Monday, September 22nd, 2008...7:06 pm

Chinese media sites resemble US counterparts

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While in Shanghai I have come across a number of popular Chinese media and social networking sites that look surprisingly similar to their American counter parts.  The three sites I’ve picked out for comparison are Facebook/Xiaonei, Google/Baidu, and YouTube/YouKu.

I have not yet looked in depth at the similarities and differences between these sites.  However I asked some of my fellow coworkers why they think Chinese users don’t use American versions of these sites.  Some of their answers are obvious, but a few are more subtle.  Below are a few basic reasons why there is a demand for the Chinese specific versions of these sites.

  1. Language/Localization.  This is the most obvious reason.  A lot of these sites do not offer localized versions for Chinese.  This is changing as sites make a move towards adding additional languages, but that is a slow process.  Sites built from the ground up in the native language of the users will always feel more natural and appealing.  It also has to do with functionality as well as aesthetics.  For example, Baidu is quite good at parsing Mandarin language content and may provide better results than competitors.
  2. User Base. For many of these sites the content is primarily user provided. This makes them most relevant to those contributing and tends to create cultural specificity within these sites.
  3. Connectivity Speed.  Many of the US sites are too far away and don’t provide enough bandwidth to make these sites usable over slow connections.  Slow response times discourage international users and provide a reason to have locally hosted solutions.
  4. Location Specific Features/Data. Many sites that appear to be imitations of US sites contain a different feature set than their US counterparts.  Often these features have to do with the different regulations/company standards surrounding the sites.  For example, Baidu provides an extremely popular MP3 search.  This search provides convenient cataloged access to known copyrighted material, a services that Google refuses to provide.
  5. Content Filtering. Some of the sites in the US are subject to content blocking by the Chinese government.  The local sites tend to conform more closely to the content restrictions and are less subject to outages.  I will abstain from making any value statements… but this fact is a contributor to the existence of alternative versions of these sites.

My interest in comparing and contrasting these websites is not to accuse anyone of stealing ideas, but rather to explore the way differences in technology are motivated by difference in culture.  For search, media, and social networking, we can examine each solution in its respective cultural context. Through observing the differences between sites with shared function the important cultural distinctions can be revealed.  It is too early for me to draw conclusions, but it has captured my interest.

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