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date: 12 December 2019

Networked Individualism, East Asian Style

Summary and Keywords

“Networked individualism” represents the phenomenon that people are managers of their own personal networks. Networked individualism in an East (and Southeast) Asian context draws attention to the significant role of Asian social institutions and culture in the patterning of personal communities. When compared to Western situations—particularly American—East Asian personal communities are just as vibrant and supportive. They have woven seamlessly with digital media, extend both near and far, and are rich in social support. There are several differences that make East Asian societies unique, such as their strong focus on kinship, the salience of hierarchical social capital, the culture of mutual monitoring occurring through strong ties (e.g., guanxi), and the accelerated rise of digital media in everyday life.

Keywords: networked individualism, digital media, personal communities, social support, kinship, hierarchical social capital, mutual monitoring, guanxi, East Asia, Southeast Asia


As we travel the world, we notice a flourishing of boutique hotels, travelers with customized itineraries, and websites such as Airbnb, where guests can book accommodation from unknown others. Other websites tell us about the “Top 10 most exotic places in the world to travel.” This shift from hotels to more flexible accommodations is one element of a much larger shift in modern society—the rise of a network society based on personal autonomy and connectivity. The “Social Network Revolution” represents the idea that communities today have become much more individualized and personal to their owners than ever before (Rainie & Wellman, 2012).

Although much has been written about the rise of network society in Western societies (e.g., Wellman, 1988; Castells, 1996; van Dijk, 2006), research on Asian network society is growing at an accelerated pace. Our review of East Asia thus reveals notable differences and similarities with the West. Similarities include the contemporary features of social networks: far-flung, sparsely knit, specialized, people combining their online and offline interactions in a seamless fashion using digital media such as the Internet, smartphone, and email (Ito & Okabe, 2005). The differences reveal several unique features of East Asian network society: the strong emphasis on kinship, the hierarchal nature of social relationships, and restrictions to networking autonomy brought on by state control, patriarchy, and respect for seniors. At the same time, the rapid rise of digital media has precipitated social movements as a counterforce to state control (Rauchfleisch & Schafer, 2015).

Our review will comprise several discussions of communication networks, not only the use of digital media, but all interactions, including digitally mediated online and offline relationships in everyday life (Wellman, 2001; Boase, 2008). Beyond the communication technologies themselves, we consider several forms of personal network ties: their basic characteristics, the role of digital media in everyday communication, and the limits to network formation, arising from a range of cultural and institutional characteristics.

From Groups to Networks

The “community question” (Wellman, 1979)—of whether modernization has precipitated a decline of community—remains an important one. Much depends on where we look: if one takes community to mean relationships with neighbors, the picture is less sanguine, after all, neighboring rates have declined steadily over several decades (Guest & Wierzbicki, 1999). Yet network research has shown that communities have continued to thrive in personal networks comprising a range of different network members, including close kin, neighbors, friends, coworkers, acquaintances, and some extended kin (Rainie & Wellman, 2012). The shift from groups to networks is now an established social fact, Wellman (2001) terms this “networked individualism,” the observation that social interactions today are increasingly person-to-person.

This individualization has spread to the East. Taking China for example, during the Mao era, Chinese usually had little choice about where to work (or reside) as the state determined housing and job placements. Post-Mao, in the reform era, rural‒urban migration and government policy have enabled workers to move into the private sector, allowing them to pursue alternative employment and chart their own careers. Collectivism gave way to individualism (Nee, 1989; Yan, 2010). Today, the mobile phone and Internet are liberalizing Chinese social relationships, though not without a pushback from the state (Castells, Fernandez-Ardevol, Qiu, & Sey, 2007; King, Pan, & Roberts, 2013).

Although places remain important as foci for relationships (Feld, 1981), the concept of networked individualism emphasizes the liberating manner with which ties stretch beyond a single geographical locale. In a personal network, an individual is linked to different clusters of network members; he/she will often cycle between different clusters for different activities; moreover, the clusters are sometimes linked to each other as when family members and friends know each other (Figure 1). The East Asian (e.g., Chinese) view of networks can be quite different from the Western view—instead of ego being joined to different clusters of people (Fischer, 1982), the social network is primarily a series of concentric circles—where allegiance is first and foremost to one’s family and neighbors (Yan, 1996). The theory of guanxi embodies the idea that kinship ties are key to East Asian network society (Barbalet, 2016).

Networked Individualism, East Asian Style

Figure 1. A network of networks: From an interpersonal to an interorganizational network. © Barry Wellman 1988.

Historical Evolution of Communities

Communities have evolved in three phases of transformation that are not totally sequential. In earlier days, they were based on door-to-door connectivity, with people traveling by foot when visiting each other’s households. That continues in some areas: some villages (barangay) in the Philippines are characterized by door-to-door connectivity, and the headman alone has a mobile phone. Some villagers travel by foot and find nobody at home when they reach their destination (Strom, 2002). But such connectivity would seem more the exception than rule in an increasingly modern Southeast Asia.

Subsequently, the advent of travel affordances such as car, train, and plane created a new type of community based on place-to-place connectivity. The telephone, in particular, made it possible for households to call each other, but the costs associated with long-distance calls were prohibitive until the late 20th century (Fischer, 1992). Telephone calls between households often meant that some planning had to be done beforehand (e.g., I will reach home by 5 p.m. to wait for your call).

Finally, with lower costs generated in more recent times by accelerated changes in communication and travel, digital media are affording a society based on person-to-person connectivity, significantly reducing barriers of distances, and connecting people in different places, and in different time zones (Mok, Wellman, & Carrasco, 2010; Wallis, 2013). The ideals of “perpetual contact” (Katz & Aakhus, 2002) are realized with digital media.

The paradigmatic shift from groups to networks opens vistas for the analysis of personal communities in non-Western contexts. Indeed, Vincent Chua and Barry Wellman recently edited two special issues on Social Networks and Social Capital in East and Southeast Asia for the American Behavioral Scientist. Forty-seven scholars contributed some 18 articles to the two special issues (Chua & Wellman, 2015a, 2015b). All articles analyzed their respective East Asian societies (China, Hong Kong, Korea, Japan, Singapore, Thailand, and Taiwan) from a personal network perspective, using systematic data. Many of the writers received training from Western universities, who subsequently applied their training to the study of East Asian societies and networks.

Techno-Social Situations: The Online and Offline Worlds Are Connected

Concerns about the decline of community have extended to fears about digital media undermining face-to-face interactions, with some pundits arguing that such technologies have inhibited human interactions (Sigman, 2009; Turkle, 2011). In East Asia, similar apprehensions have arisen. Yet, such fears do not stand up to empirical scrutiny. To the contrary, Internet and mobile communications have actually bolstered social relationships.

Throughout East Asia, people are using mobile phones to connect with family, friends, and workmates (Tseng & Hsieh, 2015). Young adults with mobile phones report a greater number of strong and weak ties. They are also more likely to enjoy better well-being as a result of being digitally networked (Wang, Chua, & Stefanone, 2015). Among East Asian migrants to the West, digital media use is associated with transnational networks, including networks of kinship and friendship in the new and former country (Hui, 2015).

To many, digital media represent a critical lifeline to a broader world in that they create “mobility from immobility” (Wallis, 2013). For example, the working class in China (the so-called information have-less) relies heavily on Internet cafes and low-cost communication (such as basic mobile phones with text messaging) to maintain ties with others (Qiu, 2009). Many do not have personal computers; therefore, they turn to the cafes for Internet access. In other cities in China, migrant women are using mobile phones and the Internet to stay connected with other migrant women (Wallis, 2013).

The online and offline worlds are connected with each other, creating what Mizuko Ito calls “techno-social situations” (Ito & Okabe, 2005) that reinforce each other in everyday life (Wellman et al., 2006; Boase, 2008; Veenhof, Wellman, Quell, & Hogan, 2008; Baym, 2015; Hampton, 2016). Digital media users have more friends on average than non-users (Wang & Wellman, 2010). Digital media also increase ties between neighbors, who meet face-to-face with each other after chatting on listservs online (Hampton & Wellman, 2003). The structures and dynamics of online and offline worlds mirror each other: First, both online and offline communities tend to be small, averaging 100 to 200 people. Second, people forge close ties with others in the online world just as much as they do the offline world (Dunbar, Arnaboldi, Conti, & Passarella, 2015).

Networked Individualism—East Asian Style

To date, most research and discussion of social networks and communication have used Western contexts—especially American and European—implicitly and explicitly (e.g., Ling, 2004). We broaden the discussion by incorporating research and discussion about East Asian contexts. Our aim is not to reify East Asia as much as to deploy East Asia as a node for the comparative analysis of how differences in national and institutional contexts give rise to variations in the patterning, accumulation, role, and value of social networks and social capital. In this way, by studying non-Western nodes, East Asia represents a unique and useful set of cases for conceptual advancement.

We begin by noting some similarities between East and West, for example, we find no evidence of community decline: people in East Asia are just as likely as those in the West to form personal communities. Like their Western counterparts, East Asians are active digital media users (Ito & Okabe, 2005); the youth in particular have networks supported by email and smartphones (Miyata, Boase, Wellman, & Ikeda, 2005). We also discern some differences, not so much in kind but in degree, that make East Asia an interesting set of cases. These include stronger kinship ties, hierarchical social capital, and cultural institutions such as mutual monitoring (see also comparative discussions in Son, 2013; Boase, Kobayashi, Schrock, Suzuki, & Suzuki, 2015; Chua & Wellman, 2015a, 2015b; McDonald, Chen, & Mair, 2015).

Similarities with Western Societies

In the past, personal communities tended to be tightly bound, densely knit (most nodes are directly connected), and multi-stranded (the same people helping with many things). Today, many personal communities are geographically dispersed, sparsely knit, and specialized (Wellman, 1979; Fischer, 1982; Wellman, 1988; Rainie & Wellman, 2012). We discuss each of these characteristics using examples from a range of societies, emphasizing East Asia.

Geographically Spread

There is consistent evidence for the geographical stretching out of personal communities. In the West, in cities such as Zurich, egos and network members live within an average 287 km of each other. In Toronto, it is 1,036 km; in Eindhoven (Netherlands), it is 153 km; in Concepción (Chile), it is 223 km (Kowald et al., 2013). The median distances are much shorter—9 km in Zurich, 11 km in Toronto, 10 km in Einhoven, and 5 km in Concepción, suggesting that people have mostly local ties, with some extra-local and/or global ties.

As in the West, communication networks in East Asia are spanning local and global spaces (Castells, Fernandez-Ardevol, Qiu, & Sey, 2007). For example, in Singapore, the mean distance separating network members is 337 km, while the median distance is 7 km. Although Singaporeans are more likely to name local ties, they also name overseas contacts. Their personal networks are characterized by a concentric structure of local ties at the core, but stretching outward via longer paths (Chua, Axhausen, & Tan, 2016).

Sparsely Knit Networks

Network members do not often know each other: A 1968 study of strong ties in Toronto, Canada, found network diversity to be 0.30, that is, nearly one-third of all possible alter-to-alter ties actually existed (Wellman, 1979; Wellman, 1988). A re-study of the same area ten years later found density decreased to one-eighth: 0.13. We do not know of many studies of network density in East Asia and call for more research in this area. On the one hand, personal communities may be becoming more sparsely knit (due to the expansion of personal communities), yet, on the other hand, cultural institutions such as mutual monitoring (in countries such as China, Japan, and Korea) may be also producing social closure, making it hard for individuals to be fully autonomous (Boase et al., 2015).

Specialized Ties

People turn to different network members for different kinds of supportive roles (Wellman, 1990; Wellman & Wortley, 1990). In China, kin provide financial aid, while spouses, parents, and children give advice, as well as provide help during an episode of illness (Freeman & Ruan, 1997). In Japan, coworkers are social companions, while adult children and parents rely on each other for social companionship (Hechter & Kanazawa, 1993). In Singapore, neighbors help look out for each other’s homes; kin rally together to solve important matters, emotional matters, and money matters; while friends are social companions (Chua, 2013). The saying “different strokes from different folks” (Wellman & Wortley, 1990) applies as much to East Asian societies as it does to North American societies.

Person-to-Person Connectivity

The rise of person-to-person connectivity has spread to East Asia. In Taiwan, digital media have facilitated much face-to-face contact among neighbors (Tseng & Hsieh, 2015). In Japan, mobile phones (“keitai”) make it possible for users to set up a meeting by “agreeing on a general time and place (Shibuya, Saturday late afternoon) then exchange approximately five to fifteen messages that progressively narrow in on a precise time and place” (Ito & Okabe, 2005, p. 267). In Korea, social networking sites and instant messaging applications such as “Kakao Talk” and “Band” connect lonely individuals such as single mothers and fathers by organizing gatherings and travel. They are also popular among undergraduates for sharing job information and social support (personal communication with Sara Kim).

In Seoul, young protestors (so-called wireless protestors) have mobilized a variety of digital media such as email, mobile phone, online journalism, and so on to gather and circulate information. They then used digital media to coordinate action against perceived government failure to protect citizens’ health by deregulating beef imports from the United States after a ban of more than three years (Kwon, Nam, & Lackaff, 2011). In China, many users have found ways to circumvent the firewalls that block email and other websites (Rauchfleisch & Schafer, 2015). In Hong Kong, despite state controls, digital media fueled the groundswell of the “Umbrella Revolution” with constant updates of reports and images of students and other protestors in makeshift tents (Luk, 2015; Tsui, 2015).

High connectivity extends from city to village and vice versa. In clichéd images shared by some in the East and West, East Asia seems to be a place of solidary villages and large rural populations (particularly in Cambodia, China, Myanmar, Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam). However, recent studies show a substantial amount of interaction between cities and villages. For example, Thai migrants remit income to support their households in the villages, especially if other migrants from the same village are doing the same (Garip, Eskici, & Snyder, 2015). Migration from villages to cities bolsters friendship among migrants in the Yangtze Delta region (Fong & Tong, 2015). In particular, mobile phone and Internet sustain the kinship and friendship networks of Chinese migrants who might feel marginalized (or isolated) in the city (Qiu, 2009; Wallis, 2013).

Differences from Western Societies

While East Asian countries vary in their national, historical, and institutional characteristics, several convergences make them a unique set of nations. These include their strong emphases on kinship, the hierarchical nature of their social relationships, and the conformity culture that characterizes so much of public and private life in East Asia. We discuss each in turn.

Strong Kinship Focus

Kinship is central in East Asia, arguably more so than in many contemporary Western societies. It is exemplified by the elaborate ways in which East Asian families mobilize childcare (Quah, 2003); how adult children continue living with parents (Hechter & Kanazawa, 1993); and how families celebrate in such elaborate ways during occasions such as the Chinese (Lunar) New Year (Bian, Breiger, Davis, & Galaskiewicz, 2005). The Chinese New Year is a special occasion comprising some 15 days of meals and celebrations, including the exchange of red packets. Visits form a large part of the festivities, with most occurring between relatives, friends, and work colleagues. There is much social pressure to keep up ties, especially when there is “no excuse for close relatives or friends not to visit each other” (Bian et al., 2005, p. 1453). The cultivation of guanxi (strong ties incorporating sentiment) is essential.

In the kinship structure, parents and grandparents form a tag team caring for and monitoring children: when the parents are out at work, grandparents are minding the children; after the workday, the parents take over, spend time with their children, coach their homework, and so on. The intergenerational network is a factor even in housing design: new housing developments in Japan are including childcare centers within their premises to bring children and senior residents together while parents are working (Japan Times, 2014). More adult children are living with their parents, reflecting the later ages at which people are getting married and the high costs of housing (Hechter & Kanazawa, 1993).

Kin are central in both East and West but with some notable differences. In the United States, the focus on kin starting early in the life course, drops quickly between the ages 20 and 35, slides further till age 50, then picks up again after 50 (McDonald, Chen, & Mair, 2015). The pattern is more gradual in East Asia: in China and Taiwan, kin become more and more important as people age (McDonald et al., 2015). Essentially, the cultivation of guanxi is a never-ending process; it requires a continual working at relationships to nurture the bond. Guanxi needs to be constantly cultivated, affirmed, and reaffirmed—like a “Chinese son … who must demonstrate his worthiness as a son through fulfillment of the obligations of filial piety” (Barbalet, 2015, p. 1043).

Indeed the cultivation of strong ties is a recurring theme in studies on East Asia. One study found that more than half (52%) of Japanese never reconnected with dormant ties compared to less than one-third (32%) of Americans (Boase et al., 2015). The authors draw attention to high levels of mutual monitoring in Japan among family members and among colleagues; the pressure on coworkers to socialize after hours leaves little time or energy for reactivating old ties. Workplaces resembled families, particularly during the era of lifetime employment (Kato, 2001).

Kinship ties are just as binding in parts of Southeast Asia such as Vietnam. The Vietnamese family has many parallels with Chinese, Japanese, and Korean families that emphasize Confucian values such as filial piety (xiao). But binding also entails social control. A contact of ours said: “I hate going home to Vietnam: I have to visit every relative with presents when I come, and also visit to say good-bye when I leave. It is not too bad if I go for 3 months. But if I go for 4 weeks, visiting relatives will be half of my trip. Now, when I go on business, I tell only my father.”

In China, the one-child policy both extends and weakens kinship. One report estimates that the policy had prevented some 400 million births that could have been, not to mention millions of other births that were terminated because of gender: the unbalanced sex ratio in China is a direct consequence of the preference for boys to carry on the family surname. At the same time, the one-child policy encourages parents to devote much of their energies toward that one child, thus neglecting other relationships (Zhu, Lu, & Hesketh, 2009; Washington Post, 2015). One wonders if the recent rescinding of the one-child policy will alter and extend kinship ties.

Patriarchal norms permeate the family structure. Although gender inequalities have narrowed considerably in much of the Western world (Gamoran, 2001), women still face major challenges in East Asia. Patriarchal norms are strong in East Asia where women often face hindrances to their educational and economic mobility (Klasen, 2002). East Asian families still hold strong preferences for male children compared to female children. Women are still less likely to be in paid work; or if they work, are less likely than men to attain managerial or boardroom positions. All these limit women’s access to social capital and other life chances.

Finally, kinship is a major aspect of large businesses. A notable aspect of Asian kinship is the business conglomerates owned by several founding families that occupy a central position within the economy, controlling a wide range of public companies, family-owned charities, and subsidiaries. The families have a great amount of political influence. This concentration of state and family power is much more salient in the Korean chaebol than the Japanese keiretsu that are managed by decentralized groups of professional administrators and other intermediate powers (Hamilton & Biggart, 1988). In Singapore and Hong Kong, several well-known companies started out as family businesses, which developed to grow their wealth over generations in sectors such as banking, retail, and hotels (Tong & Yong, 1998).

Hierarchical Social Capital and Guanxi

Much of East Asia retains a Confucian tradition that includes respect for elders and respect for hierarchy. This affects how social capital is forged. Kinship rules apply: for example, the elderly patriarch heads the multigenerational family and decides its resource allocation (Tong & Yong, 1998); financial rules apply in the exchanging of gifts in marriage (Yan, 1996); and gifts and favors remain important for the cultivation of guanxi (Yang, 1994).

Some analysts argue that networks have faded in significance in the shift from socialism to market in China, because rewards tend to be based more on formal credentials and performance than political connections (e.g., Nee, 1989). Others suggest that the growth of markets can dilute the vertical ties of patron‒clientelism in state socialism and stimulate horizontal market exchanges (Bian & Zhang, 2006). One study has found that social connections to cadre members have become less important for recruitment into the Chinese Community Party (Bian, Shu, & Logan, 2001).

However, other studies do also show that guanxi has remained a significant force in everyday life. Being connected to a party cadre or a government official confers individuals with significant labor market advantages (Bian & Logan, 1996; Bian et al., 2005; Bian, 2008; Son, 2013). Moreover guanxi remains an inextricable part of Chinese culture and is useful for entering state-sector jobs (Yang, 1994; Gold, Guthrie, & Wank, 2002; Barbalet, 2015; Tian & Lin, 2016).

Yet, social capital is unevenly distributed as guanxi demarcates insiders and outsiders. A study of four Chinese cities found consistent patterns of occupational homophily in Chinese New Year visitation networks: professionals had fellow professionals as visitors, administrators and economic managers visited others like themselves, and manual workers visited other manual workers (Bian et al., 2005). In other words, there were few boundary-crossing ties (Lin, 2000).

Hierarchies and social capital extend to the school environment: in Nanjing, China, students with college-educated fathers are more likely to enter high-prestige schools. Attending high-prestige schools gives students opportunities to grow their social capital via knowing the influential parents of their peers (Lai, Wong, & Feng, 2015). In Korea, age, school ties, regional ties (where you are originally from), and kinship are useful for social advancement (Son, 2015). According to seonbae-hoobae (i.e., the culture of respect of seniors), it is important for juniors to acknowledge their seniors in school and in the workplace. Ties between juniors and seniors continue after graduation (Kim, 2001).

Ironically, while high-status contacts may be useful, they can also be a source of distress. In urban China, knowing people in authority—such as leaders of work units—creates access to more unsolicited job leads but also produces a higher incidence of depression in those being helped (Song, 2015). Social capital has unintended consequences: receiving help amplifies the low status of the recipient, who ends up feeling lorded over. Social comparisons may be especially ubiquitous in East Asia, given the strong emphasis on hierarchy; there are also pervasive East Asian concerns with face (mianzi) that make it especially stigmatizing to receive help (Hwang, 1987).

There may be an increased demand for compressing hierarchies throughout East and South Asia, as witnessed in protest movements such as the Umbrella Revolution in Hong Kong, the Bersih 4.0 protests calling for Prime Minister Razak’s resignation in Malaysia, and the rise of opposition politics in Singapore. These herald a shift from bureaucratic groups to decentralized networks, set against the backdrop of a growing digital media presence. Might the flattening of hierarchies translate to a different type of social capital, with social capital based on diversity becoming more important than social capital based on hierarchies in a networked world (Erickson, 1996)?

Variations in Autonomy and Social Control

Networks always operate within contexts. We draw attention in this section to the ways in which social structures in East Asia have facilitated or blocked the rise of networked individuals.

In Japan, small apartments, a conformity culture, lifelong employment, and drinks after work, all reinforce a culture of strong ties. Embeddedness and pressure to conform draw time and energy away from a more active investment in weak ties (Boase et al., 2015). Japan’s strong conformity culture extends into the online space. Studying the nuclear issue in the aftermath of the Great Japanese Earthquake in 2011, Miyata, Yamamoto, and Ogawa (2015) found that Twitter users were more likely to offer their views online—but only if they knew their views were in the majority. Otherwise they tended to keep quiet. In this way, the high value placed on social approval potentially dampens networked individualism.

The strong tie culture extends to job searches and job changes. In China, people rely on guanxi to work around heavy bureaucracy. Recent analyses of Chinese data confirm that in the years 1978 to 2008, strong ties were more important than weak ties in matching people to jobs, particularly jobs in the state sector (Tian & Lin, 2016). As the system shifts from socialism to capitalism, people continue to use guanxi to plug institutional gaps in the evolving market structure. Even as rules and contracts gain traction in China, people are using guanxi to solve problems that the new institutions cannot solve (Bian, 2002; Gold, Guthrie, & Wank, 2002). While guanxi paves the way, it excludes those not plugged into the networks. In a sense, being too autonomous can be a disadvantage.

Limits on autonomy often emanate from the state itself. The Chinese government for one is extremely concerned about netizens (wangmin) undermining its authority in the open environment of the Internet. The state censors work hard to shield the public from news about China that might undermine the party’s legitimacy to rule. Sometimes, netizens ridicule the censors through clever jokes and spoof videos that subvert the moral authority of the party, thus wrestling autonomy from the state (Shirk, 2011). A recent study has argued that the purpose of censorship is not so much to suppress criticism of the state or party, but to reduce the probability of collective action by “clipping social ties” the moment any signs of collectivism appear (King, Pan, & Roberts, 2013, p. 1).

Online communities have emerged to contest established systems. In Korea, the online community “Chopae” arose from a protest movement calling for the closure of Chosunilbo, a national newspaper known for its conservative-biased editorial agenda. The protests gathered momentum by massive “retweeting,” which distributed information and amplified messages to a larger collective. Retweeting fostered collective identity via people’s affirmation and emotional support of others’ opinions. The movement that began online crystallized eventually into political acts and other offline actions (Choi & Park, 2014).

Rapid Growth of Communication Networks and Digital Media: Potentials and Problems

The rise of networked individualism is reflected in the rapid growth of digital media in East Asia. China has now the most number of Internet users and subscribers to mobile telephony (Castells et al., 2007; Chen & Reese, 2015). An online gaming industry is flourishing, bringing gamers together (Chen, Shen, & Huang, 2015). Peer-to-peer networks work around the Chinese “great firewall” that constrains browsing and emailing (Chen & Reese, 2015). Meanwhile, digital media such as Sina Weibo (the Chinese equivalent of Twitter) are providing a space for numerous diverse discussions: one could think of Sina Weibo as constituting multiple “public spheres” each specializing in a different kind of online and offline expression (Rauchfleisch & Schafer, 2015).

Unfortunately, the growth of networks has also produced some problems. Although online networks such as Sina Weibo are popular sources of news, fads, and fashions, many Weibo accounts are fraudulent, used to artificially inflate certain posts to create fake trends. Chinese public relations companies are hiring full- and part-time workers to raise the popularity of a specific company, event, product, or person by posting (and reposting) content on digital media. As much as 49% of the retweets in Sina Weibo are associated with these fraudulent accounts even though they make up only 1% of all users (Yu, Asur, & Huberman, 2015). This draws attention to a potential downside to networked individualization: autonomous individuals (and companies) might try to manipulate social networks for personal gain.

Future Research

Concluding our chapter, we list several potential areas for future research:

  1. 1. The first area is broadening the scope of the countries we study to encompass the study of network society in places such as the Global South, asking questions such as: (a) Are there differences in network composition that distinguish cities and villages? (b) Do people from different ethnic groups (and caste groups) mix with each other? (c) With market liberalization and the rise of network society, how would state‒society relations change with the times? (d) Do forms of social networking such as forging ties to high-status groups alleviate social inequalities? (e) In what ways do globalized economy and network society, including digital media affect social capital in urban and rural milieus?

  2. 2. The second area concerns the study of the spatiality of personal communities. Geospatial analysis, which includes the spatial-coding of network ties, will go a long way toward helping us discover the actual distances that separate egos and alters in personal communities. The globality of ties is often exaggerated. Communication networks do not go everywhere as popularly imagined by titles such as The World is Flat (Friedman, 2005), but are themselves circumscribed by the boundaries of space, language, gender, race, and class. The world is not flat; it is lumpy (Takhteyev, Gruzd, & Wellman, 2012; Hunter, 2015; Parthasarathi, Hochmair, & Levinson, 2015). Such divisions may be especially salient in East Asia given its hierarchical social structures.

  3. 3. The third related area of potential research concerns hierarchical social capital. One potential area of research is the role of status on social mobility. Up to now, most research has focused on occupation-based contact statuses such as whether the respondent knows a lawyer, engineer, taxi driver, and so on (Lin & Erickson, 2008). But it is timely that we consider other kinds of contact statuses—such as gender and race—that tack onto occupationally defined social capital and affect social mobility. For example: Does the respondent know a female lawyer, a Chinese businessman, a Malay teacher, and so on? In Toronto, Canada, Erickson (2015) is studying this by comparing whites, blacks, Chinese, and Italian ethnic groups. Similar studies in Asia would be fruitful, given the rich ethnic heterogeneities of these societies.

  4. 4. The fourth area of research concerns the accelerated growth of digital media (Castells et al., 2007). The rise of digital media and technologies in East Asia should be studied as embedded, not distinguished from the routines of offline living. The term “apparatgeist” (spirit of the machine) has been used to describe the rise of digital media as an extension of both the individual and the group (Katz & Aakhus, 2002)—indeed, East Asians have been using digital media for achieving a range of social purposes, including disseminating information and mounting political protests (Choi & Park, 2014; Rauchfleisch & Schafer, 2015). The use of digital media has also been widespread among migrant workers to cities in China. Tracking digital media use among migrants presents opportunities for studying the intersections of space, communication networks (both online and offline), class, gender, friendship, and kinship. (Wallis, 2013)

To conclude, there remains much more to understand about network society beyond the Western context. In this regard, East Asia provides an interesting set of cases. Unique East Asian characteristics include their greater focus on kinship, the hierarchical nature of social relationships, limitations to autonomy generated by the practices of mutual monitoring, and controls by the state occurring alongside the immense growth of communication networks and digital media. We believe that our contribution has highlighted a distinctively East Asian form of networked individualism whose differences and similarities provide a useful contrast to the better understood Western models of networked individualism. Moreover, by looking to the East, we have placed in perspective Western—especially American—experiences with social networks.


We thank the two anonymous reviewers for their extensive comments alongside the precious comments of colleagues such as Hong Cui, Sara Kim, Hazel Kwon, Joy Ng, CamMi Pham, Rong Wang, Beverly Wellman, and Xiaolin Zhuo.

Further Reading

Barbalet, J. (2014). The structure of guanxi: Resolving problems of network assurance. Theory and Society, 43(1), 51–69.Find this resource:

Boase, J., & Kobayashi, T. (2008). Kei-Tying teens: Using mobile phone e-mail to bond, bridge, and break with social ties—a study of Japanese adolescents. International Journal of Human-Computer Studies, 66(12), 930–943.Find this resource:

Castells, M. (2012). Networks of outrage and hope: Social movements in the Internet age. Cambridge, U.K.: Polity Press.Find this resource:

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