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Talking to Strangers : Chinese Youth and Social Media

Abstract

A new form of sociality is developing among Chinese youth: an Elastic Self. Changes in social media's capacity to mediate information and interaction is creating new spaces for youth to shift the norms and behaviors of social relations in China in three ways: from self-restraint to self-expression, from comradeship to friendship, and from a "moral me" to a "moral we." These changes have potentially transformative power for Chinese society as a whole because they are altering the way that people perceive and engage with each other on personal and social levels. Under semianonymous conditions, Chinese youth are able to bypass the low levels of trust hat characterize authoritarian societies and adopt broader forms of social trust that characterize more participatory societies. These new forms of trust enable them to engage in citizenship practices that expand the public sphere through online debates that, on occasion, connect to offline civic participation. Before they can do this, however, youth must pass through two critical phases-- Exploratory and Trusting-- during which they learn how to share information with and socialize with strangers in a low-risk context. Interactions with strangers provide Chinese youth with social distance from people they know, thereby minimizing the anxiety of being shamed for acting inappropriately. While the West often characterizes China as a repressive surveillance state, my research reveals that Chinese youth are finding ways to connect to each other and to establish a web of casual trust that extends beyond particularistic guanxi ties and authoritarian institutions. For the most part, youth are discovering their social world, not a social cause. In doing so, youth are building the infrastructure of a civil society by establishing friendships with one another through relationships that start out between strangers. To be clear, this new form of sociality gives youth a way to navigate Chinese society, not to disconnect from or rebel against it. This new sociality is laying the groundwork for a public sphere to emerge from social ties primarily based on friendship

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