Posted by: Bruce Einhorn on December 5, 2007
Are young Chinese really more cyber-savvy than Americans? Yes, says a recent survey by ad agency JWT and Barry Diller’s IAC. According to the survey (here’s a summary), 86% of the Chinese surveyed said that they live some of their lives online, compared to only 42% of the American 16-25 year olds.
Diller, who was in Beijing recently touting his plan to invest $100 million in Chinese online ventures, not surprisingly cited this survey as evidence that China is the place to be for Internet businesses such as his. “Like many other areas in comparing Americans to the energy and progress elsewhere in the world, China’s speedy evolution in its use of the internet is fast eclipsing that of the US. I think this is great for China, not so great for us,” Diller said. (For more, see this Eye on Asia post from late November.)
At the Atlantic, James Fallows helpfully points out several of the holes in the contention that Chinese “seem to be way ahead of Americans in leading a digital life,” as Diller says. “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.” Fallows argues that Chinese are indeed ahead when it comes to online games and text messaging, but that’s it. “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.”
One big problem that Fallows doesn’t mention: The study was a “random online survey” of 1104 Chinese. Since China is a country with an Internet penetration rate of only 12%, those 1104 Chinese who responded to the survey are not exactly representative of most young Chinese. What about the other 88% of Chinese who aren’t online? Obviously, they can’t respond to an online survey about how important the Internet is in their lives, because the Internet isn’t part of their lives at all.
Another problem: Young Chinese who are online spend so much time on the Internet because so many of their other entertainment options are so bad. Chinese TV is state-controlled and notorious for its boring and staid programming. The government imposes a severe quota on the number of imported movies that cinemas can show, so young people don’t go to the movies the way that their American counterparts do. Staying home and playing video games on a Wii, PlayStation or Xbox isn’t an option for most young people either, since the gaming console companies typically have been wary about selling their games in a country where counterfeiting is rampant. So no wonder far more Chinese kids spend so much time playing games or watching movies or TV shoes online. It doesn’t mean they have any sort of big advantage over young Americans, though.