Today’s excerpt is from Social Media in Industrial China by Xinyuan Wang, UCL Deprtment of Anthropology.
Every day after work, a group of young female factory workers leaves the factory plant together, hand in hand. All of them are unmarried young women, and gossip about relationships is always the most popular topic. Girls chatter avidly on the 10-minute walk from factory to dormitories; everybody is trying to contribute something to the daily ‘gossip time’:
‘Hey, did you hear that he just asked for her QQ number? I was surprised that he wanted to add her on QQ!’
‘Really? I didn’t know he was keen on her. Oh no – it is really bad news for his ex-girlfriend. A few days ago I just saw her new QQ status … sounds like she really regrets the break-up. Look, look … ’
The girl then took out her smartphone, showing her friends the evidence she had spotted on QQ.
The very action of men and women adding each other on QQ can easily be interpreted as romance, since, in the words of one girl, ‘QQ is not used for talking business or other things; QQ is for you to fall in love (tan lian ai)’. It has become almost a consensus among young people that one of the major functions of social media is to develop and maintain romantic relationships. Xiao Lin, a 20-year-old factory worker, sent me QQ messages explaining how QQ helped him to become a better lover:
I am much more bold and romantic on QQ … you just wouldn’t say those sweet words face to face … And I used lots of cute stickers when we were chatting on QQ, which made her find me really funny.
Many young migrant workers, like Xiao Lin, think they can be a better lover on social media. Vivid stickers and emojis enrich people’s expression; an element of time delay allows more scope for strategic communication. Behind the screens of their smartphones, people feel more empowered and confident. Rather than a diminished form of intimate interaction, romantic relationships on social media have become an efficient modality combining elements of voice, image and text, as well as emoji and stickers. There is another reason why social media is regarded a place for romantic love: a public display of love offline is usually frowned upon in GoodPath. Walking hand in hand was the most intimate interaction that one could spot on the street. When Xiao Yu, a 21-year-old hairdresser’s apprentice, posted photos of herself kissing her boyfriend on QQ, she perceived QQ to be a romantic and liberating place where one can feel free to display intimacy as the ‘public’ was different:
In big cities people won’t make a fuss [about kissing in public]. But here some traditional people would dislike it … but the good thing is they are not on my QQ!
Xiao Yu’s kiss photographs elicited many comments. Rather than feeling embarrassed, she felt that was exactly what she was looking for: ‘… When you posted something like that, you just knew what people would comment. If I am not sure, then I won’t post it,’ Xiao Yu explained. To the question ‘do you think about what kind of reaction you will receive when you post something on social media?’, the majority of participants, both in GoodPath and in Shanghai, said yes. Moreover in many cases the imagined audience and presupposed reaction justify the posting. A few days later, Xiao Yu finally uttered the real reason why she posted the kiss photos – to warn another girl to stay away from her boyfriend as she assumed the girl had been stalking her.11 ‘It’s so annoying, she is still flirting with him (Xiao Yu’s boyfriend) on his Qzone. Is she blind? I am pretty sure she saw the kiss photo on my Qzone.’
In romantic relationships, surveillance on social media can lead to jealousy in various ways. For instance, a delayed reply to a WeChat message can make the romantic partner feel unimportant, especially when he or she can see on other social media platforms that their partner is online. Situations such as that described by Cai, a 22-year-old waitress in a restaurant, are very common: ‘I sent him a message half hour ago; he didn’t reply, but ten minutes ago, he updated his QQ status … that made me feel upset.’ She was always online throughout the day when working at the restaurant; the multiple social media platforms her boyfriend used allowed her to connect with him constantly, but such an environment also made it more difficult for her boyfriend to hide anything from her. Many young people share similar insecurities about their romantic relationships, As Zhu, a factory worker aged 20, complained: ‘She [his girlfriend] never mentioned our relationship on her QQ. My gut feeling is she is not that committed, or maybe she is hiding something from me?’
Because social media profiles are continuously subjected to scrutiny to a greater extent than most offline spaces, for many young people such as Zhu a romantic relationship gained its ‘legitimacy’ by a public announcement on social media. However, in practice, the attempt to make a public announcement may backfire. Lujia, a factory worker, set up a QQ group of 78 contacts in order to win the trust of his new girlfriend. He explained:
My girlfriend said she was not sure about my love, unless I showed it in public (gong kai); Once I set up the QQ group and show my love for her she will believe me.
On this QQ group, every few hours Lujia wrote something along the lines of ‘ … darling you are the most beautiful woman in my life and I love you so much’. Clearly not everybody thought Lujia’s declaration of love quite as sweet as his partner did, and most people soon quit the group. As one former member complained, ‘he thought QQ was his own place to do whatever he wanted … But why should I read screenfuls of such goosebump-arousing nonsense?’ What was evident in Lujia’s case was that ‘audiences’ felt extremely disturbed and offended. Unlike posting something on one’s own social media profile, Lujia’s QQ group messaging, which constantly tried to grab people’s attention to witness something of little relevance for them, was way too aggressive and inappropriate.
However, in most cases some subtle strategies regarding the public display of love on QQ had been applied. It was very common to see a couple talk to each other in a way that others would not be able to understand without knowing the context of the dialogue. For example, a conversation between a young couple on Qzone that could be seen by all the online contacts was:
‘Don’t forget you promised me that you wouldn’t tell her about that.’
‘Yes I promised, and I didn’t tell her about that at all, quite the opposite, I told her that you said those three words on my birthday, and she was so delightfully surprised. I told you she liked you.’
Even though substantial information from the above correspondence was very limited, everyone who read the dialogue got the message that these two people were close to each other and that their relationship was exclusive. That is exactly the reason why, rather than this taking place on the seemingly more convenient and private basis of one-to-one chatting, the couple chose to talk secretly ‘in public’. Such ‘coded’ intimate talk on QQ between lovers skilfully displayed love in public without disturbing others too much.
The self-exposure of personal relationships on social media is not always about positive emotions. Having arguments on social media, for example, is regarded as a fatal hit to a romantic relationship. Huang Ling, a 19-year-old factory worker, explained the problem:
Each time, when we had some friction, he would update his QQ status immediately with things like ‘please introduce girls to me, I need a girlfriend, blah blah … I really hated him for that!
Two weeks after their break-up, Huang Ling was still complaining about her ex’s outrageous QQ usage, and every female friend of hers expressed the same resentment. As one of her close female friends remarked, ‘How could he say so regardless of the place and the situation (chang he)?! He just wanted her to lose face’. Ling applied some ‘media sanctions’ to cope with the break-up’s aftermath. First of all she locked her Qzone, which means nobody could view it except herself.
I need some space you know. I don’t want people to gossip about my break-up. Even though they do it out of kindness, I still find it so annoying.