Border Ecologies – Social Media

By Sylvain Oppizzi July 26, 2018 Edition CHIC 2017-2018Discover CORE project

Social media was pretty much everywhere during our stay here in Shenzhen and Hong Kong, but it took multiple forms, some of which were expected before leaving Switzerland, some not at all. It really made us reconsider how we use and how to leverage social media not only here, but also back home. In this brief report we will try to briefly explain the Chinese and Hongkonguese ecosystems, as well as point out the main differences and similarities between the two to better understand the topic.

First, let’s start with China. The world’s most populated country is not only an economic powerhouse but is also very technologically advanced with high living standards in most of the major cities. Shenzhen, dubbed China’s “Silicon Valley”, is at the forefront of this technological evolution, due to its manufacturing and R&D capacities. Social media starting booming worldwide thanks to the smartphone revolution, and it is not by coincidence that most of them come out factories located in Shenzhen or nearby in the Guangdong province. Huawei, Tencent, Xiaomi, ZTE, and newcomers like Oppo and Vivo, those are the big names that shape the technological landscape all over China.

But China nonetheless remains a communist country, where censorship and government control can still be felt in a multitude of ways. Not every content is accessible, as most of the major apps and platforms used in the Western world such as Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, Instagram and Youtube are banned. We used VPNs (connection to internet through a private network) to access them during the trip, but by discussing with local people, the government is also starting to crack down on them. So, does that mean that Chinese people are not very active on Social media? The answer is: absolutely not!

The internet giant Tencent, which we had the privilege to visit during our stay in Shenzhen, is one of the largest and fastest growing companies not only in China, but also worldwide. Founded only 20 years ago, it is now at the center of the Chinese social media landscape. Its flagship product is WeChat, an all-in-one messaging app with over 1 billion (!) daily active users. The platform centralizes basically every service offered by Western social media platforms into one App. But more than that, WeChat is essentially becoming an app you can live on. Message friends, share pictures and stories of your everyday life, find a restaurant, book a hotel, use public transportation, pay your bills or your insurance or groceries, book a doctor’s appointment, go there in a cab you’ve just ordered on the app, the list goes on and on. Tiny issue: you need a Chinese bank account to setup a wallet, and gain access to everything that has a payment feature, so it was therefore not possible for us to use many products that WeChat offers. But Tencent doesn’t stop there though, as its first product, an instant messaging app called QQ, is still very popular, and other apps within the Tencent ecosystem are widely used.

The other big actors on the market are Sina Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter, Youku, very similar to Youtube, and finally Baidu, the preferred search engine of the Chinese people. Other new companies are entering or have entered the market recently, and changes are so fast they often cannot be predicted.

The consumers are at the center of this social media ecosystem, and companies are very well aware of that. The fact that they can reach all of them via a one-and-only platform such as WeChat gives them a huge leverage as far as advertising and interacting with their communities. And of course, all of the data collected along this process allows the companies to use advanced business intelligence, machine learning and AI strategies. So, having said that, are the Chinese concerned about their privacy, like we are in Europe or in the US? The answer, surprisingly this time, is also absolutely not! They don’t mind the control the big internet companies, or the government has over their private lives, because security and social stability is their main focus.

But right across the southern border of Shenzhen, out of mainland China, is Hong Kong. The rules that applied in China no longer apply there, and this impacts the social media environment quite a bit.

Hong Kong is a special administrative region separated from the rest of China. It has over 200 islands and is a place where you find multiple cultures due to fact they were an old British colony. This is why HK is so open-minded, there is a lot of different people and last but not least, they almost ALL speak English, unlike China.

Our vision of social media in HK is completely different from what we saw in China. In Hong Kong you have access to every leading social media platforms like Facebook or Twitter. They are often criticized for their data gathering and the fact that the government doesn’t have any power on them because they are private companies. WhatsApp is also mainly used in Hong Kong while in China they’re using their famous WeChat App. There are some difference because the apps aren’t used for the same purpose, but the first goal of them is to communicate. One is blocked in China and the other not. Guess which one is blocked. Hongkongese don’t use WeChat as much as the Chinese. Of course, if you want to use some western media, you have to use a VPN to pass through the Chinese government censorship. Contrary to China, you will not find any QR code (for WeChat) in the streets of HK. Maybe you’ll find it in a famous fast food but it is still not casual. As said before, you have access to the others western social media in HK and they are mainly using them. You can see a lot of Facebook or Instagram links for the companies. In China, obviously you’ll see a lot of QR code instead. With the point of view of social media, HK is like a western country lost in China. People in Hong Kong have adopted an hybrid way to use social media, mainly due their proximity with China and the international and cross-cultural status of the city.

Sylvain & Mehmed