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Facebook tries to climb the great firewall of China

WHEN a screenshot of Facebook Lite was leaked earlier this week, the blogosphere went crazy, proving that Web 2.0 scribblers have a silly season too. Most bloggers were convinced the slimmed-down version of the social network was an attempt to take on Twitter, something Facebook emphatically denies. <br /><br />Instead, it forms part of the firm&rsquo;s attempt to break into emerging markets. The problem with Facebook is that it has ballooned in line with the ego of its 25-year old founder Mark Zuckerberg. It is just as hungry for bandwidth as Zuckerberg is for riches and success, which means it doesn&rsquo;t run smoothly on the dial-up or mobile broadband connections that are ubiquitous in places like China and India. <br /><br />Yesterday, online music streaming site Spotify also announced its intentions to launch in China. The ad- and subscription-funded service is teaming up with Tom Group, the media arm of Hutchison Whampoa to launch in the mainland. <br /><br />It&rsquo;s little wonder that firms like Facebook and Spotify want to break into China. According to the China Internet Network Information Centre, there were 338m internet users in the country in July, overtaking the US as the world&rsquo;s biggest web user. But few firms have succeeded.<br /><br />As early as 2003, eBay tried to make inroads by buying China&rsquo;s biggest online auction site, Eachnet.com, for $170m, giving it an 80 per cent share of the country&rsquo;s online auction market. By the end of 2006, its share halved and it was forced to close the loss-making operation. <br /><br />Nor have Facebook&rsquo;s existing efforts been that fruitful; according to the Xinhua news agency, it has just 280,000 users in China. <br /><br />Spotify and Facebook Lite are sure to have similar problems, especially when it comes to taking on established players like QQ.com, China&rsquo;s most popular site with 375m registered users. <br /><br />Chinese translations of English-language sites don&rsquo;t work because of the huge cultural difference in the way China&rsquo;s citizens use the internet. There, website design doesn&rsquo;t adhere to Western tenets, with the most popular sites featuring cluttered pages crammed full of text and flashing icons (although many would argue that Facebook itself is going down this route). <br /><br />The internet in China is also an essentially escapist experience. Thanks to the one child rule, many users start playing multiplayer games online at an early age, and &ndash; in a nod to the country&rsquo;s authoritarian regime &ndash; prefer to be represented by virtual avatars than their true identities. <br /><br />Lite version or not, Facebook will be sure to find that scaling the great firewall of China proves far harder than it bargained for.