Twitter With Chinese Characteristics: 马马虎虎?

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On the question raised several days ago -- Is the Internet a tool for dictators or for dissidents? -- several wags write in to say that the obvious answer is "Yes."

But a reader who studies Chinese argues that social media, notably Twitter, have "asymmetric" potential in China and in theory should help individuals and dissidents more than they help the censors and authorities. Some of his points, as he admits, are old news to people familiar with Chinese language but are worth spelling out to a non-Chinese audience:

I'll not applaud or boo any of the arguments presented in the panel discussion;... just thought I'd call attention to a small, relevant but unmentioned, aspect of this debate:

Twitter seems tailored to suit Chinese dissidents. It quantifies text limits based on characters, a disproportionate detriment to languages like English where it usually takes several characters (letters) to create a unit of speech (word). Not to mention a precious character wasted for each space between words. Chinese writing (and more importantly to Twitter, typing) has no spaces between characters, and one (or two) characters equals a unit of speech. Twitter is a much more efficient (appealing?) tool to a Chinese dissident, then.

Think of it like this: It's equivalent to every English word, regardless of level of abstraction or contextual complexity, counted like "a" or "if" by Twitter. Or imagine your "word count" and "character count" being nearly identical in every Word document.

Also, Chinese idioms are often 4-character fixed expressions (I'm sure you know all this, but I'm laying it out for the sake of argument-building). [JF note: Imagine countless counterparts to "Measure twice, cut once," but with each of the four words reduced to a single character. Here's an index of 30,000 of 'em, in Chinese. Eg, a very familiar four character idiom is 马马虎虎, "horse-horse, tiger-tiger," meaning something that's just so-so. A cousin to the English idiom "neither fish nor fowl."] Centuries of historical folklore, or the contemporary significance of a modern phrase, crammed into the character count of "ROFL."
And although the Great Firewall can censor discreetly by keyword(s), Chinese phonetics are such that many characters may share the same sound with a different tone, or even the same sound and same tone (much to the ire of Western learners of Mandarin). Therefore, in Chinese Web-speak it's possible to use different characters with similar phonetics to a sensitive or banned phrase. Bam. Censors bypassed (temporarily). In-the-know Chinese Internet shorthand developed.

But back to Chinese dissidents presently using Twitter. It also seems a tailored fit for disseminating information because many of these dissidents are geographically separated by large distances, and because using standard Chinese written characters to communicate avoids any regional dialect-based confusions between sharers.

Finally, Twitter seems more a tool for the Chinese rebel than censor because you don't have to get incriminatingly close to your contacts. You can follow another user without being followed back, and vice versa. You can "unfollow" that same user, or block someone who's been following you, anytime without confirmation or consequence. You can make contacts and share info from unknown #s of miles apart with pseudonyms, info that's important to your sociopolitical vitality, yet drop the anonymous source immediately if things heat up.

Perhaps it is because the Chinese authorities see things the same way that they have blocked Twitter through much of the past year. Through the past 48 hours, of course, they have blocked Foursquare, apparently to avoid the possibility of even a virtual "demonstration" in Tiananmen Square on the 21st anniversary of the crackdown there. (My Beijing friend Kaiser Kuo archly noted via Twitter: "Finally, the freakin' GFW does something good and blocks Foursquare. No more 'mayor of blah blah' messages in my Twitter stream!") How this part of the dissent/control balance will swing in the long run is impossible to say. It's all reminder number five million that today's Chinese system has big, big strengths and big, largely self-imposed limitations.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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