Logging in from China – Part III

“How did you like China?”

Knowing I have less than 48 hours left in the country, I’m just beginning to prepare my answer to the inevitable question. But there is no easy answer. You see, you can’t “like” China. Like implies a relatively calm and detached, non-committal response, a distant discernment that you have some control over. You can experience China or survive China. You can be amazed by, immersed in, assaulted or befuddled by China. You can be bemused, disgusted or delighted by China. Often, you can experience all of these things at the same time. China is a tidal wave, a sensory explosion, a cultural monsoon. You don’t just “like” it. You live it, and try to figure out the impact afterwards.

I knew participating in SES China would be interesting. It proved to be more than I ever imagined. One of my favorite things was meeting Deb and Jim Fallows, two US ex-pats who are making Shanghai home for two years. Jim is a noted author and journalist for The Atlantic. Deb works with the PEW Internet Project. Together they decided to dive into the incredibly deep pool that is China and try to provide some perspective for their US audience. I naively asked how they were finding the experience. Each, independently, gave the same answer. “Some days I don’t think I’ll make it through to lunch, and some days I think two years won’t be nearly long enough”. Check out Deb’s one week journal she wrote for Slate and Jim’s website. It will give you a tiny glimpse of China, through worldly but still western eyes.

There’s a lot here to digest. Part of me (admittedly a very small part of me) is intrigued by taking the dive myself and following in the Fallow’s footsteps. There is an incredible market emerging, and one feels that you have to try to get your bearings relative to it or you may be missing something of tremendous importance. But I fear that once you started down this path, it would be all consuming. I’m not sure I’d emerge intact. Most of me wants to run for home and try to digest all that I’ve heard, seen and experienced.

One of the stats I quoted in my presentation was that China is now the second largest internet market in the world, at 150 million users, just slightly behind the US at 154 million. But that represents 68% market penetration for the US, and slightly more than 10% for China. I was here presenting the results of an eye tracking study we did on Chinese users interacting with Baidu.com and Google.cn. The results were puzzling, but I found that permanent puzzlement is the norm here, at least as far as westerners go. By the standards we would apply to North American engines, Google offered a significantly better user experience, but Baidu’s market share is 62%, compared to Google’s 20%. And the trends are not moving in Google’s favor. China has chosen Baidu, even though Google may be the more logical choice. Logic is only one of the factors at play here, and it’s a relatively minor one at that. Searching in China is a totally different experience than it is in the US. We use search as a tool. China uses it as a window to the online world. They spend more time on the search results page. Way more time. The average time on a search results page in North America before a click is less than 10 seconds. The average time we saw on Google China was 30 seconds, and on Baidu, almost a full minute. In North America, we tend to very quickly scan a few results, looking for signs of relevance. In China, the entire listing is scanned, and in Baidu’s case, the entire page is scanned. I interpreted this as a less successful user experience. One person who came up to me after the presentation offered another interpretation: this was how the Chinese spend their time online. In North America, information is something to be begrudgingly waded through. In China, information is treasured. We tend to scan and discard the irrelevant quickly. The Chinese like to savor information, to digest it more slowly, to take the time to judge the relevance for themselves. Remember, in the west, we have a lot more trust (sometimes that trust may be misguided, ironically the topic of one of Jim Fallow’s books) in our information sources. The Chinese have learned differently through experience.

Also, in North America our interactions with the search results page are linear, logical and efficient. We zero in on what we’re looking for quickly. The Chinese tend to pick up the information in a pattern that would seem haphazard to us. Eyes dart around the page, scanning here and there. This didn’t make sense to me until I went to China. Now, in the appropriate cultural context, it makes perfect sense. Deb Fallows told me there’s a phrase in China, renao, that, loosely translated, means “hot and noisy”. That’s how the Chinese like it. Explosions of stimuli, amounting to what we in the West would consider an assault on our senses. When you translate this to a search experience, it’s a frenetic scanning of the page. Sure, Baidu’s page is loaded with affiliate spam and pay for placement links. Sure you have to dig deeper and take twice as long to find what you’re looking for. But that’s okay, because time on the internet is valued highly here. Maybe, just maybe, Google is too efficient for its own good in this market. We’ll be publishing the full study soon (mid June is the optimistic date).

This morning, I had my own taste of “hot and noisy”. Chris Sherman and I were to catch the ferry over the Gulangyu, an island highly touted as the favored tourist attraction here (this is a link to a virtual tour that you, like I, will have to be satisfied with for now). But with limited time available (our flight to Beijing was leaving at 1:30 pm) we decided to instead just randomly wander the streets in the vicinity. It proved to be a good choice. The ferry terminal was on the main drag, and on the opposite side was the inevitable stretch of newly erected high rises. Throw in a McDonalds and Pizza Hut for good measure. But just a block further in, we found the real Xiamen. We found ourselves in the middle of a traditional Chinese street market that stretched for blocks. There was not another westerner in sight, as we walked past stall after stall. If it walked, crawled, slithered, hopped, swam or grew anywhere in the vicinity, it could be found here. My wife, Jill, is deathly afraid of frogs. As we were wandering, I saw frogs for sale by the bag. The thing was, they were still alive, packaged in netted bags about the size of a small shopping bag. There were probably 12 or so large frogs in each bag. There was food of every description, live and dead, including a rather large carcass of some kind that was being energetically hacked to bits by a petite woman with a huge cleaver. And there was no refrigeration in sight. Eel and squid lay right next to cookies and biscuits. While it was a sight to see, it did nothing to whet my appetite.

Now, I’m on the plane to Beijing. From everything I’ve been told, my immersion into China has been extraordinarily gentle to this point. Xiamen is, according to one guide book, “the softest of landings into China”. Beijing represents “hot and noisy” at it’s most frenetic. I’m preparing myself. I’ve got somewhere around 40 hours left before I board the plane back home. I’m both treasuring the time left and dreading it. I can sympathize completely with Deb and Jim Fallows. I’m not sure I’ll make it to dinner tonight, but I also hate to leave.

“How did I like China?”

That’s like saying “how do you like being alive?”.  It’s just too big a concept to be adequately covered by such a small question.

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