Chinese New Year dominated all my social media recently, and perhaps the most interesting thing was BaiDu’s interactive, near real-time travel map. Based on the movements of 200 million mobile-phone map app users, it shows a snapshot of the country as a whole:
I’ve tried to figure out the features of this map, but the Chinese is, as is often the case, impenetrable. In this case though, Western news media and bloggers helped. Still–there are tantalizingly few details. 200 million users and multiple location pings per day. I got that. Tracking people along established corridors. I got that. But is it tracking people doing check-ins at the train stations and airports, or is it purely from pings? Are the train routes so segregated that BaiDu just assumed people moving on a corridor from, say, Beijing to Wuhan are all getting off in Wuhan? That works for the non-stop overnight fast trains, but what about the locals? There are a bazillion small towns along the way, Baidu suspiciously seems to leave them off.
The Wuhan detail is more confusing. It’s ‘heat movement into the city,’ but what do those percentages mean? On-time arrivals? The ratio of people coming in versus people going out? Switching the view to ‘heat movement out of the city’ does not illuminate.
Damn my language skills.
Our friends in China are increasingly connected to each other, but the barriers of time zones and language make it difficult to communicate cross-culturally. I often wonder what my students are up to. RenRen is an impenetrable pit of slang and emoji. Yes, I see your music video, but how is your life? Who are you with this holiday? Tricia’s research shows that young people present different faces online depending on the platform–and no matter what, for most of my friends I cannot escape the role of teacher or occasional visitor. Without a view into my friends’ Douban, Weibo, WeChat and RenRen; without being on the ground and observing directly what people are doing; what hope do I have of seeing anything approaching a complete picture of what’s going on?
And without somehow gaining a bit of fluency and literacy, the picture I can draw of how the internet affects the landscape will remain as vague as the Spring Festival map–intriguing to look at, but vague in its details.