Bits and Bobs: Views on the Chinese Internet, September 2008 (Part One)

It’s just about two months before the Chinese Blogger Conference 2008 is reality — I’m already thinking of making a second trip back (last year was my first). Since that 2007 conf in Beijing (which was really close to where I lived), the Chinese Internet has changed quite a bit.

Ten months. Maybe not the best time for a Year in Review. Or maybe, a Year-Minus-Two-Months in Review. (They told me to lay off slashes in conversation, but they never said anything about dashes)…

Start of the Year: The Whales That Failed To Tweet

At the start of the year, it was obvious that Twitter was on the way up. Even if it was the Chinese Twitter,, that had stolen the spotlight at the Chinese Blogger Conference in 2007, Twitter took significant leads in 2008 as its popularity continued to explode.

Of particular note was when @christinelu “did her magic” to get @goldkorn (of @danwei fame) tweeting. This was not the kind of thing a mere mortal could do. In the meantime, we got, by way of Twitter, news about Beijing gearing up for the Games, the occasional “must-check-this-out” link, but also, to some extents, more sightings of the infamous or even, at that, notorious Twitter whale. You know — the thing that comes up when Twitter’s on its last legs.

Sightings of the whale became disturbingly regular in April and May 2007, as even my occasional Subway tweets were fed to the whale. The semi-crippling of Twitter for WWDC 2008, it seemed, got Twitter through the worst (@TechCrunch was watching you), and apparently, since early summer 2008, we’ve seen less and less of the whale.

(Now that I posted this, though, we’re sure to see the thing back. I should have never posted this…)

Lhasa Riots + Clipped Photos = CNN Gets Taken To Task

When violence broke out in Lhasa, fellow tweeters were immediately informed of this. The Chinese media, for the first time, broke with precedent and showed “controversial content” that previously could not be shown — such as (in particular) the Tibetan flag and actual violent scenes.

Chinese central television continued to blame what they called the “Dalai Lama clique” for the unrest. Yet in an interesting twist to the story, Netizens discovered that western media organizations (notably CNN) appeared to have clipped photos to distort the facts. An site went up and was all the rage. People posted those pics across Facebook and took CNN to task. Jack Cafferty apparently insulting the Chinese — either the government or the people — proved to be the last straw, making both civilians and the Chinese government furious.

This was not the way to get into action in the final 100 days to the Olympics. Smear campaign, bad timing, whatever; even in “far-away” Beijing, things turned out to be not all that “harmonious”.

May 12, 2008: When The Earth Shook

The whole situation in Tibet was spiralling out of control. It looked like things couldn’t get worse.

Turns out it did.

At 14:28 on May 12, 2008, a massive, 7.9-magnitude shook Wenchuan, Sichuan, first burying schools, then causing a whole series of aftershocks. The death toll climbed to 70,000. This was the worst quake since Tangshan, and the fact that the epicenter was pretty close to the ground made the whole thing a lot worse.

The Net was immediately abuzz with pictures of frogs crossing the street. In an interesting spin, local media reportedly reported (pardon the pun) that these frogs, scrambling for their lives, appeared to be “normal”. A cover-up, it seemed, may have been underway before the earth shook. YouTube also showed movies of what could have very well been earthquake lights.

The reaction from Zhongnanhai was almost instantaneous. Wen Jiabao rushed to the region, followed by Hu Jintao a few days later. In memory of those who died in the quake, and for the first time in PRC history (due to natural disasters), flags were lowered to half-mast from May 19 through to May 21, 2008, during the national period of mourning.

The Chinese Web immediately reacted to all this. Web sites in China went grey or black-and-white during the three days of mourning. Yours truly closed down all blogs (except for CNReviews and The Beijingologist at City Weekend, which he co-writes with others). Even sites like the Beijing Subway fan forum went grey; network maps, once a joyous mix of orange, green and aqua, went grey. Entertainment sites were sealed for 72 hours.

The Twittersphere observed three minutes of silence from 14:28 through to 14:31 as the Internet world appeared to stand still. Search engines recorded a massive drop in search requests during these three minutes. The effects of the quake and its aftermath were felt across the nation, and across the Internet. Even before and after the three minutes, Chinese tweeters turned themselves grey, or black-and-white; yours truly went totally black.

Outside in the “real world”, cars stood still and horns and sirens sounded at 14:28. Radio announcers were full of emotion — the kind that jerked tears from many a listener. People who were totally unaffected by the quake burst spontaneously into tears as the sheer force of a nation coming to a complete full stop at 14:28, to the sound of wailing sirens and car horns, was too much to bear. Even the platform TV screen on the Beijing Subway’s Line 5 service, which used to announce when the next train was about to come, went black. Flags across the PRC were at half-staff. Newspapers turned totally black to mourn those who lost their lives in this tragic quake. Museum guides prefaced every tour with a note of the quake.

Socials Through The First Half of 2008

Yet despite the tensions in Tibet and the tremors in Sichuan, the Chinese Web 2.0 world continued — and feasted through the first six months. Yours truly, along with @sioksiok, co-hosted a number of Beijing Tweetups (and they’re about to make a comeback). The tweetups were incredibly good opportunities to get to meet the people behind the tweeting, to share a few good pics and laughs, and just, all in all, to have a good time. Some people, though, started tweeting during the tweetups — which could be little short of just an amazing practise.

Also of note was the CHINICT meeting in May 2008, which brought together noted Web 2.0 bigs in the Chinese blogosphere. The meetup co-organized by sites and groups including CN Reviews at the Loong Bar, in particular, proved to be a fantastic chance to meet Web 2.0 key leaders and players. Also, meeting people while subscribing to their Twitter feeds turned out to be a good thing (on a personal note, though, it’s just “too bad” that yours truly turns out to be too prolific, thereby drowning out the conversation).

You know what? There’s too much that happened in the ten months leading to this year’s Chinese Blogger Conference. We smell a sequel.

A Freer Internet With Less Walls

You know the funniest stuff about the whole Internet thing in China as the Olympics drew close? We started hear less and less from the Great Firewall!

太阳从西边升起… (tai yang cong xi bian sheng qi; Chinese for “And the Sun will rise from the left) …this was, in essence, the mood on the Chinese Internet. Auntie Beeb news — wall gone.

The blocks were soon lifted on the Chinese Wikipedia, ET Today (from ETTV Media Taiwan), and even on the — get this — Kuomintang‘s website! All of a sudden, the blocks were gone.

But not in full. Falun Gong-related sites were still blocked. And websites that were shut down in mainland China domestically were gone from the public eye. But for a lot of us, the unblocking of the BBC and the Chinese Wikipedia were already big things. (They still remain unblocked to this very day as we write this.)

#080808: @flypig & Co Start A Classic

Nothing is more of a classic — or was more of a classic — than the #080808 invention just before the Beijing Olympics. While it was a bit too “obvious” that @flypig came up with the invention, others did come up with the very number as well, and thus to call @flypig the “sole inventor” is surely a tad on the unfair side.

The Chinese Twittersphere went completely crazy with #080808. #080808 found itself in many a tweet and, indeed, in many a Twitter icon. If “Chinese reunification” were to be attempted, #080808 would be the first unifier, as tweeters from both side of the Taiwan Straits went mad #080808-ing.

@flypig and Co’s invention were good enough to land themselves airtime in the New York Times. This is the Chinese Twittersphere in full force, and what a job they did.

Post-Olympics & Paralympics, What’s Next?

So the Games came and went. What’s next at the Olympics and Paralympics end? Here’s a more recent recap of what’s big on the Chinese Twittersphere:

Chrome: When Google Chrome came out, the Chinese Twittersphere almost immediately reacted. Some of us went crazy downloading Chrome (while those on Macs presumably had to sit out and wait). Views were mixed — however, one of the more un-good piece of news was that Chrome for China was still unavailable (it was pretty much a case of an English-language-only case of the browser).

New Twitter interface: @flypig famously remarked that this was nothing too new — “I’m convinced the new Twitter interface is merely a case of changing the soup, not changing the medicine.” On a more personal note, yours truly is just getting used to the fact that tabs are on the right — you see, almost everything he uses has tabs on the top.

Sanlu: Sanlu got itself a whole load of trouble when its milk got tainted with poison. The Chinese Twittersphere took Sanlu to task, and when it was heard that all (or nearly all) Chinese milk producers were hit, talks of boycotts and “don’t-buy-Sanlu” rhetoric were all the rage. Jokes about Sanlu were also part of the fever. Finally, news proclaming Sanyuan’s takeover of the now-tainted Sanlu prompted calls to boycott Sanyuan, hitherto the only “clean” brand.

Closing Notes from @DavidFeng: Watch the Balance

Being a mass tweeter, I often spend too much time in Twitter — it’s only as of late that I’m moving back to my blog Raccolta Online, which served like a propaganda ghost town prior to the mass personal blogging beginning earlier this month.

I’m also appearing on Facebook more and more frequently. Those are good moves. Web 2.0 should not only be about Twitter and/or Facebook. There should be more to this.

Watch the balance is my word of the day. By all means, tweet like mad — but if you’re just having accounts on Facebook and other Web 2.0 sites “for the heck of it”, you’re missing out on a lot.

You may have noticed a recent reduction in my otherwise uncontrollable tweeting. Think of it this way: after dumping a huge chunk of butter on the bread, I’m finally spreading it thin throughout the whole thing. Facebook… blogs… it’s good to do multi Web 2.0 sites.

Just maybe not too much…

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