Last month I taught at a summer school focused on “New Media and Justice Communication in the Information Society” at Fudan University in Shanghai. This was the fifth in an annual series offered by the School of Journalism at Fudan, taking graduate students from across China for an intensive week of teaching by guest scholars, focused on this year on: political economy of the media; gender sexuality and queer theory; and online ethnography (observational study of online cultures). Students on the summer camp are keen to access perspectives rarely taught at present in China, including the research methods for ethnographic study of the Internet that are my specialism. In turn, I was also keen to learn. Having taught at Surrey for a number of years a module on “Internet and society” that tries to recognise different Internet cultures and governance regimes around the world, this trip offered an opportunity to put some meat on the bare bones of my existing understanding of the Internet, and Internet Studies, in China.
Any consideration of the Internet in China has inevitably to reference ongoing government control and filtering of online activities, to the extent that many familiar online services from other parts of the world remain unavailable to many ordinary people in China and certain things are effectively unsayable in Chinese cyberspace. It is important, though, to recognise that this does not mean that the Internet in China is therefore under-used or under-developed. On the contrary, the Chinese equivalents to familiar services are growing apace, with Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent vying with Google, Amazon, Facebook and Uber as online commercial giants. . In the urban context of Shanghai, online and offline live seemed to be seamlessly woven together and I, the poorly connected visitor without my familiar social media and search engine, found myself feeling marginalized by lack of technology and language skills and very much dependent on the kindnesses of my hosts to steer me around and organize me. Just like students in the UK, or maybe more so, the Chinese students I met used their phones in almost every situation, chatting, calling and paying for taxis, taking and sharing photos, looking up scholarly information and song lyrics, moving seamlessly between academic activities and conducting their social lives.
Given this vibrant yet constrained online culture, training students in China on how to conduct ethnographies of Internet use raises some interesting questions on how far established approaches transfer from a British context. The question of what online activities mean, when we can see that people are investing huge amounts of time and energy in them and yet at the same time we and they are conscious of the multiple layers of filtering, manipulation, self-censorship and evasion that characterise online social worlds is a troubling one to unpack. Then again, while the regimes of oversight and governance of the Internet are quite different between Britain and China, in both cases the online domain does not just reflect ordinary life as lived. In either country, we should be cautious in treating what we see online as being simply “what the public thinks” as in both cases many (often ultimately unknowable) layers of commercial and government surveillance, algorithms, cultural pressures, conscious performances and self-censorship shape how we portray ourselves and what we see. Finding out what the internet means to people, whether in UK or China, demands that we look for the bigger picture and interrogate the back stories behind the obvious features of online life. Neither should we expect social media to be experienced in the same way everywhere even within the same country, as two recent ethnographies of the Internet in China demonstrate. Methodologically speaking, many of the familiar principles of an open-minded ethnographic exploration that assumes nothing in advance still apply.
One key difference that I encountered was in the treatment of research ethics. Social science research ethics are not as culturally or institutionally embedded in China as they have become in a British context in recent years. While in the UK we have become used to discussing concerns around how to properly respect participant privacy and wellbeing in online studies and how to handle informed consent for materials found online, such discussions are in relative infancy in China, and have little to draw on in terms of established social science research ethics debates. I therefore felt it important, whilst highlighting to students the exciting possibilities of online studies, also to explore some of the areas in which to tread sensitively and to highlight that the Internet makes possible an intrusion into the lives of others that sometimes as researchers we should not exploit.
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