I’ve always felt there was something intangible to China when it came to social media; a place where memes get used by brands for marketing, virtual alter egos exist as fashionista avatars, and corrupt officials are publicly named and shamed. Still, I couldn’t quite connect the dots when it came to understanding why China netizens are so much more wired than say, Hong Kong or UK netizens. Social Media Week’s Social Trend in China panel hosted by Harbour City offered up a pretty good answer to this question by quite simply framing everything I knew about China within the context of social media which then suddenly made sense of it all.
The Cultural factors that make it work
Anyone who takes the MTR knows that commuters are slaves to their screens - silently consuming data in their invisible bubble; but even so, it is less often that you’ll find a guy somewhere in the corner feverishly typing into their phone and nodding to the rhythm of each tap-tap-tap. Such is the case for China as described by Hugo Chan, Managing Partner of WE Engauge, who says that these personalities are commonly created from a combination of external influences i.e. long-term family separation (from within China), the one child policy (with youths compensating by creating their own family of siblings online), affordable broadband internet, and an underlying mistrust of news media (trust is in the masses).
The digital shadow protest
There are also internal influences which are less unique to the makeup of China but their importance is nevertheless amplified in a country where freedom of speech is repressed. Identity & recognition (the power of a single voice), opacity of rank (connecting with government officials and celebrities alike), and the ability to share & debate are useful tools in the virtual empowerment of an otherwise vertical society. For example, ”Weiguan” (围观) is a netizen term that calls attention to the power and passivity of online protest; re-tweeting a sensitive topic is seen as acknowledging an injustice which is of no harm in itself.
In reality, however, there is a silent protest taking place behind the scenes that sends out the message that the people are unhappy with what’s going on and are willing to let fellow netizens hear about it. Each unique view then becomes a projection of netizen power that grows with the masses (David Wertime, 2012).
The “customise” culture
Does China copy from Western social media platforms? Yes and no. China draws influence from what came before but they also repurpose it into something that is more palatable for the people. When Sina Weibo was launched back in 2009 it was easy to write it off as the Chinese version of Twitter; fast forward three years and its much clearer to tell apart the differences such as Sina Weibo’s inline pictures & videos, threaded comments, message board functionality, maps, page analytics, promotion zones, and app market. These features have all come together to make Sina Weibo a true destination platform for content discovery; something that Twitter is still struggling with themselves.
Not everything is made to be social
It’s easy to imagine China’s social media landscape to be a reflection of our own but there are actually parts of it that, unlike Western social media, are created to be less social. Take for example, video sites such as Youku, Tudou, and PPTV; they all lack the social sharing buttons that we’ve come to expect with YouTube. That’s not to say videos can’t be shared it’s just that not all content on these sites are created with sharing in mind. Copyrighted content such as syndicated TV opera and live show events such as The Voice of China are hosted on these sites - effectively creating an online TV station with long-form display ads served up as TV commercials; media such as this doesn’t lend itself very well to the grab-and-go culture of sharing online.
It seems that everything I’ve come to know about China; from the politics, the culture, to the technology is exactly why social media is so powerful in the country. In addition, Sina Weibo, Renren, Youku etc are platforms made for the people first so there is no homogeneous rounding of the corners (UI, features, etc) to fit the international mold of user.
Why is China so wired for social media?
Because it’s China!