Research Findings

No escape: When workplaces use social media

January 7, 2021

Existing studies on how information and communication technologies influence work find that workers use digital media to control their work-life boundaries. But in China, social media is all pervasive with a permanent memory. There is no escape in time or space, and resistance is futile.

In a recent article, I examine how workplace subordinates interact with their supervisors on WeChat, the most popular app in China. I find that lower-ranked individuals are compelled to constantly express their loyalty and appreciation and publicly submit to their superiors by clicking “like” or commenting on their posts. They also have to provide immediate and polite responses to their superordinates in WeChat group chats after work hours and with respect to non-work-related issues.

No Escape

The use of social media means that supervisors no longer need a physical co-presence to contact workers. As a result, many workers are forced to cater to their supervisors after work hours, during holidays, at home, or on vacation. WeChat has infiltrated all aspects of offline life through online interactions, and even seemingly fun gestures have evolved into a means of control, such as the sending of virtual red packets during Chinese New Year.

In this tradition, superordinates send online monetary gifts to group members in the form of a game. The subordinates are pressured to identify and tap on the red packets to receive a token amount of money—usually less than $1. After receiving the funds, they are expected to send appreciative messages or cute emojis to their superordinates. As one white-collar worker explained to me:

If a senior sends out virtual red packets and they’re not accepted, eventually the money would be returned to them and they would be really upset because they’ve lost face in front of everyone (author’s emphasis). If everyone else accepted one and you didn’t, it could mean that you’re not a team player… That’s how supervisors show control over the team even during Chinese New Year when it’s our private time (author’s emphasis).

Affective Labor

Given the pervasiveness of WeChat, employees not only need to manage their work responsibilities but also constantly engage in affective labor through public displays of submission to their superiors. Certainly, doing affective labor in public is not unique, however the pervasiveness and relentlessness of its online form—the need to perform even during private time as a constant reminder of one’s lower rank—is novel.

WeChat encourages submissive performances because past conversations are recorded and can be accessed after the actual interaction itself. This sort of permanency is not possible in conventional face-to-face (FtF) interactions. For example, some of the study respondents pointed out that if someone remains silent during a FtF meeting, the superordinate might not notice. But, the technical affordances of WeChat render the silent person so conspicuous that the superordinate cannot help but take note of this person and may even resort to “reminding” him or her to contribute.

Permanence of social media

The use of social media has given social interactions permanence as past encounters can be recalled with accuracy and past mistakes cannot be erased. Real-world events are captured and eternally retrievable, so that even small acts of disobedience or resistance have costly repercussions. For example, a middle level manager explained:

I think the worst thing about WeChat is that there is a record of past dialogues and our supervisors can always refer back to it. For example, if my boss asked me something and I replied [in FtF], I can refute later on how I responded, or my boss may not remember exactly what I said. But now it’s so easy to check what you said and when you said it…

Many of the study respondents compared their WeChat interactions with FtF interactions, pointing out the ability to refer back to past interactions as the key difference. When something is posted in a group chat or on their Moments, it becomes “permanent” and never goes away.  Someone might have taken a screenshot or downloaded the information. This is the key reason that words are spoken with care and there is diligence around response time, particularly between unequals, on WeChat.

Resistance is futile

Since this kind of social interaction environment leaves little room for any form of resistance employees retreat into cynical performances of submission. They are reluctant to obey, do not feel inferior to their superiors, and perhaps even consider submission as demeaning. Still, they comply because they cannot afford the consequences of disobedience. As a 28 years old salesperson in a real estate company explained:

A lot of people are reluctant [to openly show deference to superiors on WeChat], but they have to… After all, your superior controls your career… WeChat shows how amicable you can be… It’s also possible their impression of you will change for the better. So, even if what they post is wrong or meaningless, we’ll still “like” their post.

There might be resentment and thoughts of resistance towards the enhanced demands for submission, but individual acts of resistance are futile, since engagement in deferential behavior is for their own good as online performances have real-life consequences.

This study of WeChat use in a middle-class workplace in China shows that most workers engage in cynical performances of compliance to constantly demonstrate deference to their superiors because digital media has created a social interaction environment where workers are under a permanent and extended gaze. The result is resentment, yet also the understanding that cynical deferential acts of submission are self-serving.

China or everywhere?

So is this peculiar to China or a global trend? In those Chinese workplaces, coercive power (influence based on the expectation of punishment for failure to conform) and reward power (where one conforms to gain acceptance) dominate. Second, the Chinese culture of hierarchy legitimizes demands for absolute conformity from subordinates.

Since culture shapes expectations and consequently the walk-away costs, employees comply because culture normalizes compliance, which then negates options, such as changing jobs, because this cultural emphasis is pervasive. In other cultures where hierarchy is less enforced, or organizational contexts have a different power base, such as expert power, workers might have more leeway for non-compliance and respond differently.

Read more

Xiaoli Tian. “An Interactional Space of Permanent Observability: WeChat and Reinforcing the Power Hierarchy in Chinese Workplaces” in Sociological Forum 2020. For a free, pre-publication version of the article, please click here.

Image: Ambrose Ian Pi

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