Monday, 24 December 2007

Internet Youth China

I've been taking a look around Beijing and as part of that exploration visiting random internet cafes and enjoying the luxury of being able to observe the customers. It's pure gold getting to know what they are using their computer terminal for, how they behave and what is their internet life through free observation.

As a nomadic planner, I've always done this in internet cafes around the world for the quality of information and even made a point of getting to know the owners of these places to pick up early on digital trends. This is the place where I first learnt that QQ is popular in Asia over 4 years ago from the owner of Bull internet in Hua Hin on Petchakasem road. Its also the place where I first picked up on that Camfrog trend which says so much about the way Asian youths leapfrog the cultural mores of the West in ways that most people are still trying to figure out. For me sitting in internet cafes is a bit like sitting in twenty peoples living rooms as an ethnographer and qualitative researcher all rolled into one. It's pure digital voyeurism and although I'm writing a report on this for a client, I can share with you that I've never seen anything remotely on the scale of the place below.

The usual modus operandi for cyber cafes in Asia (outside of say HK, SG, KR and JP) are that the computers are disparate second hand models still using CRT monitor technology and the places are often screamingly loud (particularly out of school hours) from all the game playing going on. I usually need to wear headphones and listen to music to keep my sanity, if I have work to do, but the place above was unnervingly silent - like walking into a library where the majority of people are studying and not browsing. You can practically feel the thinking going on as if it's an extended digital nervous system. Now this might not seem worth a mention if it wasn't for the sheer scale of the place. The photo doesn't quite do it justice but from where I'm standing on the stairs the length of the room is cavernous and between twenty to thirty rows deep. All of the customers were relaxed and even smoking cigarettes while facing completely uniform terminals and LCD screens with web cam as standard which is more than can be said of many advertising agencies or their clients who haven't cottoned on to the implications of web cam.

There wasn't a peep to be heard. This shot was taken at 1 minute past 9 in the evening. I'd say television's monologue is beginning to look quite stale if this amount of people choose to pay money rather than watch the free state controlled offering. I'd also say that the internet users are some of the most informed customers in China. Worth keeping tabs on, don't you think?
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