Mike Isaac

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Toward a More Visual Language: How Social Networks Skirt Censorship in China

Hubert Burda Media/DLD China Youthology COO Kevin Lee in conversation at DLD, Munich.

After “social local mobile” or “SoLoMo,” the buzzword I hear around the Valley the most these days isn’t a neologism, it’s a country: China.

It’s the key international growth market that so many U.S. tech companies want to break into — especially social Web companies like Facebook. Problem is, there’s this whole state censorship thing they’ve got to deal with. (Just ask Google how easy that is.)

Perhaps, however, there’s a subversive way of sneaking free expression in the back door. (Listen up, Facebook.)

“It’s really hard for the government to censor things when they don’t understand the made-up words or meaning behind the imagery,” said Kevin Lee, COO of China Youthology, in conversation at the DLD conference in Munich on Monday. “The people there aren’t even relying on text anymore It’s audio, visual, photos. All the young people are creating their own languages.”

So, look at an app like WeChat, “a WhatsApp on steroids,” as BDA China chairman Duncan Clark put it. It’s the social network owned by Tencent — China’s largest listed Internet company — replete with hundreds of millions of users. Aside from its basic popularity as a mobile messaging application, Chinese youth can use it as a way around the traditional text-based censorship rained down upon users by the state. Even after Tencent agreed to censor words appearing on WeChat that the Chinese government doesn’t approve of.

Take a Mini Cooper ad that appeared in China. The ad featured a shot of a car with a large bandage on its bumper, with no text anywhere else on the page. It’s a signal that yes, even Mini Cooper and the big brands are also upset that they’re forced to censor themselves due to state demands.

But the ad still ran untouched. “The government either doesn’t understand, or can’t do anything because the brand isn’t really saying anything overtly,” Lee said.

It’s the same with the young people who adopt these visual languages. Even if Tencent is nixing certain keywords within the WeChat app on the order of the state, there are still the pictures and audio messages flowing through the app’s network. “And by the time the government realizes what’s happening, they’re already passe, they’ve already moved on,” said Kitty Lun, CEO of Lowe China.

Censorship issues aside, alternate forms of communication are flourishing across all social networks, both foreign and domestic. The Tokyo, Japan-based Line app has ballooned to upward of 70 million users in the short time it has been on the market. South Korea’s Kakao Talk hosts more than 50 million users on its network internationally, with at least 30 million of those operating on smartphones inside of South Korea.

And of course there’s WhatsApp, the mobile messaging app that saw explosive growth over the past year, was courted by both Facebook and Google (and shot both big companies down), and remains massively popular among more than half the countries in the world.

Now that WhatsApp has rebuffed major acquisition offers, I’m curious to see Facebook’s Chinese strategy play out. We may have seen a hint of that last year, however: Facebook released an update to its Messenger app for Android in a number of countries that lets users message one another without the need to have a Facebook account. Maybe the Chinese who don’t have a Facebook account — because it’s blocked in the country — can use this as a back door to access Messenger and start contacting their friends inside and outside the country, free from the threat of government censorship. I’ve asked Facebook whether the Messaging app update is available to Chinese users who don’t have a Facebook account, but I haven’t heard back yet.

Perhaps, however, time is running out for Facebook. “It’s not like the Chinese are just sitting around, waiting desperately for Facebook,” Lee said. “They’ve got plenty of options.”

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The problem with the Billionaire Savior phase of the newspaper collapse has always been that billionaires don’t tend to like the kind of authority-questioning journalism that upsets the status quo.

— Ryan Chittum, writing in the Columbia Journalism Review about the promise of Pierre Omidyar’s new media venture with Glenn Greenwald