Tea Leaf Nation editor David Wertime sat down this morning to discuss these important questions with speakers from Global Voices, GlobalPost, Upworthy and The Awesome Foundation at this year’s MIT-Knight Civic Media Conference.
Luckily, MIT’s Stephen Suen was live-blogging the talk and hit upon the major China-related points here, which we summarize below. The entire (fascinating) video discussion is also viewable at bottom.
- Some reasons Chinese social media matters: Weibo is the closest thing China has for free speech and free debate. This window into grassroots opinion in China can help inform the political decisions that other countries make.
- Redefining the quote: One thing we are trying to do at TLN is to redefine the quote. Getting quotes used to be an extractive activity; you had to go out on the street and canvas. But with social media, people are projecting their sentiments out into the world, and all we have to do is read then.
- Linguistic/cultural arbitrage: Because China’s Internet is still siloed culturally, linguistically and technologically, there’s a lot of inefficiency in Western coverage of China. Tea Leaf Nation stands in a unique place, bringing Chinese Internet content to the West. This could be called “language arbitrage,” or “cultural arbitrage.”
- Local people set the news agenda, not journalists: It’s hard to miss the time when journalists had monopolies on what constitutes a big story, and a lot of trending stories within China got missed. It’s crucial to look at the top searched terms on Baidu, or the trending topics on Weibo—they can only be avoided for so long.
- Breaking news won’t cut it: Journalism can be exhausting. If news breaks on Twitter, or Weibo, it’s only “breaking” for around 10 minutes—it’s an almost instantaneous process. The race to be “first” is no longer meaningful.
- Lessons from Panhe: In February, TLN noticed tweets about an uprising in a village called Panhe. TLN then appears to have been first to report about Panhe in the West. Reporters who later braved the trip to Panhe were violently turned away. There’s no comparison between the courage and moxie of the “boots on the ground” reporters and TLN’s timely, but risk-free, reporting. No matter how futuristic things get, there will always be a need for journalists with the courage to go out into the field.
- Why post on Weibo? When China’s netizens post on Weibo, it’s because they want to be heard. Fear not–Tea Leaf Nation is listening!