The Lived Meanings of Chinese Social Network Sites (SNSs) among Urban White-Collar Professionals: A Story of Happy Network 

Huan Chen and Eric Haley

University of Tennessee 


A phenomenological study reveals the lived meanings of Chinese social network sites (SNSs) among urban, white-collar professional users through an investigation of a newly launched SNS, Happy Network. Their shared meanings of the Happy Network were interdependent with participants’ interpretations of time, fun, need to belong, and social interactions, shaped by and reflective of their social role as white-collar professionals and the cultural characteristics of contemporary Chinese society. Specifically, participants’ understandings of the Happy Network entailed five dialectic relations: in control/controlled by, dependent/independent, public/private, intimate/distant, and personal/social.

Keywords: social networking, advertising, computer-mediated relationships, communications, Happy Network, China


During her lunch break, a young office worker logs onto a Chinese social network Web site, “开心网 ” (Happy Network). She changes her status to “struggling” and checks the status of her friends, writing short comments in response to a few. Then she quickly browses new posts, after which she plays some online games, including parking war, trading friends, Happy Farm, Happy Restaurant, and Super Tycoon. Suddenly, her phone rings. She stops playing games, immediately picks up the phone, and resumes her work.

This typical scenario describes Chinese professionals’ experiences, during their daily work, with Happy Network, a newly launched Chinese social network site (SNS). As U.S. SNSs, such as Facebook, MySpace, Friendster, and Twitter, have grown increasingly popular worldwide (boyd and Ellison 2007; Donath and boyd 2004; Tong et al. 2007), sites have launched in different regions to attract local users. For example, the most popular SNSs in specific cultural regions include Orkut in India, Mixi in Japan, LunaStorm in Sweden, Bebo in the United Kingdom, Friendster in Southern Asia, hi5 in Portugal and Latin America, and Cyworld in Korea (Cardon 2009; Kim and Yun 2007).

China has the largest Internet population in the world (Riegner 2008; Zeng, Huang, and Dou 2009). According to the China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC 2010), at the end of 2009, Chinese SNS users reached 1,760 million, approximately half of all Chinese Internet users (45.8%). Compared with general Chinese Internet users, users of Chinese SNSs have relatively more education, earn higher incomes, and are younger, which means social network sites are an attractive medium for marketers and advertisers (Zeng, Huang, and Dou 2009). In 2007, advertising income for SNSs reached 410 million yuan (“In 2007” 2008), and, the largest SNS in the world (McLeod 2006), earned US$120.9 million in advertising revenue in 2008 (Tecent 2008).

One of the most popular SNSs in China, Happy Network launched in April 2008 (Cao 2008). Currently, it has more than more 60 million registered users (“Binhao Cheng” 2009), approximately half of which are urban, white-collar professionals. These Chinese, urban, white-collar professionals have significant buying power (Iresearch 2007). Although they account for only 1% of the urban population, their disposable income constitutes 10% of all disposable income of this population. According to the CEO of Happy Network, at the end of last year, its advertising income thus reached $7 million per month, and more than $23 million have been invested as venture capital (“Binhao Chang” 2009).

This study aims to advance theoretical understanding of Chinese SNSs and their users by exploring the socially constructed meanings of social network sites among urban, white-collar, professional users, which should offer meaningful insights for marketers who want to communicate with Chinese consumers through this medium. Previous research has indicated that a media platform (e.g., television, magazines, Web site) provides an important frame of reference for consumers to interpret advertising (Hirschman and Thompson 1997). In other words, the socially constructed meanings of a particular medium may influence consumers’ interpretations of and receptivity to advertising through that specific medium (DeLorme and Reid 1999; Gould and Gupta 2006). Before placing advertising, marketers therefore should be aware of how consumers perceive, understand, and interpret a media platform to determine whether it provides an appropriate context for their products or services. In the increasingly fragmented media environment, marketers’ intersubjective understanding of media platforms, from a consumer perspective, could help them communicate with their target audience more accurately and effectively. Specifically, this study considers how urban, white-collar, professional users of Chinese social network sites perceive, understand, and interpret SNSs by investigating a the newly launched Happy Network (

Research Site

The Chinese government maintains relatively strict control over information flows on the Internet (Hu 2010). Some popular social network sites, such as Facebook, are not available in mainland China. This strict control offered an opportunity for Chinese program developers to design and build their own versions of Chinese SNS. Since 2007, various Chinese social network sites have copied Facebook’s methods, including Xiaonei, Hainei,, Happy Network, and so forth. Accordingly, SNSs have become more popular among Chinese Internet users; currently, more than 1,000 Chinese SNSs have been established, and the most successful include Renren, Happy Network, and Shiji Jia Yuan, which focus on social life, white-collar professionals, and dating, respectively (Zhao 2009).

Happy Network (, since launching in April 2008 (Cao 2008), reached a ranking of 1,300 among all global Web sites in July 2008, but by April 2009, it had moved up to 118, surpassing “校内网”(, the largest SNS in China (Li 2008a), to become the top Chinese SNS and the most popular social network site among Chinese white-collar professionals.

Some experts have claimed that the Happy Network is the best copy of Facebook (Xie 2008b), though it differs in two ways: First, Happy Network focuses on a different user group. The foundational users of Facebook are college students; the first users of Happy Network were urban, white-collar professionals (Xie 2008b).

Second, Happy Network focuses on online games. During its early developmental stage, the most popular games were “Trading Friends” and “Parking War” (Cao 2008; Li 2008a). Similar to Facebook though, the site allows users to change their personal status, store and share photos and music, write and share blogs, exchange short messages, send gifts, test themselves, launch polls or reports, and so forth. These functions are activated through various modules embedded in the Web site, which are updated and added regularly. As of January 2010, more than 30 modules covered diverse social and interactive functions. In addition, the site offers a platform for users to look for friends through its people search function (

Literature Review

Previous research on SNSs has explored diverse topics, including impression management (boyd 2007; Donath and boyd 2004; Walther et al. 2008), network structure (Acar 2008; Donath 2007; Zywica and Danowski 2008), online/offline connections (Donath and boyd 2004; Hargittai 2007), privacy issues (Ibrahim 2008; Lewis, Kanfman, and Christakis 2008), niche communities (Byrne 2007; McCabe 2009; Mellin 2008), motivations for using social network sites (Gangadharbatla 2008), and specific types of social networks (Humphreys 2007; Wildermuth and Vogl-Bauer 2007). Despite the variety of this content, most research on SNSs has focused on U.S.-based Web sites and English-speaking populations (Kim and Yun 2007). Fewer studies examine SNSs in other regions.

Motivations for Using SNSs

In a study of college students’ attitude toward and willingness to join SNSs, Gangadharbatla (2008) suggests that Internet self-efficacy, need to belong, and collective self-esteem have positive effects on attitudes toward SNSs. In a similar study, Barker (2009) reveals that social identity gratifications and social compensation motivate older adolescents to use SNSs. Communication with peer group members is the most important motivation, and collective self-esteem relates positively to SNS usage.

SNSs in Other Countries and Regions

Two studies examine social network sites and users in other cultural regions. By interviewing 49 users of Cyworld, the most popular social network site in Korea, Kim and Yun (2007) reveal a relational dialectic that results from the desire to manage preexisting interpersonal relationships and self-representations. To participants, Cyworld is not an independent and technological cyberworld but rather an interdependent social world that buffers or transforms real-world relational issues. Agarwal and Mital (2009) survey 427 business school students in India and find that they use SNSs not only for leisure and personal socialization but also as a platform for more meaningful and serious deliberations, such as job hunting.

Chinese SNSs and Users

Zeng, Huang, and Dou (2009) examine the impacts of social identity and group norms on community users’ group intentions to accept advertising in online social networking communities and find positive relationships in both cases. When users consider community advertising more relevant to the theme of the community and congruent with their social identities, they deem that advertising more valuable and display more favorable behavioral responses to it.

Chu and Choi (2009) find that younger Chinese consumers spend significant time on selected social network sites and have relatively positive attitudes toward those sites. Bridging social capital is an important motive for Chinese youth who use SNSs. In addition, their self-presentation strategies include competence, supplication, and ingratiation. Chinese youth also seem to engage in electronic word of mouth (eWOM) through social network sites.

Research Question

Previous literature makes clear that academic research on Chinese SNSs lags behind practices. Although a few studies have examined different aspects of Chinese SNSs and introduced several interesting theoretical perspectives, they have all been designed to test and confirm researchers’ theoretical assumptions rather than focusing on users’ experiences and interpretations. To gain a deeper understanding of Chinese SNSs, it is necessary to access the users’ realities and reveal their lived meanings of the SNSs. This study therefore explores the lived meanings among Chinese, urban, white-collar, professional users in relation to Happy Network ( As its overarching research question, this study considers how Chinese, urban, white-collar professional users make sense of SNSs. Specifically, this study explores users’ motivations, activities, feelings, experiences, and attitudes toward the SNS to reveal the realities and socially constructed meanings of SNSs.


To obtain a deep understanding of SNSs in the Chinese cultural context, according to the realities and meanings constructed by Chinese SNSs users, this study considers everyday experiences and individual “stocks of knowledge” (Gurwitsch 1974), and therefore, the proposed research question is phenomenological. Accordingly, it is appropriate to use qualitative methods to explore the topic.

In-depth interviews provide the primary data collection method. This powerful qualitative approach to phenomenological investigation “gives us the opportunity to step into the mind of another person, to see and experience the world as they do themselves” (McCracken 1988, p. 9). They enable participants to tell their own stories. From a phenomenological view, people gain access to realities through their consciousness. A loosely constructed, discursive conversation offers a good way to access participants’ conscious experiences and reveal their lived experiences with SNSs.

Theoretical sampling guided the recruitment of participants. This method of data collection relies on concepts and themes derived from existing data (Corbin and Strauss 2008). Unlike conventional sampling, theoretical sampling refers to concepts rather than persons. Theoretical sampling responds to data, intertwined with analysis, and persists for the whole research process. The criterion for sufficient sampling is saturation, that is, the point at which no new concepts and themes emerge (Corbin and Strauss 2008). Following the principles of theoretical sampling, 12 white-collar professionals from Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou were recruited as participants. Among these participants, 5 are men and 7 are women, whose ages range from 25 to 35 years. All participants have some college-level education and engage in a variety of occupations, such as insurance broker, marketing manager, office administration, account planner, and IT technician. Their annual income ranges from 50,000 to 200,000 yuan. All participants have more than one year of experience with Happy Network (see Table 1).

Table 1. Profile of Participants

Pseudonym Age Gender Location Occupation Education Experience with Happy Network
Benny 31 Male Beijing Insurance Broker MBA 1 year and 10 months
Snowy 33 Female Beijing Marketing Manager Ph.D. 2 years
Leo 29 Male Beijing Accounting Manager BS 1 year and 8 months
Jaunna 28 Female Beijing News Editor BA 2 years
Jeff 35 Male Beijing Photographer AA 1 year and 2 months
Hannah 27 Female Shanghai Account Planner MA 1 year and 5 months
Angela 28 Female Shanghai Financial Consultant MA 1 year and 7 months
Audrey 32 Female Shanghai Lawyer Ph.D. 1 year and 10 months
Jessica 31 Female Shanghai Office Administrator AA 1 year and 4 months
Matt 31 Male Shanghai Sales Manager BA 1 year and 7 months
Jenifer 34 Female Guangzhou Assistant Professor Ph.D. 1 year
Ken 30 Male Guangzhou IT Technician BS 2 years

Depending on the participants’ preference, the interviews were conducted in Chinese, either using online chatting software such as QQ and MSN or by telephone. Each interview lasted about 60 to 90 minutes. To provide an accurate record of participants’ comments, the interviews were audio recorded and transcribed in Chinese, then translated into English.

The phenomenological study aims to discover potential relations among the data and figure out how participants construct realities. Analytic induction thus is an appropriate data analysis method, because its purpose is to discover themes and categories with an inductive logic. It can help researchers summarize data and reveal relationships. Analytic induction is reflexive, involving the careful examination of transcripts for themes and categories. From these initial themes, a working schema is developed through inspection of the initial cases, then modified on the basis of subsequent cases (Haley 1996).

Rather than validity and reliability, the evaluative criteria for qualitative research focuses on aspects such as trustworthiness, authenticity, and credibility (Corbin and Strauss 2008; Creswell 2003; Creswell and Miller 2000). First, both Chinese and English versions of the data analysis reports were provided to the participants to ensure the findings represented their perspectives and understanding. Second, during the entire study, the researchers constantly reflected on their own assumptions, beliefs, and biases, especially in comparison with participants’ realities, to confirm the interpretations reflected the participants’ views. Peer debriefing and external auditors (Creswell and Miller 2000) also ensured the quality of the analysis. Third, the reports of the findings use the participants’ own words. Such emic, low-inference descriptors provide a basis for “accepting, rejecting, or modifying an investigator’s conclusion” (Haley 1996, p. 26).


Happy Network: A Unique Social Network Site

As Figure 1 shows, the shared meanings of Happy Network were interdependent with participants’ interpretations of time, fun, need to belong, and social interactions. Specifically, they expressed understandings of Happy Network though five dialectic relations: in control/controlled by, dependent/independent, public/private, intimate/distant, and personal/social.  

Figure 1. Lived Meanings of SNS among Chinese, Urban, White-Collar Professionals

Lived Meanings of SNS

The Time Dimension

Participants in this study were time conscious. “Time” may have different meanings depending on the situation, but this key term frequently appeared in the interviews:

Participants’ consciousness of time relates closely to their social role of urban, white-collar professionals. The findings partially signal Chinese white-collar professionals’ “time syndrome” (Xiao 2006). Research has indicated that 70% of Chinese, urban, white-collar professionals work 10 hours a day on average (Shi 2009). Chinese white-collar professionals work longer hours, take fewer holidays and vacations, and suffer higher degrees of anxiety and pressure compared with white-collar professionals in Western countries (Xiao 2006; Xie 2008a). Consequently, these SNS users become highly sensitive to time and are eager to manage their limited time in their fast-paced transitional society, which alienates them from both agricultural and industrial civilizations (Shi 2009).

The Fun Dimension

Fun is another important element of the constructed meanings of Happy Network. Participants used different words to express this feeling, such as interesting, playful, happy, entertaining, and amusing. Seeking fun for themselves and entertaining their friends were two important motivations:

As Holt (2005) has indicated, consuming as play is an important aspect. Similar to baseball spectators, the participants in this study engaged in two types of playing in the context of SNS: communing, in which they share mutually felt experiences with others, and socializing, in which they use experiential practices to entertain each other. Participants’ pursuit of fun in Happy Network also reflects the characteristics of communication in contemporary China. According to Zhang (2009), industrialization and informationization has pushed China into an era of leisure communication, in which media help audiences improve the quality of their leisure activities. One indicator of this era is a blurred boundary between work and leisure, as represented by white-collar professionals who intentionally integrate their work and leisure activities on the SNS.

The Need to Belong Dimension

People need relationships characterized by both regular contact and ongoing bonding in their social lives (Baumeister and Leary 1995). For the current study, need to belong motivated participants to initiate, participate, develop, and keep up their activities on Happy Network. The SNS offered them a platform to connect with others regularly and build a sense of belongingness:

Chinese, urban, white-collar professionals are a special social group in contemporary Chinese society. They are a newly emerging social class with relatively high education and income, and they greatly contribute to societal development through their knowledge, skills, and taxes (Yu 2005). However, compared with other social classes, they receive relatively less attention. Because they frequently change jobs and move to different places, it is hard for them to build belongingness through local communities. Thus, white-collar professionals often use the Internet to unite and build their collective social identity (Zhang and Lei 2009). The SNS offers an ideal place for white-collar professionals to address their need to belong and establish their social identity through multiple services (Gangadharbatla 2008). As the quotes indicate, Happy Network became a conversational resource and communicative platform that allowed members to be in a group.

The Social Interaction Dimension

Finally, participants’ understanding of social interactions served as a parameter for them to discuss their Happy Network experiences. For participants, social interactions occurred at multiple levels, involving both online and offline communication and activities.

Just as Facebook is an important channel for college students to create and maintain social capital through bridging, bonding, and maintaining social relationships with multiple social interactions (Ellison, Steinfield, and Lampe 2007), Happy Network performs similar functions for white-collar professional participants, to form and keep their social capital through online social interactions that connect both online and offline social relationships.

These four dimensions intertwine and form the reference framework for participants to interpret their SNS experiences. Their interpretations of Happy Network also depend on their social role, that is, as urban, white-collar professionals in the cultural context of contemporary China. With industrialization, informationization, and globalization, Chinese society has changed dramatically in the past 30 years. These changes can be summarized as a transformation from a social structure of unity to one of multiplicity, and from a centralized society to an open society with coexisting diversity (Li 2008b). One distinctive indicator of the societal changes in people’s everyday life is the change in value systems, from a simplified, monotonous, unitary orientation to one that is more complicated, varied, and diverse. This new value orientation is reflected in people’s interpretations of Happy Network.

As a newly emergent, middle-class social group, Chinese, urban, white-collar professionals also are growing along with the changes and transformations of their social structure (Tang 2004). Their distinctive characteristics indicate that these professionals pursue high quality, high taste, and diversity in their life; they have high working mobility; they express strong senses of reality and pragmatism; they pay more attention to their personal feelings and self-actualization; they generally feel nervous and anxious; and they are sympathetic and responsible (Pan 1999). In addition, they have earned relatively high education levels, incomes, and social status (Tang 2004). They are more open-minded and tend to advocate and accept innovations in terms of knowledge and technology. Their value orientation is complex and ambivalent, full of conflicts and compromises between old and new values and Western and Eastern cultures. These conflicting values are reflected in the five key dialectics that participants used to discuss the role of Happy Network in their everyday lives: being in control/controlled by, dependent/independent, public/private, intimate/distant, and personal/social.

Being in Control/Controlled by

The participants’ feelings of being in control of or controlled by the SNS were demonstrated in different aspects of their experiences. Specifically, they felt in control in terms of their perception of self-control, control in the gaming environment, and control of social relationships. As white-collar professionals, self-discipline is important for them to survive in their fast-paced and highly competitive working environment. In an unstable and dynamic transforming society, individual Chinese people also consciously or unconsciously seek self-control to secure their personal safety and development (Li 2008b). The participants derive a sense of self-control from controlling their time, information, and entertainment:

Another factor contributing to feelings of control comes from the gaming environment in Happy Network. Participants have multiple forms of control when they play games, such as the skill level, accessibility, and flexibility to play. Just as people use virtual space to construct a new identity to compensate for defects in their real lives (Liu 2009), controls in the gaming environment in Happy Network help participants build a better sense of self-control (effective time management) and compensate for lack-of-control situations (e.g., restricted equipment) in the real world.

In addition, the participants found control over social relations through Happy Network, in contrast with their relationship management in the real world. Traditional Chinese culture emphasizes human ethics and relationships (Wang 1996). In traditional Chinese society, all relationships are built on family and generate from family members, which makes them relatively easy to maintain and manage. However, in modern China, industrialization, modernization, and informationization have induced a series of societal changes that have fundamentally changed Chinese people’s relationships. The scope of their relationships is much broader, the members of relationships are more heterogeneous, and their relationships are more alienated (Zhang and Pan 2009). Various real-world obstacles make managing and maintaining such relationships harder for modern Chinese people. In particular, urban white-collar professionals’ high mobility and fast-paced work rhythm make relationships even harder (Liao 2009). However, in the virtual world, Happy Network empowers white-collar professional participants to overcome these restrictions, better manage their relationships, and gain “a sense of freedom” through multiple communicative and social functions:

The feeling of being controlled also comes from the online game experience. Although participants do not need much time to play the games, they must invest some time everyday on each game. All the games are long-term oriented and designed to keep users with Happy Network for a relative long period of time. The games controlled the participants by controlling their time. As previously discussed, these white-collar professionals are sensitive to time (Shi 2009), and when the participants realize the manipulation, they often take actions to regain their freedom:

Experienced game players felt that their gaming knowledge and skills were not useful when playing Happy Network games. They thus felt restricted by the games. In other words, the games alienated experienced players by limiting their ability to demonstrate their knowledge and skills, which prevented their sense of personal achievement. Because most Chinese, urban, white-collar professionals consider their personal feelings and self-actualization important with regard to evaluations of their experiences (Pan 1999), Happy Network should find a better balance between ease and difficulty in designing its games.

Being Dependent/Independent

The participants indicated more or less dependence on Happy Network. Internet users depend on the Internet for information, entertainment, convenience, and social interaction, and similarly, Happy Network users depend on the site to gain information, entertain themselves and others, and communicate and socialize. Thus, Happy Network has become embedded in participants’ everyday experiences as “a habit” and “a part” of their lives:

Even as participants expressed dependence on Happy Network, they demonstrated efforts to become independent of it. For example, they might log onto Happy Network less, stop playing online games altogether, or use other communicative channels. The participants mainly chose to seek more independence from Happy Network because they felt it waste of time or became fatigued with it:

Being Public/Private

The participants’ interpretations of Happy Network also intertwined with their sense of public and private space. According to the participants, Happy Network does not distinguish a clear boundary between public and private spaces. It could be described as a private-public or public-private platform. Unlike a general public Webpage, the Webpage of each user is not accessible to everyone; generally only the friends of the user may browse his or her personal Webpage. Thus, each personal Webpage on Happy Network is constructed as a private area in a public space. This characteristic greatly shaped the participants’ experiences with Happy Network:

Being Intimate and Distant

Feelings of being intimate and distant were based on participants’ perception of the closeness of their relationships on Happy Network. Participants categorized their friends according to five types: most intimate friends, old friends (including previous classmates and colleagues), new friends (current social relations), friends’ friends, and strangers. In traditional Chinese society, all relationships are extensions of relations within the family, and family-based relationships are simple, intimate, and stable (Zhang and Pan 2009). Because all relationships extend from the family, the distinction of closeness among different relationships is fairly clear. However, in contemporary Chinese society, constant differentiation in social structures, innovations of communication technology, and mobility of social groups have expanded and complicated Chinese people’s social relationships, such that they are more fluid. The degree of intimacy in relationships also has become fuzzy and ambiguous (Wang 1996). The acceleration of the pace of life and scarcity of time give modern Chinese people less time to cultivate their relationships, further blurring the closeness and distance of different relationships.

However, in the virtual community, without the complexity and restrictions of the real world, people’s social relationships are simple and differentiated. Similar to traditional Chinese society, the closeness and distance of social relationships become salient. Clarification and distinction of relationships on Happy Network reconstruct a sense of intimacy for the participants. Their feelings of intimacy and distance not only determine their communication strategies on Happy Network but also influence their offline social relations. Happy Network thus facilitates communications with old friends most, with little impact on offline social interactions with their most intimate or distant friends. In this sense, Happy Network transcends the online versus offline boundary and becomes a crucial medium that connects and integrates online with offline social relationships:

Being Personal and Social

The participants’ understanding of Happy Network is also expressed by their negotiation of personal and social identities. According to Brewer (1991), personal identity is the individual self, denoting characteristics that differentiate one person from others within a given social context. Social identities are categorizations of the self into inclusive social units that depersonalize the self-concept, when “I” becomes “we.” As mentioned, participants engage in multiple activities on Happy Network, such as updating their status, messaging, writing diaries, sharing music, commenting, playing games, and so forth. Through these activities, they express their personal characteristics and styles to signal and reinforce who they are as individuals. As some participants mention, their diaries and music are “personal brands.” Belk (1988) conceptualizes possessions as extended selves that reflect consumers’ identities. In the current study, participants’ personal pages on Happy Network could be considered representations of their extended selves, which help them construct and reinforce a sense of self. Meanwhile, the emphasis on personal identity among the participants also reflects growing individualism in contemporary China (Lin 2001), especially among Chinese youth (Zhang and Shavitt 2003).

Generally, multiple identities coexist in a specific context (Brewer 1991). When participants express their personal identity on Happy Network, they also construct their social identities. Social identities on the Internet are changing, multiple, and fluid (Liu 2009). In a virtual community, people can constantly construct and change social identities to satisfy their various needs and view themselves from multiple perspectives. For example, the participants gained different life experiences through constructions of different social identities on Happy Network. Sometimes their personal and social identities were integrated, such that their personal identity was reinforced by their social interactions:


The current study has explored the lived meanings of SNSs among Chinese, white-collar professionals. The emergent themes of this study reveal that participants’ understanding and interpretations of SNS are multidimensional, dialectical, dynamic, and colorful, shaped by and reflective of their social role as white-collar professionals and the cultural characteristics of contemporary Chinese society. At the individual level, the pursuit of freedom and the liberation of the individual is the foundation for participants’ experience of SNSs. In their everyday experiences, the participants actively and constantly seek freedom of control, time, communication, socialization, and entertainment, through which they extricate themselves from the multiple restrictions they face in the real world and obtain libration. At the collective level, returning to Chinese traditional culture is an overarching theme that organizes participants’ social experiences of SNSs. In their daily practices, the participants consciously or unconsciously fight against and overcome the alienation and isolation caused by industrialization and modernization. Through communications and social interactions on the SNS, they show their appreciation of traditional virtues that are lacking in contemporary Chinese society and collectively build a quasi-family community that highlights traditional Chinese culture. The current study thus has both theoretical and managerial implications.

Theoretical Implications

Theoretically, this study provides an active audience perspective on media. The reality of the SNS is clearly a joint construction by the media producer and individual users. The tension between user freedom and producer control is evidenced in the dialects uncovered in participants’ experiences with Happy Network SNS, especially in relation to the limits of SNS use. Participants integrated the SNS into their total spectrum of communication and relationship building/maintenance tools.

Culturally, a major function of the SNS is to counter the increased alienation and isolation of young Chinese white-collar workers, which is interesting in light of Marxist critiques of Western capitalism. According to Marx (Tucker 1978), one of the problems of Western capitalism is its negative impact on individual workers, in terms of their alienation and isolation from the results of their labors and one another. Yet in China, demands on white-collar workers are even greater than those in Western cultures (Shi 2009). The negative impacts of alienation are being felt by workers, even in this Marx-inspired culture. The SNSs help counteract this alienation and create a new way to connect and share.

A distinct feature of the participants’ behaviors on Happy Network is sharing (Belk 2010, p. 717), a fundamental consumer behavior that differs from commodity exchange and gift giving, because sharing transcends the concept of ownership to emphasize nonreciprocal activities and tends to be “a communal act that links us to others.” The participants engaged in sharing in multiple ways on Happy Network. Traditionally, Chinese society and culture is family-centric (Zhang and Pan 2009). Sharing within and outside the family is typical (Hofstede 2001). However, modernization, and especially materialism, has induced dramatic changes in Chinese society and indirectly transformed Chinese culture. To a degree, sharing as a traditional virtue has lost its prestigious status in modern Chinese people’s value system. However, the emergence of SNSs offers a virtual space for Chinese people to return to traditional culture and construct a quasi-family community that emphasizes sharing.

Marketing and advertising literature studies product-facilitated community building closely, specifically in the context of brand communities. Happy Network SNS is similar to a brand community, in that it is a product that facilitates community. Like brand communities, Happy Network exhibits at least three traditional markers of community: shared consciousness, rituals and traditions, and a sense of moral responsibility (Muniz and O’Guinn 2001). Similarly, this study demonstrates that a SNS can be a cocreation of value for users and operators; Happy Network is a user collective that exhibits “community-like qualities, as understood in sociology, and address identity, meaning, and status-related concerns for participants. Such collectives provide value to their members through emergent participatory actions of multiple kinds and that consumer collectives are the site of much values creation” (Schau, Muniz, and Arnould 2009, p. 30).

Unlike brand communities that have arisen organically though, such as the Disney or Harley-Davidson groups that rely on the enthusiasm of the product’s users, creating community is the main function of the SNS. In the context of this SNS, some Chinese users refer to themselves as “the brand,” especially in discussing the difference between managing their private and social identities. Such use of the term “brand” supports Gabbott and Jevons’s (2009) observation that brand is a theoretically diverse concept. The SNS thus is a tool through which a brand community can be created by sharing, whether that brand is an individual user or a product/service. The use of social networks also is one of the value-creation practices identified by Schau, Muniz, and Arnould (2009) in their analysis of brand community research.

Managerial Implications

Previous research has shown that on online community media platforms, when the community regards advertising as relevant to the theme of the community and congruent with their social identities, users (online community members) deem it more valuable and display more favorable behavioral responses to it (Zeng, Huang, and Dou 2009). This study’s exploration of the functions of Happy Network in the everyday lives of Chinese white-collar workers further suggests that for marketing communication to be relevant, it should support or facilitate uses of the community.

If the community builds and facilitates relationships, marketing communication should share that function. For example, games are an important way that Happy Network users build relationships and share, so marketers could work with game creators to incorporate real brands as gifts or other items to share through the games. These placements should be relevant to the game’s theme. Other options for marketers might be to position marketing communication as a way for users to exercise control, have fun, and belong.

Because Happy Network appeared as an integrated, routine part of users’ daily lives, marketers clearly can build message frequency among a habitual user base. However, this study also offers a warning to marketers: Users limit themselves to specific communication tactics on SNSs. For example, if users believed that the SNS controlled their time rather than facilitated their ability to control time, they expressed backlash against the site. Marketers want to build communication that creates longer-term engagement, as obtained by other functions of SNS like games, but they need to understand there are limits to users’ willingness to participate.

Limitations and Further Research

Similar to most studies, this research is a snapshot in time of a dynamic phenomenon. A chronological tracking of the shared meanings of SNSs among Chinese, urban, white-collar, professional users of SNSs would enhance the degree of cultural depth offered by the analysis. Participants’ interpretations of SNSs may shift with their personal accumulated experiences. In addition, their interpretations are culturally contextualized and bound to be dynamic, changing as cultural meanings shift. Longitudinal data could provide additional insights into the interpersonal dynamics and micro-cultural characteristics of users’ life worlds (Muniz and Schau 2007).

This study focuses on urban, white-collar, professional users-one of the most important subcultures of users of Chinese SNSs. Although the findings reflect contextualized understandings of SNSs among these users, the complexity and dynamics of this subculture means that the collected data cannot reveal whether the unique meanings of SNSs emerge for subgroups within this subculture or other subcultures. For example, white-collar professionals from small cities may have different interpretations and emphasize different aspects of Chinese SNSs than those from the metropolitan areas. Furthermore, as Chinese SNSs gain popularity and penetrate different socioeconomic layers within Chinese society, their structure has become more diverse. Studies designed to explore the dynamics and variations among subcultures and subgroups of Chinese SNSs users should enrich understanding of this particular phenomenon.

Finally, this study investigates a specific social network site. In the life worlds of the participants, the meaning of a social network site is relatively broadly constructed, and various types of social network sites exist in their realities. Therefore, another possible research direction would be to examine socially constructed meanings of other types of SNSs or compare different types to offer further insights.


Acar, Adam (2008), “Antecedents and Consequences of Online Social Networking Behavior: The Case of Facebook,” Journal of Website Promotion, 3, 62-83.

Agarwal, Shailja, and Monika Mital (2009), “An Exploratory Study of Indian University Students’ Use of Social Networking Sites: Implications for Workplace,” Business Communication Quarterly, 72, 105-110.

Barker, Valerie (2009), “Older Adolescents’ Motivations for Social Network Site Use: The Influence of Gender, Group Identity, and Collective Self-Esteem,” CyberPsychology & Behavior, 12 (2), 209-213.

Baumeister, R. F. and M.R. Leary (1995), “The Need to Belong: Desire for Interpersonal Attachments as a Fundamental Human Motivation,” Psychological Bulletin, 117, 497-529.

Belk, Russell W. (1988), “Possessions and the Extended Self,” Journal of Consumer Research, 15, 139-168.

— (2010), “Sharing,” Journal of Consumer Research, 36, 715-734.

“Binhao Cheng: The Users of Happy Network has Reached 60 Million with 200,000 New Users Every Day,” (2009), October 26, (accessed February 20, 2010).

boyd, danah (2007), “Why Youth (heart) Social Network Sites: The Role of Networked Publics in Teenage Social Life,” in MacArthur Foundation Series on Digital-Youth, Identity, and Digital Media, David Buckingham, ed. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

— and Nicole Ellison (2007), “Social Network Sites: Definition, History, and Scholarship,” Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 13, 210-230.

Brewer, Marilynn B. (1991), “The Social Self: On Being the Same and Different at the Same Time,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 17 (5), 475-482.

Byrne, Dara N. (2007), “Public Discourse, Community Concerns, and Civic Engagement: Exploring Black Social Networking Traditions on,” Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 13, 319-340.

Cao, Minjie (2008), “Revelation of Happy Online: No Private Office and ¥9000 Monthly Salary for its Founder,” Oriental Morning Post, September 12, March 17, 2009).

Cardon, Peter W. (2009), “Online Social Networks,” Business Communication Quarterly, 72, 96-98.

Chu, Shu-Chuan and Sejung Marina Choi (2009), “Use of Social Network Sites among Chinese Young Generations,” Proceedings of AAA Asian-Pacific Conference, 50-57.

CNNIC (2010), “CNNIC Releases the 23rd Statistical Report on the Internet Development in China,” (accessed February 20, 2010).

Corbin, Juliet and Anselm Strauss (2008), Basics of Qualitative Research, 3d ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Creswell, John W. (2003), Research Design: Qualitative, Quantitative, and Mixed Methods Approaches, 2d ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

— and Dana L. Miller (2000), “Determining Validity in Qualitative Research,” Theory Into Practice, 39 (3), 124-130.

Delorme, Denise and Leonard N. Reid (1999), “Moviegoers’ Experiences and Interpretations of Brands in Films Revisited,” Journal of Advertising, 28 (2), 71-95.

Donath, Judith (2007), “Signals in Social Supernets,” Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 13, 231-251.

— and danah boyd (2004), “Public Displays of Connection,” BT Technology Journal, 22, 71-82.

Ellison, Nicole B., Charles Steinfield, and Cliff Lampe (2007), “The Benefits of Facebook Friends: Social Capital and College Students’ Use of Online Social Network Sites,” Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 12, 1143-1168.

Gabbott, Mark and Colin Jevons (2009), “Brand Community in Search of Theory: An Endless Spiral of Ambiguity,” Marketing Theory, 9 (1), 119-122.

Gangadharbatla, Harsha (2008), “Facebook Me: Collective Self-Esteem, Need to Belong, and Internet Self-Efficacy as Predictors of the iGeneration’s Attitudes toward Social Networking Sites,” Journal of Interactive Advertising, 8 (2), (accessed March 16, 2009).

Gould, Stephen J. and Pola B. Gupta (2006), “‘Come on Down’ How Consumers View Game Shows and Products Placed in Them,” Journal of Advertising, 35 (1), 65-81.

Gurwitsch, Aron (1974), Phenomenology and the Theory of Science. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.

Hargittai, Eszter (2007), “Whose Space? Differences among Users and Non-users of Social Network Sites,” Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 13, 276-297.

Haley, Eric (1996), “Exploring the Construct of Organization as Source: Consumers’ Understandings of Organizational Sponsorship of Advocacy Advertising,” Journal of Advertising, 25, 21-35.

Hirschman, Elizabeth C., and Craig J. Thompson (1997), “Why Media Matter: Toward a Richer Understanding of Consumers’ Relationships with Advertising and Mass Media,” Journal of Advertising, 26 (Spring), 43-60.

Hofstede, G. (2001), Culture’s Consequences: Comparing Values, Behaviors, Institutions and Organizations across Nations. 2d ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Holt, Douglas B. (1995), “How Consumers Consume: A Typology of Consumption Practices,” Journal of Consumer Research, 22 (June), 1-16.

Hu, Henry L. (2010), “The Political Economy of Governing ISPs in China: Perspectives of Net Neutrality and Vertical Integration” The China Quarterly, 203 (forthcoming).

Humphreys, Lee (2007), “Mobile Social Networks and Social Practice: A Case Study of Dodgeball,” Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 13, 341-360.

Ibrahim, Yasmin (2008), “The New Risk Communities: Social Networking Sites and Risk,”. MPC, 4, 245-253.

“In 2007 China’s Online Community Advertising Market Size is 410 Million Yuan” (2008), April 7,…/20080407153644722.shtml (accessed January 13, 2010). (2007), “White Collar Netizen Research Report,” (accessed February 20, 2010).

Kim, Kyung-Hee, and Haejin Yun (2007), “Cying for Me, Cying for Us: Relational Dialectics in a Korean Social Network Site,” Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 13, 298-318.

Lewis, Kevin, Jason Kanfman, and Nicholas Christakis (2008), “The Taste for Privacy: An Analysis of College Student Privacy Settings in an Online Social Network,” Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 14, 79-100.

Li, Jianxiong (2008a), “Happy Network Founders-Binghao Cheng: High and Low Profiles,” Entrepreneur China, December 18, (accessed March 17, 2009).

Li, Youmei (2008b), 30 Years of Reform and Opening: Chinese Societal Changes. Beijing: Chinese Encyclopedia Publication.

Liao, Lan (2009), “White-Collar Workers’ Psychological Problems,” Bei Fang Jing Mao, 7, 121-123.

Lin, Carolyn A. (2001), “Cultural Values Reflected in Chinese and American Television Advertising,” Journal of Advertising, 30 (4), 83-94.

Liu, Yan (2009), “Media Identity: Explanation of Media Identity and Construction of Internet Identity,” Xinwen Jizhe, 3, (accessed April 26, 2010).

McCabe, Jessi (2009), “Resisting Alienation: The Social Construction of Internet Communities Supporting Eating Disorders,” Communication Studies, 60, 1-16.

McCracken, Grant (1988). The Long Interview. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

McLeod, Duncan (2006), “QQ Attracting Eyeballs,” Financial Mail (South Africa), 36.

Mellin, Maria (2008), “The Female Vampire Community of Online Social Networks: Virtual Celebrity and Mini Communities: Initial Thoughts,” MCP, 4, 254-258.

Muniz, Albert M., Jr., and Thomas O’Guinn (2001), “Brand Community,” Journal of Consumer Research, 27 (4), 412-432.

— and Hope Jensen Schau (2007), “Vigilante Marketing and Consumer-Created Communications,” Journal of Advertising, 36, 35-50.

Riegner, Cate (2008), “Wired China: The Power of the World’s Largest Internet Population,” Journal of Advertising Research, 48 (4), 496-505.

Pan, Yunkang (1999), “White-Collar Worker and Social Structure,” Social Science Research, 3, 21-26.

Schau, Hope Jensen, Albert M. Muniz Jr., and Eric J. Arnould (2009), “How Brand Community Practices Create Value,” Journal of Marketing, 73 (5), 30-51.

Shi, Weijiang (2009), “Cultural Criticism on White-Collar Professionals High Pressure of Work,” (accessed May 15, 2010).

Tang, Xiaoqing (2004), “Literature on Chinese White-Collar Research,” Qin Nian Xue Yan Jiu, 70 (3), 28-31.

Tecent (2008), “Tecent Announces 2008 Fourth Quarter and Annual Results,” (accessed March 16, 2009).

Tong, Stephanie Tom, Brandon Van Der Heide, Lindsay Langwell, and Joseph B. Walther (2007), “Too Much of a Good thing? The Relationship between Number of Friends and Interpersonal Impressions on Facebook,” Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 13, 531-549.

Tucker, Robert C. (1978), The Marx-Engels Reader, 2d ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Walther, Joseph B., Brandon Van Der Heide, Sang-Yeon Kim, David Westerman, and Stephanie Tong (2008), “The Role of Friends’ Appearance and Behavior on Valuations of Individuals on Facebook: Are We Known by the Company We Keep?” Human Communication Research, 34, 28-49.

Wang, Sibin (1996), “Primary Level of Chinese Relationships and Societal Change,” Management World, 3, (accessed May 15, 2010).

Wildermuth, Susan M. and Sally Vogl-Bauer (2007), “We Met on the Net: Exploring the Perceptions of Online Romantic Relationship Participants,” Southern Communication Journal, 72, 211-227.

Xiao, Feng (2006), “Chinese White-Collar’s Working Load is the Highest around the World,” August 11, (accessed February 20, 2010).

Xie, Bo (2008a), “Multimodal Computer-Mediated Communication and Social Support among Older Chinese Internet Users,” Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 13 (3), 728-750.

Xie, Peng (2008b), “How Long Can the Happy Network be Happy?” Southern Weekly, September 4, (accessed March 17, 2009).

Yu, Fang (2004), “Chinese Middle Class and Their Consumer Culture,” (accessed April 26, 2010).

Zeng, Fue, Li Huang, and Wenyu Dou (2009), “Social Factors in Users Perceptions and Responses to Advertising in Online Social Networking Communities,” Journal of Interactive Advertising, 10 (1) (accessed October 12, 2009).

Zhang, Jing and Sharon Shavitt (2003), “Cultural Values in Advertising to the Chinese X-Generation,” Journal of Advertising, 32 (1), 23-33.

Zhang, Jitao and Chenchen Pan (2009), “Why Did the Relationships of Urban Communities Alienate?” (accessed May 15, 2010).

Zhang, Liwei (2009), “Leisure Communication in the Era of Industrialization and Informanization,” Modern Communication, 6, (accessed May 15, 2010).

Zhang, Wenhong and Kaichuan Lei (2009), “The New City Immigrations’ Social Identity Structure,” Social Science Research, 4, 1-28. April 26, 2010).

Zhao, Hui (2009), “SNS, The Pioneer Broke Up of Traditional Advertising Pattern,” AD Panorama, 123-124.

Zywica, Jolene and James Danawski (2008), “The Faces of Facebookers: Investigating Social Enhancement and Social Compensation Hypotheses: Predicting Facebook and Online Popularity from Sociability and Self-Esteem, and Mapping Meanings of Popularity with Semantic Networks,” Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 14, 1-34. 

About the Authors

Huan Chen received an MA from University of Florida and is pursuing a doctoral degree from the School of Advertising & Public Relations in the College of Communication and Information at University of Tennessee. E-mail: [email protected]

Eric Haley (Ph.D., University of Georgia) is Professor of Advertising in the School of Advertising & Public Relations, College of Communication and Information, at University of Tennessee. E-mail: [email protected]