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Guest Post: What We Can Learn from Chinese Digital Culture

2011 September 14
by Greg Satell

What country has more people on the Internet than the United States has citizens? Ding ding ding! China.

China has over 450 million Internet users and we’re now witnessing Chinese digital culture turn into a precursor of things to come.

If Japanese mobile culture set the future vision for mobile in the ‘00s, Chinese digital culture looks set to become a similar bellwether in global digital culture for the next decade. In simple terms, with so many people participating online, we can look for emerging behaviors that may bubble up in the West as well.

What’s Come Before

Over the past few years we’ve seen concepts develop and catch on in China that have come to fruition in the West later on. One recent example is this year’s riots in Vancouver and London. As people publicly rioted in these cities, other citizens posted photos of the events on social media. Citizens and police alike turned to the Web to identify the offenders. Media coverage discussed the odd role social media played in turning citizens into vigilantes and the rise of a mobile-fuelled “transparent society.”

However, China has been experiencing similar behavior for a few years. As early as 2002 Chinese netizens have posted photos of people committing crimes or some other socially offensive behavior, and then turned to the community to crowdsource the identification of the perpetrators in an odd twist of Internet vigilantism.

Another popular concept that’s moved to the West is group buying. Group buying systems in China grew in popularity years ago, and with the explosive growth of companies like Groupon in the U.S., we see the concept has demand among digital audiences that transcends boundaries.

What’s Going on Today

Even today, we can see how looking at Chinese digital culture can give us insights into digital tendencies worldwide.

A recent example is a new photo sharing behavior in China called “sui shou pai” that is closely linked to social activism. Participants choose a social issue to highlight, such as homeless children, and then everyone contributes photos of homeless children to raise awareness around the issue.

Mobile photo sharing in the United States hasn’t seen strong similar examples, but apps like LiveShare and Mobli are creating topical mobile photo sharing communities that enable this social action the world over.

Moving Forward

We’re likely to see other digital behaviors from China emerge in other markets as well. A recent study on Chinese mobile and Internet users from Enovate shows the Chinese Internet population is strongly committed to mobile.

Could China set the blueprint for a Post-PC future? It’s a high possibility. Whereas mobile use in Japan has been a hotbed of innovation, we’ve seen less innovation in the connected devices space aside from large corporations like Sony. With Chinese companies like Huawei getting involved in the low cost smartphone space, innovation is sure to speed up in China and other emerging markets.

A great conceit of the digital era has been the centrality of the West (and Japan) in dictating global digital trends. With more consumers in emerging markets gaining access to computers and mobile devices, we’re set for an explosion in new digital behaviors where the developing world sets the pace for the West.

– Simeon Spearman


Simeon Spearman is a Digital Strategist at Moxie and holds a Masters in Future Studies from the University of Houston.  You can follow him on Twitter @srspear

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