In this age of mechanical reproduction, China is often very much guilty of making less-than-impressive versions of things that the West did first. However, I have found some exceptions and one of them is Renren (人人网, translation: Everyone’s Network), China’s version of Facebook (and no it’s not blocked).
Last year I started using Renren.com because I was about to study for a year at Peking University and wanted to understand college students in China before I actually got there. And while I give Facebook a lot of credit for being “first,” I decided I really like Renren.com for the following four reasons:
1. It’s encouragement to produce more, not just consume
Facebook is pretty good for sharing links and photos, but not really to write out your thoughts, except through short status updates. Instead of “Notes,” Renren calls their writing application rizhi (日志), which is equivalent to something like “log” or “journal.” I’m sure there are some cultural differences in how people like to express themselves, but remember the days of Livejournal when people actually wrote longer entries to express themselves in a personal way? That was back in high school for me, and I feel like with Facebook I’ve actually regressed by becoming more incompetent and unwilling to express myself. In Renren’s entries, I’ve read insightful opinions on Obama, beautiful descriptions of a rainfall, and even analysis on the sexual differences between men and women. Some of this happens on Facebook, but it’s less popular, and mostly in the form of lists of favorite movies, music, etc. More of this on Facebook would be nice.
2. The recent effort to help the drought victims in Southern China
Facebook recently had the Community Giving campaign, but I barely noticed that it happened. On Renren.com, they put a small rainy cloud icon next to anyone who has made an effort to help the drought victims. For every person who visits the charity page, Renren donates a cent to the effort. Additionally, you can buy digital “gifts” to donate to the Red Cross. To get the rain cloud, you could be donating money or just leaving a message to show your support and sympathy. There is also an informational video explaining the crisis and the impact it is having on local communities. Even though it does not look significant, the rain cloud is effective and has the effect of: 1) peer pressure: other people see the cute icon, wonder what it’s for, and want one next to their name too; 2) publicity: it’s obvious yet subtle about the effort.
3. The Forum
With the forum, you can see the hottest links being shared, the most commented on journal entries, a daily poll, and just what people are talking about in general. A good way to envision this is to think of a page where Facebook groups, fan pages, organizations are sort of “summarized” in a way so you have an overall idea of general trends and popular things, sort of like knowing what the trending topics are on Twitter. This also provides a better space for discussion and expression rather than the pretty linear “Wall” of Facebook. I guess Facebook things do have discussion pages, but these are under used and not linked into a “big picture” so you have to go to individual pages to see what people are talking about.
4. The ability to see who visits you
At first I did not like this function, it made me feel really exposed and I thought that I liked the privacy of Facebook. However, with a News Feed and such, I’ve found that I don’t really visit individual’s pages unless I am engaging in stalker-like behavior or pro-active enough to write or post something on their page. This function on Renren helped me only visit people I felt I had a genuine connection with, decreased the amount of mindless browsing I did, and acted as a way of saying “hi” without too much effort. I guess there’s a moderating effect with this function that leads to more restrained Renren usage, but with an increase in quality of the time I do spend on it.
Of course Renren is not perfect and these might just be my personal preferences, but I hope that they are things that Facebook and Facebook users consider.
Renren does have a Wikipedia page if you want to read more.