Thanks to the prevalence of smartphones, we now bring social media everywhere we go. We think the world is within reach through social media. Entertainment is shared by simple clicks on Facebook; revolution happens through retweets on Twitter; and mundane life becomes attractive and marketable on YouTube. As someone who left China to go to the U.S. for higher education in 2007, I have enjoyed all of these social media giants for almost a decade. However, when I’m on these platforms whether enjoying or hating what I have been exposed to, I always feel sorry that people in China are hardly part of this global online community. To me, these social media sites create an avenue for every user to present his or her voice to a potentially global audience, and this is the first step towards understanding and respect. A lot of the problems and debates happening today, when we think about it, are due to the very simple fact that we don't know, or refuse to know, much about the “other.” Meanwhile, some people from the “other” side really want to be heard, but have almost no opportunity.
But I’m not going to criticize the Internet censorship here, for it has been talked about everywhere and may get me into trouble. All I will say is that many Chinese people, especially those who are well educated and have some global vision are quite angry about this so-called “Great Firewall”. There is also large number of people who hold the opinion that there are too many “bad coverages” of China on Western media, so why bother to show them to the Chinese people?
On a different note, if you haven’t heard yet, social media in China is skyrocketing for the Chinese themselves. According to a 2016 report by China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC), the number of mobile Internet users in China reached 656 million. Last year Bloomberg published an article titled “Does China Need Facebook?” which explores the burgeoning social media apps in China that not only are alternatives for the popular ones in the West, but even outperform them by providing convenient functions such as paying bills, ordering deliveries, and even buying flight tickets. If you are interested, watch this video about WeChat made by Wall Street Journal. Indeed, e-commerce is a big thing for Chinese social media users. This is not just about online shopping, but more about the fact smartphones could almost replace your purse. In fact, a friend who went back to China for winter break told me that now you don't have to bring your purse when you go out, because everything could be paid through smartphone apps. Just connect your bank account to the apps and you are free to go. QR code is everywhere and you just need to scan when it’s time to pay. We joked that soon a beggar would show you a QR code that you scan to give him/her your money.
Perhaps these are the main reasons why many people have stopped craving Facebook and Twitter in China. They can get around well enough without them, or maybe even better (without all the “bad coverages of China”). Shouldn’t social media be a happy place for people after all? Personally, I’m not promoting this sentiment. What about the culture, knowledge, and ideas that cannot be paid for or attained through scanning a QR code? But, in a neo-liberal context, I can only feel powerless in front of the prevailing discourse in my own country.
As someone who invests a lot of time on social media, I constantly find myself living in two digital worlds. On Facebook, I talk almost exclusively to my friends and colleagues whom I have met in the U.S.; while on the Chinese social media such as WeChat and Weibo, I am connected with family, Chinese friends, and people with same hobbies. The two worlds are quite disconnected for me, and I believe this happens to many Chinese students who are studying abroad. How to connect these two worlds for these people so that they can avoid splitting identity? How can people be more open instead of shunning anything “other”? How can new media technology connect people not only physically but also emotionally? What is something that social media cannot do but daily communication and interaction can to make people feel “complete?” I encourage you to think about these questions with me.
By: Xiaomeng Li