The Lucrative Loneliness of the Chinese

By | October 1, 2008

By Jeremy Wagstaff

At what point do social networks on the Internet start to supplant ones in real life?

Take China, for example. It’s a relatively big example, so it’s worth taking.

According to a recent article in Web in Travel, an online travel publication, China now has two generations of one-child families, and, in the words of Harry Hui, chief marketing officer of PepsiCo International, “one of the loneliest generations in the world.”

Of course, he’s saying this like it’s a good thing, because marketers love lonely people (they can sell them chocolate and other kinds of comfort food, for example.) But more interesting for me were the implications for technology as a kind of security blanket.

Here’s how it looks to Hui. “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.”

Hui paints a picture of young people isolated by a missing generation and an absence of siblings—and presumably a shortage of cousins. Unsurprisingly, then, they’re turning to social networks, where they gather friends they are likely to know only online: “Friendster has more virtual friends in China than anywhere else,” said Hui.

If this is true—I’m not quite clear how Hui came by this information—it would seem to paint a picture of a disoriented youth pressured to get on but without the usual support network of real-life friends to help them. He quotes a China Mobile survey which seems to confirm this over-dependence on technology: “The mobile phone is more important than boyfriends or girlfriends for 90% of the younger generation,” he says.

It’s not as if China is alone in embracing technology. Indonesians have become big users of cellphones—and mobile browsers, proving they’re not just using them to send text messages, but have leapfrogged the Western model by adopting the cellphone as their primary computer—and the Philippines has also become a massive user of Friendster.

But I suspect each example tells a slightly different story. Technology is moulded to the needs of people. 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, a la 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.

This will all grow and expand massively as our cellphones become more powerful, do more for us. Juniper Research last month predicted that the number of active users of mobile social networking sites is expected to rise from 54 million this year to nearly 730 million in 2013.

Most of that is going to be in north and Southeast Asia, but don’t forget India: that, Juniper says, will become the largest region for mobile dating services by 2010. I rest my case that every society bends technology to its will.

Marketing people are clearly waking up to all this. But so should we.

You can’t help wondering what happens next in a place like China. If a nation of single children marry and 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?

Yes, we mould technology to suit us, but we need to be alert to the possibility of the reverse: that it defines us.

Jeremy Wagstaff is a commentator on technology and appears regularly on the BBC World Service. He can be found online at or via email at