For quite some time now, bulletin-board sites (BBS) have been a favorite destination of Chinese internet users. BBS sites and forums in China are essentially social spaces built on discussion, and there you can discuss entertainment, relationships, sports, politics, technology and other topics. The wide-reaching interest in these social communities has become one phenomenon distinguishing China’s internet from the web in other markets.
Sage Brennan, an analyst of China’s new media market has said: “Given the fashionability of blogs and online gaming, people have found it easy to neglect the fact that BBS networks are the true center of activity on China’s internet. For a number of reasons, BBS networks have developed steadily, and they are increasingly vibrant. Internet companies, university campuses and even individuals have set up BBS communities.”
China’s most famous online forum in the beginning was “Shuimu Tsinghua,” which was set up in 1995 [at Tsinghua University] and was representative of the cyberculture on China’s university campuses. In general society, the BBS was best represented by the sports-related forum SRSNET (四通利方), which in November 1997 became famous for a post called, “No Tears in Dalian’s Jinzhou,” [which offered a subtle and caring description of an embarrassing soccer defeat for China and the affect it had on Chinese fans].
From 1998 to 2000, “Xi Ci Hu Tong” (西祠胡同), Tianya Forum (天涯社区), the Strong Nation Forum (强国论坛) [at People's Daily Online] and “KDnet” (凯迪网络) were born, attracting web users with their unique community forums. As they pieced together massive audiences, online forums developed rapidly. They opened up a simple environment for interaction and exchange, particularly suited to the sharing and discussion of public affairs.
When weblogs emerged as the popular new medium, they attracted more and more internet users. But as blogs dealing with political affairs were few and far between, and blogs were relatively poor in terms of interactivity, online forums were still where internet users interested in reading about and commenting on current affairs tended to congregate.
With the advent of microblog, internet user interest in blogs and online forums has further differentiated. The reason lies not just in a shortage of readers. Some bloggers have discovered they simply can’t be in two places at once. Too many things are going on in their lives, and they don’t have time to kick around online forums and maintain their blogs. Other users have migrated to easier social media. And of course there are also a few who cannot stand the cheap shots or loss of privacy and have left the world of blogs and online forums altogether.
Despite the above-mentioned differentiation, reports from the China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC) indicate that the audience for online forums continues to expand each year. While the vitality of online forums has been challenged by blogs, microblogs and other Web 2.0 services, this online media so beloved by Chinese web users still has profound support long-term development prospects, and has an important and unique position in Chinese online ecology.
Strictly speaking, online forums lie somewhere between Web 1.0 and Web 2.0, and they have an irreplaceable role on the internet with Chinese characteristics. Tianya, MOP, KDnet, Tiexue and other sites work on a “forum + editor” model, while the Strong Nation Forum, Sina Forum, Sohu Forum, Phoenix Forum, Baidu Post and other such sites are important components of larger news forums. All have made substantial contributions to China’s online public sphere, and they are often the places where sudden-breaking news stories unfold, where public opinion is sourced, where corrupt behavior is exposed, and where various social groups interact.
There are many examples in recent years of the way online forums have encouraged social development and prompted more open political behavior. Without the role of online forums, for example, the South China Tiger Affair might not have ended in the way it did.
In a global context, regardless of how online forums develop in the future, we can be sure that they will not draw attention in the same way they have in the past. This is because Web 2.0 has irrevocably changed the nature of the internet. Online forums undergone a process of development from small gathering places frequented by die-hards to mass public spaces.
In the old days, people using their precious computers (computers were luxury items) had to connect their modems, access their terminal software and enter in their BBS codes just to access BBS sites. It was a clumsy and difficult process. Today, internet developments have ushered all of this into the past. Browsers and RSS readers can now take us just about anywhere. The only thing that hasn’t changed is our desire as users to interact. Popular websites in recent years, including MySpace and Facebook, have all shown us just how eager people are to keep in contact with others. These new channels all have advantages that online forums do not have.
Therefore, in my view, online forums in the future will become mixtures — permitting those with a sense of kinship or affinity to build their own “online corners,” and also allowing popular mass discussion verging on real-time. The heyday of the online forum has already passed, but they have not entirely vanished. In order to survive, online forums must in the future be equipped with the following characteristics: general ease of use; a more friendly user interface, permitting real-time use of chat and gaming services; information not necessarily stored on a central server, but rather on a dispersed network that is always online.
It is not easy to gaze into a crystal ball and look at the future of the online forum, but this much is certain — the future of online forums lies in increased real-time interaction among users. BBS sites must learn from microblogs and social network services, otherwise they risk becoming a cottage industry, their influence gradually waning over time.
In many ways, the history of online forums is the history of China’s internet. In today’s cacophony of voices, with blogs, microblogs and social networks, online forums still have their own special beauty. We look forward to their next decade.
A Chinese version of this articles appeared in today’s edition of Southern Metropolis Daily.