The photo at left was taken by tech blogger Keso on Friday night at the opening evening of China Foo Camp, held in an old military factory compound in Eastern Beijing (with Maoist slogans still on the ceilings) which has recently been converted into an array of trendy-arty spaces.
Tim O'Reilly's first foray into China was my third Web2.0-related conference in Beijing in the span of one week. Which says something about how much is going on here. It's really great to see O'Reilly and his team finally getting serious about China and making a serious effort to engage with the Chinese tech community. Naturally they will need some time to sort out who are the best people to work with in China, and how best to nurture greater dialogue and cross-fertilization between the English-speaking web world and the Chinese-speaking web world. But with the Chinese-language Internet soon to become the largest part of the global Internet, we badly need more bridges, more collaboration, more dialogue, and better understanding. The O'Reilly brand is one of many non-governmental, non-political platforms that can potentially help bridge these two worlds in ways that I hope will help the global internet evolve in a healthy and open direction that should be in the interest of the world's people - not just the world's most powerful governments.
On Saturday many attendees, especially those of us who had been at the Chinese Blogger Con the previous weekend, were surprised by the 1.0-ness of the the main Saturday conference. Don't get me wrong, the local IBM team - who the O'Reilly folks chose as their local partner for this event - worked extremely hard, spent a shocking amount of money (or so people were claiming on Twitter), and deserve a lot of points for effort. They just seem to be more accustomed to interfacing with other big companies, government ministries, and state-owned enterprises than with the open source community, independent entrepreneurs, digital culture people, and techie grassroots. Still, the gathering brought a lot of interesting people together, a lot of great conversations were had and connections were made that may not otherwise have happened - which is apparently the main point of Foo camps anyway.
Another thing that the conference showed was just how hard it is to hold a truly bilingual English-Chinese conference in which the Chinese and English speakers feel equally comfortable participating. Despite the hiring of interpreters and setup of a simultaneous translation booth with headsets for people to listen to translations in the main hall, non-English speakers still reported feeling like they weren't able to participate fully or understand fully what was going on, and many left early. As some people pointed out, it's not just about language - it's also about communication style, and whether you set up a gathering to favor people who are comfortable communicating in an American way or in a Chinese way. So if the O'Reilly conferences intend to be a successful bridge between the two worlds they will definitely need to pioneer new models for English-Chinese bicultural interactive meetings.
MONDAY MORNING UPDATE: Stephen Walli, who was invited but couldn't attend, posted a video and summary of the lightning talk he would have given. He summarizes his main points as follows:
- Free and open source software is important to China's future growth. (开放代码软件对中国未来的发展很重要)
- It will allow China to deliver better software faster.
- It will allow China to build better companies more quickly.
- Language defines culture. (语言创造文化)
- Our community cultures are different, and we need to understand each other's cultures to build the relationships to allow us to build a bigger community.
Earlier in the week I attended another Web2.0 conference organized by France Telecom's Orange Labs. Orange Labs is obviously a different kind of business than O'Reilly but they're not doing a bad job at burrowing themselves into the local web community. A number of bloggers have praised the way they helped organize Beijing Barcamp, saying it was better and more interactive than Foo. I don't know because I wasn't there. This week's conference was a bit more corporate/academic and less grassroots than CNBloggercon, but it still brought together some interesting people. I griped a bit about some speakers who seemed to equate human beings with dollar signs a bit more than I can tolerate, but interesting things came up. A few highlights:
- Isaac Mao gave a talk about how people are using Web2.0 and "micro-content" to create a living "social brain" which grows smarter over time as we contribute to and interact with it. He has some blog posts related to these ideas here (Chinese) and here (English); also see a couple of his recent presentations on Slideshare here and here.
- Tangos Chan of China Web2.0 Review had some interesting perspectives on Chinese Web2.0 innovations to keep an eye on (i.e., going beyond copying American models): A growing number of Chinese Internet users, especially newcomers to the Chinese Internet, prefer to do as much of their online business in their chat client, and thus chat clients - as well as applications that feed content into both your chat client as well as into your mobile SMS mailbox - are an interesting thing to watch. Two variations on that theme are Anothr and Jiwai.
- Benjamin Joffe of Plus Eight Star who works closely with Orange Labs gave a very useful overview of Web2.0 and "information arbitrage" across Japan, Korea, and China.
- Orange's Nicholas DuCray described his research on "how community services and web 2.0 applications converge with the traditional media and mobile industry to offer a new generation of interactive services." The difficulty in measuring audiences in China also makes it hard to "monetize" traffic and grow businesses. Nonetheless, as he wrote in his talk summary: "We have had the opportunity to observe significant changes in behaviors, and the appearance of a new generation of internet users, whose primary objective is to communicate with their peers, express and showcase themselves, by any means. This need for interactivity, enabled and catalyzed by the economic growth and the development of the internet and mobile markets, has created a "hot pot" of convergent services, which could possibly draw the image of what the telecom services and the business models of the future could be."
- He wasn't the only one to emphasize mobile. Which I guess isn't surprising since he works for Orange/France Telecom, but then again, it's a fact that increasingly Chinese people will be interacting with the web via mobile devices and not via PC.
- A number of speakers pointed out that regulation and control on content, combined with lack of open API's are both obstacles to innovation.
- I was also fascinated by a presentation by Luo Qing of the Communication University of China (and former TV personality) in which she explained how user-generated audio-visual content is regulated increasingly via the State Administration of Radio Film and Television (SARFT). She described a process of web-driven media transformation
- Yao Yonghe of 51.com (a social networking site popular in smaller towns but which more urbane geeks seem to turn their nose up at) reminded us all that compared to 10 years ago, white collar elites are no longer the majority of Internet users in China and thus the tastes and needs of more rural, less globally-connected Chinese will increasingly be driving the market.
Having gone over my notes from that conference, I am reminded of Tim O'Reilly's remarks at Foo Camp about future trends. He predicted we will see a slowdown in what people would define as "Web2.0 innovation" as the big players consolidate. Meanwhile, "innovation will break out in some very unexpected places." Despite the fact that he expects this innovation to be unexpected, he pointed to some possible directions he thinks this innovation might come from. They include what he calls "open mobile...a kind of ambient computing where we break out of PC computing completely." The next phase of computing, he believes "is re-engaging with the physical world." This could happen in China in an interesting way, and perhaps differently than in the West.
Meanwhile, I wonder: is the next phase of the Internet going to make the world even flatter or will we see the geographical, cultural, political, and linguistic boundaries getting stronger? Will we start seeing substantially different media forms and communication norms emerging in different countries depending on their economic, cultural, political, and linguistic conditions? Possibly. We're certainly finding that the big multinational Internet players are struggling to capture the Chinese market, and while politics and regulatory hurdles don't help, perhaps we're also getting to a point where one-size-fits all is increasingly untenable and homegrown services will increasingly have an edge over transplants. But as co-founder of Global Voices and a strong - perhaps overly idealistic - believer in the need for a freer, more open conversation amongst the citizens of our entire planet, I also hope that the developers and engineers of the world will continue to work hard to make a global conversation possible.
I started this post talking about the urgent need to build better bridges of conversation and collaboration between the Chinese language Internet and the English language internet. Which brings me back to the Chinese blogger conference and Zhang Lei, founder of Yeeyan, a peer-translation community website. I am so excited about what Yeeyan is trying to do that I'm happy to plug it. The idea is to "crowdsource" the translation of articles and blog posts back and forth between English and Chinese so that people who don't read both languages can gain better insight into the ideas coming from each community. (It's kind of a for-profit cousin to what the Global Voices Lingua projects are doing: recruiting volunteers to translate Global Voices English-language content into a variety of languages.) So far Yeeyan has been doing well with English-to-Chinese but have had less success getting people to translate from Chinese to English. I hope they find a way to make it work. Maybe the folks behind the Chinese Content Project, which generated a great deal of enthusiasm at the beginning of this year before it ran out of steam and kind of died, may be interested in trying out Yeeyan's community translation framework to see if it can support a more sustainable peer-translation model.
Finally, for those who missed the Chinese Blogger Conference and/or who might not have understood much of the Chinese-language proceedings anyway, you can get a feeling for the community by watching some of the videos that participants have uploaded to YouTube:
...and here's the video shown at the start of the conference, showing highlights from the past two conferences: