Career: Investment Associate | Asia Alternatives | Beijing, China
Social Networks in China
Social networks are a phenomenon that has recently dramatically transformed the landscape of interpersonal communications on both a local and global scale. Previously, communication tended to be person to person or point to point, but in the new realm of social networks, communication has become net to net. The world suddenly has become so small that through social networks, the distance between different people has been reduced dramatically.
As in other parts of the world, China has witnessed a stunning development of its social networks. More than 30 percent of the country’s people have linked themselves to these networks.
Given China’s population base, this is a very large number. And the Chinese love to use these social networks.
In particular, a social platform known as “Weibo,” roughly the equivalent of Twitter, has become the most popular social network platform in China. Its users employ it at a high frequency, and there is a trend among users to use it even to replace other conventional means of communication such as email or phone.
While Chinese users of Weibo in many ways employ this platform as an American would use Twitter, there are also some behaviors that distinguish the two. Traditionally, for example, Chinese people tend to hide their direct feelings and true opinions and avoid expressing their opinions in face-to-face encounters. This may in part stem from the fact that China offers less freedom for public speech. Perhaps people find it a bit risky to express their opinions, preferring to restrict sharing them to more private circles. Hence, the Chinese seldom express their true thoughts in public, especially those about the country and the government.
The emergence of more public-oriented social networks, however, has brought revolutionary changes. On the one hand, people can make their voices heard online without facing real people face to face. On the other hand, voices on social networks are less subject to scrutiny and investigation. What is more important, every individual, even those at the bottom of the social hierarchy, now can express an opinion to a potentially huge audience throughout the country, as compared to the past when the right of public speech was controlled by a few people and the mainstream media.
Consequently, social networks in China have actually allowed the general public to be more vocal, which has had several consequences. First, China’s social networks are closely related to the public’s passion for discussing political and social issues. Chinese people already question the media’s role in uncovering social issues, especially the scandals of political figures and the government, and they understand the mainstream media often purposely hide the truth about issues deemed too sensitive for open discussion. Social media has quickly become a popular area for sharing information on these issues due to its convenience, efficiency, lack of agenda and broad reach. It may be surprising for some to learn that social networks have, in effect, assumed the role of the public media in China.
Another feature of Chinese life is the extraordinarily high pressure of everyday life. In China, the average person lives under tremendous pressure with limited channels for relief. Over time, that pressure can accumulate to an unbearable level. Social networks provide an ideal platform for people to release these pressures and vent their emotions. As a result, complaints are the most commonly seen contents of social networks in China. People seem to feel better just by having the chance to tell others how miserable their lives are and how much pity they deserve.
In contrast, young offspring of the wealthy and of high government officials often show off on social networks. Because of their superior status and desire to let others know about it, these people often will post articles and photos to show just how spectacularly well off they are, glorying in the envy of others.
Another issue that preoccupies many is simply one’s friend/follower count. Some consider this number alone to be an indicator of social status: the larger the number, the higher the social value of this person. Thus these people purposely add as many friends/followers as possible or even purchase friends/followers with real money. It may sound strange, but truth can be stranger than fiction. This strong desire to show off has become a commonly held psychological pattern among the Chinese of today, and it is therefore no surprise that social networks have developed into the major outlet for personal chest beating.
Social networks perform unique functions in China, largely driven by their unique social, political and cultural environment. China is an emerging economy but an ancient country. It has many values and behaviors that differ markedly from the rest of the world. Through social networks, Chinese people have finally found an ideal channel to speak freely, to release emotions directly and to gain attention conveniently. In China, social networks are not only a pure communication tool, they serve other functions as well, some of which naturally complement the current societal system. To be sure, some major social functions have not been fully implemented or realized by the current system, due to either political reasons or cultural factors. That is why social networks in China have evolved to serve such a unique set of needs, creating not only a new landscape for communication but also for the entire society.