Chinese Finding Their Voice
And you thought the Cultural Revolution was over. Sorry, it’s just beginning, only China’s new Cultural Revolution will be driven this time from the bottom up – by podcasters with Apple’s little white iPods or competing players, not from the top down by Maoists with Little Red Books.
I got a little glimpse of the future visiting a small apartment in suburban Shanghai, home to China’s leading podcasting Web site, Toodou.com.
"We already have 13,000 channels on our site and about 5,000 of them are updated regularly," said Gary Wang, 32, the Fuzhou-born and U.S.- and French-educated Chinese engineer who founded Toodou. Any Chinese can create his or her own channel of video or audio content on Toodou (which means "potato"), and other individuals sign up to get that channel’s new uploads. Eventually Toodou will charge a monthly subscription fee.
"I want to create hundreds of thousands of different channels, maintained by just average people, where other people can access them and download the material," Mr. Wang added. And he will, because of how easy it is to upload and podcast homemade video and audio content. There are almost no barriers to entry. (His site does self-censor porn and anything that’s obviously against Chinese law – but anything else goes.)
Toodou’s most popular podcast today is two 20-year-old Chinese women who lip-sync a popular Cantonese rock tune. "They got bored," Mr. Wang explained, so they bought their own Webcam, which you can find here for as little as $6, used Microsoft Movie Maker, which is free with Windows XP, made their own little three-minute MTV-like podcast and uploaded it onto Toodou.com. It’s been viewed 75,000 times in three months.
"It took them one hour to make and 15 minutes to edit," Mr. Wang said. The singers, called the Beans, now have their own Internet fan club.
Another favorite is a podcast by two Chinese architecture students in Houston Rockets jerseys (the team of the Chinese N.B.A. star Yao Ming) who lip-sync a Backstreet Boys tune. A slide show on life in Shenzhen has been viewed 16,000 times, with lots of accompanying commentary from viewers. The second-most-popular podcast right now shows an underground rock band at a Shanghai bar.
Toodou’s goal, Mr. Wang said, "will be to connect [Chinese] people to their tastes and to their potential collaborators. We will have a huge content database, and we will share the revenue with content providers."
For now, a lot of it is junk, but that will change. The podcasting tools are so easy to acquire that it will force competition, experimentation and better quality. Mr. Wang first heard of podcasting only 13 months ago. Today he has the most popular podcasting site in China, with 100,000 registered users, 8 employees, 40 volunteers and a U.S. venture-capital backer.
News of his site was spread free by Chinese bloggers. His office costs $500 a month, and some of the employees also sleep there. Almost all of the software that runs Toodou.com is from free, open-source material on the Web: an Apache Web server; FreeBSD, a free Unix operating system; MySQL, a free database system; and PHP, free programming lingo. Mr. Wang wrote the basic algorithms that run Toodou.com himself.
Unlike earlier techno-media revolutions, which began in the West and moved East, the podcasting revolution is going to explode everywhere at once, thanks to the Web and free technology tools. That’s why the next phase of globalization is not going to be more Americanization, but more "glocalization" – more and more local content made global.
"We have different songs and we want to express different things, but the desire is the same," Mr. Wang said. "We all want to be seen and heard and be able to create stuff we like and share it. … People from all over the world will draw knowledge and inspiration from the same technology platform, but different cultures will flourish on it. It is the same soil, but different trees will grow."