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Urban Residents on the Network: A Case Study of Nanjing, China

Abstract: The growing information technology has been reshaping the physical urban space
and the way urban residents interact with each other. With the widespread use of online social
networking web sites (OSN) in China, there is a growing research interest in the role of distance in
people online interactions. Using Sina Weibo interpersonal interaction data of urban residents in
Nanjing, China, our analysis shows that urban residents not only interact with friends and local
users in the real life, but also tend to build online social networks with them. The sSpatial and
relational distances play an important role in traditional Chinese social networks, which also exist
in the virtual social networks. In addition, our regression analysis suggestts that both socio-
economic and Internet experience influence urban residents interpersonal interactions in the
virtual space, confirming the role of online social networks in extending and maintaining peoples
social networks in the real-world.
Keywords: information and communication technologies; distance; social networks; Internet
experience; Sina Weibo; China
1 Introduction
Entering intoEngaging in interpersonal interactions, whether living today, in the past or in the
future, it is fundamental in human life, for not everyone works but every human being lives in
a social network. In particular, China pays great attention on social networks, or guanxi, in the
Oriental culture, which sometimes are even the keys to understanding the success of
individual (Davies et al. 1995, Gu et al 2008, Xin and Pearce 1996). Urban residents used to
have more face-to-face communications with locals and acquaintances, compared to with
non-locals and strangers (Mok and Wellman 2007) a. And as the concentration of flows, cities
enjoyed their great advantage of providing urban residents channels to increase the incidence
of building multiple social networks. Transportation advancements have promoted
interpersonal interactions across cities and increased opportunities to communicate with
strangers;, however, these communication were limited to the speed and the cost of travel
(Mok et al 2010). Therefore, spatial and relational distance have long been recognized to
heavily affect the development and survival of peoples social networks in the real-world
before the Internet (Mok and Wellman 2007, Wellman and Leighton 1979).

The rapid development of information and communication technologies (ICTs) has brought
electronic communication modes (i.e., (mobile) phone, instant message service, email, and
recently the popular online social networking web site (OSN)) which have been expected to
affect the relationship of spatial and relational distance to peoples social networks because of
their lower cost. Though there are ais a large and growing amount of empirical evidence on
the effect of spatial and relational distance in peoples telephone and email communications
(e.g., Carrasco et al 2008, Mok and Wellman 2007, Mok et al 2010, Tillema et al 2010), our
knowledge on peoples interpersonal interactions in OSN is inadequate. However, since 2008,
OSNs (e.g., Twitter and Facebook in Western countries and Weibo in China) haves gained
global popularity and been commonly and frequently used in peoples daily lifves (Guan et al
2014, Zhen et al 2017).
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Compared to other electronic communication modes such as telephone and email, OSN has
been regarded as participative, interactive, open and transparent (Chen and Qiu 2013, Kaplan
and Haenlein 2010); users areit is easy and convenient to interact with others, both global and
very local. BesidesAdditionally, the OSN also increases the opportunity for maintaining and
extending interpersonal interactions easily and conveniently among both acquaintance and
strangers. The ties in OSN seems to be very weeak compared to that in the real-world
(Takhteyev et al 2012, Chen and Qiu 2013) and, thus may shape the way people interact with
each other. Therefore, it is reasonable to question the role of spatial and relational distance in
peoples interpersonal interactions in this virtual social networks, especially for urban
residents whose social networks has been expected to reshaped by the both rapid urbanization
and informatization in China (Hazelzet and Wissink 2012). On the basis of data on
interpersonal interactions of Nanjing adult residents in Sina Weibo, this study aims to address
this question by exploring their online interpersonal interaction activities in Sina Weibo which
is the most famous OSN in China. In particular, we examine the situations of urban residents
online interactions with local/non-local users and acquaintance/stranger users in Sina Weibo.
The differences of interaction frequencies between locals and non-local users examines the
role of spatial distance, while the differences between acquaintance and stranger users
captures the role of relational distance. Given that the social networks in the real-world of
urban residents are mainly built on interpersonal interactions with locals and acquaintances
(Mok and Wellman 2007), this examination will also contributes to a deeper understanding of
the impacts of new technology on peoples social networks.

2 Literature review
Social contact benefitsed from spatial proximity because spatial distance hindereded frequent
face-to-face contact among spatially dispersed ties before the Internet. Generally, although
cars, trains and planes increased the range of interpersonal interactions, face-to-face contact
frequency and urban residents social ties still diminished over spatial distance. The survey in
1978 in East York in Toronto identifies a marked drop in the frequency of face-to-face contact
at about 5 miles following with a steadily decrease further away before the internet (Mok and
Wellman 2007). The same phenomenon of less face-to-face contact with members further
away has also been demonstrated in other developed countries (Axhausen 2000) and
developing countries (Faust et al. 2000). In this case, social networks of urban residents based
on face-to-face communication are very local and limited to interactions among acquaintance
as well.

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The advancement of ICTs has changed the balance between spatial distance and
communication, which ignites the broad debate over the role of technology in influencing
social networks in the real-world (Mok and Wellman 2007, Mok et al 2010). Despite the hail
of the death of distance (Cairncross 1997), a large and growing base of empirical evidence
have shown the existence of friction sensitivity of electronic communication modes such as
telephone and emails to spatial and relational distance, although not as strong as face-to-face
contact (e.g., Carrasco et al 2008, Mok and Wellman 2007, Mok et al 2010, Tillema et al
2010). A recent survey in East York in Toronto finds that people tend to have more telephone
calls with others within 100 miles, whileand the frequency of e-mail contact drops slowly
over distance (Mok et al 2010). TheA similar phenomenon is also identified in Netherlands as
well (Tillema et al 2010). The friction sensitivity of telephone to spatial distance could be
attributed to the positive relationship between telephone and face-to-face communication, as
people that have more face-to-face contact are more likely to make more telephone calls
(Boase 2006, Thulin and Vilhelmson 2005, Tillema et al 2010). The logic behind the positive
relationship lies in the strong social ties in telephone communication modes. In addition to
spatial distance, some studies have explained the effect of relational distance on email
communications. The study of urban youth in Sweden reports that people tend to
communicate via email more with members already known in real life (Thulin and
Vilhelmson 2005). Given the participative, interactive, open and transparent nature of OSN
(Chen and Qiu 2013, Kaplan and Haenlein 2010), the online relationship among users could
be very weak in their real life. Therefore, theis virtual social networks in OSN may be quite
different from the social networks in the real-world.

In relation, OSN users online relationships may also be formulated under the influence of
their social networks in the real-world. Using the geographical location information in users
profiles, some studies find that OSN (e.g., Twitter and LiveJournal) users tend to build more
relationships with users with a closer spatial distance in the real-world (e.g., Liben-Nowell et
al. 2005, Takhteyev et al 2012). However, these studies have been challenged because of their
failing to control contextual factors owing to the deficient socio-economic characteristics in
users profiles. What evidence is available suggests that there might be substantial difference
in the choice of communication mode and contact frequency for different kinds of individuals
(Thulin and Vilhelmson 2005, Tillema et al 2010). Variables including gender, age, education,
employment, and household types have been identified to influence peoples face-to-face and
electronic communication behavior (Graham and Shelton 2013, Thulin and Vilhelmson 2005,
Tillema et al 2010, Zhou 2007). In China, analysis show that young people, the largest group
of OSN users, are typically be more active in OSN than do older people (Zhou 2007). The
difference can also be observed between women and men, as well as between highly educated
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groups and less educated groups (Wang et al 2015). Therefore, it is important to take socio-
economic characteristics into account when systematically analyzing the role of distance in
urban residents interpersonal interactions in OSN.

In addition, the positive relationship between face-to-face contact and electronic contact may
be reshaped by the heavy use of ICTS. Some evidences from Japan, Sweden, Canada, USA
and the UK suggest that more time spending online decreases the time spent physically with
others (Nie and Erbring 2000, Thulin and Vilhelmson 2005). In this case, for those urban
residents who spent more time in OSN may have a virtual social networks which is
completely different from their social networks in the real-world. TAnd thus it is reasonable
to question the role of spatial and relational distance in their online interpersonal interactions.
Therefore, we hypothesize that urban residents who spend more time on Internet will be more
likely to have more interactions via OSN with non-local users and stranger users.

Social networks hasve been always highlighted in Chinese peoples daily life (Davies et al.
1995, Xin and Pearce 1996). In traditional China, people tends to have frequent interactions
with members already known in real life within a small territory (e.g., gongshe and danwei)
(Bjorklund 1986, Fei 1983, Hazelzet and Wissink 2012, Whyte and Parish 1985). In the rural
areas, the acquaintance society is characterized by the close ties among peasants within
gongshe (Fei 1983). In the urban areas, social networks mainly developed within the walled
and gated boundary of work-unit, or danwei (Bjorklund 1986, Whyte and Parish 1985).
Therefore, the social networks in Chinese peoples real life used to be very local and limit ed
to interactions among acquaintances.

The economic reforms since 1978 have generated the rapid urbanization process in which
numerous peasants leaveft their farm for work in the city and becaome urban residents as well
as the new urban structure in which danwei lost its centrality as a site of social organization
(Hazelzet and Wissink 2012). BesidesIn addition, China now has the largest number of
internet users (China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC) 2012) who spend the
longest time in online social network and media (Atsmon and Magni 2010). The reform and
informatization together, especially since the turn of this century, have created one of the most
dynamic and rapidly changing social networks in urban residents daily life, which we expect
to shape their interpersonal interactions in OSN. For example, for urban residents who came
from rural/less economically developed areas (usually they do not have a local hukou), we
expect they will have less communication via OSN with locals and acquaintance partly
because of their less interactions with locals and acquaintance in the city in their real life and
partly because of their ties in hometown and more communication with townsfolk. We also
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hypothesize that urban residents living in danwei community will have more communication
via OSN with locals and acquaintance because of their previous experience of building social
networks with neighbors who live and work together.

Acquiring accurate data of the contact frequency with different types of relationships at
different geographical distance remains challenging. The data in the existing studies are
mainly from questionnaire, interview, and communication diary, which heavily depend on the
cooperation of respondents and precisenession of their memory (e.g., Mok and Wellman
2007, Mok et al 2010, Thulin and Vilhelmson 2005, Tillema et al 2010). By contrast, the
spatial and interaction information left by OSN users provide scholars with a timely and
precise recorded dataset. In particular, theise online data with geographical information from
OSN has recently become a hot research topic in the fields of geography and urban studies
(e.g., Graham et al 2013, Kay et al 2015, Liben-Nowell et al. 2005, Shen and Kayvan 2016,
Zhen et al 2017). In this paper, the situation of urban residents interpersonal interactions in
Sina Weibo came from their online records. Compared to existing research based on
questionnaire or daiary data, the interpersonal interaction frequency data in this research are
expect to be more accurate. Furthermore, it is important to note that the online dataset help us
to identify, reach and interact with the appropriate respondents cheaply and easily (Zhen et al
2017). In addition to urban residents online interpersonal interactions, their socio-economic
and Internet use characteristics which are likely to influence peoples communication in OSN
were from the online interview of the respondents. Besides, we had in-depth interview
(including many open comments) with some typical respondents regarding their interpersonal
interactions in Sina Weibo and the real-world. The online interview has also been frequently
used in recent research, particularly in analyzing internet use behaviour (Chou 2001).
Combined with the online data record and interviews, this study represents a modest attempt
to fill such a gap in our understanding of urban residents interpersonal interactions in OSN in
China.

3 Research design
This research selected Nanjing, an ancient capital city of China in the core area of Yangtze
River Delta, as a case. As the capital city of Jiangsu Province, Nanjing covers an area of 4732
square kilometers, with a population of approximately 8 million in 2010 according to the
Sixth National Census. In general, Nanjing is a representative of the rapidly growing and
large coastal cities of China. More importantly, Nanjing used to be a socialist
productive/industrial city where accommodated a number of large scale-owned enterprises
(Yuan et al 2016). And these enterprises left lots of danwei communityies and some still exist
in the contemporary Nanjing. Besides, Nanjing has also has concentrated a large number of
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migrants (Yuan et al 2016). Therefore, Nanjing represents a natural laboratory suitable for
empirical analyses to address the dynamic and rapidly changing social networks in the real-
world.

Weibo is popular when we collect our data in 2012, with approximately 0.27 billion Weibo
users (CNNIC 2012). Sina Weibo is the first and most popular OSN which attracted nearly
212 millions of visits per month in 2010 1. The data areis obtained from an online data mining
of Sina microbloggers of Nanjing adult residents. Given the need to have interviews, we have
balanced the quality and quantity of the interviewers. A total of 300 Sina microblogggers are
selected in December, 2012. First, judged by the geographical location in users profiles,
Nanjing city is selected as a filter criterion in the service of searching users in Sina Weibo
web site and returns a list of around 1.2 million users that randomly listed in web pages. Each
web page lists 20 users and only the preceding 100 web pages are public available. Second,
no more than six users are selected in the order in which users appear in the list in each web
page. The selected user should satisfy two conditions: (1) the user had to be an adult and
normal user but not a celebrity because a celebritys OSN functions similar to an
advertisement platform rather than for making friends; and (2) the user should be relatively
active on OSN with no less than 200 followers and 200 followings and no less than 3 tweets
per day. Aand for each selected users, we accessed tocontacted them and goet their approval
of online interview to get their situation of interpersonal interactions via Sina wWeibo and
socio-economic and internet use characteristics. If a user failed to meet these requirements or
refused our interview, then he was excluded infrom the study, and the subsequent users were
considered one by one until one user has fulfilled the conditions. When no user in the
resulting list met the requirements, the latter web pages of the results were supplemented until
300 Sina microbloggers of Nanjing adult residents were selected.

The relationships between Sina microbloggers include three types, namely, follower,
following, and friend. Follower and following denote a unidirectional relationship between
users. For example, if A follows B, then B does not have to follow A. In this case, A is one of
Bs followers and can read, forward, and reply each tweet of B; for A, B is one of As
followings. If A and B follows each other, then for both A and B, they are one of each others
friends. A friend relationship is relatively stronger compared with the follower and following
relationship (Zhen, Wang, and Chen in press). In the interview, respondents were first asked
about their socio-economic characteristics information including gender, age, education,

1 The survey report on the first year of Weibo use in China (Zhongguo weibo yuannian shichang
baipishu). Assessed 29 December 2014, from http://www.slideshare.net/lxm19871231/ss-
5245420.
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employment status, Nanjing hukou ownership, community type lived, and Internet use
characteristics including smartphone ownership and the daily time spent on Sina Weibo. Then
respondents were asked to provide the percentage of local users who live in Nanjing 2 and
acquaintance users who are already known in their real life in their followers, followings, and
friends. Noted that a relationship between users does not definitely lead to actual
interpersonal interactions between them in Sina Weibo. Therefore, respondents were asked to
check and count the actual times of their interaction records with other users in Sina Weibo in
the recent two weeks. The interactions include (1) reply and forward tweets and (2) exchange
messages. And then respondents were asked to calculate the percentage of interactions with
local users and acquaintance users. These two percentages in natural logarithms (i.e.,
LNInter_NJ and LNInter_Acq) are the dependent variables of our analysis to examine the role
of spatial distance and relational distance in their interpersonal interactions.

It should be noted that the sample is not representative of Nanjing urban population and the
findings and discussions are based on the samples collected in this study. Table 1 provides
descriptive statistics of the sample. As to the 300 respondents, 65.00% wasere aged below 30
which is in line with the popular use of Weibo in young people in China (CNNIC 2012) and
findings in developed countries as well (Thulin and Vilhelmson 2005). A majority owns
smartphones (84.33%). ItThis can be explained by the widespread use of mobile
communication devices in China, especially in the group of young people (Chu 2008).
Another reason could be the high penetration of Weibo in people with mobile phones (CNNIC
2012), which also explaineds a high percentage of highly-educated people of our samples. An
expected low rate of respondents living in danwei community represents the transformation
from communism to market-socialism in contemporary China. Besides, most of our samples
are employed and hold Nanjing hukou mainly because of our focus on urban residents in the
sampling. In addition, about half of them spent no less than 0.5 hours on Sina Weibo.

Table 1 Summary of socio-economic and Internet use variables of 300 respondents.


Cas Percentag Mea
Variables Description S.D.
e e n
Male =1 155 51.67
Gender 0.517 0.501
Female = 0 145 48.33
18 - 19 = 1 51 17.00
21 -29 = 2 144 48.00
Age 2.287 0.872
30-39 = 3 73 24.33
40 or above = 4 32 10.67
Education High school or below = 1 25 8.33 2.733 0.851
Junior college = 2 84 28.00
2 This information can be obtained from the geographical location in users profile. A simple
website crawler application was used to automatically collect these information to guarantee the
accuracy of the data as well.
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Bachelor = 3 137 45.67
Master or above = 4 54 18.00
Employed = 1 253 84.33
Employment status 0.843 0.364
Unemployed = 0 47 15.67
Yes = 1 225 75.00
Nanjing hukou 0.750 0.434
No = 0 75 25.00
Danwei community = 1 61 20.33
Community type Non-Danwei Community 0.203 0.403
239 79.67
=0
Yes = 1 253 84.33
Smartphone ownership 0.843 0.364
No = 0 47 15.67
Less than 0.5 hour = 1 165 55.00
Daily Sina Weibo use time 0.5 - 1.0 hour = 2 84 28.00 1.620 0.760
more than 1.0 hour = 3 51 17.00

4 Results
4.1 Descriptive analysis
As shown in Table 2, although considered as relatively weak ties in OSN, our data
demonstrate a high degree of concentration of relationship in Sina Weibo with local users for
the 300 respondents. More specifically, 35.5% of followers, 37.8% followings, and 49.7% of
friends are living in Nanjing. The percentage difference between Jiangsu Province and other
thirty provinces is striking. While with 49.6% of followers, 45.6% of followings and 60.1% of
friends coming from Jiangsu province, the corresponding average percentage for other thirty
provinces are only 1.2%, 1.3%, and 0.9%, respectively. Within Jiangsu Province, the
difference between Nanjing and other twelve cities in Jiangsu Province is astonishing as well,
as the three average corresponding percentages for other twelve cities are 1.2%, 0.7%, and
0.9%, respectively. A slight percentage difference exists between bordering and non-bordering
provinces, with around twice as average percentage of followers, followings, and friends in
bordering provinces as in non-bordering provinces. Obviously, the percentage of friends in
Nanjing and Jiangsu Province is higher than the percentage of followers and following, while
the situation in other provinces is diametrically opposed. The opposition reveals that not only
are urban residents tending to build more virtual relationships with locals but also keeping
stronger relationships.

Table 2 Percentage of followers, followings, and friends in Nanjing, Jiagsu Province,


Bordering Provinces, and Non-bordering Provinces in China for 300 adult Sina microbloggers
in Nanjing
Non-bordering
Jiangsu Province Bordering provinces
Nanjing (%) provinces in China
(%) (%)
and others (%)
I II III I II III I II III I II III
15.3 14.7 13.5 35.1 39.7 26.4
35.5 37.8 49.7 49.6 45.6 60.1
(3.8) (3.7) (3.4) (1.2) (1.3) (0.9)
Note: I = Followers; II = Followings; III= Friends. Figures in brackets represent the

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percentage per province.

There was a high percentage of relationships in Sina Weibo with acquaintance users for the
300 respondents as well, which is in consistent with existing results in Western countries
(Thulin and Vilhelmson 2005). Specifically, 43.1% of followers, 44.4% followings, and
52.1% of friends are acquaintance in real life. Similarly, a higher percentage of acquaintance
in real life in friends than that in followers and following demonstrates a closer relational
distance in friend relationship in OSN.

Due to the difficulty and time-consuming nature of differentiating the situation among
followers, followings, and friends, respondents are only asked to calculate the overall
percentage of interactions in Sina Weibo with local users and acquaintance users. In other
words, they are not required to differentiate the interactions among follows, followings, and
friends in this current study. Specifically, the corresponding mean value of the overall
percentage were 51.5% and 56.9%, respectively. Both two percentages are higher than the
corresponding percentage of relationship in Sina Weibo, indicating that among their
followers, following, and friends in Sina Weibo, urban residents also tend to have more
interactions with local users and acquaintance users.

4.2 Explanatory analysis


Noted that a Sina Microbloggers more higher level of interaction with local users and
acquaintedance users may be attributed to their higher percentage of relationship with local
users and acquaintance users. In the regression model of the role of distance in the personal
interactions in Sina Weibo, the percentage of Sina Microbloggers friend relationship with
local users and acquaintance acquainted users in natural logarithms (i.e., LNFri_NJ and
LNFri_Acq) were introduced as the control variables. Prior to estimating the regression
models, a Pearson correlation analysis was used to check the correlation between independent
variables before each regression model was applied. All correlation coefficients among
variables in the final model are less than 0.33 and/or statistically insignificant. We also carry
out a Variance Inflation Factor (VIF) test and find out no evidence of multicollinearity among
independent variables.

Table 3 presents the reports of robust regression model exploring socio-economic and Internet
use characteristics in influencing urban residents preferable interactions with local users
(Model 1) and acquaintance users (Model 2) in Sina Weibo. In general, variables including
gender, age, Nanjing hukou ownership, community type, and daily Sina Weibo use time are
significant in both Model 1 and Model 2. This suggests that urban residents interpersonal
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interaction behaviour in Sina weibo have beenare influenced by both their socio-economic
and Internet use characteristics both. Out of our expectation, though, Sina Microbloggers with
a higher percentage of relationship with local users and acquaintance users tend to have more
interaction with local users and acquaintance users;, however, this tendency is insignificant.
This finding indicates that in the virtual social networks with thea participative, interactive,
open and transparent nature, a relationship between users does not equal to the actual
interpersonal interactions between them.

Table 3 Robust regression results for the role of spatial and relational distance in urban
residents personal interactions in Sina Weibo
Variable Model 1 Model 2
Robust Robust
Coef. Coef.
S.E. S.E.
LNFri_NJ 0.162 0.104
LNFri_Acq 0.053 0.110
Gender (female = ref.) 0.118 0.018*** 0.128 0.018***
Age (18 - 19 = ref.)
20-29 0.191 0.086* 0.248 0.085**
30-39 0.188 0.071** 0.304 0.071***
40 or above 0.030 0.042 0.272 0.053***
Education (Postgraduate or above = ref.)
-
High school or below 0.017 0.042 0.045
0.038
Junior college 0.057 0.028* 0.026 0.028
Bachelor 0.045 0.023* 0.039 0.024
- -
Employment (Non-employed = ref.) 0.028* 0.030
0.064 0.010
Nanjing hukou (Other cities = ref.) 0.272 0.023*** 0.105 0.026***
Community Type (Non-danwei community
0.106 0.022*** 0.133 0.024***
= ref.)
- -
Smartphone ownership (None = ref.) 0.025 0.030
0.043 0.019
Daily Sina Weibo use time (less than 0.5
hour = ref.)
- -
0.5 - 1.0 hour 0.023*** 0.023***
0.179 0.169
- -
More than 1.0 hour 0.033*** 0.031***
0.253 0.287
Constant 4.259 0.351*** 3.929 0.381***
2
Adjusted R 0.651 0.633
F-value 42.44 31.75
Note: * p<0.05, ** p<0.01, *** p<0.001

Compared to female respondents, males are significantly more likely to have interactions with
local users and acquaintedance users. An explanatory reason could be that women tend to be
more active and engage more activities in the Internet, when compared with men. As shown
by many recent studies (Tillema et al 2010, Ren and Kwan 2009), female urban residents
have greater need to save time and eliminate travel because of they experience more stringent
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space-time constraints, making them more likely to engage in Internet activities, and thus
have more opportunities to interact with users other than in the same city. This is in line with
the powerful negative effects of Weibo use time. The more time spentd on Weibo, the more
likely to have frequently interactions with non-locals. In addition, women are more likely to
share their opinions over some hot topic in Sina Weibo (CNNIC 2015), making them to have
more interactions with different kinds of people who have the same interest in this topic. As
one female respondent added, To some extent, Sina Weibo becomes an important platform
for me to get news, especially entertainment and fashion news. aAnd I like to discuss theise
news with my online friends though we even do not know each other before. Moreover, we
have the same interests though we may come from almost everywhere and maybe in the
future we have chances to meet in the real world, who knows?. In this case, the spatial and
relational distance become relatively weak for female urban residents and this virtual social
networks may help to extend their social networks in the real-world.

Compared with respondents in the age of 18-19 years, respondents in 20s, 30s, and 40s or
above are more likely to interact with users already known in real life; 20s and 30s tend to
have more interactions with local users. An explanatory reason could be the more
participative and open attitude towards OSN among urban residents of the age of 18-19 years
(Thulin and Vilhelmson 2005). For most teenager residents with a relatively small social
networks in the real-world, the Sina Weibo helps to extend their social networks in the virtual
world. As one typical teenager respondent highlighted, I like to follow other users and I also
like to be followed by other users in Sina Weibo. It is cool if you have more followers or
friends. It gives you a feeling that you are really popular and important. And it is fine for me
to contact anyone in Sina Weibo, without too much considering of who they are and whether I
know them before. On the contrary, Sina Weibo seems relatively new for respondents in 40s
and above, when compared with users in 20s and 30s who grew up along the fast
development of ICTs. Some of them choose to use Sina Weibo because of their friends
recommendation. Aand they interact with other users more carefully. It is common for them
to build more relationships and have more interactions with users already know in real life. As
one typical respondent in 40s mentioned, I seldom used OSN before. But when I
communicated with one of my old friend one day, he strongly recommended me to use Weibo
to extend my virtual social networks. I think Sina Weibo is really good for me to exchange my
opinion with old friends who I may have not meet too often. I like to read, forward, and reply
each tweet follow of them. In this case, the spatial and relational distance are still strong for
urban residents in 40s and above and this virtual social networks help to maintain their social
networks in the real-world.

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Employed respondents are significantly more likely to interact more often with non-locals,
when compared with unemployed ones. This is presumably caused by their larger social
networks in the real-world than non-employed respondents, which could be also explained
the significantly increasing possibility for urban residents with a junior college or bachelor
degree to have less interactions with users out of Nanjing, compared with urban residents with
a postgraduate degree or above.

It is interesting to notice the substantial influence of Nanjing hukou ownership and danwei
community on urban residents interactions with local users and acquaintanced users in Sina
Weibo. Respondents without a Nanjing hukou, who are mostly migrant workers, are
significantly likely to have more frequently interaction with non-local users and stranger
users. This finding may be attributed to their weak ties with local people in their real life. As
one migrant respondent said, Though I have lived in Nanjing for many years, I cannot find
my root here. Sina Weibo provides me a chance to interact with other online. And I do not
care whether this user is in Nanjing and whether I know him before. As you may know, it is
common to meet and work with others during my live and work in Nanjing;, however, we
usually stay together for a short period. And after work, we have less interaction and it is hard
to say that we could become friends in the real life; instead, I like to interact with others via
Sina Weibo. On the contrary, though these migrants leave their hometown, they are more
likely to interact with user from their hometown online. Hometown gives you a familiarity
feeling and I like to make friends and interact with users in hometown in Sina Weibo; more
importantly, from them I can get in-time news of my hometown and sometimes th iese news
are hard to get from newspapers or TV, indicating that Sina Weibo sometimes functions as a
platform to maintain their distant ties in hometown. This function is very important in making
social capital for those migrants in big cities in China (Liu et al 2012).

Respondents living in danwei community are more likely to interact with local users and
acquaintance users, which might be explained by the impacts of their experience of building
social networks with neighbors who live and work together and always encounters in a
walled and gated compounds (Hazelzet and Wissink 2012). As one respondent living in
danwei community added, first, I have built friendship in Sina Weibo with almost everyone
living in the same danwei community who use Sina Weibo as well and we interact with each
other quite often; second, I really like to be more engaged in interactions with other local
users and acquaintance users; these interactions were more real for me. Furthermore, Sina
Weibo sometimes also played as a role as the online platform for community integration.
Due to the reform of danwei community, the danwei now does not organize many
community activities as before when I was a child, and thereby decreased frequencies of face-
12
to-face meetings with my neiboughers; however, now we sometimes share or discuss our
community issues and collecting opinions on organizing some community activities through
Sina Weibo, added by one young respondent. In this case, this virtual social network help to
maintain their social networks in the real-world.

There is no obvious difference in interactions with local/non-local users and


acquaintance/stranger users among respondents with a smartphone or not. One reason might
be the high smartphone penetration in China. As some scholars argued, having a smartphone
sometimes is more likely a consideration for peoples face, or mianzi, other than the
technology contained in the phone (Chu 2008). However, it should be noted that the more
time spent on Sina Weibo significantly increases the possibility of respondents interactions
with non-local users and stranger users, which indicates the influence of technology on urban
residents virtual social networks. However, whether this influence will penetrate into their
social networks in the real-world still needs more detailed research.

5 Conclusions
This paper analyzes the role of distance in OSN in China with a culture of heavily emphasis
on social networks. In particular, our data reveals that urban residents not only tend to build
virtual relationships with local users and acquaintance users in Sina Weibo, especially for
relatively stronger friendship,; but also tend to interact more frequently with members locally
and already known in real life. The discussion on the role of spatial and relational distance in
Sina Weibo also respond to the debate of the role of virtual social networks in maintaining,
strengthening or extending peoples social networks in the real-world (Licoppe 2004, Veenhof
et al. 2008).

Robust regression analyses were employed to explore the socio-economic and Internet use
characteristics in influencing the spatial and relational role of distance in Sina Weibo by
examining urban residents interpersonal interactions with local/non-local users and
acquaintance/stranger users. Our analysis suggest that spatial distance and relational distance
still root in both urban residents relationship and interpersonal interactions in Sina Weibo.
However, the role of spatial and relational distance acted differently in Sina microbloggers
with different socio-economic and Internet use characteristics. It is interesting to notice that
hukou ownership and danwei community which tend to influence urban residents social
networks in the real-world still functions significantly in the virtual social networks.
However, it is also interesting to notice that the more time spent in the virtual world will also
decrease the function of spatial and relational distance. Therefore, more research are is needed
to trace these changes and to test how these changes will influence peoples social networks in
13
the real-world.

Some avenues for further research can be identified. First, our online interviews only
requiress respondents to distinguish members with whom respondents interacted in recent two
weeks between in Nanjing or in other cities as well as known or not known in real life. If
possible, a more detailed classification of spatial distance and a more precise definition of
relational distance that measured by different variables as used in existing researches (Mok,
Wellman, and Carrasco 2010, Tillema, et al 2010) will make the results more knowledgeable.
We plan to consider the classification of spatial and relational distance in our future research
endeavors. In addition, household factors that potentially influence peoples electronic
communication behaviour have not been included in the empirical analysis and their impact
could be explored in the future research.

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