As with Facebook, the membership rolls are astounding and growing rapidly. In a 1.3 billion-strong nation where less than a third of the populace is online, Renren claims about 165 million users. A slogan on a chalkboard in an employee lounge at its HQ claims, “Every day the number of people joining Renren.com would fill 230 Tiananmen Squares.” Kaixin001 says it has 95 million users.
In significant ways, though, online life behind the Great Firewall is different. For one thing, there is no dominant site. By blocking Facebook, the government has unwittingly ignited an especially fierce and litigious competition between Renren and Kaixin001. The two networks have pushed each other strategically and technologically, devising ingenious new ways to advertise to audiences that are even more saturated by marketing than Americans. Also, according to Netpop Research in San Francisco, Chinese Internet users are twice as conversational as American users; in other words, they’re twice as likely to post to online forums, chat in chat rooms, or publish blogs. And to the joy of advertisers and marketers, social media is twice as likely to influence Chinese buying decisions as American ones, which explains why brands such as BMW, Estée Lauder, and Lay’s have flocked to China’s social networks.
Sites like Renren and Kaixin001 are microcosms of today’s changing China — they copy from the West, but then adjust, add, and, yes, even innovate at a world-class level, ultimately creating something unquestionably modern and distinctly Chinese. It would not be too grand to say that these social networks both enable and reflect profound generational changes, especially among Chinese born in the 1980s and 1990s. In a society where the collective has long been emphasized over the individual, first thanks to Confucian values and then because of communism, these sites have created fundamentally new platforms for self-expression. They allow for nonconformity and for opportunities to speak freely that would be unusual, if not impossible, offline. In fact, these platforms might even be the basis for a new culture. “A good culture is about equality, acceptance, and affection,” says Han Taiyang, 19, a psychology major at Tsinghua University who uses Renren constantly. “Traditional thinking restrains one’s fundamental personality. One must escape.”
Put another way, a lot of people in China have needs — and one of them is a place to be whoever they want to be.