Social media in rural China. By Tom McDonald. UCL Press, 2016.
The book is the outcome of a long-term ethnographic research (15 months’ fieldwork) about the use and moral implications of social media in contemporary rural China, including 3 questionnaire surveys, participant observations, interviews and content analyses of postings of research participants on social platforms.
The field site is a town in Shandong Province named Anshan, a rural Chinese community (Local government assigns rural category household registration permits [hukou] to its residents, emmmmm) with unique Confucius cultural heritage and urban connections which conserves an unbroken (In the last decade, some rural areas have suffered from much more extensive emigration, which has recast the demographic structures of these areas) spectrum of different kinds of people approachable for anthropologists.
Insisting on understanding social media use in the context of offline social spaces, McDonald carves out the core ethnographic findings that, far from being scarce, social media is already deeply embedded in the daily routines of many rural Chinese people, enacting rural users to legitimize, appropriate and detach social and moral transformations.
I will unfold this review by first introducing my understanding of core arguments of the book, then, my reflections on the methodology and the ethnographic findings.
1. My Understanding of the Book
Following an introduction of methodology and field site, McDonald depicts, in chapter 2, the panorama of social media landscape of the rural town, including the main online social services and the ways to access Internet used by the surveyed. Two key discoveries are emphasized. Firstly, the breadth and depth of dispersal of information and communication technologies in Anshan is impressive—state of polymedia (Such as QQ, Wechat, Weibo, Renren, and Momo) and multiple strategies to access have already been made. Secondly, to some extent, the type of visibility of media platforms can be seen as a key factor in influencing use practice and online communities’ formation. Noteworthily, the notion of visibility is adopted by McDonald as one of the guiding principles around which he articulates his analyses in the next 2 chapters.
Chapter 3 centers on the topics related to 3 pronounced types of visual postings frequently shared: raising children, romantic love and marriage, and expressing thanks to parents. McDonald argues the performative and at times ambivalent dimension of these postings works to visualize, re-appropriate, communicate, and reinforce common sets of moral frameworks on online platforms. In this way of media use, selected traditional ethic values are rendered more relevant, “useful” (in the context of modernization) and compatible with everyday life of younger generations.
But McDonald also recognizes that social media can be used in less visible ways. The opposition between relationship of “circles and strangers” (p102), which maps onto the antithetic two ends of the spectrum of visibility offered by social media, constitutes a major focus of chapter 4. One the one hand, description of the “dominance of relations based on principles of familiarity” (p3) shows the way in which social relations are developed through social media. On the other hand, increasing social media use for interactions with strangers and the oscillation of this kind of use between two drastically different forms of social encounter during different stages of one’s life (For instance, middle school period vs. university period, and unmarried state vs. married state) demonstrates how social norms are practiced navigated and tested through these diverse modes of socialization by local people.
So, with reference to chapter 3 and 4, the flexible concept, “visibility” is able to display not only how online practices are shaped by social norms, but also how these rural users play on the contrasting levels of visibility of platforms in a guerrilla way.
Chapter 5, continuous with the latter part of chapter 4 that emphasizes more invisible and individualistic social media communication with strangers, shows another kind of moral implication of social media through juxtaposing the manipulation of level accumulation and paid privilege. McDonald argues that the diligence, perseverance and manipulation required to accumulate levels is actually an ethical activity(p4). The essence of efforts put into collecting credits is entrepreneurialism. On the other side, physical money is used to get access to accelerated approach to higher levels. Rural users’ acceptance to the two approaches is an indication that they interpret social media as reflections and embodiment of social changes that offer a route to bypass the established moral values.
After close scrutiny of social media use for different relationships between individuals, the last chapter brings in state perspective to discuss how social media becomes a morally acceptable online space in the best interests of individuals and the state. The core point is that, in response to moral upheavals coupled with broader transformation, the state seeks to influence social platforms, meanwhile, individuals also expect the state to intervene and interpellate positive (Something uncontroversial, normative and of positive energy) nature of the Internet.
2. My Reflection on This Book
For me, the intellectual inspiration of first importance of this book is its demonstration of the advantages of anthropological field methods in researches on social practice of media.
First, I used to celebrate the transregional nature of social media. So when pondering on social media, I prioritized class, age, gender, and other analytical units, but seldom put regional and local features into consideration. This volume just redresses social media in a kind of critical consciousness that online practice is not ungrounded, but demands proper contextualization and explanation in relation to the various social frameworks present in the local areas. That’s why in the major findings of the book, online social media is able to come back to offline local social and moral transformations.
Second, the long duration of fieldwork adds dynamics to observation. These dynamics contains multiple dimensions. To illustrate, first, McDonald recognizes the emergence of new media and use behaviors caused by the periodical movements of university students; second, the long participation helps build trust and confidence of those research participants so that they even shared personal stories of adultery with McDonald. Third, it is also helpful in observing the evolution of practices over the shifts of life stages, the changes of social media use after marriage in particular.
Third, long on-site research allows McDonald to cross-reference postings on their social platforms with something offline he knows about these individuals. This helps prevent content analysis from ending up as researchers’ own wishful thinking.
Apart from methodology, I find it is interesting that the majority of readers of this book on Doban leave negative comments and low scores. The typical critique is it is too common sense to provide any insight. Even though common sense is of important anthropological significance and dialectic nature, to some degree, I have similar feeling toward this book for a time, since when I was a kid, I and the social groups I belonged to used social media in totally same ways recorded and explored in this book written 10 years later. But I dispel this kind of Body-Ritual-Among-the-Nacirema critique, after knowing more background information about this project. I realize that the goal of this project is to find new ways of turning global research into global education. This legitimizes and praises the fact that more raw and ordinary data and contextualized thick descriptions are provided. The free access to this book also echoes this idea behind.
Moreover, issues about gender differentiation also constitute one important part of this book. And these observations regarding gender cooperate compatibly with the key analytic units, such as visibility and moral frameworks. For example, the book shows how women are interpellated as a “guardian of morality” to reduce social media use after marriage. But these observations are strewn about the book in a fragmented way. I will find it more approachable if the material can be integrated together.