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Archive for September, 2016

Life Within Social Media: Stories from Social Media in Industrial China

Alison Fox30 September 2016

Today’s guest blog is by Xinyuan Wang, author of Social Media in Industrial China

In recent decades China has witnessed the largest ever migration in human history. By 2015 the number of Chinese people who had left rural villages to work in factories and cities had risen to 277 million. If Chinese migrant workers were the population of a country, it would be the fourth largest in the world, and they are the human faces behind ‘Made-in-China’. While ‘Made-in-China’ products have become pervasive in our daily life, the people who produce them remain mysterious; however, a new open access book Social Media in Industrial China, reveals that Chinese factory workers actually exhibit an unexpected and sophisticated use of social media to bridge the gap between their rural roots and their industrial lives.

Xinyuan Wang, the author of the book, is a digital anthropologist from UCL who spent 15 months undertaking fieldwork in a small factory town in southeast China, living in one of the factories and tracking the use of social media. By studying this marginalized population, who have, in many ways, embraced the potential of social media to the fullest, this in-depth study sheds light not just on Chinese social media usage, but also on the nature of contemporary China.

Homeland on social media

Hua, a factory worker in her early 30s, has a strong emotional attachment to the beautiful mountain that frames her home village. During her periods as a factory worker, she misses her home village terribly. Her account on the Chinese social media platform QQ is rich in images of her home village; she has uploaded a large number of photographs of her home village into an album called ‘homeland’ (jiaxiang).

Curiously, however, when asked whether she plans to move back to her home village, Hua’s answer is always negative. As well as a lack of job opportunities there, she also feels that her exposure to modern China means that she can no longer go back to ’boring and backward’ country life.

Sometimes, when I felt sad or deflated, I will have a look at those photos … as if I visited my homeland,’ Hua said.

The homeland album is very popular among Chinese migrant workers, and most of them admitted that, even though they miss their home village, they felt unable to return after their exposure to the realities of modern China.

These rural migrants are often referred to as a ‘floating population’ — the hukou (household registration) policy implemented by the government means that they are unable to create a permanent home in the city. A consequence of this is that they are constantly looking for temporary employment, unable to settle in a single place. Hukou policy divides the Chinese population into rural or urban residents dependent on their place of birth and allocates social resources accordingly, which means rural migrants are unable to enjoy the social welfare benefits that their counterparts in cities receive.

Even when faced with rural-urban divide and severe social discrimination, rural migrants, especially the younger generation, still regard migrating to urban areas as the only way to participate in modern life, and rural life is seen as ‘backward’ and ‘boring’. In this situation, people’s attitude towards their homeland is very ambiguous.

Home village is a place you always miss, but not really a place you want to return to,’ as Hua said. Like Hua, many rural migrants see their home village more as a spiritual comfort than a practical option. On social media, all the bad memories and negative associations of village life and homeland seemed to be expunged, leaving only ideal, purified images that give people comfort. They may not be physically in the villages of their origin but, wherever the floating rural migrants are, they take their homeland with them.

However, homeland is not the only place that is rebuilt on social media. To many, social media is also where they actually live, as Xinyuan argues in her book.

Life outside the smartphone is unbearable

Lily, a 19-year-old factory girl, spends almost every single waking hour on QQ when she is working on the factory assembly line. Lily’s QQ profile is a stylish, curated space with lots of beautiful photos and pop music that she has collected online. Online, Lily is popular and she talks as if she were a princess who is waiting for true love: “In my life I have always dreamt about my true love. He will treat me very well, protect me from all the uncertainty, displacement, sadness, and loneliness. However, I always know that that person will never turn up.” However, Lily never talks in this manner offline.

Lily lives with her parents and younger brother and sister in a small factory town. They live in two small single rooms without heating, hot water or air conditioning; they share the only toilet with two other rural migrant families. In summer, when indoor temperatures regularly pass 38°C, the family wash themselves in the shared bathroom; a plastic bucket and washbasin function as a shower. The walls are heavily stained, and there is soiled toilet paper and stagnant water on the floor. In winter, when temperatures fall below freezing, the family head to a nearby public bath to shower once a week.

One day after work Lily was ‘working with’ her QQ via a smartphone, a Huawei model that she had purchased for 1,850 RMB (US$308). Captivated and absorbed by her ‘online world’, she eventually looked up and saw Xinyuan.

Life outside the mobile phone is unbearable, huh?’ Lily observed.

Lily’s insight forced Xinyuan to address the question that became central to her work in industrial China: where do people live? In this small factory town, Xinyuan has met many young rural migrants who have moved geographically closer to a modern China, but it appears that it is only online that they actually arrive there. For many migrant workers, social media has become the place where they can visualise and, in a way, achieve their aspiration towards modernity. On a wider scale, Xinyuan’s study witnessed not just rural-urban migration, but also a parallel migration from offline to online.

The study demonstrates the need to understand where people live, without assuming that the offline is necessarily more ‘real’ or more material. Whilst people in the West have become concerned about the authenticity of social connections on social media, for some migrant workers the situation is the opposite — it is online where they have found the most genuine relationships, even with strangers. The story of Feige, a 37-year-old forklift truck driver, presents a typical example.

‘Purer’ relationships on social media

Feige is a member of 15 QQ groups, though he only actively participates in three. Members of these groups are, on the whole, factory workers with backgrounds similar to Feige’s. Though he had never met the members of these groups offline, they seemed to know much more about him than his colleagues. Feige is extremely popular amongst his online friends. Members of the groups have great affection for him, finding him funny and smart, and always asking for his opinions on social events and news.

They [online friends] like me and talk with me because they really like me, not because I am rich so that they can borrow money from me, or I am powerful so that they can get a job from me. Here everything is much purer, without power and money involved,’ Feige explained.

Feige regards his online friendships as ‘purer’ (geng chun) than his offline relationships, as online there are no pragmatic concerns involved. That friendship on social media has been valued highly by Feige is not rare among rural migrants; for migrant workers such as him, who are often frustrated by their social status, social media provides new possibilities of sociality free from social hierarchy and discrimination.

It is on social media where Chinese migrant workers have experienced a real sense of ‘friendship’; in offline situations, kinship and regional relationships, such as between fellow villagers, are dominant. It is interesting to note that, rather than being the threat to privacy that many in the Western world perceive, social media has actually increased the experience of privacy for most migrant workers. In an environment where offline private space is usually limited, and any effort of avoiding the public gaze can be misinterpreted and stigmatized as an attempt to cover something shameful, the online world offers people much needed personal space and freedom.

The stories of Lily and Feige are just two examples from Social Media in Industrial China; Xinyuan’s field work provides many more absorbing accounts of how social media impacts the lives of rural migrants. Using these real-life tales as a basis, the book illustrates the social media landscape in China and explores the impact of social media on people’s lives. From personal development, social relationships, gender and education, to commerce, privacy, ancestor and deity worshipping and political participation, many of Xinyuan’s discoveries challenge the West’s perception of both China and its inhabitants, explaining why it is time to reassess exactly what we think we know about China and the evolving role of social media.

About Xinyuan Wang

Xinyuan Wang is a PhD candidate at the Dept. of Anthropology at UCL. She obtained her MSc from the UCL’s Digital Anthropology Programme. She is an artist in Chinese traditional painting and calligraphy. She translated (Horst and Miller Eds.) Digital Anthropology into Chinese and contributed a piece on Digital Anthropology in China. A fuller version of this piece appeared on Medium.

If you like what you’ve just read, then we’d recommend that you download Social Media in Industrial China by Xinyuan Wang which is available to download for free here.

Could you be our new Journals Manager?

Alison Fox19 September 2016

We’re searching for a dedicated Journals Manager to join our team! The role will look after our growing portfolio of open access scholarly journals, and will have  responsibility for acquiring new journals, acting as the main point of contact for journal editors, and overseeing all aspects of the production and promotion of UCL Press’s open access journals, including responsibility for managing hosting platforms. This varied role will also include responsibility for developing UCL Press’s growing student journals activity.

We are looking for someone with experience of acquiring and managing scholarly journals, who is seeking a challenging and a varied role at one of the UK’s leading universities. This is a rare opportunity to join a fantastic team who are incredibly knowledgeable, experienced and supportive, and really make an impact on the success of  our rapidly growing open access journals programme. The successful candidate will have a proven track record of  experience of acquiring new journals, building effective relationships with journal editors, and have a solid understanding of issues and trends in open access journal publishing. Applications close at 23:59 BST on 4th october 2016.

Please note that only information contained in the application form will be considered by the shortlisting panel therefore covering letters and CVs will not be accepted.

Call for submissions: The Radical Americas Journal

ucyllsp15 September 2016

The Radical Americas Network is delighted to announce a call for submissions for the brand new Radical Americas Journal.  Submissions from both early career and established scholars worldwide will be welcomed. Work in a number of different formats will be considered; in addition to peer-reviewed articles, the journal will run a variety of regular features,including opinion pieces, photo essays, reviews and archival notes.

In the first instance, please submit abstracts of 250-300 words to radicalamericas@gmail.com– when submitting, please indicate whether the work is to be peer reviewed as an article or whether you would like to submit something in a different format. Articles for peer review should be between 4,000 and 12,000 words; other pieces should be between 2,000 and 5,000 words. Please consiult UCL Press Guidelies for authors in advance of submission: https://www.ucl.ac.uk/ucl-press/publish/docs/Guidelines_for_Authors

About the Radical Americas Journal

The Radical Americas Journal explores the historical, political and social contexts that have underpinned radicalism in the Americas, engaging fully with the cross-currents of activism which connect North, Central and South America along with the Caribbean. The interconnected histories of power and protest are rarely contained within national boundaries. A full understanding of radicalism in the Americas, therefore, requires that we make the widespread rhetoric about the need for hemispheric scholarly approaches a reality. While we also offer articles, reviews and other content which focus on national or sub-national case studies, they are presented in a transnational framework.

Our definition of radicalism is broad. Taking inspiration from the words of José Martí, cited above, we understand radicalism to include any action or interpretation which “goes to the roots”, and we welcome all scholarship which takes a radical approach, even if it is not concerned with the study of radical activism per se. Any work which provides a truly systemic critique of existing structures of power, or challenges conventional interpretations of the past, will find a home at the Radical Americas Journal.

Despite disciplinary divides, scholarship on all regions of the Americas has recently been characterised by a preoccupation with culture and cultural analysis. This domination has come at the expense of interpretations which favour economic or social factors, though there are some signs that the impact of the global financial crisis has begun to reverse that trend. Our position is that the kind of holistic critique we hope to promote can never be achieved by isolating a single variable. For that reason we are particularly interested in work which attempts the difficult and painstaking task of fully integrating different facets of human experience, including economic, social, political and cultural factors.

Why We Post Tour of Chinese Universities

Alison Fox12 September 2016

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Today’s guest post is by Xinyuan Wang, author of Social Media in Industrial China

Between 12th-24th September 2016, Professor Daniel Miller and two researchers on the Why We Post project, Tom McDonald and Xinyuan Wang, will give a series of talks about the findings of the project at nine top universities in HongKong, Guangzhou, Beijing, and Shanghai. This China tour also include the launch (13th September) of the two newly released open-access books: Social Media in Industrial China (Wang, 2016) and Social Media in Rural China(McDonald, 2016). If you can’t be with us in Hong Kong, do join our live-streamed launch and put your questions to the authors.

China was the only country in the Why We Post project with two research sites. One of the reasons for this was because China maintains a greater degree of separation and autonomy in their use of popular digital media when compared to the rest of the world, therefore a global comparative study of social media required close scrutiny of particularly Chinese forms of social media such as QQ, WeChat, and Weibo.

The project includes a considerable amount of material on China such as the two newly released open-access books by UCL Press; one of the five weeks of the Anthropology of Social Media e-course; and a series of films set in the Chinese fieldsites. All of our short films (more than 100) about the uses of social media from our nine field sites have Chinese subtitles, and ourwebsite and e-course are both available in Chinese. Bringing an anthropological understanding of Chinese social media in the context of a comparative study back to China is a big commitment the project’s ultimate goal of turning global research into free global education.

Despite there being Chinese universities that teach anthropology, they have tended to see anthropology as a discipline that deals mainly with minority populations. We believe that the more a population becomes modern and urban and indeed digital, the more we need anthropology. This is because most of life now happens in the private sphere. In a little village perhaps it’s easier to see what’s going on from a surface glance. In a modern city where everyone goes to their own private home after work it is much more difficult. So you need research that is not afraid to follow people into the places where they actually live, which may be inside their smartphones, their social media profiles, as well as inside their homes. Otherwise we will not understand the modern world at all. Asking people questions via superficial surveys is not enough. Anthropologists spend many months living with people in order to be sure they understand what is really going on.

We believe that digital technologies including social media may be more formative of life in China than in almost any other country. While China has great and honourable traditions, the development of what we think of as modern China is relatively recent and relatively fast, taking place at the exact same time that new digital technologies are becoming an integral part of people’s lives. So whether we’re talking about the infrastructure of new cities or the spread of inexpensive smartphones, digital technologies are ubiquitous to the new China, and this means it is particularly important to understand their use and their consequences from a deep and engaged anthropological approach.

We hope that this China tour will introduce digital anthropology as a research tool to the Chinese academy. It is also hoped that the debates and talks will help to formulate key questions for future study within Chinese anthropology. We hope that China will play a key role in these future studies commensurate with its importance as a modern population that is embracing every form of new digital technology, and hopefully also embracing anthropology as the best means for observing and understanding their consequences.

The table below contains details of the talks in this China tour. For further updated information (in Chinese) please see here: http://uclwhywepost.isitestar.vip

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About the Author

Xinyuan Wang is a PhD candidate at the Dept. of Anthropology at UCL. She obtained her MSc from the UCL’s Digital Anthropology Programme. She is an artist in Chinese traditional painting and calligraphy. She translated (Horst and Miller Eds.) Digital Anthropology into Chinese and contributed a piece on Digital Anthropology in China.

 

This post originally appeared on the Global Social Media Impact Study blog. It has been re-posted with permission.