Warp, Weft, and Way

A Group Blog of Chinese and Comparative Philosophy

Social Media and Confucian Way of Life: A Losing Battle?

Wong Pak Hang, a PhD reasearcher at the University of Twente in the Netherlands, raised a fascinating issue on our Question Board, which I am re-posting here (with permission) for broader discussion. He introduces the issue as follows:

As an on-going project (see also, Dao, Harmony and Personhood: Towards a Confucian Ethics of Technology), I have attempted to analyse new media (or, information technology) from a Confucian perspective. But, it is only until recently that I really started to examine the relation between (or, in fact, the compatibility of) social media and the Confucian way of life. And, I started with the hope that Confucian ethics/Confucian philosophy will have something positive to contribute to the existing philosophical discussion on the benefits and harms. Unfortunately, when I proceed with my analysis, it becomes apparent that the Confucian way of life seems to be rather incompatible with the design (and, depends on how one theorises the relations between design and use, use) of social media. So, the obvious question is: Is the Confucian way of life impractical and/or inadequate, if social media is here to stay?

Read on for some fascinating details…

Intuitively, my answer is no; but, at the moment, I have difficulties to articulate it. Anyhow, it might well due to my defected exposition of the Confucian way of life that leads to this negative conclusion.

Any comments and suggestions are welcome!

Work in progress – Please do not cite, quote or summarise or circulate without permission.

Social Media: Affordances and Dynamics

My analysis will be building on danah boyd’s theoretical and ethnographic studies of social media. boyd sought to understand social media through the notion of networked publics, which are publics “transformed by networked media [e.g. ICTs], its properties and its potentials”. (‘Social Network Sites as Networked Publics’, in: A Networked Self, p. 42) Networked publics, accordingly, distinguish themselves by their structural foundation, i.e. bits, and the affordances available to the architecture of bits, namely “persistence”, “replicablity”, “scalability”, “searchability” and “shareability”. (‘Social Networking Sites…’, pp. 40-42 & pp. 45-48; Papacharissi & Gibson’s ‘15 Mins of Privacy‘, p. 76) boyd argued these properties of networked publics have supported three dynamics, which have come to dominate the network publics, namely

Invisible audiences: Not all audiences are visible when a person is contributing online, nor are they necessarily co-present.

Collapsed contexts: The lack of spatial, social, and temporal boundaries makes it difficult to maintain distinct social contexts.

The blurring of public and private: Without control over context, public and private become meaningless binaries, are scaled in new ways, and are difficult to maintain as distinct.

(boyd ‘Social Networking Sites’, p.49)

These dynamics seem to me sit uncomfortably with Confucian values. Now, I will attempt to illustrate how and why social media, with the dynamics identified by boyd, is a poor match for the Confucian way of life.

Social Media and Confucian Way of Life: A Losing Battle?

The existence of invisible audiences on social media is problematic to the Confucian way of life. Since users’ audiences can be neither visible nor co-present at the time when the users ‘say’ (or ‘do’) something on social media, e.g. social networking sites, microblogs, etc, they are in effect interacting with someone who they do not know with certainty. This is not to claim that invisible audiences do not exist prior to social media. Of course, invisible audiences―who are unknown and/or absent―exist in the offline world too. In the offline world, people can interact with someone who is not co-present through writing. There, however, the person in absent is not unknown. Similarly, people can interact with someone who they do not know through writing and/or (public) speech, but, they can still draw a sensible boundary of intended and unintended audiences through the writing’s and speech’s style, genre and context, and thereby assume and perform their roles accordingly. In this respect, (invisible) audiences in the offline world are to a large degree still identifiable to people. Social media, on the other hand, admits a much lesser degree of identifiability. This lack of identifiability is best illustrated by social networking sites: when users disclose themselves through social networking sites such as Facebook, in which other people―as long as they have been granted the permission (i.e., in Facebook’s default setting, when they are ‘friend’)―can view them; these people are allaudiences, and they are indifferent to the users. The users, in this case, cannot specify their audiences and differentiate them. This uncertainty about their audiences makes it difficult, if not impossible, for the users to assume and perform the right roles with respect to their (online) audiences because in order to do so, the users need to know who they are interacting with.

It becomes especially troubling to Confucians if we consider the online world to be a continuum of the offline world, as all users’ offline relationships, e.g. family, friends, colleagues, etc., are at the same time potential invisible audiences so long as they are online too; being (potential) invisible audiences, however, they have barred the users from assuming and performing the right roles with regard to them even if the users have no problem to do so in the offline world. So understood, social media at its worst engenders a world in which people constantly fail to assume their roles. Since (social) roles are, according to Confucianism, constitutive of one’s personhood, and one can only become a person if his or her roles are properly performed (with the responsibilities properly fulfilled), Confucians should evaluate social media negatively because of the (online) world it engenders.

Invisible audiences, of course, are not a problem only for the Confucian way of life; it is a problem for any users of social media, as they too need to know if what they say or do are appropriate or not. To counter the problem arises from invisible audiences, one strategy for the users is to imagine who they are interacting with when they are using social media. This strategy helps to reduce uncertainty on the users’ side because the users can then delimit their behaviours and practices in accordance to the type of audiences imagined. Yet, I think, imagined audiences are too thin for the users to determine their roles correctly. Since imagining audiences is essentially a strategy forlimiting behaviours and practices, unless the users have imagined a concrete relationship, it cannot tell what roles people ought to assume and perform. At the same time, because of the existence of invisible audiences, even if the users have assumed and performed some roles correctly through some types of imagined audiences, they remain constantly open to other relationships they are unaware of, and, thereby, cannot account for. In short, the existence of invisible audiences on social media has created an environment which renders the Confucian way of life hard to live by.

The same is also true of following rites, i.e. another important component for living the Confucian way of life. To reiterate, rites is a set of proper conducts and attitudes for a specific situation. The multiplicity and simultaneity of relationships that social media affords make it difficult―again, if not impossible―to follow rites, as which rites to follow are determined by who the person is interacting with and related to. This issue is further aggravated by another dynamics on social media, namely the collapsed contexts. On social media, contexts are mixed and merged by default; however, people need to know what contexts they are in if they are to know what are the proper conducts and attitudes to have. Contexts are ethicallyconstitutive of the Confucian way of life, as it requires people to have proper a set of conducts and attitudes, which is context-dependent, e.g. a familial context and a professional context clearly demand a different set of proper conducts and attitudes. In other words, the Confucian way of life needs to maintain, at least, an epistemic separation of various types of contexts. Collapsed contexts on social media, therefore, entail an enormous difficulty for people to know what are the proper conducts and attitudes to have in the (online) world.

Finally, the blurring of public and private should worry Confucians too. However, unlike the current debate on this issue, which is often framed as a privacy issues, Confucians’ worry on the blurring of public and private is of a different nature. Firstly, Confucians do not distinguish sharply between the public and private with respect to self-cultivation and self-transform because they believe people’s self-cultivation and self-transformation in the private sphere will essentially carry onto their public sphere (and vice versa). Hence, both the public and private are of equal moral significance as they are, and should be, subjected to the same level of (moral) scrutiny. Secondly, in accordance to Confucian non-individualistic view of person, the term ‘private’ is not to be understood at an individual level; instead, it is to be understood at a familial level. Hence, the private sphere refers to the familial sphere from a Confucian point of view. So construed, the Confucians’ worry over the blurring of public and private is not aboutindividual privacy but about changes at the familial level.

Confucians’ insistence on the priority of familial relationships and the importance of filiality and fraternity, however, has already hinted that a separation between the public and private ought to be maintained. In Confucianism, the familial relationships are a model for other non-familial relationships. Family (or, the familial sphere) is believed to be distinct from other spheres in that the roles and role responsibilities in familial relationships are driven by natural affections and trust, i.e. parent-children and sibling; therefore, it provides qualitatively different feedbacks to people in their learning to become a person. And, it is also where people learn to socialise through assuming and performing the roles and fulfilling the responsibilities, and, thereby, to eventually achieve proper conducts and attitudes towards the non-familial members in the society. Hence, family is essential in people’s (moral) development from the Confucian point of view.

The blurring of public and private leads to the disappearance not only of the private sphere but also the familial sphere; in doing so, it also takes away the space where people learn to become a person and to achieve proper conducts and attitudes towards non-familial members. Indeed, by breaking down the barriers between the public, private and familial sphere, it seems to neutralise familial and non-familial relationships, and depreciate the importance of the former, too. Most importantly, perhaps, is that without the familial sphere,every (wrong)doings are subjected to risks of publicshaming, which is detrimental to people’s development. In short, the blurring of public and private has eliminated a domain crucial to the Confucian way of life.

To summarise, the three dynamics supported by social media, i.e. (i) invisible audiences, (ii) collapsed contexts and (iii) the blurring of public and private, have engendered an online world that is rather inhospitable to the Confucian way of life. Alternatively, since the Confucian way of life is hard to live by with social media, I believe Confucians will inevitably see it as undesirable.

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November 26, 2011 - Posted by | Confucianism, Contemporary Confucianism

13 Comments »

  1. Hi Pak-hang: I think this is a terrific set of challenges! To start things off, I want to suggest that maybe the challneges can be read in the other direction: might Confucianism help us to see that there are problems with social media, and that we shoud be endeavoring to shape the technology in ways that support flourishing communities, families, and individuals? One of my main windows on social media is through my two teen-age daughters’ use of Facebook, and I have observed the ways that having hundreds of “friends” (many of whom they hardly know), and the continual stream of trivial “status updates,” renders the thing close to useless to them. Look away for a few minutes and you may miss the one actual statement of interest by someone you are close to, as the stream of bits flows by. If this were the new, accepted norm, then I could not but agree with you that the world is not longer fit for anything like Confucian values.

    However, it also seems that users like my daughters are conscious of the many shortcomings of the current characterisetics of Facebook (etc.), and are working to find ways around it. Much of their use of Facebook is actually via dual or multi-way messaging, wherein one knows with whom one is communicating. Skype and other such technologies also allow for spontaneous conversations among known others to take place–face-to-face, albeit not in person. Facebook users create fictive “families” and then get special updates when, and only when, members of “their family” posts something. And I am sure there are many more similar examples. This is certainly not Warring States China, but it may be more hospitable to–and even supportive of–modernized Confucian values than would be an on-line world characterized only by the three characteristics you mention.

    There are lots of other rich issues raised by your research, and I hope to be able to comment more soon. Thanks for raising all this!

    Comment by Steve Angle | November 26, 2011 | Reply

    • Thanks for the encouragement and comments. Indeed, I agree with the idea that “Confucianism help us to see that there are problems with social media and that we shoud be endeavoring to shape the technology in ways that support flourishing communities, families, and individuals”. Actually, I have spent the last couples of paragraph in my chapter discussing possible way of ‘designing’ social media in such a way that contribute to the Confucian way of life. But, at the same time, I just can’t help but wonder whether Confucians should stay away from social media precisely because of the environmental factor (or, affordances & dynamics in danah boyd’s terms). What I’m thinking is the story (legend?) of Mengzi’s mother relocated three times (孟母三迁) because of the environments were not conducive to learning – or, the Confucian way of life. Or, the idea of 君子远庖厨, presumbly not because butchery is inherently bad, but because of the environmental factors (e.g. cruelty, etc). So, perhaps, a different way to formulate my question is: how much weight do/will Confucians put on these kinds of environmental factors – if it is closer to absolute then I can’t see how Confucians can agree with using social media.

      But, of course, there are different types of social media as you have also mentioned. So, actually, beside the idea concerning design of social media, another preliminary conclusion (not put online) I have is that Confucianism can actually help us to choose which social media to use.

      Comment by wongpakhang | November 28, 2011 | Reply

  2. Conducting empirical fieldwork on Confucianism in China, I have always been suprised by the way Confucian activists cleverly use all kinds of on-line ressources and tools. A new kind of “fellowship of the Way” (Tillman) is thus created (with lots of on-line discussions but also with “virtual shuyuan” etc) and many people actually meet afterwards in the real world. For example, I attended (real) ritual activities with people coming from very different places and who originally only met on-line. In these cases, the virtual world is not a substitute for the real one but just a complementary dimension.

    Comment by Sébastien Billioud | November 28, 2011 | Reply

    • Sébastien, I do agree with the fact that Internet (and social media) can be *used* in such a way that can be beneficial to Confucians and for realising Confucian values. But, I am more interested in the pontential environmental factors engendered by social media and whether they come into conflicts with Confucian values.

      And, it is definitely true that facebook cannot/should not replace actual, face-to-face communication. But, for example, Sherry Turkle has argued in her latest book Alone Together that uses of social media are often accompanied by phenomenological changes, too. And, it has been argued by some that social media has ‘transformed’ the nature and meaningful of say, friendship (and presumbly family, too). If they are right, then the problem is not only about replacement (which, perhaps, will be the last step of the phenomenological change brought forth by social media) but about the status of relation after the introduction of social media into one’s life.

      I’m curious, though. Are all the people who took part those Confucian activities held a sharp distinction between the virtual and the real consciously?

      Comment by wongpakhang | November 28, 2011 | Reply

    • This is exactly how I got into the movement.

      Comment by Justice&Mercy | November 29, 2011 | Reply

      • I meant that as a comment on Sébastien Billioud’s statement.

        Comment by Justice&Mercy | November 29, 2011 | Reply

  3. I wish I had time now to think about these things more. I just want to say, Pak-hang, that your project (especially with Steve’s additions, but even without them) strikes me as an exciting and potentially extremely valuable one, both toward understanding new social media and toward understanding Confucianism. Confucian ritual itself is a medium of social interaction, carrying its meaning in concrete ways that seem largely bypassed by the new media. I hope you will keep us informed as the project develops. Maybe you could sketch the leading ideas of various chapters as separate guest-posts … I hope!

    Comment by Bill Haines | November 30, 2011 | Reply

    • Definitely, Bill. But, there isn’t going to be a lot on Confucianism and social media in my dissertation because it’s only part of my project. (Honestly, I only pick up this idea halfway during my research after reading quite a bit on Confucian bioethics, Confucian environmental ethics, etc. but couldn’t find much on ethics of technology in a more sense…)

      Comment by wongpakhang | December 1, 2011 | Reply

  4. Google+ and Facebook now allow users to categorize their “friends” according to social roles — not just family, but even other dimensions of acquaintance (with Google+, they can be arbitrarily created and organized). Does that mitigate any of the concerns that you raise here?

    Also, if people under Confucianism are supposed to face equal levels of public and familial scrutiny, doesn’t social networking provide much necessary information to know exactly what those public morals really are and how they’ll be judged, and doesn’t it allow people to more openly scrutinize their peers?

    Comment by Joshua Harwood | December 1, 2011 | Reply

    • Joshua, thanks! I thought about your first question, too. I agree that by putting people in ‘list’ or ‘circle’ it does mitigate the issue of unknown audiences. I have tried to argue elsewhere, though, that the simple act of categorising people doesn’t add-up to ‘role’ because no (role) responsibility is associated with various list – at least, at the moment.

      As for the second point. I think, like I have in the post, Confucians will still prioritise and separate the familial and the public for (moral) developmental reason. If one is to learn to become a ‘person’ through familial relationships and/or developing familial virtues – eliminating the boundary seems to be a damage more than a benefit. I think I need a better argument or better formulation of that, but that’s where my intuition lies at the moment.

      Comment by wongpakhang | December 1, 2011 | Reply

  5. I just came across this:
    http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/17/world/asia/beijing-imposes-new-rules-on-social-networking-sites.html

    Comment by Bill Haines | December 18, 2011 | Reply

    • Thanks Bill. I heard this as well, but I am not sure what to do with it (especially, when it’s something proposed by the Chinese government), because I don’t really know if they are only doing this for ‘security’ reasons and surveilliance.

      Comment by wongpakhang | December 20, 2011 | Reply


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