Let’s Be “Friends”

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My field site alternates between the real world and the virtual world of social networking, thus my field site’s physical location changes every week. To observe real world interactions, I decided to first go to the San litun area in a mall named Tai Koo Li. It is a high-end mall populated with mainly designer stores. I chose this mall largely because of the spacious outdoor area, which would give me a vast population to observe and a large range of interactions. I was able to sit beside a plant and go unnoticed. This large exterior compound also seemed to be where friends would wait for each other before they go in to the mall or as they would exit the mall. Shopping is a common practice done in groups, particularly among younger age brackets. This field site turned out to be quite a valuable one. I was able to observe a wide range of human emotions. Whether it was the girl in the white dress crying in the corner as her friend tried to console her, or the group of boys talking animatedly at the sight of each other. It was also valuable because I got the opportunity to observe people amidst their waiting for their counterparts to arise. To occupy themselves, most people got out their cell phones and started scrolling through their social network sites. At the sight of their friends however, they immediately became more lively, the blank look previously on their faces was gone. Observing this great juxtaposition from interacting online to interacting in reality was priceless to my research. It was a window into the effectiveness of the imitation of real interactions in the social networking world.


My second field site was the bridge café in Wudaokou; a rather large café , offering three levels of seating space and open twenty four hours. What drew me there however, was the free Wi-fi, making it the ideal place to see people using their social network sites. It is also usually populated by groups of people as I had learned during a previous visit. I decided to do my body language fieldwork in this location. The interaction I observed provided yet another valuable insight into my research topic, the translation of concepts in communication into the online world. I observed three people sitting together, one of which appeared to be a mutual friend between the other two. The interaction between the other two was minimal if even present. This got me thinking, what constitutes a friend? In the world of social networking, this word has been rather loosely translated.  The process of becoming “friends” online is quite a simplistic one. All one has to do is send a request to another party, if it is accepted, then you are now pronounced, by the authority of the internet as “friends”.  Quite often, these people dubbed “friends” by the social networks we use are merely acquaintances. This mistranslation of the word friend is present in both international and Chinese social networking sites. This mistranslation is undoubtedly unintentional. The idea behind a social network is to allow people to keep in contact and connect, no matter where they are or how often they see each other. However, I expected the case to be a little different considering that Chinese culture is often thought to be reserved and formal. This loose translation of the word “friend” I learned, from an interview with a classmate at William and Mary, who often uses the Chinese social networking sites I am studying, is just as prevalent as it is in international social networking sites. The imitation of the concept of “friends” is a rather weak one. Both on RenRen and Facebook, you are constantly prompted to add “People You May Know” as friends. Yet in Renren your “friends” are labeled “好友” meaning good friends, quite the oxymoron.  In Ancient China, according to a journal published by the Institute of Advanced Studies in Australian National University, entitled “Friendship in China”, “Socially, friendship focused attention on mutual regard, shared ideals, trust, and the obligation to support and help each other.” (p.2). (Vervoorn, Aat. “Friendship In China.” Eastasianhistory.org. Institute of Advanced Studies Australian National University, June 2004. Web. 01 July 2013.)

The one portion of communication that seems to be much more effective on social networks than through real world interactions, is the spreading of information.  Companies have noticed this and are capitalizing on it, by expanding their advertising budgets to include social media coverage.(Divol, Roxane, David Edelman, and Hugo Sarrazin. “Demystifying Social Media.”Insights & Publications. Mckinsey.com, Apr. 2012. Web. 01 July 2013.)   According to an article by Chiu,  Ip and Silverman of McKinsey, mention an independent study in which it is found 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. (Chiu, Cindy, Chris Ip, and Ari Silverman. “Understanding Social Media in China.”Insights & Publications. Mckinsey.com, Apr. 2012. Web. 01 July 2013.) This suggests that opinions of family and friends are more important, even online, to the Chinese than to Americans. This is expected since friendship is a very important and precious concept in Chinese culture.

My third field site are the Chinese social networking sites. The Chinese social network industry is quite large, with many players that are very competitive.  However, I chose Renren, Weibo and Youku because they have very similar Western counterparts. This popularity of the social networks can be attributed, according to Chiu,Ip and Silverman of McKinsey, to the fact that it is more difficult for the government to censor social networking sites.

It is important to note that Chinese social networks are quite advanced, and remain so because of the ever competitive environment. I only managed to open my weibo account this afternoon after trying more than a dozen times when I was in the United States. Weibo has been nicknamed the “Chinese Twitter”. When I opened my account, it prompted me to pick 5 categories of interest. I selected “Beijing Life”, “Music Video”, “Funny humor”, “Gourmet” and “Celebrities”. It instantly “followed” a preselected list of people and pages for me. I could not help but think of the reputation or stereotype of Chinese efficiency and how it perfectly applied to the situation. Of the pages and figures I now follow, many I would have not done so had I picked these pages myself. This brought me back to the stereotype of efficiency but poor quality that many impose upon Chinese manufacturing, because this seemed to be the case here. The process was efficient but questionable, considering I now “follow” a lot of pages I would not have selected myself. This, I found to be extremely intriguing.