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December 18, 2009

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No-talent seeks fame: No problem, get 'stir-fried' stardom

KITTY, a 20-year-old student, refuses to reveal her real name or other personal information at this time because she believes she will become a celebrity within months. Then she will be bombarded with attention and, of course, will want some privacy.

The amateur romance fiction writer is tired of trying her luck with publishers and online fiction sites. She has turned to a new group of "professionals," a "sensationalizing" team that promises to make her an Internet phenomenon with a series of carefully planned schemes and stunts.

She is one of millions of young Chinese these days who seek attention, preferably stardom, in a society that traditionally values modesty, humility, not standing out and sublimating oneself and one's individuality to the "larger good," meaning their family, group, society and country.

Kitty's is not just one naive girl's unrealistic dream. Kitty, whatever the merits of her fiction, is likely to get her fame fantasy realized soon (to some degree), as many other ordinary people have become Internet hits in China.

Thanks to the insatiable curiosity of millions of Chinese Netizens, many ordinary, often unexceptional grassroots people have become household names through the Internet - mostly with help of sensationalizing teams.

To chao zuo, or sensationalize, is a buzz word referring to the fast promotion of anyone to celebrity status in film, music, fashion or other fields. Chao means stir fry and zuo to make.

Just about anyone can be chao zuoed by clever Net promoters.

"For many Chinese people, especially those under 40, the Internet is the freest among all kinds of entertainment," says Robin Chen, a sociology major from Nanjing Normal University whose thesis was an analysis of the phenomenon of sudden Internet fame.

"They have been taught to restrain their emotions since childhood - until they found the Internet to release their real feelings," says Chen. "These feelings are often as exaggerated online as they are understated and suppressed in real life."

Curiosity too runs wild on the Net.

"We have always been taught to restrain our curiosity in real life, and we release it with greater energy online," says Chen. "Their straightforward questioning, outsized curiosity and pursuit of information online can enable people to achieve sudden and easy fame through the Net."

Chen adds that this inquisitiveness can lead to strange results that often cannot be logically explained. He cites the example of Jia Junpeng that has become the most popular on the Chinese Internet this year.

It all started with just a thread in a game forum, titled "Jia Junpeng, your mom wants you to go home and eat!"

Mysteriously, the seemingly simple and silly thread attracted 170,000 replies within six hours. Many Netizens registered IDs as "Jia Junpeng's mother," "Jia Junpeng's father," "Jia Junpeng's classmate" and other names to reply to the post.

No one knows who or why the first person posted the thread, but Netizens have created a whole identity and story for Jia Junpeng.

Jia, like many others in the game forum, is addicted to playing games in Internet cafes and often forgets to go home for meals. His mother, worried about him, desperately asks one of Jia's friends to post in the game forum, telling him to go home for dinner.

Jia Junpeng never showed up. Netizens flesh-searched (conducted a ruthless Internet search for every aspect of someone) and found two possible candidates for the name. Nobody was confirmed as the real Jia.

To this day, the original thread has received nearly 500,000 replies and the catchphrase has been modified and applied everywhere online and even extended to real life.

For example, a blood donation station in Ningbo City, Zhejiang Province, was advertised with a logo and slogan, "Jia Junpeng, your mom wants you to donate blood here!" And the phrase "(any name), your mom wants you to do (such and such).

Sensationalizing team

After the line became popular, some sensationalizing teams claimed online that the famous thread was a result of their own promotion to attract attention to the game.

Many Netizens still consider Jia Junpeng simply a legend of coincidence, while others are convinced it was the work of those stir-fry sensationalizing teams.

Internet sensationalizing has become a new industry in the past few years and many legendary Internet hits, including the infamous sexy Sister Lotus, have been proved to be the work of sensationalizing teams.

Teams may charge up-front, but many sign contracts that guarantee them a portion of earnings of the star they create.

A team often consists of two or three core members, (the brain), who brainstorm for creative ideas; a handful of writers, (the hand), who create the threads; and dozens of part-time posters, (the sailors), who keep replying to the original thread to make it popular.

"People tend to follow what's already popular. You always click on the highest browsed and replied threads in forums because subconsciously you think it has to be interesting or shocking enough to have so many replies," says A Feng, a core member, or the brain of a sensationalizing team.

He declines to disclose his real name, but says he used his chao zuo earnings to open an advertising company focusing on Internet marketing.

A Feng used to work on the creative team for a large forum and the team's job is to post potentially popular threads every week. With such experience, he founded his own team with some friends and took jobs in his spare time.

"Sailors are the most important part of the scheme, although they are the least skilled. They only need to keep replying to the thread to make it popular," says A Feng.

It is the work of the sailors that catches the first wave of attention to the threads, and then it snowballs.

"Many threads have the potential to get popular online, but you always need those first few interesting replies to give the direction," says A Feng. "Then you can just let it flow with the rich imagination of millions of Chinese Netizens."

Kitty is also inspired by the success of the fictional Jia Junpeng and pins her hope on a sensationalizing team.

"At least I'm a real person. Even a name can become popular online, why can't I?" says Kitty. "I just need a convincing story and a good team to support me."

She has tried self-promotion online by posting attractive portraits of herself on her blog and popular forums. She also posts some articles on large fiction sites.

Her mini-bio, attached to all articles, says she's a poor abandoned girl who experienced the dark side of life, including trafficking and prostitution.

None of it's true. She's a nice middle-class girl who craves attention.

"My posts and articles got some replies, but hardly made me famous. I realized fame is impossible without a sensationalizing team," says Kitty.

She has finally found a team who is willing to promote her for free for now - the contract stipulates that the team gets half of her earnings after she achieves a degree of fame.

Together they have carefully put together a campaign in five stages. Kitty is sure her name and pictures will be all over the Internet.

Many other people promote themselves and not everyone has a team.

Some post provocative, semi-nude portraits online, claiming to have rich sexual experiences. Some make strong, provocative or extravagant comments - criticizing the media for too much coverage of the Sichuan earthquake in May 2008; urging that all stray and feral cats be killed; blaming all the tragic accidents in the world on the rich, and so on.

Some get a lot of attention, some give way to even stranger threads.

The sociology major Chen attributes this huge desire for individual fame to the desire to break loose from the constraints of collective thinking.

"We have all grown up with the idea of collectivism, the idea of sacrificing individuals for the group, and the idea of lying low and remaining anonymous," he says.

Some people rebel and want to be free spirits (at least online) and this has resulted in the craving for recognition as an individual, Chen observes.

"And the many examples of easy, almost overnight, Internet successes make cyberspace the most popular arena for fame." Stir-crazed Internet hits

A lot of these are just plain silly - it just goes to show that it doesn't take much to stir up interest on the Internet.

Sister Lotus

Sister Lotus (lotus, symbol of beauty), or Sister Furong, was the most famous name on the Internet in 2005 and is still considered the most successful case of sensationalizing. She was an ordinary-looking woman in her late 20s with misplaced confidence in her appearance, poses and dancing ability.

She posted carefully posed pictures of herself on the BBS of Peking University and Tsinghua University, both top schools she failed to enter because of low test scores. Netizens cut and pasted these pictures into various forums. And she soon became a real-life celebrity after a large photo forum sensationalized and promoted her on purpose - to draw users to the forum.

She appears for commercial performances and TV programs even today, as a grassroots star and a commentator on Internet-related issues.

She is considered to have started such Internet phenomena. Others got famous online before she did, but not on such a scale or for such a long time.

Handsome Pancake Guy

A good-looking guy selling pancakes in Changsha City, Hunan Province, became famous overnight this year after a series of photos of him at work were posted online.

Thousands of Netizens were astonished to see such a young, handsome and well-mannered fellow in a lowly job of pancake street vendor. There seems to be a widespread feeling that someone who is blessed with good looks must be cut out for better things.

Netizens discuss at length why the cute 23-year-old guy has stooped to selling pancakes on the street. Some say he posted the pictures to promote himself, while others believe him to a rich kid deliberately slumming, experiencing the grittier side of life.

Beijing Chanel Girl

A sophomore from a Beijing university posted a blog saying she was forced to quit after criticizing the education system of the university. The blog gained half a million clicks within days and the girl with the ID "Beijing Chanel" got famous overnight.

However, the university announced that the girl quit school voluntarily because she signed a contract with an entertainment agency. Feeling cheated, Netizens flooded her blog and other forums with vicious criticism.

Flight Sick Girl

A 19-year-old Netizen using the ID "Shirley" posted a blog saying she had gotten sick during an airline flight and then fell asleep at the airport because she was too sick to move. At the end of her article, she said that she should buy her own aircraft to prevent flight sickness in the future.

Thousands of Netizens criticized her for trying to stir-fry or sensationalize herself with silly lines and photoshopped pictures.

Netizens dug out other silly statements and pictures from her blog and posted them into various forums, calling her the "shockingly stupid flight sick girl."


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