Smart Phones in China, Social Mirrors, and The Matrix

I was back in China last week and noticed that almost everyone around me has a smartphone. The only one person I know who doesn’t have one is my 92-year old grandpa, who physically cannot type with his fingers.

What’s more, everyone who has a smartphone is on WeChat. My dad showed me some old family history written by a distant relative from Beijing on WeChat; my aunt told me that another aunt living in California is sending her pictures of her son making cookies for his class project. They spent somewhere between half hour to one hour every evening just to read all the messages from various groups on WeChat, and they are over 60s. Just imagine how much time younger generations spend on it. The bank accountant in the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, when being told that I don’t have a Chinese phone number and hence not on WeChat, appeared to be horrified. “How could you live without it?” said her expression.

It appears to me that Americans use Facebook, Europeans use WhatsApp, and Chinese use WeChat. All have their own social media. What’s the big deal?

They all remind me of The Matrix. Everyone is connected (or plugged in). Everything one says or writes gets shared or forwarded. Everyone is like a social mirror reflecting each other’s opinions and values, so the social media, although chaotic in its contents, can homogenize social values. In this sense, the majority exercise a subtle form of social persuasion to oblige people on the same platform to confirm their values. This persuasion can be more powerful than traditional mass media, because everyone has a voice, and because most normal people want to be liked.

There are beneficial consequences. More things are better regulated by social conventions than by law. And a more homogeneous society would have more orders and less troubles. In addition, for millions of lives who just moved out of poverty, the talk of anything other than survival can be “insulting irrelevance” (a phrase by Sir Alex Ferguson in describing his roots in working class families). Sharing common values and staying closely together maximize their chances at survival.

The disadvantage is that getting a second opinion can be difficult. As with reports in mass media, the opinion of the reporter about “facts” lies is in the things that are omitted. For example, in western media, Obama is quoted more often than Putin is, and the reverse is true in China. A corollary is that expressing opinions contrary to the common values would be difficult and that change in social norms would be hard.

Published by

Wendong Wang

A chemist who blogs

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