The solace and liberation of the internet

The only way to understand how people use digital, social and mobile – now mainstream media – is to fully understand the roles they play in their lives.

In China, ever since Deng XiaoPing unleashed economic development on the nation in the 80’s, growth has been extraordinary, but not without sacrifice. Understanding the core tensions – both laments and drivers – helps to show why and how the internet plays such a crucial role in people’s lives and how brands can leverage it to build business.

The first tension is the urban population growth now over 50% of total population – up from about 10% in the 1960’s – ever year there is still a shift of about 12.5m people coming into the cities, with about 250m people in total who do not live in the place they were born. That leaves 30%, 58m children who are “left behind”… to be looked after by their grandparents, who also don’t have their children to help to look after their fields, their ailments and their frail health. The social impact of tearing apart parents from their children creates an emotional gravity that is omnipresent. In this context, social media and the internet offers a chance to bridge the gap of separated families.

The second tension lies in the 500m people that will enter the middle class within this decade. Deng had said: “We should let some people get rich first, both in the countryside and in the urban areas,” in order for the wealth then to trickle across the nation. This is vital to maintain stability. As the middle class grows and China manages it’s trajectory towards the China Dream – people look to find little signs that they too are the stairway to heaven. In this tough environment – people need little moments of joy and content, commerce and connections can help provide moments of joy and escapism.

The third tension is one whose magnitude is quietly growing, though already felt. By 2050 30% of people will be over 60 years old. Already, the pressure on women to support two sets of parents, the husband and child can affect her career options. Hospitals and health case are not capable of looking after such a large proportion of elderly. People in the prime of their life need as much help as possible to help look after their parents; provide tools and education, sponsor clinics and develop services to give some respite to the children, and some dignity to the old. Is there a potential  for lifestyle platforms: largely under exploited to help support the emotional, medical and physical needs of an ageing nation?

The fourth tension is caused by scandal and mistrust: the dead pigs, Melamine or botulism milk, fake medicines  – people know that they can go online to find out the truth behind the scandals; Social media is the place where consumers can go to find the truth. eCommerce also represents part of this “emancipation” for consumers. People can buy virtually anything from Taobao. It gives them freedom; it gives them choice; it empowers them. They do not mind that the user experience is still pretty ugly – what it provides them far outweighs a few ugly pixels.

So, despite progress, not everyone can be a “winner”.  In China, failure has found an anti-hero in 屌丝 (Diaosi) a group of self styled “drop-outs” who in the face of the 高富帅 (gaofushuai) – the tall beautiful and rich – seek solace in conforming to a less idealised version of happiness. Diaosi characteristics are geeky, not beautiful – 67% don’t have a girlfriend; they spend their weekends at home watching movies or playing online games. The movement has taken off, because the need to define your own sense of achievement and success is acute. For them the internet represents an outlet for their own passions. They are seeking escape, if you like, from the harsh realities of life in China.

Brands have a role too. They need to indulge customers and help them find little moments of pleasure and escape, build the romance….indulge and elongate the purchase process so that customers can enjoy brand experiences as a form of solace and liberation.

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