A Cyborg Story: Study WeChat Users and Practices through Feminist Theory and STS

(Note: This short essay is my final piece of homework for the class Feminist Theory and STS, taught by Dr. Anne Pollock. I tried to draw connections between my research on WeChat and what I learned from this class. It was a great mental exercise for me to think about my dissertation, and I hope you enjoy reading it as well.)

To be able to engage with feminist theories and STS in my own research projects is one of my major purposes of taking this class. In this essay, I will talk about my prospective dissertation topic and discuss how feminist theories and STS will shed light on it from various angles.

Recent years, social networks start booming more than ever. The fast development of the Internet and the widespread of smartphones make it possible for people to connect with each other at nearly any time and anywhere, and social networks are the foundation for this connected virtual “web.” With an interest in culture, technology, and social networks, I’m eager to learn how culture and technology affect each other in the shape of social networking, and what a “cultural” social network means and possibly looks like. For my Ph.D. dissertation, I will take one single technology as a case to study: WeChat. WeChat is the most popular mobile instant messenger in China. However, different from other instant messaging tools such as WhatsApp or Line, WeChat is not only a mobile instant messenger but also a social network. In fact, being an instant messenger or a social network is only a small part of it; it is a huge mobile platform that almost encompasses everything, including money transaction, news subscription, online shopping and many more (Lawrence, 2016). WeChat users often find themselves spending most of their time interacting with WeChat, without the need to switch to other applications. Besides this most outstanding characteristic, WeChat is mostly used by Chinese people, unlike Facebook, whose users come from various countries. This relatively coherent user base in terms of nationality and the powerful functional integration of WeChat attract me. How do people use WeChat, if they are all Chinese but have diverse life experiences and coming from different backgrounds (e.g., gender, age, education, occupation, etc.)? How are people’s lives influenced, if any, by WeChat? In addition, I want to know if people’s use of WeChat influences WeChat itself, in some ways. All in all, I would like to study the co-construction of WeChat and its users in the context of contemporary China.

Having conducted two studies on WeChat, I’m currently at the stage of planning my next study and thinking about the overall story to tell in my dissertation as well. Reflecting on what I learned throughout this semester, I believe I can see several possibilities for my next steps, inspired by feminist theory and STS.

First, feminist theory and STS can offer me new places to start from. Feminist theorist and philosopher Sandra Harding criticizes the common, conventional understanding of “objectivity” (which usually relates to absolute truth, fairness, and equality) of not being truly objective. Instead, she argues for a “strong objectivity,” where studies of our world should originate more from minorities and those who haven’t been heard of in the past (e.g., the poor, the oppressed), so that our knowledge will be more complete, and thus achieves the strong objectivity (Harding, 1993). Thinking about this call of starting from women’s lives, I remember interviewing rural Chinese villagers a year ago. To my surprise, female villagers tended to know much more about information technologies than their husbands or brothers. This was because “sticking to the phone all the time is perceived as ‘not doing formal business’ and also ‘a waste of (men’s) time’ and thus only women will do that,” explained one of my female interviewees. However, such a technology proficiency, together with the design of WeChat and the stable nationwide Internet connection, in fact, turns out to support female villagers to earn spare money through WeChat and hence gain more freedom and say in their families that they couldn’t expect before. Indeed, as Wajcman says, “the materiality of technology affords or inhibits the doing of particular gender power relations” (Wajcman, 2010). A promising next move could be continuously digging deeper into female WeChat users’ lives and learn how they use WeChat to fulfill their needs.

Second, feminist theory and STS can also be my powerful analytic tool. Apply feminist epistemology to a case or phenomenon to gain insights is an old trick in feminist theory and STS. For instance, by describing black women’s experiences at American airports from a feminist standpoint with particular attention to these women, the preconceptions and discriminations imposed on them become more evident (Browne, 2015). I can map the same technique to one of my previous studies where I researched how Chinese people sent emoji on WeChat. I could ask questions such as what are the emoji used more by female users, what is the consequence of sending erotic stickers to women, and how do female and male WeChat users understand the same emoji differently. By examining my past study from a refreshing feminist lens, I hope to uncover some implicit gender dichotomies and underlying discourses in the emoji world, just as what Emily Martin does to contrast how people talk about the egg and the sperm differently (Martin, 1991).

Third, feminist theory and STS push me to imagine alternatives, both for future and for technology. The question that I keep asking myself in the course of studying WeChat is, what is the alternative form of WeChat? In the context of feminist theory and STS, I can ask, is it possible for WeChat to be feminist and what does a “feminist” WeChat look like? In her book Reinventing Hoodia, Laura Foster describes the roles played by the plant Hoodia in different communities, including the San people, the South African scientists, the drug companies, and the Hoodia growers (Foster, 2017). By putting forward these distinct and sometimes conflicting roles of the same object, we can easily see the flexibility and also the diverse possibilities of Hoodia. Similarly, Nakamura tells the story of the company Fairchild Semiconductor building its plant on Navajo land and discusses how parties such as Fairchild executives, Navajo leaders, and the media all had their own understandings of this project, which again addresses that the project itself was never neutral or independent but subject to interpretations and changes coming from all directions (Nakamura, 2014). To envision alternative WeChats, I can learn from this method and describe what WeChat means to people who are younger, who are older, who are disabled, who invest money in it, who spend their time to develop it and more. Different images of WeChat will emerge from different people’s views, and altogether they will reach a feminist collection of WeChats.

Taking a step back, the projects I listed above seem to reflect a common theme: cyborg. Cyborg, in feminist theory, is a concept raised by Donna Haraway to contest the singular and dominating understanding of identity. In her A Cyborg Manifesto, she challenges widespread dichotomies (e.g., human vs. animal, culture vs. nature) that people rely on to describe (and categorize) themselves and the world (Haraway, 1991). She believes the fixed, homogeneous view of identity should be shattered, and cyborg is the alternative “identity” she comes up, in which humans are not pure but mingle with animals, technologies, and other objects or concepts that people traditionally will not think of. Coming back to my own project, I am convinced that nobody and no object will be left innocent in the world of social networks. Cyber, but not virtual, identities consciously or unconsciously established by every single WeChat user are instances of cyborg. An unchangeable identity is rendered impossible because everybody is a cyborg. On the other hand, WeChat, even usually seen as a passive technology, could also be a cyborg because it exerts power but receives power from users (and/or non-users) and other societal forces too. Cyborgs are the basis of the fluid WeChat world. In the end, I strive to avoid any dualism because there will only be connections and networks in a cyborg space. With the lead of cyborg, I hope the pieces in my dissertation will all come together and shine illuminating lights.

One of the last pieces I read for this class is Sara Ahmed’s Bringing Feminist Theory Home. In that chapter, she says feminism matters everywhere and “feminism is homework” (Ahmed, 2017). By homework, she means that feminism should be the kind of homework that we voluntarily assign to ourselves not only inside academic setting but also outside in our daily lives. With this essay, I hope I successfully complete one of self-assigned feminist homework, marking only the beginning of more homework, as both a woman and a feminist STS scholar.

 

 

References

  • Ahmed, S. (2017). Bringing Feminist Theory Home. In Living a Feminist Life (pp. 1–18). Duke University Press. https://doi.org/10.1353/qui.2012.0008
  • Browne, S. (2015). “What Did TSA Find in Solange’s Fro”?: Security Theater at the Airport. In Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness (pp. 133–159). Duke University Press.
  • Foster, L. A. (2017). Reinventing Hoodia: Peoples, Plants, and Patents in South Africa. Seattle and London: University of Washington Press.
  • Haraway, D. J. (1991). A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century. In Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (pp. 149–181). New York: Routledge. https://doi.org/10.2307/2076334
  • Harding, S. (1993). Rethinking Standpoint Epistemology: What Is “Strong Objectivity”? In L. Alcoff & E. Potter (Eds.), Feminist Epistemologies (pp. 49–82). Routledge.
  • Lawrence, D. (2016, June). Life in the People’s Republic of WeChat. Bloomberg Businessweek. Retrieved from https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-06-09/life-in-the-people-s-republic-of-wechat
  • Martin, E. (1991). The Egg and the Sperm : How Science Has Constructed a Male-Female Roles. Signs, 16(3), 485–501.
  • Nakamura, L. (2014). Indigenous Circuits: Navajo Women and the Racialization of Early Electronic Manufacture. American Quarterly, 66(4), 919–941. https://doi.org/10.1353/aq.2014.0070
  • Wajcman, J. (2010). Feminist theories of technology. Cambridge Journal of Economics, 34(1), 143–152. https://doi.org/10.1093/cje/ben057

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