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Mobile Internet bringing about large social transformation

By Wang Di, Wang Hansheng | 2016-09-26 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

People spend more time on mobile Internet than desktop computers because they can access the Internet anywhere at any time on smartphones or laptops. Mobile phones are used for almost anything now.


The rise of mobile Internet has altered our social landscape in even more profound ways than the advent of the desktop-based network. Communication has broken free of spatial and temporal constraints, reshaping society in a variety of ways, including one-on-one social interaction, group behavior as well as social stratification.

Breaking boundaries
Because of their portable nature, mobile Internet terminals, such as smartphones, can transcend the spatial and time boundaries of social life. This is the fundamental difference between mobile communications and other forms Internet technology.

People spend more time on mobile Internet than desktop computers because they can access the Internet almost anywhere at any time on smartphones or laptops. But while mobile devices bring convenience, they also cause distraction as social phenomena in the virtual world increasingly interrupt what is occurring in real space. Therefore, it is hard to say whether the mobile Internet saves us time or excessively dominates leisure time and to tell whether it expands our space or merely replaces different spatial functions using mobile terminals.

Through mobile Internet devices, users are able to obtain information from around the world covering a variety of countries and regions as well as multiple audiences. In this process, their affiliation with and sense of belonging to a particular state or nation transcend the limitations of time and space.

People in different countries interact, discuss and share with each other, so the process of generating a sense of national identity will further break free of the spatial and temporal boundaries. The formation of a national identity might help to sustain cross-national unity, but it carries the risk of potentially maximizing cultural differences, leading to ultranationalism if a single racial or ethnic identity were adopted that might threaten the concept of the nation.

Imagined community
The phenomenally popular instant-messaging app WeChat, together with Mobile QQ and the microblogging platform Weibo are widely accessed in China via mobile phones. This has changed the traditional framework for social interaction and created an “imagined community” or a “family of invisible friends”—people who have never met but who also share similar interests and are inclined to trust one another.

Although technological effects on social interaction and social relationships emerged in the traditional Internet era, the mobile era has had a more transformative effect. Only in the mobile era are people truly freed from the limitations of time and space. Thus, they are able to constitute a social identity that simultaneously exists within an imagined community and a real community.

The emergence of social media, such as WeChat and Weibo, has gradually replaced face-to-face contact and telephone, while social interactions are not wholly reliant on kinship, geographic proximity or social networks. A shared interest, even a small common topic, might be sufficient to bring together strangers to build a connection online or even a connection in real space.

Due to convenient access to networks together with the portable and personal nature of mobile phones, the length and frequency of Internet usage have increased dramatically in recent years, so it is not applicable any more to use replacement to describe the relation between online interactions and interactions offline, because it is not true that the more time we spend socializing online, the less time we have to socialize offline.

On the contrary, it would be possible for a common growth for online interactions and offline social interactions, because the rise of virtual interactions should be a healthy complement to social life, which does not inevitably bring interpersonal alienation or a lack of real world interaction.

Collective behavior
Mobile communication devices provide a means by which people can conveniently and instantaneously share and express their opinions. For example, they can use mobile phones to post their opinions online anytime and anywhere, while mobile phones are quickly replacing traditional media and landline Internet as the main channel of obtaining information.

Mobile phones have many positive features, such as convenience, portability and functionality. Wherever you go, there it is. So mobile phones offer users enormous freedom to communicate online and better meet their needs, while serving as a vehicle for social expression online.

The rise of social expression has also resulted in a boom of live-streaming. In this context, it is difficult to draw boundaries between private space and public space because the new technology lets users share their private lives instantly, including locations, photos or feelings, via mobile phones to Weibo. This creates a new form of public sphere, and news about public events can also be forwarded and disseminated at a lightning-fast speed.

At the same time, this form of expression could lead to the redistribution of power and a new paradigm of discourse. A handful of people were able to control discourse in the pre-Internet era due to the discourse hegemony and cultural capital, leading to information asymmetry, especially with regard to public events. While the mobile Internet ensures people’s right to know, to participate, to express and to communicate, it has gradually changed the pattern of public opinion.

At the same time, the consequent changes of group psychology and collective behavior also need to be noted. Online expression might trigger criticism of social events, which evolve into network events or even online protest. And online emotions and actions can become contagious to the offline public. The atomized and unrelated individuals, through mobile QQ, microblogging, WeChat and other social media, are able to gather and communicate with others at anytime and anywhere, probably culminating in distinct forms of collective action driven by certain external factors.

Digital divide
Cyber-society is an extension of the real world. The specific social structures, ethnic differences and diverse lifestyles determine the complexity and differentiation of segments in the mobile Internet era. For people in different social classes, major differences do exist in terms of the motivations and means by which they use mobile communications to get online.

For example, students, migrant workers and new urban white-collar workers, who have a strong desire to interact with others and try new things, tend to access the Internet via mobile phones with a relatively high frequency and focus their attention on the mobile virtual communities, video, search and other entrainment functions. Users in the middle and upper classes also rely heavily on the mobile phones to check messages, company announcements and business updates, so they attach more importance to mobile mailboxes, commerce, payment and other applications.

In addition, mobile Internet access terminals also have different meanings for the aforementioned two groups. The upper-class users emphasize brands of smartphones and laptops to symbolize their identity, status and fashion taste, while the other group values the functionality of access terminals.

In turn, the social structures have also been reshaped by differentiation or stratification in cyber society. The Internet provides people with more access to information, but at the same time, it also has exacerbated social polarization. The inequality of access to technologies means unequal access to knowledge and information, which could result in an unprecedented digital divide and even greater income inequality.

The different preferences, application orientation and level of mobile Internet dependency of social groups duplicates and strengthen the social divisions in real space from variety of dimensions. Therefore, class stratification is an important approach to understanding the relationship between mobile Internet and society. The digital divide and social fragmentation are reflected in users’ differing levels usage, experience and dependence when they access to Internet via mobile devices.

Wang Di and Wang Hansheng, lecturer and professor, respectively, Department of Sociology, Peking University