Saturday, June 25, 2011

Facebook in China: A Chance to Connect and Understand

Recently, there's been much speculation about Facebook possibly entering or, depending on how you look at it, re-entering China.  Facebook was once available in China but for the past year it has been blocked and inaccessible through normal means.  It can be accessed by breaking through China's Great Firewall, but many in China don't make such efforts for a variety of reasons (for more on how the Great Firewall works see here).  In short, being blocked is still very bad for an online business in China.  Now, Facebook is reportedly considering creating a China-specific version of its services, possibly in partnership with a Chinese company, that would meet local regulations and therefore be more available to Chinese citizens (for one earlier overview of the speculation see here).

It's a complex topic with many angles to consider.  Much has already been written.  I'd like to contribute some of my own perspectives, at least some of which I haven't seen presented elsewhere, that in part stem from my work as a user experience researcher in the technology domain in China.

In short, I strongly believe Facebook should come to China.  Not only do I think Facebook has much to gain from it, but so do the Chinese people.

I'll cover how Facebook can uniquely meet some key needs and desires in China, discuss why having to build a China-specific version of Facebook could be a blessing-in-disguise, and share some thoughts on the impact a China-specific service could have for Facebook in the US.  Much of what I write may in one way or another pertain to companies such as Microsoft or Google as well, but I will couch it specifically in terms of Facebook given the possibility of them making a "fresh" start in China.

But first, I'd like to introduce you to four young Chinese I met in very different parts of China.  The names are made-up.  The stories are very real.  And they matter.

Four Youth in China

Looking for a way out.

I met Zhao Yu at a basketball court in a university in Zigong, Sichuan province, the same city featured in my recent piece comparing Google Maps and Baidu Map in China (see here).

Zhao Yu is frustrated.  Very frustrated.  He feels that he is caught in a system that has already judged and labeled him for life.

He had little choice over his college or his major and he is satisfied with neither.  He would like to switch to another major but doing so would be extremely difficult -- not uncommon in universities in China.  He feels his school is not providing him an education that will help him succeed in life.  Furthermore, he doesn't believe it is very well regarded and is concerned that he'll be forever labeled by his college degree, regardless of his abilities.

In his own words, he feels "crushed" by the system around him.  Yes, he believes China has made great strides.  Yes, his life is probably better than his parents at his age.  But he's not satisfied with his lot -- it doesn't feel fair.  To him, the only hope he has is to break out.  His dream is to study abroad. Whether it is education or work experience, he believes that other countries offer him the opportunity to achieve his dreams.

What do the foreigners really think?

I met Zhang Li at a university in Tianjin after I noticed an student recruitment event held by Kaixin, one of the leading social network sites in China.  We talked about a variety of issues and eventually I broached the topic of Liu Xiaobo, the human rights activist and winner of last year's Nobel Peace Prize who is now held in China as a political prisoner.  She vaguely knew about him, although she only knew part of his name and some very general facts about the Peace Prize.

While I was very interested to hear her thoughts on Liu Xiaobo, what most caught my attention was her strong interest to hear my own views.  When I expressed some thoughts on freedom of speech she said she sympathized with speech being restricted in China because "Chinese are too emotional and people say irrational things" -- something I've heard said by a number of college students across China.  When I asked her why people in Hong Kong are able to enjoy such freedoms with no apparent problem she became puzzled.  She had never thought about it before and had no reply.

There was another fascinating moment while we were discussing how she learned about Liu Xiaobo.  In the middle of the conversation she paused for a while.  Then, as she gazed into the distance she thoughtfully said, "if this guy is in jail, there must be others."

I have something to tell you.

I met Fan Suhong on a nearly 3 hour train ride from Laibin to Nanning in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region.  I was standing in the aisle because there were no seats available.  Initially, she and her friends were standing in another section of the rail car, but I later noticed she was standing just to my side.  I was very confident she wanted to speak to me.  However, I just stood there to see if her desire to speak was strong enough to initiate the conversation herself.

It was.  And soon I was asking her about her life at a college in Nanning, where she was returning after a trip to visit her family during a short holiday.  During a pause in the conversation, she conspicuously flipped though pictures on her mobile phone.  It was clear she hoped I would ask her about the photos.  Again, I patiently waited to see if she would take the first step.

She did.  As we looked though her photos she was particularly interested in showing me some from her dormitory room including her roommates.  Very quickly, I noticed something special.  In China, it can be very typical to see girls walking arm in arm, holding hands, or interacting in other ways that would seem a bit too close or physical for friends in places such as the US.  But the photos of one of her roommates in particular suggested something much more than a simple friendship.  I looked at Fan Suhong and had no doubt she was hoping I would ask her a question.  Again, I waited to see if she would broach the topic herself.

She did.  She finally said very matter-of-factly, "I'm lesbian."  We then had a deep discussion of her current situation.  For example, she found her friends supportive, and even some teachers, but she didn't dare tell her parents.  What would she do about her relationship in the future?  She didn't know (see here for an article written by Chinese college students about lesbians in China "seeking refuge" in other countries).

This wasn't the first time for a young lady to proactively tell me she was a lesbian.  I've spoken to an American female who does some research similar to mine who has also noted that several females opened up to her in a very similar fashion.  Why?

Feeling safe to share.

Huang Beiping lives and works in Xian, Shaanxi province.  Near the end of an extensive discussion I had with him he shared some of his personal views about relationships in China.  He told me I was the first person to hear these thoughts of his.  He had never told his best friends, his close brother, or his parents.  I asked him why he told me.  Very emphatically while pointing his finger at me with every word he said, "You won't judge me."  As he described it, he couldn't share certain views that were atypical in China without fear of negative consequences for being labeled as "different".  However, he felt that foreigners were, in his own words, more open-minded and accepting of different viewpoints.  For this reason, he enjoyed opportunities in his work when he was able to interact with people from abroad.

A Common Theme

The four Chinese I've introduced are very different people from very different parts of China.  Each with their own dreams, yet all in their own way treasuring the opportunity or desiring to connect with the world outside of China.  These are just snapshots of the many youth in China, all with their own stories to tell.

While there are many differences that can be found in youth in China, there are many who share the desire to connect with the world outside.  However, what is exactly being sought after and why it's being sought may not be identical.  For some youth it is related to their growing personal connections to the international world, whether due to their studies or work.  For others it may be about connecting with people who are "outside" of their community and about whom they needn't worry or care about being judged.  For some it is about feeling like they are part of a global community, that they can see their passions and dreams are shared by others -- whether that means expressing a viewpoint or knowing that their favorite brand is also beloved by Americans.

Meeting these needs and desires isn't likely going to be achieved by a single design solution in a social networking service.  It will take careful efforts to discover the right combination of features and services.  And Facebook is in a unique position to better create and provide them.

A Unique Offering

I pointed out in a recent post that one of the areas where Google Maps was clearly stronger than Baidu Map was in its coverage of the world outside of China (see here).

There is another aspect where Chinese companies are lacking in their coverage of the world.  Currently, no Chinese company with a social networking service has a significant number of active users globally.  Renren doesn't.  Kaixin doesn't.  Sina Weibo doesn't.

However, of course Facebook does.  This matters for two reasons in particular.

One, as I've already discussed there is a desire by many Chinese to connect with the outside world. Facebook can offer this in a way no Chinese company can now match.

The second reason has a lot to do with how things work in China.

If Facebook opens a China-dedicated service, whatever innovative things they may do there is a good chance one of their main competitors will try to copy it.  In that case, why would people switch to Facebook if it doesn't offer anything different and people are already connected to friends on other services?  However, no company in China can copy Facebook's global reach.  Of course, Facebook will benefit from designs that meet purely "local" Chinese needs.  But it is in finding innovative ways to connect people to the outside world that Facebook will be extremely distinct from local Chinese services and provide a reason for people in China to adopt it.

Some say there is already too much competition in China's market for online social networking for Facebook to now jump in.  I believe this actually works to Facebook's advantage as their competitors will be competing with each other with their China-specific offerings while Facebook will be alone in offering a China-plus-world network to join.

A Service Special to China

Much has been written about the "sacrifices" Facebook would presumably have to make because of the possible need to create a separate China-specific version of Facebook.  However, I believe this is in fact an immense opportunity for several reasons.

1.  Successful localized design

Many foreign companies in the online services or software domain have either failed or significantly struggled in China.  Competition may not always be "fair" in China (for example, see here for a Chinese person's take on Google's recent struggles), but foreign companies should be well aware of how the Chinese market works before entering.

However, "fairness" isn't the only problem.  In some cases, foreign companies' desire to maintain "global standards" has prevented them from competing with Chinese companies who provide more locally tailored solutions.  I know of teams in China who conducted research in China and had design solutions for the local market, only to be rebuffed by senior leaders abroad who didn't want to do things differently than normal.  Now, some of those companies are effectively gone.

Needing to develop a China-specific version will provide a better opportunity for a local team to have the freedom to be different and to do it right for China.

2.  Driving Global Innovation

Facebook is entering a critical period for its growth and future.  Obviously, it has found much success and is the envy of many other companies.  But, this is also a time where some companies become so successful or large that further innovation becomes stilted, sometimes due to fearing changing what has worked in the past.

Having a distinct site that focuses on China will allow a new breed of innovation to appear with less risk to Facebook globally.  Often, very successful design localized for a particular market will find uses in other markets, even if used in a different manner or for different reasons.

In short, come to China.  Innovate and experiment.  Inspire the rest of your company.

3.  Respect

For many Chinese, gaining respect is very important.  And many Chinese feel that the world doesn't respect China.

A China-specific Facebook, if designed and marketed correctly, could indicate that Facebook has an immense amount of respect for China and create a strong bond with many Chinese users.  It will show Facebook cares.

4.  Good for China

Some Chinese have no problems buying fake international products in part because they don't see any need to spend what little money they have to buy the real version just so some already rich foreigner can add to their bank account.  Yes, Facebook is largely free for its users, but there is no doubt that it is providing the service to make profits.  Some Chinese simply want to use something "Made in China".

By having a China-specific version that's made in China, Facebook can better communicate that its profits and success will be benefiting China, whether through new jobs created, supporting local causes, etc.  It would be more challenging to convince people of this if Facebook was using a generic version controlled by far away California.

Censorship & Public Opinion Elsewhere

Many have written about the PR problems and resistance Facebook could face in places such as the US if they enter China, particularly regarding censorship and surveillance (for one example, see here).  I'm not going to get deeply into how Facebook could manage its global PR, but I'll cover a couple of issues.

For one, Facebook already censors in other markets.  So does Google.  So does Microsoft.  See here for an in-depth perspective by The Brookings Institution on the impact companies such as Facebook and Google and the rules of various countries have on free speech around the world.  It highlights how challenging it can be to define what is truly free and uncensored.  Of course, the censorship may not be to the extent that occurs in China and people may prefer giving it a different name but there is material that is blocked in many countries around the world.

Companies such as Facebook, Google, Microsoft, etc. probably don't think it's always to their advantage to highlight that they censor, whether it is in Germany, Italy, Turkey, or yes, even in the US.  But, presented in the right way, it may be possible for Facebook to make an important point to potential critics.  Regardless of some degree of censorship, many countries still have a flourishing online community.  The same is true in its own way in China.

While Facebook may not want to highlight this as it approaches the Chinese government for a license, it is simply impossible to completely censor the internet.  Certainly censorship in China has had an impact, yet many Chinese are very savvy in finding creative ways to work around censorship, whether it is using new names for blocked phrases or through other forms of indirect communication.  Facebook can completely follow Chinese regulations and people can still find ways to share any ideas they want.

In part, Facebook needs to try to make the case to concerned people that a) operating in China without censorship is not at all an option and b) Chinese are better off with a censored Facebook than no Facebook at all.  It's easy for Americans to say Facebook should stay out of China when it in no way is a sacrifice for them.  Would they feel otherwise if they moved to China and had to operate behind the Great Firewall?  Unless they're happy to give up Facebook, I suspect many would change their minds.  And don't forget the stories of Chinese like the ones I've shared.  Facebook could play an important part in their lives.  Do people in the US really want to deny them of it just because the rules of the Chinese government are seen as too restrictive?  I'm not suggesting that Facebook should necessarily raise these points in such a direct fashion.  However, the ideas behind them could be useful in formulating a campaign to convince more people that it's a net positive for Facebook to operate in China, even if it must follow Chinese laws on censorship.

Regardless, making a case like this to the public isn't easy and some public backlash in places such as America is probably inevitable.  In fact, there may even be push back from the US Government (see here for a perspective from the Wall Street Journal).  As long as it doesn't significantly impact their global operations, I have one word if that occurs:  Good!

Having a few tussles with the US Government could be played by Facebook to its advantage in China.  As I discussed in an earlier post (see here), some youth in China with a very positive perception of Google had a drastic change of opinion after a speech by Hillary Clinton that referenced Google while also condemning censorship in China.  In a single stroke, it became easy for Chinese to believe that Google was simply an arm of the US government.  This was not at all to Google's benefit in China.  A public dispute between Facebook and the US government would help prevent such perceptions of Facebook taking hold.

I'm definitely not saying Facebook should deliberately try to generate a negative reaction in the US.  If they can successfully make their case, then fantastic.  I'm just pointing out that if there are lemons in the US, there's lemonade they can sell in China.

And to be clear, I dream of the day when censorship is drastically reduced in China.  I would be absolutely thrilled to see China's Great Firewall vanish.  But Facebook can't come into China and change everything.  I simply believe that Facebook connecting Chinese to the outside world can be such a good thing, both for China and the world, that accepting censorship is worth it.


There are certainly many other issues for Facebook to consider before entering China.  For some other possibilities see a series of posts by Silicon Hutong here, here and here and another post by Steven Levy here.  I may address several of the issues raised by those posts and some others as well later.

Yes, I think Facebook should come to China.  Yes, I think it will be challenging.  Yes, there are risks, but the potential rewards are huge.

Facebook has something to offer that if designed and packaged correctly will be embraced by many Chinese.  This will be good for Facebook.  But more importantly this will be good for China and the rest of the world -- so they can better connect and understand each other.

I've certainly found in my own experiences in China that listening to people and respecting what they have to say can lead to some wondrous things.  But it can't happen without a way to communicate.


Added notes for clarification:

1.  Regardless of any opportunity that exists, it may not be feasible for Facebook to operate in China for a variety of reasons.  For example, the Chinese government may not be willing to allow Facebook to operate even if it agrees to censor or other concessions from Facebook may be required.  Again, see the links provided above for a number of issues not discussed in this post.

2.  The potential benefits of localized design do not necessarily mean a China-based version of Facebook would need to be very different.  For example, sometimes small changes can have a significant impact (whether in usability or perceived "localness"), and some localizations may be more focused on associated applications or services.  The nature of any potential localizations is a topic for another day.  Of course, there are also benefits to Facebook in trying to keep as universal a design as possible.

3.  I don't believe localization of services is the only way Facebook can show "respect" and that it is "good for China".  As briefly mentioned above, I believe there are other efforts that could also have an impact in these areas.

[The section "Censorship & Public Relations Elsewhere" was edited on June 6.  The edits primarily involved shifting several sentences and adding some content for clarity.  In the spirit of openness the original is here.  Also, the world "possibly" was added to the first sentence in "A Service Special to China".]


  1. I think within a couple of years at the most you will get your wish. When Facebook eventually takes on an initial public offering, stockholders will demand penetration into emerging markets. There is no bigger market than China. As for my personal opinion on Facebook, it is fine but a bit overhyped. I think any networking tool that allows people to collaborate is fine. Yes it would be best for the Chinese people if they could touch the world easier and ultimately it would be good for the world to understand China better too. Nice Essay. W.C.C.

  2. Thanks god there's no Facebook in china , i really enjoy to be free of such thing as Facebook

    Who need it ?