Screen saviours reboot role of social media

Online support groups help members reach academic, financial, and health goals.


A man walks by Xiaohongshu's booth at an expo in Tianjin, April 20, 2019. From Xiaohongshu to WeChat groups, a burgeoning community of individuals, predominantly millennials and Gen Z, are also using social media to motivate each other and provide support systems. PHOTO: IC/CHINA DAILY

June 21, 2024

HONG KONG – In the winter of 2023, Li Ying failed her graduate entrance exam and had two choices — find a job or try again.

The 23-year-old has a bachelor’s degree in chemistry, and wants to become a teacher if she can obtain a master’s degree.

Pulling herself together, Li decided to give the exam another shot. She set a study timetable and daily schedule, such as getting up at 6:30 am and walking for at least an hour after dinner to help achieve her goal.

To Li’s surprise, she discovered that sharing her small steps online galvanized support from an army of peers facing the same struggles and challenges.

She documents her days preparing for the graduate entrance exam, due later this year, on the social media platform Xiaohongshu. The posts include pictures of her three daily meals, workouts, motivational tips and, most importantly, her study hours.

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Li has hundreds of followers who are also preparing for the graduate entrance exam.

“I posted just to record my life during my days of preparation for the exam. I didn’t know that my posts would foster a sense of community, where people experiencing similar situations hold each other accountable, share study materials, and offer support during setbacks,” she said.

Preparing for the exam is “boring and challenging”, Li said, because it is mainly about building confidence and self-discipline.

Li was born and grew up in Chongqing. She left her hometown at age 18 when she was admitted to a university in Beijing.

After failing in the graduate entrance exam she rented a small apartment in Beijing. Her parents support her financially, but she feels guilty about not passing the exam and still relying on their financial support.

She also questions her decision of taking the exam again since many of her friends and former classmates are in paid jobs and starting new chapters in their lives.

“I call my parents every day, and meet my friends from university occasionally. Most of the time, I am by myself, cooking, eating, shopping and going for a walk alone.

“With those people on social media whom I have never met, and who are living similar lives, going through similar struggles, and most importantly understanding one another, I feel that I am not alone. We can get through this together,” she said.

Helping hands

From Xiaohongshu to WeChat groups, a burgeoning community of individuals, predominantly millennials and Gen Z, are using social media not only to showcase their lives but also to motivate each other and provide support systems.

Like Li, Zhou Ziwen also resorted to social media platforms when she was preparing for her graduate entrance exam last year. She is now pursuing a master’s degree with a computer science major at a university in Chengdu, Sichuan province.

Drawing on her own experiences, Zhou, 27, has launched 25 WeChat groups to help people who are preparing for upcoming entrance exams. Over 1,000 people of different ages and various majors have joined the groups. Some of them are still working, while others are preparing full-time for the exam.

“Without my ‘virtual friends’, I would have spent hours staring at my phone or watching short videos at home since I was easily distracted,” recalled Zhou of the hurdles she faced studying alone for the entrance exam.

“When you don’t have a job and live alone, it’s not easy to stick to a routine.”

In 2019, Zhou moved from her hometown in Hubei province to Beijing to work for an accounting company. She said for most of her life she had lived with either her parents or classmates and friends, and had never thought about living alone.

She quit her job in 2022 and decided to take the annual graduate entrance exam, hoping to secure a higher paid job.

“The difficulties of living alone are not related to problems like how to cook or how to do housework. For me, it is about facing loneliness and maintaining self-discipline,” she said.

After quitting her job, Zhou said she had a lot of free time, which she had planned to fill with daily workouts, learning English, and other activities. “However, after a couple of weeks staying alone, my life turned into a mess. My plan for preparing for the exam had broken down,” she said.

Zhou said she was easily distracted by watching videos and TV shows, and she wasn’t really happy.

“I just needed to hear some noise,” she said. “When night came, I’d lie on my bed and review the day and I’d feel guilty because I’d done nothing,” she said.

Looking for a positive influence, Zhou found like-minded people on social media platforms in similar situations.

The first thing she did was stop blaming herself and feeling guilty. She realized that occasionally enjoying “lazy time” was not too bad, especially when she was facing the huge pressure of preparing for the entrance exam.

“With the encouragement from people on social media, I posted my study results every day and set goals for my daily study, such as memorizing 20 English words and phrases every day,” said Zhou, who now encourages people in her WeChat groups to daka what they learn every day.

The expression daka is a popular millennial term referring to marking a visit to a hot tourist destination by posting on social media.

In Zhou’s WeChat groups, daka allows members to showcase what they learn to the others, which helps motivate them to learn. Most importantly, Zhou said, it’s a way for people to mark their study results every day and stick to their plans.

Inspiring others

Wendy, a fitness trainer in Beijing who offers private training programs and group classes, has gained a large fan base on social media by sharing her daily workouts and meals.

But beyond the perfectly curated posts lies a deeper purpose: to inspire her followers to prioritize their health and let them daka their own workout plans and meals.

Armed with catchy hashtags and motivational captions, she fosters a sense of community that transcends a smartphone screen.

“I have a WeChat group, which has gathered 500 people. I don’t have plans for more groups because I want to focus on those 500 people,” she said.

“I make a list of rules for the self-discipline ‘game’, letting them daka on a daily basis about what they eat, how much water they drink, and how many calories they’ve burned.

“I also share cardio exercises for a gym-free workout, with movements that can be done at your own pace, depending on your fitness level and training goals.”

Together, her followers embark on a journey of self-improvement, cheering each other on through the highs and lows of fitness pursuits.

Outside the WeChat group, Wendy has a growing number of followers on other social media platforms who come to her for private training, which increases her income.

Strength in numbers

Beyond individual influencers, there are also burgeoning online communities dedicated to fostering self-discipline and accountability, covering varied interests such as English and sports activities.

Chinese fitness technology company Keep, for example, has millions of people who exercise every day via the company’s app. Keep has joined forces with Japanese company Sanrio to use its popular cartoon IP images, such as Hello Kitty and Kuromi, to release medals with those IP images.

Users can win medals during their daily workouts and post them. The app also offers the users a virtual meeting space, where they can share tips, resources and progress updates.

“These communities provide a sense of belonging and mutual support, reinforcing the notion that success is best achieved together,” said Duan Yan, who works and lives in Beijing and is in her early 40s.

Duan, along with a couple of friends, co-initiated a group to motivate one another to get up early and make the best use of the morning.

When she gets up at 7 am, she posts a photo in the group chat, such as her drinking a cup of coffee, taking her dog for a walk or jogging in the park. Her friends in the group make similar posts.

“If you didn’t get up early in the morning, you have to pay 20 yuan ($2.76) as a punishment. We live a fast-paced life and we want to be better, healthier and happier. By motivating one another, we have forged commitment, consistency, and unwavering determination,” said Duan.

Setting up social media groups to encourage self-discipline is similar to activity partners, or dazi, which have become popular on the internet among young Chinese people. The term, dazi, refers to people who seek partners who share similar interests to them, for activities such as playing games, taking classes, traveling, or hiking and camping.

“These online communities serve as a source of encouragement, accountability, and advice, and empower individuals to pursue their goals with the support of peers who share similar passions and aspirations,” Duan said.

Supervising’ self-discipline’

It may sound ironic, but the business of encouraging and monitoring self-discipline is creating new jobs. On Taobao, China’s leading e-commerce platform, people can hire a supervisor who will help clients achieve their goals.

If a client is learning to play piano, for example, the supervisor will urge them to keep practicing and help make plans to achieve their goal. The client needs to report their practice results by sending videos to their self-discipline supervisor. In some cases, only by reporting to the supervisor can a task be completed or commenced.

The self-discipline supervisors can offer services such as calling and urging a client to get up early at 7 am, or to go to bed before 11 pm.

Happy Relief Grocery Store, an e-commerce shop on Taobao, which offers the services of self-discipline supervisors, has over 3,000 orders a month. The self-discipline supervisor services are offered for 7 to 30 days, and range in cost from 6 to 700 yuan.

“My first customer was a young woman, who wanted me to help her lose weight,” said Zhu Hecun, 24, who opened the shop online six years ago when he was still in college.

“She had a clear goal and a plan for meals and workouts. So my job was to call her after she had her meals and had done her workout. I also called her from time to time to check if she had eaten snacks or chocolate.”

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Now, he has had over 40,000 orders and about 70 employees.

Most of his customers want supervision of their weight, monetary savings, and study commitments.

Zhu also has costumers who want to be reminded to call their parents every week, or be told to stop contacting their ex-boyfriends or ex-girlfriends.

The service requires customers to be highly coordinated and their goals have to be realistic and manageable, he said.

“We cannot be sure that our service will help them achieve their goals because self-discipline is about many elements, such as time management and self-control,” Zhu said.

“This kind of service provides support through companionship and can also help ease anxiety, depression and other negative emotions.”

Zhu said he himself has been inspired by a supervisor.

“I lost 35 kilograms in one year by having someone else be my self-discipline supervisor,” he said.


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