July 15th, 2011
06:48 AM GMT
Beijing (CNN) – The infamous Great Firewall of China sent chills up my spine before I got on the plane for my summer internship here. This abstract and intangible wall was intimidating – something that I could not prepare for in America before leaving for China. I envisioned the Great Firewall to be something like hiking The Great Wall: exhausting and unconquerable.
Like most American college students, I am addicted to my Blackberry: the convenience at sending an e-mail on the go, keeping in touch with my family, and always being in-the-know, thanks to often pointless yet seemingly vital Facebook notifications. I could not fathom blocked internet access.
I am reliant on Facebook as a communication device. My friends and I share a laugh at a picture or make fun of a friend’s overly-philosophical status update via laptops in class, computers at work, or cell phones walking across campus. The thought of missing out scared me.
While Skyping with friends back at home, they brought up a rat that had been evading capture in my best friend’s apartment. When I asked what they were talking about, they innocently replied, “Wait—you didn’t see it on Facebook?”
Granted, I really couldn’t care less that a rodent had taken up residence in my friend’s apartment. But I would have loved nothing more than to join in the banter.
Going out in Beijing is different than New York. American students flock to similar nightlife venues, making the city seem much smaller. And it’s refreshing to know a girl I meet hasn’t had an opportunity to scan through my profile pictures, or recently stalk my wall. Gives me an idea of what the social life of my grandparents must have been like.
Despite my Facebook dependence, the Chinese survive without it. Sure, some inundate Weibo – often called a Chinese version of Twitter – with updates. Others bypass the Great Firewall, using VPNs and proxies to access their blocked Western website of choice.
Regardless of their choice of internet access, there is a huge market here for social networking. Rumors have surfaced that Mark Zuckerberg wants to introduce Facebook to China. The zeal and fervor at which netizens uncover news stories via Weibo and attempt to keep the corrupt honest is admirable. Their addition to Facebook would not be merely numbers, but something more—a mass of active, intelligent people who use social networking for social awareness and change, a substantial movement Americans have yet to see.
Rumors about investment interest in Facebook by China’s sovereign wealth fund have also spread recently. If this is true, it suggests a tone of irony: Facebook is good enough for the country’s government to invest in, but its citizen’s can’t use it?
A month later, I’m surviving. Ok, guilty—I used Facebook maybe three times thanks to access via my roommate’s college VPN. But life without Facebook is not the daunting tribulation I thought it was going to be.
This past month, I hiked the Great Wall (it was incredible) and resolved that that was enough. The Great Firewall was not something to be conquered by me, but should be left up to Chinese netizens to scale.
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