I visited China this summer and found that many of the Internet tools that I use every day here in the United States cannot be accessed in Beijing: Google, my browser homepage, shows up blank; YouTube appears as an empty page, as do Facebook and Twitter. I felt like I was put into the experiment group of the wave-making research conducted by Harrisburg University of Science and Technology in 2010, where students were cut off from their connection with Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, and AOL for a week. But that was just a week. How did the people of the most populated country in the world survive without these digital connections all the time?
After asking the locals, my puzzle was soon resolved and by attending the conference of Educational Innovation through Technology at Tsinghua University. The answer became clear: social media in China is as ubiquitous and impactful as it is in the rest of the world; however, because most of the popular tools are banned by the government, these social-networking functions are carried out through alternative technologies. While sitting in the sessions about social-media tools and their use for education, I tried to build a connection between the tools that I heard about and the tools that I used in the States. In the end, I came up with the following grid that summarizes the pairing of our social-media tools and their Chinese equivalents:
Google vs. Baidu
Baidu is called the Chinese Google, but CNN Money said this might be an insult to Baidu. Comparing to Google’s 50% market share in the United States, Baidu dominated with 78 percent of the Chinese internet market in the fourth quarter of 2011. Before I learned from friends that I could access Google from its HongKong site, Baidu seems to be the best choice for me for conducting online search in China. Although I didn’t find an English interface for Baidu, its striking similarity to Google makes it possible for non-Chinese users to launch a search.
Although the interface of Baidu doesn’t present a problem to English speakers, the result might cause some confusion. For example, if you put in an English word in the text box, what you get as the result may be Chinese sites or Chinese translations related to the words. The engine also reserves the top finding for its own encyclopedia. A search for DePaul University, for example, will yield a top result of a Chinese version of a DePaul overview from Baidu encyclopedia instead of www.depaul.edu. This says clearly that Baidu is meant for Chinese users.
Facebook vs. Renren
Renren, a leading social network in China, looks, feels, and works like a clone of Facebook. Beside its Fackbook-like interface and functionalities, Renren, which means “everyone” in Chinese, shares the same origin as Facebook: it started as a campus networking system in 2005 and stayed that way for four years. In August 2009, it dropped its original name of Xiaonei, which means “on campus,” and began to aim at a boarder market of “everyone.” According to Financial Times (September 25, 2012), Renren claims that it has 157 million active users, which is 15 percent of the 995 million users claimed by Facebook.
Tempted to find the difference between Renren and Facebook, I created an account at renren.com. After filling in (and being strongly encouraged to fill in) my real name and personal information such as name, birthdate, profession, schools attended, and interests, I was granted an account. The look of my Renren site reminded me a lot of my old Facebook page before it got messed up by the “timeline” scheme.
One thing that I wasn’t asked to enter was my religion and political view and there was no status report on my “relationship” either. In addition to all of the Facebook-ish clickables, Renren has an icon on its upper right corner that says “write journal” (see images below). Like embedding a blog into a Facebook site, this function enables people to go beyond a quick note. Users can express themselves in-depth and with length in a blogging manner. One other thing that tells the difference between the east and the west in terms of data sensitivity is Renren’s exposure of visitors. When I logged into my Renren page the day after the account was created, it displayed a guy who had visited my page. Oh my god, do I want to know who visited me? Or do I want anyone to know that I visited him or her? No wonder there has been no English interface for Renren—no American would like that kind of exposure!
Twitter vs. Weibo
It will be an understatement to Weibo to call it the Chinese version of Twitter. As a system pushed out by China’s Internet giant Tencent after Twitter was blocked by Chinese authorities in 2009, Weibo delivered a broad array of social-network functions available in both Twitter and Facebook. Like Twitter, it creates a virtual land of fan clubs for celebrities by allowing the users to be fans or followers (see image below).
Weibo, which claimed more than 233 million registered users, launched its English Interface in Nov 2011.
IM+Skype+WebConf vs. Weixin
I was shocked by how quickly email is becoming obsolete in China. Although most of my friends still have email accounts and still check them once in a while, they almost all opted for this new app called “Weixin,” which means “micro-message” in Chinese and is called “WeChat” in English. WenXin or WeChat can be downloaded to various mobile devices or a computer. It allows users to send voice, video, photo, and text messages. By indicating your location, it can also help users find friends nearby. The group chat feature allows a web-conferencing kind of environment where a number of users can communicate at the same time.
YouTube vs. Tudou and Youku
It feels depressing and disabling not being able to access YouTube, and there isn’t one system in China that can resemble all the fame and content YouTube possesses. The role of video content sharing is shared among a number of tools, of which “Tudou” and “Youku” are the two dominant ones. Both sites are targeted specifically at Chinese viewers without any interface options for English or any other languages.
As you can see, it was quite a learning experience for me to find and experience all of those alternative technology solutions due to China’s rules on the tools. All of those wouldn’t have been necessary—at least for myself—had I known that there were tools designed to deal with the rules.
The technique of “fan qiang” which means “bypassing the firewall” is no stranger to most of the local users in Beijing, even though it was deemed illegal by the government. While to the instructors with students in China, it would be very helpful to know what can and can’t be accessed there, as a traveler, downloading an application, such as Freegate, to your computer prior to your trip to China will make you feel at home with your computer. This is something I haven’t tried, but certainly will for my next trip.