There is little daydreaming in China. You are either sleeping, working, or on your smartphone or tablet, sometimes, in the case of the latter two, at the same time.
By its very name, social media is considered to be social in nature. It allows family and friends to stay in touch and build tighter bonds. It allows new communities to be formed around common interests. It binds a world that has become increasingly isolated and independent.
In theory, therefore, social media should be bringing China and America closer together at the most basic level – the individual. That doesn’t appear to be happening, however. In fact, I would argue, social media, form my observation, is pushing the two countries further and further apart.
It is true, of course, that most American social media (e.g. Twitter, Facebook, YouTube) is not accessible in China because it is blocked by the government’s giant Internet firewall.
There are, nonetheless, Chinese counterparts to all of these forms of social media that are, in fact, more geared toward Chinese norms of communication and the Chinese worldview.
The Chinese publicly defend their restrictions on Internet independence. They don’t want to be invaded by foreign tech companies any more than they wanted to be invaded by foreign armies.
But I sincerely believe that there is more than one reason why the Chinese approach to regulation of the Internet is the right one – at least for China at this point in time.
The first is that the Internet is truth and content neutral. While small innovative companies are capable of making far-reaching positive impact on society at large with much faster speed, the reverse is also true. Lies can be spread at the speed of electrons. People who wish to harm us can leash its power to organize our destruction as easily and quickly as those who wish to enlighten and inform us.
Without the education necessary to challenge perceived authority, seemingly convincing rhetoric, and unsubstantiated claims, unleashing the Internet completely is akin to uncaging all of the lions at the zoo. Theoretically ‘right’ in a moral sense, perhaps, but pragmatically dangerous, potentially bordering on disaster.
The biggest challenge I see to social media, however, is the reinforcement it gives the American transmitter style of communication that I have talked about many times before. (The speaker bears responsibility for getting his point across.) What is a Tweet if not a transmission? It is a one-way communication between a Tweeter and a follower.
Ditto for posting what you had for lunch on Facebook. We aren’t being social in the least. We are transmitting in the very same way that Tokyo Rose did during WWII.
And while grandma and grandpa can now watch their grandchild take their first steps on YouTube, is that what YouTube is predominantly used for? Somehow I doubt it.
And this doesn’t even to begin to address the issue of truth and veracity. It reminds me of the early days of the computer. Whatever came out was almost always accepted as truth. Computers, after all, are technically incapable of errors in calculation. But then someone discovered that errors in calculation weren’t the problem to begin with and coined the phrase “garbage in, garbage out.”
An old friend of mine was fond of quoting the saying, “Are you listening to respond or listening to understand?” Social media, without a doubt, is built on the former. It’s all about traffic, not thought. It’s all about transmitting and fame comes not from the quality of the transmissions but the number of people who are willing to accept them, whether out of true interest or their social acceptance.
In short, I believe social media is rapidly deteriorating our ability to listen. Like the difference between activity and results, we are transmitting more but learning less.
And to make matters ever worse, the corporate world is now taking over. Every major corporation in America has an entire division devoted to following and working social media on its behalf. There’s always been corporate advertising, of course, but in the past you had to turn on the television or radio or pick up a magazine. And the advertising was obvious.
The commercial presence in our lives is far more invasive and far less obvious today. We don’t, in fact, even know when it’s there. There is an army of social media ‘influencers’, as they’re commonly known, who will deliver your corporate message for a fee. Now, of course, they claim moral boundaries. But so did the doctors who endorsed cigarettes as good for your health or the doctors who support the mega-industry of health and diet supplements, many of which may be effective, but are as yet unproven.
And it is rapidly deteriorating our communities and the social networks that connect us together at the grass roots level. About the only thing most Americans share with their neighbors these days is the day of garbage collection.
Just look at the newscast of the capture of the latest serial killer, or a gunman who just killed innocent people in a shopping mall or movie theater. What is the first thing the network does? They interview the neighbors. And what do the neighbors inevitably say? “I had no idea. I didn’t know him that well but he seemed like such a nice, quiet man.”
Never would such an exchange have taken place in the neighborhood where I grew up, where we not only didn’t have social media but we actually shared the same phone line. There are pros and cons to both extremes, of course, but I, for one, would accept the extreme where my neighbors know my business than the one in which my neighbor is about to go on a shooting rampage at the local university.
Of course the Chinese are as wired in as the Americans. Get on the subway here and at least 90% of the people are on their smartphones or tablets. Out of curiosity, however, I recently began walking up and down the subway cars to surreptitiously discover what they were actually doing.
And what I’ve found, and I am the fist to admit it is a totally unscientific survey, is that most people are either playing games or watching streaming movies or music videos. Frankly, that was a big aha for me. That’s not at all what I expected.
But it makes sense. When you are receiver oriented, and the receiver is deciding what to listen to or not, face to face is a far more powerful form of communication than a 20-word Tweet from some famous person I will never meet in my lifetime.
And part of the reason for that, I believe, is that the Chinese versions of American social media are all built with Chinese characteristics. They are, in short, less transmitter oriented and more receiver oriented, as is the natural communication style of most Asian cultures.
In China they have WeChat, not unlike America’s Twitter, but it is built around communities, not Tweeters and followers. There are virtual communities, but they are two-way communities, in which members equally communicate, fostering both the transmission of knowledge and the development of the ability to listen.
It is, in short, a medium for recreating the collectivist village in an urbanizing environment. And that, to my way of thinking, is a very good use indeed of technology. THAT is truly social media.
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Copyright © 2015 Glassmaker in China
Notice: The views expressed in this post are strictly those of the writer acting in a personal capacity. They are not in any way endorsed or sanctioned by his employer or any other individual with which he may be personally or professionally affiliated.