What 'netizens say' makes and breaks news for old media too

Beijing (China Daily/ANN) - The main difference between new and old media, in my mind, is that micro blogs and so on are not only breaking but also making the news these days.

I shouldn't let the cat out of the bag, but a lot of reporters, myself included, are mining blogs, micro blogs and search engine top 10s for gold, then publishing as if we actually got off our butts and talked to real people.

I used to meet flesh-and-blood individuals - even make phone calls - but now an article is like a Pop art experiment involving cut-and-paste, plus a dash of artistic translation and interpretation.

Micro blogs in particular pick up trends faster and have more mass appeal than traditional media, while algorithms skim the cream off the top for us to lap up and then spit out again.

Meanwhile, "netizens say" has become the new authority on everything and anything - even if they don't really exist, except as a collective noun for a group of random people who rarely provide real names, hide behind ISPs and are floating around in cyberspace the same as me.

A case in point is a story that popped up more than a week ago on Sina Weibo (Twitter on steroids) that had pictures of women "occupying" male public toilets in Guangzhou. My Chinese is bad enough that I can totally misunderstand what's going on from reading the text, so I wasn't sure whether they were campaigning for mixed toilets, which intrigued me, offering to clean them or asking for more female water closets.

With the help of an online translator (no need to talk to real people) I eventually worked out that it was a ladies' public convenience campaign and later learned 84 percent of "netizens say" more WCs for women should be built, with just 9 percent against.

A couple of days later, blogs picked up on the story. Five days later, the local dailies were running with it, and 10 days later, it got international coverage.

This, I would suggest, is par for the course. By the time it has become traditional media fodder the ambiguities of the story have been resolved, officials have been approached for comment, and toilet-gate (every scandal has a "gate" at the end in China) has a public face, and the lead campaigner is a national celebrity for a few days. Great.

My point is how new media are leading the conversation, and old media follows, creaking behind. Toilet-gate is an example of how the media was used to achieve an end - namely, more lady loos in Guangzhou. And the result is relief all around, especially for the ladies.

What new media does and old media doesn't is encourage discourse.

The old model is top-down. It tells you what to think.

The new model is all about self-expression and is summed up by the phrase "netizens say", which is an authority with real power.

For instance, another hot topic on Sina Weibo recently was the phrase "If you don't pass the national exams, can you ever compete with the second-generation rich?"

It was posted as a question, I think, and within days 1.8 million people had retweeted the conversation and so much hot air had been blown it felt like summer already by the time old media had digested it 10 days later. I'm not sure what it achieved, but traditional media never vented like this.

And it seems to me that traditional media is increasingly guilty of the very crime that it used to accuse new media of, namely copying, or as journalists and legalists call this, plagiarism. Papers, for instance, collate as much as they can of what's hot on the Web, but days after the event, on dead trees.

Obviously, traditional media also controls a lot of this new traffic in ideas.

Though Sina is a relatively young company - born in 1999, as a child of the Chinese Internet revolution - organizations from News International to Xinhua, founded in 1931 as the Red China News Agency, have moved heavily into the social networking stratosphere.

Even so, if you want to keep your ear to the ground these days, you know it makes sense to keep your eyes on new media.

And since it sounds like I'm writing myself out of a job here, I better stop.

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