Beginning with a discussion of major paradoxes on entertainment, control, and innovation surrounding the Chinese Internet, chapter 1 introduces the puzzle that the rest of the book addresses: how and why has a seemingly repressive authoritarian regime been able to catalyze an ingenious Internet culture in China. It proposes "the network of visibility" as an analytical lens to delve into the mechanisms behind the vibrancy of online culture in China. The network of visibility is analyzed through the process of competition for (1) user attention, and (2) content authority among Internet corporations, media outlets, and individual players in the cultural realm. Consequently, the vitality of the Chinese digital culture is rooted in this dynamic process of negotiation, collaboration, and contestation enacted by the interplay of diverse agents, including the state, cultural institutions, commercial corporations, and Internet users.
Chapter 2 delineates the developmental history of the Internet in China through the four predominant platforms: bulletin board system (BBS), the blog, the microblog, and WeChat. Proceeding chronologically, this chapter addresses how the defining features of these platforms and competition among major players in the field have contributed to shaping public culture and publicity strategies emerging in the technology-mediated sphere. Special attention is paid to the role that the Chinese government and commercial portals play in building research and education networks, creating business models, and continuously expanding into new markets.
Chapter 3 investigates the playfulness of the Chinese Internet and its symbiotic relationship with a culture of contention. Much has been written about the ingenuity of Chinese netizens in appropriating humor, parody, and satire to mock authorities, seek entertainment, and organize networked resistance. However, little scholarly work has addressed how playfulness came to dominate the Chinese Internet in the first place. Taking Internet celebrities as case studies, this chapter attributes the predominant fun-seeking mode to the rudimentary formation of elitist netizen communities in the late 1990s. It addresses the ways in which BBS, as an affective content platform, cultivated the symbiotic relationship between frivolity and serious political engagement among early Internet adopters. This collective spirit of fun-seeking also paved the way for the Internet industry's continuous experiments with comedic mechanisms in the years to come.
Chapter 4 focuses on the intersection of the entertainment industry, entrepreneurial culture, and the golden age of blogging in China. It probes the rise of cultural entrepreneurs, who quickly aligned themselves with enterprises seeking to develop culture-related business and transformed the ways that cultural works are produced and publicized. The chapter examines four phenomenally successful, yet understudied cases: television host and producer Yang Lan; star-cum-director Xu Jinglei; publisher Hong Huang; and writer, publisher, and director Guo Jingming. These celebrities, as "attention-haves," due in large part to their fame already established through other channels, innovatively capitalized on digital media to explore new modes of cultural production and to build personal brands. Their trailblazing activities illuminate the ways in which China's nascent entertainment industry, with the backing of Internet corporations, has reinvigorated writing practices, cultivated middle-class aspirations, and aligned with entrepreneurial initiatives in the age of neoliberalism.
Taking the blogs of Mu Zimei and Han Han as case studies, this chapter investigates how an entertainment-oriented blogosphere has catalyzed the rise of opinion leaders who tactically disrupt preset parameters of social, moral, and political norms. It argues that style—defined as a conglomeration of diverse elements, including language, subject matter, online sociality, and the structure and layout of webpages—is essential to these taboo breakers' strategies of contention. In turn, the divergent responses these bloggers evoke fulfill the dual function of enlightenment and entertainment, and catalyze the forging of politically minded citizens at a micro level.
This chapter spells out the multifarious function of the microblogging platform in China. Delving into representative Weibo-based incidents from 2009 to 2018, it examines the role that digital witnessing plays in promoting citizen activism and shaping public culture on Chinese microblogosphere. These cases exemplify the evolving transition of digital witnessing on Weibo, from an emphasis on responsibilities of spectators to multifarious forms of collective spectating mobilized by a diverse range of social actors. Taken together, digital witnessing on Weibo demonstrates how the technological features, business operations, the state, and Internet users have jointly shaped the sociocultural meanings of this platform.
This chapter analyzes how WeChat public accounts have revolutionized the ways in which original content is distributed and commodified. It examines the rise and fall of Mi Meng, owner of one of the most popular public accounts up until February 2019, when she closed her account due to public pressure. Mi Meng's writings not only struck a chord with economically disadvantaged groups but also resonated with the anxiety of a middle-class audience who felt their status becoming increasingly precarious. More important, the management of Mi Meng's account exemplified a changing mode of writing from an author-centered model to a model of team production that involved fan labor, personal branding, and a focus on networking capacity. At the same time, the sudden downfall of Mi Meng illustrates the same kind of unpredictability and precariousness that contributed to her sensational rise in the first place.
Chapter 8 discusses the implications of this book's findings and pinpoints areas for future research. Essentially, this book investigates digital cultural formation through the four most dynamic discursive spaces to emerge over the past two decades in China (1994–2019): the bulletin board system (BBS), the blog, the microblog (Weibo), and WeChat (Weixin). The creation of these digital platforms not only showcases the local appropriation of global technologies in China but also exemplifies how Internet users' mundane activities online hold significant potential for forging politically minded citizens at a micro level. By delineating the process by which user-generated content has been produced, promoted, and received, this book historicizes the study of digital media and sheds light on understanding emerging platforms.