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An Introduction to Sina Weibo: Background and Status Quo

Sina Weibo, often referred to as ‘Weibo’, is one of the biggest social media platforms of China. A short introduction to China’s most popular micro-blogging service.

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This is What’s on Weibo’s short introduction to Sina Weibo, China’s biggest social media network that was launched in 2009. Over the past eight years, Weibo has transformed from a Chinese equivalent of Twitter to a comprehensive platform that incorporates the major features of social media channels like Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram [last updated April 2017].

Sina Weibo is China’s most popular social media platform. This is What’s on Weibo’s Sina Weibo File: an introduction to Sina Weibo, with regularly updated facts and stats.

 
What’s on Weibo’s Weibo File:
1. What is Sina Weibo? A Short Intro
2. Weibo Dead? Au Contraire!
3. Sina Weibo in Numbers
4. Weibo’s Biggest Stars

 

1.What is Sina Weibo?
A Short Intro

 

Sina Weibo (新浪微博), often simply called ‘Weibo’ (pronounce as way-bo), is one of the biggest social media platforms of China. ‘Weibo’ literally means ‘micro-blog.’

Weibo is often explained as the Chinese equivalent of Twitter or Facebook, two services that are blocked in mainland China. The year that Sina Weibo was launched (2009) was a pivotal year for China in terms of micro-blogging. Besides Twitter, domestic social media sites such as Zuosa, Fanfou and Taotao were rapidly gaining popularity. Following the Urumqi riots in 2009, Chinese authorities blamed the free flow of information for the surge of social unrest and put a stop to Twitter, Facebook and many local microblogs (Sullivan 2012, 775). Sina Weibo was introduced as a new social media platform that would keep the stream of incoming posts under control by tracking and blocking ‘sensitive’ content (ibid. 2012, 775-776).

There are multiple sites in China that offer micro-blogging services, but Sina Weibo is still the most popular one around the Chinese web. Three years after its launch, it already had 503 million registered users (Chen et al 2012, 1; Zhao et al 2014, 613); a significant majority of the 640 million Internet users that China holds.

Sina Weibo is often called the “Chinese Twitter”, but actually it is more versatile. The platform functions as what could be said to be a combination of Facebook and Twitter, but ultimately is unique.

Weibo has a 140 character limit to each post and users are part of a “follower-followee network” (Gao et al 2012, 88). The relationship between followers and followees is unidirectional; one can ‘follow’ an individual and read their ‘weibos’ (posts), like and share them, without being followed back. It is possible for users to upload videos, images, and gifs.

Research shows that there are quite some differences between how Weibo is used in China and Twitter is used in other countries. Not only do users of Sina Weibo publish more posts than those on Twitter, they also tend to disclose more personal information about themselves. They are more active in reacting on other people and sharing their views (Gao et al 2012, 93; Sullivan 2012, 774). While topics discussed on Twitter are often linked to institutions and companies, users of Sina avoid talking about (political) organizations or other institutions (Gao et al 2012, 96). The idea that Weibo is used in a more ‘personal’ way is supported by the fact that Sina Weibo users publish 19% more posts during the weekends. This in contrast to Twitter, where people post 11% less tweets on weekends than they do on weekdays (ibid. 2012, 98).

China is in the midst of a “microblogging revolution” (Sullivan 2012, 773). Online government regulations and censorship have not turned Chinese Internet or Weibo into a social media prison. On the contrary, the Chinese Internet could be called “one of the most vibrant economic and social cyberspaces in the world” (Yeo&Li 2012, 7). The intense online discussions on corrupt officials or multiple food scandals have demonstrated that the relationship between the censors and the world of Weibo is not black and white. Although there are many limits to what can be posted, and control is strict, Weibo does offer a national platform to ordinary Chinese netizens where they can enjoy a relatively free online environment (Sullivan 2012, 774; Magistad 2012). Weibo is a place of continuous negotiation between citizens and government on what the boundaries are, and to what extent they can be stretched. In this way Weibo is a highly politicized space. It is clear that Weibo is a significant phenomenon to present Chinese society that will keep buzzing on the net for a long time to come.

 

2.Weibo Dead?
Au Contraire! 

 

Recently, many different media have stated that Weibo is dying as a consequence to 2015 rules that required users to register with their real names. More people allegedly switched from the more public Weibo to the more private messaging app Weixin, media argued, and Weibo would soon be on the way out as online free speech becomes more and more limited.

Weibo, the Chinese microblogging site

Although Weibo is not the more ‘private’ platform it used to be, it is still very much alive. Its daily active users are still on the increase, with 34% more in 2015 than in 2014. Its mobile monthly active users grew 57% in 2015.The private dimension of Weibo (talking amongst friends) has made room for Weixin, where P2P is the most important form of interaction. In December 2016, Weibo had 313 million monthly active users.

Sina Weibo is now a public social media platform and China’s most dominant source of news content, where netizens come for information acquisition, sharing and commenting. They also have added additional features to the platform (such as ‘Radar‘) to keep Weibo users coming back.

Weibo still has over 500 million registered users; and with over 212 million of them actively using the platform in 2015, and monthly active users reaching 390 million in September of 2016, Weibo is more alive than ever. Those who said Weibo was dead, were too soon to judge: WeChat has not killed Weibo and users are not leaving (yet). A number one trending topic still has up to 800 million page views and 4.9 million comments.

 

3.Sina Weibo
in Numbers

 

*Sina Weibo has more than 500 million registered users.

*There are 313 million monthly active users.

*85% of them use Weibo on their mobile.

*There are over 100 million messages posted by users each day.

*70% of Weibo’s active users are at university level.

*50.10% of Weibo users are male, 49.90% are female.

*With 90 million followers, actress Xie Na is the number 1 Weibo celebrity.

 

4.Weibo’s
Biggest Stars

 

Some of Weibo’s top celebrities have more ‘followers’ than any other star in the world. The top 10 celebrities from mainland China with the biggest fan base changes every now and then but the top five has been pretty stable for the past year.

What is noteworthy about this list is that it does not contain any ‘internet celebrities’ (网红 wanghong), meaning people who have become self-made online influencers through the internet, for which Weibo has become known over the past 1-2 years. One example is comedian Papi Jiang, who became famous by posting funny videos of herself. Nevertheless, the biggest Weibo stars are still the ‘traditional celebrities’ in the sense that they have made their big breakthrough through TV or cinema.

Many of them simply have become so big on Weibo because they were among the first celebrities to join the platform since its beginning in 2009. Big names in this list, including Yao Chen, Chen Kun, and Guo Degang, already had over 54 million followers on the platform in 2013.

Here we go with our updated list of Weibo’s biggest stars of 2017:

 

1. Xie Na 谢娜

90.485.623 followers.

The absolute number one this list is the ‘Queen of Weibo’ Xie Na (1981), also nicknamed ‘Nana’ – an extremely popular Chinese singer, actress and designer. One of the reasons she has become so famous in mainland China is that she is the co-host of Happy Camp (快乐大本管), which is one of China’s most popular variety TV shows. She presents the show together with, amongst others, colleague He Jiong, who is the number two in this list.

Xie Na stars in many popular Chinese films and television series. She has also released several albums, founded a personal clothing line, and published two books.

Before getting married to Chinese singer Zhang Jie, Xie Na was in a 6-year relationship with her Happy Camp colleague Liu Ye.

Xiena made headlines in March 2017, becoming #1 trending topic on Weibo, when she announced she would go to Italy as an overseas student to study design.

 

2. He Jiong 何炅

83.883.937 followers

He Jiong (1974) has been the host of China’s popular Happy Camp TV show for over ten years. He is also a singer, actor, and used to be an Arabic teacher at Beijing’s Foreign Studies University. Chinese media have called He Jiong “a key figure in China’s entertainment industry.”

‘Happy Camp’ (快乐大本馆) is a prime time variety show aired by Hunan TV. It is one of China’s most popular TV shows in China. With a viewership of tens of millions, it often holds first place in China’s total viewing ratings.

 

3. Chen Kun 陈坤

81.067.976 followers.

Chinese top actor and singer Chen Kun (1979, Chongqing) is known for his roles in, amongst others, Painted Skin and Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress.

Chen Kun, sometimes also known as Aloys Chen, is not only popular because of his acting work, but also for his looks – he is known to have a large gay fanbase. He is not shy about his looks, and likes to post a lot of photos of himself on his Weibo page.

 

4. AngelaBaby 杨颖

80.660.742 followers.

‘Angelababy’ (nickname for Yang Ying, 1989) has practically become a household name in China over the past few years. The actress and model started her acting career in 2007 and has taken on many roles in different movies and TV dramas.

Angelababy especially made headlines when she married Chinese famous actor Huang Xiaoming in 2015 and took extravagant pre-wedding photos in Paris. In the same year, she also set off a firestorm of debate when she underwent a medical examination to prove that she did not have facial plastic surgery to defend herself in a court case against a beauty clinic.

Angelababy is one of China’s “New Four Dan Actresses” according to the 2013 Southern Metropolis Daily, meaning she is generally perceived as one of China’s most bankable actresses.

 

5. Yao Chen 姚晨

80.570.259 followers.

In our 2015 list of Weibo’s biggest celebrities, Yao Chen was ranking first with 78 million followers. Although she has gained two million fans since then, she has dropped a few places in this list.

Fujian-born Yao Chen (1979) is a Chinese actress and Weibo celebrity, who was mentioned as the 83rd most powerful woman in the world by Forbes magazine in 2014. Being the first-ever Chinese UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador, she is also called ‘China’s answer to Angelina Jolie’ (Telegraph).

Yao Chen was featured on the 2016 Pirelli Calendar.

Yao Chen is not necessarily China’s number one actress, but she was one of the first celebrities to share her personal life on Weibo since 2009, and interact with her fans. On Weibo, she talks about her everyday life, family, news-related issues, work, and fashion. She posts personal pictures every day.

The combination of her popularity due to acting work, combined with her frequent Weibo updates and closeness to her fans, have made Yao Chen a huge Weibo celebrity.

For the full list check out our 2017 top 10 of Weibo celebrities.

By Manya Koetse

References

Chen Zhaoqun, Pengfei Liu, Xiaohan Wang and Yuantao Gu. 2012. “Follow Whom? Chinese Users Have Different Choice.” Paper, Department of Electronic Engineering, Tsinghua University. Available online at http://arxiv.org/abs/1212.0167 (Accessed February 28, 2013).

Gao, Qi, Fabian Abel, Geert-Jan Houben and Yong Yu. 2012. “A Comparative Study of Users’ Microblogging Behavior on Sina Weibo and Twitter.” In: Masthoff, J.; Mobasher, B.; Desmarais, M.; Nkambou, R. (Eds.), User Modeling, Adaptation, and Personalization: 20th International Conference, UMAP 2012, Montreal, Canada, July 16-20, 2012 Proceedings, 88-101. Heidelberg: Springer Berlin Heidelberg.

Lunden, Ingrid. 2012. “Analyst: Twitter Passed 500M Users In June 2012.” Techcrunch.com (July 30). Available online at http://tcrn.ch/OdtB41 (Accessed February 28, 2013).

Magistad, Mary Kay. 2012. “How Weibo is Changing China.” Yale Global (Aug 9). Available online at http://yaleglobal.yale.edu/content/how-weibo-changing-china (Accessed February 28, 2013).

Millward, Steven. 2015. “Weibo hits 212M monthly active users, most now on mobile.” Tech in Asia, Aug 19 https://www.techinasia.com/weibo-212-million-active-users/ [8.9.15].

Sullivan, Jonathan. 2012. “A Tale of Two Microblogs in China.” Media Culture Society (34): 773-783.

Yeo, George and Eric X. Li. 2012. “Yin and Yang: Sina Weibo and the Chinese State.” New Perspectives Quarterly 29(2): 7-9.

Zhao, J., Wu, W., Zhang, X., Qiang, Y., Liu, T., & Wu, L. 2014. “A Short-Term Trend Prediction Model of Topic over Sina Weibo Dataset.” Journal of Combinatorial Optimization (28):613-625.

(Image: http://charliewang.me/a-close-look-at-the-sina-weibo-phenomenon)

Article by Manya Koetse for What’s on Weibo. 2013-2015.

©2015 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

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Manya Koetse is the editor-in-chief of www.whatsonweibo.com. She is a writer and consultant (Sinologist, MPhil) on social trends in China, with a focus on social media and digital developments, popular culture, and gender issues. Contact at manya@whatsonweibo.com, or follow on Twitter.

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Backgrounder

Binging and Purging as Online Trend: From China’s “Big Stomach Stars” to “Vomit Bars”

China’s ‘Big Stomach Stars’ are all the rage – but is it really just harmless entertainment?

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Skinny girls that eat a week’s worth of food in one sitting: Chinese binge-eating vloggers are all the rage recently. But behind their cute image and happy fans, there are darker online discussions tying them to self-induced vomiting – something that is promoted in China’s so-called ‘vomit bars.’ How innocuous is this social media extreme-eating trend?

Mimi Zhang (aka Mizi Jun 密子君) has over seven million fans on her Weibo page. She regularly hits the top trending lists on Chinese social media, and even has her own online fanclubs.

Unlike previous rising Chinese social media stars such as Papi Jiang, the 26-year-old Mimi from Chongqing did not become an online celebrity because of her comic skills or acting talent, nor for her singing voice or dance moves. Mimi Zhang became famous for eating 8 lb (4 kg) of rice in one sitting, during an eating challenge in 2016.

Mimi eating 8lb (4 kg) of rice in one sitting.

By now, Mimi is one of China’s most successful ‘Eating Broadcasting’ hosts. Also called ‘Big Stomach Star Eating Livestream’ (大胃王吃播) or ‘Livestream Eating Vlogging’ (吃播女博主) in China, it is an online video genre in which hosts will consume extremely large amounts of food.

BJ The Diva during one of her livestreams.

In South Korea, it is known as the ‘mukbang‘ phenomenon, and the craze started there some years earlier, peaking in 2016. ‘Eating Broadcasting’ stars such as Kinoshita Yuka (video) and BJ The Diva (video) already had their moments of fame on the internet in South Korea, Japan, and beyond, but the genre only recently has become a real hype on Chinese social media.

 

Binging on Camera

 

Looking at the number of views and subscribers from YouTube to Twitch, or on platforms such as Kuaishou or Douyin, the ‘Eating Broadcasting’ genre obviously has millions of fans worldwide.

This online movement is innocuous in many ways. According to experts, people enjoy watching others eat because they feel a social connection, or want to stimulate their own appetite – it is one of the reasons why the craze is also dubbed ‘social eating.’

For many, the genre is simply entertaining; hosts often eat unconventional dishes, they are descriptive with taste, play around with their expressions, take on challenges, talk, and make funny sounds while eating.

Chinese food vlogger Duoyi (大胃王朵一) eats some skewers…

But what if ‘social eating’ becomes ‘binge eating’? How harmless is the genre if it shows skinny women eating excessive amounts of food, inadvertently promoting unhealthy eating habits and unrealistic standards?

Extreme binging on camera: eating noodles- not from a bowl, but from the back of a delivery car.

Along with Mimi Zhang, ‘Big Stomach Mini'(@大胃mini) is one other among many Chinese livestreamers that has achieved online stardom by eating large amounts of food. The 24-year-old reportedly is 1,70 m. tall and only weights 47 kilograms (103lbs), yet recently managed to eat a staggering 17 kg (35 pounds) of meat (video).

‘Big Stomach Mimi’

More and more, netizens are starting to connect these live-streamers to a habit of purging. Ongoing rumors suggest a supposed connection between binge streaming and vomiting.

Recently, various accounts claimed that Mimi Zhang used to have an account (using the name ‘Little Mi 360’ 小密360) on an online forum where people, mainly women, encourage each other to binge and purge.

 

China’s “Vomit Bar” (催吐吧) Community

 

China’s so-called “Vomit Bars” (催吐吧), online forums focused on binging and purging, have formed a hidden community on Chinese internet for years.

The phenomenon already came to light in 2012, and started to receive news media attention within China in 2015 and 2016. Most of the bigger online forums got shut down in 2017, however, after rumors circulated that a member of a ‘Vomit Bar’ had reached such a low weight that her organs failed and she passed away.

Example post from a ‘vomit bar’: 158 cm tall and 37 kg weight, but still wanting to lose.

Nevertheless, the online community consists of thousands of people, mainly women aged 14-40. A previously well-known forum on Baidu (now shutdown) had around 50,000 members called ‘rabbits’ (兔子) and over 5,5 million posts.

A “Vomit Bar” forum.

Since then, there are still some scattered forums, and a special Android app called ‘Meet Like Rabbits’ (相识于吐), where users can share their experiences and tips on message boards. On WeChat’s group chats, members of the community have more freedom to talk in private with less risk of being shut down.

The app for online purging community.

Members of the online ‘purging community’ are called ‘rabbits’ since the Chinese word for rabbit, tuzi (兔子), sounds similar to the word for ‘purging’ (tu 吐), and also because they eat all day, just like rabbits.

The main goal of these online forums is to share tips and tricks on how to lose weight by purging, while still binging on food. People also post photos of their binges or body, and share their hopes and fears in losing weight. “The way it is now, I could maintain a weight of around 46 kilograms,” one ‘rabbit’ writes: “I think it’s fat. My heart is filled with panic. I can only vomit.”

Netizens taking part in the ‘vomit bar’ community sharing photos of their binge food.

Newcomers ask others about best ways to vomit, and some people who say they’ve been binging and purging for years share experiences about their painful stomach and tooth decay.

Doctor Ma Yongchun (马永春) from Zhejiang Tongde Hospital since long has been warning people that these kind of online forums are harmful. She told iFeng news that the so-called ‘rabbits’ get caught up in a vicious cycle of binging and purging, and in doing so are developing serious eating disorders that can become life-threatening.

 

Eating Disorders in China

 

The Chinese ‘rabbit’ community could perhaps be compared to the Western ‘pro-ana‘ phenomenon, an online movement where people promote the behavior related to the eating disorder anorexia nervosa.

But there is one major difference; the ‘pro-ana’ community is connected to the term ‘anorexia’, suggesting that users of such forums are somewhat aware their behaviors are a sign of an actual eating disorder.

In these Chinese online communities, however, there seems to be a lesser acknowledgment that the cycle of binging and purging is one that belongs in the realm of a psychological disorder. Although people do complain that they feel they can no longer stop their irregular eating pattern, they talk more about their stomach aches and ulcers than they actually talk about suffering from an eating disorder.

This perhaps relates to the fact that there is little general awareness about eating disorders (ED) in China. Although there are no official statistics on the occurrence of bulimia, anorexia, or other ED in China, previous studies have found levels similar to Western countries (Tong et al 2014).

What various studies over the past years have also established is that there are major differences between Western countries and China in how eating disorders manifest themselves, suggesting they are not culture-bound but culture-reactive (Getz 2014, 749; Pike & Dunne 2015).

Because EDs are (1) traditionally conceptualized as a “Western mental health issue,” because (2) there is a social stigma attached to mental health issues in general in Chinese society, because (3) there is little general awareness on EDs, because (4) there is a lack in Chinese healthcare facilities specialized in EDs, and because of (5) various cultural factors (e.g. a very strong food culture), Chinese patients are more prone to talk about their problems in the form of somatic symptoms such as an extreme (dis)taste for food or abdominal problems, than in the form of a psychological problem (Getz 2014, 746-750).

 

Growing Awareness?

 

Recently, Chinese media slowly seem to be promoting more awareness on eating disorders. The American video “I became Anorexic for Instagram” has gone viral on Chinese social media over the past month, as it was posted by various state media channels on Weibo.

Among thousands of reactions, many said: “It seems that this kind of disease doesn’t occur much in China – we have too many tasty food!” Others said: “I want to lose weight too – I want an eating disorder like this!”

But there are also more and more people who are tying the rise of China’s online unhealthy eating trends to more serious issues. “These girls who eat so much [on camera] do not just have big stomachs, they actually puke in order to eat so much. I don’t find it entertaining to watch them anymore,” one netizen (@有兔劳劳) says.

“I now find it sad to watch these ‘big stomach stars’ (大胃王),” another person says: “They definitely vomit – it’s impossible for one person’s stomach to hold so much food.”

“What’s up with all these ‘big stomach stars’ recently? It’s not something they were born with, or something they were trained in doing; they are like those ‘rabbits’ and it is a disease, it’s bulimic. I don’t want to support them anymore by watching how they harm themselves,” another commenter writes.

Meanwhile, China’s binge-eating online stars seem to be unaffected by the online rumors that connect them to unhealthy trends and eating disorders.

This week, Mimi Zhang has posted her latest video in which she finishes a total of 15 desserts, while ‘Big Stomach Mini’ has posted a new video in which she eats, amongst others, 250 skewers of meat.

For some commenters, there is no issue at all: “She just has a great appetite.”

Are you suffering from an eating disorder and need help? For information on eating disorders and how to help if you are worried about someone, Beat (UK) or ANAD (US) has advice for sufferers, friends and family.

By Manya Koetse

References (online references linked to in text)

Getz, M.J. 2014. “The Myth of Chinese Barbies: Eating Disorders in China including Hong Kong.” Journal of Psychiatric and Mental Health Nursing 21: 746-754.

Pike, Kathleen M., and Patricia E. Dunne. 2015. “The Rise of Eating Disorders in Asia: a Review.” Journal of Eating Disorders 3:33. Available online https://jeatdisord.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s40337-015-0070-2 [17.1.18].

Tong, J., Miao, S., Wang, J. et al. 2014. “A Two-stage Epidemiologic Study on Prevalence of Eating Disorders in Female University Students in Wuhan, China.” Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology 49(3): 499-505.


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Backgrounder

Netizens or Not? About Chinese Online Communities & Use of the Term ‘Netizen’

The term ‘netizens’, referring to Chinese internet users, is both loved and hated.

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Chinese internet users are often referred to as ‘netizens’, but some people say the term is outdated and inappropriate. Should something change? What’s on Weibo explores the term and its use in different contexts.

It has been an issue of debate for years; the use of the word ‘netizen’ in English-language media – especially when referring to Chinese internet users.

At What’s on Weibo, it is a word we use in pretty much every article we post. Online media in China is our focus, and how ‘netizens’ deal with social media and trending topics is at the heart of this website.

But many people have had enough of the word ‘netizen.’ Already in 2013, Matt Schiavenza at The Atlantic wrote that the term was “once useful as a way to describe China’s internet users,” but that it is now “meaningless, inaccurate, and misleading.”

Schiavenza argues that “netizens” is mainly used for Chinese internet users who are politically active or outspoken, while there is a huge number of Chinese people who are non-political in their online behavior.

The term has also been discussed among people on Reddit, where some call it a “stupid journalism” term.

At the conclusion of the recent Chinese Internet Research Conference at Leiden University, the term was also briefly discussed in the context of ‘online communities,’ with some scholars deeming the word inappropriate to refer to Chinese internet users – also suggesting that speaking of Chinese “online communities” in itself was problematic to begin with.

One discussion participant suggested that words such as ‘community’ or ‘netizen’ are labels used by outsiders in the academic world or in foreign media, rather than Chinese describing themselves that way – saying it is problematic because it is “our label, not theirs.”

Is this really true? What’s behind the term ‘netizens’? Should Chinese internet users be described with other terms than ‘netizens’? For what reasons?

 

Behind the Word ‘Netizen’

 

The word ‘netizen’ was first coined in 1984 and popularized with the spread of the internet during the 1990s. The word is a blend of the words ‘internet’ and ‘citizen,’ and is (or was) generally used to either refer to people who use the internet, or more specifically, to refer to people who participate in online discussions or belong to ‘online communities’ (Johnson 2013).

The term is also often attributed to net theoretician Michael Hauben, who used it in his 1997 work to define people who “actively contribute toward the development of the Internet” and for a “citizen who used the Internet as a way of participating in political society.”

Already in 2012,Time Magazine elected the term as one of the words that should be banished, suggesting it had become archaic since its launch in the 1980s.

But when looking at the more recent use of the word ‘netizens’ in academia and foreign media, the term is anything but dead. It does seem to be applied far more often to Asian online contexts, e.g. Chinese or Korean online users, than it is used to describe internet users in Europe or America.

The word ‘netizen’ used in random Google News search in 1-5 May period in 2013 and in 2018.

It is often used, for example, to talk about online fans of the K-pop industry or users of the Sina Weibo platform – suggesting that there has been a shift in the use of ‘netizens’ from the 1980s or 1990s to describe any internet user, to more specifically describing those (often Chinese) internet users that are part of a specific online circle.

 

From Netizen to Wangmin

 

One reason why ‘netizen’ is used in the Chinese case specifically, is because Chinese media and social media users use the word ‘wǎngmín’ (网民) very frequently.

Google News results show that the term wangmin (netizen) is constantly used in Chinese media.

Wangmin (网民) literally means ‘net-people’ or ‘net-citizens’ (thus literally: ‘netizens’), and is the generally accepted term to designate internet users in China. The term was described by the China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC) in 2013 as “Chinese residents who are six or older and have used the Internet at least once in the past six months” (Shen 2013).

The CNNIC has used the term wangmin officially since 1997, the year of its founding, when its first ‘China Wangmin Survey’ (中国网民调查) came out – the same year that Michael Hauben theorized and politicized the word.

The Chinese term wangmin seems to lack the more political implications of the term ‘netizen’ in English in Western countries, which has come to imply that an internet user is politically involved in online issues. Chinese fans of certain music genres or TV series are hardly politically involved in online causes, yet they are still wangmin.

There are (political) implications to the term wangmin on another level, though; in Chinese media, the term is mostly connected to nations. For example; one can speak of ‘American netizens’ (全美网民), ‘Canadian netizens’ (加拿大网民) or ‘Chinese netizens’ (中国网民,国内网民).

There are also instances in which the term is applied to platforms rather than nations. Some Chinese media have used the term ‘Sina Weibo netizens’ (新浪微博网民), for example.

 

Netizens versus Netizens

 

So what does this all mean? Firstly, it means that the use of ‘wangmin’ or ‘netizens’ in the Chinese context is not the same as the way the term ‘netizens’ has come to be used in the English-language Western context.

It also means that the term is not archaic at all. After all, who can claim a word is ‘outdated’ or ‘old-fashioned’ when it is practically being used at all hours of the day on Chinese internet and in Chinese media today? Even though it has been used since 1997, it has proved to be anything but a word trend: wangmin has become a part of normal Chinese vocabulary.

Third, claiming that it is a “stupid journalist term” or “our label, not theirs” also does not do just to the word; in the Chinese context, the term is used far beyond journalism, and more importantly; it is used by Chinese organizations and individuals to describe Chinese internet users, meaning it is not merely a term that is used by non-Chinese to describe Chinese online populations.

 

Online Communities

 

One thing that stands out when talking about ‘netizens’, no matter in what context, is that it is tied to the idea of an ‘online community.’ Much has been researched and said about what constitutes an online community, but for the scope of this article, we could say that it minimally requires some sense of a shared collective identity or some pursue of a shared purpose (Massa 2017, 961).

In the case of China’s online environment, online communities are built in two ways.

In one way, it is constructed at the state level to “define wangmin within the nation-state boundary,” as Yiping Shen (2015) writes in Public Discourses of Contemporary China.

This is, amongst others, very visible in state reports or state media that define “Chinese netizens” (中国网民) in the same way in which citizens are legally recognized subjects of a nation or state, meaning citizens of the PRC. In this way, all of China’s 772 + million internet users are part of this group of ‘netizens’ and have to follow to guidelines the government lays out for Chinese netizens.

In another way, it is used among Chinese companies and internet users to define themselves, either in the way the state has intended it, or at a smaller online community level. And these communities exist everywhere, from small-scale to large-scale, some existing for a long time, some being short-lived; from the long-standing Rage Comics community to temporary groups and Human Flesh Search Engines, to flourishing BBS or WeChat groups.

A platform such as Sina Weibo also clearly defines itself as a ‘community’ (社区), with its ‘Weibo Community Management’ (新浪微博社区管理) being an important part of the site in setting out guidelines for its members.

 

Wangyou: Chinese Online Friends

 

So what options are there for future references to Chinese internet users? Should we just stick to ‘netizens’? Would it more appropriate to use the original Chinese term ‘wangmin,’ or should we perhaps use another widespread term, namely that of ‘wǎngyǒu’?

Besides Chinese internet users defining themselves as wangmin, the word wangyou (网友), literally ‘web friend’, is also often used among netizens to define the members of their online ‘community’ (e.g. Weibo) or Chinese internet users at large.

Jessica Sun (孙慧), linguist and co-founder of the Dutch website Chinatalk, explains that ‘wangyou’ or ‘webfriends’ initially was meant to define those people one knew from cyberspace, when internet just gained traction in China.

Once China’s online population grew bigger, the idea of wangyou also grew to include more people. “It could also refer to a larger group of people who share the same interests or attitudes, instead of just friends,” Sun explains.

Sun compares the use of wangyou to the Chinese word for ‘friend’, pengyou (朋友), which is often used to sound more intimate, although the person addressed is not necessarily really considered a ‘friend.’

According to Sun’s analysis, wangmin (netizen) and wangyou (webfriend) are generally interchangeable, although there are some subtle differences. Sun has some remarks explaining the difference between the two terms:

1. In many cases, wangmin could also be a wangyou, but not the other way around. Wangyou can be used to show a more emotional attachment or personal relation, as in ‘my webfriends’ (我的网友). One can not say ‘my netizens’ (我的网民).

2. While wangyou is more intimate, wangmin is more neutral, and is therefore mainly used by news outlets.

3. The use of the term wangmin or wangyou depends on the attitude of the person who uses it towards a specific person/event, depending on the ‘community’ they are in or the stance they have towards a particular incident.

For example, when Chinese media report about wangyou doing something or being angered about something, it often means this author/publication is siding with these ‘webfriends’.

Headline using ‘wangyou’

The headline featured above (“As policeman bravely sacrifices his life, [some] webfriends are angered about these details“) is a story about a policeman who died on duty while trying to protect pedestrians from an out-of-control car. When some online commenters said that it was the policeman’s job to protect the people, suggesting his death was part of his duty, many other commenters were angered with these comments. By featuring the ‘webfriends’ term in this headline, the publication shows it sides with those ‘webfriends’ who mourn the policeman’s death and who are angered about insensitive comments relating to his death.

Another story, headline above (“Shenyang policeman dies on duty, two netizens detained over insulting comments“), is about another policeman dying on duty due to an attack by a suspect, with two web users commenting that the person attacking the police was a “hero” for doing so. The headline states that “two netizens insulting [police] have been detained” – in such a case, the media report shows a distance towards the commenters – ‘webfriends’ would surely not be used to refer to them.

All in all, it is clear that words such as netizen or wangyou, although they might sound outdated in an English-language context, are anything but outdated in the Chinese context.

Nearly five years after The Atlantic posted its anti-‘netizen’ article, claiming the word “meaningless, inaccurate, and misleading,” recent uses of the term and its ubiquity in (Chinese) media show that it was perhaps the author’s perspective that was flawed, rather than the term itself.

For the time to come, Chinese ‘netizens’ are here to stay.

We’d like to hear your stance! How do you feel about ‘netizens,’ or would you rather see a more frequent use of the original wangmin term? Fill out the poll below:

Coming Soon

By Manya Koetse

With contribution from Jessica Sun at Chinatalk.

References

Hauben, Michael and Ronda Hauben. 1997. Netizens: On the History and Impact of Usenet and the Internet. Computer Society Press: Los Alamitos, CA.

Jones, Paul Anthony. 2013. Haggard Hawks and Paltry Poltroons: The Origins of English in Ten Words.

Massa, Felipe G. 2017. “Guardians of the Internet: Building and Sustaining the Anonymous Online Community.”Organization Studies 38 (7): 959 –988.

Shen, Yiping. 2015. “Netizens, Counter-Memories, and Internet Literature into the New Millennium.” In: Public Discourses of Contemporary China. Chinese Literature and Culture in the World, Chapter 4. Palgrave Macmillan: New York.


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What’s on Weibo provides social, cultural & historical insights into an ever-changing China. What’s on Weibo sheds light on China’s digital media landscape and brings the story behind the hashtag. This independent news site is managed by sinologist Manya Koetse. Contact info@whatsonweibo.com. ©2014-2018

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