Shenzhen’s Factories to Oxford’s Radiohead: The Internet as a Social Boundary
As Jason P. Abbott’s article “Democracy@internet.asia? The Challenges to the Emancipatory Potential of the Net: Lessons from China and Malaysia” describes, it is a widely held view that the Internet is a libertarian marketplace for the free exchange of ideas and money. This ideal view of the Internet (and all of the social media tools that go along with it from email to online global marketplaces) describes the Internet’s potential, but not the current reality. Although Internet access and the information contained therein is becoming more ubiquitous, it fits into the framework of pre-existing economic and political climates that differ greatly in the East and in the West. I propose that the Internet still fails to defeat social boundaries and that the net effect often works against this free market ideal.
It requires very little research for anyone in the West to know that the Internet has created a positive macro-economic shift for China as a whole. But what could this mean for individuals in China on a more granular level? As China passes through an economic reformist period not unlike the Eugene Debsian reformist period of early 20th century United States, they must also come to a decision on if they will allow the treasures from the 21st century to come into the hands of their greatest asset: the labor class. The comparison of the Chinese Communist Party’s reaction and attempt to control the Internet and feudal Britain’s reaction and attempt to control the printing press is almost cliché, but still illustrative of the issue at hand. As Esarey states in her groundbreaking work in 2006, “the choice now confronting the
Chinese Communist Party leadership is an unpleasant one: More freedom, or more repression? Both alternatives pose hazards to the party’s monopoly on power” (Esarey 2).
The challenge for the Chinese Communist Party, or CCP, is to continue to reap the benefits of a free and globalized online economy while simultaneously filtering the globalized online information network before it reaches 1.2 billion Chinese minds. One way the CCP can toe the fine line of free global economic trade and controlled information is through their deceiving legal spider web. Although article 35 in the Chinese constitution guarantees citizens
of the PRC (People’s Republic of China) “freedom of speech, publishing, assembly and the right to establish organizations, movement and protest”, it also contains at least 4 sections that modify this article to limit free expression from “humiliating or libelous statements” (article 38); from statements that “harm the collective interests of the nation“ (article 51); from statements that don’t “protect state secrets, cherish public assets” (article 53); and from statements that don’t “protect the security, honor and interests of the motherland” (article 54).
These laws might seem absurd to a westerner, given the anonymous freedom western users have to access practically any page on the Internet. Like with everything else in China, the CCP is the only ISP (Internet Service Provider) and competes with nobody. Therefore, they can make it as difficult to access the Internet and its content as they believe necessary to support the “glory of the motherland”. Early on in this decade, the CCP made the registration process difficult for anyone wishing access to the net, requiring personal information, employment information, (and) agreeing to sign a pledge not to access information that threatens state security,” (Abbott 102) and many had to even register with the police in order to be licensed to get online. “Unofficial” internet cafes popped up and soon many unregistered Chinese were surfing the net. The CCP allowed this to happen mainly because of the practical impossibility to keep some urban Chinese from getting unofficially hardwired in, but also because these cafes still only have access to sites in the “Chinese multimedia broadband 169 network” anyway.
There are proxy services for those smart enough to work their way around Government enforced firewalls. Abbott mentions proximate.com and anonymizer.com (Abbott 102) and I use a Firefox plugin proxy called JAP which would be even more difficult to block with a national firewall. These services allow you to route your connection through an anonymous server somewhere in a free part of the world; often Scandinavian countries where laws governing the use of the Internet are relaxed. If a PRC citizen can successfully employ such a service, their IP address (a number that indicates the physical geographic location of a web user) will appear foreign, and they will gain access to the entire WWW.
This firewall filtering system put together with a state-of-the-art online surveillance system is called the Golden Shield and was implemented by the CCP in November of 2000 (Wikipedia). Although it is very probable that China has developed this high-tech system of monitoring all of their citizens online from breaking the Articles of limited expression, many critics say that it is possibly merely a scare tactic. Judging from the interviews I conducted (below) and conversations I have regularly with my Chinese colleagues, this system of fear works well.
As Maich reports, the Big Three (Google, Yahoo, and MSN) are attempting to gain market share of China’s vast population of future web searchers and emailing consumers, but ironically these world economic powers must first bend to every whim of the CCP. Yahoo was recently criticized for unnecessarily complying with communist officials by supplying logs that helped convict a dissident leader (Maich 24). When it comes to censuring online expression and information reception, however, these laws really only apply to the tiny 1/5 minority currently with access to the Internet in urban areas.
This lack of physical infrastructure in the majority of mainland China’s populated areas, such as telephone poles, fiber optic cable runs, repeaters, and routers is not an accident. This localizing tool to limit geographic access to the Internet is another method the CCP uses to capitalize from a democratized Internet while keeping the democracy far from the homes of the common Chinese worker. The party has created a vast physical divide between the towns outside of the physical infrastructure of the internet (referred to by the Chinese as Home Towns), and the industrial cities where internet access is ubiquitous and access to major ports is also available, creating a single purpose for the internet: a tool of trade. The CCP has done such a good job of separating homes from the Internet-connected workplace that in Vittachi’s 2001 report on a study conducted in Guangzhou, an industrial capital close to ShenZhen, the majority of Chinese citizens only connected the WWW with foreign business (Vittachi 46). Keeping the Internet as a purely business related tool is key in the CCP’s strategy to keep the Internet away from hearts and minds.
In the end of November and beginning of December I conducted interviews online over MSN chat with business contacts I have in China named Angel and Robin. They are both manufacturer reps and currently live in the online economic boomtown of ShenZhen, which sits across a bridge to Hong Kong, their major port. Angel claimed to have not seen her parents since the Chinese New Year of 2007, and to have not seen her hometown since 2005. This is very typical, even for China’s elite. The design of physically separating permanent residences with a 1-2 day train ride from places of industry where the Internet is needed to conduct trade keeps information, whether harmful or benign to the state, away from the hearts and minds of the more inland Chinese. “This (distance) causes problems every year because of blizzards,” says Angel. She was mainly referring to the large ice and snow storm that disabled China’s train system causing hundreds of thousands to be stranded at stations and in the cold.
According to railway officials’ estimates, 178.6 million Chinese migrated during that season, a record number (MSN 1).
Speaking to Chinese citizens about their country and economy is difficult, and it is not because of any language barrier. The barrier is simply that most Chinese have been indoctrinated to love China blindly, or are simply afraid of surveillance. The main meat of the interviews I conducted consisted of small talk as they (Angel and Robin) were very eager to talk about where they were from, about their family, and about their vacation time activities. When Robin was faced with the question of whether those with Internet access were richer than those without, her response was strange: “Maybe in the future.” Another part of the interview I found interesting were these things Robin had to say about those places that were still in obscurity (edited for clarity):
Robin: Cameron, you know when I was in university, I had a dream. If I have enough money in the future, I must build new schools for those obscure areas, especially because of the terrible earthquake that happened in WenChuan of China. Many children lost their parents and relatives at that time.
Me: In China, the system is set up so that the Chinese government should build these schools, right?
Robin: Yes Chinese Government also supports and helps some poor villages but it needs time to do it.
In America I’m used to complaints about how slow the Government is to react to disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina. The constant control of information is what turns every Chinese person that I talk to into an unofficial spokesman for the communist party. Although Robin might have unwittingly revealed the backwards state of their educational system in rural areas, she also completely defends the CCP in the same breath.
Besides fear, I suggest that there is a more fundamental problem for Chinese Internet proliferation, which is the lack of IT (Information Technology) literacy, general education, and even basic literacy. Abbott reports in 2001 that among Chinese men, 10% are illiterate, wand among women, 27% could not read as well. These figures indicate there may be a generation or two until they can improve their current 19.1% internet literacy rate to match other comparably sized industrial nations. As Robin hinted, and as totalitarian motives dictate, these problems in education are not entirely a mistake of the CCP. Forced ignorance on a nation is bliss for the ruling power. While the CCP keeps the people’s expectations low with an educational vacuum and amasses western wealth from the manufactured goods trade based on a globalized Internet marketplace, they are showing the world that they really can both have and eat it all.
Besides geographical limitations because of infrastructural shortcomings, poverty is another leading factor to the limited access to the Internet among the citizens of the PRC. Abbott reports that as of 2001 most Internet users earned over 1000 RMB a month, which is equal to about $120. When compared to the cost of living, roughly $2 a day, it sets the bar quite high on the economic scale for one to gain access to a network on the World Wide Web (WWW). Abbott also reports that Internet access averaged $29.73 in China in 2001, while it only cost $25.35 on average in the US at that time. These figures suggest that a Chinese citizen would need quite a bit of disposable income on average to simply get online, much less own up-to-date computer equipment.
Having up-to-date equipment in Asia is also key simply because Asian characters require more bandwidth on average than Latin and Germanic based languages do. The Internet was originally designed by speakers of these Latin and Germanic languages as a text-based communication protocol for military use, and it has evolved into the WWW. Asian languages must adapt to this existing protocol that favors western languages. Complex Asian characters often require image-rich web pages, and images are heavier to transfer and so eat up more bandwidth, requiring more advanced and more expensive network hardware. Japan for instance adopted fast cellular 3G networks built on HSPA technology almost a decade before the US could develop the inferior 3G EV-DO networks simply because necessity urged along the research and development required.
To summarize, the Communist Party in China have successfully created physical, economic, and cultural (a culture of denial that there is a world worth getting to know outside their closed borders) barriers to entry for online access to their citizens. I’ve spoken about how the CCP has enjoyed success from their limiting efforts, but how do they simultaneously capitalize off it?
For how well they’ve mastered repression, China is certainly an incredible player in the free market; and they have the Internet’s turn-key globalization to thank. While limiting access to news and information sites such as CNN, the BBC, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal, they have taken full advantage of online international trade networks such as Alibaba.com and GlobalSources.com. These networks provide a simple one-step social marketplace for western buyers and eastern manufacturers, whereas in the past only the large international players could take advantage of inexpensive eastern manufacturing. These new sites that have quietly started the online trade revolution simply introduce tens of thousands of willing Chinese factories to tens of thousands of high-spender western retailers, distributors, and importers the exact same way a dating site can match two individuals looking for love in all the wrong places. Internet neophytes like Robin and Angel depend on these trade sites since they specialize in manufacturer-buyer relations.
Notice also that both of these reps are female. It is a widely held view that females are valued lower than men in China, and this is true using any standard of measurement from average salaries to opportunities afforded to men and women in their education. That being said, the Chinese have also adopted the western over-sexualization of women and combined it with their cultural devaluation of the female sex, making them the pretty and sensual mouthpiece for their companies. Although women are paid less and can’t be trusted to negotiate without the help of their men in the background telling them what to say, they have certainly found their niche in this dynamic new marketplace. Of the dozen or so foreign manufacturer representatives I deal with on a routine basis, only two are male.
Turning now to a western perspective, of course the issue isn’t a question of access or filtration, but more a question of technology. Does the western WWW now possess the technological tools necessary to create a truly free market? Does it allow the online shopper a convenient way to find the greatest market value for his/her dollar? Does it allow employers a convenient method of finding the perfect fit for their position? These and many other questions arise when braving an Internet frontier that can appear very organized, but often times fails us in real world applications. I would like to offer two situations where technology remains inadequate; the first illustrates where technology lags behind marketing cunning and the second will illustrate how technology still hasn’t overcome grand-scale organizational problems. The first problem is SEO (Search Engine Optimization), and it has become the holy grail of the online retail world for a little over a decade. The idea is simple: the Internet is mainly crawled, indexed, and organized by several major search engines, three of them taking up 94% of the search market share. If you can own the top position on these search engines, mainly focusing on Google which as of January of 2008 controlled 68.6% of the World’s search volume with 5.88 billion search queries (compete.com), you can control the information found about that subject under whichever keyterm you are optimizing. Forcing your website to the tops of these “organic” search results (not to be confused with the paid advertisements in the sidebars) is a matter of understanding and gaming a complex algorithm for relevancy created by Sergey Brin and Larry Page, the founders of Google. This algorithm was originally designed to improve the user experience by creating the most relevant search on the planet.
Let’s take a marketing experiment I ran several months ago during Provo, UT’s Stadium of Fire 4th of July show featuring Miley Cyrus as a crude micro-example. I secured 8 tickets to this event, knowing the value of the $45 tickets would at least double during the month before the show. Although I am opposed to the over-sexualization of teenage girls in America, I suppose I quelled my conscience for a time thinking I could capitalize with an easy ticket sale, which is legal in the state of Utah. I then came up with a better idea and a way to give away the tickets without losing personal self-respect in exchange for free SEO: I held an online essay contest where the subject of the essays were simply about why the author of the essay deserved the tickets. The essays would then be posted on the site, giving me free unique content; and unique content is the first ingredient to appeasing Google’s algorithm. Which were the valuable keyterms I was going after? The terms “miley cyrus concert tickets” and “miley cyrus tickets” combined get around an average of 47 searches a day (wordtracker.com), and there are many ways of capitalizing on this steady free traffic such as ad revenue once I find myself at the top of those two searches.
I launched the contest in June of 2008 (mileycyrus-tickets.com) and used craigslist to attract essay entries. In a one-month period I received 216 (300-word minimum) legitimate essays, all with unique content about the keyterms I wanted to rank high in Google for: Miley Cyrus concert tickets. This more than satisfied the first ingredient the Google algorithm really likes, which is tons of content that can’t be found anywhere else on the web. Google knows that it’s unique content because they constantly employ virtual web surfers, or “bots” to constantly crawl all web pages on the net, indexing all new pages and revising the index when those pages change. Average web pages get crawled by Google every 3 days and high traffic sites get crawled many times a day.
The second and final main ingredient that is needed to satisfy Google’s algorithm for high rankings is to have many inbound links from web pages outside of the domain you are trying to optimize. In my case, I needed reputable websites to link to me from outside of my domain, which was mileycyrus-tickets.com. To achieve this, I called local newspapers hoping to spark their interest about a story that appeared altruistic, but in reality was all about securing a link on their websites. Google treats links from sites like news sites with more weight and value, going off a somewhat complex point system called PR, or Page Rank. I also know of many other sites that allow the submission of user generated content where I left several links pointing to my site.
The newspaper story was a great success and I received most of my traffic from KSL’s website, the local NBC station, and also the Deseret News (a Utah Valley newspaper), creating a synergistic effect of both securing high PR inbound links, and even more publicity and incoming essays. I finally had both ingredients for Google search engine success: unique content relevant to the subject, and relevant inbound links. Although I received many
insincere sob stories among the essays, I was fortunate enough to choose the right family for the tickets (see mileycyrus-tickets.com).
Although there were some good outcomes from this contest, what I am deliberately doing is undermining the organization put forth by the Google algorithm for personal gain. In the site’s heyday it reached to #3 for the keyterms in question and I made 25% of my initial investment back in ad revenues during the first month alone. It has since fallen, however, to #14 on average because I haven’t continued to build inbound external links. If I had continued to build external links and practice what is called “Black Hat SEO” with the goal of floating to the top of the search engines, I would create a very inefficient market for people trying to actually buy tickets to a Miley Cyrus concert. Instead of a ticket retailer they would be faced with an expired contest, the rants of hundreds of “tweeners” that truly believe this 4th of July concert could be Armageddon, and advertisements. That being said, the site is currently at #14 out of about 369,000 results without having done a great deal of work, and that figure can be somewhat alarming. Even today I continue to see traffic and ad revenue, but the visitors are likely disappointed tweeners or parents of tweeners looking for someone who is really selling tickets.
Another quick example of this problem that might help bring things into perspective is when liberal SEOs optimized President George W. Bush’s official website (whitehouse.gov) for the term “miserable failure”. They simply found the words like “miserable” and “failure” on the site that could be taken out of context by the algorithm, and built thousands of links to the government site with the anchor text (hyperlinked text which is generally blue and underlined on a webpage) “miserable failure.” This caused the Google algorithm to assume that the site most relevant to this search term was whitehouse.gov, and it floated to the top of the Google search results page for that pejorative term for a time before Google officials had
to manually remove the result themselves. (Searchengineland.com) Although quite humorous and harmless, whitehouse.gov is in all seriousness not a relevant result for that keyterm (at least not in the natural algorithmic sense).
Thousands abuse the algorithm in similar ways, and almost always for monetary gain, creating giant inefficiencies in what was once thought of as a free libertarian online marketplace, but is slowly losing stature as many undermine the Internet’s most trusted organizational tool: Google. Retailers typically use SEO to fight their way to the top of the search engine results pages using similar tactics even though they don’t offer the best prices or services for the searcher.
Another case study for the overcoming of social boundaries through this new media of search results is a contest Radiohead ran in October of 2008. This was one of several attempts by the Oxford band to level the playing field for musicians and remix artists to be noticed (Toronto Star). The contest was to remix the song “Reckoner” using the separated voice, guitars, drums, and effects stems, and anything else the remixer wanted to add. The contest was then democratized by allowing the general public to vote. Each IP address would be allowed one vote in an attempt to curb cheating. Since Radiohead has commissioned numerous remix artists in the past to remix their work, the thought of perhaps one day collaborating with the band was undoubtedly stirred up in the minds of many fans, but no such promise was implicit. The band simply said they “will listen to the best remixes” (radioheadremix.com). That simple promise was enough for me to buy into the contest, buy the stems from iTunes for .99, and create my own remix. A chance to break that social barrier between a common fan and a music god is a new accoutrement of the WWW. I submitted as entrant number 1098 (nupollution.com), if only for the thrill of being one of many appendages of a somewhat historic experiment.
The organization of the contest was quite disappointing as it somewhat undermined the purpose. When you arrive to the site radioheadremix.com, the entries are arranged in order of who is winning in votes with leaders at the top of the list. This automatically places more favor on the remixes that are already winning, as they naturally will receive more eyeballs as people enter the site. It would be tantamount to Walmart discouraging people from seeing products in the back of the store by convincing everyone that the most popular products are in the front of the store anyway. You could also sort by “remixes most recently uploaded,” but this could cause the opposite problem where you still need to weed through the 1667 remixes now submitted to come to a real decision on which you really prefer. Suddenly, the contest is more about how many friends the user has and how well known their name is, and even how early they were able to submit to hopefully take one of the coveted first-page spots. In a truly impartial setting, none of these factors should play a role on who wins the contest. There is another name for this kind of contest, and that is a “popularity contest.”
One solution I thought of was to create a random stream of remixes called “Radiohead Remix Radio” where users could take some time out of their day and listen to 4-5 remixes, and vote on the remix of the bunch that they liked the most. Over time, the lowest voted remixes would be thrown out. After hundreds of thousands of sessions, a more democratic and scientifically sound winner could be chosen. After the contest was over, the remixes could then be indexed on their site in order of votes. Radiohead’s temptation to allow people to place widgets on their websites inviting people to hear their remix and vote for it and receive all of the residual traffic from those links was too much to create a more efficient democratized system. Thus, pure capitalism does not always create the most efficient form of democracy. Radiohead went ahead to monetize that traffic through music and merchandise sales.
Although I don’t believe the Internet has reached the status of equal opportunity in any part of the World, I am still optimistic that it is moving in that direction. A market driven solution where the success of Western business depends on the liberation of China’s physical and intellectual resources is and will continue to be the hope of the RPC’s labor class in the struggle to modernize China and other underdeveloped and populated regions in the World. Interest in untapped market segments is incentive enough for western business to spend money and transcend totalitarian regimes whose interests are not aligned with the people. The road is still long before us for as Abbott reports, there are currently more telephone lines on the island of Manhattan than in the entire sub-Saharan region of the African continent (Abbot 108).
Abbott, Jason P. “Democracy@internet.asia? The Challenges to the Emancipatory Potential of the Net: Lessons From China and Malaysia” Third World Quarterly Dec. 2001: 99-114
Esarey, Ashley. “Speak No Evil: Mass Media Control in China” Freedom at Issue: a Freedom House Special Report Feb. 2006: 1-12
The Constitution of the People’s Republic of China
Wikipedia Entry: Internet censorship in the People’s Republic of China <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Internet_censorship_in_the_People%27s_Republic_of_China>
Maich, Steve. “Yes, Master” Maclean’s 20 Feb. 2006: 24-28
Vittachi, Nury. “China’s Elite: Surfing in Guangzhou.” Far Eastern Economic Review Oct. 2001: 46
MSN News: China Paralyzed by Storms <http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/22882150/>
2008 Stadium of Fire with Miley Cyrus Tickets Essay Contest <http://mileycyrus-tickets.com>
the nupollution band website <http://nupollution.com>
“Radiohead Wants You.” Toronto Star 18 March 2008