At a business conference in Shanghai in 2007, CEO blogging is the subject of a presentation. The number of people in China involved in social-networking through the internet has skyrocketed during the last decade. PHOTO BY BERKSHIRE PUBLISHING.
While being careful not to cross certain lines, China’s fast-growing online population of 298 million people (as of 2009), led by China’s “Generation Y” born in the 1980s, is experiencing the liberation of virtual community.
As China becomes increasingly networked, both terrestrially and by mobile technologies, online social networking is transforming many people’s lives with online news, entertainment, education, and shopping. It is also affecting the political landscape as more technically advanced policymakers turn to blogs and bulletin board systems for information about what people are saying and thinking.
Generation Y of China (balinghou), those who were born in the 1980s, grew up in the 1990s as single children without the traditional extended family network, owing to China’s one-child policy. Members of this group are the most enthusiastic users of online social networking. For these young Chinese, a personal and career path is no longer clearly laid out. There are more choices, more opportunities, and more uncertainty. The combination of three main factors makes them ideal users for online social networking. They tend to be highly computer literate; they tend to be the only child in the household; and they tend to be highly mobile. Online networking is the primary way for this generation to get in touch and stay in touch with friends, classmates, relatives, and co-workers. They use blogs, forums, and bulletin board systems (BBS), Web 2.0 social-networking sites, instant messaging, and microblogging, often through mobile devices.
China’s online youth are finding friendship and solace, as well as information and entertainment, in cyberspace. They are searching for others who can relate to their experiences and who may share their mind-set. Online social networking is also becoming functional and a way to adjust to real-world relationships. Online dating sites, such as lotus.com and love21cn.com (or Jiayuan.com), are increasingly chosen for meeting potential marriage partners. Web portals, such as MSN, Skype, and QQ (which boasts more than 220 million users), are accessed by many merchants as customer-service and marketing tools to reach out to real-world customers. Job seekers use online tools, which include searching and social networking, and young, mobile professionals use social-networking sites to find new friends before moving to another city.
For many Chinese, online communities offer an alternative to traditional sources of information, an alternative that is often viewed as more trustworthy than corporate or government sources and more relevant than received wisdom handed down from elders with assurances that it is true because they say so.
Social and entertainment infrastructures in China are more limited than they are in the West. The Internet, however, provides easy access to entertainment. Its interactive nature seems to fit particularly well with Chinese culture.
Educational opportunities are still uneven in China, with most major universities and information centers still clustered in and around Beijing and Shanghai, but the Internet allows students anywhere to make use of online databases and other global information sources. Online initiatives are seen as crucial to solving the East–West educational divide.
Internet users in China already outnumber those in the United States. According to China Internet Network Information Center, the state network information center, as of June 2008, there were 253 million Internet users in China, a 19 percent penetration. (The United States, by contrast, had 220 million active Internet users in June 2008, about 73 percent of the population; the number of Internet users in China reached 298 million in January 2009). According to the International Telecommunication Union—the organization that sets and monitors communication standards—as of December 2007 there were 66 million broadband Internet connections in China. Chinese Internet users spend nearly 2 billion hours online each week; people in the United States, 129 million hours.
It is difficult to be precise about the figures because of the cell phone factor: Cell phones are ubiquitous in China, and an unknown number of Chinese cell phone users are using their phones to access websites, chat programs, and even to download and listen to music. As mobile technology expands, so do accessibility and the numbers of users.
China is also home to a number of “Net stars,” personalities who are famous online, such as Mu Zimei and Fu Rong Jie (Sister Fu Rong). The world’s top blogger is Chinese actress Xu Jinglei, who is now better known for her blogging than for her acting. She shot to the top of Technorati’s list of bloggers as soon as Technorati was prodded into internationalizing. Unlike in the West, Internet stars in China tend to become genuine stars who enjoy fame both online and offline.
The online interfaces that make possible this brave new world are known collectively as “social media.” Blogs are an example of a social medium in which an individual addresses and receives feedback from a large audience—from the one to the many. BBS, relationship management media (sites such as MySpace or Cyworld), massively multiplayer role-playing games (MMORPGs), file-sharing systems, and wikis are examples of social media in which many people interact with many other people—from the many to the many. Cyworld is an interesting example. Originating in South Korea, it currently has some 17 million users. It combines the features of MySpace, Flickr, and virtual worlds; its many users upload approximately 6.2 million photos daily. (Flickr, by contrast, uploads approximately 500,000 photos daily.) Finally, and of particular interest to businesses, there are corporate feedback forums that let people respond to their experiences with the company’s products—from the many to the one.
BBSs were among the earliest online community tools and are, for now at least, the most important social medium in China, with an estimated 53 million people in China making use of them. They are easy to use and allow for anonymous communication, which, in a restrictive society such as China’s, gives people a feeling of liberation. The Chinese enjoy the social, community-oriented (as opposed to individualistic) nature of BBSs. In general, Chinese people are not so eager to stand out. Blogs are extremely popular, too, but unlike in the United States, they tend to be personal, generally written just for friends and family.
BBSs are a vital center of information exchange for Chinese young people, who, like their peers in the West, find the comments of their contemporaries online more personal, immediate, and relevant than an old-fashioned viewpoint from a traditional source of authority. A typical post might recount a problem—sometimes word-by-word—and tens to hundreds of follow-up posts will help analyze the problem. Other typical posts are questions. Almost any question receives enthusiastic follow-up posts in which people offer analyses, experiences, and tips.
Postings are anonymous, but people seem to cherish the help they obtain and routinely come bac
k to help answer questions themselves. The authors of the most helpful BBS postings are honored by their fellow posters and often given honorary positions in the BBS world. Participants adhere to a sophisticated code of online etiquettes and use a specific jargon. People who follow these rules tend to get more responses and are respected more. For example, people reading the postings on BBSs are encouraged to make a response entry, even if it’s an innocuous “Hi, I like your post.” This kind of behavior is considered polite and helps to build up a participant’s reputation.
Another interesting phenomenon is the race to be the first to respond to a post. Being the first to respond demonstrates respect; therefore, it has special importance. The first-response slot is given a special name: the “sofa.” People routinely compete to “grab the sofa” ???, that is, to try to be the first reader to respond. Different areas of a large BBS will have its own forum administrator (ban zhu ??, page owner), who enforces rules and remove the postings that do not follow the rules. Forum administrators are site enthusiasts who have built a reputation for being reliable and trustworthy in enforcing the rules.
In the United States, Internet hunting is actual hunting: A webcam shows the landscape at an actual location, and a hunter at a computer sends a message to fire, triggering a remote–controlled gun. In China, however, Internet hunting is something completely different: It is the tracking down, by the online community at large, of someone who has committed some act or engaged in some behavior that outrages the community.
The best-known case involved a wronged husband, his wife, and the student with whom the wife had an affair. The husband posted a 5,000-word letter about his wife’s affair with the student, whom she had met through the popular game World of Warcraft (a game so popular in China that its characters appear in television ads). The online community identified the student and tracked him to his parents’ home, making vehement attacks online and putting him at risk of personal injury in the real world. This kind of behavior, a form of communal morality enforcement, is still a potent aspect of Chinese communal culture.
The Chinese government and established organizations are increasingly responsive to the opinions of the vocal online community. Tsinghua University, one of China’s leading higher education institutions, was alerted to a professor who had lied on his résumé by an Internet campaign started by Fang Zhouzi, a famous blogger who is known for identifying and publicizing the rampant academic cheating among elite Chinese university professors. The professor was fired as a result. Similarly, an Internet campaign launched by environmentalists put pressure on the film director Chen Kaige and eventually caught the attention of the central government. The environmentalists were outraged over the damage that the film crew for Chen’s The Promise (2005) had done to the area surrounding Bigu Lake in Yunnan Province—a location so strikingly like Shangri-la, the mountain paradise of James Hilton’s Lost Horizon, that in 2002 it adopted that name. Eventually Qiu Baoxin, the vice minister of China’s Department of Development, publicly criticized the production team. Officials in the county of Shangri-la were fired, and the production team was fined.
The government responds to Internet social media in three important ways: by regulating it, investing in it, and monitoring online activity. This monitoring is done in various ways. One is keyword analysis. Posts that mention Falun Gong or Tibet, for example, might trigger investigation. In the face of government scrutiny, the online public in China protects the freedom of their online interactions by engaging in voluntary self-censorship. Perhaps for that reason, online media has not been used for political activity in China in the way it has in the United States.
Online activity is also monitored by marketers, and it seems that more businesses are allocating more funds to marketing online. One of the leaders in this area is CIC Data, a China-based Internet word-of-mouth and competitive intelligence research company. Sam Flemming, CIC Data’s director in Shanghai, blogs about social media. He thinks social media has greater reach and greater impact in China than it does in the United States because it has more impact on offline life than is true in the United States. He points to the case of the two university students who became an Internet sensation by lip-synching to the songs of the Back Street Boys. Pepsi picked them up for its Pepsi Creative Challenge campaign and its MyDaDaDa campaign, and now they are television celebrities, called the Back Dorm Boys ????.
The most popular interactive sites, according to a 2008 study by CIC Data in Shanghai, are forums where consumers discuss automobiles and sports. Sites for parenting and childcare information are also popular, followed by discussion forums related to cosmetics and consumer electronics. The more personal and explicit sites, such as Senei.com.cn, are latecomers to the crowded Web as are Facebook clones such as Kaixinwang, Zhanzuo, and Xiaonei. The name Xiaonei is a pun, meaning something along the lines of “lustbook.”
While online life is similar in most countries, online life in China is somewhat unique because it is growing out of a culture with a deeply rooted tradition of social exchange based on feelings, respect, and reciprocity. But at a time when that culture’s economy is rapidly modernizing and globalizing, it seems possible that Chinese innovations in the realm of social media will come to the West and that China is certain to benefit from its connection to the rest of the world.
Lu, Gang. (2008, January 17). Old school BBS: The Chinese social networking phenomenon. Read Write Web. Retrieved February 17, 2009, from http://www.readwriteweb.com/archives/bbs_china_social_networking.php
Tang, Zun. (2003, August). The use of social network in China’s labor market. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association, Atlanta, GA. Retrieved October 10, 2008, from http://www.allacademic.com/meta/p107261_index.html
Wang, Tina. (2008, August 21). Cracking China’s social network market. Forbes. Retrieved February 17, 2009, from http://www.forbes.com/2008/08/21/china-social-networks-tech-ebiz-cx_tw_0821china.html
Source: Li, Jonathan Qiang, & Christensen, Karen. (2009). Social Networking, Online. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 2012–2015. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.
Social Networking, Online (Zàixiàn shèhuì w?ngluò ??????)|Zàixiàn shèhuì w?ngluò ?????? (Social Networking, Online)