Field Notes from Shanghai: China’s Digital Mavens

As I was getting ready for the trip, I stumbled onto a recently released study, produced by IAC and JWT, which compared the centrality of digital media in the life of teens in the United States and China. I used these statistics in my talk at the conference to suggest the importance of fostering new media literacies and ethics among Chinese youth. Here are some of the report’s findings:

  • Almost five times as many Chinese as American respondents said they have a parallel life online (61 percent vs. 13 percent).
  • More than twice as many Chinese respondents agreed that “I have experimented with how I present myself online” (69 percent vs. 28 percent of Americans).
  • More than half the Chinese sample (51 percent) said they have adopted a completely different persona in some of their online interactions, compared with only 17 percent of Americans.
  • Fewer than a third of Americans (30 percent) said the Internet helps their social life, but more than three-quarters of Chinese respondents (77 percent) agreed that “The Internet helps me make friends.”
  • Chinese respondents were also more likely than Americans to say they have expressed personal opinions or written about themselves online (72 percent vs. 56 percent). And they have expressed themselves more strongly online than they generally do in person (52 percent vs. 43 percent of Americans).
  • Chinese respondents were almost twice as likely as Americans to agree that it’s good to be able to express honest opinions anonymously online (79 percent vs. 42 percent) and to agree that online they are free to do and say things they would not do or say offline (73 percent vs. 32 percent).

In almost every category, Chinese youth expressed an even deeper investment in the online world than their American counterparts. It is particularly compelling the degree to which they use digital media to escape constraints on their real world experience, whether local constraints imposed by parents and schools or larger societal constraints imposed by governments.

We need to be careful about framing these findings through Cold War discourse which stresses the free west against the repressive east. It seems more useful to think about the different constraints on participation teens in each country face in their offline lives and the ways that online experiences may allow them at some limited experiences of transcending those constraints. Of course, in both countries, there are ongoing struggles about how much access to and what kinds of participation teens should enjoy in the online world.

Several people I’ve spoken with here, however, have sought to qualify the picture of Chinese digital youth culture represented through the study. They note, for example, that while Chinese youth have extensive access to blogging technologies they have little to no access to social networks like MySpace and Facebook and they are blocked from being able to use Wikipedia except through elaborate proxies. (I’ve struggle while I have been in China with having my own access to wikipedia cut off behind the firewall.) Others suggested that Chinese youth have been very active in helping to translate western media content, including the work of participatory culture, into Chinese but have been much slower to embrace such cultural practices themselves. Some have adopted judgmental perspectives on this participation gap suggesting that the Chinese take but do not give to the culture of the web.

Certainly, we can point to the visible contributions of amateur Chinese media makers to YouTube — most notably, of course, the Back Dorm Boys. (See an interview here conducted by my CMS colleague Beth Coleman as part of her Project Good Luck initiative designed to better understand the rise of digital culture in China.) Yet, I am told they have been much slower to embrace re-mix or modding practices or to generate their own fan fiction, though some have told me that this is starting to change at a rapid pace.

One might hypothesize that Chinese and American teens deal with the uncertainties of the digital environment in different ways: many American teens are unaware of the potential consequences of posting their own content on the web, showing ignorance or naivity about the intellectual property implications of such activities or the long term impact of digital content on how they are perceived by schools or future employees. The Chinese youth, living in a very different cultural and political context, seem less willing to take risks and probably much more awareness of the potential ramifications. They seem to value the freedom they find online all the more because they know what the stakes are in their exercise of those freedoms.

Others stress that the difference may have to do with the language barrier of the online world. Chinese young people may have more skills at translating English content for their own community and may have stronger incentives for wanting to access that western content; Chinese youth perceive the west as having little interest in what they have to say and little willingness (not to mention capacity given how rare it still is for schools to offer courses in Chinese languages) to help close that gap in terms of translating their content into English.