Ethnography might be the solution over Google crisis in China

Thanks to @thornet I discovered this great blog and this very interesting sociologist of new media called Tricia Wang doing ethnographic work on the socio-cultural contexts of technology usage in low-income communities, particularly China and Mexico. I’ve found this blog post particularly enlightening and I agree with Tricia, we do need more ethnographers and anthropologists working for tech companies. People like Tricia! That was a great insight on my own field research, the Arab world, which shares some of the issues that Tricia is discussing here.

Tricia blogs at Cultural Bytes and she maintains YouMeiTi about Chinese Youth, Media and IT..plus she does a number of interesting things. Follow her on Twitter

Google announced on its company blog that Chinese hackers had attacked its users and as a result Google.CN may leave China due to the security breaches.

While unfortunate that Google.CN may be shutting down, my ethnographic work in China revealed five things that aren’t being told in the current story:

  1. Many Chinese internet users don’t find Google to be very useful. Therefore, a Google withdrawal would not have any immediate impact on the daily Chinese internet user because most people search with Baidu, the reigning search engine in China.
  2. Many Chinese internet users prefer Baidu over Google because using Baidu makes them feel more “Chinese.” Baidu does an excellent job at tapping into nationalistic fervor to promote itself as being the most superior search engine for Chinese users.
  3. Chinese internet users don’t know how to get to the Google site. While they may “know” of Google, it’s a whole other matter when it comes to typing or saying Google’s name.
  4. Google is primarily used by highly educated netizens. And even these users prefer Google.COM over Google.CN.
  5. Google is not successful at reaching the mobile internet market.

I arrived at these insights after I spent over 300 hours conducting participant observation and informal interviews this past summer with government policy-makers, academics, youth, migrants, and low-income users. I was funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) (more info) to be a research scholar at the China Internet Network Information Center 中 国互联网络信息中心 (CNNIC), located in Beijing, China. The center is overseen by the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT). CNNIC manages the hardware aspect of China’s internet and produces quantitatively oriented research on internet usage in China. Their data provides policy direction for party ministries, information for private companies, and statistics for the government. While my main focus was not on Google (more info on research), the topic frequently came up and I started realizing that the non-use of Google provided a lot of cultural insights into the practices of Chinese internet users.

The blame for Google’s lack of success in China cannot solely be placed on this most recent episode with Chinese hackers. Other complications have started long before this occurrence, such as the myriad of ways in which policies work to favor Chinese companies over international ones, the difficulty in competing against government paid search results on Baidu, and the impossibility of providing consistent service when the government shuts down access to the entire Google site for few days. All of these reasons lie beyond Google’s control.

There are, however, other explanations that do lie within Google’s control in which they have failed to execute. The 3 main factors are: achieving brand recognition, creating a successful marketing campaign, and understanding usage contexts of non-elite internet users. Google should hold themselves accountable for these factors.

Google has failed at brand recognition. They have not been successful at making their services relevant for the average Chinese internet user nor have they made it easy for people to recognize, say, or even type in their name on a keyboard.

  • People didn’t even know how to correctly pronounce and agree on the pronunciation of the name “Google.” When I was with a group of 5 youth, I asked them if they used Google, instead of getting an answer we launched into a 10 minute conversation trying to figure out the correct name. While it was clear that we were all referring to Google, the IT company, it was not clear which characters to use for its name. Google does not have an immediately recognizable name like Apple (Pingguo) or Yahoo (Yahe) or Baidu.  I, like many other Chinese people still refer to Google by its colloquial name, GouGou – doggy (狗狗).  While Google did consider GouGou as a name, in 2006 it announced that its new name would be Gu-Ge” (谷歌). But the name didn’t stick and so many people still continued to refer to Google as GouGou. Gu-Ge is supposed to mean “harvest songs”— romantic referral to a  “fruitful and productive search experience, in a poetic Chinese way”.  I guess that Google excecs thought, “Hey if Chinese peasants sings happy harvest songs for their productive crops, then Chinese netizens will use Gu-Ge for happy productive online searches!” Hmmmm…Back in 2006 I argued that the new name was quiet “a semantic stretch.” Even worse, it conjured up images of “slow and remote agricultural scenes,” said  Jin Ge, a researcher on Chinese online gamers. The new name was so unpopular that Google fans started an online petition in 2006 for Google to abandon Gu-Ge. Google didn’t listen. The lesson? When your market cannot pronounce, remember or correctly identify your name, you’ve got a major problem—especially when your names invokes images of sterile hinterlands or groins, grasshoppers, and shaving breasts.

The confusion over Google’s Chinese name also has other consequences: people were unsure of how to type in the name “Google” on the computer keyboard. When I asked people to take me to the Google site, I received a lot of similar responses of uncertainty.

  • Some youth would attempt to type GouGou (the colloquial name for Google) and they would reach GouGou.cn or GouGou.com thinking that they were at the Google site because it looked similar to Google’s bare aesthetics even though the corporate symbol is a dog. Since many people, even me, still refer to Google as GouGou,  it’s not a surprise that people thought that they were at Google’s site even though they were at GouGou.com.  Others would type “Gogel,” which lead to nowhere.
  • Those who typed Google with just one “O” (Gogle) would get to the Google site only IF they typed in .COM. domain.  If they just pressed the enter key after typing in “Gogle” it would take them to Gogle.CN, which is a phishing site. This is even more confusing because Gogle.CN is designed to look like Google’s bare aesthetics. If you click on “Login 登录” in the top right corner where the Gmail login is usually located on the real Google site, you’re taken to a page that says Gogle.CN Login but its page is titled Google!  As you can see in the picture below and where I’ve circled in pink, it’s really misleading! I’ve noticed that most computers default to the .CN site in internet cafes, so this could hypothetically happen quite often if Chinese users try to go to Google and they type in the name  with one less “O.”
  • IF youth did get to Google’s site successfully by either typing in the name correctly or going to Google.com, Gogle.COM, or Guge.COM/CN, it would usually be on their 5th or 7th or even 8th try – that is if they hadn’t given up yet and by then it was just clear that they were doing it because I had asked them to show me how to get to the Google site. It was quite obvious that going to the Google site was never part of their internet routine.

It’s not the case that people are unfamiliar with Google.  People know of Google, but they don’t want to use it because it’s associated with being “Un-Chinese.” Part of Baidu’s success lies in its successful marketing campaign against Google, using nationalism as one of their publicity strategies. It’s been working well. The campaign is so effective that netizens associate the use of Google with being unpatriotic. In this infamous Baidu commercial from 2006 (below), Baidu wins an intelligence contest over the its unnamed foreign competiter who is represented by the white male actor. Baidu succeeds in “knowing more” in the back and forth banter over the meaning of the scroll. Even the white man’s Chinese female lover decides to leave him for the Chinese scholar who “knows more.”

I don’t think Baidu is playing unfairly because American companies often tap into US nationalism with “Buy Made in the USA” campaigns. Google just needs to be more creative in using more strategic marketing to overcome its negative cultural stigma in China—a stigma that is actively nurtured by its competitor.

Another way that Baidu has had an advantage over Google is that Chinese and Hong Kong TV programming will show screen-shots of Baidu when they refer to the internet. Most recently I watched a a show on the Phoenix Channel (Hong Kong based) on January 22nd that showed several screen-shots of how Baidu helped a kidnapped child reunite with his biological parents after 12 years of separation. There are so many stories that talk about how the internet, as symbolized by Baidu, has helped citizens in everyday life. I have yet to see a negative TV segment on the internet that is associated with Baidu, rather these negative associations are blamed on specific applications, such World of Warcraft or specific places, such as internet cafes. Baidu itself is always in the clear, whereas Google is not. The only screen time Google gets on Chinese TV programming is when it is featured as another Western company disobeying Chinese laws. Google should be aware of how Baidu’s onscreen TV time contributes to its popularity and reinforces the notion that Baidu is good for the Chinese, Google is not.

But here’s the thing, solving the marketing and brand recognition problem is relatively simple when the bigger problem is that Google’s services are not useful!

  • Youth didn’t see how any of the services offered by Google were easier to use than the ones that they were already using. This is because Google operates in an e-mail paradigm while other services operate in a messenger paradigm. One time when I was checking my Gmail account at an internet cafe, a youth asked me, ” how do you leave pictures and messages for others?” I would say, “just send them an email.” But here’s the thing – youth don’t have to send emails when they are using MSN Messenger. There’s a major disconnect in communication culture. Messenger-like services don’t operate on an email paradigm. QQ and MSN users can go to a friend’s MSN Live profile or QQ box to leave a message or post a photo. You can check on each friend’s page to see their last update.  It’s like a mini-facebook for every MSN user but just for your own contacts. If a friend wasn’t online, youth didn’t send them an email. Rather, they would click on the user’s name and write a direct message that would be sent immediately but read later when the recipient logged in at a later point in time.
  • One teenager asked me how I shared music with Gmail. I tried to explain that I used Dropbox and I put the file my public folder and then give the url to my friend. By the time I was done with my explanation, she looked totally confused. I asked her how her and her friends shared music. She said, oh I just put it in my QQ box and my friends can go in and download it. My way didn’t make sense for them and my method didn’t even involve Google.  QQ and MSN make it easy for youth to exchange files without emails and without having to own your own computer. We need to understand what it means to live in an instant messaging paradigm as opposed to an e-mail paradigm.
  • By the way, this is also what I’ve observed outside of the US in Mexico, where my most recent fieldwork continues to show that the primary online communication method are messenger services, not email.
  • Mobiles are becoming more popular and other companies are doing a better job of delivering mobile content and services. For example, several high school students showed me how they could access MSN Messenger and QQ chat on their cellphone for mobile internet. I asked them why they chose to use these apps. Some youth told me that they were already on the phone when they bought it (some were used), and others told me that it was really easy to download when you go the MSN or QQ site at an internet cafe. One of the most important reasons is that most people already have a MSN or QQ account. So when they begin to use mobile internet, the transition to using mobile MSN or QQ Messenger is an obvious one.
  • For many of these low-income youth, mobile internet was used more frequently than internet cafes. They didn’t have a computer at home but what they did have was a cellphone that always had a signal. Another example is that cellphone companies have partnerships with Baidu or QQ Tencent to deliver mobile content. People would often show me a SMS of the latest news updates from Baidu. They told me that when they bought the cellphone, the vendor would help them sign up for the services. Google needs to think about how to cross into mobile services because other companies have deep relationships with mobile carriers to ensure that a new mobile user receives content from their company.

So who is using Google in China? Google is primarily used by elite Chinese users while Baidu is mainly used by non-elites. What’s the difference between elite and non-elite users? Elite users are those who are highly educated and can speak or at least read English. Interestingly, the biggest fans of Google were Chinese academics age 18 years and older. They used Google Scholar, Google Translation and Gmail for the same purposes as Western users. They relied on Google for their research and said that there was no site that even matched Google’s services. The way that Chinese professors, researchers, and academics work is more akin to the way that Westerners manage their relationships and projects. Therefore, the adoption of Google among highly educated Chinese is not surprising. Highly educated Chinese users organize and prioritize information in ways that are much more similar to Western users than non-elite Chinese users.

Sometimes you will hear me say, “I cannot imagine life without Google!” And it’s true – I can’t imagine living without my Gcal, Reader, Apps, Voice, Docs, and etc.  Chinese academics who read English would often say the same thing when we talked about Google, frequently professing their love for Google. For these intellectuals, they didn’t feel less “Chinese” for using Google. My impression was that they felt more informed, could access media beyond China, and were more aware of global discourses (this includes celebrity gossip).

While Google may have a loyal following among Chinese academics, they only make up a small percentage of the population. If Google wants to become a more popular search engine in China, it has to do a better job at reaching non-elite users. Google isn’t going to get anywhere as the search engine for the intellectuals of China. 

Google has built an empire of services that work for Western contexts and values. So it’s no surprise that their most loyal fans outside of the US are elite users who share similar class and occupational backgrounds with Western users. To reach new users with an entirely different set of cultural practices, Google has to rethink and reinvent itself for the Chinese market.  Sometimes, one size does not fit all.

It’s one thing if Google’s difficulties could just simply be attributed to government interference, and bad marketing and publicity. But that’s not the case. Their services just simply are not useful for most Chinese users. I suggest that Google dedicate itself to understanding the Chinese market in a socio-anthropological way. They should be hiring teams of Chinese and non-Chinese  ethnographers, sociologists, and anthropologists to work intimately in all phases with human-computer interaction designers, programmers, and R&D managers. Google should invest in long-term fieldwork for teams to immerse themselves in a diversity of environments. While usability tests and focus groups are useful for specific phases of app development, they aren’t as useful for understanding cultural frameworks and practices because by the time an app is being tested, it already has accumulated so many cultural assumptions along the way in the design process that users are asked to test something that functions in the programmer’s world, not the user’s world.

I hope Google doesn’t leave China because both sides would lose. I would like to see the Chinese government ease off of Google. And I would like to see Google.CN re-orientate itself to create such overwhelmingly great and relevant services that Chinese netizens will WANT to use their apps.

Competition and collaboration are essential factors for an innovative market.

The last thing that China wants to communicate to the world is that it does not offer a fair playground for companies to compete against each other or against government-cozy companies. One of the keys factors to sustain and increase China’s growth this century depends on its ability to attract capital. It doesn’t look good when the largest IT company does not want to work in China.

The success of China also depends on its ability to innovate. Historically, the culture has favored followers over leaders. While this is slowly changing, companies like Google are a positive influence on the Chinese work culture because the company promotes a culture of innovation, research, and transparency. What this means is that it values risk-takers and creative minds. Working at Google gives many Chinese researchers, programmers, and managers an opportunity to engage with companies that have different protocols and values than local Chinese companies.

And lastly, collaboration is critical for innovation. If Google and the Chinese government cannot work through this together, then China would be signaling to the world that it just pushed out one of the world’s most innovative IT companies. If Google stays in China, it should think about how to become a leader for IT innovation in China. Some good ideas to consider can be found in Isaac Mao’s open letter to Google to “save [the] Internet in China.” Mao suggests that Google create a VC fund, develop anti-censorship tools, and improve Adsense. I am a big fan of his first suggestion of creating a VC fund as a way to nurture new Chinese IT companies. This is an excellent idea that would infuse the market with innovative companies that are more closely aligned with Google’s culture. With Google running a R&D like VC fund, it would diversify the players in the Chinese internet landscape, increase Google’s industry alliances, and nurture its ties to other IT leaders that may have deeper connections to other sectors

Whatever the outcome, we should not be misled to think that everyone is on the same page in the Chinese government. Like all large institutions, there are different alliances and divergent opinions. The Chinese government is not a unified front that necessarily agrees across all levels on its censorship policies. I believe that there is a lot of opportunity for change. I worked with a lot of smart and open minded people who were willing to explore different positions. The question is are those talented people in the position to bring things like innovation, competition, and collaboration together.

In the beginning of this post, I said that that if Google were to leave China, there would be no immediate impacts on the average Chinese internet user. However, the long-term impacts would be devastating. The Chinese IT industry would lose such a critical player. The Chinese government would appear more hostile towards international businesses and privacy protocols. The citizens of China would have less access to unfiltered information. And the world beyond China would lose a critical link to the country. I hope that a compromise can be reached.

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