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.

Impressions and images from Tiananmen, Gate of Heavenly Peace…

Tiananmen literally means Gate of Heavenly Peace...hmmm

I spent several hours at the Tian’anmen Square in Beijing, China, this week, while attending a media conference. I was returning to this landmark, now a key tourist attraction in modernised and assertive China, after nearly a decade. And much has changed…

Measuring 880 metres by 500 metres, and covering a total area of 440,000 square metres, the Tiananmen Square is the largest city square in the world. But mere superlatives don’t impress me. It’s what goes on behind the claims, labels and stereotypes that interest me.

I’ve been to the square on a couple of previous Beijing visits. The first was in October 1996, during my very first visit to China. I was also taken in a group tour on a later visit. If I remember right, my last sighting of the Square was in 2002 – just before I acquired my first digital camera. (That makes a difference, because Before Digital, my analog photographs on travel were sparingly taken…and my own memory is not a very reliable storage medium.)

Day or night, he keeps vigil over Tiananmen Square...and 1.3 billion people

This time, I was armed with my digital camera and ample digital memory — and, it seemed, so were most other visitors! There were the obviously foreign tourists (including the loud and uninformed Americans), but it seemed most people thronging to the square were Chinese…many from out of town. For some, a visit to this centre of power is a rare occasion to be cherished and recorded.

I was impressed by just how many people were clicking away, using either digital cameras or mobile phone cameras. I shouldn’t be surprised by this, for China is the country with the largest number of mobile phones in use: by March 2010, there were some 780 million mobile subscribers, accounting for 58.5 per cent of all people in China.

Keen to capture different scenes under varying kinds of daylight and night lights, I made three visits to the Square – including one at 5.30 in the morning to catch daybreak at the Gate of Heavenly Peace (literal meaning of Tiananmen). So here’s a sampling of my several dozen photos – this selection has a bias on people shooting each other, digitally speaking (a far cry from the kind of shooting that took place here 20 years ago).

Look serious, man - he's watching!
Now bring out your best smiles, all!
People milling about with Great Hall of the People in the background
Clicking away at Monument to the People's Heroes

One of the most striking moments I captured was of this elderly couple, very dignified and sprightly in their outlook, as they were taking a stroll on the square early morning and capturing memories on their mobile phone. They are old enough to have known another reality, but this was now and here…

This Square, and we, have seen and heard much in our time...
Did we get it alright?

I also noticed how the younger visitors were clearly at ease with digital technologies, just like their fellow Digital Natives elsewhere in the world. There is also a discernible easing up (not only among unknown people in public places, but also noticeable among older and younger Chinese friends I have): maybe it’s the exuberance of youth, but the NextGen Chinese don’t seem to be as somber and serious as their parents.

Or perhaps the younger people in China today just have more things to smile about?

Would Chairman Mao approve this pose, eh?
Heaven is in the eye of the beholder...
Digital Natives capturing memories for the Next Gen

It was a rushed visit of four nights and three days, so all my impressions are fleeting. They don’t begin to do justice to the nuanced complexity that is modern China. But they tell me one thing: even in a land with a proud history of over 5,000 years, ten years can still make a difference.

Bye for now: I take only photos, and leave only shadows behind...

Note: All photos were taken touristically for my own memory and personal archives, with no other intention.