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Chinese "netizens" have become modern-day vigilantes, revealing injustice and tracking down lawbreakers, according to Tom Downey in this week's New York Times Sunday Magazine.
He writes that "Human-flesh search engines -- renrou sousuo yinqing -- have become a Chinese phenomenon: they are a form of online vigilante justice in which Internet users hunt down and punish people who have attracted their wrath. The goal is to get the targets of a search fired from their jobs, shamed in front of their neighbors, run out of town. It's crowd-sourced detective work, pursued online -- with offline results."
Quoting a 2008 graduate of our S.M. program, Liwen Jin, Downey writes:
Jin Liwen, the technology analyst, came of age in China just as Internet access was becoming available and wrote her thesis at M.I.T. on Chinese B.B.S.'s. "In the United States, traditional media are still playing the key role in setting the agenda for the public," Jin told me. "But in China, you will see that a lot of hot topics, hot news or events actually originate from online discussions." One factor driving B.B.S. traffic is the dearth of good information in the mainstream media. Print publications and television networks are under state control and cannot cover many controversial issues. B.B.S.'s are where the juicy stories break, spreading through the mainstream media if they get big enough.
"Chinese users just use these online forums for everything," Jin says. "They look for solutions, they want to have discussions with others and they go there for entertainment. It's a very sticky platform." Jin cited a 2007 survey conducted by iResearch showing that nearly 45 percent of Chinese B.B.S. users spend between three and eight hours a day on them and that more than 15 percent spend more than eight hours. While less than a third of China's population is on the Web, this B.B.S. activity is not as peripheral to Chinese society as it may seem. Internet users tend to be from larger, richer cities and provinces or from the elite, educated class of more remote regions and thus wield influence far greater than their numbers suggest.
"China's Cyberposse: Human-flesh Search Engines in China" -- New York Times Sunday Magazine