What does it mean to have two such disconnected social media ecosystems?
In the West, we often view the great firewall of China as an infringement of freedom of speech. As an attempt by the government to keep citizens in complacency, or at least complacent ignorance. Today I wanted to explore the issue from a different angle. Which is the reverse impact of how it blocks China from communicating with the world.
Anyone who has been to China would know that over 50% of the most commonly used apps won’t work there. Either come prepared with a VPN pre- installed on your phone or say goodbye to Facebook, Gmail, Google Maps, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, YouTube, Dropbox and even Pinterest (isn’t it just pretty pictures of cakes and flower arrangements?)! I tried to go on Shutterstock the other day and even that didn’t load.
Instead, Chinese netizens have a plethora of alternative platforms to use of which the most popular social platforms are WeChat, Weibo and QQ. There are at least three alternatives for everything. Since last year, live streaming has also become immensely popular, although I haven’t spent much time on it. The streamers are mainly pretty girls, sometimes dressed a little bit provocatively, talking about shit for hours. Sometimes they might do a little dance or sing a song. In any case, I don’t think I am their main target audience and it’s about the most narcissistic type of platform I have ever seen. Inke is the most popular if you want to check it out.
Anyway, back to my original point. Two different sets of internet ecosystems, two different circles of conversation. Do they interconnect very much? From my experience — not at all. On one side you have the rest of the internet connected world and on the other you have China — with its not insignificant population of 1.4 billion people. In this cyber-connected world, this type of virtual divide is as significant as any geographical divide.
I mean, think about it — whatever Youtube or Facebook videos that are trending on twitter right now, you wouldn’t even see in China. Likewise a WeChat post that is viewed by over 20 million people, won’t be seen outside of the Chinese community. What more there is virtually no interaction between Chinese users and the rest of the world, no commenting on posts, no liking, no contributions on random Reddit threads. And vice versa. In this respect, China is still very closed. Very few Chinese voices going out, very few non-Chinese voices coming in.
Instead it takes some kind of cultural intermediary — like a Chinese student moving to the States or an expat in Beijing to bridge this gap. Some of the rare people who are active on both channels. But for most people, they are separated within the confines of their virtual communities.
What does this mean for China, and what does this mean for the rest of the World?
I think it leads to a lot of mystery in a positive sense, and a complete lack of understanding in another. Despite China being a major trading partner with almost every country of the world, most countries’ understanding of China is pretty poor. At least the western ones I’ve lived in talk about China as if its some of strange beast. China’s not much better. Although, they might be more informed about countries such as America, Australia, UK and Canada because they invest so much into learning English — with fairly poor results.
And this is where I have to question whether the great firewall of China is really an advantage for China or an inhibitor. I mean, yes, it does ease concerns of social dissent that the government might have, but it comes at the cost of China participating in the global community. On an individual level, but also at an organisational level as Chinese companies are forced to invest in a completely different set of platforms.
In my area of tech, I think this has totally blinded even seasoned tech investors and observers into the crazy abundance of creation that is occurring in this country right now. On the other hand, I think it has inhibited Chinese companies from developing prestige and expanding abroad. The Chinese tech giants that have started getting coverage recently on Western Channels — Tencent, Alibaba, Baidu, Huawei, Xiaomi — this is just the tip of the iceberg. To follow the rest, you need WeChat.