August 10, 2011
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Weibo and the Chinese social media dynamic

Last week when I was in China, there was one word that seemed to be on everyone’s lips: Weibo, which is the Chinese microblogging platform that’s analogous to Twitter (but it should be noted that you can get more across in 140 spaces using Chinese characters compared to the Roman alphabet).

After a terrible train crash on the country’s celebrated new high-speed rail system, there was a tremendous outpouring of emotion from millions of people in China who were expressing their sadness over the loss of life, disbelief at the official reports, and anger at why the accident happened and what seemed to be an inadequate explanation afterwards.

Among other things, Weibo appears to have become an easy way for people to vent about things in a country where, while the mainstream media is relatively freewheeling covering the commercial sector, it is much more circumspect when it comes to the government domain. Even if Weibo is a way to sound off, I was told that there are certain taboo comments that are blocked when one tries to post them, and that censors will delete impermissible comments after they have been posted.

This train crash incident is the latest one I’ve noticed where anger is amplified so quickly online, with riots of rage breaking out on social networks especially in jurisdictions where there are people who have felt politically or economically constrained. In many parts of Asia, fitting in with the group harmony rather than standing out can be the governing dynamic, but social networks may be changing this cultural assumption.

I think we saw this most recently in the Japanese social media reaction in Japan and China last September, when Japan accused a Chinese fishing boat of deliberately ramming two patrol vessels near disputed islands in the East China Sea, causing a massive digital diplomatic row between the two countries.

What happened on social networks after this incident and after the recent train crash shows how the emotions of millions can be experienced as a community’s collective consciousness…like a national nervous system. I reckon there can be positive mass manifestation of strong sentiment, but sometimes there’s an ugly side to it as well. What I find intriguing is the speed and intensity with which anger can cycle up into outrage online.

Even if microblogs can play a useful role protecting the record and holding institutions to account, sometimes troubling is the lack of hard information possessed by those making summary judgments who often overrate what they know as the basis for forming opinions. Then there is the apparent digital reduction of empathy for other people, ironic inasmuch as the technology offers so many new ways to bring us together as never before.

Despite the bold and fearless talk on Weibo, during the nine media interviews I did in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, while all of the journalists evidenced intense interest regarding digital crisis communications in general, none of them asked about the train incident in particular.

I asked all of the reporters if they use Weibo themselves, and they all replied in the affirmative. Some said they use it for work. Others declared that they use it exclusively for personal purposes. Some declared that they use it for both.

In this respect, whether it’s the psychology of digital networks or how individuals are sorting out their profiles and personality online, despite a very unique social media ecosystem, in these respects China shares much in common with the rest of the digital world.

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