I just attended the 14th Chinese Internet Research Conference (CIRC), which also was a post-conference to the 2016 International Communication Association (ICA). This year the conference was held at Fudan University, Shanghai. The conference offered an opportunity to get an overview of current research, new hot topics, and both theoretical and methodological discussions. I presented a paper that combined my interest in cultural heritage and new media.
Mediatization and cultural heritage: Plural voices and new platform
Recent work on heritage and social media has highlighted how social media offer new possibilities for citizens to share memories, identities, local culture and heritage, and thus constitute a more participatory and democratic platform (Giaccardi 2012). Social media encourage and enable new forms of engagement and interpretations of the heritage through user-generated content, personal reflections, interactions with others, and sharing of visual materials. As a result the experience of heritage has become more personal, performative and visual in character. New digital technologies are also used by heritage institutions such as museums to involve local communities in the co-production of heritage (for example through the use of Facebook, Instagram). The visual nature of social media engagement needs to be emphasised as the act of taking and sharing photos is quite central (Freeman 2010). Another important feature is the mobile nature of social media that enables real-time heritage engagements through smartphones, QR tagging, and apps, which reinforces the lived and performative aspects of heritage. Social media can support both the formation of new publics or communities by enabling strangers to share memories and experiences with places, historical events, and cultural practices, as well as enable existing communities to strengthen their ties and help them remember and experience their own heritage in new ways.
This paper discusses how different actors in China today use a wide range of digital technologies to mediate, visualise and celebrate local traditions and heritage. The mediatization of the cultural heritage increasingly takes place through film on digital video sharing sites and on social media platforms such as WeChat. These digital technologies enable Chinese citizens and local communities to bypass traditional heritage institutions as they now themselves are able to celebrate and document local history and cultural practices. This may also include heritage that official institutions have overlooked or do not acknowledge as heritage. New online communities have emerged around new topics of interests, specific cultural practices and architecture, or centre around place-based identities. This paper focuses on different groups such as local communities, heritage enthusiasts, informal networks and formal organizations, but also addresses the use of social media by official heritage institutions. Many informal networks, organizations, and official bodies have recently set up special WeChat groups that provide information and document local history. For individuals and local groups social media practices are however embedded in offline heritage practices, including travel and participation in different cultural events, and the paper also addresses these online/offline connection and embeddness. The paper is based on long-term ethnographic work, both online and offline, participation in different heritage activities as well as interviews with members of different heritage WeChat groups and other actors.