Comunicar Journal Blog

What is the Role of Media in Creating Young Japanese Hermits?

Let me introduce you to a mini documentary about young Japanese hermits called hikikomori. Hikikomori live in seclusion stretching months, even years, without a proper occupation. Movies and video games comprise their daily life, and they do not have a social life outside of the Internet. How do they become like this? How can Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic theory help us to understand the inner world of hikikomori?

Hikikomori are people who have rejected the outside world or external reality. What Freud teaches us to think about “reality” is not really about whether something is subjective or objective, rather, he thinks reality as an “obstacle”. In his psychoanalytic theory, humans primarily seek pleasure and organize their activities around this goal. But in many moments in life pleasure isn’t readily available, so the individual must work his or her way around and has to directly manipulate the external environment in order to secure the source of pleasure. Following this thinking, we are all the time living in our own fantasies until a problem arises, that’s our point of contact with the world, which is reality.

Narcissism is another keyword in his theory. Let’s take narcissism as “love for oneself”, and define love as “an individual’s relationship with a source of pleasure”, that means the narcissist takes oneself as the source of pleasure. It is well-known that Freud is all about sexual pleasure, and I think he’s right about auto-eroticism of the human body. Auto-eroticism means we can generate sexual pleasure just by fiddling with our own bodies (e.g. masturbation or day-dreaming). And since our bodies are immediately available to ourselves, we don’t have to deal with the external environment at all to experience pleasure. This is why narcissism is dangerous because of the self-sufficiency of the body which grants “labour-free” pleasure to ourselves, causing us to lose incentive to come in contact with the outside world and other people.

I think there is a weighty element of narcissism in hikikomori. And the contemporary media environment supports this personality trait. When movies, video games, and convenient store foods can satisfy their need for pleasure, why take pains to deal with reality? Reality is painful, because work demands labour, just as walking strains our muscles. The documentary addresses this as well, attributing the cause of hikikomori to parental negligence or violence which is broadly tied to high society expectations and intense competition. Parents, who out of ignorance or pressure abuse their children to “succeed”, puts too much of a dose of reality to their children early on, and the intense amount of pain causes the children to avoid dealing with reality later on and become hikikomori. They prefer to live in a sheltered existence where all is pleasure and no pain, often out of fear.

Switching gears to McLuhan, if media technology is extension of the human body, then should we think movies and video games as auto-erotic, narcissism-inducing machines that ultimately have the effect of isolating individuals from the outside world?


Call for abstract: Media Education Summit 2018, Hong Kong

Date: November 1-2, 2018
Venue: Hong Kong Baptist University (HKBU), Hong Kong
Conference Website:

About the Conference:
Each year the Media Education Summit (MES) is held in a different country. It
brings together a global network of media educators and media literacy
practitioners to share research, pedagogy and innovation in all aspects of media
literacy education and media technology education. In 2018, the MES will be held
in Hong Kong. The School of Communication at HKBU will co-organize the
MES with the Centre for Excellence in Media Practice (CEMP) of Bournemouth
University, UK.
This international conference will be one of the key events to mark the 50 th
Anniversary of the School of Communication at HKBU.
MES is convened annually by the CEMP and now is a global event, hosted in
Prague in 2014, Boston in 2015, Rome in 2016 and Segovia in 2017. In 2018,
MES will be held in Asia for the first time.
Media and information literacy (MIL) and media technology education have
become essential life skills in the emerging knowledge society. Educators around
the world are developing innovative media education programs for the youth.
Moreover, the field of media literacy has become a distinct academic field of
study. This conference will provide an opportunity for media literacy and media
education researchers and practitioners to exchange views across disciplines and
cultures on the latest developments in the field.

Abstract submission:

Deadline of submission: April 30, 2018

Reflections on the talks by Prof Ikhlaq Sidhu on Artificial Intelligence

Reflections on the talk by Prof Ikhlaq Sidhu on Artificial Intelligence

“Will AI help the film directors to make better movies? – Yes! But will AI replace the film directors and become directors? – No!” – Prof Ikhlaq Sidhu.

Thus responded by Prof Sidhu when I asked, “do you think AI will replace film directors?” Fortunately, our dialogue was far wider than the above. Prof Ikhlaq Sidhu, Professor & Chief Scientist, UC Berkeley, and the Founding Director, Center for Entrepreneurship & Technology, offered a University-wide “Distinguished Lecture” on “How to Achieve Data Analytics and Artificial Intelligence in X” and a two-full-day masterclass on Big Data Analytics in Hong Kong Baptist University.

In the 1.5-hour of talk, Prof Sidhu reviewed the traditional applications of AI (for example, classification and scoring/prediction). He then reviewed the future directions of AI. Thirdly, he pinpointed several limitations of AI vis-à-vis human (which I will offer some of my humble reflections on this blog), and how to understand the future development of this field (another key point I’d like to address further here). Lastly, some strategies options were offered to HKBU. During the four-day visit of Prof Sidhu to HKBU (thanks to the Knowledge Transfer Office, especially Alfred), we got a chance to have more in-depth discussion on this theme. My three quick and immature reflections are indicated below.


# Reflection 1: AI and human

When the whole world is charmed (and feeling threatened perhaps) about the AlphaGo (and still remembering the perplexed look of Ke Jie), Prof Sidhu raised a question: “does this mean AI can do everything better than humans?” When the expected answer from the mass (as humans) might be “no” (but I have a large circle of tech-geek friends who would say yes, loudly and clearly), the mechanisms worth further explication. Prof Sidhu holds a very prudent and cautious view. AI can handle tasks that having certain outcomes (winning the GO); in a limited, in discrete conditions; where the human world may not always have the luxury of having certain outcomes (I wish I could know the path to become a billionaire), in unlimited and continuous conditions. Hence, one tentative statement here is, there will be more and more “specific AI” applications, focusing on one domain, handling one very specific type of tasks (AI-assisted financial planning, AlphaGo, auto-drivers, among others); but there are not “comprehensive AI” (do we have Blade Runner 2049 or Ghost in the Shell). That repeats the dialogue in the opening when I asked: “since AI can self-learn, and AI has been quite successful in many fields, will it success as well in creative industries, such as painting, music, poetics, and film making?”


# Reflection 2: Data and theory

The end of theory.” We all still remember the Chris Anderson’s 2008 essay on Wired. One primary argument is that, with the huge amount of data, we don’t need theory any more, because the patterns, regulations, and insights will emerge from the data. Neither Prof Sidhu and other audiences directly mention this piece, but Sidhu raised the cautious in seeking ground truth (if my interpretation is correct): if the truth of a certain parameter is 12; but all the top-ranked Google pages say it should be 11, then people will believe the parameter to be 11.

So how to deal with the relationship between data and “theory?” Prof Sidhu raised three critical reflections: a. data is more valuable than algorithm; b. Algorithm is more important than the system; and c. algorithms, data, and computing data is growing faster than computing.

Personally I have a strong resonance from point (a). Tycho, the 16th century Danish astronomer, who reached the human’s limitation to document decades-long astronomical and planetary observations. With the huge amount of data from Tycho, could later scientists, namely Kepler and Newton, accomplish scientific leap-forwards and raise new insights and propose new theories. In the big data era, we badly need more empirical data and observations that enabled by the accurate and comprehensive documentations of human behaviors, just like what Tycho did in several centuries ago. “Exactly! We still need theories and scientific methods: from observation to building up hypothesis and to make further inferences.” Thus responded Sidhu when I mentioned Tycho. (Credit should also be given to my high school geography teacher, when he told us the story of scientific progress in the human history).


# Reflection 3: AI, job losses, lifestyle, and beyond 

The final reflection started from an audience’s question, which was also a commonly-discussed one: how to respond to the job losses because of AI? The first half of Prof Sidhu’s response to the question echoed some economists’ observation: while AI may lead to some job losses, but new job positions will emerge at the same time. Secondly, Prof Sidhu used the example of sewing industry in the history. When the sewing machine was invented, about 50 workers could be replaced by one machine (50:1). Further, the cost of the clothes was also dropped; and sequentially, people’s lifestyle was also changed (buying two clothes vs having a full closet of clothes – far more than one’s needs). Hence, my humble thought is that, more studies are needed to examine the long-term impacts of AI on social change. Topics may include lifestyle, fashion, aesthetics, culture values, social values, and ideologies.


Critical Citizenship and Social Empowerment

The latest issue of Comunicar (Vol. XXV, n. 53, 4th quarter, October 1 2017) ( sheds lights on one of the most popular topics in nowadays academia – cyber activism and empowerment. A meta-analysis leads four specific empirical studies based in different nations and regions.

In the past decade, along with the global uprising cases is the blossom of research on social activism that is inevitably intertwined with communication studies. Obviously, the prevalence of digital-aided communication tools has played an essential role not only in protesting activities, but in most areas of human social life. Use of digital media enlarges scale and transforms essence of social occurrences: the speed and scale of mass communication has been significantly heightened so that attentions on certain events have been broadened from local to global range; the breaking-out, mobilization and sustaining of social protests have been changed by people’s use of digital media. “Connective action” suggested by Lance Bennett and Alexandra Segerberg offers an innovative paradigm to refresh our understanding on how human actions could be connected with each other. (

In this current issue, papers such as “Cyberactivisim in the Process of Political and Social Change in Arab Countries” and “Protesting on Twitter: Citizenship and Empowerment from Public Education” prove the prevalence and importance of digital-aided communication in protests that are both contentious and on everyday bases. The former one highlights the sustaining of movement networks that allied citizens from contentious moments to the ever longer period of “movement awaited” – the ebbs and flows of protests. The latter one offers a mapping of how anonymous citizens reacted to governmental decisions on the online platform.

That said, the spectrum ranged from connective action and collective action spans from one end of human-organization based to another anonymity end that is fraught with uncertainties. In  “Cyberactivisim in the Process of Political and Social Change in Arab Countries“, human networks still contribute greatly in terms of protest mobilization and more importantly, bonding the morale when external stimulus demise. “Protesting on Twitter: Citizenship and Empowerment from Public Education” pointed out that, while the online platform is free from a lot of restrictions which hinder people’s participation in previous age, the citizenship, by all means, is actualized through people’s active social conscious and empowerment that is educated and practiced in everyday life in the real world.

New challenges such as human’s substitute AI (artificial intelligent) produce puzzles which are unsolvable at this stage, among which a crucial question goes to whether AI can really think. Perhaps AI can help with household chords while there is still a long way to go before AI can take an active role in the world – the learning, practicing and reflecting what do human mean to the society, and vice versa.




Marching into the new frontier of “data and media communication”

DMC IDay 2017

Earlier this month on 7 Oct, the Hong Kong Baptist University held a university-level Information Day, introducing undergraduate programmes (see this news issued by the University). The Department of Journalism is a part of this exciting event. This year the Department is joining hands with the Department of Computer Science (COMP) to launch a new interdisciplinary concentration eneitled “Data and Media Communication” (DMC), starting from 2018/19. Here is a simple official webpage. Basically, the new concentration – being added to the existing counterparts in the department – Chinese Journalism, International Journalism, and Financial Journalism – aiming at providing both data analytics training and journalistic education to students.  It is an effort for the department to meet the challenge of the transitioning news industry, as well as the willingness to march into the frontier of the interplay of data science and humanities/social sciences in general.

The event sailed through, with the great help from the six hard-working student helpers from other programmes, especially when we do NOT have any student to cheer for us! Mr Pili Hu, the newly appointed lecturer in our department, formerly the data manager at Inituim, offered an array of excellent data-driven journalism works, so that we could demonstrate and show the visitors the power of the combination of journalistic sensitivity, design, infographic, and data analytics. We also owe big favors to Melody, Hung Gor, Chung Gor, and not to mention the strong support from Alice, our Dept. Head, as well as Dean Prof Huang.

Well I guess it is not appropriate – also not the intention of this blog – for me to further promote and explicate this new concentration. But may I – as a humble associate director of this infant programme – share several observations and reflections from the information day and Q&As with the visitors.

First, the visitors’ enthusiasm and interests in data-driven journalism were far beyond our expectation. A simple indicator is that all the pamphlets and souvenirs were out of supply. High school students, parents, year 2 AD students, and faculty members from other academic units, gathered around our booth, asking questions. They were not just passers-by. Secondly, it seems that most students are intimidated by the term of “data” – they regarded “data” as “high math skills.” Actually, for the application of data science in journalism, “math skills” is not the most important ability, instead, it is the “data sense” that one should be cultivated – where to find data, how to interpret data, how to make sense of data, and “how to lie with statistics.” All these are not about “science” and “math,” but the same keen attention to the “misfortune of human beings” and the willingness to contribute to the public goods. Thirdly, it seems that there is an overlapping of the interests of “data-driven journalism” and “financial journalism.” Common-sensically, both are focusing on “data.” But I would say these two areas are distinct. To me, it appears that financial journalism is more specialized and having demanding requirements on specific domain knowledge, whereas data-driven journalism is more like a “telescope” (or microscope, a tool, a lens) to uncover the myths of the social realities. Finally, my humble understanding on the interplay between journalism and data science shares with the quotation of Prof Jonathan Zhu at CityU: “Students from humanities are worried about [how to compute]; whereas those who with science backgrounds are worried about [what to compute].” That’s the long-lasting and enduring challenge facing both clusters of students.

Does news objectivity matter in the age of digital era?

Survey found that many people under 30 do not read news on newspapers or TV. For example, a study found that 80% of individual do not read newspapers daily, while 70% of older generation does in the United States. This phenomenon happens all over the world. It doesn’t mean that they are not interested in news, but they prefer other consumption patterns.

People worry that young people are no longer interested in public affairs and take it as the decline in a healthy democracy. Others argue that young people are still interested in news, but they would like to read the news that is more relevant to their lives. They found that the conventional newspaper is boring. They do not like to get news from traditional media. Instead, recent research found that they like to learn the current news story form social network sites, such as Facebook, MySpace.

What will happen when professional journalists cannot function as gatekeepers? Friends and family in social media now serve as gatekeepers that bring news stories to the young people.  Online activities make the teenagers engaging with news in a far more complex way than in traditional media. They are not only learning the news event by reading the article itself, but at the same time exposed to the link embedded in the article, read the comments and opinions written by their friends or relatives. It means they are used to expose to a variety of opinion when they read news story. What is the impact on young people’s news consumption?

“Objectivity” is the golden rules of professional journalism. When young people can get news via social media, they inevitably get access to opinionated comments, rather than objective reports alone. Recent study found that young people prefer opinionated report, rather than object news story. It is therefore important to foster a critical mind for young people, so that they can how to make judgement on the news story.Presentation1

Can news be animated?

animated news


Animation is used to play a role in telling the toughest part of the stories.  For example, it is used to illustrate natural disasters, and crisis.  BBC has produced an animated video footage to report how tsunamis happened. With the advance development of technology, the use of animation is now used more frequently in news industry. Animation takes on even more prominent role in news making process, while some media organizations start to produce the news videos using melodramatic animation.

These animated news videos feature character modelling, background music and sound effects. It unfolds the news event with the animated characters and detailed story plot. It raise the concern among the scholars and practitioners, since it may compromise the objectivity and credibility of the news. The unverified version of news is animated, although the practitioners argue that it helps to fill the gap of news stories that cannot shown by videos clips. The technology also engage the audience and attract their eyeballs.

The melodramatic animated news not only produced in Asian cities, such as Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan and India. It now has a global impact while some international media organizations also adopt these types of new videos to illustrate political events and crisis.  Some news videos did go viral. For example, the videos of Tigerwood Martial affairs attracted large number of views globally. The inclusion of animation in news production is on the rise, it is important to explore the impact of this new presentation format on the audience and explores the appropriateness of using animation in news industry.  Does animation facilitate the news story telling? Does the use of animation in news upset the journalistic principles? More discussion and study is needed among the media scholars and practitioners.

Subtitles: A Distraction for Foreign Viewers?

In an increasingly globalized environment, where viewers consume more foreign audiovisual content than ever, Kruger, Doherty, and Soto-Sanfiel’s study tackles an important issue. When viewers engage materials composed of foreign languages, subtitles become the necessary tool for communicating meaning over the language barrier. But do subtitles, commonly presumed as distraction, in fact lessen the enjoyment of such materials?

“Original Language Subtitles: Their Effects on the Native and Foreign Viewer” concludes that subtitles do not significantly reduce immersion; not only did they not act as distraction to the viewers, they on the other hand increased transportation [to fictional reality], character identification, and perceived realism. Such result is agreeable since subtitles are attached to the characters’ faces which, even if they demand additional visual attention from the viewers, only strengthen identification.

There is, however, a serious limitation of this study that may affect how generalizable the results are to audiovisual narratives in general. The study employs the American investigative medical drama series, House, MD (2011), as audiovisual material for viewing. This could be limiting due to the nature of television drama. This form of audiovisual narrative advances its plot mainly through dialogue. And since subtitles are within the province of the dialogue and only direct more attention to it, viewers are bound to have higher immersion. Conversely, feature length films tend to rely more on visual elements to make meaning and advance the narrative. In this regard, subtitles, now a competitor of visual attention, would be driving viewers away from the narrative.

The authors are sensible of this limitation and have stated in brief such concern in the last section. Considering this is such an important study in a globalized setting, this limitation shall be treated with extra attention.


The summer school on “Artificial Society and Computational Social Science” – A late comer’s reflection

“The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now,” thus spoke the proverb. As a student using “traditional” quantitative methods, I was fortunate to be enrolled as one of the 178 participants in the 2017 summer school on “Artificial Society and Computational Social Science,” held by the School of Sociology and Anthropology at Sun Yat-Sen University (SYSU) in Guangzhou from 10 – 20 July, 2017. The summer school was coordinated by Professor Yucheng Liang (faculty of SYSU), and lectured by Dr Hong Zhang (faculty of SYSU), Dr Yongren Shi (Postdoc at Yale, who has published several high-calibrated articles on top journals such as American Sociological Review), as well as (the well-known top scholar) Professor James Evans (from U Chicago). The summer school lasted for non-stop 11 days, with a total of 57 credits. Thank goodness, I finished this summer school in the grilling and hectic season in Guangzhou.

The summer school covered two broad research areas, namely, the agent-based modeling (ABM) approach, and the computational social science (CSS) approach. The ABM approach takes the process of computer simulation based on several formulated rules, and explicates the process and dynamics among individuals (termed as “agents”), and the emergence of collective social phenomenon. In the research, the characteristics and rules of agents’ action, the rule of social interaction among these agents, and the social contexts in which the agents interact, are all defined and set-up by the researchers. The approach has been applied to a wide range of disciplines, from natural science (the symbiosis of animals, the penetration of fire in the forest), to social science such as the distribution of wealth, the formation of race segregation, and, as a recent article published on Journal of Communication explicated, the reciprocal influence of selective media exposure, interpersonal political talk, and political polarization! The ABM method tries to explain the world in a highly abstract and succinct fashion, and it manages to investigate the evolution of collective social facts (i.e., race segregation, ideological polarization) from simple individual’s actions and interacting rules (i.e., “I will move to another place if 30% of my neighborhoods are not the same race as me” – as depicted by the Schelling model).

The computational social science (CSS) can be roughly defined, by Professor Evans, as the “method to use computers to generate data, discover patterns or generate and test explanations that you could not have without them” (in-class lecture notes, taking by the author). It is based on massive amount of data generated from social media, digital traces, as well as the digitalization of existing “non-digital” text materials. The “Declaration” of this field was raised by David Lazer (2009), which has been widely quoted and featured. In the second session of the summer school, Dr Yongren Shi introduced several cutting-edged works. For example, is science political polarized? (Intuitively one may say “no!” – because one always believes that “science” is (ought to be) objective, non-ideologically tilted, and being free from the partisanship’s influence). However, massive Amazon book purchase records revealed a complex and disturbing scenario (see the work “Millions of online book co-purchases reveal partisan differences in the consumption of science” by Shi and his associates). He also mentioned another recent work on the strategic development of organization.

As a “late comer” of this field, I was deeply fascinated and charmed by the insightful (and sometimes “crazy”) research ideas and the rigorous operationalization and implementation of this field. The interdisciplinary nature also generates a lot of rich research ideas, and advancing our understanding on the nature of human behaviors. I was also moved by all the teaching faculties (including the five voluntary student teaching assistants), who voluntarily organized this workshop and generously shared their latest work, all for FREE! (Yes, the summer school was zero charged). I was also surprised to find the hard-working and eagerness of all the participants attending this summer school. Some of them were already ranked as Associate Professor or above. In sum, there remains much to be further reflected and digested from this fruitful summer.


2017SYSU James talk2017SYSU Campus2017SYSU Zhang Cert

# Figure 1. Professor James Evan is lecturing. The photo was took by the author.

# Figure 2. A snapshot of the main campus of SYSU.

# Figure 3. My humble “Letter of Certificate”

The peril of entertainment on social media

On June 7th, a number of entertainment public social media accounts in mainland China (see the news report by the South China Morning Post) were shut down by the authority. According to the Cyberspace Administration of China, the censorship authority for all new media platforms, these entertainment accounts cast a threat to public order, as they are likely to promote vulgar contents such as violence and pornography, disclosing too much celebrities’ privacy and unhealthy personal lives, or containing monstrous and exaggeratedly bizarre pictures or videos. Another review by the New York Times pinpointed the tricky aspect of this issue: when entertainment news and sports news were previously regarded as “safe and free” areas of news reporting, the cracking down of these public accounts indicated an extended mode of content regulation. Another perplexed puzzle is that, defined as a crucial component of “cultural industry,” the strategic development of entertainment and new media have been written into several waves of Five-Year Plans.

My quick reflection on this “news occurrence” is twofold. First, based on a humble guess, the motivation for the authority to initiate such censorship – like some of those content regulations imposing on entertainment contents but unlike those on politically sensitive or “national security-related” contents – is that they believe ordinary audiences might imitate or legitimize those lifestyles defined to be “unhealthy” and “negative,” such as, but not limited to, extramarital affairs, law violation, showing off, binge drinking and drug abuse, plus (possibly) excessively materialistic lifestyles. A strong media effect is presumed. The third-person effect can also spell the logic out: only a small group of smart people can distinguish the right from wrong, whilst the general netizens are less enlightened.

Secondly, the real paradox is that, in a context where the media system is relatively not free (of course, it depends on the benchmark of “free” – a handy reference is that how much “independence,” or “dependence” the media agencies can enjoy), media has the function of “empowerment:” everything appears on the media is legitimate and endorsed by the authorities. This is a myth that should be corrected, and one crucial way, though may not be the best one, is to grant a more open and diverse media landscape and return the right for decision-making back to the audiences themselves. In the vein of entertainment (or just like sports), perhaps the neo-liberal interpretation of market functions perfectly. One can always vote for or against his or her (entertainment) idols (setting aside running the risk of objectifying those celebrities for a while). The Media System Dependency theory argues that people rely on media the most when the situation they are living in is uncertain and unstable. Based on the theory, perhaps a rapid development of entertainment media, though somewhat not that decent for a while, is the result of limited competence in reporting issues on government, politics, and the public. This in turn promotes a rapid growth of online content providers. One may ask, what will happen if the entertainment media is constrained as well? In balancing the benefits and demands among media, politics, stakeholders, and audience, there is still a long way to proceed.


(This picture is in the public domain and it is obtained from: