Digital Lives: A Parallel Universe of Ambitious Release

JWT's Tom Doctoroff Explores the Reasons Chinese Kids Really Love the Internet

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BEIJING ( -- It's well known that young Chinese today are consumed by all things digital. Internet bars, bursting with netizens, are the size of football fields. More than 600 million individuals carry mobile phones. According to state media, there are more than 60 million bloggers in China, double the number in the U.S.

What is less understood is how they engage with new media -- and whether their emotional urges and self-expression are fundamentally different from western kids.

East vs. west
Chinese youth are a unique cohort. On one hand, they are tremendously ambitious. They have grown up in an economic go-go environment with the need for success, both professional and financial, is reinforced by parents, grandparents and teachers.

On the other hand, China remains a profoundly rule-based, regimented society. Restrictions on self-expression, both implicit and explicit, are omnipresent. Students, always in uniform, never question teachers. Pedagogy focuses on drills and memorization. Unlike American high schools, there is limited "subcultural tribalism." There are no marching bands, choirs, debate clubs or swim teams. College criteria are strictly academic. And media in China is 100% state-controlled. By global standards, there is little content and few platforms for non-censored self-expression.

Tom Doctoroff
Tom Doctoroff
Western individualism is enticingly conveyed via glossy fashion magazines and illegal DVDs, not to mention iconic American and European brands such as Nike and Apple.

This tension between projection of ego and alienation avoidance is a powerful dilemma for most Chinese. One focus group quote says it all: "I would love an uber-sexy motorcycle but, you know, I don't want any trouble with the police."

The internet and conflict resolution
What is the result of this intoxicating brew of timeless cultural imperatives and contemporary game changers? It is a paradoxical coexistence of infectious optimism, a belief in boundless possibilities and the urge to make a mark, and a world where free thought is mission impossible.

Given this conflict, digital liberation is manna from heaven, despite the snooping of 50,000 net police and recent government efforts to expose users' real identities on portals such as Sina and Sohu. The anonymity of new media is a blank canvas for self-expression.

Consider the following findings uncovered in a recent IAC/ JWT survey on American vs. mainland young digital "mavens." While a large minority of Americans agree that they live some of their life on line (42% for both sexes), more than double the percentage of Chinese youth feel similarly (86%). The gap between the samples is even wider when respondents are asked whether they have a "parallel" online life. Only 13% of Americans said yes, while nearly five times as many Chinese agree (61%).

Is the online world a channel for repressed citizens to spew venom at corrupt officials and "anti-China" CNN? Yes, but it is much more. Cyber space is a chance to have a second life. It is a fantasy-driven virtual journey, albeit one that mirrors real world aspirations of "standing out while fitting in." Furthermore, in cyber space, dreams can be instantly gratified, a stark contrast to the molasses-like progression mandated by off-line hierarchical codes.

Marketers can tap into the power of digital liberation by ensuring their communication campaigns address unquenched thirst for bold ego affirmation. These motifs include:

-- Release, or liberation from the restrictions of a regimented social structure
-- Acceptance, or fitting in without sacrificing individual identity
-- Acknowledgment, or generating talent recognition without progressing through real world restrictions
-- Transcendence, or allowing the demands of society to fade away while rediscovering one's "pure" self

Given a reality of grimacing under pressure, the digital world represents true emancipation. Video games are perhaps the most ubiquitous vessels of primal discharge. Almost 50% of global "World of Warcraft" players are young Chinese men. The omnipresence, even addictive power, of violent video games gives free reign to depravity in a virtual world that violates reality-based norms.

One avid fan says, "Online, I can be gay. I can be king of darkness. I can be whoever I want to be. No one can judge me." Another proclaims, "When I play, I can kill my teacher. I let my anger and angst out. I feel much more alive in the game than at the dinner table."

"Release" does not have to be dangerous. Mindless fun can be compelling too, as evidenced by the pervasive shan zhai phenomenon, lighthearted copycat ads that poke fun at established brands ("Just Don't It"), celebrities (a tone deaf Jay Chou, one of Taiwan's most popular singers) or cultural icons (puppies painted like pandas). Pizza Hut's "Yummy Band," a virtual gang of goofy instrumentalists, encourages surfers to "be happy students" by "defeating" exam stress with music.

The most potent liberation occurs when inner feelings, difficult to articulate face to face, are conveyed across a digital comfort zone, sometimes in a larger than life manner. DeBeers "Love World" site, for example, enables men to create a "planet" of "love monuments" and deposit them safely into girlfriends' e-mail boxes.

China's young generation grew up in sheltered, protective households. Parents monitored every move and stressed the importance of conventional achievement, such as good grades. As a result, Chinese youth are not confident in their "coolness." They crave peer acceptance.

Man Zhou, a celebrated software hacker, is typical. He said, "At first, I thought I had limitless choices in life, but then I realized I needed to grow up and adapt to society. Maybe it's different in America, but in China, our culture forces us to become just another square person."

The digital world liberates "the real me," hence the popularity of social networking sites. According to Synovate, 72% of Chinese use the internet to "chat with people you know or have lost contact with" and 78% to "meet and chat with new people," almost double the rates of Japan, the U.S. and France.

A desire to seek out and connect with "like-minded people" explains the success of 7Up's "World Travelers Unite!" site and Ford's "Excitement Challenge." During Ford's online event, individuals shared experiences,transformed from "boring to bold," and generated 600 million clicks on Nike's on- and off-line "Nine Gates, Nine Tribes Tournament" linked team affiliation to lifestyle and personality preferences. Beijing was taken by storm.

Chinese egos are huge, but scaling a mountain of glory is a lifelong endurance test. To boot, blatant status projection is frowned upon, given values of "saving face" and "understatement." The internet, therefore, provides a platform to shine. Millions of admirers can, almost instantly, applaud uniqueness.

Chun Xu, an online novelist, became a big name within a year. Li Yuchun, aka Supergirl, morphed from an odd-looking wannabe pop star to national icon in three months. Her rise was fueled by 400 million SMS votes and a multitude of fan sites. Within weeks, the Dorm Room Boys, two twenty-year-old students, became lip-syncing sensations, securing Motorola and Pepsi contracts in the process.

For modern Chinese, narcissism is more alluring than Buddhism. Virtual stars -- web filmmaker He Ge, sports blogger Li Chenpeng, BBS cypto-sexy superstar Sister Lotus and even the "Sichuan Rescue Pig" – are proof that, online, it only takes a moment to become larger than life.

Pepsi's "Get on the Can" competition generated epic buzz. The same enthusiasm greeted Pringles' "My Own World Record," Nokia's "Who Has the Best (Dance) Moves?" and Colgate's "Star Search" initiatives. Before the Beijing 2008 Olympics, McDonald's "Amplify Your China Pride" and KFC's "We Will Win(g)" sites gave everyone a megaphone to attract kudos for patriotic passion.

In reality, only "big shots" are "above it all." Young Chinese are not escapist in a Japanese sense. And they are fundamentally optimistic about the future. But they need an occasional break. Pervasive conformity, not to mention a belief that "society corrupts the pure," fuels a desire to cleanse the soul. Anyone on the internet can achieve moral or omnipotent transcendence.

For instance, a Chengdu student was acclaimed for assisting the People's Liberation Army to locate a helicopter landing pad during the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. Cisco's "For the Children" web-based educational assistance network lets people perform benevolent acts for underprivileged rural kids.

Real world success is a long and twisted journey. In the digital universe, laws of gravity do not apply. Giant leaps to liberation are not only possible -- but commonplace.

Tom Doctoroff is JWT's CEO, China and area director, North Asia based in Shanghai. He has lived in China since early 1998.

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