Chinese Grassroots Remix

Tonight, Henry Jenkins, the media scholar who coined the term “Transmedia”, came to our class to share with us his insights into many current fascinating media phenomena such as convergence culture, spreadable message, and empowered grass roots fan culture. Last fall I read in the L.A.Times about Dr. Jenkin’s coming to USC Annenberg school from MIT, and since then I have been craving a chance to listen to his lecture, so tonight was truly a great surprise!

After Dr. Jenkins left, Professor Williams continued the interesting discussion on the clash between pop-remix culture and the current regulatory system, and prompted us to think deeper about this topic. Seeing so many different interesting examples of pop-remixes tonight, and how the internet has empowered individuals to remix and create pop culture, I was reminded of a recent online photo remixing phenomenon in China: a street photo of a homeless person nicknamed Xili Ge (Brother Sharp) by Chinese netizens flooded many Chinese forums and message boards and attracted millions of viewers marveling at his vagabond style and worshiping his mix-and-match fashion sense. The photo eventually hit mainstream media and even fashion magazines. Fervid fans also remixed his image with many pop culture images and created a whole new Brother Sharp phenomenon on the Chinese internet.

Here comes our Brother Sharp:

For more about how this fanatical fandom helped Brother Sharp find his long lost family, check out this post by China Hush:

Xili Bro, the vagabond of mix-and-match, reunited with family after 10 years

Google.cn to Google.com.hk

News came out the other day that Google has finally rolled out a solution to their censorship dispute with the Chinese government. Instead of “pulling out” their business from China, they are moving their servers in Mainland China to Hong Kong. They will also adopt a new Hong Kong domain name, and direct everybody who accesses Google.cn in Mainland China to the Google.com.hk. Ideally they can provide uncensored Chinese search results on this Hong Kong site to Chinese people this way, but is this Utopian situation likely to happen? According to Google’s official blog, they do not seem to be that sure about it themselves:

“We believe this new approach of providing uncensored search in simplified Chinese from Google.com.hk is a sensible solution to the challenges we’ve faced—it’s entirely legal and will meaningfully increase access to information for people in China. We very much hope that the Chinese government respects our decision, though we are well aware that it could at any time block access to our services.”

Many analysts in the U.S. have backed Google’s act simply by stating how dominant Google’s market share is in everywhere in the world and how Google China has only brought in a tiny bit of revenue to the overall Google colossus in the past couple of years, so Google China’s demise does not need to be a major concern to Google. But I still feel very sorry that Google is going to miss out on the big potential internet market in China, and the exploding mobile market across the Pacific Ocean. I read the other day on eMarketer that the number of mobile web users in China will soon exceed the U.S. population by the end of this year. Even though Google says it is still going to try to push out the Android mobile platform in China, Google’s ambitions for Android in this giant Chinese mobile market are surely going to be largely compromised. Also, if Google’s search engine and all other Google services that serve as the backbone to its lucrative ad business may be potentially blocked, then what is the point of Google pushing the free Android platform in China anyway? Their OS may not even be bring in the ad revenue Google needs.

Google has been on the blacklist of the Chinese government that is for sure. Xinhua News Agency, the government-backed “official” news agency has just run a fulminating article criticizing Google’s recent discord with the government titled “China declines political Google and Google’s politics” .

In response, Google in its typical simple manner, launched a plain site that tracks Google services’ accessibility in Mainland China. My first response seeing this list was: “What?! Blogger is also banned in Mainland China?!” I wonder if WordPress is accessible there. I will for sure go back to the site often to check the “status quo” in China.



Why Would Chinese Singers Accept Piracy-tinted Music Awards?

Last week, while I was watching a popular Chinese entertainment channel on satellite TV, I was bewildered by a scene of many of China’s most popular music stars happily accepting MTV Video Music Award-type trophies from Chinese search engine Baidu during an award ceremony co-hosted by Baidu and a national TV station. Seeing these celebrities dressed in sleek couture walk on stage to proudly receive awards like “Most Searched Artist on Baidu” gave me a very surreal feeling. I can still remotely recall that not even five years ago, these singers led waves of campaigns seeking public support in battling illegal online music downloads. In these campaigns, China’s largest local search engine, Baidu, was portrayed as an accomplice of illegal music download sites because Baidu first gained massive popularity by prominently displaying illegal MP3 music download sites in its search results, to the delight of hordes of music fans. As a result of that, Baidu has constantly found itself in many disputes and even got sued by major music labels and singers in the past.

Not many years have passed, but things have changed drastically. These singers and music labels are no longer at war with Baidu, even though Baidu today is still providing easy access to millions of illegal music download sites, and has even come up with more music lists such as “Top 100 Most Popular Downloaded Songs” to help guide people’s illegal downloading. It looks like these music labels and singers have given up on battling online piracy and have aligned with their ex-enemy. What turned these past foes into today’s bed-fellows? I later found a good answer, courtesy of my classmate Lisa who introduced me to Chris Anderson’s new book: Free: The Future of a Radical Price.

As said in Lisa’s review of Anderson’s book, Anderson optimistically, yet assertively, painted a picture of information flowing free like water, seeking lower ground in today’s digital world as the reproduction and distribution costs for information products are getting lower and lower. This has prompted our society’s evolution towards a new “Free” economy. In Anderson’s book, he gave numerous examples of how companies benefit from this Free business model. One chapter is devoted to the “Freemium” model adopted by information giant Google, which gives out many of their popular services like Gmail and Google Map for free, then build a 20 billion dollar advertising business out of the immense content generated by users on these free services. Anderson also states that 80% of internet companies today are built on the same Freemium business model in which they give out basic services for free to the majority of their users, and charge a small percentage of their users for upgraded services after these users have gotten hooked on the basic service. Though some of these so-called Freemium models do sound like “digital age ‘bait and switch’ marketing or stand cross-subsidy economics” according to Lisa, she believes that Anderson did a good job in his book defining “how [the] traditional brick and mortar or atom-based economy defines value by money, money, money and how the digital/bits economy defines value “by attention (traffic) and reputation (links).”

This new digital age measurement of value through attention and reputation helped answer my earlier question of why the Chinese music industry would align with its former foe, Baidu, as it is becoming increasingly clear that Baidu can bring them attention and reputation through its search service. The current digital environment has witnessed an irreversible trend where songs can be turned into free-flowing bits, and this is especially true in China, a country which has a cultural tradition of tolerating piracy of intellectual property. After the revenues of Chinese music labels were crushed by the online spread of pirated music, and without a viable legal alternative for revenue in the digital age like Apple’s iTunes in the U.S. (even iTunes gets popular in China, I highly doubt people would pay for cheap music if they can get it elsewhere for free easily), music labels have accepted the situation and started to fight in a different battle field—for fame and reputation, which can still bring them millions of revenue through concert tickets and endorsing other brands with their reputation. At this point, I recall that executive Long Danni, from one of China’s most successful entertainment agencies, Tianyu, once said in an interview that today albums are like a singer’s business card, which they use to introduce themselves to their audience instead of making money out of it. Long Danni’s remarks provide a good explanation for the state of the music industry. Chris Anderson also made some comments specifically about how the music industry should respond to new digital trends coincides with Long’s remark, according to another review of his book by Malcolm Gladwell from The New Yorker: “To musicians who believe that their music is being pirated, Anderson is blunt. They should stop complaining, and capitalize on the added exposure that piracy provides by making money through touring, merchandise sales, and “yes, the sale of some of [their] music to people who still want CDs or prefer to buy their music online.” “

In Gladwell’s article, he takes the Freemium concept advocated in Anderson’s book with a grain of salts and also threw in a couple real life examples of how the internet business stays free when they try to sell free. One example he mentions is online video site Youtube. It is without a doubt that Youtube has garnered unparalleled fame and reputation in the internet world, but it still has reported financial losses for the past several years. According to Gladwell, because of the nature of Youtube’s amateur content, it is quite hard for Youtube to make huge profits by selling ads on these videos.

I agree with some of Gladwell’s other critical perspectives on Anderson’s Free economy, but I have to disagree with Gladwell on this particular point for focusing on the short term monetization value for Youtube. I believe by being the undisputed leader in the online video field, Youtube possesses incredible power, which they may not have fully unleashed yet. But even at this point the site has added huge intangible value to Google’s overall search businesses, which by itself does pay off and has exceeded the cost to run Youtube within the Freemium model. The potential expansion of Youtube’s revenue streams has also been noted by many Wall Street analysts, and a recent comment by Google CEO Eric Schmidt even suggests that Youtube may bring in profit for the company this year. In the near future, when Google finishes building its integrated content empire, these amateur videos on Youtube will be an essential element in it. At that time Youtube’s monetization powers will also be fully unleashed. I have no doubt that the money Google paid for this Free video sharing site will prove to be worth it.

No matter if you agree with Anderson’s of advocacy of the Free economy power or not, the Free age has arrived. Look around on the internet, the most popular and promising internet businesses such as Facebook, Twitter have all been handed to their users for free. Facebook has reported huge revenues by selling targeted ads while Twitter is still trying to figure out its way to make money. While I believe selling ads should not be the only or primary way for these Free online businesses to make profits, I do keep an open mind to potential new monetization business models that have yet to be revealed in the coming decade. I believe whoever can successfully build these original business models in this Free world will be the next Bill Gates for the 21st century.


News from China: Youku: A Leading Web Entrepreneurs in China


Last week, I briefly introduced the fast-growing Chinese Social Network Site Kaixin001.com’s eye-popping growth story. This week, I’d like to highlight another Social Media star in China: Youku.com.

Launched in December 2006, Youku.com has grown to become the most successful video sharing site in the country. As the company has reported, “Youku.com delivers more than 150 million daily video views as of June 2008 and total user time spent exceeded 30 billion minutes per month.” Traffic ranking company Alexa has ranked Youku.com as number 10 in China and number 52 in global traffic. According to the Alexa traffic stat graph below, in the past 30 days, Youku has also run far ahead of its main Chinese video sharing competitors, Tudou.com and 56.com, in terms of daily traffic.

Calling all these video sharing sites “Youtube clones” is not exactly correct. Even though they brand themselves as site for user-generated content (the videos and comments are submitted by the users), there is also a lot of professionally-produced content there, like hot TV shows and movies, due to holes in enforcing intellectual property policy in China. At this very moment, looking at the Youku front page, about 90% of the featured videos on the front page are professionally produced content. So it is really more like a Chinese Youtube/Hulu hybrid. You can basically find anything on it, even some pirated versions of newly-released movies. Besides user-submitted professional media content, as Youku gains more traction with its users, it has also attracted many professional media groups, like TV stations, to set up pages and upload full length versions of their programs sites for users to watch.

An editorial focus on professional content is probably a major reason Youku has separated itself from its competitors in China. Unlike its competitor Tudou, which put emphasis on user-generated content and feature them on the front page, Youku acquires traditional broadcast news channel contributions, and usually selects and features current event news clips from authoritative news stations like CCTV on its front page. For many people who have gradually abandoned TV in their lives, Youku has jumped in to fill that spot perfectly. it does not only provides professional entertainment, but also editorially-selected daily news content.

According to Youku, until July 2008, it has received 80 million dollars in funding from international venture capitalists including Bain Capital, Sutter Hill Ventures, Farallon Capital, Maverick Capital and Chinese Venture Capitalist Chengwei Venture.

Youku has also launched a program called Daily Buzz to report its hottest videos, along with an introduction of background stories in English. It could be a great source for foreigners to access the hottest online buzz in China. Kudos to Youku for providing a window for the outside world into all the social dimensions of China. Below is a teaser I put here for you to visit the buzz site at http://buzz.youku.com/. Is your interest piqued for starting your own web venture in China now? Then check out this detailed guide from Read Write Start: Never Mind the Valley: Here’s Beijing


“Uploaded on: February 5, 2010 Total Views: 688,693 Thumbs Up: 5.6% Comments: 5,283

Feng Jie (凤姐) is really short at just 1.46 meters, with buck teeth. Yet she considers herself very pretty and smart. What piqued the, um, interest of millions of Chinese gentlemen are Feng Jie’s requirements for a future husband: must be a graduate from either Peking University or Tsinghua University (the two most prestigious in China), and — she’s very specific on this — needs to have majored in business or management. Her other requirements? International vision, height between 1.76 to 1.83, no child, a residence permit for an eastern coastal city, and age 25 to 28. A classic quote from Feng Jie: “I started reading when I was 9 years old; my knowledge reached its peak at 20.” You can’t fault a girl for reaching high, right?”

Happy Chinese New Year, Especially to Palm

Happy Kaixin001.com 🙂

Poor Palm 😦

Chinese New Year just took place over the past three-day weekend. According to Chinese customs, this holiday lasts for two weeks after New Year’s Day on the Chinese lunar calendar, and people will celebrate each day with different celebrations and rituals. Right now the entire country is still immersed in the holiday spirit.

Besides the New Year festivities, there has been some other interesting news coming out of China. About a week ago, there was much speculation that Palm’s mobile phone business was in trouble after news leaked out that Palm was going to halt manufacturing of their Pre and Pixi phones in China for at least the next two weeks in February. Yes, Palm has been facing strong competition in the mobile market, but their situation is not that dire yet. Palm had to release a press statement to clear up these rumors, and state that the pause in production was simply because it was Chinese New Year in China, and their workers were getting the holiday off. Seeing this news, I had very mixed feelings, and also suddenly had the urge to start a weekly column to write about news from China, hoping this would provide a window for viewers to get to know more about Chinese culture and the business environment there. In the future if you see speculation similar to what Palm had to deal with, maybe you can laugh at it, since you already know this time of year is Chinese New Year.

One other tidbit about China came my conversation with a friend who is currently doing research about the Chinese Social Network environment. She interviewed the founder of the “Chinese Facebook”, Kaixin001.com, and she was told that during the past two years since Kaixin001.com was launched in late 2007, the user base has been growing exponentially and reached 90 million at the end of 2009. Growing up in China, I was fully aware of the huge population and the hot market there, but I was still very astonished by this figure.90 million in two years! People must be rushing to this website, and this number is for sure going to multiply in the next couple of years.

Another popular Chinese social network site, Renren.com, which targets a younger demographics like college students in China, has also gathered tons of people. What is more, it has also successfully monetized its huge user base. Besides the revenue generated from traditional ads and selling virtual goods, it also limits the number of friends people can add for free to 1000; anyone who wants to have more than 1000 friends must upgrade to a VIP account, which costs about 10 RMB per month (less than 2 US dollars). With the VIP account, you can add as many friends as you want and incorporate personalized backgrounds and other features to your page. Many of my friends are spending the 10 RMB each month on their accounts. Also for all the brands and companies that want to target more than 1000 fans, they have to pay for this VIP account as an entry fee.

Right now, the two biggest social network sites in China have also been proven to be worthy of investment, and have successfully attracted many brands and social groups either through fan pages or through creative means like embedded game elements and charging you for adding more friends. After five years of existence, Facebook finally reported profits last year. And if people are still skeptical about how social network sites can make money, they should look no further than China. Even though these Chinese social network sites were originally copycats of Facebook, I think they really have built something that their western counterpart may want to take a look at now.