- Although they are often asked to just copy and paste what is assigned to them, they cannot help think about what they are posting. Sometimes if it is something that conflict with their own values, such as ads of fake drug or financial scams or libel against an innocent person, they often struggle with the dilemma between fulfilling their job like a digital robot and acting according to their own feelings.
- To enter different websites, they need to created multiple online IDs. Sometimes they take these online IDs as simple masks, which embolden them to do things that they wouldn’t dare to do under their real name. But some develop a relationship with the fabricated identities, particularly if it is in a forum with personal interactions, they would feel bad if their job assignment leads to the notoriety of their IDs.
- They often need to paste hundreds of posts a day, which left them no time for real life interactions. Working all day on the Internet, and often not able to explain to their family or friends what their job is, made many of them feel detached from the real world. Sometimes they even see themselves as outsiders of the society. This is very common among all kinds of cyber workers I interviewed.
- They still would like to be a little creative in their online work. For example, a water-army soldier once told me that he like to use many web slangs in his posts, and sometimes his clients like it, because it will make his posts seem more real.
- The fact that they are being paid for posting online does change their experience of participating in online discussions. Many of them told me that they are now more skeptical of what people say on the Internet, because they know how many water armies are out there, and they tend to think people are more vulnerable on the Internet than they realize. But they are not entirely cynical about the Internet, most of them still enjoy all kinds of online interactions and often find the job of paid posting a better choice than other alternatives they have.
Although Sina Weibo （微博）, China’s top microblog network, is still not making any profit, the trend setters who have a large number of followers on Weibo already found some ways to monetize their online influence. Many celebrities on Weibo, from film stars to athletes to public intellectuals who already had many fans before they started microblogging, find Weibo a powerful site for self-promotion; but I am mainly studying the people whose social capital mostly comes from their work of microblogging itself.
My favorite example is Lao Rong (老榕), an experienced writer and Internet entrepreneur who has been active in China’s online forums, e-commerce sites and blogosphere since the late 90s. But what made him a superstar of microblogging in 2011 was his live reports on the Libya revolution. During the Libya revolution, Chinese netizens found that the stories they got from official media such as CCTV or Global Times were quite different from those from International news websites, and many of them were curious about what was really going on. Lao Rong actually went to Libya on his own expense as a citizen journalist and immersed himself in the rebelling Libyans in Benghazi. Netizens found the videos, photos and first-hand account on Lao Rong’s microblog much more trustworthy and lively than the reports from tradition media. So more than 3 million people started to follow Lao Rong on Sina Weibo.
Now Lao Rong is writing about the Syria crisis, but he is also making his microblog into a site of e-commerce. He is an expert of jade, so he posts pictures of jade collectibles and promote them to his followers. Since the value of a piece of jade is very difficult to determine even if it’s closely examined by an expert, only the mutual trust between Lao Rong and his virtual followers, which Lao Rong earned through his citizen journalism, can make it possible to trade jade on microblog. Lao Rong is also running a social enterprise, through which he helps poor communities in Xinjiang Uighur area to sell their agricultural products to residents in big cities. Without the promotion on his microblog, these agricultural products would have been left rotten in the field without ever reaching the urban customers.
But you don’t have to talk about international politics to become a star on Weibo; a microblog account named “Too Much Laughter will Get You Pregnant” (笑多了会怀孕）won close to 2 million followers by diligently aggregate and repost the most popular jokes, parodies, and tabloids on the Chinese Internet constantly. It introduces itself as a curator of erotic, cold, spicy and warm-hearted jokes. Meanwhile, it sends an open invitation to advertisers who are interested in purchasing promotional tweets from it. So every once a while on this microblog, in the mix of funny pictures and witty sayings, you would find a tweet giving out a coupon or promoting a product.
Sina Weibo, despite of its 250 million registered users and its unique social influence compared to traditional media constrained by censorship, is struggling to find ways to make profit itself. Naturally it is trying to integrate the e-commerce model of Lao Rong and the advertising model of “Too Much Laughter” into its system. Sina proposed a plan to build a platform for advertisers and star microbloggers to match each other, then advertisers can purchase spaces at the main pages of the desired microblogs, and Sina will split the advertising fee with the microbloggers. Sina even suggested that the virtual currency it invented for the Weibo community, sina weibi(微币), should be used to facilitate this trade.
Wang Ran （王冉），a venture capitalist and an influential microblogger who has more than 1 million followers on Weibo, was excited about the idea and gave the following suggestion to Sina about the advertisement trading platform: “Advertisers should have multiple choices. They can choose to work with the microblogs that get millions of hits or they can choose a specific type of microblog. As a microblogger, I should also be able to choose from all the requests from different advertisers. If an advertiser only cares about the number of hits, then Sina can determine the rate. But if an advertiser is looking for a microblogger with a specific style or fan base, then Sina should give room to the free negotiation between the advertiser and the microblogger. ”
Apple CEO Tim Cook is visiting Beijing these days and meeting with Chinese officials. He even was spotted in the Apple Store in Beijing. But what my fellow netizens are curious about is how he likes our shanzhai（山寨, knock-off) Phones.
Last night I heard from friends on Sina Weibo that Google Plus was unblocked and there is a Chinese carnival on Barack Obama’s G+ page, where we can do our favorite online activities such as 抢沙发 （”occupying sofa”－being the first in the comment roll ), and刷屏 （”swiping screen”-creating a sea of comments that flood the whole page). I immediately went to my G+ account, which I haven’t used since I opened it last year, and added Obama to my circle of “family”. Wow, under the first post I saw on Obama’s page dated Feb.24, 90% of the 500 comments are in Chinese, and a significant amount of the rest are in Chinglish. I have not seen a virtual party so wild since the April of 2010 when we climbed over the Great Firewall to follow the twitter of Aoi Sola (Japanese AV star).
BBC actually reported on this phenomenon already, but its misinterpretation of the Chinese comments has itself become a source of amusement for Chinese netizens. The BBC article says, “they talked about occupying the furniture and bringing snacks and soft drinks.” Obviously the reporters had no idea what “occupying sofa” means in Chinese Internet Language, which is the frontier of linguistic innovation. The folks at China Internet Watch tried to help out and explained:“occupying sofa” is a common behavior often in online forums trying to be the first to leave a comment or reply. Imagine many friends visit you at your house, the first ones arrived can take the sofa (which is more comfortable), those who are a bit late have to take the chairs, and the ones come last have only the floor to sit on”. Continue reading
Just two weeks after China and Russia vetoed the UN resolution condemning the bloody crackdown on protesters in Syria, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affair is now saying on its website that China supports the Arab League’s plan for ending the violence in Syria. Many netizens are saying that we are witnessing the same drama that happened during the Libya revolution, at that time China started with backing Qaddafi but quickly reversed the course when the opposition gained momentum. But it seems to me that Mr.Xi’s visit to the US played an important role in this change of position, and our next president Mr. Xi’s approach to foreign affairs seems to be more pragmatic than ideological. Continue reading
There have been several news reports this year that suggest cloud computing centers in China are turning into real estate development projects: local governments and financial investors used the concept to reclaim large pieces of land at low cost, obtain low-interest loans from banks and apply for government subsidy, before they have any plan for software or application. Even for a cynic like me, this sounds too bad to be true, but recently I happened to see some documents from the Chongqing government that aim to invite financial investors for its ambitious 10-square-kilometer Two River Cloud Computing Zone, and these documents appear to be invitation for financial speculation rather than technological innovation.
The first thing people should know about cloud computing in china is that it is again driven by state capitalism. Once the technocratic officials of China become aware of the concept of cloud computing, they immediately see the potential of applying their magic formula of “fixed asset investment+government subsidy+cheap loan” on it, because after all cloud computing does involve some large physical infrastructure. The story is quite similar to what happened to the concept of “Internet of Things”. Continue reading
I became interested in Cyber Labor when I was doing research on real money trade in the virtual world of online games, such as World of Warcraft, back in 2006. I met group of Chinese young men who were making a living by playing online multiplayer role-playing games. These young men are called gold farmers, and the in-game goods they collected were sold to other gamers, often from the US and Europe, for real money. I also made a documentary film on this topic. In the documentary, gold farmers talked about how it feels to live at the border between the virtual and the real, to mix play and work, and to interact with foreign gamers who they would never have the chance to meet if not for this globalized virtual world.
I’ve been called a Nihilist in the virtual world. My gaming skill is miserable and I cannot sincerely engage in all the quest and interaction of an online game, so my gamer friends asked me, “do you believe there is any meaning in our world?”
But as I was making this film about gamers, about people who live at the edge of the real and the virtual, I realize that we all create and live our virtual reality one way or another. Through this film, I met young Chinese workers who are happy to find that they could make a living by playing the online games they love. In the virtual world they find what the real world often deprives them of: dignity, power, and community etc. But when they are gold farming or power leveling, in other words doing the dirty work in games for their customers, they are constantly reminded that people are not born equal even in this virtual world.
I also met gamers from the US who are willing to spend a significant portion of their income on things in game. Some of them laughed at my comment that they find compensation in the virtual world for what they cannot get in the real world. They say they endure their boring and taxing jobs in real life so that they have the money to make their virtual life better. The real does not necessarily precedes the virtual. Meanwhile, some gamers cannot tolerate that money from the real world is contaminating their virtual world, which is supposed to be a level playing field. But they often target their anger at the gold farmers, rather than the innate structure of most games.
The encounter of these Chinese and American gamers is thus fascinating. They wouldn’t have this personal interaction if not for this globalized virtual world. Of course there is misunderstanding or even conflicts, I hear stories about vigilante groups patrolling the border of the virtual and real as if the Chinese gold farmers are illegal immigrant labor from China to the US. But there are plenty of heart warming stories about gamers collaborate, communicate, and learn about each other’s culture.
I no longer think these gamers are more distanced from reality than people like me who don’t have an avatar. Things I gave the most important meaning to might seem completely virtual to others, for example, money and fame. What would our real life be, if we take all the imagination and interpretation away from it? Whose game is reality? To those who are stubborn about keeping it real or keeping it virtual, my film has a statement: we can accept anything but reality.
Dr. Fang Binxing, an academician of the China Academy of Engineering who was one of the main designers of the infamous firewall confining China’s Internet, presented his new theory on Internet Sovereignty and reiterated his view on the importance of “border control” on the Internet, at a conference called “Innovation and Development of China’s Internet Forum” on November 11th.
Dr. Fang was often called “father of China’s Great Firewall” and his unapologetic support for Internet censorship made him one of the most hated figures among pro-democracy netizens. When he was giving a speech in Wuhan University in May this year, a student threw a shoe at him, and there was heated discussion in various pro-democracy online forums over how much damage Dr. Dang did to the Internet in China.
But this time Dr. Fang still voiced his view forcefully and presented a new theory that defines four basic components of Internet Sovereignty (full Chinese text here) The four basic components, or fundamental rights in Fang’s words, are the right of independence, the right of equality, the right of self defense and the right of jurisdiction.
Though I was quite familiar with Dr. Fang’s view, I still didn’t expect he would go so far to envision an Internet that consists solely of territories of nation-states, which can sometimes become battle fields between nation-states. In his elaboration of the right of independence, Dr. Fang envisions an Internet in China that can exist outside of the global Internet. The right of equality, as Dr. Fang describes, essentially means that the “Internets” of different nation-states can have diplomatic and business connections. In Dr. Fang’s words, “it’s just like airline traffic across borders”.
When Dr. Fang talked about the right of self-dense, his nationalistic sentiment became ever more salient. I doubt he believes in any kind of shared public interests of international communities, all he can see is a world in which nation-states compete for supremacy and self-interests. Dr. Fang compared the national rivalry of Internet to that of nuclear competition or space war, and he emphasized that we have to protect our virtual space just like what we do with our land, sea or sky territory. Dr. Fang sees so many national enemies that are just waiting for any chance to attack China’s Internet system, that he believes only an Internet of total isolation is truly capable of self defense.
Among all the mind-boggling things Dr. Fang said, what shocked me most was his explanation of the right of jurisdiction. He lamented that our Internet does not have the capability to disable a global Internet service whenever desirable. He used the example of Google and said it was a pity that although google had retreated from China but its service was still accessible in China. “It’s like the relationship between riverbed and water. Water has no nationality, but riverbeds are sovereign territories, we cannot allow polluted water from other nation-states to enter our country”, said Dr. Fang.
I have written about how nationalism in radical forms is becoming a main obstacle for China’s opening up and political reform. When public interest can hardly justify internet censorship, nationalism becomes the foundation of a discourse of Internet sovereignty that Dr. Fang’s theory contributes to, and helps to fabricate a vision that somehow it’s in the interest of Chinese people as a nation to have an Internet that is isolated from the global Internet. I fall back into my habitual pessimism on the thought that it’s people like Dr. Fang who are in charge of constructing and supervising the Internet in China. Continue reading