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Internet-based social interactions are reshaping social sphere

WANG FENGLI and SI QI | 2022-08-04 | Hits:
Chinese Social Sciences Today

We live in an era when everyone seems to be glued to their phones. Photo: CFP

Different from traditional society, online society has new features in terms of its social sphere, member identities, social ties, etc. An important task of social governance is to accelerate building social ethics and a governance system suitable for social spheres online, while using law and technology to foster a safer and healthier social sphere. 
New social ties 
In The Theory of Communicative Action, Jürgen Habermas wrote that the public sphere is generated from a private sphere and extended along social relations. It is a space for rational interactions, and one that functions as an independent and intermediary agent. However, this interpretation is challenged in the virtual sphere. As Manuel Castells observed, internet-based social networks are a new social formation and a new social model. In network society, social spheres are both public and private, while remaining neither public nor private. This new feature affects the social sphere in many dimensions. We see that people express themselves on social platforms while safeguarding legal sanctity, social order, morality, and good customs, which serves as a positive force promoting social development. Yet we also see that fluidity, uncertainties, cognitive differences, and cultural differences exist among netizens connected through smart devices. Consequently, it is likely for people to behave irrationally in a network sphere that lacks trust and empathy, and internet users may even bring their negativity into real society. 
Against this backdrop, the standard for defining members’ identity and influence has changed. For example, traditional labels that are relatively stable, such as gender, nationality, locality, family, and occupation, were established because of the physical boundaries in our living space. As a result, communities with clear boundaries came into being, and social interactions usually took place within these communities. By contrast, members of online communities are usually categorized by their interests, values, incomes, spending power, and their attitudes towards certain topics. 
The three-component theory of stratification hierachy developed by Max Weber, which includes wealth, prestige, and power, is difficult to quantify within traditional society. In the network sphere, there is usually one single index for measuring members’s status: traffic. Traffic can be measured quickly and accurately based on number of users, views, likes, and reposts. To some extent, traffic is changing the effectiveness of traditional identity labels, and traffic for each network node demonstrates its position and impact upon the network sphere. This impact can stretch beyond network spheres, and make its way into the real world, by changing the spread of information channels and the way capital flows. Of course, in the network sphere where member status constantly changes, unforeseeable factors are more likely to arise and trigger risks for “accidents.” 
Habermas points out that communicative actions are interactive and concern self-development. On top of this, Hannah Arendt proposed a distinction between the public life of politics and the private life of household matters. The latter focuses on sustaining life, with individuals’ survival, privacy, and  intimacy at its core. 
In traditional society, social ties have been transitioning from the earliest and primary form of blood and geographical relationships to the secondary group of business relationships and contractual relationships. However, in the internet era, the importance of families, clans, relatives, and relationships between colleagues, have been downgraded, while new social ties have been created. People are now more willing to establish connections with others online via a “circle,” “group,” “community,” or “platform,” communicating, exchanging emotions, or even sharing intimacies with strangers. 
Professor Sherry Turkle from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology spent 15 years analyzing 300 massive online social platforms, and she identified the phenomenon of a “post-modern family,” where all family members are alone together, each remaining untrusting towards people close to them while trusting strangers far away. Instead, various types of social platforms are becoming real-time synchronization systems where many people collaborate. We are eager to share secrets of our life with strangers and are ready to open our private lives to those we share no intimate relationships with. Our values and feelings have all become a part of the public sphere, in which we voluntarily and spontaneously share our privacy, even though that may expose us to certain risks. 
Governance needed 
All in all, the internet has reshaped the social sphere in many ways. When the internet first began to thrive, research showed that it was accompanied by a series of issues brought by decreasing safety and failing trust relationships due to oversharing of private information. This theory can be traced back to John Stuart Mill, who believed that privacy, personal development, and autonomous choice are the fundamental elements of human development and moral life. 
Psychological studies also found that a human brain is equipped with three regulatory systems: an alarm system (fear and vigilance towards external stimulus), an excitation system (social participation, a sense of achievement and worth), and a system of belonging (relationships of intimacy and trust). After a lengthy evolution, the human brain developed these three regulatory systems, which function as the basis for human psychology and behavior. With these systems, we can cope with external dangers, develop our bodies and minds, and appreciate the value of life. 
Members in the network sphere have neither intimate relationships nor rights and obligations to each other. Anonymity, differentiation, and confrontational scenarios further diminished the possibility of developing intimacy and trust. Although some members spontaneously shared private information online, respect, friendship, and trust remain the most precious social qualities in the network sphere. When a safe and trusting relationship is missing, it is difficult to build and sustain the necessary “system of belonging” for human survival and development. Neither will it be possible to balance the other two systems. Consequently, various problems will arise, including social cognitive bias due to improper autognosis and ascription, worsened social divergence stemming from cultural diversity and value pluralism in the social sphere, as well as bias, anxiety, anger, and loneliness resulting from psychological projections that exaggerate realistic problems. 
As social members adapt to network society, network social governance and research are developing further. Facing the various impacts that the internet has on social life, both individuals and society are continuously adjusting their counteracting strategies, which has yielded great results. From the social governance perspective, to facilitate sound interactions between network spheres and social spheres, we need to advance governance in the following two aspects. 
The first is through building social ethics and governance systems that are suitable for the social sphere online. When the internet rapidly merges or even coincides with the real world, those who do not spread information through the network “do not exist,” whereas active web users can exist with multiple identities. The metaverse, made up of the internet, shares something in common with the universe that humanity lives in, that is, it has constant dynamic changes, and it is borderless, centerless, and continuously expanding. 
Yet, fundamental differences persist between the two: members of humanity grow old, fall sick, and die eventually, whilst metaverse members not only “live eternally,” but also “exist” as multiple selves in different space-time. Overlaid with a new type of social relations, these phenomena combine to trigger social issues typical to our current society: confrontations between single entities and multiple identities, differences between virtuality and reality, accumulative negative emotions, the virtual sphere’s engagement, and intervention of the real world, and more. This calls for an urgent establishment of social ethics and a governance system in the network sphere. 
The second is to adjust the relationship between digital identities and a real-life identity. The internet is both the product of technology and a new production tool, while the network sphere is the product of society and a living space for our digital identities. Cloud computing is gathering massive amounts of digital information while projecting people’s social activities into the network sphere. 
Going forward, we need to start with law and technology to regulate and guide online social platforms by paying more attention to the quality of users as “members of society,” while making privacy protection a core service of technology. For example, we can add a secret key to digital information, and set up the option of “the right to forget” when publishing content, which allows content to be automatically deleted once it reaches the “expiration date.” To “forget” does not erase our digital life in the social sphere, but endows the internet world the quality of “a simulated life circle,” so that digital life also goes through phrases of growth, development, and death. This will make it easier to define the network sphere’s boundary, balancing our identities in both the digital and real world, so that we can build a more complete, safer, and richer social sphere. 
Wang Fengli is an associate research fellow from Hebei Academy of Social Sciences and Si Qi is from the Department of Psychology at Sun Yat-sen University.  
Edited by WENG RONG