Cultural settings define the success of internet tools often better than technical limitations. That explains why Chinese internet users prefer censored search engine Baidu over Google, and why WeChat works better in China than some might think, writes sociologist Tricia Wang on her weblog.
In a society with very restrictive social norms around permissive interaction and self-expression, Chinese youth don’t have a lot of opportunity to meet new people outside of formal contexts or to express themselves.
So the quasi-anonymity of the internet provides a space for youth to explore emotions with strangers – emotions that they don’t feel that they can share offline with people they know like friends and family. There’s a bunch of social structural reasons for this that I won’t get into here. But the important thing I realized was the extent to which youth spend time online interacting with what we would call strangers – and really strangers is not an appropriate word because some of these relationships become very meaningful.I don’t see user practices around We Chat as an example of communication becoming less personal [as some say WeChat is less personal than others].
Rather I see youth trying to find ways to personalize communication. Texting is more personal than talking for Chinese youth – it’s easier for them to share emotions over words than voice (also less expensive and more accessible)What is interesting is that they are trying to fulfill a desire for a more personal connection in what seems to be a very impersonal way (i.e. talking to strangers). But for them, a more impersonal connection with a stranger presents the greatest chance for personal connection. These apps allow a more continuous connection and in the case of We Chat – it’s not just connections with personal ties, but also strangers!The analogy I use is a bar – and that some apps are a lot of like third spaces, spaces outside of home (first space) and work (second space). The informality of a bar widens what is considered permissive behavior. When you walk into a bar, you can be anyone – you have no institutional or personal ties attached to you. We go to bars to meet strangers but also to be a stranger. We all need informal third spaces where we can chill in the company of unknown others. And in the same way, we also need similar spaces online.
Some software environments are very formal (prescriptive behavior, primarily personal ties), but some software environments are more informal – and it is in these informal online spaces that people gravitate towards when they want to explore a self outside of prescriptive ties. In Chinese society where there are VERY limited options for self expression, online third spaces like We Chat are a place where self-exploration feels safe for Chinese youth.
Also as an aside, the discovery of “why X Chinese app is surprisingly better than X Western app” is something I am hearing more often lately.
China’s internet companies are trying to go global, finding cultural barriers compared to the problems Google, Yahoo, Ebay, Groupon and others found in China. The China Weekly Hangout discussed on November 15, 2012 with Steven Millward of Tech in Asia, and Fons Tuinstra of the China Speakers Bureau about Baidu, Tencent, Alibaba and other Chinese internet companies exploring the world. Main conclusion: most larger companies are positioning themselves in Southeast Asia, Baidu is collecting 500 million USD in bonds for purchases, but not too much is happening yet.
- Woman to watch, Huffington Post – Tricia Wang (chinaspeakersbureau.info)
- The dangers of Tencent’s WeChat – Jeremy Goldkorn (chinaherald.net)
- Pony Ma: WeChat Helps Tencent Become an International Brand (techinasia.com)
- Putting A Price On Sina Weibo, China’s Answer To Twitter (forbes.com)
- A Fee to (We)Chat? (dmic.asia)
- WeChat War Escalates, Becomes Showdown Between Government and Internet Users (tealeafnation.com)