Trade and industry, Science and technology, Arts, culture & society | East Asia, Asia

23 February 2017

New research has revealed some interesting things about China’s growing use of social media and its online love for the world game, Simon Chadwick writes.

There are not too many people in Europe or North America who would consider Mesut Özil to be a sex symbol. However, in research we undertook in China during late 2013, this is exactly what we found. The latest figures for social media use in football, just released by the Shanghai-based Mailman Group, seem to confirm this is still the case: the German international remains very popular in China.

Admittedly, Özil came second behind Cristiano Ronaldo in Mailman’s research but their findings reveal two important things. The first is that Westerners should not assume anything in China, nor should they project their own interpretations (in this case of physical appeal) upon the Chinese. For football clubs, or indeed organisations in any other industrial sector seeking to understand China, filtering meaning solely through one’s own eyes is inadvisable.

The second thing Mailman’s latest research tells us is about the power of social media in China, particularly when football is involved. After Özil and Ronaldo, Manchester United’s Anthony Martial and Wayne Rooney are also identified as being among the most influential footballers online. This is hardly surprising given that United is identified in Mailman’s research as being the most influential team online in China.

The power of Chinese social media, and its digital environment in general, is such that several of the country’s largest corporations have already invested heavily in the sector. Often this is linked to broader investments in entertainment, the intention of these corporations being to create and control content distribution via football. Wanda and Suning are actively engaged in doing this, while Aston Villa’s owner, the Recon Group, are seeking to make moves into this space too.

China has the world’s biggest Internet user-base (nearly 700 million people), with most of them active social media users. Of this number, almost 600 million people access social media using a mobile device. As such, the country is arguably the most dynamic, sophisticated social media environment in the world, an observation accentuated and given further pertinence by the growth of China’s middle class and rising levels of income generally.

Social media is dominated by ‘BATS’: Baidu, Alibaba, Tencent and Sina. Together these have numerous different social media and/or e-commerce platforms, each with hundreds of millions of active users. Among the most important motives for the Chinese in using such platforms are free expression, identity creation and peer attention, with all three likely to hold the key to China’s social media consumption of football clubs and its stars.

One aspect of Chinese society that Westerners do tend to get right is China’s restriction on freedom of speech. It is often difficult for Chinese people to publicly express their opinions, particularly about contentious or divisive issues. In part, this is the result of state policy, although culturally the Chinese are often more restrained in publicly expressing their views than Westerners.

Discussing football on social media is, however, seemingly beyond the parameters of both state intervention and societal norms. A heated debate between a Manchester United and a Liverpool fan is obviously unlikely to upset China’s domestic political balance, while it does not disturb anyone else other than those others on social media who are party to the debate. Even for those who do object, the simple solution is for them either to unfollow someone or else to switch-off their mobile devices.

Even so, the ‘liberation’ of China’s population through football on social media still needs to be viewed somewhat cautiously. International platforms like Twitter are banned, while the BATS alternatives are vigorously monitored. Events of late last year also suggest there may be some challenges to free expression ahead. After the Chinese national team lost to Syria in a World Cup qualifier late last year, a public protest was orchestrated on social media. This ultimately resulted in street demonstrations.

The Chinese government will be mindful of the latent power that social media now has, and will not want its showcase football development project to be hijacked by behaviour akin to online hooliganism. Presumably, many of the country’s social media users will therefore be cautious in the way they express themselves online when talking about football. That said, social media remains a potent way for people to create a personal identity which can be very different to their normal, everyday personas.

China can be a hugely homogenous place when it comes to people’s behaviour. Yet the emergence of social media has brought about opportunities for the country’s citizens to create new images for themselves online. Indeed, the amounts of money being spent by young females on makeovers has become legendary, as they have sought to create the best possible images of themselves for use on the likes of WeChat and Sina Weibo.

In the same way, presenting oneself online as a Barca socio or a Bayern ultra confers upon the social media user an identity and a status that would otherwise be missing from their lives. Yet this identity is not just image alone, as one is also able to express views, create groups, and build followings in a way that is difficult in China in the world beyond social media.

Such is the symbiosis between football and social media in China that identity creation also feeds into peer attention, another factor underpinning the country’s love affair with its online worlds. It is very common in China for people to stare at one another, something that social media readily facilitates. Equally, people in China are highly status conscious, a phenomenon now being fed by peoples’ increasingly conspicuous consumption habits.

Being seen online to be a Real Madrid or Juventus fan plays very strongly into this narrative, by emphasising one’s credentials as being someone with status and prestige. ‘Visibility’ online sits alongside one’s status, as peer attention is a further motivating factor underpinning China’s social media usage. Being able to post messages and photographs that confer an image of success upon oneself is a good way of drawing the attentions of the friends and followers looking at one’s social media accounts.

Whether it is Mesut Özil or Manchester United, China loves social media and is growing to love football too. With this in mind, players and clubs need to be aware that when someone posts a message on WeChat or Sina, there is likely to be significant meaning behind it.

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