Four year ago, Hal Roberts and I were researching internet censorship by studying the use of proxy servers around the world. Proxy servers are often used to circumvent internet filtering, letting users access content that’s otherwise blocked by a national government, an internet service provider, or a school or business. We found that the usage of these tools, including both free, ad-supported tools and subscription-based VPN services, was surprisingly small: less than 3% of all internet users in countries that aggressively censored the internet.
This surprised us, as there’s been a great deal of dialog in the US about “internet freedom”, a US government policy that supports providing uncensored internet access to people in China, Iran and other nations whose governments filter the internet. Our research suggested that the efforts already underway by projects like Tor and Freegate weren’t being used nearly as much as their authors hoped. This might be due to weaknesses in the tools, but we suspected another motivation: lack of user interest. Hal designed a study of bloggers in countries that censored the internet, asking whether they used circumvention tools. Almost all were aware of the existence of proxy servers, but few used them regularly. When we asked why they weren’t using these tools, most told us that they weren’t very interested in accessing blocked content.
A new paper from Harsh Taneja and Angela Xiao Wu at Northwestern University offers some insights into why this is the case. Taneja and Wu use internet usage data from Comscore to analyze the thousand most globally popular websites, examining their overlapping audiences. Audiences for websites tend to cluster together – people who visit CNN.com are more likely to also visit ESPN.com than people who visit Chinese search engine Baidu. The authors identify a set of 37 “culturally defined markets”, collections of popular websites that seem to be visited predominantly by people who share languages or cultures. Language, while a powerful factor in explaining this clustering, isn’t the sole factor: a cluster of French and Arabic-language sites represents a bilingual North African culture, for example, and an Indian cluster containing mostly English-language sites is distinct from an English-language North American/UK/Australian cluster. And there’s a cluster of football sites that appears to have a truly transnational audience.
One of Taneja and Wu’s most surprising findings is that the Chinese cluster is not significantly more isolated than other cultural clusters: the Turkish, Korean, Vietnamese, Italian and Polish clusters were all less central to the audience map that Taneja and Wu produced. While the authors acknowledge that Chinese internet users are encountering a different subset of internet sites than English-speaking users are accessing, they argue that this is less a result of the Great Firewall, China’s national internet filter, and more a reflection of a tendency to pay attention to content we find culturally interesting and accessible.
This paper is likely to generate significant debate about the role of China’s internet censorship. The authors acknowledge that China’s pervasive internet blocking has served as a trade barrier, protecting the local internet industry, which has flourished. But it’s impossible to know whether Taneja and Wu would find different results had Chinese internet users been able to share content on YouTube and Twitter rather than using Youku and Weibo. Still, the popularity of sites like V Kontakt and LiveJournal in Russia and Ukraine, countries that have not engaged in widespread internet filtering, suggest that China might have developed its own set of social media tools without the trade barrier of censorship.
Taneja and Wu argue that culture is a more powerful force leading to internet balkanization than government regulation and I’m inclined to agree. In Rewire, I argue that early hopes that the internet would connect people from different countries and cultures have been challenged by the discovery that people tend to gravitate to content that’s culturally familiar and accessible. Matthew Yglesias is right to term this a golden age for readers of journalism, in that there’s an enormous variety of perspectives accessible online. But studies like that of Taneja and Wu’s suggest that we tend to encounter a small subset of all that’s available online.
This tendency towards cultural locality has implications for our knowledge of global events and perspectives: while in theory, Americans have direct access to Indian news, in practice, our knowledge of events in India is heavily dependent on whether American news outlets cover Indian news and whether our individual social networks amplify that news. But cultural balkanization has another implication as well: it influences what internet tools we encounter and use.
My friend and colleague Jing Wang invited four MIT faculty to join her at Sun Yat Sen University in Guangzhou, China for a symposium on civic media. Before we came to China, Jing insisted we install WeChat on our phones. WeChat is a social networking application made by Tencent, one of China’s internet pioneers. Tencent are the makers of QQ, a massively popular instant messaging service and digital currency, which was waned in popularity with the advent of Weibo, China’s massively popular microblogging service. Sina Weibo has a far greater audience than Tencent’s Weibo service, so WeChat represents Tencent’s strategy for reclaiming market share.
So far, the product has been wildly successful, with 300 million users joining the service in the past two years. My Chinese friends tell me that WeChat meets different social needs for them than Weibo. On Weibo, a social norm of accepting all friend requests means that the service serves as a digital public sphere, not a private conversation. On WeChat, they are more choosy about who they interact with, and use the service to stay in touch with close friends.
Jing’s logic in asking us to join WeChat was that it’s a convenient way to plan activities with a group of friends. She set up a group for all of us attending the conference and we were able to coordinate our dinner plans and movements around the city by sending text and voice messages to the group, a task that’s surprisingly difficult to accomplish with tools like SMS, Twitter and Facebook. It’s really easy to form these groups – you can share a QR code with friends who are nearby, or you can ask everyone who will participate to shake their phones – the system shows you everyone who shook their phone (anywhere in the world) at the same instant, allowing you to quickly add the discussants in a conference call or a conversation into a group.
(This shake feature can also trigger your phone to listen for music playing, at which point it will identify the song, offer you a link to download the song and the lyrics. Unsurprisingly, the version of the software I downloaded in the US doesn’t have this feature available.)
There are tons of other features to WeChat that make it appealing. Users share “moments”, similar to Facebook status updates, which create an elegantly laid out timeline that serves as a user’s profile. My friend Coco’s profile is featured above – because the timeline is largely picture-driven, it’s not hard to get a sense for what’s going on in a friend’s life at a glance.
Most interesting to me is a set of features designed to let you meet new people through WeChat. Drift Bottle lets you send a voice or text message to a random user somewhere else in the world. If someone receives your message in a bottle, they can respond to you and you can connect with them if the message is an interesting one. (And if it’s an offensive one, you can block or report the user.) One of our Chinese friends explained that it’s fairly common for Chinese social media users to maintain an anonymous account that they use to share deeply personal thoughts with unknown users as a way of venting emotions that are too sensitive to share with friends. Drift Bottle builds on this social practice and turns it into a service.
Look Around is similar, but introduces you to other users who are located nearby. Predictably, this feature is often used to search for romantic partners. Most of my Chinese friends were shocked that I had kept the feature turned on, but I quickly befriended a few of the students attending the conference and traded greetings.
The most charming of the students I met wasn’t actually attending the conference – she was a Uighur student from Xinjiang named Hadiqa, who happened to be nearby and accepted my friend request. We traded some messages, and I mentioned my fondness for Uighur music (Zulpikar Zaidov!), and Hadiqa started sending me Uighur songs. (I can’t play them, probably because I have a crippled, American version of WeChat that can’t share media. If anyone has tech support advice for me on this issue, I’d be grateful, as more Uighur music in my life would be a good thing.)
Facebook and Twitter both have systems to introduce you to other users, but both focus on introducing you to people you’ve got something in common with. Facebook introduces you to people with whom you have mutual friends. Twitter introduces you to people followed by people you already follow. WeChat introduces you to people who are physically nearby, or to total strangers in other parts of the world. This isn’t unprecedented in the US-centric internet – tools like Grindr have been popular for helping people find possible romantic partners, and ChatRoulette introduced people to each other at random in ways that were surprising, fun and often disturbing. But it’s interesting to see the design decisions made for different platforms, if only as a reminder that these decisions are choices: it’s not inevitable that Facebook works to reconnect us to our elementary school classmates rather than introducing us to unfamiliar people around us.
At the end of Rewire, I argue that we’d benefit from building software tools that encourage serendipity, helping us stumble onto information that’s unexpected and helpful. These systems are challenging to engineer, but the main barrier to building them may be our bias towards recommending the familiar and unthreatening. It’s inspiring for me to see a major software company building a system with hundreds of million users that has unexpected encounter as a core feature of the platform. (As friend and colleague Sasha Costanza Chock, fellow voyager on our Guangzhou/WeChat trip noted, I’d probably enjoy a “meet a Uighir” feature included in all my social media tools.)
I follow new media pretty closely, and I’m now embarrassed that it’s taken me two years to try WeChat. I like the platform enough that I am likely to keep using it, especially if I can persuade friends to use it for coordinating social plans. (Before anyone raises the question of whether the platform is monitored and censored, let me say that I assume it is, which would keep me from using it for any sensitive purposes.)
Beyond that, I’m reminded of Taneja and Wu’s core point: it’s not just that the Chinese internet is isolated – the American/UK/Aussie internet is isolated as well. I suspect most mobile app developers in the US haven’t taken a close look at WeChat, or I expect we’d see competitive features coming into our mobile tools. The cultural blind spots we all exhibit have consequences for what we know about the world. We miss interesting and inspiring innovation when we assume our corner of the internet – or of the world – is the place where everything of interest originates.