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Social relations among youth in internet era

TIAN FENG and LI XIAQING | 2021-02-04
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

In an interconnected social network, weak ties serve as a bridge between groups with strong ties. Photo: CFP


As the internet infiltrates into people's social lives, young people find themselves deep inside a virtual space, in which interactions online also influence their social networks in general. 
 
"Likes," reposts, and group chats have increased the frequency and connectivity of youngsters' interactions with one another. More young people block their parents and supervisors on social media, while becoming more willing to interact with strangers online. As social community gathers participants of different backgrounds, the flow of information is no longer confined by circles, space, or time. What's more, the intensity of our real-life social relations no longer determines how reciprocal the relationship should be. People's interactions online and the dynamic changes of social relations have become an established fact, one that can no longer be defined by the weak/strong binary classification of human relationships. This new trend is sure to become a research hotspot in sociology. 
 
Social network theory 
Mark Granovetter based his social network theory on people's interpersonal interactions. The internet, however, has created a virtual space interwoven with people's real lives. Studies show that when online, people interact in a different way, and maintain different relationship patterns than in real life. However, online and offline social networks may still be intertwined. 
 
Based on Granovetter's theory, weak ties facilitate the flow of information resources and development opportunities. However, online social networks are also able to serve a similar purpose. This means in the internet era, sociologists need to take into consideration the impact that the virtual space has on our real-life relations. Meanwhile, when defining "relations," scholars need to look at both online and offline relationships, to remodel the social relation types to better fit the internet era. 
 
Granovetter, and many researchers that came after him, have mainly focused on observing types of social relations from a binary perspective based on the strength of ties. To them, there is no middle ground between strong ties and weak ties. This may indicate bias, as it seems to limit all relationships into just two types. Postmodern theorists began reflecting on this theory, and have been working to add nuance to the binary concept. Therefore, it is necessary for scholars to rethink how to connect the weak and strong ties brought forward by Granovetter, and try to introduce a new concept which defines intermediate types of relationships. 
 
Past research tended to overlook the fact that weak ties and strong ties may change as time goes by, and as people change the frequency of their interactions. It is even possible for a weak tie to transform into a strong one, and vice versa. Perhaps a relationship may even stay in the intermediate space while transitioning from one type to another. 
 
Granovetter's biggest contribution to the network theory is the unexpected function of weak ties. Weak ties serve as a bridge between groups with strong ties. This theoretical assumption works in real life. The internet may also play a similar role to weak ties. It is an open and public platform that enables people to interact with strangers or read information posted by strangers on platforms such as Twitter, Weibo, etc. Sociologists cannot afford to overlook "even weaker ties" such as online acquaintances, or button clickers and clickees (whose interactions don’t go beyond "liking" each other's' social media posts). 
 
Social ties online 
The proliferation of social network software has gradually nurtured the virtual space into a relatively cohesive social network, in which new social ties can be transplanted to the real world, expanded, or even independently grown to function. Social network software allows users to stay in touch anytime and anywhere, thus guaranteeing the interactive frequency that young people need to sustain strong ties. With various functions, these apps offer youth a variety of ways to socialize. Less intense ways of keeping in touch such as clicking likes, leaving comments, or group chats, are able to keep users emotionally connected. Sometimes these methods are even more effective than traditional one-on-one conversations. Consequently, the border between the real world and the virtual world gradually begins to blur. 
 
People with strong ties in the real world tend to remain intimate in the virtual world. On top of that, as network management improves, the internet now features two new advantages—regulation and disembedding. The existence of trust and intimacy online makes it possible for a virtual tie to be developed into a strong tie offline. 
 
Kinship, geographic relations, or business relations are no longer the prerequisite for forming or sustaining a strong tie. Unlike traditional strong ties which are largely homogenous, a community developed based on common interests tends to be more heterogeneous. In addition, social networking has reduced the cost of frequent interactions, which are needed to preserve strong ties and emotional connections. As a result, strong ties in the virtual world are becoming increasingly important in young people’s social lives. 
 
Virtual space also contributes greatly to expanding young people's weak ties. Social software and social mechanisms online have increased young people's opportunities to socialize, and created numerous transmittable attention signals. What's more, it is a cheap and convenient way to stay in touch. Virtual interactions are similar to intimate relationships in the real world, but are also different. The virtual world has created immense opportunities for getting in touch with different groups of people. The threshold of mutual benefits is greatly lowered in virtual space. The mechanism of reciprocity has shifted from two-way to multi-way, through which substantial reciprocity can be achieved. Synchronism and asynchronism coexist in information exchange. Social platforms also serve as a platform for resource reserves, which further boosts the efficiency and sphere of influence in a virtual reciprocal weak tie. 
 
Based on this, when interconnected, the virtual space and the real world are able to generate four types of social ties: strong in both the real world and the virtual world; weak in both the real world and the virtual world; strong in the real world but weak in the virtual world; weak in the real world but strong in the virtual world. The last two types of relations have different levels of intensities online and offline. They represent the biggest challenge facing social network theory in the internet era. 
 
A social tie that is strong in reality but weak online usually arises when the two sides have stable relationship in reality, but have unequal status. It is usually the result of young people's directions. There are two causes for this gap between the real world and the the virtual world: complementary relations (such as kinship) and avoidant relations (such as geographical relationships and business relationships). Whereas, social ties that are weak in reality and strong in the virtual world are mostly rooted in common goals or interests between the two sides, and are usually the result of a choice coming from young people. 
 
Compared to real life, virtual space has granted socializers with enormous liberty. Social software has great efficiency in interactions, great potential for expanding social networks, and abundant social contents are able to fulfill young people's social needs. The disembedding of virtual socialization also created a freer social experience for youth, and broader space for establishing ties. 
 
Latent ties, underwater ties 
In past research, the dynamic evolution of social relations could be easily overlooked. To adjust to two-dimensional evolution of social ties in the internet era, this paper borrowed the concepts of "latent ties" and "underwater ties" to explain the intermediate types of relationships between strong ties and weak ties. 
 
Latent ties represent the embryonic stage of a relationship, and best describe the light-weight interactions which take place in a virtual space. As long as a socializer spends some time with others in the same virtual space (a chat group, a forum, or a topic page, etc.), a latent relationship is thus formed. Having accumulated a large sum of latent relationships online, young people may start interacting with some of them. 
 
By exchanging basic information, young people can estimate the quantity and quality of resources that the other person possesses. Once the assessment result is negative, the relationship halts. If the result is positive, the tie becomes stronger. With frequent interactions and exchanges of resources, this tie can even develop into a stable and long-lasting strong tie. For that to happen, a socializer needs to have a good eye for identifying latent ties that have great potential value. Meanwhile, the common goals and interests of the two sides need to be stable in order to sustain future development. However, since the threshold for reciprocal relationships is lower in the virtual world, a socializer may not see the necessity to upgrade a latent tie to a strong tie. What's more, a person may also decide not to upgrade a relationship in case the tie should become less valuable once it is promoted to a stronger one. 
 
Underwater ties refers to strong ties that have been downgraded. An underwater tie requires little interaction to maintain. When there is an information overload or repetitive information exchange between two sides, a young person may intentionally reduce communication with someone to avoid social pressure. The internet makes it easier for an underwater tie to appear and to sustain, thus making underwater ties the most common form of strong ties in the long term. This is so for two reasons. 
 
First, the virtual space makes reciprocal opportunities widely accessible, while strong ties involving massive input are no longer a precondition for in-depth information sharing. This has further lowered people's needs for developing strong ties. Second, lightweight interactions online fit the purpose of sustaining an underwater tie, and have become the main way for people to maintain one. Though not currently active, an underwater tie could resurface as a strong tie once new common interests or reciprocal conditions appear between the two sides. However, when a tie stays underwater for too long, it will be further degraded till it eventually sinks for good. It has become common for young people to sift out underwater ties for social efficiency. 
 
To some extent, the social ties introduced above have drawn a picture of young people's social lives, a kind that combines both reality and virtuality. These observations can support studies on guiding young people towards a healthy social life and preventing them from losing touch with the real world. It is also noteworthy that the tools and mechanisms for socialization are still evolving, and the pace of social activities is constantly accelerating, which may drastically change our research outcomes. We, as sociologists, also need to explore the following topics: How should society view changes that take place in young people's social lives? How should society help youth control technology rather than be controlled by it? What are the effects and feasibility of light socialization and relationships with strangers? 
 
Tian Feng is a research fellow from the National Institute of Social Development at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences; and Li Xiaqing is from the Shanghai Academy. 
 
Edited by WENG RONG