Cultural Voyeurism

In yesterday’s Office Chatter round-up, we mentioned a Top 10 list of popular China blogs. It was compiled by China Whisper, whose editors could spend a little more time designing their website rather than making yet another list.


Before digging into the entrants, I should also mention that the parameters of the list were somewhat dubious (if you care about such a thing [Editor’s note: It is somewhat of an arbitrary point.]): “I have compiled the data of the blogs in China by considering or analyzing their Alex rankings, comments and public praises.” First, he probably meant “Alexa Ratings,” which are certainly a good measure of web traffic. Looking at the number of comments a site receives is also a good indication of popularity. Finally, there is “public praises,” which means… what? I certainly don’t know. I am even more curious which one of these parameters helped launch China Whisper into the #10 spot.


Now that I am done being a jerk [Editor’s note: Finally.], let’s get to the list’s content. Seven out of the ten sites could be categorized under the “cultural voyeurism” tag: 1. chinaSMACK, 2. Shanghaiist (Full discretion: I am a former contributor), 3. ChinaHush, 6. Ministry of Tofu, 8. Tea Leaf Nation, 9. China Buzz, and 10. Chinawhisper. Of the three remaining, 4. Huff Post China could certainly fall under that umbrella depending on the major news story of the day; 5. China Digital Times is a serious news outlet; and 7. Lost Laowai is an expat community website.


What is "cultural voyeurism?" I actually picked up on that particular phrase from chinaSMACK. When launching their latest sister site, indoBOOM, the founder, a multi-lingual Shanghainese woman, said this about its origination, “I very soon had another purpose: To share with foreign friends who cannot understand Chinese some stories, pictures, and videos that ordinary Chinese netizens see and talk about. I have previously said this is a kind of ‘cultural voyeurism’, because I want to let my readers see what Chinese people think and say on Chinese websites, discussion forums, and social networks. What are Chinese people really paying attention to? What are their reactions and opinions in front of each other instead of in front of outsiders? About this issue? About that incident? About others? About themselves?”


The idea of cultural voyeurism has been around since early explorers began travel writing. Simply put: exotic (or “other” for that matter) places are interesting. People want a glimpse into other cultures. It took on a whole new form with the advent of reality TV in the ‘90s, which made celebrities out of neighbors. Today, you don't have to travel or even turn on the television to spy on someone else or their culture. The entire premise of social media is to showcase yourself. Curious voyeurs just have to log-on.


Sites like chinaSMACK use the popularity of such voyeurism and apply it to a Chinese population stumbling through their online adolescence. I get why this makes for addictive reading (“Chubby Taiwanese Teen Competes in Body-Building Competition”), but it also creates a particular film through which unknowledgeable readers will mistakenly understand the country. It would be like contemplating the U.S. through TMZ alone. To put it lightly: it’s an incomplete, skewed and, frankly, lazy interpretation.


Also on this spectrum is a site like Tea Leaf Nation. They use a very similar process (“to let my readers see what Chinese people think and say on Chinese websites, discussion forums, and social networks”), but with a sharper eye towards context and without the crutch of sensation. To be fair, they do offer candy as well (“Chinese Singer’s Romance with 12-year-old Girl has Older Women Asking: Where’s My Man?”), but it is bookended by substance (“Weibo Rumor Watch: Did a Village Head Offer to Pay Villagers to Terrorize Someone’s Home?” and “In China, Outsourcing of Public Power Provokes Outcry”).


It’s hard to call either side more in the “right” or “wrong,” since it is a matter of taste. [Editor's note: We obviously know what side you are on.] Tea Leaf Nation, however, is offering more a service than chinaSMACK does. The former provides cultural insight (yes, attained voyeuristically) while the latter is closer to culture porn (“E-Cup Hotties Feed Men Shaved Ice at Taiwan Furniture Expo”). Both types of sites are expanding and are frequently used as reference points for foreign media, but there is probably a reason why TLN recently partnered with The Atlantic to further improve their editorial content while chinaSMACK copies its loose framework in other Asian countries.


Maybe I am just a prude though. What do you think? Which do you prefer?


Photo from The Shanghaiist

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December 17, 2014

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