Routledge

NEW CASE STUDIES

Social Media in the Asia-Pacific Region:
a cursory survey

Larissa Hjorth, RMIT University, Melbourne.

The Internet is one of the most pervasive and ubiquitous spaces within contemporary everyday life. But, as a global technology and social space, its appropriation and ‘participation’ at the local level has been far from homogeneous (Goggin & Hjorth 2009), a fact that has been increasingly noted in Internet and media studies. This is particularly significant in the case of the Asia-Pacific—exemplified by twenty-first century socio-technologies ‘centres’ for technological and Internet innovation, Tokyo, Seoul (OECD 2006) and more recently, China. Even developing contexts such as the Philippines have been dubbed dubbed ‘the social networking capital of the world,’ with 83 percent of Filipinos surveyed are members of a social network (Universal McCann Report 2009). Yet the region remains under-explored (Goggin & McLelland 2008; Gottlieb & McLelland 2003; Ho, Kluver & Yang 2003).

Along with the rise of SNS literature (boyd 2003, 2004; Shirky 2008; Ito et al. 2008) has also been the awareness and need to address the gap in non-Anglocentric models of the Internet (Miller & Slater 2000; Ho, Kluver & Yang 2003; Gottlieb & McLelland 2003; Goggin & McLelland 2009). Increasingly studies are starting to focus upon locations in regions such as the Asia-Pacific (Hjorth & Arnold 2010)—a region that boasts some of the most sophisticated technological infrastructures and highest broadband rates, along with important centres for hardware production and consumption—namely Japan, Korea, Taiwan and China. The region is home to some of the oldest SNS such as Cyworld (Hjorth & Kim 2005), and demonstrates examples of new social media that merge gaming, socialising and work all in one (Hjorth & Chan 2009). As both a site for the global production and consumption of new forms of social networked media (evidenced for example, in Korea’s global grip on online multiplayer games), the region is a fascinating site to analyze the divergences of emerging Web 2.0 social networked media spaces.

Throughout the region we can find many examples of differing online/offline relationships influenced by governmental, cultural and socio-economic factors, thus reflecting specific forms of locality and each locality’s unique socio-cultural context for appropriation of the Internet. This phenomenon sees the uptake of diverse social networking sites (SNS) in a variety of scenarios of use (such as via the mobile phone or personal computer on public transport, at work/school and home). In Tokyo, the dominant BBS 2ch and SNS, mixi, is accessed via the keitai (mobile phone) on the long train commutes to and from work that are part of the everyday life for life in Tokyo. In Korea, the success of one of the oldest online communities (nearly ten years old), Cyworld mini-hompy, has seen over one third (18 million) of the nation’s 48 million people regularly accessing and updating their own and their friends’ pages (Hjorth & Kim 2005; Hjorth 2007; Cho 2004). Despite the ubiquity of mobile (haendupon) and wireless Internet, many prefer the ‘third space’ (Chee 2005) of the PC room (PC bang). Unlike such sites as MySpace, Cyworld’s mini-hompy is dominated by a characteristically Korean penchant for cute customization—avatars, cyber-gifts and virtual spaces such as the ‘mini-room’ in which friends can hang out online together (Hjorth 2008). As Yoo (2008) suggests, the visual differences allude to distinctive modes of online performativity that diverge from western models such as MySpace.
Across the plethora of different SNS, modes of access (via PC or mobile), and online communities in the region, there are commonalities as well as distinctions that mark the Asia-Pacific’s embrace of Web 2.0. For youth across the region, SNS is not only a fundamental part of everyday life and social capital, it is also a space that allows them to maintain cross-generational contact when geographic distance might be involved (Hjorth forthcoming). It is no longer just “youth” that are using SNS as adult on adult and cross-generational forms of dialogue and literacy expand with the increased net accessibility. Moreover, the demographics are shifting too as Internet access becomes not only a middle class prerogative but also an integral part of the new migrant working class (Qiu 2008). For example, in China, it is the working class that is growing exponentially as the main users of the Internet (CINIC 2009).

For the first time, Internet penetration rates in China in 2009 have surpassed the global average level with over 298 million users (CINIC 2009). In this burgeoning of use, one of the largest and oldest social networking systems (SNS) in China, QQ, has become part of the daily diet of many Chinese both in cities and big towns. While technological infrastructure and access of the Internet are still very much an urban preoccupation, changes have occurred in rural areas with the size of rural Internet users reaching nearly 85 million (CINIC 2009). While the Internet is mainly accessed via personal computer in urban city areas by the middle and upper class, the rest of China’s predominantly working class demography deploys GPRS (General Packet Radio Service) for Internet access via the mobile phone.

Within China’s technoscape numerous types of SNS—representing different classes, communities and lifestyle clusters—can be observed. Young people in urban settings are using China’s Facebook equivalent, Renren (meaning ‘people’), but for the majority of Chinese (both young and old) the oldest SNS and IM, QQ, inhabits everyday practices. Whilst most of China access predominantly QQ from their mobile phone, ‘cosmopolitan’ sites like Shanghai have much more of a ‘global’ diet of SNS and IM such as Renren, Kaixin (used by female ‘white-collars’ [workers]), MySpace and MSN which are often simultaneously opened and used on someone’s desktop; whereas Fetion and the aforementioned QQ can be accessed both via mobile phones and computers.

Despite the pervasiveness of the SNS in Chinese everyday life, much of the literature on China’s Internet has focused on its role as a contested site between public opinion and government policy. Like South Korea, the internet in China has provided a way in which to conceptualize struggles of democracy with social media such as blogs attracting much focus (Bruns & Jacobs 2006; Lovink 2007; Yu 2007), while seemingly ‘less’ political media such as SNS have been relatively overlooked (Koch et al. 2009; Yu 2007) despite often being deemed threatening and thus banned by the government (in 2009 Facebook and Twitter were barred).

In particular, QQ occupies a particular role in the technocultural imaginary of China. QQ is not only one of the oldest SNS in China—and thus, for many, their first SNS and introduction to social media—it is also a SNS predominantly deployed by the lower socio-economic and rural/small town users. For the general population of China, few local SNS are used or even known apart from QQ. Part of QQ’s success has been ensured by its inclusion and convergence of various platforms from chatting and SNS (QQzone) to online, localized news. Via Internet portals its service is free, and its various platforms such as QQ chat can be adapted to devices such as mobile phones. This is important given that while most of the population outside of the big towns and cities do not have the Internet they all have a mobile phone. QQ represents the largest cluster of SNS services in China; resulting in QQ being among the largest in the world. QQ’s various platforms such as chat allow families to keep in contact regularly for little or no charge. These features of both convenience and lack of costs are but two in the many reasons why QQ has attracted over 376 million registered accounts (www.web2asia.com). One of the dominant reasons can be heard in the voices of users in which QQ is viewed as Chinese before it is technological (Koch et al. 2009). That is, QQ represents China’s particular nationalist feelings towards the Internet that no other SNS produces.

In the case of Manila in The Philippines—once texting (Pertierra 2006; Rafael 2003; Ellwood-Clayton 2003) and now social networking ‘capital’ (Universal McCann report 2009) of the world—one might assume that SNS usage would be dominated by those with time and money on their hands, that is, university students. However this is not the only significant user demographic. Indeed, voracious uptake of SNS from Facebook, friendster, multiply, plurk and Twitter has occurred across the generations with parents and even grandparents are now starting to make use of SNS to keep in contact with family and friends—particularly those who are overseas. The very large Filipino diasporic community, consisting of female ‘care workers’ (Ehrenreich & Hochschild 2003) working outside of the Philippines, is an important factor in this rapid uptake of information and communication technologies (ICTs). Mobile phones and other such devices have been pivotal in the implementation of geographic and socio-economic mobility by Filipino care workers in Hong Kong for example (McKay 2003), while at the same time maintaining an ability to keep in contact with family. The significance of this diaspora to Filipino society, the strength of traditional Filipino family life, the widespread deployment of mobile SNS technologies, and the history of Filipino deployment of technologies in political ways, all makes the Philippines an important context for understanding new ways of maintaining intimate co-presence (especially with family and friends aboard), sociality more generally, and sociotechnical modes of political engagement.

Indeed, SNS not only helped people maintain contact between intimates both within the Philippines and aboard, it also operated as a vehicle for vernacular creativity, political action and netizens. As noted by respondents surveyed after the 2009 flood disaster that left Manila underwater for more than a month, often news flashes and details about the floods were captured by citizens with camera phones uploading to the Internet. SNS such as Facebook were used to keep relatives and friends aboard in a constant news-updating loop. Here we see examples of new forms of the ‘personal as political’ emerging within social media through user created content (UCC) practices. Official political organizations have also become aware of the political efficiency of social media with many politicians having their own Twitter account. In the case of the Philippines, the government set up a Twitter account to deal with the disaster and disseminating information as rapidly as possible.

Throughout the Asia-Pacific region, divergent SNS practices are emerging to not only contest the dominance of Anglo-centric models of the Internet but also to illustrate the ways in which SNS operate as a lens to understand localized notions of mediated intimacy and online politics. In each location, SNS practices, along with the scenarios of use, differ so greatly to provide some compelling models for reconceptualizing the Internet, and its role in the offline, in the twenty-first century.

References

Larissa Hjorth is an artist, digital ethnographer and Senior Lecturer at RMIT University, Melbourne. Currently she is an Australian Research Council APD fellow investigating online communities in the Asia-Pacific region with Michael Arnold. The study explores six locations (Shanghai, Seoul, Tokyo, Singapore, Manila and Melbourne) over three years.