Last month, the most popular Chinese microblog post was written by movie star Fan Bingbing (or one of her ghostwriters) in which she said that she would draw three lucky winners from among the netizens forwarding her post. These three lucky fans would be given her photo calendars, and she would personally follow them on weibo, China's microblog. Within days, the post was liked by more than 53,000, forwarded by 364,000 and commented on by 283,000 netizens.
Weibo is very popular in China, because it gives almost everyone a platform to read and write, even when one does not enjoy writing much. Surely, 140 words are not all that much. At the very least one could forward a post with a simple click.
Weibo has become a microcosm of Chinese society. I have been observing what kind of people get read and what kind of posts become viral because, in my obsession with the anthropology of technology, I think it is a good way to check the pulse of Chinese society.
In the Chinese micro-blogosphere, those who are followed by many are called the "Big Vs" (V for verified users). There was a time when the most popular things big Vs wrote was chicken soup for the feeble minds. Kaifu Lee, a former executive for Google and Microsoft, coined many fortune-cookie-sized wisdom bits for millions of his followers.
Recently, I noticed that such voices are dying out as celebrities from the show business take the center stage. Almost all the popular microblogs are those of celebrities in the show business. If this trend continues, my only hope of getting more popular is to star in a movie, say, about an instructional design superhero rescuing panicked professors from dysfunctional online tests. And then, I'll promise the same calendars with photos of mostly my nude back to potential readers to increase my fan base. We'll see what happens.
Celebrities like Fan Bingbing, because of their popularity elsewhere, mount some kind of "bully pulpits" - a term coined by former US president Theodore Roosevelt to refer to the White House as a natural, conspicuous platform to call attention to some civic action. Or, to be more precise, these nice-looking celebrities own their own beauty pulpits, even though such pulpits are not used to make a positive impact on society.
With all due respect to her good looks, I visited Fan Bingbing's microblog and found that the site was nothing more than a tiny package wrapped around herself: her moods, photos, social activities and such trivia, lackluster, devoid of any meaning in my opinion. I do not understand why fans flock to blogs like hers.
The celebrity domination in Web 2.0, however, is a worldwide problem. In 2013, seven of the top 10 most followed Twitter users were celebrities in the show business: Katy Perry, Justin Bieber, Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift, Britney Spears, Rihanna and Justin Timberlake. You would have thought that people watch such people on TV, while the cyberspace is more of a marketplace for ideas. Instead, you see that a majority of users aren't all that excited about having the best ideas win. Most people pay attention to things that are skin deep, such as beauty.
I shouldn't have been frustrated with this, but I see that children are engulfed in the celebrity culture as well. I fear that we as parents are losing them to these thoughtless drifts in cyberspace. How can salt-and-pepper-haired dads compete with the one-and-only Rihannas and Bingbings of the world? We don't stand a chance. Even among actors and actresses, attention should be spread out to those hardworking new people who are equally, if not more, deserving of support from the public.
Exactly how broken is the reality we live in that things around us no longer satisfy, that people have to escape into irrelevant worlds around celebrities who are far away and incapable of making minds any sharper, or lives any better?
I often go to parks, lakes and other places where I expect to see more families with their children walking, playing or reading. Most of the time, I am the only one walking despite the gorgeous sunshine and blue sky that I could share. Perhaps that would answer my question.
The author is a US-based instructional designer, literary translator and columnist writing on cross-cultural issues.
Originally published in China Daily.