The Cute-Cat Deterrant; Social Networking and China

March 24, 2009

After reading Susan Shapiro’s article in the New York Times discussing the role of Facebook in the Egyptian pro-democracy movement, I was struck by two quotes she included from Harvard research fellow Ethan Zuckerman.  He characterizes the use of Facebook in political movements as “Cute-cat digital activism,” going onto say that, “Authoritarian regimes can’t block political Facebook groups without blocking all the American Idol fans and cat lovers as well.” Essentially Zuckerman sees the use of Facebook for pro-democracy organizing as a way for activists to hide in plain sight among the millions of other users simply posting photos or making mundane wall posts.  Building upon this idea he posits that repressive regimes will not bring down Facebook precisely because of this dearth of non-politically active traffic.  According to Zuckerman, shutting down a popular social networking site would create a backlash against the government from users who before were happy using the site purely for social networking.  This got me thinking about how this concept of a “Cute-cat” deterrent will fare as Facebook crosses into another repressive society, China.

The world knows by now that China meticulously censors and monitors most, if not all the internet traffic of its citizens.  When people create websites or forums directed at political activism it is easy for Chinese censors to either block access to these sites, or if they are within China, shut them down and arrest their creators.  If Zuckerman’s contention holds true a site like Facebook could possibly threaten these tried and true responses to digital activism because the government will not be able to only shut down specific groups, the whole website would have to be taken down. The question becomes whether or not China will risk alienating all the other users using Facebook for non-political purposes in order to crack down on dissidents.

Historically the size of the non-politically active portion of a site’s user base has not served as an effective deterrent to blockage.  Even hugely popular sites like Wikipedia and Google have felt the wrath of the Chinese censors in the last few years. In spite of this discouraging portent, it is important to note that when Facebook began offering a Chinese version of its site in July of last year it joined an already crowded market. Myspace, Qspace and a Chinese clone of Facebook (xiaonei.com, that already boasts 22 million registered users and has raised more money than Facebook) are already players on the mainland social networking scene.

The growth of these networks shows that the Chinese seem to be embracing the concept of social networking.  This is significant because it is a very different thing to block a search engine or encyclopedia but a social networking site is a different beast.  What I mean by this is that a page on Facebook effectively contains one’s online identity; a profile page is not portable or replaceable like a search engine or encyclopedia.  If Facebook, or any other site on which you have information goes away, so does your page and all the work you put into making and maintain the network attached to it.  Perhaps when Chinese citizens find that all their uploaded materials and friend networks have suddenly vanished due to the banning of their networking site there will be a larger domestic outcry than in the past. When this happens we will truly see just how powerful the “cute-cat deterrent” can be.

-Mike Stillman

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