China: Twitter revolution

2010-02-11 - damon

What could we learn from Google's withdrawal in China? Evan Williams, the co-founder and CEO of Twitter, had an idea. "We are partially blocked in China and other places and we were in Iran as well," he said at the World Economic Forum in Davos. "The most productive way to fight that is not by trying to engage China and other governments whose very being is against what we are about." Moreover, Williams mentioned that Twitter is now developing technology to prevent government censorship. In fact, Twitter runs across multiple mediums including the Internet and mobile devices, as well as modify the Hosts file, use Tweeter tool to set up their own Twitter API and use Dabr and other third-party sites and softwares, secure their advantage over a singular website to avoid government censorship.

Twitter's form of micro-blog is very popular in China. The already closed Fanfou is one of the famous site and Sina is the latest one. was officially blocked last year following the 20th anniversary of June Forth Massacre and the incident in Urumchi in July, as the Zhongguo Guofangbao, the official newspaper of Chinese national defense, said Twitter, Flickr, Facebook and Youtube are turning into " convenient and powerful tools for western hostile forces to subvert the country and should not be underestimated."

However, Twitter still plays a very important role in Chinese Internet for its easy accessibility. An interesting research shows that 70% of 1,000 more Twitter users in China is aged 21 to 29, 67% in the coastal region. One of the reasons why they are on Twitter is "understanding the TRUTH, explore their insight." Twitter connect different news source and social movement. For example, Chinese netizens recently made connection with two important social movements in Hong Kong by using tweets of #stopxrl and #0101hk to discuss and follow the news about the rally for democracy in Hong Kong on 1-1-2010 and the demonstration of stopping the costly (HK$66.9 billion) Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong Express Rail (Hong Kong section)

The following is Professor Hu Yong's article about this micro blogging issue or what he called "micro revolution".

Hu Yong: Micro Revolution: From Twitter to Sina's microblog

July 29, 2009, Twitter, the founder of microblog, replaced her classic question "What are you doing?" on the front page by an imperative sentence "Share and discover what's happening right now, anywhere in the world." Once I saw this, I wrote on Twitter: "The change of Twitter today has great significance. The structure of future number-one media appears."

Insight of trivial information

Twitter, not seen having a bright future in the past, was frequently challenged by the question "Who cares what I'm doing 24 hours a day?" Indeed, there are a lot of gossips, self-pity and self-love on micro-blog, particularly when Fanfou "left quietly" and almost only QQ's TaoTao and MySpace's remained. During that period, I visited these two sites. The home page of TaoTao read "48.88 million Tao's friends are nagging on TaoTao. The most popular one is: "I am very confused today, what I really want to eat at noon? ... ... I shaped my eyebrow last night, not the one I frequently visited but another one introduced by my colleagues who said it shaped good-looking eyebrow. Unfortunately I don't think so, the previous one is better...... "

However, even such a nagging forms a close network of contacts, and creates what social scientist called "ambient awareness" through this kind of connection. Each little update and separate piece of social information is insignificant and even mediocre itself, but by the time they are pulled together, these small pieces gradually connect themselves into an incredibly detailed picture of yourself, your friends or family member's life, just like an impressionist painting made of thousands of points.

Twitter was born in such context: 140 characters plus "@+Twitter account" which is unbelievable simple. It may lead to a more reflexive culture. Twitter's experienced users usually talk about the unexpected side effect of the recurrent behavior of self-reporting: You have got to stop several moments every day and observe your own feeling and thought. This behavior will gradually become philosophical. It is similar to the saying in the Greek aphorism "Understand yourself" and the psychiatric concept of "insight".

However, Twitter's greatness is not limited to this static "insight". The old-styled written diary can fulfill this need. Its greatness resides not simply on ambient awareness, but also its ability of leaping out the narcissistic circle enabled by its unique architecture.

Twitter's core is attention and concern. Users will be notified any new messages posted by the person they are interested in. Once the message is posted, one would receive notification. The attended one is not required to respond. It makes Twitter's link directed. Its value is dependent on the qualities of the ones you choose to pay attention to. Some of Twitter's functions, such as reply, retweet and private message, makes the dialogue happen. And "tag", which allows us to see the aggregating process of a subject matter, forms a field of dialogue.

It means Twitter is a kind of media as well as a tool of social interaction. From the change of "What are you doing?" to "Share and discover", the inventor of Twitter realizes that "Share and discover" is much more powerful than "insight": it can be used to form a kind of distributed journalism characterized by fast speed, rich sources of information and mighty dissemination,. The expansion of information can also encourage the formation of social organizations and social movement.

So the revolution makes her debut.

How does "Micro revolution" happen?

It was the protest provoked by the election in Iran in June 2009 that connected micro-blog with revolution. The news of Tehran riots happened after the election spread just like a wildfire on Twitter. It was further picked up by the news network such as BBC and NPR to disseminate massively around the world. Twitter is amazing. As Tehran blocked the function of cell phone text message and also some websites, Twitter became the alternative network to satisfy the Iranians' eagerness to receive information and voice out. During the time that protests were going on in Iran, the U.S. State Department sent an unusual e-mail to the Twitter founder to request it to defer its original plan of global network maintenance, because of during the maintenance period, the Iranians would not be able to sign in and thus the information of the front-line of the protest in Tehran could not be promptly delivered to the world outside. Twitter accepted the State Department's call and the maintenance time was postponed to the early morning of Tehran. Twitter admitted that "we have become an important medium of communication for Iranians."

The analysis of the role played by Twitter in communication and organization during the Iranian protest has already become the latest hot topic for many social media researchers. However, the whole picture of the digitalized protest is in fact far more complicated. Firstly, the general netizens are well-off young people and urban citizens. They supported the opposite party, which made the illusion for the world outside that "the revolution is about to happen in Iran". It ignored what the large number of conservative and rural people were thinking. Biz Stone, one of the Twitter founders, admitted that only a small part of the Iranians use Twitter. They might not be able to represent the mainstream opinion. Secondly, YouTube and Twitter are more like a tool to be used for citizen journalism. The protest itself was mainly organized by the opposition candidates in the offline world.

Although Twitter's role in social action is overestimated, we still have to admit that the Micro-blog service, which is only available for less than four years, set up its own milestone in 2009. In contrast, CNN, famous by its reports on the Middle East a few years ago, was extraordinarily silent. Among the popular vanes in the Twitter's world - called hash-tag label - one is called "failure of the CNN" (# CNNFail ).

Inevitably people would recall the grand year for CNN: When there is something important happening in the world, millions of people would wait in front of the television for watching CNN's breaking news in order to receive first-hand information on the site in distant places. Nowadays, the first news source is Twitter rather than TV, no matter what kind of the news, such as "swine flu", terrorist attacks in Bombay or belly-landing on the Hudson River in New York.

CNN did a great job in 1991 when the first Gulf War broke out. But nearly 20 years later, people seems to have a consensus that real-time, online, crowd-sourced media is the best place to follow current news. A British journalist who I know wonders if it is possible to write history by social media such as the Twitter. It's amazing that Twitter's users now have the courage to blame the shallowness and carelessness of big media organizations in reporting international news. CNN here is a symbol - it is remembered by all the fault of the television medium occupied by entertaining infotainment.

Strictly speaking, it is an issue of CNN's ability rather than its willingness. 20 years ago, CNN enjoyed a privilege to get access to some parts of the world such as China and Iraq. Freelance reporters had no access to them and the local reporters were not able to release their news stories to the world outside. Now that era is gone. The local people already achieve the power to report their own news, no matter whether on Twitter, Facebook, blog or mobile phone. CNN's exclusive access rights has been enormously dismantled.

This is the communicative revolution brought by Twitter. That's also what the sentence "the structure of future number-one media appears" means. However, the social revolution brought by microblog might be more important than communicative revolution. In fact, in such a revolution, Chinese Twitter users are leading the world, from social resistance to civic investigation, from monitoring public opinion to creating black satire, from the “power of organizing without organizations” in Panyu anti-incineration movement to mailing a variety of postcards to prisoners of conscience, and from color ribbon campaign for commemoration to Twitter internationalism in “China for Iran” (# CN4Iran ). All these demonstrate Chinese Twitters' agency and influence. And this power, comparing with the previous driving force, is distinguished by its "micro-power", an accurate term, rather than a large or brutal force.

Micro power and a broader world

The slogan of Chinese Blogger Conference 2009 is "Micro power and a broader world " (???,???). It anticipated the ways how more and more subtle information-sharing tools and channels promote social progress and collaboration which have immediate impact on our way of life." A piece of meme, a photograph or a postcard may bring about positive social change, not mention the thousands of possibilities emerging. They brought us a great world for thinking freely.

While one person shares his/her own view, more people read this and continue to share this view with others. Through such constant sharing, collective decision can be made. This is similar to the process of water droplets gathering into a cloud -- Mao Xianghui, a well-known blogger, compares use the metaphor of droplet for individual. Once individuals agree on a view and continue to share constantly, people with the same idea gather together and form a force, a force which can change national policy and even social order.

From my point of view, micro-power is nothing but taking up one's responsibility. "Micro" refers to every ordinary citizen. "Power" is nothing but action. Despite the thousands words, it's action that change the world.

By "Micro" you can also refer to daily micro-politics. Politics can be divided into macro-politics and micro-politics. Macro-politics is structural while micro-politics is daily. Change in micro-politics system are not necessarily logically derived to an adjustment in macro-structure. But if these small units are well-organized, as people are living in the micro-politics, we can greatly improve people's well-being. If we do not manage well at the micro level, even a macro governance structure such as macro-democracy would not work well. The governance at the grass-roots level still rely on our own. In this sense, we need "micro-revolution" rather than "macro-revolution". By "micro-information" and "micro-exchange" we may push the revolution forward.

A book titled "Antipolitics" by the Hungarian writer George Konrad in 1982, contains a lot of issues to follow. The examples include the concepts of "anti-political politics", "the power of the powerless," and "citizen's initiative", etc., frequently used by Valclav Havel. Cui Weiping, the translator of Havel's work, see "anti-political politics" as not pursuing political power; on the contrary, he advocated people to initiate their works everywhere and at anytime in their everyday life. In other words, it is about how to start from governance around yourself. My understanding of "citizen's initiative" is that anyone can start from anywhere.

Why is micro-power so important? In the past, the actions are carried out by a few highly motivated people and the mass with almost no initiative. It often results in frustrating results. Passionate people did not understand why the public is concerned about. The public did not understand why the enthusiasts about politics keep talking rather than silent. Today, those highly motivated people should lower the threshold for action so that people with less passion can join the action a little bit. And all efforts will come together as a strong power.

Source (Chinese)