In China, “virtual me” is the real me.
If you are Chinese, 25, middle class, decently educated and perhaps in your first job in one of the booming eastern cities, chances are that social media is a much more important part of your life than it is for a Londoner or New Yorker. Why? Because Chinese society is, on the whole, much more socially constrained than the west. Parents and teachers expect to be obeyed. Work is more hierarchical and the boss is well “boss-like” and probably does not want to be your friend. So many young Chinese develop their public face to deal with this. Their public self, of course, remains very different to that private self.
Online it is a different matter. Online, people feel much freer to express themselves. Mum and dad and teacher and the boss don’t see and as long as you are not criticizing the government, neither do the authorities. Until recently, many people on Weibo (China’s madly successful Twitter equivalent) were anonymous, which fueled this phenomenon.
So a brand or a company venturing online in China better not do so in the way they would in the West. Expect participation and engagement. Both positive and negative. Produce quality content or engage in a smart way and people will respond with a host of likes, comments and re-posts. Whole debates might rage, prompted by your video, infographic or picture. The research company Altimeter recently mapped China, followed by Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia, as the most engaged online populations in the world. The U.S., UK, Germany and France were significant laggards by this measure.
That of course spells huge opportunity for brands and companies that get this and behave accordingly. But get things wrong, as some western brands too often do, and the speed and ferocity of the reaction can put you out of business very quickly. Many people will go as far as saying that in a one party state, Weibo, is now the official “opposition” to government.
In China, people show up online much more differently than they do in the real world.