Monday, September 9, 2013

Internet in the Middle Kingdom

If you were to look at the top-ranked Alexa websites right now, you'd probably recognize most of what you'd see. However, you probably wouldn't recognize two of the top ten most visited websites on the Internet - Baidu and QQ.

Google only 4% of the market share? Did someone turn my world upside down?

Baidu is a search engine, comparable to Google. QQ is a website that features news and other useful tidbits, comparable to Yahoo or MSN. Of course, they are both situated in China, and designed around servicing the Chinese online population.

As English-speaking Westerners, we tend to only see parts of the Internet that are also in English. That means we'll tend to run into people from the United States, Canada, the U.K., Australia, and New Zealand. Every now and then, you might run into someone from Northern Europe, Mexico, or South America. There are still several billion people in the world unaccounted for in our daily online experiences. How bizarre is it that we have this giant network technology, and yet our vantage points are still very limited by language?

Let's take a look at the Chinese Internet. I should note that I am writing this as a complete outsider to the culture, and can't speak Chinese at all. I cannot possibly do the subject adequate justice, but let's give this a try.

China's online users make up the world's largest Internet population, with over 500 million people connected to the Internet. Having about 500 million Chinese citizens use the Internet is only about 40% of the Chinese population, as compared to the nearly 80% of Americans connected online. This could be an indication of a greater disparity in lifestyle among the Chinese population, or that the Internet is taking longer to penetrate through Chinese society. Either way, it means that Chinese online habits are not as representative of Chinese life as American online habits would be to American life.

China's Internet is fairly self-contained, with one scholar going so far as to say that China "is not [really] on the Internet", but rather in a giant local area network. It's certainly not as bad as North Korean Internet (an actual giant local area network), but accessing foreign websites through Chinese Internet is slow and difficult. Individuals and private entities must rent bandwidth from the Chinese government, who owns and controls all Internet access routes.

You might already be familiar with the Chinese government's love for censorship. Before 2003, there would be governmental staff supervising Internet cafes and blocking web content on the ground level. The Golden Shield project, also known as the "Great Firewall of China", was a top-down approach of the same idea, using automated technologies to filter the Internet. Foreign private enterprises have had to work through the Chinese government to promote their web content, often heavily censoring their websites in the process. Some, like Wikipedia, have refused such conditions.

You'd think the Internet would have cooler pictures for "Great Firewall of China".

This more restrictive online environment has not kept Chinese Internet from developing its own quirks. Last winter, a meme spread around that was based on the funny poses of some Chinese aircraft carrier personnel.  The Back Door Boys, a Chinese student duo who got famous for lip-syncing some Backstreet Boys songs, got formal recognition in China's "Internet Media Awards". A few years ago, a video of an older man scolding a younger man on a Hong Kong bus went viral, and became known as The Bus Uncle. Chinese online circles also have their own catchphrases and memes, like "very erotic, very violent" (you'll need to translate that page), a mis-spoken phrase from a television interview that went viral.

Some of these catchphrases and memes develop because of the restrictive online environment. Green Dam Girl was a spoof of a web-blocking software that the government had made mandatory. Terms like "River Crab" and "Grass-Mud Horse" come about as euphemisms to governmental censorship, because their Chinese characters are very similar to official governmental phrases like "Harmonious society". While their government can target the mis-using of their official terms, they cannot so easily target the use of terms like "river crab", because there is too much conflict between the hidden meaning and the use of the term to refer to actual crabs.

China's online crowd, much like the Western online crowd, has a disproportionately younger user base. These rumblings about the state of governmental censorship have flourished online, possibly serving as a good indicator of dissatisfaction among the youth. They've even developed their own version of online vigilantism, with the emergence of what is known as the "Human Flesh Search Engine". Using the same spamming, info-gathering, and shaming tactics that we see here, they've targeted both run-of-the-mill unsavory people as well as abusive officials. Political blogs have increased in number, with a lot of people resorting to private networks in order to read material too controversial for mainstream Chinese Internet.

A symbol for subverting oppression.

Now, I have to restate a disclaimer. All of this information comes from Western accounts of Chinese Internet activity. Most of my links are Western-based, and the few that aren't Western-based were found on Western websites. If we're being honest with ourselves, then we can never really know what kind of interesting quirks of digital expression have arisen within Chinese Internet unless we're immersed in it.

There's no way that a couple of links can account for the online activity of hundreds of millions of people. We also have to bear in mind that the links that we see will be biased by what is considered reportable. We hear a lot of press about hacking incidents that originate from China, and we also hear a lot of discussion about the political implications of Internet in China, but Chinese "online culture" can't properly be examined from our vantage point. A lot of Western "online culture" doesn't make it to Western media, so how can we expect Chinese "online culture" to get reported at all?

In the face of this absence of reporting data, let's try to use Alexa (flawed as it may be) to get some more quantitative analysis. It's evident from site rankings that some Chinese websites are just as actively used as our own. As mentioned before, Baidu and QQ rank among Google, Yahoo, MSN, and YouTube in website use. Scrolling down the Alexa list, you'll find online shopping website Taobao, news and microblogging site Sina, and others. A lot of these websites have gender ratios that consistently over-represent women as compared to the rest of the world's Internet use.

Looking around China's top 500 websites, you can start seeing some Western websites emerge on the list past the 100 mark. It sheds some light on the proportions of Chinese web traffic. According to Alexa at this time of writing, LinkedIn is ranked as the 230th most visited website in China, yet China comprises only 0.6% of LinkedIn's total web traffic. Pinterest ranks at 403, but only gets 0.7% of its traffic from China. Flickr appears at 401, with an impressive 1.3% of its traffic from China. Even Facebook and Tumblr manage to peek through, with comparably low percentages of Chinese traffic.

It's no surprise that Western websites are primarily populated with Westerners. If you assume that Tumblr has about 10 billion page views a month (a low estimate at this point, surely), then 0.7% Chinese traffic only accounts for 70 million of those views. But if Facebook is pulling in trillions of monthly views, and if Baidu, QQ, and others are pulling in comparable numbers with an almost exclusively Chinese population, then those 70 million Tumblr views are incredibly tiny. Yet, Tumblr manages to be on China's top 500 most visited websites.

A lot of their websites are just copies of ours, and our websites still show up on their top websites.

It doesn't appear to take too many page views for such websites to appear on China's "top websites" list. This could indicate that a lot of Chinese web traffic is concentrated on its top 100 websites or so, which would allow for oddities like Tumblr and Pinterest to show up as sub-100, but still top-ranked, Chinese websites. It's possible that China's online communities are a lot more centralized than ours are.

Of course, verifying this would require surfing through the depths of Sina's microblogging scene and other such websites. For most of us, we'd be at the mercy of Google Translate, which would give us spotty results at best. If we assume some degree of universality in human behavior, then most of those posts would most likely be uninteresting, perhaps inane noise. Since most online content is user-generated, and since most Westerners do not get involved in Chinese online affairs, it's rare to ever see content that references or links to Chinese websites - unless, of course, it's news.

It is a little ironic that Western websites still show up among China's most visited websites, yet most people in the United States would never set foot in Chinese websites. It seems that governmental censorship is not as strong a force as individual ignorance or apathy. Of course, I appreciate the individual liberties of the West, and I would not advocate learning Chinese for the sake of looking at more of the Internet, but we should admit to ourselves (and I'm just as guilty here) that our world is a lot smaller than we'd like to think.

It makes me wonder what kind of doors would open if more sophisticated translation technology were available. There is a whole pool of interesting people that are on our network, and we almost never interact with them. It's mind-boggling to think of the experiences that we're not hearing about, from people whose culture is very different from our own. I think we would all - myself included - benefit from greater exposure to these corners of the Internet, though there are clear hurdles to overcome before we can do so.

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