Enough With the Word 'Netizen'

Once useful as a way to describe China's internet users, the term is now meaningless, inaccurate, and misleading.

A man works on his computer inside a coffee shop in downtown Shanghai. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

As a person immersed in China writing for several years, I've grown accustomed to the particular nomenclature which comes with the field. There's “China's rise,” of course. “Getting old before they get rich,” “mass incident,” “leftover women,” and “little emperors” are others you see a lot. Some of these words are better than others (“mass incident” is kind of weird, if you think about it), but, during the course of my work, I've come to terms with them.

But there's one term that I cannot stand, a term that I, normally a flexible sort of guy, simply refuse to use. That term is “netizen.” You've probably seen it around: Mainstream newspapers and magazines use “netizen” liberally, usually without explanation. And, despite occasional pushback—Time once included the term in its list of words to be killed in 2012, and even the China Daily mused about banning it—“netizen” lives on.

I understand this, I really do. I understand that netizen sounds better than “internet user,” and that a precise Chinese translation of the word—wangmin—is widely used.  But it's time to get rid of “netizen.” It's inaccurate, obsolete, and outdated—the verbal equivalent of an East German phone book.

My first objection to “netizen” is an aesthetic one: It just sounds bad. Netizen is a portmanteau, combining the words for “net” and “citizen,” and actually dates back to 1984. In the first years of the Internet, when only a small percentage of the American population was online, “netizen” served a purpose: It described a quirky community of people whose unusual habit of spending hours online united them.

But today, the idea that a person is a “citizen” of the web seems, well, strange. Consider if the New York Times ran a story with the following headline: “American Netizens Angered by President Obama's Drone Program.” The statement is technically true: A lot of Americans, such as my colleague Conor Friedersdorf, write often about the program online. But the sentence is meaningless. Many Americans oppose the program, and because it's 2013 and not 1984, these Americans can voice their opposition in blogs, forums, and social networks. To say that “netizens” oppose something in the United States is an extraneous detail:  You could say that many left-handed people are against drones, too.

But what about in China? Writing in The Atlantic last year, my former colleague Brian Fung acknowledged the clunkiness of “netizen,” but argued that, in a Chinese context, the word makes sense:

“Netizen” is more than a cute, trendy label. It speaks to the way Chinese Internet users have organized themselves as inhabitants of the same digital nation, one that's distinct from the physical nation in which they live. Citizenship in that digital state confers new privileges and opportunities. Most of these users aren't representative of the broader population—they're mostly young, wealthy, educated urbanites—which is all the more reason to assign them a name. 

Brian's correct that China's internet users, like those in most countries, are disproportionately young, urban, educated, and wealthy. But I'm not so sure it's accurate to say that their virtual “nation” is distinct from their physical one. 600 million people use the Internet in China, and they use it for pretty much the same reasons as people everywhere else: to connect with friends, catch up on news, watch videos, and go shopping. Yet the vast majority of articles that reference Chinese “netizens” focus only on political speech, particularly micro-blog posts critical of the government. This vision of netizens implies an army of city slickers who are clever, hip, adept at slang, fond of memes, cynical, and especially skilled at exposing the identity of corrupt officials and their spoiled children through “human flesh searches.”

The problem with this impression isn't that it's inaccurate—there is a huge number of Chinese people who fit this description. It's just that it's incomplete. Mark Rowswell, a Canadian entertainer better known in China by the name “Da Shan,” referenced this point in the comments of a recent Sinica Podcast blog post:

The vast majority of social media users in China are non-political, or shall we say de-politicized. The main interest for the vast majority of users is to follow celebrities and socialize with friends. In this sense they are little different from social media users the world over. Yet our discussion of Weibo only ever focuses on that small minority that are politically active.

Rowswell also points out that, of the top 100 “verified” accounts on Sina Weibo, the overwhelming majority are celebrities and entertainers who rarely, if ever, discuss politics. This isn't surprising—a quick look at the Twitter accounts with the most followers confirms the same trend around the rest of the world. A user of Sina Weibo may spend his time riffing on the antics of a sleazy Communist Party cadre, but he's much more likely to seek the latest news about his favorite soccer player. Whatever he does, he's still a “netizen.”

Why does this skewed vision of China's internet exist? The reason is simple—while freewheeling political speech is only part of the tapestry of the Chinese Internet, it's the only real source of public political opinion that we've got. Chinese state-run media does not permit criticism of the Communist Party and has historically ignored stories of public discontent. But now, because of the great work of sites like Tea Leaf Nation and ChinaSmack and other individual bloggers and tweeters, Westerners now have a pretty good sense of what ordinary Chinese people talk about.

And that's the other problem with “netizen”—it implies that political views in China exist solely online, away from the confines of regular society. But political speech exists offline in China, too, and not everyone with an opinion has the desire (or ability) to voice it in a microblog.

There's no such thing as a “netizen.” There are citizens with hobbies, interests, opinions, and viewpoints, and these citizens use the Internet to voice them. It's time we adopt more accurate word to describe them: people.