What Tibet and Carrefour can teach us about the Internet in China
When the western media and some outside observers talk about “Angry China”, they really miss out on the real story, and even the real questions which need to be asked. For instance, how do very large groups of people, who at least on the surface, have nothing to do with each other, organize in large numbers so quickly in a society which many westerners see as authoritarian? Are they government-led or influenced, or do they do it themselves? How do they come to believe some of the wild rumors which come up, such as for instance, the belief that Carrefour sends a portion of its earnings to support the Dalai Lama and Tibet independence, and are seemingly oblivious to the fact that any large company would like to keep as much of its earnings for itself?
There is a very simple answer to all this: a large part of the organization is done on the Internet in China, specifically on BBSes. While the BBS (bulletin board system) is something outdated and antiquated in the US Internet, it has been a very important part of the Chinese Internet, and I would argue, it is growing and becoming more influential. For the Chinese government, it is a headache because in spite of Chinese government regulations, it is largely unregulated. For western corporations it is a good place to gather information but is useless for advertising, but for many Chinese it is the most important part of the Internet (along with online gaming and their IM client, which is most likely to be QQ or MSN Instant Messenger depending on their age and demographics).
Don’t believe me? Go to your nearest Chinese Internet cafe and watch what people are doing.
Most westerners who come into the China Internet market have no idea of its power and influence, and instead think that the Chinese Internet is largely the same as the US market, but it isn’t. The Chinese government doesn’t really like BBSes because it really is free (as in free speech), and is the breeding ground for all kinds of weird stuff. And while it is important for gathering buzz on products (as CIC, based in Shanghai, does) for corporations, nobody has really been able to monetize it. And, western journalists fail to monitor it, which is why they miss on so many big stories, and end up giving credit to some sinister Chinese government policies. ( I guess it’s kind of flattering for the Chinese government to be given credit for something when most Chinese know that it isn’t that powerful.)
Isn’t it amazing that such a huge and important part of free speech in China has been entirely missed? Fortunately, Tom Melcher’s new blog Live from Beijing! has a very good introductory article to BBSes (h/t to Andrew Lih). I got something of an introduction to the BBS in 1998, shortly after Sina was formed from the merger of SRS and Sinanet. One of the first web applications created by Wang Zhidong was a simple BBS which he demoed to me in the summer of that year. It really took off in popularity with the US’s accidental bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in April 1999 when millions of angry Chinese hit the Sina news forum. Please don’t think of the Strong Nation forum on the People’s Daily site as being at all representative of Chinese BBSes; it is official and closely monitored for content. The interesting BBSes are all unofficial or semi-official.
Most of the angry Chinese in China, or fenqing, are organized on the BBSes, where they gather and shoot the breeze. These people have time on their hands, and play games, spend time in QQ, and gossip on the BBSes of their choice at the moment. They spend almost no time on what we would call the official Internet, except going to get news on Sina, Sohu and Netease. It is very hard to reach them with advertising.
Now, let’s talk about their persona. For the most part, they:
- They distrust the official media and do not buy magazines, and get as much information as they can from unofficial sources, such as BBSes. They only go to the official media for some sports information and major news information.
- They trust unofficial news more than news which comes from official sources.
- They are the perfect audience for spreading rumors, because they can be quickly organized by anonymous leaders, or “honeybees” as Tom Melcher calls them in his article.
- When organized, they can be huge, in the millions, and they can move like a swarm.
In simple terms, the characteristics of this unofficial crowd are:
- Chinese official government influence is very limited
- They are mostly self-organized
- The numbers are in the millions
- They move extremely fast
- They disappear just as fast as they appeared
- They are almost always anonymous and do not use their real names, preferring instead to use their own handles
In simple terms, they are an issue-focused flash mob. For corporations, they are:
- Not susceptible to traditional PR methods since you are dealing with an anonymous group
- Very tightly focused around one issue
- Move much faster than corporations and their decision-making apparatus is diversified,
- Do not trust/ believe in information from any government, including Chinese
My estimate is that more than 60% of non-IM traffic in China is to these unofficial BBSes, and that number is growing.
When it comes to advertising, most adspend hits that remaining 40% of the official and semi-official Internet, without reaching where many people are. CIC acts as the eyes and ears of corporations, but corporations have not been able to do anything yet with that information and are still reliant on mainstream advertising approaches for both online and offline which are largely out of date. This is the background for my article on why agencies need a new approach to online marketing in China.
So, BBSes are the real social media marketing tool, and as usual, the Chinese are ahead of everyone else, but just haven’t figured out that part themselves. While the west talks about social media and Web 2.0, China has had a version of it for the past ten years. It may not be pretty, but it works.
It’s just that vast majority of outsiders haven’t figured it out yet.