Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Mr. Hu, tear down this wall!

On a day in which China has taken further steps to block social networking applications, I think it appropriate to explain why I use Twitter, and why China is doing itself a disservice by blocking these applications.

Twitter is one of those applications that people either love or simply don't understand. I've found few people who remain on the fence about Twitter for long. When I first tried it, I did so because Business Week was raving about it, and I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. After playing with it for a few minutes, I failed to get the point and didn't touch it again for about eight months.

Fast forward to now, and though I'm certainly not the most active of Twitter users, I follow nearly 300 people, most of whom are interested in topics about which I am most passionate: China, the automotive industry, finance and alternative energy.

Some Twitter users like to follow as many people as they possibly can, and I think that's great if that is how they get the most out of Twitter. I prefer to follow a smaller group, all of whom I feel, in some way, make me a smarter person. I may not necessarily agree with all of them all of the time -- in fact, I often disagree -- but they make me think harder about what I believe, and that, to me, is what any friend should do.

Many people like to make fun of the fact that people on Twitter often tweet about the most mundane details of their lives. And I will admit that I also occasionally tweet about what I had for lunch, or a particularly bad customer service experience. In this respect Twitter is actually a mirror of our real-life, every day conversations, but the beauty of Twitter, is that it is a 24-hour-a-day, nonstop conversation among people scattered all over the world. When you have time, you jump in the stream.

We all have friends whom we admire because we find them to be smart or clever or funny, but when you think about it most of your conversations with them do in fact consist of the mundane. The reason we keep hanging around them is for their gems of wit and wisdom. We listen to the mundane, not because it's necessarily interesting, but because it gives us a sense of who that person is -- the real person behind the wit and wisdom. This is why I follow people on Twitter.

Twitter is like a virtual water cooler conversation, except that, unlike at work, you get to pick those with whom you stand around the water cooler. And I can say without a doubt that, having been an avid user of Twitter for nearly a year, I have a broader perspective than before. I have considered ideas I would have never considered before. I have met more than 20 of my Twitter acquaintances in real life, and quite a few of my virtual Twitter relationships have led me to many valuable resources for my dissertation research.

Twitter is like a big university campus for me. While it's hard to point to a particular class you attended, or a particular interpersonal interaction you had that contributed to your betterment, after four (or five, or six...) years on campus, you know that you're better for it. And indeed you are.

And this is where China is missing out. China's leaders are so paranoid about their lack of legitimacy that they are depriving their people of a fantastic tool for innovation. Rather than taking steps to legitimize their leadership they instead try to prevent their people from being able to discuss it.

Yes, China does have a few Twitter-like clones, and I think a few of them may actually still be in operation, but what these clones don't have that Twitter does have is a world-wide following. I am very thankful that at least a handful of Chinese go to the trouble of circumventing the "great firewall" in order to join in the global conversation. And when they aren't tweeting about the inconvenience of getting around the blocks, their perspectives are very valuable for me as a non-Chinese who wants very much to improve his understanding of China.

If China's leaders insist upon keeping themselves walled off from the rest of the world, they will always find themselves playing catch-up in terms of innovation.

As for me, I will pay whatever I have to in order to keep the information flow turned on. This world needs people who aren't afraid to have their beliefs challenged, people who aren't afraid of the truth. I hope my friends, and my followers on Twitter, will think of me as that kind of person.