Twitterless in Beijing: Talking aspirationally about social media…

Under Chairman Mao's watchful eyes...

“Reading computer manuals without the hardware is as frustrating as reading sex manuals without the software!”

This is one of the less known, but more entertaining, dicta by Arthur C Clarke – he called it ‘Clarke’s 64th Law’, and I personally know he used to bring it up when meeting with particularly crusty or glum intellectuals. (Not all were amused.)

Clarke’s words kept turning in my mind as I moderated and spoke at a session on social media at Asia Media Summit 2010 held in Beijing China from 24 to 26 May 2010. The country with the world’s largest media market is not exactly the world’s most open or free – and certainly when it comes to social media, it’s a very different landscape to what we are used to…

These days, International visitors arriving in China discover quickly that access to YouTube, Twitter and Facebook is completely blocked. Apparently the brief ‘thaw’ in restrictions, seen before and during the 2008 Beijing Olympics, is now over — the current restrictions have been in place since the spring of 2009.

This doesn’t mean there is no social media in China. In fact, I heard from several Chinese friends and colleagues that there is a very large, dynamic and fast-evolving social media scene in China. For the most part, however, it’s not based on globally used and familiar platforms, and is happening in a digital universe of China’s own — under the watchful eye of the government.

Jump in...but some conditions apply!

For example, I found from this March 2010 blog post by Merritt Colaizzi that:
* 221 million people have blogs, largely in a diary-style.
* 176 million Chinese connect via social networking system (SNS) with their “real” friends and online networks.
* 117 million connect anonymously via bulletin board system (BBS). These interactive online message boards are the heart of social media in China. They’re where people go to find topic-based communities and where consumers talk about products and services.

There are lots of other blogs, mainstream media reports and research commentary on social media in China — just Google and see (now that’s another thing with limited – and uneven – access in China: Google itself is available, but search results come with lots of links that simply aren’t accessible). Much or all of this interaction happens in Chinese, of course. It’s a significant part of the web and social media landscapes, but if you’re in China on a short visit and want to stay connected to your own social media networks, that’s not at all helpful.

And, of course, it undermines one of the key attributes of a globally integrated information society: the interoperability of systems and platforms.

Luckily for me, perhaps, I can survive a few days without my social media fix: I have an appalling record of updating my Facebook account: days pass without me even going there. For the moment, at least, I’m also taking a break from regular blogging (well, sort of). But I’m more regular in my micro-blogging on Twitter, and visit YouTube at least once a day, sometimes more often. I could do neither during the few days in Beijing – and that was frustrating.

So imagine having to talk about social media as a new media phenomenon in such a setting. That’s only a tiny bit better than reading computer manuals without the hardware…But this is just what I did, with all the eagerness that I typically bring into everything I do. I planned and moderated a 90-minute session on Social Media: Navigating choppy seas in search of Treasures?

The session was part of the Asia-Pacific Media Seminar on Ozone Protection and Climate Benefit, so our context was how to use the social media to raise public awareness and understanding on the somewhat technical topics of ozone layer depletion and climate change (two related but distinctive atmospheric phenomena).

With access to key global social media platforms denied, we visitors and Chinese colleagues in the audience could speak mostly generically, theoretically and aspirationally. I didn’t want to place my hosts and seminar organisers in difficulty by harping on what was missing. Instead, we focused on what is possible and happening: how development communicators are increasingly social media networks and platforms to get their messages out, and to create online communities and campaigns in the public interest.

The thrust of my own opening remarks to the session was this: In the brave new world of social media, we all have to be as daring as Sinbad. Like the legendary sailor of Baghdad, we have to take our chances and venture into unknown seas. Instead of maps or GPS or other tools, we have to rely on our ingenuity, intuition and imagination.

More about the session itself in future blog posts.

For now, I want to share this TED Talk by American watcher of the Internet Clay Shirky on how cellphones, Twitter, Facebook can make history. Shirky shows how Facebook, Twitter and TXTs help citizens in repressive regimes to report on real news, bypassing censors (however briefly). The end of top-down control of news is changing the nature of politics.

PS: All this holds more than an academic interest for me, because there have been media reports in recent weeks that the Sri Lankan government is working with Chinese experts in formulating strategies for censoring internet access from Sri Lanka.

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