Yang - Internet as Cultural Form

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Yang - Internet as Cultural Form



The Internet as Cultural Form: Technology and the Human
Condition in China
Guobin Yang
Received: 20 December 2008 / Accepted: 14 February 2009 / Published online: 19 March 2009
# Springer Science + Business Media B.V. 2009
Abstract Raymond Williams’ work on television as a
cultural form offers a theoretical basis for overcoming
technological determinism in the study of the Internet.
The Internet in China exerts social and political
influences through the cultural forms it enables and
then only when these forms respond to the human
condition. Chinese Internet culture consists of new
cultural forms that emerge out of the interactions
between Internet and society and that are the products
of both cultural tradition and innovation.
Keywords Internet
Cultural form
Human condition
Assumptions of technological determinism often
underlie popular perceptions of the Internet in
China. Take two oft-repeated statements. For some
time, it was fashionable to consider the Internet as
a force of democratization. Then, the tide changed
and it becomes even more fashionable to claim that
the Internet does not lead to democratization. Both
statements are misguided because both draw a
simple linear line between technology and society
and omit human intention, practice, and social
institutions that mediate technology and any sort
of political outcome.
Scholarly work has attempted to overcome tech-
nological determinism by focusing on the interactions
between technology and society (Yang 2003; Zheng
2008), the social and historical context (Zhou 2006),
Internet use by various social groups such as migrants
and villagers (Qiu 2007; Zhao 2008), civic organ-
izations (Yang 2007), and government agencies
(Holliday and Yep 2005; Hartford 2005). Some
studies have examined the various network services
related to the Internet such as bulletin board systems
(Yang 2003, 2008), blogs (MacKinnon 2008), Short
Message Service (Latham 2007; Yu 2007), and mobile
phones (Chu and Yang 2006; Qiu 2007). Few works,
however, have treated these network services as
cultural forms. The implicit emphasis is more on
technological capability than on human agency.
Know Techn Pol (2009) 22:109–115
DOI 10.1007/s12130-009-9074-z
An earlier version of this paper was prepared for the
Conference on The Role of New Technologies in Global
Societies and Its Implications for China, 30–31 July 2008,
organized by the Department of Applied Social Sciences, The
Hong Kong Polytechnic University. The author thanks Rodney
Chu and Pui-Lam Law for inviting him to the conference and
thanks Leopoldina Fortunati and David Herold for their
G. Yang (*)
Asian/Middle Eastern Cultures & Sociology,
Barnard College, Columbia University,
3009 Broadway,
New York, NY 10027, USA
e-mail: [email protected]
Raymond Williams’ (1974) study of television
suggests that viewing the Internet as a cultural form
offers an approach to highlighting human agency and
overcoming the limits of technological determinism in
the study of the Internet. I will begin with a brief
discussion of Williams’ analysis of television as
cultural form. Then, I will analyze the Internet in
China as a cultural form and illustrate my argument
with two case studies. My basic argument is that the
Internet in China exerts social and political influences
through the cultural forms it enables and then only
when these forms respond to the human condition.
Chinese Internet culture consists of new cultural
forms that emerge out of the interactions between
Internet and society and that are the products of both
cultural tradition and innovation.
Television as Cultural Form
Raymond Williams distinguishes between two types
of technological determinism. In “pure” technological
determinism, technology is viewed as “a self-acting
force which creates new ways of life.” In “symptom-
atic” technological determinism, technology is “a self-
acting force which provides materials for new ways of
life.” (1974: 6) The first view exaggerates the role of
technology, whereas the second considers technology
only as accidental and marginal. Both ignore human
intention, purpose, and practice. At the same time, he
is critical of an approach which he calls “determined
technology,” whereby technology becomes an effect
just as simple as the cause it is assumed to be in
technological determinism.
Williams’ study of television overcomes the limits
of both “determined technology” and technological
determinism by focusing on cultural form. He starts
by noting the “complicated interaction between the
technology of television and the received forms of
other kinds of cultural and social activity.” (1974: 39)
He acknowledges the claim that “television is
essentially a combination and development of earlier
forms” but emphasizes that it is more than a question
of combination and development but involves “sig-
nificant changes” and “some real qualitative differ-
ences.” (1974: 39)
News, for example, is an existing form commonly
associated with the print media (newspapers). As a
cultural form, television news is partly the result of
the incorporation of an existing form into a new
media form. Yet at the same time, television news is
not exactly the same as news in newspapers. Among
other things, there are differences in the sequence and
formats of presentation. These differences affect both
the audience and the forms of editorial control.
Newspapers present multiple news items on the same
page. Despite the different degrees of importance
conventionally assigned to different parts of the page,
readers have more control over what to read first and
what next. Television and broadcast news, however, is
presented in linear fashion, one item following
another. The audience has less control. These different
forms of news thus reflect different kinds of editorial
control and induce different audience behavior.
This suggests that new cultural forms, while
inheriting elements of earlier forms, are also the
results of human creativity responding to new social
conditions. Two central concepts in Williams’ book
on television convey this thesis. One is flow. He notes
that the main feature of television is flow. On
television, news follows advertisements which follow
other features, one after another without interruption,
creating the impression of a natural flow. Yet this flow
“is determined by a deliberate use of the medium
rather than by the nature of the material being dealt
with.” (1974: 118) Ultimately, it is “the flow of
meanings and values of a specific culture.” (1974:
119) In stressing human intention and agency behind
television, Williams offers a critical theory of the
power dynamics behind the creation of television as a
new cultural form. His focus is on the critique of
power and domination. Yet human agency also
appears as resistance against power. Subordinate and
marginalized social actors may challenge power
through the creative use of cultural forms. My focus
in this paper will be on how cultural forms may be
used to challenge power.
Form is related to content. Television as a new
cultural form, according to Williams, expresses new
social conditions. He uses the concept of “mobile
privatization” to capture the new social conditions,
which he views as “two apparently paradoxically yet
deeply connected tendencies of modern urban indus-
trial living: on the one hand mobility, on the other
hand the more apparently self-sufficient family
home.” (1974: 19) Television thus served as “an at-
once mobile and home-centred way of living: a form
of mobile privatization.” (1974: 19) For Williams, this
110 G. Yang
modern urban industrial living is directly linked to
industrial capitalist society. On this view, television as
a cultural form is a product of Western capitalist
modernity. It cannot be understood in isolation from
this modern human condition.
The Chinese Internet as Cultural Form
Like television, the Internet is itself a cultural form
while encompassing numerous other forms. For
example, just as television news is a new cultural
form compared to newspaper news, so news on the
Internet has its own features. Other Internet cultural
forms include bulletin board systems (BBS), Internet
literature, shockwave flash films, email, mailing lists,
chatrooms, facebook, and of course, blogs.
For Williams, television as a cultural form both
combines existing cultural forms and involves innova-
tion. The innovation reflects human intention and
people’s responses to new human conditions. This is
also true of the Internet as a cultural form. The various
forms of the Internet, such as BBS postings, blogs, and
shock wave films, contain elements of received
cultural forms. Thus in some sense, blogs are a form
of online diary, while BBS postings are often compared
to virtual wall posters by Chinese Internet users. Such
analogies convey a sense of historical continuity in the
dynamics of cultural and technological development.
The meanings people attach to wall posters shape
people’s ways of using BBS postings. In the history of
modern China, wall posters are an important form for
expressing dissent and protest (e.g., Brodsgaard 1981).
It is not surprising then that BBS has been a prime
space for producing contentious and critical discourse
in China. Out of such critical discourse have appeared
large-scale protest activities both online and offline,
just as wall posters were an important part of popular
protest in earlier decades.
Although the Internet-related cultural forms often
contain elements of existing forms, they are undoubt-
edly also new. Writing and publishing BBS postings
is much less constrained by time and space than
putting up wall posters. Dissemination, too, can be
much faster and wider. And of course, the dynamics
and scale of interaction in cyberspace go beyond
anything imaginable in physical spaces offline. All
these new features are a matter of technological
innovation. Yet despite the similar technological
features of the new forms, these new forms have
taken on different meanings in different social
settings. For example, blogs are heavily used for
political campaigns in the USA, whereas in China
they are crucial sites for popular contention. And
while electronic bulletin boards have almost become a
thing of the past in the USA, it remains one of the
most dynamic online social spaces in China today.
The causes of these differences are social and
political more than technological. Politically, the
limited space for popular voice in the state-controlled
mainstream media forces people to seek out alternative
channels. Although the Internet is also under control,
its networked features provide numerous nodes of
resistance against control. Furthermore, business inter-
est in a prosperous Internet economy serves as a buffer
against control because an overly controlled Internet
will keep users away and harm commercial prosperity.
Like other cultural forms such as television, the
Internet is subject to external influences. Indeed, the
Internet is especially susceptible to social influences
because of the logic of social production in cyberspace.
Social production refers to the process whereby ordinary
Internet users contribute to the Internet economy by
producing non-proprietary contents online such as
writing blogs and BBS postings (Benkler 2006). Thus,
if BBS forums and blogs in China are used frequently
to discuss poverty, corruption, and other social prob-
lems, it is because these social problems are the
burning issues of the day. The formation of a Chinese
Internet culture thus responds to new human con-
ditions. It is in this sense that we may argue, following
Wanning Sun’s (2007) argument about the mutual
constitution of the television and social formations in
China, that the Chinese Internet has developed its
cultural forms in reciprocal relationship with new
social formations. And it is in this sense that we may
speak of a Chinese Internet culture, as opposed to an
American or Malaysian Internet culture.
Of course, the Chinese internet culture has its own regional,
generational, and even class differences. For a study of the
formation of a working-class internet culture, see Qiu (2007).
For example, in a survey report issued in July 2007, the
Chinese Internet Network Information Center found that close
to 70% of China’s 162 million internet users reported that BBS
and online community were among their most frequently used
network services. See <http://www.cnnic.net.cn/uploadfiles/
pdf/2007/7/18/113918.pdf> . Accessed November 2, 2008.
Internet as cultural form 111
To sum up, the concept of cultural form helps to
overcome the tendencies of technological determin-
ism and “determined technology” by taking into
account (1) the influence of existing cultural forms,
(2) the intentions and purposes of the human actors
who use the technology, and (3) the social conditions
which compel or inspire social actors to use the
technology. Below, I will analyze two samples of
Internet cultural forms to demonstrate the utility of the
concept of “cultural form” for empirical analysis. My
first case study is Internet literature. The second is
about a shockwave flash film.
The Case of Internet Literature
In October 1999, netease.com announced a literary
competition to select 30 “Netease Chinese Internet
Literature Awards.” This was one of the first major
Chinese-language Internet literature competitions.
As the name suggests, the awards were to be given
to the best works of “Internet literature,” which the
announcement defined as “literary works combining
literary value and emotional expression (with
healthy contents but without regard to genres or
lengths) that are first published (or will be
published) on the Internet.” To select the awards,
the dotcom company appointed a 12-member award
committee. The committee included such well-
known writers as Wang Meng, Liu Xinwu, Zhang
Kangkang, Cong Weixi, and Liu Zhenyun. It also
included a literary editor, a publisher, and several
well-known literary critics.
The announcement set off an uproar in the Chinese
BBS communities, the virtual “habitats” of numerous
authors of Internet literature. The contention concerned
the composition of the award committee. Some argued
that it was legitimate to have established print writers
and editors to serve on the award committee. Stressing
the unique features of Internet literature, opponents
countered that an award committee consisting entirely
of print authors and critics had no right to judge it. An
article published on December 3, 1999 in Fuzhou
Evening News highlighted the central issue in the
controversy with a revealing title: “Can you understand
‘W 爱 4 Y U’?” A newspaper in Nanjing reported the
debates in an article titled “Internet Literature Compe-
tition: Is Wang Meng Qualified to Be a Member of the
Award Committee?” For unstated reasons but perhaps
as a response to the controversy, Wang Meng withdrew
from the award committee.
I will take this as a case of the Internet subaltern
mounting challenges against established cultural pow-
er. By extension, it may serve as a case of the common
people challenging power, be it cultural or political.
What conditions make such a challenge possible?
The first condition is cultural form. Internet literature
is a new form made possible by the Internet. As people
begin to communicate and interact online, they start to
publish and share poems, prose, fiction, and other genres
of creative writing. Initially, online communication bears
the clear imprints of print culture. The genres, content
categories, and styles of writing in the earliest online
Chinese magazines were still the traditional types
commonly seen in print magazines. The editors, authors,
and readers of the earliest online Chinese magazines and
personal web sites had grown up in the culture of print
magazines and newspapers in 1980s China. The online
publications they produced reflected the imprints of their
socialization in print culture. Existing forms and con-
ventions thus shaped the ways in which they initially
used the Internet.
With growing familiarity with the technology and
with the coming-of-age of a younger generation,
people began to explore the Internet in more
adventurous and more innovative ways, and Internet
literature as a new cultural form entered public
discourse. Popular web sites such as Under the
Banyan Tree (Rongshu xia), studied by Michel Hockx
(2004), appeared and served as channels for publish-
ing new works of Internet literature. Such early works
as The First Intimate Contact (Pizicai 1998) tell love
stories that happen in Internet chatrooms. They begin
to articulate new human experiences and conditions.
For some, Internet writing itself became an essential
condition of existence. One Internet author describes
this new condition in the following terms:
“Writing hands” (xieshou) exist because they
want to write. At the present stage, all attempts
to denigrate or elevate the status of Internet
literature are impractical. Birds sing because
they want to sing, not because people want to
listen to them; flowers blossom because that’s
the way of nature, not because people think they
are pretty. I write therefore I am. There are no
profound reasons…. This is our condition of
existence (Yu Lei 2003).
112 G. Yang
The influential early works of Internet literature
like The First Intimate Contact already contain
elements of new forms such as the frequent use of
English acronyms, user names, emoticons, and the
technical language of the Internet. The sentence I
mentioned above “W 爱 4 Y U” is a typical example
of this new language. It is these new linguistic forms
that give Internet writers the symbolic resources to
challenge the legitimacy of established print writers
serving as judges of Internet literature. One proponent
of Internet literature argues:
I hope that commentators of Internet literature
should have at least three months of experience in
reading Internet literature and discussing Internet
writing. This is the most basic qualification….
Don’t try to impose norms on Internet activities by
using experiences from outside the Internet. You
can discuss what norms to adopt only after you
have become an insider (Yuan Chen 2005).
These new forms develop in interaction with social
and political conditions. The sustained fascination
with communication and expression online in the past
15 years reflects a yearning for social connection in
times of great social transformation. The primarily
single-child families in urban China mean that
China’s younger generation, in its search for identity
and belonging, is compelled to reach out to its peer
members outside of the family more so than any other
earlier generations. No wonder that Chinese cyber-
space is heavily populated by the younger generation.
According to a survey report issued in July 2008 by
the Chinese Internet Network Information Center,
close to 70% of China’s 253 million users are below
the age of 30.
The new cultural forms on the Internet
also reflect the influence of political conditions. Thus
Internet censorship in China inadvertently forces
users to higher levels of linguistic creativity when
people devise new ways of bypassing the filters, such
as by separating characters with hyphens and commas
or by using English acronyms or wholesale romani-
zation. All this shows that media technologies are
essential for the appearance of the new digital cultural
forms, and yet it is people that produce the culture,
and such production is necessarily a historical
Parody in the Age of Digital Production
The second case is about a shockwave flash film,
another new form on the Internet. A shockwave flash
is a digital video file created with Adobe’s Shock-
wave Flash software. These files are small enough to
be easily loadable and viewable online. With their
visual and aural appeal, flash films are a popular part
of Chinese Internet culture. One of the most popular
web sites in China devoted to shockwave flashes is
flashempire.com, which was launched in 1999 and
incorporated in 2003 and now has over one million
registered users.
Flash creators make innovative use
of the technology to produce works on a broad range
of topics. Many are playful, while some touch on
social and political issues such as environmental
problems and nationalism.
One notable feature of flash films is that they often
aim at funny and humorous effects. Parody is a
common technique for achieving such effects. The
best known case of a flash parody is Hu Ge’s 20-min
film called “A Bloody Case Caused by a Steamed
Bun,” which mocks celebrity film director Chen
Kaige’s big-budget film The Promise. The flash film
was circulated widely online and became a national
media event. Chen Kaige, the target of Hu’s short
film, charged Hu of violating copyright laws by using
episodes of his film without permission and threat-
ened to sue Hu. This again made national news.
Public sympathy was overwhelmingly with Hu Ge. In
an online opinion poll conducted by Sohu.com, 93%
of 10,728 votes supported Hu Ge.
People thought
that Chen was over-reacting. Lawyers offered to
defend Hu Ge pro bono. Scholars published articles
debating the legal issues involved. In the middle of
this controversy, Chen and his film crew also came
under attack for causing environmental damages to a
pristine region in Yunnan province where the film was
Why did a mere flash become so popular and
influential? Again, it derives its power from its
cultural form and the human conditions it depicts.
An ingenious aspect of “Steamed Bun” is that it
combines existing cultural forms with new media forms
Accessed November 4, 2008.
http://www.flashempire.com/corp/index.php. Accessed June
18, 2008.
Accessed October 3, 2007.
Internet as cultural form 113
to create the effects of humor and parody. The flash is a
new form of expression. Its ease of production means
that anyone with some basic knowledge of digital media
production can create it. For publication, people can
easily load these files onto their own BBS forums,
blogs, or other popular web sites. Mostly for personal
entertainment, some of the most creative flash works,
like the one created by Hu Ge, may spread widely online
and thus win a big audience.
In addition, a Shockwave flash can mix together
different genres that address or allude to different
social conditions. The “Steamed Bun” thus juxta-
poses cuts from The Promise with familiar imagery
and rhetoric lifted out of everyday life and the
existing cultural repertoire to create both humorous
emotional effects and a story line that alludes to
issues of common concern in China today. For
example, it uses the familiar CCTV program “Rule
of Law Online” (fazhi zaixian) as an organizing
framework. As the flash opens, the anchor of the TV
program announces a murder case: “On a certain day
in a certain month of the year 2005, a mysterious
murder happened in a certain city.” The opening
immediately grabs the audience’s attention because
the anchor is telling a news story in a way that
violates all the conventions of news-telling. He gives
only a vague date and place about a vague murder
Another example is the allusion to Chinese history
and the use of familiar quotations from Mao’s works.
One of the main characters in The Promise is a
general, who often appears as a masked horse-rider.
The character is played by a Japanese actor. In the
flash film, the TV anchor asks: “Who is this
mysterious person?… According to informants, this
horse and this attire belong to Sanada, the director of
the city inspection bureau.”
Sanada is the name of the Japanese actor playing
the general in The Promise. In a voice-over that
alludes to the Japanese invasion of China, the narrator
uses language directly lifted out of Mao’s well-known
essay “In Memory of Norman Bethune:”
Director Sanada is a native of Japan. He is over
fifty years old. In order to express his atonement
to the Chinese people, he threw himself into the
arms of China without hesitation and joined the
cause of the construction of China’s moderniza-
tion. What spirit is this that makes a foreigner
selflessly adopt the cause of the Chinese
people’s liberation as his own? [My emphasis]
The italicized sentence is an exact quote from
Mao’s essay, familiar to most adult TV audience in
China. Using such familiar language out of context
conveys a sense of humor and has the rhetorical effect
of attracting audience by using a cultural repertoire
familiar to the audience.
Besides combining existing cultural resources and
the new forms to create humorous effects, “Steamed
Bun” also addresses contemporary social conditions.
In one sequence of the flash film, two protagonists
from The Promise are shown fighting on top of a
building. The voice-over that follows this sequence
alludes to the common social problem of delayed
payments of wages in China: “According to informa-
tion from insider sources, these two people have not
received their wages for the past months. Therefore
they have climbed up the building to threaten jumping
off it if they do not get paid.”
Another sequence in the flash shows scenes of
Sanada with city inspectors roughing up unlicensed
street peddlers while shouting: “Who lets you set up
street stalls! Who lets you set up street stalls!” Street
peddlers are seen begging for mercy. Produced in
2005, the flash film exposed a serious problem
plaguing Chinese cities—the unbridled corrupt power
and ruthlessness of the notorious city inspectors
(chengguan). Two years later, in January 2008, a
national scandal occurred when city inspectors in
Tianmen city, Hubei Province, beat to death an
innocent passer-by who was trying to photograph
them roughing up villagers (David Barboza 2008).
It is this juxtaposition of old and new forms of
expression and of real-world concerns with the
fantasy world of Chen Kaige’s film that gives Hu
Ge’s flash film its popularity.
By viewing the Chinese Internet as a new cultural
form rather than a bundle of technology, I have shown
that technology influences society when it responds to
human needs, and then only by virtue of technologically
mediated cultural forms. These forms take shape
through social practice involving human intentions and
creativity, including the creativity to appropriate and
114 G. Yang
borrow existing cultural resources and conventions. I
analyzed two such forms–Internet literature and shock-
wave flash films. In each case, the specific form under
study is inseparable from the new Internet technologies,
yet in each case, the formcombines elements of existing
cultural forms and innovative features of the Internet.
Furthermore, each case not only has its innovative
features as form, but also responds to issues of common
social concern. They express the conditions of contem-
porary Chinese society.
Raymond Williams saw “significant correlations
between the relative stability of forms, institutions,
and social systems generally.” He wrote:
Most stable forms, of the kind properly recogniz-
able as collective, belong to social systems which
can also be characterized as relatively collective
and stable. Most mobile, innovative, and experi-
mental forms belong to social systems in which
these new characteristics are evident or even
dominant. Periods of major transition between
social systems are commonly marked by the
emergence of radically new forms, which eventu-
ally settle in and come to be shared. (Williams
1977: 189)
This is not an argument about form reflecting
content but one about the co-evolution and mutual
constitution of contents and forms. The transforma-
tions in contemporary China undoubtedly mark a
period of major historical transition. The new forms
of expression associated with Internet technologies,
indeed the Chinese Internet culture in its entirety, are
related to these transformations. An important future
agenda in the study of the Internet in China is to
illuminate the causes, dynamics, and consequences of
the interactions between the Internet as a cultural form
and the parallel social and political transformations
and to reveal why the Internet may be the emblematic
cultural form of an entire historical epoch.
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