China Blog Funk-O-Rama

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A strange funk seems to have descended on the English-language China Blogosphere, or at least those blogs that I usually follow (i.e., the ones focusing more on news, business, politics, economics and law). Maybe it’s something to do with the air quality here in Beijing, which is no doubt simultaneously making us lethargic, asthmatic, and less likely to blog — it’s quite possibly making us sterile as well, although I haven’t verified that one personally.

Some time ago, the stalwart Sinica podcast devoted an episode to “Death of the China Blog,” and I think things are even worse now. Speaking for myself, I had two two-week business trips, a very busy end of the 2nd quarter, and the complete failure of my laptop as impediments to regular blogging. No excuses, just an explanation.

I can’t really explain what’s going on generally, but there has been a noted drop-off in blog post production by the usual suspects. I won’t name names or point fingers, except at myself, but if you want some hints, you can visit Richard Burger’s blogroll over at The Peking Duck — Richard has apparently culled the hell out of his blog list due to lack of production, and he also admits to being less than motivated these days when it comes to blogging.

What’s going on here? Is everyone just busy and burned out? Being busy comes and goes, and if you are really determined, you can find a way to keep writing. Admittedly, it does get challenging when you are working long hours, but that’s life. I’ve already resigned myself to posting only a couple times a week at best given other commitments, but to be honest, as busy as I’ve been, I easily could have met that goal had I been more motivated.

Which brings us to the Blog Burn-out, which is another matter entirely. I’ve experienced this many times over the past few years. The repetition and sheer drudgery really take their toll after a while, particularly when your blog covers the same topics over and over again. There are many China blogs out there that occupy niches much narrower than mine, and my hat is off to those folks.

Speaking of the same-old same-old, look at the “big” China stories over the past few weeks:

  • A new “labor scandal” for Apple — {yawn}
  • GSK caught for bribery — big company, big news, but a decidedly old topic, particularly in the health sector
  • Foreign companies in China being targeted by the government — gimme a break with this one already; this topic needs to be retired unless we are talking specifically about unfair competition investigations (a relatively new phenomenon)
  • CFIUS might look at Smithfield merger — news flash! Douchebag American politicians are trying to get some TV time by bashing China

Meh. Hard to get motivated to write about any of that. God knows how the professional media types do it. I suspect they self-medicate.

The other oft-cited culprit for the dearth of new blog content is social media. Why slog through a 1,000-word post when you can Tweet something pithy in 18 seconds, particularly if you are not producing original news but simply commentary? It’s a fair point but sometimes just a rationalization for being lazy, something with which I am unfortunately well acquainted.

If you can adequately convey your comments via Tweet, then most likely 1) the topic wasn’t all that complicated to begin with; and 2) your thoughts on it are simple and straightforward. There’s also the possibility that you are hopelessly generalizing, taking a tough subject and sound-biting it because you have no time/energy/inclination to write a blog post. And that’s a shame.

Then again, some topics really are that simple, and social media works just fine. Moreover, the interaction you get on Twitter-ish platforms beats the crap out of blog comment threads. Admittedly, if you post enough Tweets and talk to enough folks about a topic, I suppose you can develop plenty of nuance — seems rather cumbersome and time consuming to me, but that’s just a personal observation.

I know several bloggers who are either threatening to board up the blog and move completely onto social media or have already done so. I have considered this myself, but I have two problems: first, access to social media is haphazard at best.

Some days I can get on my VPN and jump on Twitter, many days I can’t, and that does not even factor in the difficulties of reading news and navigating blocked/inaccessible sites. I’m not sure if the process has gotten any worse over the past year or so, but my patience isn’t what it used to be. I’ve gotten used to instant access, e-commerce same day delivery, and streaming video, and the uncertainty associated with social media and news access really discourages me these days — which is the whole point of the IT infrastructure here, right?

Second, to really get a lot out of social media, you have to put in the time. Whether you are pushing out lots of posts or simply lurking, you basically need these applications constantly updating on your desktop or mobile device. Even if you live outside China or otherwise have stable access to these apps, you still need the time, even if it’s on a multitasking basis, to pay attention to writing/reading this stream of information.

On a side note, this notion of “scheduled Tweets” is absurd given the time-sensitive nature of that kind of social media. Definitely not a panacea for folks with day jobs.

In contrast, with traditional blogging there is no stream of data. Even if you post a few times a day (although I haven’t done that for a long time), the time is spent dealing with a small number of tasks, spaced out according to your schedule. Social media is certainly flexible as well, but I find the “always on” nature of it difficult to deal with.

With respect to readers, unless you have a video or photo blog, it’s getting difficult to capture the attention of folks with plain old text commentary. I have the attention span of a flea these days, and I suspect I’m not the only one. Needless to say, I have not experienced a flood of email over the past few weeks requesting me to get off my ass and start posting again.

Conclusions? Very few, I’m afraid. We might just be experiencing a summer-doldrum lag in blog production and will see an uptick later in the year. It’s happened before. But the long-term trend doesn’t look promising, and if blogs continue losing ground while access to foreign social media and news remains painful and inconsistent (in China), China Hearsay‘s time as a free-standing website might be limited.

10 responses on “China Blog Funk-O-Rama

  1. D

    No man, you are a frog in boiling water so you haven’t maybe noticed it getting hot. The drop started at the end of 2009 when the financial crisis hit and expats and bloggers stopped writing or left. The same exact thing happened post-SARS for about 18 months from 2003-2004. We monitored all China media back then and our list (albeit small already) of frequently-updated English-language China media shrank in the same way 10 years ago as it started to do 3.5 years ago.

    You and I have been in China for about the same amount of time, and this is the 3rd exodus of expats I’ve seen in the last 15 years. It’s just cyclical — people are using pollution as an excuse to leave now in the same way they used SARS to close businesses and leave China 10 years ago. In reality, I think people mature, companies mature, and the 7-year itch kicks in.

    By the way, where are all our 10-year anniversary commemorative blog posts about what we learned during that time?

    If you meet a Western expat who was in China during 1989 and then continued to stay here, an enduring theme is that one reason they were able to have a certain level of success in subsequent years was because they were patient and rode out the storm. For your blogging, things will pick back up — just be patient and ride out the deserted storm. I’m sure bloggers can be competitive and I’m sure you may feel also proud you made it this long, but it really is a case of a rising tide lifts all ships, so hopefully more bloggers will start writing again to make everyone more visible again. Don’t close China Hearsay.

  2. Chris Devonshire-Ellis

    There have been four types of English language blogs in China over the past few years:
    1) Expat musings – Someone here for short while, blogs were fashionable for a bit then they got bored and/or moved on. Some are still around Lost Laowai, while others have developed into the lowest form of hit generation by being largely offensive and geared on gossip, shock and innuendo. Beijing Cream fits into that, while Peking Duck is sort of a half way house. Hidden Harmonies writes well but is so opinionated it loses its talent amongst all the rhetoric.
    2) Expat adventures – People here longer term travelling around and continuing to blog well about the adventurous side of China. Far West China and Mark Tanner are good examples. However content appears to be irregular.
    3) Business blogs – many part time (Stan) others from overseas (China Law Blog) that can be opinionated but also useful to some extent, especially for new to China business expats. Most though are not that well researched, and often opinionated rather than accurate.
    4) Blogs that Traded Up – My own China Briefing began as a blog but is now a fully fledged business website with its own editorial and research staff. Same as WSJ and the mainstream media, most played at it and then put resources in. But that is expensive and beyond most.

    Google also changed their analytics recently which knocked many blogs back – those who’d built up huge numbers of links by trading them with each other – google got wise and that tactic doesn’t work any more. So those blogrolls everyone is so proudly getting rid of – the underlying reason is that they don’t now help with exposure.

    So I guess what we’ve learned is that many blogs fit the transitory nature of being an expat and only have a short lifetime. Others need to invest in themselves to have any capabilities of moving beyond what is, after all a limited marketing genre. Business blogs actually need to monetize or eventually the owner/publisher runs out of steam. That’s the reality. Does China Briefing make money directly? The answer is yes, but only after significant investment into it. That site – including its back end designers, graphic artists and dedicated lawyers and researchers employs 15 full time staff. The related books and magazines that come out the other end are expensive things to produce – and the only business justification for a blog to to funnel readers to paid products. Or die.
    I guess which category of blog depends upon where it now is in its lifespan. – Chris

    It’ll be interesting to see who is still around in another five years. Probably not many, even if the technology remains the same – which it won’t.

    1. A reader who cares about writing

      Jesus – 15 full time staff and that piece of crap of a website is the best you can do? That’s pretty sad.

      1. Chris Devonshire-Ellis

        Well thank you for the compliment, ARWCAW. However I should confess that not all 15 work exclusively for China Briefing. For example we have two graphic designers and two back end guys, and researchers/lawyers/tax people also all servicing our other Asia, Asean, India & Vietnam Briefing as well, so they’re busy. China Briefing is probably about 60% of their workload though. But these are not websites to go to for gossip and innuendo, they’re professional sites about China law and tax, with original researched content and occasional commentary. We’re after quality in our readers, not quality, so if you define China Briefing as a ‘piece of crap’ then you’re probably not the type of reader we aim to please anyway. However I did ask our Marketing Director this evening about our webstats. China Briefing has added 20% new visitors and 25% unique page views to our readership this year, which seeing as it began life back in 1999 is not insignificant. So our readers clearly don’t share your views. But thanks for commenting. However if you do feel there is something we could improve upon, you can always email our Managing Editor, Christian Fleming: – Chris

  3. Marius

    Stan, Your blog has been highly entertaining and your insights have been well taken. So I miss your activities. I took it you were too busy. Fact remains that blogging is a thankless task unless one is a compulsive writer.

    Lastly, China is no longer that unique, mysterious place in the East. All that happens there, the good, the bad, and yes, the ugly, is happening everywhere. Just a minute ago I a read an artcle in the Guardian about a NY mom looking for a pressure cooker. The scary thing is that the NYT and WP as far as I know did not report on this in their online editions. What if this had happened in China? Ten minutes ago, I read in a Dutch newspaper that as of October 1, the Dutch police will stop monitoring phone conversations between incacerated and their lawyers!!!!! Can you believe it????

  4. Mike Cormack

    Sorry to hear that, but you’re right, the Sinoblogosphere does seem to have faded away. Maybe they’re all Tumblr blogs now. But for text guys like me, it’s not replacement. I think you’ve been one of the best out there, so many thanks for the writing and commentary.


  5. Michael Cheng

    Hey Stan – on the VPN front, I have found that StrongVPN combined with China Unicom 3G to work pretty well.

    For most social platforms, you also have an option to email in your updates, which doesn’t require hopping the wall.

  6. Amanda R.

    Shameless plug, but I’m an American who has been living in and blogging about China for three years. Though, lately, I haven’t been blogging as much as I like either. I think the fact is that if you are in anyway a good writer, you won’t keep blogging forever, but you should move on to bigger and better things. I also write about China for iPinion, a regional American magazine, do guest posts for Beijing Cream and Balancing Jane, do newspaper columns, write non-China-related articles/columns/blogs, and work on fiction projects. I can’t always keep up with a personal blog, which makes no money, when I have paying or at least bigger audience places to also write for to help get my name out there and build my platform. However, I rarely go a week without at least one blog post. I’ve put a lot of effort into building it and my audience so I do my best to keep up with it.

  7. Marius Van Andel

    Wonder what Shaun has to say. After all he is the only one who is often published in the main, like really main, press.

    Staying in China a couple days used to be a ticket as a “China-expert”, at least in the mind of the visitor. There are still out there who have never gotten beyond it. They themselves know who they are.

    It shows in their blogs that are either more or less plagiarisms or repeats of previous blogs by the same blogger. There is no development of independent insight. But who cares. It is a free world and anybody can claim whatever they feel like. The audience is the judge. Maybe this trend does not apply to China blogs alone. Maybe it is a more or less universal trend in the blogosphere.

  8. Chris Devonshire-Ellis

    Stan for a Pulitzer! I agree, one of our communities better and more gentlemanly writers, so please keep CH going. If necessary morph it into the more AsiaPac stuff I know you’re now involved with – but that’s even more interesting and has less people au fait with the nuances. Far too much blasé China expertise out there imo. Don’t go Stan! – CDE