The Culturally Situated Weibo 随手拍 Instant Photo Phenomenon: the largest singles Social Networking Site in China
What first started out with well-meaning citizens taking pictures of child beggers on the street has now turned into a national phenomenon of individuals uploading pictures of themselves and their friends in the hopes of finding a potential relationship.
Weibo is the most popular micro-blog in China, often compared to Twitter. 随手拍照解救乞讨儿童 Rescue Children (almost 300,000 followers) is a Weibo account that posts pictures of potentially kidnapped child beggers on the streets with the hopes of matching them with their original families. Charles Custer from China Geeks has written about Weibo's child begging and the backlash against it. Rescue Childrenwas the first 随手拍 group. 随手拍 means Instant Photo.
Now, dozens of Instant Photo groups are springing up all over the country not to rescue homeless children, but to rescue single men an women.
Users @ the specific Weibo Instant Photo Singles accounts that they want to be featured on. So if a person is an older woman living in Shenzhen, she would @ the Shenzen Instant Photo Singles Older Women group. Weibo users post their pictures accompanied with a description of their personality traits, weight, profession, instant messaging QQ number, and the kind of person they are looking for. Friends often upload pictures for their friends and some people upload their own pictures. Beijing Today has a lovely article about how this started.
Here are two examples below.
Qingnong female, studying foreign language at Qingdao Agricultural University, born in 1992, 162 centimeters tall, hometown is Jining in Shandong Provence, has the loveliness of an eastern northerner. Looking for a university freshman, sophomore, or junior around the height of 176-183 cm, slim, and doesn't have to be too handsome as this isn't the most important thing, it's more important that we hit it off.
@随手拍解救青农大单身 (Qing Nong University's Rescue Single Men) reposted it to their weibo at 2.28pm Tues May 24th to their 218 followers.
Ah friends are so worried. What are you all doing? This is a good girl // @随手拍解救青农大单身 the hardest part is to hit it off because feeling sare very valuable. She must be rescued!
So far the original post has 68 comments and 22 forward.
@懂事么：对@随手拍解救武大剩斗士 说：哥们我来了，，华师大三学生，厦门人。88年 180cm 性格好 阳光 激情 喜欢打球 喜欢唱歌，属于熟了就很放得开的。想找人一起看电影 一起游凤凰。。。QQ340054497 原文转发(4)|原文评论(8)
Hey friends, I'm here! Born in 1988, 180cm tall, junior at Wuhan Normal University, from Xiamen. I'm a good person with a fun personality. I like to play basketball and sing. I'm pretty laid-back after we get to know each other. I want to find someone to relax with and watch movies. My instant messaging QQ number is 340054497.
Some Instant Photo groups are organized by location with no gender separation. @随手拍解救惠州单身人 is for the couples of Hui Zhou with 698 followers.
Students across the country have started to organize local in-person meet-ups. In the last meeting for Wuhan Singles Student Instant Photo, 10 couples were matched up. I think the student users of Weibo Instant Photo groups present some of the exciting emergent interactions on Weibo and the web at large.There are several things that come to my mind when I think about this 随手拍 Instant Photo phenomenon:
- People are finding ways to make existing services useful for them - this is very disruptive innovation because Instant Photo for single men and women was not part of Weibo's original plan, but now I'm sure they are paying attention to it and learning from it.
- People are finding ways to extend digital interaction into physical meet-ups in third places. “Third places” places are neither home or work, such as pubs, cafes, libraries, and public spaces. These are important sites of community formation in urban spaces. (I have written about internet cafes as third places for migrants)
- They are creating impromptu and temporary third places. These meet-ups only last a few hours, but then are then discussed for several days or weeks back on Weibo. It's like flash mobs but for more meaningful and lasting connections.
- These temporary meetings are done outside of any formal organizational support or approval from the government or any businesses. Many of times these are organized by individuals and some are able to pull together a few sponsors.
- Temporary places such as real-life Weibo singles dating events reveal how people are making urban spaces work for them. It also shows us the different needs of elite versus non-elite users; for these Instant Photo participants so far are all users that are not part of a social group that I would classify as disadvantaged or non-elite.
- We also get a chance to understand how internet regulations and policies are actually enforced, ignored, and negotiated in real life. Charles Custer's discussion of the controversy around the original 随手拍照解救乞讨儿童 Rescue Children site provides great analysis on why the government decided to find this site problematic.
- It's another example of how one of the most important types of interaction on the Chinese internet revolves around sex and love (I will write a post later about how porn is a reason why many Chinese users registered for twitter in the first place)
- This also reflects changing norms among younger and older people around love and relationship. Online dating isn't a popular way to meet people; there's still a social stigma attached to it. But many of the people I spoke to said that using Weibo for finding a girl/boy-friend wasn't real online dating and that for them this was a very comfortable way of exploring "possibilities."
- There's something about the transparency of Weibo and the scale of Instant Photo Singles that makes it easier for people to participate in this than online dating sites. So far, my conclusion is that people are comfortable using Weibo for dating because it makes dating social - and making something social means that it that there has to be a degree of transparency and openness involved. Now finding a potential relationship though the internet isn't something that you are doing on your own。All the stuff that you had to do before alone like sorting through profiles, wondering which ones were legitimate, and trying to figure out how to represent yourself - all can be done with the help of friends and the greater Weibo community. With Weibo Instant Photo, the entire Weibo-sphere is helping you find that "right" partner, your friends are helping you sort through comments, and you're able to see the person's past Weibo posts and get a sense of who they are.
I don't think Weibo is a mere copy-cat of twitter. While it is a micro-blog, Weibo offers so many amazing features that make what I am describing in this post possible. On Weibo, you can have threaded conversations, track commentary on posts, embed various media formats, view media within the same window, and sort by content type. There are a lot of other features that I will talk about in a separate post, but this is all to say that communities like these can develop on Weibo precisely because of its rich features and stable platform. Weibo simply works. There are no fail Weibo jokes. The only jokes you are hear are ones about internet censorship but that runs across all Chinese web services.
But it's not just the Weibo technology that makes this Instant Photo Single phenomenon possible, it's China and it's the users that make this possible. The emergence of Weibo Instant Photo for Single Men and Women is a culturally situated phenomenon in Chinese society. It reflects current anxieties and changes around family, dating, marriage, the internet, relationship, and love.
Starting from around third grade (some earlier) and on, college bound students are expected to be be totally dedicated to school work 15 hours a day. Most parents scare their children out of having relationships and fill their time with so much academic training that they don't have any free time to pursue their own interests much less a relationship. When these students enter college and are free from the confines of home, most of them have not had the chance to develop "dating" skills. They have not even had that much time to interact with youth of the opposite sex in a non-school context.
From what I've witnessed so far, the Instant Photo Phenomenon and its extended physical offline meet-ups fulfill a need that many students have - to talk with members of the opposite sex in a non-academic context where the mission and boundaries are clear: to hook up. Weibo Instant Photo and offline meet-ups offer a space for social interactions with a very transparent mandate: get into a relationship, not a friendship. I have heard so many times through my fieldwork over the years of how students would get stuck in the "friend box" with someone that they liked and felt that they had no way out it. Even if I encouraged them to confess their feelings just so they can relieve themselves of the pain of not knowing if that person liked them back, they would give some excuse about not being able to express their feelngs. Most youth that I talk to just are simply lost when it comes to dating and have no idea how to tell someone they like them. They fear rejection so much that they would rather keep silent. And this is a very specific condition for the generation born in the late 80's to early 90's because these are the youth that have been subjected to this incredibly controlled education.
This is not to say that Chinese teenagers don't have sexual feelings at a young age. Quite contrary, many students would tell me of epic 3 year to 10 year crushes where not one word was said, not even one brush of skin was touched. These crushes would start in junior high and high school and would continue on and on. I know that American teenagers often have crushes that are unvoiced, but in China most of these crushes happen in a context where no one is hooking up with anyone in high-school because there is no space or time to even TRY hooking up or voicing your crush to someone. If a female even hangs around a male student too much, the teachers will pull the female student in for a talk along with her parents. Students' schedules are so tightly controlled that they don't have time to interact with each other without adult supervision.
I think the Instant Photo Phenomenon for older women and men speaks to another type of culturally situated context - the emergence of divorcees in a society where divorces are still stigmatized and in the minority. Having done research on how divorced women and men date in China, I can tell you that it's not easy for a divorcee. And it's even harder for female divorcees; there is a double standard for women. If men are divorced, they usually want to marry someone younger who has never been married before. Divorced women are seen as leftovers and in many ways they see themselves as unrescuable.
So here comes a service, Weibo Instant Photo, that allows you to connect to all these other people who are also older, most likely divorced or seen as the leftovers of society, and finally have a chance to meet men who know that they are divorced but are willing to still explore a relationships - well these women are very happy because the have faith in being "rescued." It's comforting to know that one doesn't have to be ashamed of one's age or background. I've noticed that some of the most popular Weibo Instant Photo are the ones for older women for all that info is posted publicly! I haven't heard of any single meet-ups for older people yet, but that doesn't mean that they aren't happening. I've just begun to observe this and haven't had a chance to do enough poking around yet.
Now if taking digital encounters into physical encounters such as these Weibo Singles meet-ups are becoming socially acceptable, how can we design around this existing practice? What kind of games can we build on top of this? What other kind of offline activities could be extended from Weibo? Will Instant Photo Singles remain politically benign and out of the government's concern?
I've only done a few interviews and spent a few weeks conducting ethnography so these are some very preliminary observations. So I'll have a lot more to write about this after a few months when I participate in the meet-ups, interview people who have posted for their friends and who have posted pictures of themselves, and get a better understanding of what this means for Weibo, SNS in China, and its users.
I am also aware that these Instant Photo Singles meet-ups and the social circumstances that I've described so far apply for hetero-normative relationships. I have just started researching the LGBT community and will write more about this later also when I have some done more fieldwork.
Thank you to 孟繁永 for telling me about 随手拍!
Alexis Madrigal wrote up a great post about this on The Atlantic, How China's Twitter, Weibo, Became a Dating Platform.