Chinese Youth and Digital Media: ONLINE CHINA vs. OFFLINE CHINAby Jay Mark Caplanand Iris Bian photo by
In China, online channels are growing fast.• 485 million users online• Almost 277 million mobile Internet users• Microblog platform Weibo launched January 2010 By October 2010, 50 million users By May 2011, 140 million users• E- commerce platform Taobao has 370 million active users
We all know online channels are important in China.But what do these channels mean to Chinese youth?
In China, online media is not another channel.Online media is another culture.In this report, we give some examplesof how online China is different from offline China,and how online China is where youth are finding themselves.
OFFLINE China is harmoniouswith one version of the truth
The Internet is restricted in China, but there is still plenty of room for youth toshare information, influences, and expression.Social media introduces conflicting voices, and gives youth a voice of theirown to narrate the story of China as they see it. This has given them newpower to create change for themselves and their culture. These changes arerarely reflected in traditional media, however, where there the story of Chinais still controlled by one voice.For many Chinese youth, Weibo microblogs now represents the most trustedmedia, a digital public where they are free to figure things out for themselves.
140 MILLION MICROBLOGS SPREADING INFORMATION (faster than it can be erased)
SOCIAL JUSTICEIncreasingly conscious of social welfare issues,Chinese youth are engaging more in socialparticipation. The most popular way is to speak outonline, creating awareness to incite change.On July 23 2011, a high speed train crashoccurred just outside Wenzhou. The provincialgovernment tried to pass legislation to keep thefamilies of victims from claiming compensation.This sparked a heated debate online, many youthexpressing shock at the reaction.26 million messages shared on Weiboforced officials to back down.
“Nothing is reliable anymore. I feel like I can’t even believe the weatherforecast. Is there anything that we can still trust?” - Weibo user commenting on official response to July 2011 Wenzhou high speed rail crash
CULTURE EDUCATIONThe freedom of the digital publicis not just about social justice.Chinese youth use social mediato learn about all kinds of topicsmainstream society doesn’twant to talk about, like sexuality.In April 2010, 150000 Chinesejumped China’s Great Firewallbecause they found out Japaneseporn star Sola Aoi had startedan account on Twitter.
OFFLINE Chinese pop cultureis for the whole family
These days, when Chinese youth watch TV,most of the time it’s with their parents.Chinese TV, film, and music industries have to obey strict rules, and the resultis fun and fluffy content. Traditional media (and pop stars) are still reallypopular, but rarely reflect the important tensions that this generation ofChinese youth are going through.To watch the shows they care about most, to find the media that defines theirgeneration, Chinese youth go online.(There are a couple of important exceptions, but bear with us.)
MY GENERATION’S MEDIAIn 2010, the viral video news of the yearwas a 40- minute film called ‘Old Boys.’The story of regretful twenty- somethingChinese guys reclaiming their dreamtouched on the core cultural tensionsChinese youth are struggling with,realities that mainstream TV and movieshave failed to express. The film attractedover 36 million hits on Youku alone.‘Old Boys’ was branded content,part of an independent film projectsponsored by Chevrolet calledBright Eleven.
“In China young people are fighting inschool, falling in love, a lot of things thatthis country is not willing to let you say.This has killed a lot of good work.Our country may not allow people tomarch, but now there are entire paradesonline, we can march on the Internet. For film it’s tremendous, we can go rightto the public. The Internet is a tool ofunprecedented change in this country.” - Xiao Yang, director of Old Boys
Another short film from the Bright Elevenproject, Miss Puff’s Goldfish Bowl, hasnow become a popular web series.Miss Puff is a sexy young womansmoking cigarettes and looking for lovein the consumer playground of Beijing.Miss Puff represents the affluenturban lifestyle many Chineseyouth yearn for.
What about mainstream idols?Social media is changing what Chineseyouth expect from the stars they love too.To the left is Yao Chen, a Chinese sitcomstar famous for being pretty and funny.
Yao Chen’s microblog has11,412,977 followers, whereshe comments on socialissues like forced relocationand beggar children.Today, Chinese youth want honestyand guidance from their idols.And they know if they want toconnect with the real person behindthe image, they have to go online.
WESTERN INFLUENCEOne of the most influential shows forChinese youth is the American sitcomThe Big Bang Theory.For years, Chinese youth used socialmedia to share subtitled and high- resepisodes, and trade gossip on the cast.Demand got so high, online video siteSohu.com bought the rights to the show.For Season 4, episodes of The Big BangTheory attract an average of 130,000views on Sohu, and many more youthdownload the episodes direct.
Grey’s Anatomy, Skin, and Gossip Girlhave all grown hugely popular in China,all without traditional media presence.So what kind of influence do these shows have?
Quote from SNS fan page:“Geek means dirty glasses and computers?? That’s out!Now, SMART is the new sexy! (My email below, let’s all share TBBT)”
Online media is more than anotherentertainment option.It’s a flood of new cultural influenceshelping Chinese youth find their ownvalues and lifestyles.And when Chinese youth becomefans of a culture online...
... they want to bring the cultureinto their world and buy the style.
ONLINE Chinese styleis chosen by Chinese youth
How many glossy fashion magazine ads does it taketo understand an entire culture?Chinese youth are enthusiastic consumers of global style,but they often aren’t clear what they are buying into. They lack the culturalcontext to understand the meaning of styles and brands, and what they getfrom advertising and marketing is not enough.With social media, Chinese youth can learn much more to help them figureout what styles mean: who wears it, what lifestyle is associated with it, andhow to put it all together for themselves.Online, it’s not marketers creating meaning, it’s youth sharing anddiscussing among themselves. And with the vast, fast, and cheap selectionof apparel available on China’s largest e- commerce platform Taobao,Chinese youth are going right from social media stories to online purchase.
800 MILLION PRODUCT LISTINGS CREATING NEW CHOICES AND NEW CULTURAL MEANING
The Tiny Chilis write a daily style blogthat influences millions of youngChinese women, “the daily must- readwhite-collar dressing bible.”They are very detailed and instructiveabout their outfits, and tell lots of storiesabout the lifestyle that matches the look.The Tiny Chilis are examples of the newsocial media style icons providinguseful, relatable, and intimate guidanceChinese youth are using to developtheir personal style.
It’s not just bloggers getting in on the act.Tons of Chinese youth take photos of their outfits, orjust collect photo albums they find to share withfriends through SNS. Liu Shuai is a ‘sharing star’ onpopular social network site Renren. One day inMay 2011, he posted 240 photo albums aboutclothing and makeup. He has had almost 93,000visitors to his page.These widely shared SNS photo albums oftenconnect directly to online stores, and many onlineretailers are youth themselves selling stuff they like.Online, customers and retailers are morelike friends sharing.
Sometimes SNS style influence even hasan impact on production.Industrious Chinese fashionistas are using onlineforums and e- commerce to connect with factoriesand order counterfeit designer styles they want.Just check out Hers.com, a popular fashion andbeauty forum with hundreds of threads devoted tofactory petitions, like this one for Freja Meha’sBalenciaga biker jacket.Youth are using social media to team upand get what they want together!
Most Chinese youth are uncomfortable making newfriends at public events. For them it’s much easier tomeet people who share the same interests online.Youth communities like Dourun Running Club use socialmedia network Douban to make their events more openand accessible. Many Chinese youth head to Doubanspecifically to find interest groups they can join, evenif it’s not their main SNS.
Of course, all that onlinediscovery and connectionis because youth really wantto get outside, get together,and go for a great run!No social media campaigncan replace that experience.
ONLINEYouth are questioning the social status quo and starting to take action Youth are embracing diverse influences and discovering new interests Youth are exploring new choices and searching for personal meaning
ONLINE WAY MORE VOICES WAY MORE CHOICESAND YOUTH RELYING ON EACH OTHER TO MAKE SENSE OF IT ALL
For Chinese youth the Internet is a spacewith the freedom to explore, express themselves,and find others who care about the same things they do.The big dream is bringing that culture offline!For brands, digital can help tell the story,but more important is bringing culture and communityinto the lives of Chinese youth.