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From digital to direct: Online communities make a critical connection

By 25 June 2009 No Comment
Photo by Natalia Ciolko

Virtual fashion: Exploring the limits of social networking | Photo by Liang Shi

At the top of a five-story Adidas store in Beijing, a gaggle of perfectly styled teenagers and twenty-somethings crowded the escalator landing. Gathered for the opening of an art exhibition, the participants were members of Make Cute Club, or MCC, an online fashion forum catering to China’s style-obsessed Netizens, who were meeting in person for the very first time. Decked out with piercings, fake eyelashes and trucker hats, the MCC-ers hugged and mugged, snapping pictures with their cell phones and chattering in the silence of the otherwise empty store.

Welcome to a microcosm of social self-expression among China’s youth today.

“In Chinese online life, there is self-expression, but there is also self-exploration,” said Sam Flemming of Internet word- of-mouth marketing research firm CIC.

Digital life for Chinese youth has exploded since the early 2000s, and with the line between online and real life has tended to blur. Although only about one-fifth of China’s 1.3 billion citizens are Internet users, over 70 percent are under 30. Sixty-three percent of Chinese youth between the ages of 16 to 25 believe authentic relationships without face-to-face interaction are possible, according to a 2007 study by Internet brand company IAC. Yet real-life meetings, such as the MCC art exhibit at the Adidas store, are becoming a natural extension of the online social networking environment.

Started in 2003 by Nian Keke, a burly 27-year-old who loves American basketball and hip-hop, the site began simply as a place for Nian, an animation student, to showcase his cartoon designs. Curious about his viewers’ responses to the work, Nian created a user forum, which rapidly developed a social life of its own.

“More and more members of my forum started to pay attention to their own styles rather than just check out my designs, so I thought, ‘Maybe we can start a group of people who are more chic than their peers,’” Nian said.

Today the site receives over 10,000 unique IP address hits daily, and the forum provides a place for people all over China to see the latest street styles of Beijing, Shanghai or from anywhere that boasts MCC users who want to submit their personal photos.

“People can explore different identities and ideas, and if it’s done anonymously it’s a lot safer,” Fleming said.

However, anonymity doesn’t mean users don’t develop unique identities online. Approximately 60 percent of Chinese Internet users claim to have a parallel digital life, according to the IAC survey, and in that world, they find a sense of community.

“It’s hard to say ‘Hi’ to someone on the street in China, but I know that in America you can say ‘Hi’ to anyone,” said an American-born Chinese member who goes by Green Tea on the MCC forum. “Not a lot of people can go on the street and meet someone [in China] because there is a wall between each person.”

Communities like MCC, which celebrate diversity, are a place where young people can express their real selves without fear of social judgement. Nian, who considers himself both conservative and traditional, said, “I don’t approve but I don’t judge,” adding, “I can’t treat my younger generations in the way that my parents treated me.

As the afternoon waned into evening, and MCC’s eye candy left the Adidas store, photos from the day were already being posted to the site, and as always, real life continued online.

Photo by Natalia Ciolko

Onliners unplugged: MCC members explore real-time communication | Photo by Natalia Ciolko

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