Showing posts with label Facebook. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Facebook. Show all posts

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Little By Little: More Expression at a Hong Kong Pier

Where there was a temporary Tiananmen memorial in Hong Kong earlier this week, today the pedestrian area was back to its usual state.

people walking at the Kowloon Public Pier

Nearby, also as usual, several musical groups were performing — including Poco A Poco.

musical group Poco A Poco performing at the Kowloon Public Pier

Next to their sign was a QR code to the Poco A Poco Facebook page which expresses:
Positive Message x Hong Kong!
Spread Love
Spread Smile
Spread Happiness
Although their goals differ from those who built the memorial, Poco A Poco's use of Facebook, popular in Hong Kong but blocked in mainland China, is also a sign of how there is less censorship and more free expression in Hong Kong than almost everywhere else in China.

Friday, May 30, 2014

The Power of Paper and Censorship in Thailand

One reason to read George Orwell's "Nineteen Eighty-Four" in paperback:

person holding a copy of George Orwell's "Nineteen Eighty-Four"

The silent reading protest against the military coup in Thailand occurred in a country which has seen a sharp recent increase in censorship. For one overview of the censorship now occurring in Thailand's traditional media and online social media see Aim Sinpeng's guest post on The Washington Post. A number of Thai companies have readily accommodated the military's requests, but foreign companies with online services popular in Thailand are proving to be more of a challenge. For example, Facebook and Google so far haven't displayed any eagerness to meet with Thai officials and "discuss online anticoup dissent".

Perhaps most telling about what the military has in mind for the long term are plans for a new system to monitor online expression in Thailand:
The director of the Ministry of Information and Communications Technology’s IT crime prevention bureau, Thanit Prapatanan, tells VOA it will likely be several months before the plan for the new control system is worked out.

Thanit cites the example of China, where he argues that filtering does not have a significant impact on society, rather it just blocks some websites deemed dangerous, but all Internet ports are not closed.
Thanit's use of China as a positive example says much.

I won't try to guess what steps Thai's military will take next. But if Thailand follows China's lead in restricting online expression, it's hard to imagine that the censorship won't significantly impact Thailand's society in Twenty Fourteen.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

The New York Times in Chinese with Twitter & Facebook

The New York Times has unveiled a new Chinese-language web site at As Christine Haughney reported, the Times will not adjust its news coverage despite targeting readers in a place where there is significant censorship, mainland China:
The Times Company, which is well aware of the censorship issues that can come up in China, stressed that it would not become an official Chinese media company. The Times has set up its server outside China and the site will follow the paper’s journalistic standards. Mr. Kahn said that while the Chinese government occasionally blocked certain articles from, he was hopeful that the Chinese government would be receptive to the Chinese-language project.

“We’re not tailoring it to the demands of the Chinese government, so we’re not operating like a Chinese media company,” Mr. Kahn said. “China operates a very vigorous firewall. We have no control over that. We hope and expect that Chinese officials will welcome what we’re doing.”
Although the Times claims it will not be "tailoring it to the demands of the Chinese government" there are several signs that design changes have been made to better suit Chinese readers. One obvious example is the ability to easily share articles on popular online services in mainland China such as Sina Weibo, QQ, and Renren.

sample article from The New York Times Chinese site showing various share options

As seen in the above example (from the article here), options are also available to share on Twitter and Facebook -- notable since both of these services are currently blocked in mainland China. If either of those options are selected while behind China's Great Firewall it is not possible to post the article. It is also notable that there does not appear to be a button to share articles on Google+, an option that is readily available on the main site.

However, people in mainland China may not be the only Chinese readers being targeted with the site as evidenced by the option for displaying the text in Traditional Chinese. That is the style of characters commonly used in a number of Chinese-speaking areas outside of mainland China, such as Taiwan and Hong Kong. In those places Twitter and Facebook are freely available.

I tested posting articles onto Twitter while using a VPN in China to get through China's Great Firewall and had no problem. However, I ran into a problem when I tested the Facebook option. For any article I tried I was brought to this page:

Paulie Sharer's Timeline page on Facebook

I have never heard of Paulie Sharer, and I wonder whether his last name is somehow tied to this obvious error. A quick online search suggests that the problem is not specific to me nor the Times, but at this point there is not much more I can say definitively. Although I am sure this is not the result the Times desires, I can only imagine whether Paulie Sharer is noticing an unusual number of friend requests.

Regardless, I consider it a positive that The New York Times will be able to reach more readers in mainland China. And many will be watching to see if China later blocks the site -- just like what recently happened to Bloomberg's news site (H/T Edward Wong).

Friday, September 30, 2011

Facebook in Taiwan: Lessons for Mainland China

When I recently arrived in Taiwan I didn't have a set agenda and was open to exploring a variety of issues relating to how it compares to Mainland China.  A discussion with some high school students in Hualien provided an opening to what I found to be one of the more interesting contrasts.  Unlike in Mainland China where Facebook is blocked, many youth I spoke to in Taiwan regularly use Facebook.  My experiences appear to have been reasonably representative.  Adaline Lau on ClickZ Asia notes that Facebook had caught up to its largest rival in Taiwan, Yahoo's, about one year ago.  And Paul Mozur on The Wall Street Journal shares that as of March 2011 about 40% of Taiwan's population had a Facebook account.

Susan Su on Inside Facebook last year examined the potential lessons that could be learned from Facebook's dramatic growth in Taiwan:
In short, Taiwan has become a Facebook country.

It’s not just the fact that the site has reached market saturation, however, but the rapidity with which it did so. It took a whirlwind three quarters for Facebook to jump from fewer than 400,000 total Taiwanese users in June of 2009 to its current 6.2 million. What were the factors that account for this rapid rise, and could they be replicated in Japan, Korea or mainland China (assuming Facebook were to become unblocked in that country)?
Su suggests that Taiwan serves as a valuable "hybrid" to examine since it shares a variety of characteristics with different nearby countries.  For example, its economy is comparable to South Korea, yet it shares a spoken language with Mainland China.  Because of this, Facebook's success in Taiwan may provide particularly invaluable insights for how Facebook could grow in nearby regions where it is relatively struggling.  While I think there are some issues in using Taiwan as an example this way, I think it's worth exploring what Su's conclusions about Taiwan may say about Mainland China.

In a nutshell, Su argues that "stagnant competitors" and social games were key to Facebook's growth in Taiwan.

Given that Mainland China already has a number of active social networking services, such as Renren, QQ, Sina Weibo, etc., that I wouldn't label as stagnant (at least not all of them), some may argue that the market there is saturated and doesn't offer the same opportunity to Facebook as Taiwan did.  However, as I noted in my earlier post about the potential value of Facebook (and some other global services) operating in Mainland China, I think there is ample space for services that can meet a key need that no Chinese company can now fulfill -- connecting Chinese users to the rest of the world.

Regardless, Facebook is most likely going to have great difficulty making any gains in China as long as it remains blocked there.  In this regard, it's important to consider how Facebook's impact in Taiwan may be influencing the Chinese government.  As I've shown before, it can certainly influence some Chinese people.  So, if the Chinese government is now viewing Taiwan as a test case does it believe Facebook is only a "safe" social gaming site there?  I doubt it.  Not only has Facebook been rapidly gaining popularity in Taiwan for its social gaming, but it's becoming increasingly ingrained into another area in which Taiwan greatly differs from Mainland China: politics.  Paul Mozur writes:
President Ma Ying-jeou opened his official Facebook fan page on Jan. 28, using the social network to disseminate videos of his speeches, provide updates on his activities and offer sometimes fiery responses to criticism from the local press. Other high profile politicians with official Facebook pages include Taiwan’s first democratically elected president, Li Teng-hui, and opposition Democratic Progressive Party presidential candidates Tsai Ing-wen and Su Tseng-chang. Meanwhile, groups from aboriginal associations to environmental activists and students upset about new mandatory Confucian curriculum use the space as a forum to plan activities and distribute petitions.

Far from being a force for revolution as social networking sites have become in the Middle East, Facebook in Taiwan is in the process of being fully integrated into its democratic system. But the myriad ways the site has proven a powerful tool for organizing people and Taiwan’s cultural and linguistic closeness to China is likely to give Chinese officials pause when considering whether to allow Facebook to enter China. Most likely that means any plan for Facebook would have to include self-censorship and cooperation with the Chinese Communist Party that would earn the company a healthy dose of opprobrium in the U.S..
I agree that Facebook's role in Taiwanese political issues is "likely to give Chinese officials pause".

As I argued in an earlier post, even if a company that offers global social networking services has to censor in order to operate throughout China, its availability can provide important benefits.  However, something I didn't discuss at the time is that companies such as Facebook may be blocked in Mainland China even if they offer to censor material.  Issues such as competition or social gaming are all beside the point if the Chinese government simply won't allow Facebook, censored or not, to operate unblocked in Mainland China.  I'll comment more on this possibility in a later post.

For now, I'll just express again that Taiwan's Internet environment serves as a important comparison to Mainland China's.  I suspect some Chinese officials would agree.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Facebook Contrasts: Students in Taiwan and Mainland China

Hualien City is a smaller city on the eastern coast of Taiwan with some wonderful natural scenery nearby.  One afternoon a few days ago I stopped by a store in Hualien well-known for its shaved-ice desserts.  While I was there, several local senior high school students who were also enjoying the desserts asked if they could sit with me and chat.  They were likely interested in speaking to a foreigner and practicing their English.

It provided an opportunity to learn a little about them and see how they compared to the many youth I've spoken with and researched in Mainland China.  Of course, there is a wide range of youth in Mainland China and I am not sure whether the students I spoke to in Hualien were representative of either their city or of Taiwan.  Still, there was an aspect of the conversation that clearly differed from any I have had in Mainland China.

After chatting for maybe 10-20 minutes they asked something that most youth in Mainland China never ask.

They asked me if I had a Facebook account so that we could be "friends".

In most places I've been in Mainland China if I were speaking to local youth they may ask if I use QQ or Sina Weibo, but almost never do they ask about Facebook.  That isn't surprising since Facebook is blocked in Mainland China.

However, in Taiwan there is no Great Firewall blocking sites such as Facebook on the Internet.  The Taiwanese students told me they use Facebook regularly and that it is particularly useful for keeping connected with their friends from junior high school.  Unlike junior high school, their senior high schools have specialized areas of study, so now many of their friends go to different schools.

There were other indications that Facebook is a regular part of their lives -- in some ways similar to people in other parts of the world.  For example, after having someone take a photo of us with one of their mobile phones they excitedly spoke about later posting the photo on their Facebook accounts.  And at one moment several of them energetically said (zàn) to voice their approval of something.  (zàn) is the equivalent on Facebook in Taiwan for "Like".  They were consciously using it in the same manner they would use it online on Facebook.

Their use of Facebook is striking in comparison to most youth in Mainland China.  Like the waitress in Chengdu I wrote about in an earlier post, I believe there are many in China who would question why it is that these students in Hualien, Taiwan:

Five students in Hualien posing for a photo in a dessert store

are free to use online services such as Facebook without restriction while these students in Zigong, Sichuan province:

Five students in Zigong posing for a photo in a McDonalds

are not only blocked from using Facebook but also services such as YouTube, Twitter, and more.

I suspect that many of these students would agree with the waitress in Chengdu when she said, "That's not fair!"

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Facebook, Taiwan, and a Waitress's Comments on Censorship in China

Several months ago while at a cafe in Chengdu, Sichuan, I spoke with one of the waitresses and asked her a number of questions about her use of the Internet.  Eventually, the conversation touched on the issue of online censorship in China.  In summary, she expressed that she didn't like it in terms how it directly impacted her online experience, but she felt that it was for the best so that China could maintain stability during its current stage of development.

I've heard similar comments from many others across China.  There's much I could say about this viewpoint, but for now I'll just share what followed in this particular case since I believe it highlights some deeper issues and I hope it can stimulate further discussion.

After her comments defending censorship, I simply asked the waitress to take a look at the screen of my laptop, and I pulled up a browser window with Facebook on it.  After looking at the screen for a few moments she asked me how I could be using Facebook -- she knew it was blocked in China.  I briefly explained how I used a VPN to get through China's Great Firewall.

I then pointed out some posts a friend had written on Facebook entirely in Traditional Chinese (Language note: Some Chinese characters exist in both a Simplified Chinese form and a Traditional Chinese form.  In mainland China and Singapore typically Simplified Chinese characters are used when available.  In other places such as Hong Kong or Taiwan typically only Traditional Chinese characters are used).  I asked the waitress what she thought of the posts.  She said she felt that my friend had a "special" way of expressing herself since she used Traditional Chinese.  I suspected the waitress's impression was based on the assumption my friend lived in mainland China, so I then told her that my friend lives in Taiwan.  The waitress nodded and understood that it would be typical for my friend to use Traditional Chinese.

I waited.

After looking at the screen for a bit longer the waitress suddenly cocked her head, looked at me, and with a puzzled expression asked, "They can use Facebook in Taiwan?"  I explained that Facebook wasn't blocked in Taiwan and anyone there was free to use it.

Her face quickly shifted to an indignant expression, and she emphatically said, "That's not fair!  Why can they use it and we can't?!?"

In later discussion she expressed that she was frustrated that she couldn't use a service such as Facebook.  I think it's particularly striking how her expressed acceptance of censorship significantly changed in a short period of time without any confrontational debate or explicit argument.  Instead of justifying the censorship she was beginning to strongly and openly question it.  Especially given the informal nature of this interaction, whether this indicated a deep change of opinion or an opening up of ideas already held is difficult to confidently determine.  Regardless, what she expressed, both verbally and emotionally, had shifted dramatically over the course of the discussion.

In part, I believe what occurred was that the waitress had previously been able to rationalize why it was OK she didn't have the same freedoms as someone in a place such as the US by noting the differences between the countries and cultures.  However, people in Taiwan can be considered "Chinese people" -- from the perspective of the waitress this was true both in terms of ancestry and of country.  Seeing that what was closed off to her and others in mainland China was freely available to anyone in Taiwan made it more difficult for her to maintain her earlier justification of censorship.  I also suspect the comparison to Taiwan impacted her sense of pride and caused a more visceral reaction.

I never did try to provide the waitress an answer to her question about why people in Taiwan can use Facebook but people in mainland China can not.  It was a question I could have easily asked her myself without even bothering with my laptop or Facebook.

But it makes all the difference that she asked it herself.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Different Obstacles in China for Google and Facebook

In my post "Facebook in China: A Chance to Connect and Understand" I highlighted that Facebook stands apart from Chinese social-networking sites in its ability to meet a key need & desire for many in China: connecting with the world.  I felt that Facebook could serve a positive role, both for China and the world, even given the fact that it would likely have to censor material on its site as required by the Chinese government.

So this clearly means that I think Google Search made a mistake in not keeping a censored version of its service in China, right?

Not necessarily.

On the issue of needing to self-censor Facebook and Google Search are different.

Last year, Google decided to redirect its search service in Mainland China to its servers in Hong Kong so that it would no longer be required to censor per the rules of the Chinese government (although it does presumably now "censor" according to the far less strict requirements in Hong Kong).  At that point China essentially took over the active duties of censoring the site.  China can block individual search requests or block individual pages of results depending on the content.  The experience one can having using Google Search in China can vary depending on the Great Firewall's apparent mood of the day, but essentially a user in China can go to Google Search, enter a "bad" search term, be "blocked", return to the search page (sometimes there may be a delay before the page is accessible), and then do something else.

In short, it is possible for China's Great Firewall to block "bad" things on Google Search without entirely stopping someone from using it.

However, if Facebook takes a stand to not censor material according to the rules of the Chinese government then there's no way for them to operate in a similar fashion.  Imagine if China reviews every incoming page from Facebook and only blocks pages that include "bad" material.  What if the news feed on a person's homepage includes a "bad" link that has been posted by a friend? China would block the page and that's it.  The person can't use Facebook at all.

As Facebook is currently designed there is likely now no way for it to be practically available in China unless Facebook itself censors material.  However, there may be hope that any censorship requirements for Facebook may not be as draconian as some may imagine.  A recent article by Loretta Chao in the Wall Street Journal that provides an overview of the competition between various Chinese social-networking sites (see here) touches on this:
"Chinese websites, including Sina, are required to police themselves to keep their government-issued operational licenses, a costly task involving dozens of employees who monitor the sites around the clock.

Although Sina is known for its heated discussions, at times over controversial issues such as local government corruption and soaring property prices, most talk on the site isn't political. When sensitive topics arise, the company can be creative in limiting conversation without cutting it off altogether—for example, by blocking searches of sensitive keywords but not stopping people from publishing them on their own microblogs."
Facebook may be able to allow similar "freedoms".  Although, it should be noted that as a foreign company they may be held to stricter standards than local companies for a variety of reasons.  As I've noted before regarding Google (see here), life is not always "fair" in China.

The only way for Facebook to take Google Search's route of not censoring themselves would be for Facebook to massively redesign its service.  Since China would still attempt to censor parts of the site, Facebook would have to ask itself whether it would be worth it.  For Google Search it was more simple.  Not censoring only meant less, not more, work for them since no fundamental changes to the design of the service were required (whether taking this route has led to more "interference" for Google's services in China is another issue).

This is why holding Google Search and Facebook to different expectations for self-censorship in China can be reasonable.  If China completely blocked Google Search then I would hope it would self-censor for reasons similar to those I've outlined for Facebook.  [Added note: Yes, I realize Google tried this once before and decided that it wasn't working for them.  Whether they should try again (if it's the only option) partly depends on the exact issues that previously caused them to stop self-censoring per China's rules.  My point is simply that a censored Google would be better for people in China than no Google.  Whether it is practical for Google to do so (China may not apply censorship rules consistently or fairly to Google) is another issue.]

The impact of the different situations faced by Google Search and Facebook relates to another issue Google is now facing: maintaining the operation of Google Maps in China.  As I previously discussed in my comparison of Google Maps and Baidu Map (see here), I think there are signs that Google Maps is strongly positioned in China and this may be why they're reportedly willing to form a joint venture with a Chinese company to meet new regulations.  In this case, there is presumably no option to offer Google Maps in China by redirecting traffic to servers in Hong Kong -- China would simply block the entire site.

There is also much talk about Google's new offerings in Google+.  See here for an in-depth overview by Steven Levy on and here for a piece by Ben Parr on Mashable.  Earlier today, I noted (see here) that at the time the entry portal to the service appeared to be blocked in China due to DNS issues that could be easily "fixed".  Later, the Shanghaiist reported (see here) that the service could be accessed in China but was very slow.  Regardless, Google+ will likely face it's own particular challenges if it wants to operate in China.

I feel that Facebook, Google, and other companies who can help Chinese people connect with the world all should do their best to have a presence in China.  They can all offer something special for people in China, each in their own way.  Depending on their services they may have to make different sacrifices to do so, but in many cases they will be worth it for the companies, their customers, and their users.

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".]

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Google's Sergey Brin is on Facebook: Of course

An article by Ryan Tate asks, "why is Google co-founder Sergey Brin so secretive about having a Facebook account?"  After all, aren't Facebook and Google currently fierce competitors?  (HT to Bill Bishop's tweet, article originally posted on Gawker here)

My initial reaction: Of course Sergey Brin has a Facebook account.  Of course he wants to do it "secretly".

Several years ago, there was a point when I realized I would likely be joining Microsoft China. It was also time for me to buy a new laptop. What did I buy? A MacBook Pro.

I felt that especially in my role as a user experience researcher at Microsoft it would be important to be deeply familiar not just with Microsoft products but their competitors as well.  Having a Mac at home would give me critical insights that wouldn't be readily apparent without extended use of a product. Also, I was also able to still have Microsoft Windows on it (dual-boot) and Microsoft develops products for a variety of Apple products.

As a user experience researcher I am very aware that my own experience with a particular product may not match the experiences of the target customers for a product.  However, having familiarity with a competing product can help one raise the right questions to ask to gain a better understanding of the users you're targeting and what you need to do to compete. 

I would think it would be beneficial for Sergey Brin to have at least a basic understanding of Facebook  -- whether he likes it or not -- from personal standpoint.  Especially for something like social networking, it is hard to grasp many of the ins and outs without some personal use.  And given his prominence and his role at Google, it seems understandable that he would want to keep a low profile there -- both for his personal privacy and not appearing to endorse Facebook publicly due to competition reasons as cited in Ryan Tate's article.

In fact, because of his personal account Sergey Brin may now be particularly appreciating a key aspect of the Facebook user experience:  "privacy" can tricky to say the least.  Despite the fact that he apparently hid his friends list from public view, "people in his greater social circle are able to see friends in common" and they were able to report what they saw.

To sum up...

Why do I think Sergey Brin has a Facebook account: to better appreciate the user experience and how it works so he can better help Google compete and innovate.

Why do I think Sergey Brin is being "so secretive about having a Facebook account": he doesn't want attention there nor to raise the profile of a competitor.

Finally, the article doesn't say if there are indications he uses it regularly so I am not sure it is fair when Ryan Tate writes that Sergey Brin (emphasis added):
"might not want prospective users to know how deeply enmeshed he is in a rival social network."
In fact, I think I have some exclusive evidence that he hasn't even logged on recently.

Sergey Brin still hasn't accepted my friend request.