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There is a question coming up from time to time when I introduce my research project to chinese friends and students or western expats living in China, especially when I talk about my interest in the portal websites: Why is it that chinese media websites, especially the portals, look so completely different from western ones? Chinese pages usually are packed to the brim with hundreds of headlines and links, whereas western news sites, even the portals, consistently present much less content, usually with shorter pages and a much spacier layout.

An ad hoc count at the Sohu homepage, done in the evening hours of December 1, found, under a navigation leading to 67 different channels, a total number of nearly 1000 links (forgive me for being not utterly scientific here), most of them headlines, some of them links leading to channels or subchannels. For comparison, Germany’s biggest portal T-Online offers 24 channels, and a number of around 200 links, 50 of which belong to a special subnavigation at the page footer.

There are no teaser texts on the Sohu homepage, just headlines and keywords or category headers, and very few, tiny pictures. Everything is optimized for maximum density, no place spoiled. Even within the boxes you find two to three links in a row. And this is no Sohu-specific feature. Actually all the major portals look alike. Even special interest portals, for example the business and finance site Hexun, look similar.

So this is the challenge: Why do Chinese homepages look so, er, different from western ones?

Not only westerners find this puzzling. When I discussed the matter with a group of graduate students in Wuhan, one of them, He Changhua, sent me an elaborate treatise on the subject. The reasons he gives were good and well argued, basically they amount to the following:

  • Business reason: The portal sites, especially Sina.com, rely heavily on advertisement. Fully packed homepages allow for more advertisement and increase the probability that people stay longer on the page and click on these advertisements;
  • Technology and history reason: Limited bandwidth and slow computers in the early stages of chinese Internet made it necessary to put as much content as possible on the first page;
  • Custom reason: Sina has been the most important portal for quite some time. It simply defined the chinese state of the art, everybody else got used to it and copied Sina’s style.

But apart from the last reason, He’s arguments have a simple weakness: they would equally apply to western websites. So we’ll have to look somewhere else. After a little research I found out that the topic had already been discussed in some expat weblogs.

The Blogs

The first entry that I found, by Lyn Jeffery and dating from March 2006, refers to a 2004 research paper by a german colleague of mine, Jürgen Bucher from the University of Trier. Bucher observes that chinese websites have a flatter hierarchy (an observation I would question, at least with respect to the current situation) and talks about an “aesthetics of abundance” which he traces back to chinese popular culture. Bucher points to the fact that this aesthetics is traditionally associated with happiness and wealth. Another argument of his rests on the fact that chinese writing can have a horizontal and a vertical orientation, but I have to say that I don’t quite understand its significance for our question.

The next contributor to the discussion is David Churbuck, a former IDG employee who dryly notices that the chinese IDG websites “were kicking ass in terms of traffic and money and not spending a lot of time worrying about eye-tracking, heat maps, golden triangles, and audience development.” For the principles of chinese webdesign, the author introduces a term coined by Steve Gillmor: the “Las Vegas” approach to web publishing – a true enough description of the graphical elements of many of the portal pages, but not really suiting to the density question. A reference to the Bucher paper. Any further explanations? No, not really.

Contributor No. 3 Stian Haklev also mostly notices the fact of the cultural differences between chinese and western news sites – and quotes the now very familiar Bucher.

Some fresh wind enters the discussion with a blog entry by Tom Melcher dating from May 2008. Fortunately, Melcher has not read Bucher. He basically introduces one new argument: Chinese web advertisement is still sold mostly not on a CPM (cost per thousand customer contacts), but on a time-based model. So it might be beneficial to have a bigger homepage providing space for more advertisement. Melcher also points out that the ‘density phenomenon’ does not apply to chinese newspapers, as might be expected if the underlying reasons are of a broader cultural nature (pace Bucher… :-)).

Melcher’s article has triggered a very interesting discussion with dozens of comments, some of them by prominent bloggers like Fons Tuinstra, Paul Denlinger, Kaiser Kuo and Tangos Chan. Let’s take a look:

The Melcher Discussion

  • Tuinstra mentions a possible generation gap: young people who are not used to reading newspapers any more might be more flexible in adapting new reading habits. But is it really true that the users of chinese portal sites are younger in average than their western counterparts? Will have to follow up on that.
  • Denlinger guesses that the chinese portal providers “still have to accomodate many new users, and they are not comfortable clicking through to new pages or inputting Chinese into search boxes. Instead, they prefer to click directly on text links of what they want to read. This forces as much content as possible up to the top-level of the major websites.” So density is upheld for the sake of beginners?
  • Kaiser Kuo relates a discussion putting web density into the context of the chinese retail experience: “Chinese shoppers want abundance, things falling off the shells and piled up in the aisles. It makes it feel like there’s a sale on.” This type of argument pops up again in the discussion, user C. Maoxian for example points to the chinese love of renao (热闹). Zhang Weiwu argues that the chinese people generally value complexity over simplicity.
  • A user called “cerebus” gives a rather funny reason: “My theory is that one reason for the clutter is that there isn’t a culture of consumer complaints in China: no proper feedback mechanism. So although people might find it annoying, they’ll be hard-pressed to actually complain.” Another user correctly objects that chinese web professionals take user experience very seriously.
  • Like He Changhua above, Robert Ness traces the density phenomenon to the role model of Sina as one of the early big Internet success stories in China. But why has the dense Sina portal been so successful? The argument, like many others, smells of circularity to me.

The Scarcity Argument

Among the many ideas in the Melcher discussion there is actually only one that I find really interesting. Björn Stabell makes the following point: “When scarcity is the norm, complexity seems valuable.” He applies this only to (visual) design. But actually, taken in a wider sense, this could be a key to the whole issue. The chinese audience has been living for years with a broad, but hugely monotone, state- and party-controlled media environment. By aggregating items from a huge variety of sources the big web portals have basically introduced a new media paradigm and have given the chinese media audience access to a completely new experience: the experience of an immediate wealth of resources, and of choice.

The potential of this is still not completely cashed in, in terms of really free media and a variety of opinions, but it is by no accident that we are talking about online media here, because it’s the Internet that has given rise to a new, uncontrollable variety of points of view into the chinese public sphere, and has such seriously undermined the monotony of traditional chinese media. My guess is: The web portals have become a condensed, inverse picture of this development. The density of the chinese portal homepages mirrors the labyrinthine nature of the Internet itself and is such taken to be a promise of a riches of media yet unknown. “When scarcity is the norm, complexity seems valuable.”

Postscript: I forgot to give two other relevant links:

10 Responses to ““When scarcity is the norm, complexity seems valuable.””

  1. As the former IDG employee you cite, I also pointed out, as echoed by Kaiser, the notion of “abundance” versus the western/Japanese ideal of “less is more” (ipod, Google home page). As Kaiser and others have noted — white space is “dead space” to Chinese culture. Westerners prize spare, unadorned designs — but in the end, there is not accounting for taste and, you neglect to mention the very different ad model in China which is time based and closely resembles the way radio is bought and sold in the US.

  2. Thanks, David, for your comment. As to your criticism: Actually, I mention both points. The “abundance” principle in the context of Bucher’s study, where it belongs, and the ad price model where it is firstly used in an argument with respect to the density phenomenon, namely in Melcher’s article. Sorry if my summary of your posting sounded a little snappy, it was not intended to be. I am mostly impressed by the basic perplexity that I sense in the whole discussion – which I share, actually. My attempt for an explanation is as much a guess as anybody’s.

  3. O yes, the Chinese internet users are very young and for a while (not followed it the past few years that closely) the average age has been dropping as middle school students moved into the internet.

  4. Yike says:

    speaks to my heart. Start to feel intimidating to write this topic.

  5. No, Yike, it’s meant to be encouraging more than intimidating. You see that there is a lot to do on this subject. So far we have mostly guesses (I have yet to read the study in the last link). Would be great if young scholars like you follow up on that. I would just widen the scope of inquiry a little. BTW, can you contribute some chinese perspective? Your own view, or that of other experts?

  6. ann says:
    1. Give me any example in the world that can be comparable to the portal websites in China? Yes, it is very unique. Front pages visits counts for the most significant part of all the visits. This is cultural habit: everybody does it, I have to do it, too. Chinese love for intensity and density. Simplicity means deprivation to them, which is not favorable.

    2. portal website need to squeeze in more advertisement.

    3. Many Chinese users are still low-level users. They don’t even know, or don’t like pressing “back” button. FT Chinese tried the simple rule, and now they have to adopt pop-up windows for each link, too. Any effort to reduce the links on the front page simply means you will lose a bunch of users.

  7. @Fons Tuinstra: Of course, I know that chinese Internet users are very young. But that nearly equally applied or still applies to western users, especially of most big portals. Again, we don’t have a really distinguishing feature.

    After looking again at the Sohu homepage, another idea came to my mind, from a former web editor’s perspective: chinese characters allow for a much better scaling of headline length. This way it is possible to fit a lot of headlines very precisely into these boxes and thus provide the special, homogeneous visual appeal of the portal’s homepage. Trying to achieve the same effect with western writing would simply be a nightmare. Maybe the chinese way of writing plays a certain role, after all.

    @ann: Apart from the cultural part of your first argument which simply restates the phenomenon instead of explaining it, all other reasons are valid for western portals as well: homepage views are the most important, you want to squeeze in as much ads as possible, there are many inexperienced users.

    So, looking at the FT experience, maybe the consequence is that in the end western content providers should simply try to follow the chinese model and win a bunch of new users that way. :-)

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