How successful was Instagram before the Hong Kong Protests?

On the 28th September 2014 the story broke that Instagram had become the latest target of Chinese censorship. In the wake of pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong the most talked about photo-sharing app in the world became unavailable in China. While you can no longer add filters to photos in Earth’s most populated country the rest of the planet continues to take and share photos online. In a recent Yahoo presentation it was claimed that as many as 880 billion photos will be taken in 2014 alone. Instagram’s statistics are just part of this global phenomenon. The photo-sharing giant is confident in its claim that there are 200 million active users; that a staggering 20 billion photos have been shared since the app’s launch in 2011 and that 60 million photos are shared each, and every, day.  Instagram’s impact is far reaching. As they proudly boast, the app’s users are documenting everything from the food they’ve made to the political protests in Kiev.

 Instagram’s global appeal

In recent years Instagram has become as commonplace to us as Facebook and Twitter.

In recent years Instagram has become as commonplace to us as Facebook and Twitter.

While it’s hard to escape Instagram in the West, there’s evidence to suggest they are breaking through in a number of the BRIC economies: Brazil, Russia, India and China. The Russian Prime Minister, Dimitri Medvedev, has over 300,000 Russian followers and in Brazil the app is within the top six of most visited social media platforms. Meanwhile China has a growing population of 1.3 billion and is arguably the world’s largest user of online social media. Despite this most Western companies have struggled for a share in the lucrative Chinese market. As Christopher Westland writes in China’s Internet Revolution: ‘many early entrants to the Chinese Internet business have found the challenges – along with the rewards – much greater than anywhere else in the world.’ Facebook, the world’s largest social networking site, is blocked in China and photo-sharing company Flickr has also found itself subject to Chinese censorship.

Ultimately ‘at the heart of China’s censorship efforts is a delicate balancing act’ between controlling the political conversation and promoting business.

The Internet in China

Despite reports to the contrary the elusiveness of the Chinese market does not always comes down to the role of online censorship. Nobody can deny that China has embraced the Internet. Figures analysed by internetlivestats.com and provided by organisations such as the World Bank have reported that over 640 million Chinese citizens have access to the Internet, 46% of the country, a number that far outstrips the population of the US at 316 million. Weibo is China’s version of Twitter, with users having to post in under 140 syllables. During the Hong Kong protests Chinese Internet users took to Weibo, tracking Hong Kong related hashtags, to voice their frustration at the censorship of Instagram. One Weibo user wrote: ‘I woke up this morning. Instagram was banned. I asked my friends. The same thing happened to them.’ [1]

While it can be easy to jump to political censorship to explain Twitter’s absence and Weibo’s dominance it may not be that simple. The likelihood is that the Chinese government wants to encourage entrepreneurs and start-up businesses in their own country. Ultimately ‘at the heart of China’s censorship efforts is a delicate balancing act’ between controlling the political conversation and promoting business.

Red - US Internet users - 280 million. Blue - Chinese Internet users - 640 million.  Stats provided by: http://www.internetlivestats.com/

Red – US Internet users – 280 million. Blue – Chinese Internet users – 640 million.
Stats provided by: http://www.internetlivestats.com/

Qzone is another Chinese start-up that is impossible to miss. Acting as an interactive, customisable blogging platform, Qzone is often described as China’s most popular social networking site. Analysts are confident enough to make the claim that the site has around 600 million active users. While this number does seem remarkable compared to the number of Chinese citizens who have access to the Internet it’s worth considering that over 30 million people, 69% of all UK Internet users, are on Facebook. It is clear that while Western social media sites are nowhere to be found in China, the country’s vast Internet Population has had to live online elsewhere.

Rivals to Instagram

A number of Chinese photo-sharing apps have emerged in Asia since the smartphone revolution of the late 2000s. TuDing, PhotoWonder and Papa have all found moderate levels of success. Papa has topped this trio with the app boasting seven million active users. Interestingly, they all take a similar approach to photo sharing as Instagram. Each is different but the links between them are the user friendliness of each app, the options of filters and the quick-to-share features that are available. Camera360 is arguably the market leader when it comes to Chinese photo-sharing start-ups. Camera 360’s CEO told the Chinese tech blog 36kr that the app was reporting 60 million active users with 100 million photos produced every day. While half of those photos are found in China, half are from users overseas.  It is an app that is finding momentum and may soon become commonplace in our Western tech lexis.

While Instagram never released their user numbers for China it was clear as far back as 2011, a year after the app’s launch, that it was finding traction. Back then it was ranked 312 in Apple’s App Store in China. It managed 66th in June 2014 and was consistently growing at around 100,000 users each month. I spoke to Paul Bischoff, a multimedia journalist for techinasia.com who works in Beijing. He acknowledged that user data is hard to come by in China, especially with Google Play not being widely available. Even without access to important data his research has made him confident in the assertion that Instagram had been successful in China. In his view, Instagram was near enough to being called a market leader. He told me that Papa is very much on the rise and was likely to replace Instagram.

Being uploaded to the app were ‘images of police violence and demonstrations that shocked the world: smoky cascades of tear gas launched into swelling crowds, protesters wielding umbrellas to protect themselves from pepper spray, high school students struggling with riot police.’

Hong Kong and Censorship

It goes without saying that the recent censorship of the app ‘following a weekend of pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong’ was devastating to a company that had begun to solidify itself in the Chinese market. Internet censorship in China is a hot topic and an issue that has become synonymous with discussions regarding the Chinese Government’s views towards free speech. Politically contentious websites and apps have almost always ‘led to blatant censorship…the Great Firewall, the Green Dam, the blocking of Google, Facebook and so on.’

There are three golden rules for not getting your website or app blocked in China: ‘Do not jeopardise social stability, do not organise and do not threaten the party.’ Following these rules it is clear why Instagram was deemed a threat worth blocking in the wake of the Hong Kong protests. Angela Doland at AdAge.com believes the decision made by Instagram not to release app data was to keep ‘a low profile in China…to stay under authorities’ radar.’ [2] This low profile came to an abrupt end when people started using phrases on their photos such as ‘Occupy Central’ and ‘Hong Kong Protests.’ With Chinese authorities keeping a close eye over these phrases and hashtags it lead them time and time again straight back to Instagram.

Protesters came out in their thousands to call for democratic reforms to Hong Kong.

Protesters came out in their thousands to call for democratic reforms to Hong Kong.

Being uploaded to the app were ‘images of police violence and demonstrations that shocked the world: smoky cascades of tear gas launched into swelling crowds, protesters wielding umbrellas to protect themselves from pepper spray, high school students struggling with riot police.’[3] Not only were protesters learning where to gather by tracking Hong Kong related phrases but photos of the protests were, in effect, being broadcast to the rest of the world. Celia Hatton, a BBC correspondent in Beijing, summed it up by saying: ‘the decision to block Instagram takes the attempt to manage communications around the Hong Kong protests one step further, revealing Beijing’s fears that some in mainland China might be inspired by activists in Hong Kong.’[4] Quite simply, Instagram was a threat and it had to be stopped.

Instagram’s Future in China

The consensus readily available is that the loss of Instagram will not be mourned but rather alternatives will flourish. Censorship did end this particular app’s chances of success but it is clear that censorship is not always the reason so many Western companies fail in China. It usually just comes down to money. It is not because Western rivals are being blocked but because the Chinese Government encourages Chinese businesses. ‘When it comes to commercially important issues, the Chinese Government knows when to get out of the way.’ Instagram simply found itself caught in the midst of a rare political storm. Will this mean Internet users in China will have nowhere to turn to for 70s filters on their photos? Absolutely not.

Chinese smartphone users will continue to have access to plenty more photo-sharing apps.

Chinese smartphone users will continue to have access to plenty more photo-sharing apps.

The Deputy Director of the General Admission of Press and Publication, responsible for large portions of online regulation in China, summed it up best when he said ‘While regulating the Internet is important, government’s role is also to provide a healthy environment for that industry to grow.’ I have time and time again been surprised by just how healthy the Internet is in China. The country is not the censored world we are guilty of imagining. Online social media from Beijing to Shanghai is alive and kicking, it is merely a different market to the Western model we have all come to know.

References

[1] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-china-29411270

[2] http://adage.com/article/digital/instagram-s-blockage-china-a-blow-marketers/295322/

[3] http://foreignpolicy.com/2014/09/30/they-can-take-our-freedom-but-they-will-never-take-our-instagram/

[4] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-29409533

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