Thursday, June 28, 2007

China's SMS/Texting problem, illustrated

The irrepressable Edward Cody of the Washington Post has done it again, uncovering another trend in Chinese Internet and mass media development. The article is entitled Text Messages Giving Voice to Chinese, and it points to a major hole in Beijing's media control policies: SMS/"Texting":
By the hundreds of thousands, the urgent text messages ricocheted around cellphones in Xiamen, warning of a catastrophe that would spoil the city's beautiful seaside environment and foul its sweet-smelling tropical breezes.

By promoting the construction of a giant chemical factory among the suburban palm trees, the local government was "setting off an atomic bomb in all of Xiamen," the massive message sprays charged, predicting that the plant would cause "leukemia and deformed babies" among the 2 million-plus residents of this city on China's southern rim ...
Later, in a description about a peaceful demonstration against the same planned development, the second wave of network-enabled discussion spread to a wider group:
Citizen journalists carrying cellphones sent text messages about the action to bloggers in Guangzhou and other cities, who then posted real-time reports for the entire country to see.

"The second police defense line has been dispersed," Wen Yunchao, one such witness, typed to a friend in Guangzhou. "There is pushing and shoving. The police wall has broken down."

Chinese tuned in to the blogosphere in great numbers, viewing written accounts and cellphone photographs. Sites carrying the live reports recorded thousands of hits. Some sites were knocked out by security monitors. But by then their reports had bounced to other sites around the country, keeping one step ahead of the censors. Many of those tuned in were traditional newspaper and magazine reporters whose editors were afraid to cover the protests because of warnings from the Xiamen party Propaganda Department.
I've been talking about these trends since 2005 -- on this blog, in the South China Morning Post, and in an essay I published earlier this year online. The top-down, centralized control of the media and the message has broken down in China. People are using the Internet, telecommunications networks, and cheap portable electronics to bypass government censors and discuss the issues they think are important, without regard to the "official line." And this is just the beginning. Here is an excerpt from my essay, Meeting the Second Wave: How Technology, Demographics, and Usage Trends Will Drive the Next Generation of Media Evolution (you can also see the original Harvard version):
How will this wave of user-generated photographs and video impact the news landscape? More importantly, how will this wave of content impact the public's understanding of the world around them? Let's consider a real-world event that was defined by news imagery: The Tiananmen Square demonstrations and its most enduring image, a man standing in front of a column of tanks. The still image and video clip of this scene were both taken by professional photojournalists. Imagine if the consumer and 'Net technology of today were available in 1989. Suppose just five percent of the tens of thousands of people in Tiananmen Square at that time had portable phones, digital cameras, and video cameras, and the content from 10% of those devices had been uploaded and spread via the 'Net? There wouldn't be just one iconic image of the events — a courageous, solitary figure defying the might of the People's Liberation Army. There would be dozens, hundreds, even thousands of images for the world to consider. And the government wouldn't just have to put out fires in Beijing and a few other big cities — there would be anger in practically every city and town in China where there are people with 'Net connections.
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