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July 19, 2011

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'The Social Network' with Chinese characteristics

RECENT Internet photos of a profligate young woman who calls herself Guo Meimei Baby, her designer clothes, bag and Lamborghini car might have passed as just another case of a star-struck girl showing off her (questionably acquired) wealth to make a splash.

But Guo went further. She claimed to be affiliated with China's Red Cross Society, which set off a fire storm of outrage, put the Chinese Red Cross' feet to the fire and launched a "human flesh search engine," as Chinese so charmingly call all their online vigilante efforts to get to the bottom anything. In this case Guo's wealth, her rich boyfriend, Red Cross finances and anything else that came their way.

Moments after her posts went online, furious comments flowed in. Hours later, Guo and the Red Cross in China were national sensations; then it went international.

The uproar has not subsided. It's a prime example of muckraking on the Internet, aided by the instantaneous sharing of information through Sina weibo, the immensely popular microblogging site. It is similar to Twitter, which is not available in China. Facebook and YouTube are unavailable either.

China has around 420 million Internet users and 140 million users of Sino weibo, the country's most popular micro-blogging, social networking site where news and gossip swirl in a freewheeling way not permitted in official or quasi official media. It's often been observed that the Internet is a social safety value in China, and micro-blogging epitomizes that spontaneity relative freedom, packed into 140 characters per "tweet."

Celebrity Gigi Leung (around 4.5 million followers) says her world has changed dramatically since the emergence of weibo (which means micro-blogging) in 2009. "In the old days, we had to rely on one to two media, like television or radio that screened all your content. They help you advertise, but you pay for it. Now, nobody screens your post sand it's free.

"You can choose what to get or what not to get," she tells Shanghai Daily in an interview in Beijing. "So everybody has their own platform, they have their own character on their weibo; everybody can be a (form of) media, no one is going to limit what you want to tell people, this is really great."

What's the appeal?

Leung and others say weibo it enables people to connect on a more genuine level. She feels closer to her fans. She can tell them directly what's in her mind and heart - they don't have to read movie and gossip magazines for a skewed version. "If it's something very sentimental, they usually won't write about it, but I can express everything I want to say on weibo," she says.

Using weibo is "the same as hanging out with friends. You're building and deepening relations with others," says Thomas Crampton, a social networking expert and director of Ogilvy Public Relations worldwide, based in Hong Kong.

The Western social media ecosystem is dramatically different from that in China.

"Sina is doing it 'the China way'," says Keith Chan, a noted Hong Kong lyricist.

Lu Haibo, a social network Internet user and a director of the Disney Internet Media Group, explains the differences between Eastern and Western social networking.

"In Western social networking communities, the interfaces are built upon a network of acquaintances, for example, Facebook and Friendster. In reference to an acquaintance-based network ... the students, friends or colleagues all initially knew each other from 'real life' and then moved online.

"However, in China the social networking communities are primarily based on strangers. Prior to meeting online, they had no connection in the real world, shown by popular sites such as Kaixin and Douban," he adds.

Then why a "stranger-based network?"

Crampton, from Ogilvy, says he believes a "stranger-based network" is popular because people are eager to stay in touch "despite having moved from one city to another, (because) children of the one-child policy are eager to build and maintain connections and because of the lack of attractive content on mainstream media."

Further, 75-80 percent of Chinese mobile Internet users live in cities, so they're already comfortable with strangers.

The differences between Chinese and Western social media are also found in the social implications unique to China where individuals seek to distinguish themselves in terms of socioeconomic status in a nation with 1.3 billion other individuals.

Thus, even the sheer number of followers on Sina weibo can be used to demonstrate status - which is defined by how many followers one has.

This is another stark difference between Chinese and Western social networking on Facebook or Twitter - networks simply for friends and individuals with common interests, not for social status.

In China, the number of followers not only shows status; the more followers one has, the more influential one becomes and, more important, the more valuable one's account becomes. In addition to creating a "social king or queen," the number also indicates a likelihood of generating revenue since many people are drawn to their page.

Lu, from Disney, says different Chinese and Western networking systems reflect different stages of economic development.

"The West has industrialized, making business integrity and personal information more transparent and developed. The purpose is simple, to connect and be social," Lu says. "However, in China, the message is still unclear, we are still undergoing rapid economic development. There's an Internet explosion, making the social networking market much more diverse and complex than in the West."

Influence is a profitable commodity in Chinese micro-blogging. Weibo isn't just a platform for sharing, it's a place to make money, not only for websites.

As in America, corporations in China use social networks to sell products, advertising on popular pages or sites.

Significantly in China, influential users are offered something much more than information exchange, they are offered money to advertise or endorse a product or service. These advertisements are often very subtle, integrated into jokes or pictures that will raise awareness of a companies' product or service. Many people see this as a quick way to earn some money; some firms have been created to act as "middle men" for these transactions between consumers and product sellers. These commercial pages have their critics.

Xie Wen, a social media analyst and IT commentator in Beijing, says these pages emerged because they have many fans and reblogging can be very influential.

He says these pages are not a sustainable way of making profit - there's no long-term plan, "it's just a little gateway into making profit."

Regardless, many people don't mind the advertising. Chan, the lyricist in Hong Kong, says if the content is interesting, he doesn't care if the purpose is commercial.


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