China’s social media may hold lessons for Facebook in reducing pressure to chase ‘likes’

Asia and Oceania
  • Both WeChat and Weibo have put initiatives in place to help social media users limit the time they are visible online
Scientists have linked social media use to certain mental health conditions, including depression, because of a phenomenon in which users compare themselves to others on social media and feel badly about their own lives. Photo: Agence France-Presse
Scientists have linked social media use to certain mental health conditions, including depression, because of a phenomenon in which users compare themselves to others on social media and feel badly about their own lives. Photo: Agence France-Presse

In China, the world of social media is no longer just about taking a snapshot and clicking the “post” button. It has become a stressful daily activity in the world’s most populous nation, as users spend more time online obsessing over the “likes” they get and what other people are posting.

That has prompted the country’s giant platforms to rethink their efforts on driving user stickiness and check the potential damaging effect of excessive social media interaction. Both WeChat, the country’s leading mobile messaging service and social network, and Weibo already have initiatives in place to help users limit the time they are visible online, a strategy which their Western counterparts are starting to pursue.

These social media platforms are ahead of the likes of Facebook in relieving the stress experienced by people online when comparing their posts with others, according to Zhang Dingding, an independent internet industry commentator.

“Social networks and their users are now going through this phase of development,” said Zhang, who was the former head of Beijing-based research firm Sootoo Institute. He said social media users in China are slowly maturing, “expecting their platforms to provide real value [to their lives]”.

The efforts in China not only further shine a light on the effect of social media on mental health, which has been documented in many studies, but also indicate how the country’s platforms are taking a different approach to keep users and attract new ones.

That same goal is not lost on major Western social network operators, particularly Facebook. The US social media giant, which had 2.4 billion monthly active users in the quarter ended June 30, plans to start tests that will hide like counts on News Feed posts, according to security researcher Jane Manchun Wong in a private Twitter reply on Tuesday.

Tests had been conducted by Facebook-owned Instagram from April in Canada and several other countries from July, which aimed to check users’ obsession over the number of likes their posts receive compared with those of other people in the platform.

Wong, known for her work in reverse-engineering apps like Facebook’s, spotted the company prototyping the hidden like counts in its Android app.

“By de-emphasising the perceived popularity, it could encourage people to be more genuine about the content they mean to share, instead of sharing content just because they want to get more likes,” Wong said.

Jane Manchun Wong is known for uncovering hidden app features that the likes of Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat want to keep under wraps. Photo: Felix Wong
Jane Manchun Wong is known for uncovering hidden app features that the likes of Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat want to keep under wraps. Photo: Felix Wong

Facebook confirmed it was considering testing that feature, without elaborating on the rationale or other details, in an emailed reply on Tuesday.

In China, one-third of social media users born between 1990 to 1999 reported decreased levels of concentration and were concerned about “the sense of emptiness and vanity” brought by social media, according to a 2017 survey by Kantar. Around 39 per cent of these users disabled the notifications on their platforms.

Scientists have linked social media use to certain mental health conditions, including depression, because of a “social comparison” phenomenon, in which users compare themselves to others on social media and feel badly about their own lives, according to a 2014 study by researchers from the University of Houston and Palo Alto University in the US.

Source: South China Morning Post