(Screengrabs courtesy of tsalon.)
People outside China were able to watch this weekend’s Chinese Blogger Conference through the live webcast provided by videoblogger “Seehaha”. The conference was in Chinese of course, so I helped provide live (very imperfect & incomplete) English-language running notes on IRC. Then the amazing Bahrain-based blogger Angelo Embuldeniya took my English IRC notes, combined them with screen grabs from the live video webcasts, and posted it all on a blog. Check it out for detailed session-by session notes on what was discussed.
I came away from this conference with a lot more than just a t-shirt.
I’m also leaving Shanghai with a realization: Web2.0 is potentially a very Chinese thing. One of the most important words in the Chinese language is “guanxi.” It means “relationship.” Whatever you think about the term “Web2.0”, the point is that social networking and relationship-building are at the core of today’s most exciting web innovations. The Chinese happen to be the most natural and skilled social networkers on earth.
The Chinese economy functions today (to the extent that it does) thanks largely to personal relationship networks: networks that enable people to get stuff done despite bone-headed regulations, politics, logistical obstacles, and everything else. You are nothing in China – and can accomplish very little – without a good “guanxi” network. Expect Chinese internet users to seize upon Web 2.0 tools as a way to expand and deepen their human relationships, enhancing both personal lives and businesses. Expect Chinese users build new tools that suit their own preferred ways of communication. The Chinese are likely to have a growing impact on the evolution of web applications.
Individual empowerment with Chinese characteristics. Isaac Mao in his opening keynote talked about the power of many small voices. On the web, “everybody is somebody.” What’s more, Chinese web users are increasingly reacting to events taking place in their lives, in real time, online. “We are all grassroots. We are all small voices,” he says. “The combination of all these small voices will make our society smarter.” He spoke about his Social Brain Foundation, based on the idea that the web enables people to plug their brains directly into an open network.
A key theme of the whole conference was how the semantic web empowers and amplifies individual voices. On Sunday afternoon, Blogger “zuola” described how his blog is his personal platform for his own ideas. Blogging, he believes, helps us understand our lives better. Chen Xuer, one of the bloggers who volunteered to work on the conference, said he started blogging and reading blogs because he wanted “to hear the truth and speak the truth.” Sound familiar?
The Chinese bloggers have adopted the language of the semantic web, made it theirs, and are inventing some of their own terms to help describe what’s happening. In the session on tagging, Zhang Yang spoke of “microfunction”: a term he uses to describe the way we connect pieces of micro-content together through tagging, RSS and search. Blogger “Topku Chan” on Saturday afternoon spoke of “keyvoice” – as opposed to “keyword” as the essence of what people should be paying attention to and tracking when it comes to conversations on the web.
I was particularly impressed with Shanghai educator Zhuang Xiuli, who believes passionately that blogs and social media tools like RSS and tagging can potentially play a big role in reforming China’s ossified educational system. She spoke of the need to move from rote learning to individual discovery and creativity, and the way in which blogging encourages new more creative and individual-centric ways of learning. She spoke of how blogs and RSS can help teachers share information with students better. She also believes that student blogs and RSS aggregation of those blogs can help teachers get to know students better than would be physically possible in large classes of 40–plus kids.
Then there’s the hitch, censorship, and the Chinese way of dealing with it. There was much bemoaning of the fact that Wikipedia – both English and Chinese – has recently been blocked here. Some wikipedians advocated that Chinese wikipedia should stay away from politically sensitive topics for the time being and focus on more scientific, practical and historical material so that it will get unblocked. Offline and in the halls there was some whispering about how the government may release some regulations at the end of the year specifically aimed to deal with blogs and blog content. One of the participants was emailing around a proposal for bloggers to organize self-control and regulation committees as a way to respond to top-down efforts (I don’t think it was greeted with much enthusiasm). There was some annoyance expressed in the session I moderated about “blogging beyond borders” about the fact that censorship prevents mainland Chinese bloggers from communicating freely with bloggers in Hong Kong and Taiwan. But this was not the time and place to discuss how to circumvent censorship. Addressing that huge elephant in the room directly would have flagged the gathering as subversive, and would have killed all the good stuff that came out of the meeting. People did talk a bit, however, about how to work with censorship. In the podcasting session, there was a surprisingly frank exchange about the way in which service providers have to police user content and kill everything political. All blog hosting and service providing companies must police their users’ content. This is a fact of life which web businesses as well as users accept as part of being Chinese in China. They must naturally bake censorship functions into their software and into their business models.
I am not saying that this situation justifies censorship in any way. But if you’re Chinese, you’re not going to get anywhere by openly defying or opposing it. Instead, people are creatively making the best of the situation. And many of the people at this conference are doing so to an impressive degree. This is how I would characterize the view of most people here: The majority of Chinese users and pretty much all web entrepreneurs believe that the Chinese Web 2.0 must remain as un-political as possible in order to develop, spread, and innovate. Since people in China have never been free to express their political views in public, not being able to do so in cyberspace isn’t actually viewed as a sacrifice. People don’t feel like they’re giving anything up. On the contrary, they feel that blogs and other forms of online social media have given them a great deal more freedom of expression than they ever had before. Most feel they’ve got plenty to say and do within the limits they’ve been given. Of course some chafe at the limitations, but most users don’t even recognize what they’re missing because they’ve never had it. So they’re a bit bewildered that the Western media focuses mainly on that portion of speech that remains forbidden, while from the Chinese perspective the story is a very positive one about how they’re saying and doing more than ever before. They’d like more appreciation and recognition for all the cool things they are managing to say and do.
What this means is that Web 2.0, just like Web 1.0, is not going spark a democratic revolution in Chinese politics any time soon. People here find it annoying that the Western media keeps framing the Chinese internet story within the question of whether the internet will or won’t bring down the communist party. The real story is about the cultural and social implications of the semantic web as it continues to spread among China’s fast-growing pool of internet users. In the very long run, cultural and social change may have political implications, but to people here any attempt to speculate on that is counter-productive.
Another thing about this story: it’s not so much about what the internet is “bringing” to the Chinese, or how the internet is coming in as an outside force and “changing China.” The real story is about how Chinese users are taking the connectivity, tools and applications, internalizing them, and making them their own.