Science, China and why we should all take notice of WeChat.

I spent last week in Shanghai exploring the use of social media to communicate science as part of my Winston Churchill Memorial Trust Fellowship.

I had an extremely busy week and was lucky enough to meet with researchers in science communication, representatives from Nature and the Royal Society of Chemistry in Shanghai. Who all gave me extremely valuable insights into science communication and social media in China.

Welcome to Shanghai!

The majority of my time was spent at Shanghai Jiao Tong University, which is a well established institution in China. I visited researcher Dr Yi Mou who has written a number of papers about the use of social media for health messaging and its uptake by academics on a professional basis in China.

Yi Mou also translated some interesting findings from science communication surveys in China that have been conducted over the past number of years.

Me, Dr Li Mou and Dr Nainan Wen from Nanjing University where I also visited

I was incredibly lucky to meet with a group of people who were so accommodating. China is an interesting place and I was a little apprehensive about how I would navigate around but actually it was pretty simple. The subway in Shanghai is so easy to use and despite no access to google maps I didn't get lost once (this is unusual).

In China, access to websites and social media platforms is limited. There isn't a lack of social networks to choose from as many platforms created in China have materialised. These include but aren't limited to Weibo (which is a public discussion forum limited by characters, similar to Twitter) and WeChat (which is an interesting mix of Facebook and WhatsApp where you can post publicly and interact in groups or one-to-one). I found out about another bunch too that work in interesting ways but I will save those for another post.

The uptake of these platforms in China is huge, although the use of Weibo has declined rapidly recently due the shift of people to the WeChat platform and due to issues with the shutting down of accounts and deleted posts.

A number of studies have been conducted on science communication on Weibo. As it is an open platform like Twitter the data is easily available. The public were found to ask questions of science and want to know more, GMO is a hot topic in China, but there are very few scientists engaged in communication with these audiences*.

Social media in China is monitored and managed so participants are wary of what they share online. WeChat involves a lot of private messaging and closed group discussion but these posts are also monitored.

Speaking to students at Nanjing University about why scientists might interact on social media

When it comes to social media and smartphone applications China is SWITCHED ON. Comments like, "In China everyone wants everything fast" and "everyone wants to feel part of something" highlighted to me just how attached China is to social media. The constant notification sound from WeChat that you could hear 24/7 confirmed this, and it is still ringing in my ears.

WeChat is HUGE. A statistic that I was told is that 90% of China's population that have access to the internet use WeChat (trying to find a source for this, if anyone can please let me know), that is a lot of people. For some more informed but slightly outdated stats see this post.

It's good to note that this rise in popularity of WeChat isn't only because other networks are blocked as these can be accessed pretty easily via a VPN. Facebook and Twitter accounts are visibly advertised on business cards and other promotional material in China but WeChat is most definitely China's favourite network.

Everyone is on WeChat and because of this pretty much all communication goes through WeChat. From department meetings and university announcements to communicating with your mum everything takes place via WeChat. I saw it in action when a International Student's networking night by the communication school at Shanghai Jiao Tong University was arranged via WeChat.

When it comes to science on WeChat. There are some scientists that blog and have some influential pages, sharing popular science updates and comments. These are very much the minority and tend to be high profile scientists, but they do attract big numbers of followers. Beyond the public face of the WeChat superstar scientists, specialist discussions about areas of research also take place in closed groups (which can include up to and over 500 people). These chats are global, with scientists located everywhere contributing to discussion.

The closed groups are great for scientific discussion and collaboration but create a problem in that unless you know they are there you can be excluded from conversations. They are monitored too of course.

Beautiful colours on the Nanjing University campus

The way people use WeChat and how it works is incredibly interesting. We should take note because many of the apps more common to us in the US and the UK will be moving in this direction soon if Mark Zuckerberg has his way. A comment over dinner highlighted one key difference between WeChat and Facebook, "it's interesting because Facebook TELLS you what you want, whereas on WeChat it's easy and you create what you want".  The premise is that people can give you access to information faster than an internet search ever can. You can ask in a group, "can anyone tell me where to find xxx" and the answer is with you instantly. This is something that people have realised and use Twitter for too; answers, experts and papers are only a question away if you are in the right group.

You can pay for goods, donate money and pay for articles (recently it's started prompting people to 'thank' people for a good post with money) via WeChat. You can book appointments, flights, anything and everything. This has created an interesting shift where people no longer visit websites or use email. No other app offers this amount of functionality. I constantly have to shift between apps and networks to do what I want. Not on WeChat.

All the great suff aside, it's not without its problems, as messages can get missed (many people are in multiple groups). People I spoke to wondered if it was being overused and relied upon too much. Will people switch off to the constant updates?

WeChat isn't just contained within China. Anyone wanting to do business or interact easily with those in China quickly realises how useful WeChat is for collaboration and its use outside China is increasing.

Me in Nanjing University campus
No matter where content comes from the content on WeChat is still monitored which will prevent many from signing up but I think in the future we may all find ourselves shifting to a service that allows us to do everything we need to without clicking on a website.

The rise of messaging vs broadcast social media platforms may cause a bit of a problem for science communication. Conversations will take place within distinct groups of interest and between those 'in the know' rather than on open platforms like Twitter where everyone can pile in and see the conversation taking place or the content that is shared.

The popularity of messaging may mean that conversations become more closed in the future rather than more open, despite us having the technology and ability to hold open discussion. This makes me feel a little worried about the rise of messaging.

*This information was taken from the Blue Book of Science Communication in China.


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