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Thomas Crampton at the SPRIE seminar on March 16, 2011

March 16, 2011 - News

Understanding China's home-grown social media

By Marguerite Gong Hancock: Associate Director, 1998 - 2014 and Yan Mei, 2011 - 2014

Thomas Crampton, who oversees social media strategy in the Asia-Pacific region for the marketing and communications company Ogilvy and Mather, spoke to a standing room only audience at a seminar hosted by SPRIE about how controls imposed by the Chinese government have created a vibrant and unique social media domestic ecosystem.

Daniel Sneider, associate director for research at Shorenstein Asian-Pacific Research Center, also shared his views on the issue of the role of the internet and social media in social and political change.

Much has been written of late about the PRC government's efforts to control and censor the internet. The government's censorship of websites is an important issue, but it is not the top priority of the country's 420 million internet users or netizens. Their top priority is to connect with other Chinese online. The internet has opened access to information for ordinary Chinese citizens in ways that were unimaginable just a few years ago. Coming from a world where information was pre-filtered by editors at state-run media, China's internet is freewheeling by comparison.

"China's government officials are the most savvy in understanding the power of social media and actively trying to shape its use," Crampton noted at the talk. Rather than eliminate social media, restrictions on foreign websites and social media have resulted in a flourishing home-grown, state-approved ecosystem in which Chinese-owned properties thrive. YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter have faced blockage in China, but their Chinese equivalents are expanding. According to the official statistics from the China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC) , the number of Chinese netizens reached 420 million at the end of June 2010. But their patterns of use vary from those in other countries. Quoting a 2008 MTV Music Matters survey, Crampton showed a graph that young people across Asia have made a similar number of friends online and offline. Only in China, however, young people actually have more friends online than offline. This points to a convergence of the offline and online worlds, where it is less important to distinguish between what happens online from the "real world." In China, more than in many countries, social media has become deeply integrated into people's lives.

China's government officials are the most savvy in understanding the power of social media and actively trying to shape its use.

- Thomas Crampton, Ogilvy and Mather
In China, as elsewhere in Asia, local variations of internet usage are driven by language, culture, levels of economic development, and the underlying digital ecosystem. For example, rather than short videos popular on YouTube, China's Youku and Tudou are filled with longer form of content, up to 70 percent of which is professionally produced, though individual Chinese users produce and post videos too. Users in China spend up to an hour per day on these sites, compared with less than 15 minutes spent by Americans on YouTube. In the way they present programs, the Chinese sites seem more like online television stations or a replacement for digital video recorders.

Twitter vs. Sina Weibo

Crampton cited another difference between Chinese and foreign social media that is rooted in language. At first glance, Sina Weibo is a latecomer to the microblog phenomenon. Launched in 2009, just about three years after Twitter, it is by far the most popular microblogging platform in China.

Similar to Twitter, Sina Weibo allows users to post 140-character messages, and users can follow friends and find interesting comments posted by others. Small but important differences in the platform have made some say it is a Twitter clone, but better. For example, unlike Twitter, Sina Weibo allows users to post videos and photos, comment on other people's updates, and easily add comments when re-posting a friend's message.

Though mobile phones are used to send less than 20 percent of Twitter updates in the United States, nearly half of Sina Weibo's updates are sent via mobile phone. This phenomenon points to the growth of China's mobile internet, one of the biggest trends in China and Asia.

Perhaps the most striking difference between Chinese and foreign social media, however, is the length of communications expressed via microblogs in Chinese versus English. One measure is to look at what Dell Inc., a company skilled at social media, can communicate on microblogs in Chinese compared to English. Twitter holds messages to 140 characters, which is quite short in English, especially if users want to include a URL. Dell often uses its Twitter feed, @delloutlet, to promote special offers, such as this posting: "Today's Deal: Get FREE Eco-Lite Sleeve with the purchase of any Dell Outlet Insprion Mini 10 or 10v Netbook!" This message came in at 136 characters, almost the maximum length.

Since each character in Chinese is a word, @delldirect, Dell's Chinese-language feed, can write much more using the Chinese-language Zuosa microblogging platform. As translated by Ogilvy's Beijing team, a similar message reads: "Dell's National Day Sale runs from Sept. 11 to Oct. 8. To celebrate the 60th anniversary with the motherland, Dell Home Computers is offering 6 cool gifts and deals on 10 computer models. These exciting offers will run non-stop for 4 weeks. Also, get a free upgrade to color casing and a 512MB independent graphics card, as well as other service upgrades. All offers are on a first-come, first-served basis. What are you waiting for? Act now!" Even with a message of this length-114 characters in Chinese-there is still enough space to put in a webpage link. In other words, 114 characters in Chinese translates into 434 characters in English, well beyond the text limit of a "tweet" in English. This language efficiency turns microblogging in China into a more blog-like platform.

Topics: Economic development | Role of the media | China | United States