This blog chronicles my two weeks in China in October 2007 during which I spoke to a number of audiences (primarily English speaking ex-pats) about corporate blogging and social media in the U.S.
I tried to learn as much as possible about the attitudes in China towards the tools and technologies of social media and how they're being used by businesses, both multinational and Chinese. But in two weeks, you can only scratch the surface.
Here is the complete text of my Q & A on social media in China for the BuzzBin (BB) blog:
BB: What’s the state of social media in China?
DW: It's exploding. First, there are the sheer numbers: 162 million Chinese Internet users. That puts China right behind – or almost even with – the U.S., which has an estimated Internet user population of 165 million to 210 million, depending on whom you believe. And yes, blogs are big.
There are 30 million Chinese blogs [links to PDF report], according to CNNIC. But discussion or bulletin boards, known as BBS, along with email and IMing, are even bigger. Everyone in the middle class uses BBS – to express themselves, to network, to learn.
Sharon [links to YouTube interview], the guide I hired to take me to the Great Wall, told me she met her husband online, in a discussion forum for those who've studied abroad. Jason Ge, general manager of channel & marketing sales for Sina.com, China's major portal and BSP (blog services provider), told me the site gets 300 million page views a day. Jason and I were on an Ad-tech Beijing panel together, along with Des Walsh.
As for corporate use of social media - both multinationals and Chinese companies - yes, it's starting to happen. Think about it: with that many middle class consumers online, Chinese customers are like low-hanging fruit, just waiting for companies to engage with them through blogs, contest Web sites discussion forums and SMS. And yes there are Chinese CEO blogs. Here's my short list of Chinese CEO and corporate blogs.
BB: What was your biggest take away from the China book tour?
DW: The red-hot sense of possibility. I loved it. The energy, enthusiasm and entrepreneurialism amongst the professionals I met – both ex-pats and native Chinese – was astounding. China reminds me of America and the exhilaration of the dot com era. And yes of course it might be a bubble. But it's not going to burst anytime soon.
We know that China’s economy is exploding: the growth is palpable. Factories are cranking; office towers are shooting up; everybody is working 24X7.
[Aside: Remarkably, there was no (apparent) pollution in Beijing the week I was there, Oct. 15 - 19, 2007. Locals said the 17th National Party Congress, meeting that week next to Tiananmen Square, had purposely shut down factories surrounding the the city two weeks earlier. Like much of what goes in China, nobody really seemed to have the answer.]
If I could live a different life I’d move to Beijing or Shanghai, learn to speak Mandarin fluently and work there as an ex-pat. Oh yeah, my take away? I want to go back and dig deeper. You can’t possibly understand China after a two-week trip. Here’s a list I compiled of best resources to learn about social media in China.
BB: How is commenting different?
DW: Again, the sheer numbers. The Chinese are comment crazy. But you need to put commenting in a bucket that includes all kinds of posting online. The population of the US is just over 300 million. The population of China is over 1.3 billion, or 20% of the world’s population. As Sharon Ruwart, CEO of Elsevier Science & Technology China told me after I spoke at AmCham China in Beijing: “Just put two zeroes next to anything you’re accustomed to.”
So instead of 10 comments, think 1000 comments. When she started blogging for Elsevier she posted a first entry that said simply: “I’m starting a blog.” She didn’t publicize it in any way. She immediately got seven comments. Sharon and her husband moved to Beijing three years ago and are among the new group of older ex-pats.
When the Forbidden Starbucks drama unfolded (a Starbucks was formerly located inside Beijing’s Forbidden City palace; it has since moved), it was mentioned on a TV newcaster’s blog, then picked up and discussed thousands of times in discussion groups. The ripple effect? Close to 3,000 comments on one blog post about it.
BB: How do the Chinese fight off authoritarian control of their sites?
DW: They don’t “fight it off” per se. The Chinese government censors the Internet and everyone knows it. The cyber-police are always hovering. Self-censorship comes naturally. But so do entrepreneurialism and a certain amount of risk-taking. Everyone knows about proxy servers like Anonymouse.org. They’re also accustomed to sudden and unexplained shutdowns of sites like YouTube.
That happened while I was there. Everyone felt it was connected to Google’s ill-advised decision to launch YouTube China during the Party Congress meeting in Beijing.* The explosion in the use of the Internet – despite censorship – is a fascinating part of the contradictions that define China.
BB: What should the U.S. learn from China?
DW: Not to be complacent. That our utterly unfettered self-expression is precious. But to look to China for energy and possibility. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that this is the China Century. If you have a chance to visit, go.
BB: After blogging, what’s your favorite social media form?
DW: My new iPhone. I’m captivated by it: the expanding and shrinking photos; the text messages in bubbles; the voicemail that automatically plays back for you. Oops… wait, an iPhone isn’t social media. My husband says I haven't spoken to him since I got mine a few weeks ago.
I guess I have a love/hate relationship with Facebook. I’m fascinated by the concentric linkages it creates between and amongst communities. And the blurring of personal with professional. I’m wary, however, about the lack of privacy and of course appalled by Facebook’s recent misstep in how it launched Beacon for advertisers.
I have a Twitter account but don't use it much.
BB: What’s next for Debbie Weil?
DW: I’ve got some big ideas. I plan to go back to China and work with multinationals on implementing social media strategies. But as long as you’re asking… at some point I’d like to move outside the corporate realm. I would like to create the programmatic piece of Nicholas Negroponte’s One Laptop Per Child.
What should these kids do with their laptops? I want to teach kids all over the world how to write clearly by using a blog. How to network and empower themselves and their families by tapping into the global online economy.
I believe in the power of words. Blogs and other online channels are just a new place to deploy them. If anyone’s got great contacts at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, or another appropriate resource for executing a big idea, let me know.
* Has YouTube China been launched - ? I can’t find it. Tudou is the Chinese equivalent of YouTube.