Habits of the Online Heart: information sharing and social action in China

How does social change happen when people cannot see each other? In any situation where groups of people come to act or think in similar and coordinated ways, information is being shared and disseminated. The people receiving and exchanging this information must constantly evaluate how trustworthy they believe the information – and the people it is coming from – to be. But how are people able to judge the trustworthiness of information and sources in online settings when they cannot see each one another, and when information is being circulated within a group of strangers?

In my current research project, I ask how people decide whether the information they acquire in disembodied (not face-to-face), non place-based online networks is trustworthy and how they act on that information. I answer these questions with data obtained through extensive ethnographic research on the digital communication practices of Chinese youth and new internet users in China. By examining how new internet users in China interact with information from social media and popular online sites in their everyday lives, I show how changes in technological infrastructure and communication practices yield new paradigms of trust. This trust exists at both a personal level, between individuals or between individuals and groups, and at an impersonal level, between individuals and systems or institutions. I highlight the role of technological infrastructures and especially the growth of databases as intermediaries in online communication practices, and argue that users develop strategies for assessing how much trust to put in their online messages, systems, and relationships.

This research is important in two principal ways. The first is that the trust-evaluation strategies I am studying have implications for the way individuals come to be part of virtual and tangible communities. In this way, I follow the example of Bellah et al in examining how individuals come to see themselves as members of a community. The second is that the way people act upon trust has implications for how individuals participate in communities. This builds on Bellah et al’s (1985) inquiry into to what extent social capital can be transformed into meaningful and sustained membership in communities.

My research also amplifies our understanding of how online communication is deeply shaped by both tangible and non-tangible structures. When we visit Facebook, read tweets, open messenger programs to chat with friends, or browse LinkedIn to network, we think of these sites as online communities or places – we even say that we “visit” or “go to” them. But fundamentally, these sites are databases, so in many ways databases are virtual neighborhoods, coffee shops, or town squares. My research demonstrates that even in places where access is constrained by policy or inadequate infrastructure, these sites and databases are incredibly popular, and users’ relationships with and through them are vibrant and deepening.

Aside from governmental initiatives to limit content or access to information, it can be difficult to confirm that information acquired through online databases is 100% accurate, or that the people we are communicating with are who they claim to be. As Crary says, digital bits of information “no longer have reference to an observer in a 'real' optically perceived world” (1992:2). In the face of this uncertainty, users and service providers have invented strategies for judging trustworthiness and encouraging people to provide identifying information in online networks. Users of these sites look for signals and recall past experiences to inform their current judgments. But these practices and processes of evaluating trustworthiness are not universal; they differ depending on historical, social, and cultural context. Databases are culturally situated the same way that neighborhoods and coffee shops are. Just because the underlying technological architecture is the same, it does not mean that the practices are the same.[1]

In my research design, I ask two closely related questions about information acquisition and socialaction: (1) how do people judge whether information acquired through online communication (interpersonal or via databases) is trustworthy? and (2) having determined that digitally mediated information is trustworthy, how do people act upon that information?

I examine three main categories of online interactions where trust is required for information acquisition: sharing, cooperating and organizing. I focus on three social spaces that are prominent in the lives of Chinese youth: consumption, presentation of self (identity), and socio-political issues. 

[1] To argue otherwise would be to say coffee shops like all Starbucks in the world are exactly the same because they all use the same coffee and branding. However, the neighborhood and type of people who visit each Starbucks shop create a different environment from location to location.