When the third-generation (3G) mobile-phone network was launched in China last year, a vast range of compatible products was marketed towards upwardly mobile, professional, technologically connected people with high consumption power. But the largest social group to subscribe to the 3G network was migrant workers, because their need for storage capacity is surprisingly substantial. These workers are absolutely mobile and typically, they have no other devices on which to store data: 3G technology enables them to store photos, download music, videos and novels, and engage in a host of activities that would have been unavailable to them previously.
The most popular social-media tool used by China’s migrant population is Tencent QQ, China’s largest free instant-messaging service. At any one time, there are more than 80 million users chatting on QQ. With a monthly mobile subscription of five yuan (A$0.85), it is distinctly working class: white-collar professionals tend to stick to MSN.
The workers are most likely to use QQ when they want to meet new friends or catch up with people they’ve met since leaving home. If they want to contact their parents, they’ll usually use their mobile phones. Typically, these workers value the connections they’ve made since leaving home. There is a collective identity: we’re all on the road; we’re all new to the city, which is hostile to us; we don’t really belong here but somehow we’re together.