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Will Facebook Make China More Connected?

This morning, news broke that social-networking giant Facebook has signed a deal with Chinese search engine Baidu to develop a Chinese social networking service. The deal is a winner for both sides: Facebook is currently blocked in China, while Baidu has been unable to translate its dominance of the search engine market into similar success in social networking. (The current social networking leader, Renren, has about 90 million users, 15% of Facebook's total users.) The Chinese government, naturally, will keep a close eye on any venture to guard against social networking being used to organize against the government, as in many of the recent rebellions in the Middle East. But even with censorship, will Facebook have any effect on Chinese youth?

In 2008, three Ph.D. students at the University of Texas at Austin conducted a survey of over 2,600 students which looked at the relationship between Facebook use and "social capital." More specifically, the survey compared frequency of Facebook use and life satisfaction, social trust, and civic and political engagement. The authors found "moderate, positive relationships between intensity of Facebook use and students' life satisfaction, social trust, civic participation and political engagement...even when taking demographic, socioeconomic and socialization variables into account." Though "the Facebook variables explain an additional 2.7% of the variance in social capital at most," the authors note that social networking sites have often been stereotyped as making young people more isolated, and "the mere fact that social capital variables and intensity of Facebook use are positively associated is good news for those interested in the potential impact of Web 2.0 technologies on youth engagement." And if social networking can increase civic engagement among a population whose chief Facebook concern is that one photo their friends took at a frat party on Saturday, then it's easier to be optimistic about Facebook in China.