With over 110 million users online, China is now the second largest internet user country in the world. This huge user number has allowed the Chinese internet industry to establish a strong basis for development and the expansion of related online industries, which belong mainly to the SMS and online gaming sectors. Chief among these is the free instant messaging computer program Tencent QQ, or simply QQ as it is generally called, which currently holds over 100 million active accounts. Since its entrance into the Chinese online community QQ has quickly emerged as a modern cultural phenomenon, nearly equaling Twitter in its virtual influence. I have been hearing murmurs within the media and the internet about the massive popularity of QQ for the past couple of years, but I never really looked into it. As one of the fastest growing social networking programs, I am very surprised that QQ has not made itself more widely known outside of China.
Tencent was originally founded in 1998 by Ma Huateng and Zhang Zhidong. At the time, Tencent was a small company in Shenzhen that provided value-added software and systems integration services with limited success. After developing QQ as a “Network Paging” real time communications service in 1999, the company was faced with several investment rejections by various companies so QQ was offered as a free service on Tencent’s own website. However, as Tencent began to add other features such as chatrooms, games, personal avatars, internet storage, and internet dating services the number of QQ users began to increase rapidly. Its variety of features and comparatively easy-to-use interface made it very popular among many younger demographics, so much so that by mid-2000, Tencent’s user base had exceeded 40 million. Buoyed by a large number of corporate investments from IDG, Pacific Century CyberWorks Ltd and Naspers Ltd, Tencent was able to firmly assert itself as the premiere instant messaging and mobile services company in mainland China by 2004.
QQ currently offers free registration for basic service membership, but also provides a premium membership plan which offers many of its more advanced features to users such as QQ mobile, ringtone downloads, and SMS sending/receiving. In addition, Tencent also offers a diamond level membership which includes seven color coded services which includes red-the QQ Show service which allows the user to create an avatar, yellow-the Qzone service which is similar to a standard blog, blue-general QQ games, purple-which is shared between three Tencent games (QQNana, QQTang and QQSpeed), pink-the QQ pet which features a Penguin, Pig, or a Bear, green-QQ music and black-a Tencent PVP game. QQ also uses a virtual currency called a “Q coin” which members use to purchase QQ related items for their avatar or blog. These Q coins are usually obtained through either direct purchase (one coin for one Renminbi is the current transaction rate) or for using the mobile phone service. Due to the popularity of QQ among young Chinese, Q coins are becoming increasingly accepted by many online stores and gaming sites in exchange for real world merchandise. Despite its widespread use among Chinese people, QQ still faces many controversies and criticisms. Chief among these issues is QQs potential use as a tracking and censoring device by the Chinese government, which when downloaded automatically installs a program on users’ computers that monitors their communications and blocks censored text. On August 2004, this issue came to a head when QQ Games began filtering keywords such as “Diaoyu Islands” and “Movement to protect the Diaoyu Islands”. This act caused much controversy and Tencent has since lifted the filter, but the fear of increased censorship through QQ still remains. In addition, due to QQ’s extensive use of advertisements and processes related to ads, it has also been branded as malicious adware by many anti-virus vendors internationally and is often considered a nuisance for proper computer usage.
Of course, there are many obvious parallels between QQ and other social networking programs within America like Twitter, Facebook, AIM, ICQ (which many say QQ is a direct rip off of) and Yahoo! Messenger. However, despite QQ’s derivative nature, the cultural context which it operates within is very different as compared to its American counterparts. In general the Bulletin Board System (BBS) continues to hold a huge influence in shaping how China’s Internet users interact with each other on the Web. BBS’s are traditional discussion forums that are run by individuals, companies, and government organizations on a variety of topics. Nearly 80 percent of Chinese sites still administer their own BBS’s today and are characterized by their topic-centered and anonymous nature – a stark contrast to Facebook or Twitter’s model of providing a platform that’s focuses on developing real identities and relationships with other people. This strong preference for anonymity is appropriate given the relatively harsh Internet censorship in China that holds users accountable for the content they publish, especially when it comes to political opinions. As such, QQ provides a unique balance between the anonymity of BBS forums and Facebook’s complete exposure of the user’s social life by providing a readily identifiable account for them to customize and participate online with while also maintaining some distance from their own personal lives. I believe that this balance really appeals to the developing netizens of China who are not yet accustomed to fully committing themselves to their virtual personas.