Internet & Tech


Zuckerberg’s Instagram deal has Chinese angle


Mark Zuckerberg likes a mission. Hence his promise that Facebook will make the world ‘more open and connected’; or consider his personal dietary rules: the only meat he’ll eat is “from animals I’ve killed myself”.

Another challenge the billionaire has set himself is to study Mandarin for an hour a day. Despite that, China has remained out of reach for Facebook. Instead, local social networks dominate, like Renren and Qzone.

But some say the recent purchase of Instagram, the photo-sharing application, could help Facebook gain back-door entry into the country.

If it does, the $1 billion purchase in cash and stock could prove to be a real bargain. That’s because unlike Facebook, Instagram is freely accessible in China. The mobile application has a Chinese version which is already working with Sina Weibo, the hugely popular microblogging site, to encourage users to post photos in their weibo feeds.

So far Instagram hasn’t been involved in any controversies in China nor acted as a catalyst for mobilising public sentiment, as Facebook has done in so many countries worldwide. Staying small has probably kept Instagram off the radar screens of the internet regulators. Take-up hasn’t been massive so far, although that may start to change now that Instagram is available on Android, which has a much larger following in the Chinese market.

Its remit has been a visual one, judging from the pictures posted by Chinese users (mainly of cityscapes, architectural oddities and the sort of water-and-bridge scenes typical to classical Chinese art).

That leads some analysts to question what would happen if photos started to appear on Instagram that annoy Beijing.

One comparison being drawn is with YouTube, which was blocked after the uploading of content said to offend the local authorities.

But fundamentally, Instagram is still a social networking tool. The application has thrived by allowing people to share images, tag them by location, and then search for other images in areas of shared interest. In that sense, it’s the Facebook approach to photos, says the New Yorker magazine.

Of course, Instagram will rely on its partnership with Sina to avoid situations that could antagonise the authorities. It probably doesn’t bode well that Picasa, a picture-sharing site provided by Google, has been blocked in China for a while. Flickr, another online photo album service provided by Yahoo, is said to be prone to connection disruptions.

No wonder that the Wall Street Journal was reporting one Chinese internet user on the different motivations of the big players on the internet: “Google: I will buy anybody who’s got a bright future. Facebook: I will buy anybody who’s got platforms. China: I will block anybody you buy.”

Yet Instagram claims not to be too worried about censorship. When asked about what he would do if his app is blocked, Kevin Systrom, chief executive of Instagram admitted that he hadn’t thought a lot about it. “It’s definitely a challenge to work well overseas, because you have to play by different rules, and I think it’s up to the company… to decide whether or not you want to play by those rules,” he told TechCrunch, a tech blog, in November.

“I wouldn’t claim to necessarily understand all of them just yet.”

Even if Instagram continues to operate in China, the app is going to face some serious competition. There are already a host of clones like TuDing and Baidu’s MoTu. Tencent, too, launched its photo sharing app QPai last year. Like Instagram and many similar Chinese products, QPai users can snap photos, choose filters to process their images, and then share them with a single click. If only things were so easy in China for Zuckerberg’s Facebook.

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