You are hereBeyond Skin Deep: A mixed quantitative/qualitative analysis of Facebook and Renren and their social impact
Beyond Skin Deep: A mixed quantitative/qualitative analysis of Facebook and Renren and their social impact
by Yang Zijian
The proliferation and penetration of social networking services (SNS) in the connected world has had a profound political impact, as many in the Middle East discovered first hand with the Arab Spring. Given this context, it should not be surprising that China, as the world’s largest and leading authoritarian state, heavily monitors and manipulates its networks.
Existing scholarly works have primarily focused their attention on the active forms of censorship such as the Great Firewall, the 50 Cent Party, and direct Party interventions as explanations as to why China’s civil society has not yet matured. These active forms of censorship, however, are largely ineffective in blocking information, as they are easily countered: simple and easily available software can be used to circumvent the firewall; and the 50 Cent Party’s pro CCP posts are viewed with skepticism. Despite their relative ineffectiveness, however, there is no national movement for political change that was sparked by SNS elsewhere in the world. These active acts of censorship, while unable to block all traffic from Western SNS such as Facebook and Twitter, do make accessing them bothersome enough. This creates a space for domestic SNS such as Renren and Weibo to take root and flourish as the primary SNS platforms in mainland China.
On the surface, Renren seems like a complete clone of Facebook in both functionality and layout. Yet upon using and comparing these two SNS, it becomes obvious that there are subtle but impactful differences between the two in the actual user experience. As Amichai-Hamburger and Vinitzky demonstrated in their psychology study, Facebook behaviour is strongly related to one’s personality (Amichai-Hamburger and Vinitzky 2010, 1289-1295). Being an interactive medium however, SNS will inevitably affect the views of its users, which will have a societal wide impact as it penetrates deeper into society. With more than 500 million SNS users in China alone, it is helpful to identify the distinctions between Facebook and Renren in order recognize the existing cultural differences that affect the maturing of civil society and political awareness. However there is little literature on the subject, and this paper therefore seeks to fill the current gap. By understanding the different ways in which SNS is used, an alternative answer as to why China responded to the Jasmine Revolution so unenthusiastically in comparison to the Arab Spring emerges.
This analysis is based on fourteen participants, eight of whom were randomly selected from a pool of international university students from the People’s Republic of China, and six of whom were randomly selected from a pool of domestic university students in Canada. All of the participants provided basic information, including their age, gender, number of friends on their respective SNS, number of years since arriving in Canada, field of study, and their frequencies of using SNS. For each of the participants, 100 items on their main page of Facebook and/or Renren were collected and categorized according to the nature and the format of the information. The nature of the content is divided into five categories: personal, entertainment, political, educational/announcements, and food. The format of the content is divided into the two main categories of self-generated and shared, each with its own set of subcategories consisting of status, picture, video, journal, and redirect link. The qualitative features of the contents are also noted and will be discussed.
Personal content in this study refers to any information that people who do not know the poster would most likely find irrelevant and uninteresting; entertainment content refers to all information that has the potential to entertain a segment of the viewers that the content is targeted towards; political content is classified as any information that is either overtly political or with a sufficient political undertone; educational/announcement refers to content that increases one’s non-political academic knowledge, as well as announcements of all purposes; food content is information that is primarily focused on food and drinks. If there are ambiguities concerning the content in question, then the hierarchy will be that they will first be considered for political and food, followed by educational/announcement, then by entertainment, and finally categorized as personal if nothing else fits. The self generated content refers to the content that a user would have had to input manually on the top box of either Facebook or Renren, or a journal written by him or herself; shared content refers to content that is transmitted by clicking the share option for both SNS.
By recording 100 items from the mainfeed of both SNS, it is possible to get an accurate sense of the type of information that their users are exposed to daily. Given the very possible existence of various mutual friends that the participants may have among themselves, this study recorded the data for each of the participants on a different day in order to minimize possible duplicate data points. To avoid irrelevant data, the following data was omitted during collection: advertisements, application notifications and announcements, content published on a specific user’s wall, and tagged content which the user did not interact with. After collecting more than 1400 data points, clear patterns emerged, save for 1 outlier participant, whose data set was greatly influenced by an unexpected piece of political news that went viral. This outlier itself, however, identified distinct trends of the two SNS, and as such it will not be included in the quantitative analysis, but will be discussed in the qualitative section.
Below is a comparison of the data collected from the thirteen participants that will be used for the quantitative analysis:
Nature of Facebook Content
Categories, Amount, %
Personal 286 47.67%
Political 50 8.33%
Entertainment 17 29%
Educational/Announcement 75 12.50%
Food and Drinks 15 2.50%
Nature of Renren Content
Categories, Amount, %
Personal 235 33.57%
Political 15 2.14%
Entertainment 356 50.86%
Educational/Announcement 45 6.43%
Food and Drinks 49 7%
Format of Facebook Content
Categories, Amount, %
Statuses 283 47.17%
Redirect Links 66 11%
Pictures 115 19.17%
Journals 2 0.33%
Videos 66 11%
Shared Statuses 0 0%
Shared Redirect Link 10 1.67%
Shared Pictures 32 5.33%
Shared Journals 0 0%
Shared Videos 26 4.33%
Format of Renren Content
Categories, Amount, %
Statuses 149 21.29%
Redirect Links 2 0.29%
Pictures 129 18.43%
Journals 8 1.14%
Videos 0 0%
Shared Statuses 90 12.86%
Shared Redirect Links 1 0.14%
Shared Pictures 149 21.28%
Shared Journals 66 9.43%
Shared Videos 106 15.14%
Starting first with the nature of content on the two SNS, it is noted that both Facebook and Renren’s information are overwhelming dominated by personal and entertainment, accounting for approximately 80% of all content. Yet the remaining 20% shows significant differences: Facebook has twice the percentage of educational/announcement contents, which includes news; and almost four times the percentage of political information. Overall, it means a user browsing Facebook will be exposed to news and political content by more than twice as much compared with a Renren user. Even if they do not find the content interesting, the title of it will make them at least aware of ongoing events that their acquaintances are concerned about.
With more than 50% of Renren’s content about entertainment, it is clear that Renren’s platform culture is focused on being about fun activities. This environment can be argued to foster political apathy, which is simply an extension of China’s current social atmosphere: the mandatory politics classes are made as dull as possible, and all of the extracurricular and supplementary classes leave little time for political engagement among the youth. With the remaining time left, recreational activities are pursued, and thus it can be argued that there is a genuine cultivation of political apathy in China. Renren’s actual impact, however, is much more than merely promoting political apathy, and instead can be more accurately described as a wild card. While it does distract users with an abundance of entertainment content, it has been used numerous times in the past to bring individuals to justice.
Regarding the format of Facebook and Renren, there are several points of interest. First, the near total discontinued use of journals on Facebook, with a near inverse relationship to the usage of redirect links in comparison with Renren. This could be due to various factors, including the aggressive censorship in China, which makes redirect links to certain contents unfeasible. Given that a significant amount of educational and political content are from redirect links on Facebook and journals on Renren, Facebook users can evaluate the reliability of the source, whereas Renren users cannot. As a result, false information under the guise of academic literature on Renren can be dangerously deceiving, as few individuals attempt to verify its legitimacy. The second point of interest is the amount of shared information on both SNS. Though both SNS now have the ability to share most of the self generated content (Facebook users cannot share statuses), shared content on Facebook only accounts for 10% of its total information, while on Renren it accounts for almost 60% of its total contents. This tendency to pass information along makes Renren an arguably more volatile platform, as its content is purely dependent on which wind is currently prevailing. At the same time, it also increases its ability to spread information virally with a speed that the censors in China cannot keep up with.
The ability of Renren to spread its information in an almost unchecked manner by the virtue of its speed is a double edged sword. This is in consideration with the fact that educational and political information on Renren is passed along with little to no verification process to ensure its legitimacy, which exists in Facebook from the usage of redirect links. On the positive side, it is a powerful tool that can hold officials and other powerful elites accountable for their actions, and examples of this are plentiful: Li Gang, Li Yali, etc. On the negative side, without the existing norm to cite sources for the information posted, false information that seems legitimate can also spread virally and create social disorder. After various journals wrote about how salt can counter the effects of radioactive poisoning started to spread virally on Renren following the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in 2011, the population in China raced to buy salt and created an utterly chaotic situation. As previously stated, it is a wild card.
Of the data points gathered, qualitative observations have been made regarding the prevailing trends within each SNS. Future studies may examine these trends in more detail, as they would increase our understanding of the emerging social patterns in China and elsewhere. One of the most revealing trends discovered that is relevant to this study is regarding the substance of the political information on both SNS. For Facebook, the substance varies greatly and in this set of data collection included the firing of Toronto mayor Rob Ford, criticism of Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper over his secret deals with China, the eruption of renewed conflict between Israel and Palestine, protests regarding Egypt’s draft constitution, and pro-choice, pro gay marriage coverage, among others. For Renren, however, all of the political information posted is specifically about China. They included biographic journals about Chinese leaders; statuses and pictures announcing the coming anniversary of the Nanjing Massacre; passionate videos defending China’s territorial claims, and such.
It is absolutely striking that when fighting commenced between Palestine and Israel, and Facebook was periodically plastered with updates, not a single mention or reference was made on Renren. It should be made clear that the lack of information is not due to censors – there was even a journal documenting the famine during the Great Leap Forward, but instead due to the complete lack of interest from Renren users. China’s isolationist mindset is best demonstrated here, and perhaps this is part of the reason why the Arab Spring had so little impact among the Chinese – they did not care what was happening, they had their own hectic lives to manage.
For the political content that exists on Renren, there is almost always a nationalistic tone that underpins the piece. The comments sometimes may label the poster as the 50 Cent Party if the content is too pro-CCP; but for topics such as separatists in the autonomous regions or the Nanjing Massacre, there is near unanimous support for the government. The viral nature of Renren’s content can make some certain national issues snowball instantaneously, which is demonstrated by the outlier data set mentioned at the beginning.
On December 3rd, 2012, an incident broke out between Han and Uyghur populations over the sale of qiegao, a confectionary, in Yueyang, Hunan. The Yueyang police department issued a statement on Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter, reporting that the Uyghurs have been compensated for their losses, totalling 160,000 yuan, and were sent back to Xinjiang with one Han male remaining in custody. The post became viral instantly and was reposted on Renren and other SNS, followed by numerous commentaries on the ethnic tensions between the two groups. It was instantly absorbed into the popular culture, with cartoons and humourous writings appearing merely hours after the incident. Thus, the data set collected on December 3rd had an extremely high level of political content recorded, averaging one in every three items.
This phenomenon brings forth a serious question: are all the data in this study biased in one way or another? Many data points collected from Facebook were based on contingent events as well, such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – should they be counted as outliers as well if this incident on Renren were being treated as such? The answer is no, because although the Facebook data points are also based on contingent events, there is a steady flow of contingent events being paid attention to. The qiegao incident illustrated that while Renren is at most times dormant, it will periodically draw on its users’ emotions and make an issue spread like wildfire. Whether or not this issue is politically relevant for China’s democratization is irrelevant, and this is where the Jasmine Revolution failed in China – it was too peaceful, and had insufficient emotional content. Perhaps not limited to Renren and not to China, all of the previous incidents that had a sufficient amount of the population rally behind them were fueled by emotion – namely anger.
The Li Gang incident in 2010 demonstrated exactly how accumulated public resentment towards corruption and inequality managed to project itself in one incident and one person, whose story the majority of the population could resonate with. The anger they felt was partly due to the injustice of the situation, but also the injustices they had to endure in the past and were now reminded of. Though this stored anger can be easily redirected to a single person or a group of culprits, it is difficult to project these emotions onto the CCP. And without a sufficient degree of emotion behind it, no revolution could possibly take place in China in the near future.
A number of items can be examined in future studies to build upon the current one. The first would be to expand the number of data points to include and compare the Facebook activities of the international students, and observe whether it is similar to their Renren content or domestic students’ Facebook content. The second would be to expand the data recording period to half a year or a year, so that the frequency of the periodic flares on Renren can be better measured and calculated, and its factors analyzed. Finally, it would be beneficial to have a more comprehensive questionnaire for each of the participants, to see how much interaction they have with SNS and how much they are influenced by its content, and how different factors affect each participant’s SNS content.
Even though both Facebook and Renren are nearly identical in form and function, their users shaped them to be quite different platforms. Free from censorship, Facebook users openly and frequently post various news and political pieces from online newspaper and magazines. Renren users, faced with censorship constraints and other pressures, can still explore many political topics but remain almost exclusively interested in issues relevant to China. The periodic flares of Renren represents a significant social force being unleashed, with both the potential to bring positive change, and the potential for mindless destruction in the case of the anti-Japanese protests. However, until these emotions can be projected onto the CCP itself, revolution in China remains unlikely. As powerful as these new SNS are in their capabilities to empower people, it should never be forgotten that they are merely a platform, and the actual content is always user generated. They have the power to change, and change can be either good or bad.
Amichai-Hamburger, Yair and Gideon Vinitzky. 2010. "Social Network use and Personality." Computers in Human Behavior 26 (6): 1289-1295.