Crying wolf: Barry Diller, the Economist, and China

Three updates! Below

The takes at face value a silly speech by Barry Diller*, based on a silly survey, and draws silly sky-is-falling conclusions.

The headline on the item was: "America's emobyte** deficit: China's youth surpass their American rivals online." The story opened with a quote from Diller:

“THE Chinese people seem to be way ahead of Americans in living a digital life,” said Barry Diller, an American media mogul, last week in a speech to students in Beijing...[Diller's data] revealed that in this arena as in so much else, China is surging ahead..

They "seem" to be way ahead? I suppose, in the same sense in which I "seem" to be way taller than Yao Ming. Both of these seem true only if you ignore the actual facts. In a million different ways China deserves to be taken very seriously. But there are only two ways in which Chinese people really do seem to be "ahead" of Americans digitally.

1) Use of mobile phones for text-messaging. Everyone has a phone, and they're in use everywhere. On the subway. In the hinterland. At all tables in busy restaurants. Often people talk on the phones, but even more often they send text messages. Partly this is because China's mobile phone coverage is so vastly much better than America's. Partly it's because text message are so cheap (depending on plans, maybe 1 jiao, 1.3 cents, per message). And largely it is because relatively few people have email. In professional-class America, you can pretty much count on a person getting an email message in real time, via BlackBerry, Sidekick, etc. In China, that's what mobile phones are for.

2) Playing online games. If you walk into a Chinese internet cafe -- 网吧, wang ba -- you may see a few people doing email and a few reading blogs. Some will be watching movies. One or two might be on a spreadsheet or Word-style document. Most will be playing video games.

Here is a relatively high-end wang ba in the biggish town of Nanjing. As best my wife and I could tell without seeming like inspectors, all but one of the people shown here were playing games. The other was watching a movie:

And here is a low-end one in a tiny village in western Sichuan province, where each person at each terminal was playing a game:

The entry way to this village wang ba:

The popularity of video games in its own separate topic -- and industry. Literally an industry: many people play for pay, earning points they can sell to gamers overseas. Several times a week the Chinese press carries stories about the supposed crisis-epidemic of internet addiction among young people. I have no opinion on that. But I do know, from observation in elementary and high schools and also in colleges, that apart from game-playing and text messaging, Chinese kids are in no sense "ahead" of American kids in use of the internet. In the areas Americans would probably consider significant -- for instance, mastery of search devices -- Chinese kids are generally behind. (Details another time.)

I should confess my unfair advantage here: My wife actually knows about the topic! She works for the Pew Internet Project and has done studies here in China on what and why Chinese users are doing on the internet. These pictures come from her reports.

So when I see a statement like this from the story -- "China’s soaring online population is now estimated at 137m, second only to America’s 165m-210m" -- I think: wait a minute! That means that about one tenth of China's people use the internet, versus half to two thirds of America's. So if this shows they are "way ahead...." (Yes, of course, China's total is rising faster and sooner or later will overtake America's in absolute terms.)

The main point of the study behind Diller's speech is that Chinese students say the internet is more important to them than American kids too. OK. But that is different from the role the internet actually plays in people's lives (not to mention the shakiness of most public-opinion data from China, yet another whole separate topic). Read and judge for yourself. And I do agree with the note of sanity on which the ends its dispatch, in contrast to how it begins:
Perhaps this will give the Chinese labour force an edge over America’s...But rather than bemoan that this is yet another area where America is falling behind China, perhaps Americans should celebrate the ability of their young people to live full, broad lives in the actual (rather than virtual) world. Some 42% of the young Chinese said they sometimes feel “addicted” to living online, compared to only 18% of Americans. Perhaps those young Chinese should get a life.

* Diller is a savvy and successful guy, so let's take the traditional approach and blame the speech on the speechwriter. It's part of the job description! Unfortunately I speak from experience.

** "Emobyte" is a word Diller apparently invented, to mean emotional content over the net.

: I shouldn't have blamed the speechwriter! I should have blamed the survey firm for inventing the term "emobyte." Apologies to Diller or the speechwriter -- except, for taking the term at face value.

UPDATE 2: I should have really blamed the survey firm. As Jacob Kramer-Duffield (small world: a school friend of one of my sons) points out, the survey was so grossly unrepresentative that no one should have taken it as a proxy for whether China was "surpassing" America. For instance, the survey says:

While the U.S. sample is representative of America's youth, the Chinese sample is necessarily weighted toward the young elite. Only about 10 percent of the Chinese population is online, largely young, urban and educated males. All Chinese respondents had a monthly household income of at least RMB 1,500. (See appendix for more demographic data.)

In a sense, this takes us back to blaming who ever swallowed the survey.

UPDATE 3: Even smaller world. One of the reports the survey cites, to gauge the size of China's internet user base, is, umm, by one Deborah Fallows. I have it on good authority that she does not agree with the inferences the survey drew.