Living Online: Are Social Networks the Next Ecosystem In China?

Anecdote: An Online Life is An Easier Life   

Wechat conversation

Wechat conversation

While I was in Bridge Café, I decided to use the “Look Around” application on Wechat for my research project. This application, which I will explain in more detail later, allows you to converse with strangers using Weixin near your location. I accept the request to chat from a Tsinghua MBA student. He seemed extremely outgoing, was asking me questions about my education and what I thought of Beijing. He was definitely leading the conversation. He then suggested that we should meet for coffee sometime, and I accepted. When I turned around, there he was at the other end of the café. He saw me as well, so I smiled and said hello. He returned my smile but could not look me in the eye. I found it extremely difficult to talk to him, I had to ask the questions, and he replied quietly once again, not quite catching my eye. Eventually, I ran out of things to say, said goodbye and left it at that. Later, he messaged me asking for my phone number so we could meet sometime.


Analysis and Thesis:

This situation made me wonder about how much exactly the prominence of social networks is impacting the world of real interactions. China is one of the most populous countries in the world, and as a result, has the largest number of Internet users. Their use of social networks is much higher than anywhere else in the world. Thus competition to corner the social network sites has been extremely fierce. Especially given the fact that most international social network giants are banned. As a result, these social networking sites are trying to outdo each other and essentially creating a new world that exists entirely online governed by censorship. This online existence is further aided by the fact that the Chinese social network market seems to be segregated, most notably by age, mimicking the concept of growing older. My research topic focuses on how these Chinese social networks create this separate online existence, and whether the increased dependence on these social networks affects our real world interactions. To put this into perspective, and isolate the qualities that are distinctively of the Chinese social networks, I will compare then to the international Western born social networks, and put these social networks’ features in a model of the real world online. My field sites were thus both online on these Chinese social networks, as well as in physical locations Bridge Café, Zoo Coffee and Tao Koo Lin Mall, so that I could observe both real life interactions and compare it to those on social networks.



Social Networks MapFor the purpose of this research project, I defined a social network as  ‘a website that allows “friends” to share information and experiences through pictures, words and other sources of media, gives you a profile and allows for feedback’. The Chinese social networks I focused on are Renren, Sina Weibo and Weixin (Wechat).

I opened an account with each of the aforementioned social network sites in order to engage in participant observation. This not only allowed me to observe how people used their social accounts, but also to observe the features of these sites and how such features are used and received by the social network users. One aspect I found to be surprising of the Chinese social networks is how fragmented they are. Opening accounts with all these different social networking sites allowed me to see the difference between the posts of people across different age groups, natural statistical strata if you will.I used interviews to talk to learn about what people thought of these social networks, which one they spent the most time on and why they feel these social networks are important.

Renren: The high school and College mentality

Opening an account with Renren was probably the most challenging. Education information is compulsory. While it recognizes universities all over the world including the College of William and Mary, it only recognizes Chinese high schools. Thus I took the option of signing up with MSN in which I already have an account. I was automatically assigned to “Beijing twenty-fourth’.The compulsory prompt probably exists because your education is Renren’s primary platform of connecting you to people. As was repeatedly mentioned in my interviews and as I have seen, Renren’s target audience consists of “high school and college students”. (Fang Jun, July 16th 2013)

Renren warning


I was also warned and prompted to give my real name and not a nickname. This is apparently to ensure tighter controls of content, and to make
the process of finding people who post sensitive information, and thus makes censorship easier.

人人网, which literally means ‘person,person network’, but refers to “everyone’s network”,  is  a social network often called the “Chinese Facebook” because of it’s similar appearance. The history is a little similar. Renren was at first known as 校内, meaning on campus, and was intended only for college students. Facebook has a similar story, however, Facebook eventually managed to expand its user base and successfully appeal to all age groups.

Renren was founded to provide China with their own Facebook. But Facebook’s features are a lot more advanced. For instance, tagging photos on Facebook allows you and the friend you tagged to have a copy of the picture while on Renren, said photo would have to be uploaded by both parties. Also, where Facebook has come to be used as a method of spreading information and sharing opinions on important news, “Renren is more about what is happening in your “friends’ lives” and sharing what is happening in your own life. ” (Fang Jun, July 16th 2013) This is probably why people stop using Renren once they have graduated from college or high school, they become more concerned about what is happening the rest of the world. Renren also has a heavy gaming presence, which makes up more than half of Renren’s revenue stream. (  Renren Rides China’s Social Networking And Gaming To $3.20, Forbes) This also suggests that Renren intentionally exclusively caters to younger age groups.

Unlike on Facebook, posting ‘notes’ or ‘journals’ is a very popular thing to do on Renren. These are usually sharing personal first hand experiences, poetry as well as other means of expression. “This is most likely because before, freedom of expression was not really an option before, now that it is, we’re taking advantage of it.” (Fang Jun, July 16th 2013). This explanation was one I found extremely interesting. Freedom of expression in the Western world has been in existence for such a long time so the idea is an almost jaded one. However, in China, the idea is still relatively new, and thus greatly appreciated. However, it is important to realize that while it does appear that there is freedom of speech in China, one must note that these social networking sites are censored. Thus any mention of sensitive political issues is removed from the social networking sites and there may be consequences to the party who posted the content. This is especially the case on a site like Renren since you are using your real name.


Friendship on Renren:

Sending A Friend Request

In the model of this online life, friendship is one of the most important rituals. However, the translation of the word “friend” into the online world
is arguably a loose one. The definition of a friend online is rather clear; earning “friend” status allows you to see the other party’s pictures, shared thoughts, personal information and offer feedback. This definition of friendship can be applied however to classmates, acquaintances and best friends. There is thus a flaw in the translation of the concept from the real world to the online one.

“The process of becoming “friends” or “好友”is in the online world an easier process. You simply type in the name of the person you which to be friends, and add them as a friend. Facebook now allows you to group people as acquaintances, colleagues or close friends. This is however not the case on Renren. All the people you add as friends, no matter your degree of intimacy will be grouped as “好友”which means good friends. This is not something one would expect considering the strong definition of the word friend in China. “Friendship means more in China. You would do anything for a friend but not for a stranger.”(Fang Jun, July 16th 2013). “According to an article by Chiu, Ip and Silverman of McKinsey, there has been an independent study which found out that approximately two thirds of Chinese consumers relied on recommendations made by family and friends, relative to the one third of US consumers that did the same. (Kefela, “Let’s be Friends”)

Advertising is an extremely important revenue source for most social networks; Renren is populated with advertisements along the columns. As Dou, Huang and Zeng put it in their article, the acceptance of advertising depends on the norms of the group in question using the social network. (p.10) Thus Renren is intentionally populated with ads meant to attract younger crowds, namely college and high school students. This is another way that Renren excludes older age groups, and reinforces the concept of growing up in our online world model.


Renren has a feature that tracks the number of people that have viewed your profile and let’s everyone see this number. This is a measure of popularity.” (Field Journal, 7/9/2013) The concept of popularity admittedly is pretty well translated into Renren. By viewing your profile people can see your name and picture, and thus acknowledge your existence. Thus the more people that view your profile, the more people who acknowledge you, and thus the more popular you are. Popularity is also a very important concept in high school and college, thus the incorporation of this into the online world is a valid, particularly since we have acknowledged primarily high school and college students populate Renren.


The Renren Profile:A Brief Introduction Renren Profile

If someone does not know you, your profile serves as a brief introduction of who you are. It gives your name, picture, gender, occupation and education. In Renren it also shows how popular you are, which in this case we acknowledged as the number of views your profile has had. In high school and college, you meet a lot of people, and introduce yourselves to each other. The profile on Renren is arguably the online version of this phase. With just a click of a button, you can learn all the superficial information about someone that they would probably share with you the first time you meet them. One can arguably state the profile actually goes into more depth than one would think to upon meeting someone for the first time. Thus in a sense, it may be a more efficient introduction.


Weibo: A source to the outside world?

Joining WeiboOpening an account on Weibo was relatively simplistic. I simply had to fill in my personal information and my account was formed. In order to confirm my account, I needed to send a verification code to my cellphone. I was then required to select five fields of interest, which I did, and this resulted in me automatically following fifty-five people.

The concept of following on Weibo and Twitter is rather similar in the real world. When you are interested in certain people’s lives, especially in the case of celebrities, you would most likely try to learn as much as you can about what they are doing and their whereabouts. Prior to Weibo and Twitter people relied on news, talk shows and other media to learn about their favorite personalities.  “Weibo and Twitter, however, now allow them to learn all the information about these personalities they would like to learn online. “Following” these personalities is now much more efficient thanks to these social networking sites.” (Field Journal, 7/9/2013)

“It’s worldwide and open, if you post something, everyone can see it” (High school girl, July 30th 2013). This view was one I found particularly interesting because even though Weibo does give you access to a lot of news and information, it is not like seeing the whole world because Weibo is subjected to censorship. Yet when bringing up such a point, one must acknowledge how far freedom of information has come in China. Even if a lot of sensitive political content cannot be shared, more information than before can be shared and opinions on less sensitive political issues expressed.


Weibo is populated by younger people, with their education level ranging from high school to out of college. When asked why he liked Weibo so much, a male high school student commented, “It’s a chance to experience others’ lives”. (July 30th 2013). The depth of this phrase surprised me, and yet I am inclined to agree. I had never really thought about it before, but it’s true. A social network is not only a chance to share one’s life with everyone else, it is a chance to live and experience other people’s lives.  The existence of social networks allows you to easily live vicariously through other people, a feat not quite as easy in the real world.


微博, which means “micro blog” is often referred to as the Chinese Twitter, and has a relatively wide user base and strong presence. There are two Weibos, Sina Weibo and Tenecent Weibo. The one I refer to in this article is Sina Weibo because of its overwhelming popularity. Tenecent Weibo is often thought of as “an imitation of Sina Weibo” (Anonymous interviewee, July 17th 2013), and is thus relatively unpopular.  You may use up to one hundred and forty characters per post, which allows you to say so much more in Chinese than in English. “You can tell a story with just one hundred and forty words.” (XiaoKai Wang, July 31st) Weibo is similar to twitter, in that you can follow celebrities and friends and keep up to date with their lives and news.

Like Twitter, many use Weibo as a “source of news and information” (XiaoKai Wang, July31st, 2013). Although it is censored, it often takes some time for posts with sensitive information to be taken down, and thus journalists can get a hold of the story, and thus even if it was only allowed on the site for a few minutes, it can spread like wildfire.  Thus many publications in China keep a close eye on Weibo.


Weixin: Is China setting the new standard?


微信 or as it is known internationally, Wechat is a mobile-based messaging service that allows people to group chat, send voice recordings, video and text messaging. Everyone also gets a profile; it allows you to see your friends post something, on “moments”, and to offer feedback.  Registering for weixin was slightly different; I used my Chinese cellphone number to get an account like you do when registering for WhatsApp. WhatsApp does not have the “moments” application or one similar to that.  In addition, Weixin has unique applications under the heading “social”. “Look Around” is the one I mentioned in my analogue. It looks for people around you using weixin that also hit the look around app, and allows you to chat with them as long as they accept your invitation to chat.

These unique features have given Weixin the push it needed to stand out in such a competitive market. It has now past its 300 million-user mark. Not only that, it is spreading rapidly internationally. This is the first Chinese international social network, it’s opening a whole new world that was previously unknown.  People across the world can communicate like they never could before. This time China is setting the standard with an advanced mobile messaging based social network, and the whole world is watching.

People of older age groups prefer to use Weixin to “communicate with close friends and family” (Jeffery Madao, July 21st 2013) while younger people use it to communicate with friends and meet new people.


Meeting new people: The Weixin way

Look Around“Look Around” app, in our online world may be a more efficient way to meet new people.  “Shake your phone” application allows you to find other people in your vicinity doing the same and chat with them as well. This is the online world’s version of getting to know new people. It is a much simpler process on the Weixin application than in the real world. This is especially interesting because “Chinese people are shy but to strangers…they will not be too accepting or welcoming of the strangers” (Xiao Kai, July 31st 2013). This presents an interesting conundrum in the modeling of our own line world. The statement asserts that Chinese are not ordinarily welcoming to strangers, thus the use of this application not only simplifies but encourages the process of meeting new people.

This is apparently a common way to meet people especially for dating purposes. Since none of my interviewees used “Look Around”, I used participant observation to observe how it works and incorporate it into my online world model.





The Serial Dater Tries To Find Love

In order to protect his identity I shall call him John. John sends me a message saying hello and I accept it. I learned that he is from the UK and currently teaching at Wall Street English. He asks me a lot of personal questions like why I am in Beijing and for how long. I replied to these questions as honestly as I could without betraying any personal information. I did tell him that I was leaving on Sunday night.  He asked me if I would be willing to stay in Beijing had I fallen in love with someone. I explained I had other priorities in my life, and he wished me goodnight.


A Cup of Joe

I shall call him Joe.  Joe is a Chinese student at Peking University in his third year of studying English. We spoke a combination of English and Chinese so we could adequately communicate. He says he uses Look Around often because it gives him the opportunity to meet people he would not ordinarily meet. I asked him if he had ever taken the next step and actually tried to meet the people that he meets online. He said he had, and sometimes they actually became good friends. If he really likes someone, and they seem compatible, he asks them if they would like to grab coffee sometimes. He told me he prefers to meet people this way. When I asked why, he said he is usually shy when he first comes across a person he does not know. I asked him what kind of people he talks to, and he admitted he mainly talks to girls, in search for a girl friend. Look Around does in fact let you filter your search by gender.

YouTube Preview Image YouTube Preview Image YouTube Preview Image


If I were to trace out one’s life using the online world model, life would begin in high school with Renren. Where the most important things are popularity, aided by the star rating, superficial material things, which appears due to segmented advertising, and amusement, which we see catered to by the extensive game selection. Then, when in your junior or senior year of high school to even after your college career, (i.e when you become more concerned about the state of the world around you), Weibo becomes your platform. The content that you “follow” directly correlated to your maturity level. Meeting a potential significant other could be done over Weixin, using the Look Around and “Shake It” applications. Then once you get older, Weixin can be used purely to keep in touch with friends and family. Albeit this idea of “growing up” in this model of the online world is not a perfect one, as people use these social networks to their own preferences, but it is significant to note that we can, in our world today, map out human existence online. This shows how increasingly important these social networking sites have become and how much of our existence is online. The question is whether or not we are becoming too dependent on this online world, and I believe we are. Referring back to the anecdote at the beginning, online communication is becoming so much easier, easier than real interactions. Whether or not this is a good thing is debatable with reasonable points on either side.

Works Cited:

Chiu, Cindy, Chris Ip, and Ari Silverman. “Understanding Social Media in China.”Insights & Publications., Apr. 2012. Web. 01 July 2013

“Chinese Social Media: The Same, but Different – Seminar Summary Chinese Market Trends Comments.” Social Media in China: The Same, but Different. San Francisco Creative Agency’s Team Blog, June 2012. Web. 02 Aug. 2013.

Speculations, Great. “Renren Rides China’s Social Networking And Gaming To $3.20.” Forbes. Forbes Magazine, 03 May 2013. Web. 02 Aug. 2013.

“The Rise of Weixin/WeChat.” US-China Today:. University of Southern California, Feb. 2013. Web. 02 Aug. 2013.

Vervoorn, Aat. “Friendship In China.” Institute of Advanced Studies Australian National University, June 2004. Web. 01 July 2013