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

Again, on Situatedness

I have mixed feelings towards Chapter I in The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life[1], written by Erving Goffman. This chapter, Performances, talks about different ways people perform under various social conditions. Some of the words truly resonate with my personal experiences, while others are more surprising in a negative sense. Example for the latter one includes how Goffman talks about women on Page 61 (“… but there are many social contexts in which it would be improper for a woman not to misrepresent herself as being more youthful and sexually attractive than is really the case”). I decide to understand these ideas as typical productions of its time, which is more than 60 years earlier.

I’m both impressed and disturbed by this statement on page 57:

“Under our published principles and plighted language we must assiduously hide all the inequalities of our moods and conduct, and this without hypocrisy, since our deliberate character is more truly ourself than is the flux of our involuntary dreams.”

Even if Goffman explicitly states “this without hypocrisy”, I am still able to sense the uneasiness of putting on one or more social masks. This is because I’m the kind of person who often feels anxious of my own performance when there are people around. Thoughts revolve in my mind are like “did I just say something improper”, “oh I hope I didn’t make that gesture”, “I really have to be aware of my behavior next time”, etc. This anxiety can be intensified in strange environment or when facing somebody with more power or higher social status. However, what comes together with anxiety is a longing for being my true self under any kind of situation, and then hopefully being accepted and loved as who I truly am. I believe I’m not the only person who dreams of this.

Technology and HCI have a saying here. They contribute to people’s being themselves by supporting new technologies that allow people to reflect and improve, such as apps for focusing and fitness tracker. But this go beyond simply developing apps or devices. Allowing people to reveal themselves truly without fear and anxiety means technology should be less intimidating and more inclusive. This again goes back to the idea I mention throughout this entire semester: situatedness. To design and develop technology with more empathy requires a close look on different persons. How do they behavior under different situations? How can technologies support people more situately?

Why I am so much into situatedness is because I think this world can be improved by people’s awareness and acceptance to each other as different individuals. I strongly believe that technology has something to do here. Therefore, I am responsible of taking care of this as a researcher, no matter how little I can actually contribute.

[1] Erving Goffman. 1959. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Anchor Books, New York, NY.

Sense-making Process in HCI

One of the most apparent themes emerges from Kari Kuutti’s writing about activity theory[1] is sense-making. In fact, the field of HCI has struggled a lot in various sense-making processes, from the very beginning when this field was forming. Questions are asked: What does HCI mean when standing in between human and computer? How can HCI make sense of human and computer? What theories and methodologies should be applied? What are the possible outcomes and contributions of HCI research? Activity theory tries to answer these questions by providing a list of terms and their relationship in a framework, and then realizes this framework under a specific environment to get a better understanding of how human achieves a goal by mediating different tools and leveraging the relationships among elements inside the environment.

Therefore, “a specific environment” becomes the key phrase here. To be specific also means to be situated, to admit the uniqueness of a setting that embeds a goal or task or problem. This characteristic of activity theory echoes with other theories developed around late 1980s and early 1990s, such as distributed cognition, situated action, ethnomethodology, etc. The inclusion of external environment as an influential factor for understanding human cognition marks a significant change of sense-making approach in HCI. Human actor was no longer seen as an isolated system with comparable structure of computer. Instead, because external environment has been taken into consideration, the effect it can possibly bring to human is also introduced to the sense-making process.

I am deeply moved by this idea: Meaning can only be constructed under a concrete situation. It is dangerous for both researchers and practitioners in HCI, especially theorists, to simply grab a theory and try to derive meanings from it, as theory looks much more reliable and stable than the changing environment and human mind. Nevertheless, meanings don’t come from theory. They originate from the application of theory under a particular context. While theory offers means, context defines the environment. Meaning is the ends we can reach by beginning from a question and passing one or several proper theories in a particular context. The sense-making process has been simplified here. Real-world issues can only be more complex.

Why should we treat sense-making process so carefully? A short answer is that technologies have never been so massively exposed to our lives. Thus, it is certain that the changes technology can bring to us will affect the way we make sense of ourselves and how we understand the world. That’s why we need to understand the effect of technology situatedly. I’m happy to see researchers in HCI has digested this view and so many topics come into being because of this idea. Examples are social computing, ubiquitous computing, ICTD, etc. However, I still remain open about how HCI will improve or adjust its sense-making approach in the future, as change is happening all the time.

Reference

[1] Kari Kuutti. 1995. Activity Theory as a Potential Framework for Human-Computer Interaction Research. Context and Consciousness: Activity Theory and Human-Computer Interaction (Nov. 1995), 9-22.The MIT Press.