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Shanghai's Social Media Trend is China's Future

February 2012

By Mike Findstad, Shanghai

Ah yes, Shanghai, the city with 24 million people and enough crowding on the subway to make a sane person snap. But it’s not just the subways that are crowded here in China’s largest city – lines of people are everywhere: waiting for subways, taxis, and for entry into restaurants, grocery stores, and the Apple store are a common scene. It is true that even in a country where per capita incomes are just starting to rise out of third-world status, the penchant for electronics and cutting-edge technology is growing fast.

There was some discussion a few years ago about the potential failure of technological gadgets like the iPod and Kindle in China, and there was even less optimism about the success of using applications for daily functions, like Barcode Scanning an item at the grocery store. To some degree, the naysayers have a point: cash-driven commerce and official disdain of Western influence is part of the conservative culture in this country. There aren’t many old-timers who get thrilled about e-commerce or social networking. Most people are somewhat old-school: they love to see hard cash and meet their friends face-to-face.

But times are quickly changing in Shanghai, where the concentration of wealthy Chinese nationals is astounding. The young generation of “Little Emperors” is growing up with the support of two parents and four grandparents, all of whom cosset their one child (or grandchild) and provide the best home, education, and yes: toys. This new generation seems to be well-situated to purchase things like an iPhone4, Samsung Galaxy Note (a very popular alternative), and the ever-elusive iPad2. Unlike their parents, young people are embracing technology and understanding its value.

The widely popular online store and social networking sites and are a perfect example of the trend towards online commerce and social interaction. If you pick a random subway line in Shanghai and glance around, chances are probable that you will find someone shopping for clothes on Taobao or chatting with friends on Weibo. Young business people are making connections through these outlets—both inside and outside the country—faster than their parents could have ever imagined. Smartphone applications like Business Card Reader are making it easier for everyone to keep track of their contacts – and you can bet there are a lot of business cards being handed out in China!

The growth of Weibo and Taobao makes total sense if you think about it: with a population of 24 million people, there just isn’t enough time to meet everyone in person, and buying something from a vendor that you’re familiar with isn’t quite as affordable, nor convenient, as it once was. Although the older generation isn’t quite ready to give up the old face-to-face guanxi way of life, they, too, are purchasing these new electronic toys – but for a different reason: because they symbolize luxury and status among their friends. I was eating dinner with a friend the other day and she mentioned to me that she had just bought her mom a new iPad (the original). The funny thing was that her mother didn’t care about learning how to use it; she just wanted it so that she could show it off during a weekly Mahjong session with her friends. So I guess there is a something to learn from those long lines at the Apple store in Liujiazui (Shanghai’s financial district), which peaked just before the release of the iPad2 late last year. The first lesson is: don’t mess with 12 year-old Chinese girl who needs/wants a new iPad2, they can be rather feisty. The second lesson is: this is what the future of China looks like.

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