A letter from Twitter from 2007

I first signed up for Twitter for Danwei, then at Danwei.org, in 2007. My first tweet was:

following twitter.com/zuola

Zuola is a blogger, citizen journalist and Internet gadfly whom I knew from the Chinese blogger conferences that ran annually in the fall from 2005 to 2009, and he was one the people who convinced me to join Twitter, even though at the time I was appalled by the idea of a service that only let you exchange soundbite length sentences.

Back then, Twitter used to send emails to its users. All the emails I received seemed to have been personally written and sent by one of the Twitter founders, Biz Stone. I remember receiving these emails and thinking, to myself: Biz Stone? What the hell kind of name is that? What a dork! And he addressed the email to Twitter-ers? What a dork! What a dorky service. This will never go anywhere

With Twitter about to IPO and Biz Stone set to become a gazillionaire, it is now fitting to ask: Who is the dork eh?

Below is the earliest email from Twitter I could dredge up from my archives. Two things strike me:

Firstly, the decision to abandon the idea of ‘friends’ in favor of ‘followers’. This has become one of the reasons why Twitter is such a strong network: you can follow and interact with people who have the same interests as you without any need to pretend to be friends or use the vocabulary of friendship.

Secondly, it is apparent from this email that the verb to tweet had not yet become common. Biz Stone addresses the email to “Twitter-ers”, whereas today he might say “Tweeters” although actual emails from Twitter these days usually just greet you with your user name, rather than a salutation. In other words, I get emails that says: “Goldkorn, here is news from Twitter….” and none of them are signed by a person.

Anyhow, here is the old email from Biz Stone:

From: Biz Stone news@twitter.com
Date: Mon, Jul 30, 2007 at 12:32 PM
Subject: Twitter Has Big News

Hello Twitter-ers!

Lots of big news at Twitter Headquarters last week. We’ve recently announced the closing of our financing with Union Square Ventures, Charles River Ventures, and some angel investors including Marc Andreessen, Dick Costolo, Ron Conway, and Naval Ravikant. We’re honored to have investors that we look up to and are inspired by. We’re looking forward to adding even more momentum, hiring more engineers, and building a sustainable company. Come on by and visit us: http://twitter.com

Friends, Followers and Notifications

Folks have noted that there’s too much overlap and confusion between “friend” and “follow.” As Twitter has evolved, these two concepts have emerged in parallel and clouded things up. So, in the spirit of simplification, we are no longer going to define people as your “friends.” The functionality of adding people remains, but the interaction is focused on the term “follow” instead. We’ve also added a “notifications” toggle which allows you to turn on updates via SMS or IM on a person-by-person basis.

More about this change: http://tinyurl.com/2f9rcp

Entertain Yourself

The Wall Street Journal recently took note of Hollywood’s experimentation with Twitter. They cited some of our work with MTV, FOX, and CBS. Next week, the actor who plays Cappie on ABC Family’s new series, “Greek,” is going to be Twittering and encouraging viewers to do the same during Monday night’s episode.

Follow Greekshow: http://twitter.com/greekshow
WSJ: http://tinyurl.com/ytm65r

There’s also some folks who’ve been twittering from comic-con, the big comic book convention in San Diego, California. Check out Agent M from the folks behind the scenes at Marvel Entertainment and actor/writer Wil Wheaton on Twitter for a little peek into the comic book industry’s biggest shindig.

Agent M: http://twitter.com/agent_m
Wil Wheaton: http://twitter.com/wilw

Congratulations Ev and Sara!

Twitter co-founder and chairman Evan Williams was married over the weekend to the lovely Sara Morishige. My toast at the rehearsal dinner was mercifully short, in true Twitter fashion. The event was well Twittered, as you might imagine. It’s not as easy as you think to text and dance simultaneously. Congrats to Ev and Sara!

Happy Twittering,
Biz Stone and the Twitter Team

Will China Internet controls relax after 18th Party Congress?

The answer is no.

Shortly after the end of China’s 18th Communist Party Congress that saw Xi Jinping annointed as President and Chairman, several Western media organizations reported on a loosening of Internet censorship. It seems rather crazy at the time, as it coincided with the worst squeeze on Great Firewall busting VPN services that I have ever experienced here.

This week, a series of articles in the state press and apparent leaked propaganda government directives make it clear that we cannot expect a relaxation of Internet controls anytime soon. See below for just a few samples:

The People’s Daily: The Internet must be managed according to the law 网络需要依法运行

China Media Project: People’s Daily: be good online, please
Translation and commentary on People’s Daily front page commentary “The Internet is Not Outside the Law” (网络不是法外之地)

The Global Times: Freedom not at odds with online regulation

China Central Government website: General Administration of Press and Publications solicts opinions on draft regulations on Internet publishing services 新闻出版总署关于《网络出版服务管理办法》

Sohu: Trade and commercial departments to intensify supervision and clean up online market 工商部门将加大监管力度净化网络市场

China Digital Times, Directives from the Central Propaganda Department:

Ministry of Truth: Net Safety and the Safety Net
In the near future, Xinhua News Agency, People’s Daily, and other central media outlets will successively report typical cases of threats to Internet safety and infringement on citizens’ personal information. All media and websites are kindly asked to republish these documents in their entirety. Do not modify titles or content. Do not voluntarily collect reports and commentary related to Internet safety management, especially those voices which challenge Internet safety management. (December 19, 2012)

Some links above via the excellent Sinocism daily newsletter.

The price of breakneck development?

One of Beijing’s better maintained canals (near Dongzhimen) after the July flood – no damage here.

The mayor and vice mayor of Beijing resigned this morning, after flooding caused by torrential rains killed 37 people in the city and its outskirts on July 21. Here is the People Daily’s report on it, carried by news portal Sina.com: Mayor Guo Jinlong and Vice Mayor Ji Lin resign(in Chinese).

Rumors on the Chinese Internet today say the real death toll from the floods is much higher than the official count of 37.

McClatchy Newspapers reporter Tom Lasseter filed an article, published in several American newspapers, about the death toll of the floods, and popular questioning of the government response to this and other disasters. The article covers a range of opinions, although most of them tend to back up the idea that the flood has decreased trust in the government; that includes me, I am quoted on the subject of the Internet adding to public misgivings about the leaders.

Funnily enough, the headline chosen for the article, at least the headline chosen by the Lexington Herald-Leader, insinuates a much more perilous situation for the government in China than I believe exists, and is completely opposite to what the article quotes me as saying:

My quote: “Living in China has always meant having to learn to tolerate a certain amount of mendacity on the part of the government. This is nothing new.”

Lexington Herald-Leader headline “Doubts about death toll from Beijing-area rain fuel new suspicions about China’s leaders.”

I really don’t believe there are any new suspicions that have been caused by the deadly effects of the storm. Public cynicism is well entrenched. Although there are angry voices on the Internet complaining about the government’s handling of the flood and its causes, there seems — to me at least — to be much less anger at the government than there was last year after the Wenzhou high speed train crash, which had a similar death toll (around 40 in Wenzhou, depending on whose numbers you believe).

One reason for the lower levels of outrage may be that the flood was caused by an observable natural phenomenon — anyone in Beijing on July 21 will have seen and probably been soaked by the torrential rains. There may have been underinvestment in rainwater drainage systems, but this is perhaps understandable in a city as dry as Beijing — sitting on the edge of northern deserts and with no river running through it.

Personally, I don’t see how such disasters can be avoided if China’s continues it breakneck urban development. Beijing had a population of around ten million people and almost no private cars in 1990. There are now around twenty million people, maybe more, in the greater Beijing area, and they are all driving around on brand new roads, lined by brand new skyscrapers as well as shoddily constructed buildings that are just biding their time before demolition. Despite the economic gloom of the last two years, construction continues apace in Beijing. It’s just too fast for it all to be safe.

I do not expect the disaster of the 2012 Beijing flood to be investigated thoroughly. After all there has not yet been an open, public investigation of the Wenzhou high speed train crash. The best outcome that a realist could hope for is that the Beijing government puts its considerable energy and resources behind the following:

1. Fixing up the drainage systems and other waterworks
This includes the sadly neglected system of canals and moats, some parts of which date back to the Yuan dynasty. Most of these canals are currently stinking creeks that do not appear to be integrated with the city’s rain water drainage system.

Worth noting, from The Shanghai Daily:

Beijing Drainage Group blames planners for flooding

Xinhua said it was embarrassing that many ancient drainage systems still worked and that cities had to rely on these “antiques” to resist the floods.

In a royal palace near the capital’s Beihai Park, the roads were never submerged under waist-deep water thanks to drainage systems built in the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties.

Nine wells inside the palace collect the rain and link to an underground river which surrounds the palace and flows to the then city moat. In addition, the paving was laid in such a way that rainfall could easily find its way into the soil beneath, Xinhua said.

Many other historic places, including Tian’anmen Square and the Temple of Heaven, have the similar system and weren’t submerged.

Below is a photo of one of Beijing’s old canals, the day after the storm. Note the complete lack of flood damage.

2. Attention to other disasters that could befall Beijing, especially earthquake
A rain storm that lasted less than 24 hours killed 37 or more people in the capital of the world’s aspiring number one. That is not a good portent for what would happen if a serious earthquake struck the city.

One wonders what plans the city fathers have for such an emergency.

More on the flood and Chinese media reactions to it on Danwei: The Beijing deluge.

Feedback from Danwei readership

The Beijing-based photographer Jonah Kessel is a friend of mine. He also built the current Danwei.com website, and is a regular contributor, see for example:

Photos of northern Yunnan
Tricycle water calligraphy
What do people buy from corner stores in China?
• Series of videos on traditional Chinese musical instruments: erhu, zhongruan, pipa, Chinese drums and dizi, guzheng

I would say that the nature of our collaboration is rather obvious if looking at any of the above. If that is not enough, every page on Danwei.com also notes the following: “Many of the videos and images on this site are by Jonah Kessel, a photographer and filmmaker based in Beijing.” In other words, Jonah is major contributor to the site.

Anyhow, today I received the following email which made me laugh out loud. Jonah received a similar message.

From:Nomen Nescio nobody@dizum.com

Dear Mr. Goldkorn,

As a closeted homosexual expat in Beijing, I just wanted to say that your relationship with Jonah M. Kessel is very inspiring. I think it’s sweet how you are always promoting him on your Danwei website. You are both an inspiration to me and other gay foreigners in China, and I hope someday I can be as brave and open about my boyfriends as you two are. Thank you!

Got to love the Internet. Mr Nomen Nescio is probably an under-employed photographer.

Why the government is paralyzed in the face of riots in Xintang

Xintang riots - photos from Weibo
Xintang riots - photos from Weibo

This has been a violent weekend in China with a bombing at a government building in Tianjin, and riots in Xintang near Guangzhou and Lichuan in Hubei (see New York Times report).

Both riots were caused by anger with local governments. The riot in Xintang apparently started after a dispute between migrant street vendors and local security guards, who like chengguan, are often just hired thugs who do the bidding of local governments and real estate developers or businessmen.

Chinese Internet users on Weibo have been sharing photos of the riots in Xintang an Lichuan, often without text annotation to make it more difficult for the web censors to find and delete the offending materials. But the Chinese news media has been almost completely silent about both riots.

Blogger and net freedom activist Wen Yunchao a.k.a Bei Feng commented on Twitter (in translation):

The Xintang affair: Some people have asked why don’t they let the media investigate openly, and find out the truth so as to appease public indignation. 

But behind a security guard (hired thug) is a policeman or a village official. Behind the policeman or village official is their superior, who also has a superior — a chain of interest groups that makes it really difficult to touch any one of them. 

The case of Yang Jia was a notable example: The only way to have any effect on that chain of interest groups is with a huge sacrifice.