The Chinese BBS As Town Square

Chang-Won Kim, who publishes the Web 2.0 Asia blog, recently commented on my article about China’s BBSes, and questioned whether the BBS would indeed become the future of social media in China.

Here is what Mr. Kim says:

In short, the article said:
Much of Chinese internet = BBS
Often the Chinese “group thoughts/activities”, such as the recent (rather unfortunate) “Angry Chinese” incidents, get organized on these BBSes
Chinese’ love of BBS might have come from distrust of traditional media
Outsiders have not figured this out
But the very last part of the article kind of made me scratch my head:
So, BBSes are the real social media marketing tool, and as usual, the Chinese are ahead of everyone else, but just haven’t figured out that part themselves. While the west talks about social media and Web 2.0, China has had a version of it for the past ten years. It may not be pretty, but it works.

Does the fact that BBS is so popular in China today mean a) BBS is the right platform for social media and b) BBS will remain as popular in China for the coming years? I’m not very sure about that, at least using the Korean market as a “canary in coal mine” example.

a) Is BBS the right platform for social media?

If we define “social media” as the collection of unique, diversified individual voices, I don’t think BBS is the optimal platform for social media activities – on the contrary, BBSes can often lead to group thoughts and monoculture, where the agenda is largely driven by big voices.

b) Will BBS remain popular in China for the coming years?

In Korea, we have a popular BBS/forum service in “Daum Cafe”. Three or four years ago, Daum cafe was arguably THE most popular service for Korean netizens. Today, Daum Cafes are still doing pretty okay I guess, but are definitely not the most popular daily web destination as they once used to be. Over the last several years, Daum Cafe has given much way first to minihompies, and later to blogs.

The problem of Daum Cafe as a BBS-type service was that it wasn’t as much focusing on individuals. On BBSes and forums, usually it’s difficult to keep track of the messages users left on different spaces and the subsequent comments left by other users. It’s also difficult to put one’s personal identity to the page that collects all his postings (“My page”), just like a contributor’s personal page on Wikipedia is rarely visited (many people don’t even know such pages exist). People like group activities too, but basically people are individualistic. Users want to have “their own site” where they have all their content under a specific URL which they can use as personal brands.

I would like to stress that I don’t think of the BBS as the future of social media, I can’t see that far ahead. But along with IM clients like QQ and MSN, it certainly does bring in the highest amount of traffic volume on the Internet in China. And regrettably, it is, for the most part, neglected by marketers and journalists for gathering information on what Chinese are thinking and talking about.

Mr. Kim freely admits to using the Korean market as a reference point for his conjecture about how the Chinese market may develop, talking first about how Daum was very popular as a BBS in Korea several years ago, but has now fallen off in popularity. He seems to suggest that the popularity of BBSes will eventually fall off in China; it’s just that no one quite knows what will replace it. He also suggests that BBSes are subject to “groupthink” much more than blogs, which are more about individual expression. As Chinese society becomes more open and individualistic, he suggests, then the need for BBSes will gradually fade.

I would beg to differ.

I think of BBSes as the electronic equivalent of the town square. The town square is always the place where people would go to gossip, share information, and shop. This is what most Chinese do when they go to the BBS. Sometimes they are looking for specific information about buying a home or a car, there are BBSes for this. Other times they are looking to complain about something unfair happening to them, there are BBSes for this. And so forth and so on.

Then sometimes, the BBS is the place where they turn to when they are unhappy with something, such as the recent issues with the Olympic torch relay and Tibet demonstrations in the west. When this happens, the BBS is where they turn to in order to vent their personal feelings because, for the most part, there is less Chinese government influence in the private BBSes and they can speak and organize more freely. When this happens the BBSes become the digital Tiananmen Square, places where the Chinese gathered to show their displeasure on two occasions in the 70s and 80s.

Now, instead of going to Tiananmen Square, they go to their BBSes.

China now has the largest number of blogs in the world, and blogs are the venue for personal expression. With more than 25M Chinese blogs, they are not short of opportunities for personal expression. I tend to think of social networks like Facebook and Xiaonei as social networks for people who want to meet others, but don’t have enough to say to maintain a blog. Instead, they provide a wealth of information about themselves, hoping to link up with others who may find them interesting and appealing, and to find others with shared interests.

Mr. Kim seems to suggest that since South Korea is more developed and more open as a society than China, the Chinese Internet will eventually follow developments in South Korea. While China has closely followed some South Korean trends such as online gaming and in mobile devices, there are some areas where it is still very different.

For one thing, South Koreans seem much more willing to reveal their true names and identities online than Chinese. Cyworld, a fantasy world where virtual tools can be made and sold, was a huge success in South Korea, but it failed miserably in China.

In every case, the Internet closely mirrors the values of a society, and the choices it makes. The choices made by Chinese are still very different from South Koreans. It remains to be seen whether they will more closely resemble each other, or grow further apart. I suspect that they will grow further apart as their societies develop differently.

11 Responses to “The Chinese BBS As Town Square”

  1. Amban says:

    Hmm. Interesting response to Mr. Kim’s comment. You failed, however, to consider the fact that BBS is one of the few free venues of expression available to mainland Chinese. So I’m not so sure that the differences between South Korea and the People’s Republic of China (not China) are a cultural thing.

  2. Chang says:

    Hi Paul, thanks for quoting me and starting the conversation. Obviously the two countries/cultures are different and the path of web evolution in the two countries will certainly be different. Having said that, I just believe that every single person in China is entitled to be his/her own unique voice, and I don’t think BBS is the best platform out there for these unique voices to express their unique views… but then the societal atmosphere in China might not allow these self-expressions yet..

  3. Gen Kanai says:

    For what it is worth, Japan still has a very strong anonymous BBS/forum-based Internet sub-culture which is represented by It is only used by a certain segment of Internet users but it is clearly a very popular place to share information and communicate anonymously.

    I think East Asian Internet cultures have as many differences as they have similarities. Partly due to history (when the Internet became available to the average person), partly due to technologies (mobile, for instance is quite different within East Asia; e.g. there is no SMS in Japan and 3G in Japan was not compatible with other global 3G standards until very recently; WiBro in Korea and nowhere else), and partly due to cultural differences. There’s lessons to be learned, for sure, but they are not obvious.

    For instance, console gaming, huge in Japan, is a fraction of the relative size it would be in China and non-existent in S. Korea, where PC gaming is the rule. World of Warcraft- hugely popular in China. Dead in the water elsewhere in East Asia. Starcraft hugely popular in S. Korea, and nowhere else.

  4. Gen Kanai says:

    @Chang, Japan has a wide variety of blogs (largely anonymous) as well as a very active BBS/forum culture as well as two popular SNSes (mixi, gree) so I think people go where they are comfortable and where there is content that they are interested in. I think that the format of the content (be it forum or blog or sns is less relevant than the content.)

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  6. minus273 says:

    For a net-savvy Chinese, the word “BBS” means always those black telnet windows with pretty ASCII arts and students and alumni. It has a quite different image from usual web forums.

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