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China and Inner Asia
In Session: What’s on the Chinese Internet? Moving from Grassroots Expression to Institutional Content Provision
3: What is zimeiti?: The Commercial Logic of Content Provision on China's Social Media Platforms
Wednesday, March 24, 2021
8:30am – 10:00am EDT
The Chinese University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong
“Zimeiti” (we media or self-media) has become a buzzword in China since 2012. Although never clearly defined, this concept has been widely used in public discourse, generally referring to content providers other than institutional media on social media platforms such as WeChat public platform, Weibo, and Jinri Toutiao. Content published by zimeiti accounts for a significant portion of Chinese Internet users’ media diet. In this study, I argue that by examining how practitioners, media, and scholars talk about zimeiti, we could gain a deep insight into China’s restricted yet highly commercialized online content ecosystem. Through systematic analysis of the industry discourse, media discourse, and academic discourse about zimeiti, I identify the following components of the commercial logic of content provision on China’s social media platforms. First, platforms and start-up entrepreneurs together as major promoters of zimeiti hijacked the term proposed by Dan Gillmor (2004). Ironically, the term originally referred to grassroots journalism that challenges corporate media, but it was heavily promoted by Internet companies in China for commercial purposes. Second, zimeiti is seen as an emerging industry sector, and the dominant theme is about monetizing user attention and maximizing profits. Third, the overwhelming emphasis on the business nature of zimeiti provides protection against political risks, and official media’s launching of their own zimeiti provides extra protection. In sum, the creation and circulation of the strange yet popular concept of zimeiti is the product of China’s unique political and commercial environment.