I used to introduce Renren.com to my foreign friends simply as “Chinese Facebook” usually with a self mocking smile admitting in my heart that it is just another product of the Chinese ripping off American innovations. Back then I was only using Renren and occasionally visiting Facebook to see my handful of foreign friends’ updates.
My blind admiration for Facebook and contradictorily judgmental view of Renren started to change after I got a chance to study in the US and used Facebook on a daily basis. Months later I found out I prefer Renren than Facebook.
To me, what Facebook can do Renren can do better, and Renren can also do what Facebook can not do.
Let’s first see what Facebook can do. Facebook is essentially about interaction with real people and has provided us with a lot of tools to make these interactions. We can use the “like” button on basically any kind of updates:
You can like friends’ photos of wild parties which may suggest what kind of person you are;you can like your ex’s changing relationship status from “single” to “in a relationship”, which can either indicate that you have let it go or you just don’t care so much. Different information can be communicated or miscommunicated by simply pressing this small button. The action which requires slightly more effort is “poking”.
Couples in a fight can use the exchange of pokes to break the ice without the fear of losing one’s self-respect by initiating the talk; guy can poke the girl he met at last night’s party to see whether she is interested or not. Compared with the “like” function, poking adds the element of direct action towards someone and also the involvement of someone else’s response. The final tool is writing on one’s wall.
It requires the effort of actually knowing the person and coming up with something to say to him. The message itself as well as the readers’ response creates a dynamic and sometime messy social interaction which involves wording, expectation, saying one thing and mean it or saying one thing but mean the other.
Now we have the three tools Facebook armed us with: like, poke and message. I ranked them by the amount of effort each requires. Like requires the least amount of effort while messages require the most. But of course the effect of an action is not necessarily consistent with the effort it requires. As we expected, Renren has these three functions too and more other functions. And Renren has developed the tools in a new level of complexity.
Let me introduce a few of Renren’s exclusive tools. They are: visit count, like, share, repost, poke, slap, kiss, pat, wink, shake hand, specific reply, message and whisper.
Visit count: Using Facebook you don’t really know who’s visiting your page besides those people that leave you message constantly. Renren not only records who and how many have visited you and posts the visit information on your profile page. There is a section called “recent visits” on the right side of your profile which shows the profile photo of people who recently visited you. On the right side of your name there are parentheses in which reads visited by XXX people. Visiting some one’s page takes even less effort than poking him, and by peeing who visits you can tell who’s interested in you or stalking you or just addicted to checking random profiles. You may argue that this is a violation of privacy but I am grateful for this function. It helps a lot with girls! Having a girl visiting you often on Renren is far from enough to know her but it gives me the confidence to ask her out and a kind of familiarity which smoothed away the typical awkwardness of the first date. We visit some one’s page for various reasons: love, like, care, curiosity or we just clicked his name by mistake. These information can be understood or misunderstood by the visited. To avoid misunderstanding Renren users tend to visit less people and that can be judge as a taking away social network sites’ fun of knowing others or as a good way to save people’s time from random checking others’ profile.
Like, share and repost: The like function is just like the one on Facebook: Click like the “button” on someone’s post and he will be notified that “Someone liked your post.” The share function is little bit different; you can share anyone’s album, note and video, but the owner will not be notified. Renren keeps a record of what you shared and this little library of your sharing can be seen as a showcase of your taste and interest. The repost is like the retweet function of twitter which allows you to “retweet” others’ status updates in your status. It also will not notify the owner of the reposted status. The main difference between this three is whether the owner of the content you have liked, shared or reposted knows or not. If you just like the content, hit share or repost; if you like the content and the owner, hit the like button.
Poke, slap, kiss, pat, wink, shake hand: The list can go on with a dozen more. Apparently poking is too simple for Chinese people. We need specific actions for specific attitudes. But in reality, making various option of actions is still not going to send the right gesture. Kissing someone on Renren does not means it is something one would do offline; shaking hands can be a gesture of initiating a friendship or as simple as of saying “I agree with you” and slapping can be interpreted as hated or the completely opposite attitude. Nonetheless it is much more fun than simply poking.
Specific reply and whisper: In Facebook you will be notified whenever someone has posted something on a conversation you engaged in and that post may or may not be intended for you. It also means that your post to others will be seen to a larger audience. Facebook’s approach certainly better promotes new communication and helps expand networks but it neglects the fact that not everyone wants their message to be seen by others. Chinese are generally shy and hold their feelings to themselves, using the online platform to communicate with others is already a big step forward. Facebook is not only taking conversation online and encouraging more people to engage in it, that, to a Chinese, is too much. Renren had made its own adjustment. It allows you to reply a message to a specific person in a conversation and other person engaged in it will not be notified. If you don’t even want others to see your reply, you can hit the “whisper” button, which will make this reply exclusive between you two.
In another word Renren is much more complex in interacting with others. I am not saying Renren is better than Facebook but it does suits a Chinese user better. Technologically, Facebook is much better developed with its high revenue, large developing team and years of fighting with bugs. But social network sites are not just about technology, after all it is a product for humans and should therefore suit people’s emotions, habits and preferences. And these important human aspects are deeply rooted in different cultures. Facebook is created and developed by Americans and its functions also showed the Americanness of being simple and straightforward. When Facebook goes international the thing needs to be modified is not just language. Renren tailored its function to users who prefer indirectness and complexity. Although Facebook is banned in China, I dare to say Renren can still overthrow Facebook if it does not make adjustments to meet Chinese users’ need.
So all the features of Renren I mentioned above are not necessarily to be adopted by Facebook, but definitely should be by Facebook China (If there would be one). If there is really something Facebook as a whole should learn from Renren, it is that product should be adapted to meet different groups of people’s need.
Jack Liu is student at City University of Hong Kong and author of Wenkenan.com