In May 2019, Andrea Hamm presented her study on digital representations, topic clusters, and techno-nationalization of drones on the Chinese platform Zhihu at the International Communication Association 2019 pre-conference Digital Asia in Washington, DC. The research was conducted together with Zihao Lin (Humboldt University Berlin) in 2018.
Unmanned and unwomaned aerial vehicles (UAV), or drones, are breaking and creating new boundaries of image-based communication. Using social network analysis and critical discourse analysis, we examine the 60 most popular question threads about drones on Zhihu, China’s largest social question answering platform. We trace how controversial issues around these supposedly novel tech products are mediated, domesticated, visualized, or marginalized via digital representational technology. Supported by Zhihu’s topic categorization algorithm, drone-related discussions form topic clusters (see Figure above). These topic clusters gain currency in the government-regulated cyberspace, where their meanings remain open to widely divergent interpretations and mediation by various agents. We find that the largest drone company DJI occupies a central and strongly interconnected position in the discussions. Drones are, moreover, represented as objects of consumption, technological advancement, national future, and uncertainty. At the same time, the sense-making process of drone-related discussions evokes emerging sets of narrative user identities with potential political effects. Users engage in digital representational technologies publicly and collectively to raise questions and represent their views on new technologies. Therefore, we argue that platforms like Zhihu are essential when studying views of the Chinese citizenry towards technological developments. View Full-Text