techblog86 Mind the Gap Saturday: Facebook and Xiaonei (Part 1)

Facebook and Xiaonei — the two “bigs” for the Internet world in China. Some are going “global” and getting in the act on Facebook (I’ve quite a few Apple friends on Facebook), but even here, there’s a big gap — between Facebook and Xiaonei — network, content and audience-wise.

The “Original”: Facebook

Were it not for the fact that a few “friends of the revolution” (during those teenage years) of mine (aka fellow speedboating pals from middle school) pulled me back to their fold, I would have never discovered Facebook. Through Facebook alone, I’ve linked up with 159 friends (and counting) — and it’s not stopping anytime soon.

Facebook has kept me in touch with friends from all over the World. The World factor is particularly big here; you can even keep maps of where you’ve travelled! I’ve been to something like about 110+ cities in 16 countries around the planet, and the vast majority of my friends are either in Europe or in East Asia, with a few in the Middle East and Australia.

The average user on Facebook can be a bit difficult to define — I see geek bloggers, bankers, PR people, university students, software engineers, presenters and folks like that in my friends circle alone. If you were to compare Facebook to a basket of fruits and vegetables, you’d get every last thing — even the “exotic” stuff, like coconuts, durians and pineapples, as well as your mundane apples, bananas and eggplants.

Facebook can be a bit annoying at times — the metamorphosis of humankind into vampires can, at times, get to me (even the invites are more than enough to freeze blood in the World of David Feng). And I’d like less “naughty” gifts. Having said that, though, Facebook is one great SSN — expandable, rich in features, and full of friends.

The “Copy”: Xiaonei

When I first stumbled upon Xiaonei, I was kind of shocked to see what was clearly a “Facebook clone”. The color theme’s the same, they’ve pokes and messages, and the whole “look and feel” looks just the same. Clearly, I was thinking — if Mark Zuckerberg saw this, he’d be thinking…

(If Mark’s thinking like Apple Legal — in the years I’ve been watching them in action — a cease and desist, as well as take-down notice, wouldn’t be far behind. Thing is, Xiaonei’s in China, so no US lawyer could (easily) take Xiaonei to court.)

How do we define Xiaonei? It’s too easy to dismiss it as “China’s Facebook”, “Facebook with Chinese Characteristics” or the simple (but at that too simple (“too simple, sometimes naïve!”, anyone?) and somewhat unfair) branding, “the Chinese Facebook rip-off”. Yet behind the what appears to be blatant copying is an SSN that’s obviously more than prepared for China. The list of universities is absolutely stunning, and even more stunning is the list of dorms in each university.

Xiaonei has done what Facebook may be dying for — localizing itself for the PRC. That’s probably no great surprise, given Xiaonei is local, but even with the work done, and all factors considered, Xiaonei has done quite a job.

Advantages and Disadvantages

On a personal basis (since I’m based in Beijing), access to Xiaonei is much faster — and this goes for just about everyone with Internet access in mainland China. I know a few friends who can’t even leave Chinese Netspace (so to speak), so they’re restricted to browsing mainland-only sites. For people based in China, Xiaonei is their ideal choice: the speed at which pages load is a big factor in favor of Xiaonei.

Also, for those who get scared about “bad things happening on the Internet” (so to speak), the Xiaonei community is regularly “sanitized”: you’re required to provide a real name, there are police checks, PRC law conformity is required, and everyone behaves in a “real” manner.

The user base is another factor. Each SSN has their own advantage: Xiaonei links with mostly Chinese university students (and only now are they after the “white collar” peple). On the other hand, Facebook is full of “international people” (if we have to call them that) from all walks of life.

Mind the Network Gap

There’s a big gap, network-wise: Facebook is based in the US, and Facebook is based in China. Nothing big — except for that the Chinese Internet looks more than an intranet. Link up to a local page: it’s quick. Go to any .com outside national frontiers (or even to Hong Kong or Taiwan) — it takes ages.

This brings us to the really odd situation — where locals stay local and “global people” remain “global”. Accessing Facebook from Beijing is fast on my end, but while Safari still needs 20 seconds to load a page in full, it loads a Xiaonei page in full nearly instantaneously.

Once you cross the border, though, it’s Xiaonei that takes that bit longer. Facebook is faster (it loads up in seconds), whereas mainland Chinese sites take the extra second longer.

This problem is probably going to remain with us for the long run (unless China decides to change its network infrastructure totally or add more ways for Chinese surfers to directly access the outside Internet). It’s going to be relevant for at least the next few years at the very least, and could run into the next decade or so. (That’s just my guess, by the way.)

Mind the Language Gap

There is a major gap with both of these services: Neither are available in the other language! Plans of Facebook in Chinese are on the drawing board at best, and Xiaonei in English can only be visualized…

This wouldn’t be too much of a problem except for one thing: this is about the markets in China and the Western world (at least, the English-speaking world). With China overtaking the US as the largest country, Netizen-wise, things look particularly interesting.

At the end of the day, if Facebook added a Chinese version, the first group that would stand to benefit would be those millions of Chinese Netizens outside China. We’re talking about those folks in the US, in London, not in Urumqi or Lanzhou in China.

Xiaonei, too, could kind of benefit from an English version, although they do need some really good language polishers. Chinglish is all the rage (when you start seeing signs telling you that “the slippery are very crafty”, you know something has gone haywire.

That’s the gap for now. See you next Saturday.

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