The power and glory

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Yao Chen.

Yao Chen.

China's micro blogs are double-edged swords that can cleave a way up for celebrities or bring them down in an instant.

Yao Chen has been crowned China's "Queen of the micro blogs". It is a title she wears with some discomfort, although the fact that 11 million people follow everything she says on her blog makes her one of the most followed celebrities in the world. Not all are fans, though, and Yao says there are often "unreasonable people" cursing her on her page. She calls it "language violence" and it hurts, she says. She has even considered calling it quits, and she tells us how she misses those days when her "territory" was smaller, but a lot more controllable. It all started in September 2009 - the day she opened an account on Sina Weibo, the country's most popular social network messaging service provider. She was such a novice at that time she needed a friend's help just to get registered. For her, a B-list actress then, it provided an interesting "salon space" where she "shouted to friends across the distance". Six weeks later, her number of followers had reached 100,000, a figure that both shocked and flattered her. "If these people had shouted back at me in a public square, the sound would have made me tremble," she says. Fortunately, they were still a silent, if rapidly growing, majority. But there was more drama to follow.

In the next two years, enthusiastic followers kept joining her micro blog until she became the third most popular micro-blogger in the world, after top Tweeters Lady Gaga and pop idol Justin Bieber. Her popularity opened up career opportunities and she started appearing on big budget films and earned lucrative endorsement contracts for cosmetics and other products.

But more significantly, her popularity became a case study of the dynamic changes in virtual communications in China.

According to a study by the China Internet Network Information Center, by the end of June 2011, the country had 195 million micro-bloggers, an increase of 132 million in the first half of this year alone.

That is to say, two in five Chinese netizens are tweeting, many of them through their cell phones.

This is how it works. Micro blog messages are limited to 140 Chinese characters, and are quick and easy to read. A mutual tracking system weaves a strong and effective network that helps information spread like a virus - one click sends a message to thousands and the thousands can forward it to millions in another moment. It can go viral in an instant, and spread to legions.

This speed provides a petri dish for public opinion, creating a platform that often exposes the darker sides of society and the underbelly of injustice.

The public sentiment research laboratory at Shanghai Jiaotong University released a paper at the end of 2010 that showed some enlightening figures: Of the 50 most followed public opinion cases in 2010, 11 were exposed on micro blogs, and among the 74 most influential public opinion cases related on the microblog, half showed the hands of opinion leaders.

The conclusion is that those with a cause, and those who are actively lobbying for a cause, have all turned to the microblog as an effective tool in galvanizing support - quickly.

It is this trend that boosts Yao's popularity as a micro-blogger.

Many of those whom Yao tracked on her micro blog are members of the media, or intellectuals with something to say. It could be this push-pull factor that has made Yao Chen different. Unlike other entertainers, her micro blog is not just about glamour shots and gossip. From very early on, she consciously posted messages about matters that interested her, including public causes like stolen children and murder cases, or current talking points like the train crash on July 23.

She was a visible presence on these occasions, helping to spread public messages or sharing her own opinion on what was happening. Her new role as a budding activist, in return, drew more eyeballs and supporters.

Each time she tweets on a hot topic, it attracts thousands of reposts and comments, which means she has become a formid-able voice on the virtual realm.

Each day, thousands call out to her via the micro blog. On the day of our interview, she had 5,000 messages waiting for a reply. Many are genuine cries for help, and the cases may range from simple quarrels to what they see as unfair treatment.

Yao says she inherited her sense of chivalry from her father, and she did initially recognize her power in highlighting certain situations on her micro blog, spotlighting some cases and broadcasting calls for assistance. But one day, she took a hard lesson.

In June this year, she posted an entry that told a sad story. Her mother's cousin tried to commit suicide by swallowing rat poison because her land was requisitioned with what she considered unfair compensation.

Yao's mother asked Yao if she knew anyone in Beijing who could help their relative. But Yao said she knew no one, and could only help by posting the story.

But when she deleted the entry, there were those who immediately assumed Yao was afraid of the authorities although she denied that. She said it was the excessively emotional responses from the netizens that made her remove that micro blog.

"If I use this platform to publicize my family problems and solve them, people would say 'She's a public figure and able to use the power of the micro blog to solve her own problems.' It'll trigger negative emotions among those who can't have their own problems solved," she explains.

This made her realize that in harnessing such huge influence, she needed to moderate her postings in view of the larger responsibility. As Yao realizes that power comes in tandem with responsibility, she has set two major guidelines for herself. One, that she avoids posting or reposting anything that she cannot verify as the truth. Two, that she no longer blogs on any situation she feels may be hard or impossible to solve.

"If I get angry about something I read on micro blogs and then repost it, it will only trigger more hatred," she says.

In her wisdom born from experience, Yao has witnessed how micro blogs can become "twisted and ferocious" as people habitually vent their anger toward any injustice on the blogs.

Instead, Yao wants to harness the positive powers.

"I hope it will be a place where I can get enlightened and energized. Sure, it can reveal the dark sides, but it should not be just about that."

From now on at least, Yao wants to spread happiness by posting positive things, and passing on information that may change people's lives for the better.

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