Written by Gabriele de Seta.

Recurring comments about my research project that I heard during my fieldwork went along these lines: “Chinese internet culture? How can you study such broad topic?” Professors and students, hardcore gamers and young party cadres, long-time friends and new acquaintances all agreed that 网络文化 wangluo wenhua – literally ‘internet culture’ – was such a vast domain that they themselves could only partially grasp it: “is it about Weibo?” “Do you mean the Great Firewall, 翻墙 fanqiang [crossing the wall], things like that?” “Are you looking at 恶搞 egao [bad-taste humour]?” “Do you know about this new app, 秒拍 Miaopai? It’s really popular now…” Eventually, as I accepted that my research partners had wildly different ideas about wangluo wenhua, their comments coalesced into one of the central arguments of my doctoral dissertation: that Chinese internet culture is, at most, a collection of constantly changing and multiscalar repertoires of digital folklore, which is sustained by the everyday creativity of hundreds of millions of users. I grounded my case on anthropological literature proposing a radical move away from the idea of culture and towards practice as the main unit of analysis – a concept much closer to the ethnographic understanding of practices than to the Marxist idea of praxis. I also shifted my efforts from analysing content to following what people were actually doing with media in their everyday lives.

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The presumed insularity of Chinese digital media has played a central role in characterisations of Chinese internet culture in both academic analyses and news reporting. In an attempt to grasp the totality of user activity across the walled gardens of local social media platforms, everyday media life in the People’s Republic of China is often summarised, one hype cycle after the other, under the banner of supposedly prominent, and often overdetermined, cultural phenomena: In the beginning it was 恶搞 egao, a genre of parodic content elevated into characterisations of a riotous carnival pervading the Chinese Internet. Then it was 山寨 shanzhai, which could explain pretty much any kind of innovative counterfeiting. More recently, it was 屌丝 diaosi and 土豪 tuhao, playful identities attributed to a population of “Chinese netizens” expressing dissatisfaction with the government or their yearning for social change. In spite of these overarching narratives, digital media users I was interacting with tended to describe their everyday relationship with the internet in terms of different forms of doing. Besides the most recurring actions encouraged and channeled by constantly innovating media platforms – chatting, posting, uploading, sharing, favouriting, reblogging, commenting, following, blocking, and so on – I often came across a recurring preoccupation with defining, evaluating and appropriating a variety of socially mediated practices such as 装逼 zhuangbi [pretending to be cool], 卖萌 mai meng [acting cute], 吐槽 tucao [criticizing] or 搞基 gaoji [bromancing].

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The emergence of peculiar digital media practices encouraged me to change my research approach. One of the earliest digital media practices I focused on was trolling. Trolling can be broadly defined as disruptive participation and personal harassment happening behind the veil of anonymity and ephemerality granted by social media. In the wake of egregious incidents, it has recently become a matter of great concern in much of the English-speaking world. Yet in China, as I learned through my participation in multiple discussion boards and the debates I kicked off in forums, civil behaviour online was articulated in sensibly different ways: To some users, incivility was primarily embodied by the 五毛党 wumaodang [‘50-cent army’ of paid posters] or by the 美份党 meifendang [‘penny army’ of pro-American posters]. For others, the worst thing was either 地域黑 diyu hei [regional discrimination] or 装逼 zhuangbi [pretending to be cool]. Some users identified the closest thing to trolling in the community gatekeeping practice of 钓鱼 diaoyu, literally ‘fishing’ for credulity through well-crafted essays and posts. Others thought that by claiming to be a foreign anthropologist, I was in fact the one who was trolling them. My conclusion on the matter – “there is no trolling in China” – was rather a provocation meant to evidence how larger sociotechnical concerns such as civility on digital media are constantly made and unmade through the emergence of situated media practices and their ongoing, dialogical negotiations.

Around the same time, my colleague Dino Ge Zhang and I decided to look into a digital media practice that was receiving a lot of attention in tech reporting on China: online dating. We started from 陌陌 Momo, one of the most popular homegrown Chinese dating apps, that just happened to celebrate its first one hundred million subscribers at the time. Momo was commonly touted as the 约炮神器 yuepao shenqi [literally ‘mystical one-night stand tool’] riding the wave of a Chinese sexual revolution, but we quickly found out through regular usage that users were largely repurposing the app for other social and local needs. Many claimed to use Momo to avoid 无聊 wuliao [boredom] and to seek interesting and honest chatting partners rather than one-night stands. The possibilities of customising personal profiles and posting status updates encouraged many users to adopt Momo as a social networking platform – in one case, we found that night market vendors were using the ‘mystical one-night stand tool’ to keep each other company while working under unpleasant conditions, creating a community network with clear ‘anti-flirting’ rules. Evidencing the co-construction of users and technologies through an ethnographic attention to practices is by no means a groundbreaking scholarly achievement. But it is one that is sorely needed in academic treatments of digital media in China, where the remnants of orientalising imaginations and misleading metaphors still linger on.

A similar approach guides my recent work with artist and curator Michelle Proksell on the visual content shared by users of the instant messaging app WeChat, particularly selfies. The practice of 自拍 zipai [‘taking a picture of oneself’, usually with a digital imaging device] has been debated extensively, both in China and abroad, in unsurprisingly deterministic terms: are selfies narcissistic or empowering? Do selfies hail a new impending individuality or an encroaching cultural homogeneity? Through an extensive participation in the circulation of visual content on WeChat, we quickly realised that looking for a “Chinese selfie” was pointless. Zipai could be a way to cherish a moment of sociality with friends, to share an act of consumption or to foster a sense of intimate co-presence across physical distance. Some users shared endless sequences of zipai for the purpose of promoting their e-commerce enterprise, others did the same to playfully experiment with their image through editing apps and filters. Moreover, the boundaries between publicity and privacy, which are taken for granted by many analyses of selfies, were constantly negotiated by users through careful practices of blurring and selective sharing choices, which often hindered our own data collection.

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As I am writing these reflections, one short video clip is being shared across many of the WeChat groups I have joined. In the six-second loop, a girl tries to eat a corn cob skewered on a power drill, but things go awry as her long hair get caught in the whirring tool. She had shot the video with the help of a friend to take part in the “eating corn with a drill” challenge, one of the many forms of dispersed participation made possible by social media. Her misfortune ended up bringing her more celebrity than she expected as the micro-clip made its way from Miaopai to discussion forums, Sina Weibo and WeChat in screenshots and animated GIFs. The practices emerging from the continuously spinning gears of digital media – in this case, personal streaming, microcelebrity, attention-seeking and its ridiculisation – demand participatory ways of inquiry sensitive to their situated configurations and dialogic negotiations.

Gabriele de Seta is a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute of Ethnology, Academia Sinica in Taipei, Taiwan. He collects, curates and narrates the genres of user-generated content, local humour and platform-specific aesthetics circulating across Chinese postdigital media ecologies. His research work is chronicled on his website http://paranom.asia