Book review

Technology, Media and Asia

9 Sep 2013

Review Details
Date: 9 September 2013
Author: Michael Keane
Publisher: Asian Creative Transformations
Owning Institution(s): Queensland University of Technology (QUT)

Book Details
Title: Online@AsiaPacific
Publisher: Routledge
Date Published: 2013
Author/s: Larissa Hjorth Michael Arnold

Recently I took some visitors from mainland China for lunch at a popular seafood restaurant in Surfers Paradise on the Gold Coast. The group of eight was made up of an equal number of males and females, the youngest about forty, the eldest aged mid-sixties. The mood was convivial like many lunches I have enjoyed in China, although less formal. We were in Australia after all.

While waiting for our order to arrive we noticed the behaviour of a group of ten people at an adjacent large table. Nine of the group were Asian, mostly female, and most likely Chinese students. They ordered a seafood platter, an assortment of crab, crayfish, oyster, Moreton Bay bug, prawn, garlic bread, salad and chips (fries). A strange phenomenon then ensued—at least strange from our vantage point. Rather than consume the delicacies on offer all members of the group began to take photos with their mobile devices.

With this photographic ritual completed, they sat down and proceeded to send photos to friends and family, presumably far way. All the people at the table except for the host were focused on sending and receiving messages. This went on for over thirty minutes, in silence, the food barely touched.

The absence of face to face contact was disconcerting.  As mere spectators we conjectured that a sombre mood within the group could have been due to a death, a deportation, a relationship breakup, or a stressful examination period. Obviously the platter was just a prop to be apportioned into take-away packs. The host paid the bill and the group left without a word exchanged or any visible display of emotion.

The impact of mobile connectivity on peoples’ social behaviour is unprecedented. Authors such as Sherry Turkle see the dark side of social disengagement. The fact that one can go online with ease while multitasking makes it harder to tune in to the current moment. Many of my colleagues speak of the disengaged feeling of lecturing to students who are surfing the net, ‘liking’ posts on Facebook, downloading files and playing online games. Online media offers readymade emoticons that make it easy to express agreement, disagreement, frustration, scorn (e.g. LOL) and joy without uttering a word. In Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other Turkle says that ‘when technology engineers intimacy, relationships can be reduced to mere connections. And then easy connection becomes redefined as intimacy.’

Turkle’s prognosis of ‘being alone together’ fairly aptly described my lunchtime encounter. But I get the sense from Turkle that she’s missing a lot of the picture by not accounting with recent work on new media. Larissa Hjorth and Michael Arnold, authors of Online@AsiaPacific provide an alternative to glass half empty scenarios. The book provides multiple snapshots of peoples’ use and their relationships with social media. This approach is supplemented by extensive analysis of literature in the field of new media and mobile media. Reading Online@AsiaPacific it is possible to imagine the restaurant encounter through a different lens, whereby ‘multi-dimensional and ambient experiences of place’ are overlaid by intimacy.  The intimacy lacking in the face to face encounter is evidently compensated by a multitude of online intimacies.

In Online@AsiaPacific Hjorth and Arnold take us to six urban locations in the Asia-Pacific: Seoul, Tokyo, Shanghai, Manila, Singapore and Melbourne. In each of these cities they illustrate differences and similarities in use of mobile devices, especially the smartphone. While much of the discussion concerns youth the study also reveals a widespread uptake of social media among older populations. Parents and grandparents use social network platforms to keep in touch with their children as well as friends and relatives overseas.

The authors examine how people are using mobile phones and social network platforms to create ‘intimate publics’. In addition to intimate publics, the authors use two other concepts: ‘social publics’ and ‘mobile publics’. The chapters cover multiple uses and applications of social media, from compulsive use of location based services and self-portraiture by youth to reluctant acceptance of its ubiquity by working mothers (illustrated in the chapter on Melbourne).

According to the authors the study is drawn from a total of 900 respondents (interviews, focus groups and surveys) although we are only introduced to about 60 of these; two thirds of this number is in the chapters on Philippines and Singapore alone. It’s unclear how respondents were recruited and I feel such information would have enhanced the work.

Hjorth and Arnold show how the mobile phone has changed the nature of social relations in cities.  Personal information and one’s locations are instantaneously shared with friends, family, and sometimes strangers. The smartphone allows new opportunities to connect: from sharing one’s whereabouts through location based services; to announcing the end of a relationship; to aggregating ‘friends’ to great effect; to enhancing ‘self-presentation’ in personal profiles. Hjorth and Arnold say: ‘from keitai shōsetsu and camera phones to ‘check-ins’ and ‘pokes’, mobile media is providing new ways to make and share various forms of sociality.’

Fittingly, the book begins in South Korea, the nation in the Asia-Pacific where mobile internet access is ubiquitous and where broadband speeds are the fastest in the world. Nearly 70 per cent of internet users in Korea belong to some form of online community, for instance, games, fashion and food. Korea is well known for bangs, literally spaces or rooms where individuals or groups go online, listen to music, or enjoy a hot bath. The key idea in this chapter is 1chon or ilchon, a concept derived from the kinship system of relations. Having an ilchon relationship enables users to see other intimate postings in location based service (LBS) games. [A chon represents a physical distance; for instance a husband and wife would be 0-chon.] Ilchon, 1 degree of separation, has become a synonym for intimate relationships in online worlds.

The following chapter on Japan takes a very different perspective on mobile use. The first brief case study is keitai shōsetsu, the mobile phone novel, which has particularly played a role in incubating women’s fiction. A second study looks at the role of mobile media in the aftermath of the Tokyo earthquake on 11 March 2011. The mobile phone enabled people to be informed about the effects of the earthquake and the whereabouts of their loved ones, as well as reassuring distant relatives and friends. At the same time it is interesting that some of the Japanese respondents reveal weariness with incessant ‘bombardments’ from social media and have reported tuning back to conventional media.

Moving to Shanghai, China, the authors use the concept of guanxi which is translated in the book as ‘social capital’ (p. 159) and ‘social networks’ (p. 171). In mandarin guanxi is literally rendered as ‘ties’; it has an instrumental sense of maintaining one’s existing connections, that is family, school friends, or work colleagues. It often describes situations where people provide favours or gifts that at some future time can be reciprocated; hence there is a tie created. One example (not mentioned in the book) might be where a parent taking part in an online game like Happy Farm would extend virtual ‘gifts’ to a teacher; that is, to ‘draw on a relationship’ (la guanxi) for their son or daughter’s benefit.  The extended use of guanxi in this study is very interesting however. Further research might explore more types of guanxi and how they play out online.

In the Philippines the main theme is how identities are formed and managed through social media. Respondents were drawn from students at the University of the Philippines. This chapter includes many direct statements from the students on their use of social media and the problems associated with intimacy, for instance, hoping that one’s parents don’t see posts that might be incriminating. The most popular social network service (SNS) is Facebook and it’s this platform that best reflects the large demographic, almost 11 per cent of the population, of Filipinos who work overseas, allowing them to keep in contact with relatives, friends, and family.

In Singapore the discussion turns to the role of political discussion in social media spaces.  This chapter, like the Philippines study includes many lengthy excerpts from interviews or focus groups—although it is not spelt out how the interviewees were recruited. The discussion primarily concerns the role of Facebook and Twitter in the 2011 Singaporean elections. In doing so it provides an interesting insight into the way that social media operate in sensitive political environments. The final case study is situated in Melbourne, Australia and picks up on the theme of women’s use of smart phones.  The authors use a metaphor of miniature caravan to illustrate how the ‘mobile’ phone carries the freight (and responsibility) of both family and work.  This caravan metaphor reflects Sherry Turkle’s notion of being ‘tethered.’

In bringing together the varieties of use of mobile phones and social media Online@Asia Pacific is a benchmark publication. It is directed at an academic audience. Perhaps because of the necessity to cover the field there are times when the argument becomes a bit repetitive. The darker side of mobile phone use in the Asia-Pacific is mentioned although not foregrounded. There are references to issues of privacy. As the authors note, in Korea there is a move away from digital self-portraits towards inanimate images; in Japan we see a tendency to share obscured images.  No doubt, when the fieldwork was completed the dark side of online participation was less apparent.

Fear of surveillance, not only by government, is evident in China where people are ‘outed’ by online vigilantes through their social media practices. The increasing commercialisation of online space together with unprecedented intrusions into people’s lives through data mining of social networks for commercial advantage draws attention to questions of privacy and ethics.  On balance the tenor is inclined to be celebratory of mobile connectivity. Readers can find a counter argument in Sherry Turkle’s work as well as a number of studies that are examining how people are reconnecting in face-to-face contacts, and joining ‘offline’ cooperatives where there is a more traditional sense of ontological security.

(Featured Image thanks to Prof. Joseph M. Chan, Chinese University of Hong Kong)

About the author

Michael Keane

Prof. Michael Keane is a Principal Research Fellow at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Creative Industries and Innovation (CCI) at Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane. Michael has made over fifty visits to China and East Asia since 1989 and has provided expertise for a number of international consultancies in relation to emerging East Asian creative economies. He has written numerous book and articles on Chinese and East Asian creative industries. His recent books include Creative industries in China: Art, Design and Media (Polity April 2013) and Media in China: Critical Concepts and Cultural Studies (Routledge August 2013 co-edited with Wanning Sun). His book Created in China: the Great New Leap Forward was the first account of China's acceptance of the idea of the creative economy. China's New Creative Clusters: Governance, Human Capital and Investment, published in December 2011, is a study of several of China's most well known creative clusters including 798, Songzhuang, Fangjia 46, Loft 49, M50 and Suzhou Industrial Park. He is also editor and translator of Li Wuwei's How Creativity is Changing China, also published in 2011.

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