Chaos of the internet - the WTO-column

Brussels - China has now over 120 million internet users, a number it achieved in less than a decade. Understanding its effect on China and managing the exploding information flow has become a challenge that is growing by the day.

As the numbers grow, also the importance of the internet grows.

Understanding how the internet works is crucial to have a good understanding of how China works today.

When I started to work in China, I met in my first month a lawyer in maritime law who had the idea of setting up a library containing all the Chinese legal magazines on maritime law. The post office could guarantee a regular delivery of all those magazines. He gave up on the idea when he discovered China had at that time about 123 magazines focusing on that subject only. Even scanning all those magazines would be more than a full-time occupation.

The internet has made this problem, the deluge of available information, even worse. When I started in China, halfway the 1990s, my bicycle was my most important communication tool. At my university only two phone lines shared with hundreds of students allowed me to call outside Shanghai. Mobile phones were unaffordable and sending faxes would cost at least two hours and a fortune.

Now, China and the world are at my fingertips, practically for free, thanks to the internet. Search engines, RSS-readers and mailing lists make unprecedented amounts of information available and manageable.

Calling people for free over Skype and Google Talk is no problem anymore. In theory you can call unlimited, although decades of too expensive international calls have given me a kind of useless discipline in keeping calls short, even when that is no longer necessary to save costs.

What has helped me to come to terms with the information flood from internet is the absence in China of what would be called elsewhere 'leading media'. Almost everywhere you would have a 'must read' paper, a TV-news program you needed to see, otherwise you would not know about the crucial issues in a society. In Europe you sometimes had to read a few papers, to cover the whole political spectrum, but the mechanism was the same.

How different was China, where media were supposed to bring a message.

Initially a political message and later on mixed up with barely hidden commercial bullshit. Here you had to piece together the news together, by talking to friends, your neighbors. Getting your information was more a conversation. You heard a rumor, you checked it, got corrected and adjusted your story.

Does that sound familiar? It is actually the way how in the new media business the process of collecting news is being described. There is no longer one trusted source, only a combination of sources. An article is at best when it is the start of a discussion, where others bring in new sources, give their comments and corrections and, yes, sometimes call you names.

In the US journalists and bloggers go after each other, because both claim to have a patent on truth. In China we know the truth is not available in fixed doses, but a process, a discussion.

China will have at the end of this year about 120 million weblogs. The art of using a conversation ?even very heated conversations ?is very much part of the Chinese way of dealing with information. Our expectation of what is true or not is just a bit more realistic.

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