Facebook Plotting Social Revolution in China?

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chinaflag.jpgADOTAS – Access to an online social network apparently wasn’t a pennant of Mao’s little red book. Just like YouTube and Twitter, the mainland dwellers of the People’s Republic of China are blocked from accessing the wonders of Facebook.

They had it for a moment when Facebook launched its Chinese-language version in June 2008, but a long period of flipping on and off the switch started three days later with the Tibetan riots in western China. The service was completely shut off during the ethinic riots in Xingjiang.

Leave it to CEO Mark Zuckerberg to cross the Great Wall and deal with the government Nixon-style to bring Facebook’s unique digital sharing style to back more than a billion potential users (but can he control his salivating over all that data?).

Reportedly Zuck has been taking Mandarin lessons and studying Chinese history in preparation for a voyage to the mainland with fiance Priscilla Chan and Zuck in December to meet her relatives — however, the trip may be waylaid by the recent round of North Korean chest-thumping.

(On a side note, Zuck already views himself in the mold of Steve Jobs, but will marrying a girl named Priscilla give him delusions of Elvis? No one wants to see you shake your hips, Zuck, but a sneer would fit your demeanor well.)

Media in the East and West alike believe that a social visit is merely cover for negotiating turning the Facebook faucet back on in the PRC. On China Daily, Jules Quartly proposes Zuck “surely has a public relations team that is, as we speak, negotiating high-level talks with Chinese leaders to give him access to a billion plus extra characters.”

But considering all the good times Google has had in the Far East, dealing with the Chinese government sounds about as fun as a neverending root canal. On TechRice, Alvin Graylin, founder and CEO of Chinese mobile search provider mInfo, suggests success in China has a great deal to do with cultural and physical presence within the country. The scars of turn-of-the-20th century imperialism are still highly visible on the national psyche.

“Facebook is a global company with one-size fits all mentality, and China is a place where localization and local culture/norms matter a lot,” Graylin writes. “There is just no way for them to operate a global platform to target local user needs and compete effectively with home grown providers.”

However, Facebook has witnessed mammoth growth in People’s Republic of China arch-rival Taiwan — which has a democratic government, for what that’s worth these days — and Hong Kong — which kind of exists in a separate world from the mainland — over the last few years. Facebook even recently overtook Friendster (still a big thing in Asia-Pacific) in popularity in Indonesia.

(By the way, those rumors about Tawian being removed from the alphabetical dropdown menu of member countries for Facebook support problems are false. The PRC would like to erase the island country from the face of the earth, so would such an exercise by Facebook really impress any Party official?)

Quartly adds that Zuck has “already tweaked the channels a bit by saying in recent interviews that countries have different values and Facebook respects this, such as banning content about Nazis in Germany and pictures of Muhammad in Pakistan. He says China is ‘extremely complex’and he will humbly come here to listen and learn.”

Mainland China has two main rivals for the social network crown. Tencent, which started as a blogging platform, but it evolved Facebook-like features through its Qzone offering and recent addition Pengyou.

Then there’s Oak Pacific Interactive’s RenRen, which is pretty much a counterfeit version of Facebook, something akin to a knockoff purse available on Canal Street. RenRen is reportedly scoping out an IPO in 2011 with an estimated value of $1 billion.

So there is money to be made, especially for third-party developers who would greatly benefit from Facebook’s 70/30 revenue sharing plan. TechRice’s Kai Lukoff notes that many third-party developers are shut out of certain networks or only get a small cut of ad revenue. Not surprising for a copycat, RenRen tends to build in-house versions of popular third-party applications.

Although Facebook offers allure from a business standpoint, American social media and commerce companies simply haven’t been successful in China. The most notorious case is eBay, which was destroyed in the market by upstart Taobao (owned by Alibaba).

Responding to a query (or Quora) about American digital operations’ hard times, China media guru Kaiser Kuo explained:

“Local competitors are not much younger (i.e., the American companies don’t exactly have decades of experience to draw on!), they’re as well-funded (VC money sloshes around the China tech scene like BP oil on the Gulf Coast), and they’re used to squeezing money out of relatively poor and notoriously parsimonious consumers. They’re lean, scrappy, and hungry.”

So Zuck has his work cut out for him, but more than a billion users and astonishing amounts of potential revenue will make it worth the effort. He might have other problems, however: as this illustration shows, Chinese artists clearly think he’s part alien. If his eyes were really that far apart, he’d have amazing peripheral vision.

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