This piece from Web in Travel (a few weeks old now, but just delivered) was interesting and scary: China has created two generations of one-child families, and, in the words of Harry Hui, chief marketing officer of PepsiCo International, China Beverages, “one of the loneliest generations in the world”.
And a big one, to boot: “Within those born in the post-80s, there are 470 million and their world is very different. The Gang of Four is a thing of the past. The Cultural Revolution is an art movement. They are brought up by their grandparents because their parents were working. They live in one household, shaped by three generations.”
Of course, it’s also a very connected generation: 590 million mobile phone users and 245 million online users. “Friendster has more virtual friends in China than anywhere else,” said Hui. Meaning technology has become a comfort food: “The mobile phone is more important than boyfriends or girlfriends for 90% of the younger generation,” said Hui, citing a survey by China Mobile. (I can’t find this survey anywhere, but will keep looking.)
This means great opportunities for business. The article says that PepsiCo launched its “Facebook on a can” campaign in 2007. It asked consumers to upload their pictures onto a website and people could then vote on the pictures they liked. The top 20 winners’ pictures were then put on a billion Pepsi Cola cans throughout the country.
Interesting implications from all this. On the one hand, it would seem to contradict my bold-faced assertion that social networks are about information-exchanging rather than mere socializing. I guess it’s true that for a lot of people connecting to Facebook et al is not merely an informational transaction, but a connecting one too. One can draw some comfort from seeing one’s friends’ updates, of them going about their day.
But I guess the bigger point is this: social networks fit the cultural requirements of a society. And societies are different. If people are stuck in traffic all day, then mobiles become more important, which is one reason why you’re seeing high adoption of mobile Opera browsers in places like Indonesia. (You also see a lot of usage of SMS, because people need to communicate short bursts of information to one another when they have little control over the speed of their movements, so to speak.)
In China, I guess, what we’re seeing is a combination of this: a generation that is comfortable with the mobile phone but lacking the physical social network that their parents had. In this case, maybe social networking is fulfilling a slightly different need: online friendships aren’t just a continuation of real-world ties, but relationships that are created and defined online. That’s the relationship.
Smart of marketing people to recognize and exploit this. But you can’t help wondering what happens next. If a society of single children have one child themselves, who in turn grows up and has one child with another single-offspring person, at what point does technology move beyond just being a crutch to being the cultural gate itself, through which all friendships, romances and connections evolve?
In short, what happens when Facebook becomes not just a reflection of one’s world, but the world itself?