChat voice message, it is curious to note that people have developed a strategy of appropriating WeChat voice message in terms of personal expression and relationship negotiation. For example, people believe that voice message is more personal. Many of our informants agreed that voice messages are not suitable for sending to everyone. One of Tom’s informants hinted that sending voice messages would only be appropriate for people who were quite close. Another, a young female office worker, explained that her online communication with her previous boyfriend predominantly featured voice messages. Especially to close friends and lovers, voice messages appear to express much more emotions than text-based channels.

Also the intonations of voice message matters a lot and help to make things clearer. In some cases, voice message somehow contributes to a better quality conversation. For instance, instead of sending a text message to her boyfriend saying she felt tired and sick, one of Xinyuan’s informants chose to send voice message, which really ‘sounds’ very weak and sick. Another participant showed Xinyuan how to use voice messaging in order to make a ‘white lie’ to a friend since, compared to phone call, one is more able to control one’s emotion and intonation using voice messaging. Similarly, people in Tom’s site reported that compared to phone calls, voice messaging offered the advantage of being able to ‘take one’s words back’ thanks to a feature that, if one is not satisfied with the recording, one is able to delete the voice message before sending it.  It seems that people have realised that some serious arguments from phone calls were actually caused by a wrong word or improper intonation.

It is also curious to note that the majority of young women in Xinyuan’s site reported that they actually listened to their own voice messages after sending them off. Many expressed surprise at hearing the sound of their own voice since most of them felt somewhat strange about it in the beginning since “it doesn’t sound at all like my voice!”. Scientifically speaking, the reason for such discrepancy is because when people speak they hear their own voice in two different ways – one through the outside sound waves, which also hit other people’s ears, and the other one through the inner bony skull which actually polishes one’s voice with ‘a false sense of bass’.  However, for us it is also interesting to look at the social consequences of hearing one voice regularly. Apparently, people became more aware of their own voice while using voice message. And women (around 80% to 90%) appeared more aware of their voice since fewer male users (around 30% to 40%) told Xinyuan that they regularly listen to their own voice using voice messages.

It should be noted that unlike Europe or America, where there has been a long history of leaving voice messages thanks to the prevalence of the telephone answering machine, Chinese homes have rarely bought the units. Although the country’s mobile phone providers have started offering voicemail capabilities, there has always been an additional charge for the service, meaning take up has always been low. As such before WeChat introduced voice messaging the practice of talking to machines just hasn’t existed for most Chinese.

This asynchronous voice messaging represents quite a major change in the way that people communicate, moving from sending messages consisting of Chinese characters or emoticons to sending messages that are primarily aural. But it also raises important questions, such as: Does voice messaging in a way function as a self-training process in terms of speech skill? Or does it contribute to people’s self-recognition through social interaction? And does the effect of voice messaging vary with relation to gender?

In Miller and Sinanan’s recent Webcam book, the authors noticed that one of the important features of the webcam is that it effectively acts as a mirror, allowing many people their first ever opportunity to see themselves whilst in conversation. It is interesting to note that a similar novel state of communication is taking place in the case of voice messaging among Chinese users that people could actually listen to themselves during the daily communication for the first time. In both sites of China, we found that even though people started to apply voice message mainly because of its functional affordance, they ended up with a new consciousness of their voice as something one can creatively craft in order to send.

Yes, there are few things harder than facing yourself. Like it or not, it seems that social media in a way has ‘pushed’ us to know more about ourselves and our social relationships. And for many in China this means it may be time to face their own voice.

‘Work-bound’ people and digital travel

Xin Yuan Wang4 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.

Tencent news: in-app news delivery in QQ and WeChat

Tom McDonald24 October 2013

Newspapers arrive at the town's Post Office for delivery to local homes and businesses (Photo by Tom McDonald)

Newspapers arrive at the town’s Post Office for delivery to local homes and businesses (Photo by Tom McDonald)

One of the aims of our research is to understand the connection between politics and social media. Before we started our fieldwork we had envisaged this topic would largely revolve around how people made posts relating to specific stories in the news or shared news articles on their own Facebook pages. However, once again, China has surprised us in how different its social media is from it’s Western counterparts. People tend to refrain from making lots of public comments about news online, but both QQ and WeChat’s mobile applications (both made by Tencent) are set up by default to deliver national news items to their user’s mobile devices, with these items appearing in-between other conversations users are having with their friends.

The 'recent conversations' screen in the QQ iPhone app. The fourth contact down (showing the QQ 'penguin' icon surrounded by a tri-coloured circle) is the QQ news centre

The ‘recent conversations’ screen in the QQ iPhone app. The fourth contact down (showing the QQ ‘penguin’ icon surrounded by a tri-coloured circle) is the QQ news centre

The news to each of these in-app news services is written and delivered by the Tencent News centre. Both apps receive three new reports daily, normally containing four stories in each post, and the user receives on-screen notifications when they arrive. Occasionally, especially significant news stories may be afforded their own individual posts.

In general, the news that appears in these stories tends to be middle-brow, and written in quite accessible language, remaining largely free of the formal news about diplomatic meetings and official  language that tends to dominate the main closely government-controlled national news sources such as the  evening TV News Simulcast (Xinwen Lianbo) and People’s Daily. Instead, Tencent’s in-app news consists mostly of stories focusing on a mixture of criminal cases, ongoing government corruption investigations, sex scandals, and scientific discoveries.

It would be easy to view all Chinese media as a propaganda tool, and an extension of the government, and this is the kind of statement that is often repeated by Western media outlets. However, one of the strengths of the ethnographic approach of our fieldwork is that instead of only analysing the content of  social media, we also compare this to how normal people in our fieldsites actually use and talk about these platforms themselves. When I spoke to one of my participants in our China North fieldsite about the in-app news feature I asked him whether he thought the function might have been included at the government’s bequest. He said he didn’t think the government would have forced Tencent to add the in-app news function to their chat tool. Instead, he argued that it was probably the fact that Tencent thought that the news would ‘attract people’ and that they would find it ‘interesting’.

From here in this small town in North China, it is impossible to know exactly what decisions are made faraway in the Tencent News centre. Nonetheless, QQ and WeChat’s in-app news feature has become a particularly significant — if not the main — way in which national news is now consumed for many people who own a smartphone in the town. But also this marks a fundamental change from having to ask for news through ordering the newspaper, or turning on the television, to having the news delivered to your device without requesting it, often appearing as if it were a message from a friend.

QQ & WeChat: a threat to marriage in China?

Tom McDonald24 September 2013

Photo by flowcomm (Creative Commons)

Photo by flowcomm (Creative Commons)

Writing in the 1970s, Margery Wolf noted the pressures faced by rural Chinese women when they married. Women would typically leave their home village, where they were well cared for by their own family, and move into their husband’s village. As outsiders in this new place, women were positioned at the very bottom of society. They had no social network and were faced with the very difficult task of having to form social connections with other women in the village who they believed they could trust in order to survive.

This old social phenomenon has taken a somewhat different spin with the advent of new social media in the small town and villages that make up our North China fieldsite. I have noticed that many women report their communication networks get smaller in adulthood. Particularly worth emphasising is that in many of the responses to our questionnaires, young women told me that they moved away from social networking once they got married. I have a hunch this may have something to do with important aspects of female morality and forms of exclusion from the public sphere. For example, it was very rare for women in our fieldsite to use their own photos as their avatars or in their QZone profiles, and many women practiced ‘locking’ access to some or all of their QZone albums (QZone does not offer the same fine-grained privacy controls seen in Facebook) with a security question to test their familiarity, such as ‘What is my name?’.

One such example came from Mrs Hu, a 30 year old married woman with a young son, who runs a shop in the town. She explained to me that social media use carries with it certain dangers. There was an occasion when one of her male ‘online friends’ (wangyou) sent her a QQ message saying: ‘I have changed a QQ number, add my other QQ number.’ She asked him why he wanted her to add the other number [havng a second QQ account can be a cause for suspicion]. He replied that it was ‘because my wife knows’ (yinwei wo laopo zhidao). She explained to me that this made her angry, because she had never met the man, and she told me she sent the man a message saying ‘I have no special connections with you, what does it matter if your wife knows?’. Following this occasion, she became far more careful with who she became friends with via social media, and even went to the trouble of reassigning the gender of her QQ and WeChat profiles to male in an effort to detract male strangers from ‘friending’ her.

While women in the town have tended to opt to more carefully control who they communicate with following marriage, and to limit their visibility on social networks, the situation is somewhat different for men – instead we tend to see a larger amount of social networking and media use amongst men once they get married.

Part of this may be down to a traditional expectation that men are supposed to earn money for the family, and therefore be spend more time outside home. There is a saying in Chinese that ‘women live on the inside, and men live on the outside’ (nv zhu nei, nan zhu wai). There is a common perception in my fieldsite that men need ‘connections’ (guanxi) and a wider set of connections in order to achieve this. Men are expected to be somewhat more ‘overtly expansive’ in relationships than women.

This is where social media comes in. It is becoming clear to me that one of the main differences between Chinese social media (QQ, WeChat) and their non-Chinese counterparts (Facebook, Twitter, etc) is that the Chinese social media appears to be much more strongly oriented towards making new friends, especially with strangers. However, as well as this fitting into the accepted ideal of socially extravert males, it also seems to be conducive to extra-marital affairs.

An example of this comes from Mr Wang, also in his thirties. I had heard from others that Wang was a particularly ‘chaotic’ person. One day I bumped into him sitting and chatting in a store. We became friends and added each other via WeChat’s ‘shake’ (yao-yi-yao) function. He told me that he only uses WeChat during the day, and avoids using it at night-time. “If my wife knows I use WeChat she will smash my phone” he told me with a smile.

In a society as concerned with marriage as China, it goes without saying that social media is having an enormous impact in transforming this social institutions. The two cases I have provided here are extreme ones, but I would say that here in the North China fieldsite many people seem to believe that social media can be especially damaging to marriage. Perhaps this is most forcefully proved by the fact that relatively few of our participants seem to communicate with their spouses via social media, instead preferring to call or even more rarely, text.

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

Tom McDonald22 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.

Strategies of scarcity and supply: water and bandwidth

Tom McDonald24 July 2013

The water tankered makes a delivery (Photo: Tom McDonald)

The water tankered makes a delivery (Photo: Tom McDonald)

Fieldwork normally involves bearing some hardships, however I never thought that at the start of my research in China that water would have been an issue of concern here. Nor did I consider that it might be able to tell us something about social networking use.

I was surprised, then, when I found out that the urban town area of the fieldsite has not had a piped water supply for the past year.

This situation is slightly ridiculous when one considers that there is a large, well-stocked reservoir two kilometres distance from the town.

reservoir-lake

According to some local residents, the problems started last year when workmen dug up the pipe in order to lay the new, wide asphalt road that runs north-south through the town.

For the past year, the town’s government have been paying for two water bowsers and four people to collect water from the neighbouring town and deliver it here once every two days. The only perk to the current situation is that because the service is so poor, the government provides the water free of charge.

Not having a regular water service makes life really tough. Limitations in water supply provoke people to clearly prioritise the things that they must do against the things that they would perhaps like to do. People’s houses are awash with buckets and tankards for storing water. Water for cooking or for dinking tends to come before, say, washing clothes or having a shower. Similar coping mechanisms and prioritizing seem to exist for internet use.

I think the case of the limited water supply is also useful for thinking about the way some people experience social media and the internet seen here in China. I was really drawn to the paper Blanchette gave at the UCL Department of Anthropology a couple of years ago where he outlined A Material History of Bits, making very clear the physical limitations of the digital, in contradiciton to how we sometimes assume it to be a potentially ‘unlimited’ object. I would say this is made almost even more clear in the China North fieldsite where the actual amount of bandwidth available becomes patently obvious for people in the same way as water does.

The internet does have it’s specificities though: one of the clear things that is coming out of our surveys is the significance of different modes of access and I think there are analogies to be made between the ways villagers cope with limitations imposed upon them in terms of various resources and their often incredibly lofty aspirations of what they wish to achieve.

The vast majority of our informants (over three-quarters) were China Mobile customers. While those who travelled regularly with work and business tended to have packages that afforded larger bandwidth allowances, and roaming outside of the province, the remaining half of these customers had packages that severely limited the mobile access that they had to the internet. These were normally packages that varied in cost between 10–20 RMB per month, offering between 30–70 megabyte bandwidth allowance respectively.

How was this experienced in people’s everyday lives? Just like with water, people developed clear and intelligent strategies in order to prioritise which things they believed to be essential. One lady in a village, explained that she had the 30 megabyte bandwidth package for 5 RMB a month said that she tended to only use QQ on her phone, because if she used both QQ and WeChat she would go over her limit, and all her friends were on QQ.

Others sometimes failed to understand the concept that there were distinct limits to the amount of bandwidth and resources available. A young man working in the town explained that he once watched a streamed movie with his girlfriend using his phone, without realizing that doing that would push him over the bandwidth limit. He had to pay 200RMB for the single month’s bill. He explained to me that he didn’t know about it, and wondered why he hadn’t just paid for his girlfriend to go to the cinema with him, at least that way he wouldn’t have strained his neck, he joked.

For others, they developed ways to get around such restrictions using their existing connections. One of the town’s young male hairdressers, joked to his friend that he willing to allow his assistant to pay his own phone bill in order to remove the block on his phone. The manager of a photocopying shop in the town used his connections in China Unicom (he was an authorized reseller/top-up point) to get a very low-cost 2G phone card (around 10RMB per month) that allowed him virtually free nationwide calls, and then relied on the broadband internet connection in his shop, which he spent most of every day in anyway.

While readers in the west are typically used to very generous bandwidth allowances offered by telecoms companies, it is important to remember that here in China, economic constraints such as bandwidth remain a very real barrier to social networking use for many. In this sense, we can see links with Shriram’s previous blog post where he mention’s electricity cuts as a major challenge facing people in his fieldsite. These regimes of shortages create economies where peoople may have to make difficult decisions about who they will communicate with, and how they will communicate with them.

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

Tom McDonald22 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.