Why Won’t “Netizen” Just Die?

At The Atlantic, Brian Fung contemplates the longevity of the widely derided 80s buzzword “netizens” as a label for China’s politically engaged online population:

Even in China, the word has grown a little tiresome. China Daily staffers exasperated with the term recently considered stripping it from the stylebook, and at least some readers agreed with the idea. In an unscientific poll on the paper’s forums, 56 percent of — ahem — netizens said the phrase was “confusing or annoying.”

If netizen provokes such ire (at least in English-language discussions) even in the country that’s fondest of it, what explains its nearly 30-year lifespan?

The first answer is that as shorthand goes, it’s fairly effective. The literal translation breaks down as wang (net) and min (citizen). If the purpose of language is to communicate concepts efficiently, then this fulfills the mission rather well.

But however you choose to say it, netizen is more than a bit of useful slang. From the word choice it’s possible to infer, in reverse, a broader symbolism that could be a clue to its longevity. Whether it’s intentional or purely coincidental, it makes a great deal of sense for a digital community that leans on coded language and metaphor as a matter of course in the process of evading free-speech restrictions.


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