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Shaking “California”:
Weixin, Cosplay, and the Solipsism of Chinese Identity Online

 
Wagner James Au

 

© 2013 Chen Zhou

In Chen Zhou’s beautifully hushed “Superman-California Dream”, a lonely cosplayer receives an unexpected West Coast call on his iPhone. Before his mobile rings, however, we see him idly toying with an odd app which seems to involve phone shaking followed by randomly appearing faces. Chinese viewers of the short film (which was, of course, also shot on an iPhone) will instantly recognize this application, but it likely needs a short introduction for Western viewers who may miss its relevance to Chen’s film, or for that matter, contemporary China’s relationship to the Internet, virtual identity, and online connectivity.

Known in China as Weixin (literally, “micro message”), the app is a cross-platform mobile communication product from Tencent, the Chinese Internet giant. As of Fall 2013, the service boasts some 400 million registered users, largely across China. While its primary purpose is to turn mobile text and voice chat into a socially networked communication experience, it also includes a whimsical feature called the “Shake”. With it, a Weixin user need only shake their phone, and the service will randomly display on the screen another Weixin user who is simultaneously using the Shake function, listing as well the distance at which the two Shakers are geographically removed from each other. (Due to its popularity, Weixin users may find themselves in a Shake interaction with another user a few meters or several thousand miles away.) Each person doing the Shake then has the option to glimpse the other user’s Weixin user profile, and offer to connect together on the system’s social network.

© 2013 Chen Zhou

Thanks in part to the anonymous connectivity of this feature, many or most Weixin user names are pseudonymous, attached to profile photos that are fanciful and highly stylized, resembling pop stars. About as often, Weixin profiles depict their owners as anime cartoons, or grandiose avatars drawn from online roleplaying games that are also very popular in China, much of them inspired by Western comics and fantasy novels. To Shake is to literally wave the most virtual of human connections out of thin air.

When this technological context is understood, the layers of meaning embedded in “Superman-California Dream” become even more keen. Its cosplaying superhero is not  necessarily a sole, roof-dwelling eccentric, but an embodiment of socially networked China. Much like Chen Zhou’s cosplayer, roleplaying an American superhero in his comically bespoke outfit, hundreds of millions of Chinese invest enormous personal and emotional energy in their pseudonymous online identities, disguising their everyday selves in outlandish personae, pouring into them emotional and socio-political longings that are largely forbidden in offline China.

It may seem ironic that Chen Zhou’s cosplayer seeks to imitate such an American archetype as Superman, but that irony is probably lost on China’s youth, who accept Hollywood movies as integral to their everyday culture. (For a generation seemingly shorn from both its Confucian and Maoist past, international icons are readily embraced without much worry over their historical baggage.) In any case, Hollywood’s superheroes are increasingly looking toward China for help. (The latest installment of Iron Man included several scenes set in China featuring local stars, all to pander to the large Chinese market and its government overseers.) More poignant is the fact that our hero, after spending so much time randomly connecting with strangers on Weixin, is unable to connect with a truly random stranger accidentally calling from California. Evidently, when serendipity can be artificially programmed into a mobile app, true serendipity becomes alien and intrusive.

© 2013 Chen Zhou

Weixin is quickly making inroads beyond China’s borders, partly impelled by the inherent appeal of cross-platform communication and the serendipity of the Shake, but also by TenCent’s aggressive marketing budget. In the US and the rest of the English-speaking world, Weixin is known as WeChat, and is steadily gaining users throughout Southeast Asia, but also South America, Europe, and even North America. (In August 2013, Tencent announced WeChat had surpassed 100 million registered users outside China.) Some technology experts believe Weixin will be the first Chinese-made social network service to gain broad acceptance in the West. And while Chinese rely on avatar-based identity and social network connectivity to fulfill psychic needs aggravated by the rigidity and freneticism of their offline lines, Americans just as desperately depend on these mediums to soothe socially unmet needs of their own. All of which propels us toward a moment not too far in our future, when lonely Californians will while away their nights looking Eastward from the coastline, waving their smartphones across the darkening sky, until something like a personal connection appears.

 

About Wagner James Au:

Wagner James Au is the author of The Making of Second Life (HarperCollins) among other works, and has frequently written about the intersection of the arts and technology for Wired, Salon, and for his blog New World Notes (nwn.blogs.com). He was a contributor to Cao Fei's RMB City installation in Second Life. His next book will explore China's startup culture and it's emerging role in the global economy.