The explosion of social networks in China

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When LinkedIn, the last major U.S. social media platform to operate in China, announced last month that it was leaving the country, her departure was seen as the definitive break between U.S. and Chinese social media.

But for the majority of social media users in China, closing LinkedIn hasn’t been a huge loss. During its decade-long stay in the country, the company struggled to build loyalty, at least in part because Chinese users had a plethora of other options. For years, Beijing has sealed off its digital sphere, as evidenced by its censorship of Facebook and Twitter, and cultivated what has become a large, vibrant social media ecosystem.

Relations between the United States and China are increasingly framed in terms of geopolitical competition, and discussions on Chinese social media are therefore often linked to politics. But the researchers say that is only one side of the story, the one that ignores widespread innovation in Chinese social media. Today, social media is a space where Chinese citizens navigate constantly changing regulations – and censorship – to discuss everything from Squid game to a toxic work culture.

When LinkedIn, the last major U.S. social media platform to operate in China, announced last month that it was leaving the country, his departure was seen as the final break between American and Chinese social networks.

But for the majority of social media users in China, closing LinkedIn hasn’t been a huge loss. During its decade-long stay in the country, the company struggled to build a faithful follow-upat least in part because Chinese users had a plethora of other options. For years, Beijing has sealed off its digital sphere – as evidenced by its censorship of Facebook and Twitter – and cultivate what has grown into a large and vibrant social media ecosystem.

Relations between the United States and China are increasingly framed in terms of geopolitical competition, and discussions on Chinese social media are therefore often linked to politics. But the researchers say that is only one side of the story, the one that ignores widespread innovation in Chinese social media. Today, social media is a space where Chinese citizens navigate constantly changing regulations – and censorship – to discuss everything from Squid game To toxic work culture.

“I don’t think most people have a precise and fully realized perception of everyday life in China,” said Jeremy Daum, senior researcher at the Paul Tsai China Center at Yale Law School. “We tend to have a lot of fantasies about what’s going on there.”

China is home to the world largest social media market, attracting around 927 million users in 2020. The landscape has undergone dramatic changes in recent years. At one point, it might have been easy to match every Chinese-born social media app with a Western counterpart. Such comparisons are no longer always possible, as Chinese platforms have evolved in a way that has allowed them to take a leap forward from Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

“In China, social media is deeply and fundamentally integrated with many other platforms, be it payment, food delivery or banking. [or] navigate the city, ”said Silvia Lindtner, professor at the University of Michigan.

This transformation includes the birth of so-called great apps, one-stop-shop platforms that make it easy for users to participate in multiple activities (shopping, texting, transfer payments, and booking flights, to name a few) without having to switch apps.

Take WeChat, China’s massive messaging platform with more than one billion monthly users. WeChat is owned by Tencent, a $ 69 billion Chinese conglomerate which also owns a stake in large Hollywood blockbusters and popular video games. Although it is technically a courier service, its offerings have become almost global. In the WeChat world, users can also take out loans, shopping at the grocery store, buy online, arrange food delivery, call carpooling services and book flights. “It has evolved to be very innovative and encapsulate everything you would ever need to do,” said Cara Wallis, professor at Texas A&M University.

“WeChat is used for everything. It’s more than a communication app. It is a payment application. It is a news app. That’s it, ”Daum said. “It has become its own kind of Internet. It is a small ecosystem in its own right. … There is no equivalent in the United States ”

The WeChat ecosystem is one of the pillars of a broad social media architecture. Are you looking for an appointment? You have at least nine options. Try Tantan, Momo or several other dating apps, some of which offer live streaming services better assess potential partners. (Popular international options like Tinder can only be accessed in China through a virtual private network.)

To scroll it aimlessly, there is Weibo, a popular microblogging platform, or Douyin, an addicting short video app that predated TikTok, its western counterpart. Although TikTok and Douyin are both owned by ByteDance, a Chinese developer, Douyin is the most technologically advanced option, incorporating special e-commerce features that allow users to immediately purchase products, reserve rooms. hotel and virtual tour places after seeing them for the first time in videos. The live streaming industry has also taken off across China at a incomparable degree, with hundreds of millions of people logging into the streams in search of privacy and connection.

These platforms have been the target of increasingly severe restrictions, as part of Beijing’s continuing efforts to shape behavior and social norms to an intrusive level of detail. Censorship was once slow and clunky on Chinese social media, and by the late 2000s Weibo, in particular, was seen as the harbinger of more open media. Corrupt or abusive officials were often exposed in videos posted to Weibo and sometimes punished accordingly.

But that quickly changed as the authorities adjusted and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) placed more emphasis on ideological warfare and blocking out. Western ideas. A repression on “Big Vs,” the Weibo equivalent of blue tick accounts on Twitter, in 2013 effectively killed the debate on Weibo. When part of that political discussion shifted to private groups on WeChat, the government targeted them in 2017, holding the organizers responsible for any politically deviant rhetoric in the group.

Now laughing at the CCP war hero on social media, for example, can send posters to jail, and it’s not just political content that’s controlled. In recent years, regulations have gradually encroached on the personal sphere, censoring seemingly harmless matters. Users who hope to relax with some ASMR in the background or eager to watch a mukbang, a type of foodie video popularized in South Korea, may be out of luck. Both are considered inappropriate and vulgar fetish subjects and have been banned. Live streaming has also been a constant target of government repression since it became popular in 2014, with recent restrictions even dictate how influencers can dress and speak.

As Beijing continues to tighten its grip, these rules are constantly evolving. Social media platforms are often referees of these changing regulations, creating an austere environment that fuels self-censorship and shapes the way people navigate public conversations. In regulating content, applications often have to spend large sums of money and labor to monitor user behavior. In 2020, ByteDance employed around 20,000 moderators to censor posts.

“You are never quite sure of the exact rules. They change, they move. What might be good today is not good tomorrow, ”said Lindtner. “There’s this constant push and pull where people are kind of testing how far they can go.”

Privacy is also a hot topic in China, although regulations are enforced differently and not everyone is forced to follow the same rules. Just like Facebook has been criticized for its privacy rules and facilitate disinformation, Chinese platforms too faces scrutiny as they developed and became more and more monopolistic.

Under the New China privacy law, users now benefit from better protections from technology companies. As one of the most strict legislative texts, companies face strict restrictions on the information they can collect and share, although it is uncertain how strictly these laws will be enforced in practice.

The new legislation, which came into effect in November, “takes big steps to protect personal information in ways that it was not previously,” said Daum, who noted that Chinese companies are now comparatively more limited in what they can do in terms of collecting personal information. .

The same rules, of course, do not apply to government authorities.

“Privacy is almost like it’s been overthrown in China. In the United States, almost all of our laws, including our Constitution, are aimed at limiting the power of government, ”Daum said. “In China, it’s kind of reversed.”


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