Commentary RESEARCH

A changing landscape: How Chinese and Western social media compare


2019-02-25 08:32

Andy Boreham

Social media as we know it today has been on the rise for more than a decade now, starting from the humble beginnings of Facebook in 2004 (MySpace and that ilk were quite different from today’s social media and so aren’t considered here). It’s helped us keep up with our cousins’ baby pics, changed the way we communicate and sparked revolutions.

But is it a force for good, bad or something in between? And what are the differences and similarities between Chinese and Western social media platforms?

China’s social media scene

China’s social media landscape today is more diverse than ever, with the main players including some established platforms like WeChat, Weibo and QQ, and some new entrants like Douyin and Kuaishou. Still the most popular by far is the ubiquitous WeChat, with 619.6 million active daily users, the world’s #5 most used. Weibo, which is often called China’s Twitter, has 116.7 million daily active users, and short video app Douyin, or TikTok in the West, has 400 million.

The West’s social media scene

The West leads the way in social media popularity, mostly because they have developed platforms that become popular on an international scale — apart from in China, of course. Facebook reigns supreme with 1.52 billion active daily users, followed by Instagram with 500 million, Trump’s favorite, Twitter, on 100 million, and YouTube with 30 million daily active users.

China is catching up with the internationalization game through TikTok, which is now quite a popular platform amongst Western users.

How is Chinese social media used?

Social media in China is, much like anywhere, a machine for communication, entertainment, commerce and news. But unlike the West, many social media platforms in China are integrated with e-commerce features — either native or through partnerships — that include payment systems, online stores and more.

One of the reasons WeChat, for example, has so many daily active users is that many rely on the system to make daily payments, for anything from train and bus fares to flowers from the lady on the street, food in restaurants and lending money to friends and family. The success of e-payment systems like WeChat and Alipay has led to many places in China becoming largely cashless, leaving Western platforms like Facebook frothing at the bit.

In China, news stories — especially those surrounding emergencies or disasters — are held back until clear facts and information are gathered, with a lot of attention being paid to keeping hysteria and panic to a minimum.

Because of this, many Chinese will instead turn to social media for citizen reports and unofficial accounts, either through friends and contacts on WeChat or by following hashtags and threads on Weibo. The problem here is that this is fertile ground for rumors and conjecture.

Another prominent aspect of Chinese social media of late has been to condemn people and brands that are seen to “harm” China — its people or its image. This is often a bit over the top, like recently when Chinese netizens came out in force to attack international fashion brand Zara because they used a Chinese model with freckles in one of its advertisements. The sight of freckles showed that the company wished to “defame the Chinese,” apparently, because freckles are seen as a defect. Zara apologized anyway, and its response was seen on Weibo some 460 million times.

How is Western social media used?

Like in China, social media in the West is used for communication, entertainment and news, but lacks strong, integrated e-commerce features. One feature of Western social media that sets it apart from China’s is the vast proliferation of different ideas, truths, ideologies and “fake news.”

“News” is spread on Western social media unchecked, whether its content is accurate or not, through social media platforms and the growing number of “citizen journalists.” It is also very possible for users to tweak their experiences online to only remain inside their own “echo chamber,” a place where their views are affirmed and bolstered.

The USA is currently embroiled in a fake hate crime scandal where a black, gay actor paid two Nigerian men to attack him in Chicago and then pretended the attack was by two racist, homophobic white supporters of Donald Trump. “News” of the so-called hate crime went viral, with dozens of prominent figures — including politicians, actors, singers and more — propagating the myth through Twitter and pushing a fake narrative that aimed to further divide what is an already hugely politically divided country. Chicago police are now seeking the actor, but he remains on the run.

So, is it good or bad?

Social media is not good or bad, it’s a tool that can be used in a multitude of ways, some helpful and some potentially damaging. One thing is for sure, though: Social media is a huge part of our lives, and it will most definitely change as much in the next 10 years as it did in the previous. Buckle up!



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