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Social media enables diverse cross-cultural communication

JI FANGFANG | 2022-08-18 | Hits:
Chinese Social Sciences Today

Online influencers are helping farmers sell mini peaches via livestream platforms in Boshan Village, Jiaozuo City, Henan Province, on June 17, 2022. Photo: CFP

With the rapid popularization of the mobile internet, global social media platforms are reconstructing international communication patterns. The changing pattern has become a consensus in academic circles worldwide. José van Dijck, a distinguished professor at the University of Utrecht in Netherlands, argued that online platforms are not simply computational; rather, they are supported by hardware infrastructure, driven by user-generated data, and coordinated by algorithms. As of today, digital platforms have been fully integrated into society. From an international communication perspective, digital platforms have become the venue for people-to-people communication, engineering connectivity, and popular intermediaries. 

At the advent of the We-media era, several Chinese online influencers or internet celebrities have emerged on international social media platforms, and they are telling Chinese stories and spreading Chinese culture. They showcase China’s rich and colorful cultural elements, such as creativity, food, and crafts, in an interesting and down-to-earth way, which has attracted the attention of internet users around the world, objectively promoted the spread of Chinese culture to the world, and helped shape China’s national image. In the study of cross-cultural communication, these online personalities translate to a renewal of the path, where social media entertainment theory provides the theoretical framework to observe media platforms and the internet celebrity economy.
Media platforms
Mobile internet’s popularity transforms the public from disseminators and recipients to producers and marketers, and the main players in international cultural communication are no longer traditional mass media outlets, but the general public. People are shaping culture with their lives, and their lives themselves have become the Chinese story. From an international communication perspective, China is establishing itself and expressing its views by “going global” through culture and media. In its long history, China has been recognized by Western society through different images. These perceptions are not all the same, sometimes people see “the great power of China,” or “the rising dragon.” Through a series of efforts culture and media are “going global,” and China is mobilizing resources to build a national image of co-prosperity and coexistence with the world.
Broadening communication channels is an important way to boost the capacity of international communication, among which people-to-people cultural exchange and traditional media are most conventional. People-to-people cultural exchange includes organizing cultural exchange activities and events, and telling Chinese stories using different forms of cultural resources. China is committed to building various channels for people-to-people exchanges, such as Chinese film festivals and sister city projects, to showcase China’s image and voice. With the slogan “Together into the Future,” the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games incorporated Chinese cultural elements in the opening ceremony, mascot design, music, visual effects, medal design, and other aspects, and demonstrated China’s determination to grow together with the world.
With policy support, Chinese mainstream media has accelerated overseas distribution, expanded overseas distribution channels, and increased the rate of project realization. As a result, the pace of “going global” has accelerated, and the ways organizations are doing so have become more diversified.
At present, research on the platform economy is gaining momentum. International digital platforms not only provide a variety of communication channels, but also create a new communication scenario for audiences. In this new scenario, digital social platforms provide another space for communication of Chinese culture. Social media has become the new infrastructure for people to publish and access information. 
Media scholars Stuart Cunningham and David Craig refer to the social media-spawned industry as the social media entertainment industry. In their new book Social Media Entertainment, they wrote that in a little over a decade, competing social media platforms, including YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat, and Chinese counterparts such as TikTok, have formed a base for the emergence of a new creative industry: social media entertainment. Social media entertainment creators have harnessed these platforms to generate significantly different content, separate from the century-long model of intellectual property control in the entertainment industries. This new screen ecology is driven by an intrinsically interactive viewer and audience central dynamic. 
Analysis by Cunningham and Craig delineated the ways global social media platforms provide technical, networking, and commercial availability, enabling amateur content creators from all over the world to rapidly specialize and commercialize. In the end, ordinary people can use these platforms to incubate their brands, innovate content, and cultivate multinational and cross-cultural fan communities. By technical, networking, and commercial availability, these platforms allow users to disseminate and produce information, while also gathering fans. Commercial availability means that these platforms offer various business models—such as user membership and copyright protection—to content creators to help them profit.
Michael Keane, an Australian scholar who has been observing China’s digital cultural and creative industry for a long time, researched online platforms searching for the reason for their success in cross-cultural communication. He affirmed the importance of amateur participation and diverse content. He believes that the success of online platforms such as Youku and iQiyi across cultural boundaries shows that content which is “going global” does not have to be limited to “finished products” with big budgets. Most of the popular content is amateur, and subject to resharing and remixing. In fact, the rise of online platforms such as YouTube in the United States and Youku in China have changed the way amateur content is created, professionalized, and distributed.
Online influencers
With the different degrees of access provided by social media platforms, different types of content creators are actively engaged in content production and are striving to achieve branding and commercialization. Social media provides an increasingly diverse space for different groups to express themselves. For example, musicians and comedians from countries like Lebanon and Saudi Arabia have gained international fame and a global audience on these platforms.
Online influencers from China are also taking advantage of these platforms to publish their works in the hope of reaching a wider audience on a global scale. Not only professional content producers such as CGTN take part, but also individual content creators like Li Ziqi. These accounts, which either showcase culinary life or creative ideas, have captured the attention of netizens around the world by presenting a colorful image of China—with regular updates.
It is worth noting that China’s rapidly developing internet platforms have spawned a massive cohort of internet celebrities, who in turn enhance the internet celebrity culture and economy, to some extent, laying the foundation for Chinese culture to go global. In recent years, from computers to mobile phones, from images and text to multimedia, from selling copyrights to e-commerce with goods, the internet celebrity economy has undergone significant changes in technical infrastructure, narratives, profit models, and other aspects. Today, virtual idol participation makes the composition of internet celebrities more diversified. The size and growth of China’s internet celebrity economy is remarkable. 
Despite some problems, the creativity and daily life of Chinese people are fully explored, displayed, and shared. In this sense, domestic communication elements and content have become content that can be viewed and shared internationally.
Future directions
The development of new media is restricted by cultural environments, and it is still shaping the new culture. When we facilitate social media for cross-cultural communication, we should be sensitive to the fact that different regions have different media platform preferences. Different applications and social platforms have different immersion levels in different regions and hold different meanings for different groups. 
At the same time, digital platforms which dominate technology, algorithms, and data, are becoming the new powerhouses for global information distribution. Platforms establish an ecological space for cultural exchanges, which gives great power to shape digital cultures and affect the content preference and flow of Chinese culture overseas. Therefore, we must remain clear headed in front of the technical characteristics of social media platforms and technological ideologies expressed through algorithms and recommendation mechanisms.
At present, Chinese bloggers active on international social media are mainly exploring Chinese stories in terms of cuisine, creativity, and other dimensions. These stories are close to people’s daily lives and livelihoods, so they have a natural appeal. However, it is urgent to explore diversified Chinese stories in the communication of Chinese culture, especially China’s technological progress and developed digital life. An open and progressive image of China needs to be shaped by We-media.
In some cases, overseas audiences may have reservations about government-involved communications and information. However, no one would reject voices from the people. Social media’s emergence makes it possible for different groups to have discourse resonance. For content creators who have achieved widespread success in China, publishing and distributing their videos on overseas video platforms will be a new opportunity, given their great potential and the elimination of language barriers. There are great expectations as to who the next Li Ziqi will be.
Growth of the internet celebrity economy has come with a host of intermediaries that help smooth the relationship between content creators and platforms. They shoulder an important role in enabling content creators to go abroad. For example, the Muti-Channel Network (MCN) plays a similar role as a cultural broker, connecting platforms and content creators, and helping content creators achieve professional success. Internationally, some MCNs operate in a mature manner and can exert their power in different sectors. In China, there are also a large number of MCN organizations. They collaborate with platforms such as Bilibili, Sina Weibo, and TikTok, while they also help content creators manage fans and monetize content. The social media entertainment industry is characterized by the transformation of many platform content creators from amateur producers into professional producers. In this process, professional cultural intermediaries have become one of the important ways for content creators to expand their clout.
Ji Fangfang is an associate research fellow from the Institute of Journalism and Communication at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. 
Edited by YANG XUE