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October 27, 2004

'Unknown Space' - bookofjoe's back door into China's virtual space?


What's Unknown Space?

Never heard of it until I read yesterday's Wall Street Journal article by Li Yuan.

It's a website for the hundreds of thousands of Chinese professionals and students scattered throughout the U.S.

It's a virtual family-counseling and advice center for the increasing numbers of Chinese immigrants trying to navigate a very different way of life in the U.S.

An estimated 300,000 users, most college educated, visit the site every month.

There are over 300 forums on the site - which is mostly in Chinese, to my chagrin.

A small group of users write in Chinglish - a combination of Chinese and English.

I don't do that either, but maybe I best hire a tutor to get me up to speed so I can get on this site, post a few times, and open the portals of bookofjoe to a quarter of the Earth's people, so far unable to join the joehead movement.

Unknown Space is already making money: over 20,000 people have registered for their online dating service at $14.95 a month.

Do the math: that's $300,000 a month.

FunFact: my first-ever girlfriend was Chinese. It happened at the beginning of my freshman year at UCLA. I fell madly in love. Nancy, you were the best or, as people now might say, DA BOM.

Here's the Wall Street Journal story.


Web Site Helps Chinese in U.S. Navigate Life

"How can I tell my father, who is coming to visit us soon, not to smoke in my apartment because my wife doesn't like it?"

The question is typical of the hundreds posted every day on www.mitbbs.com, a Web site popular among the hundreds of thousands of Chinese students and professionals scattered throughout the U.S.

Within hours, dozens of fellow Web users offered their advice, and one stood out as both workable and diplomatic: "Tell him that you signed a nonsmoking lease. If you violated the rule, you would not be able to take your deposit back. No Chinese parents will take the risk of losing hundreds of dollars."

Such savvy advice is exactly why use of the site, known as Unknown Space LLC, is soaring.

The online billboard started in 1998 as a place where Chinese students at American universities could post questions about how to write computer programs - and talk about Chinese politics without fearing a government crackdown.

It has since evolved into a virtual family-counseling service for the increasing numbers of Chinese immigrants who are trying to navigate a very different life in the U.S.

An estimated 300,000 users, most of whom are college educated, visit the site every month.

Caught between two cultures, the users of the Web site often find they get the best advice on adapting to U.S. life from each other.

In the 300-plus forums hosted by the site, users want to know how to apply for green cards - proof of permanent residency - and citizenship; how to deal with difficult bosses and colleagues; where to find the cheapest car insurance; and whether democracy will work in China.

Web sites founded and frequented by immigrants are flourishing in the U.S. because they help these groups to adapt to a new environment, says Ram Mahalingam, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Michigan.

"Remember, there used to be about 750 German-language newspapers in the U.S. in 1900. It's all about communication."

Zhou Shiyi is a typical user of Unknown Space.

After graduating in 1998 from the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, Mr. Zhou worked for MCI Inc., Sprint Corp. and Trilogy, a technology-consulting firm in Austin, Texas. He was often one of very few Chinese in his office.

"I couldn't even find people to gossip with," he says.

He tried to participate in discussions on the bulletin boards on CNN.com and ESPN.com, mostly on topics concerning China. Even so, he found it hard to be spontaneous.

"I would have to think whether I was using the appropriate words and terms. By the time I finished my posting, the topic had often changed," said Mr. Zhou, now a business-school student at Georgetown University in Washington.

He got turned on to Unknown Space when he first moved to Washington and was looking for recommendations for good Chinese restaurants.

Most of those who frequent Unknown Space write in Chinese, while a small group, like Mr. Zhou, write in Chinglish, a combination of English and Chinese.

Initially, the bulk of users were students.

But in a development that has surprised even the founders of Unknown Space, many students have remained loyal after graduating and setting down roots in the U.S.

Now, only 30% of the users use campus e-mail accounts that end with ".edu."

Unknown Space was founded by Liu Jia in 1998, one year after he came from China to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to study cognitive neuroscience (hence the university's name in the Web site's address).

Initially, Mr. Liu thought only about providing a forum for Chinese students to discuss politics publicly and freely - a luxury in China.

He didn't expect that after two to three years, his fellow Web users would start showing more interest in discussing their family and career problems than China's political situation.

Although Mr. Liu wanted to quit the site, "it had become public property among Chinese students and professionals, and I felt that I had the responsibility to keep it running."

Unknown Space had become such an important part of its users' lives that when its hard drive crashed in 2001, they donated more than $10,000 to buy a new one.

To keep it going, its founders last year agreed to run online advertisements, mostly for dating and recruiting services.

While some visitors complained, most don't mind.

"If it will help keeping it up and running, they can stick ads to the end of every post for all I care," says Xue Jing, a software engineer at Freddie Mac and a frequent bulletin-board user.

The advertising became an instant success.

Phone-card companies and travel agencies targeting the Chinese community had long coveted the site's large and loyal user base.

Most Web pages are still maintained by volunteers and the five people involved in running it in Cambridge, Massachusetts, work free.

Mr. Liu, the founder, ended his association with Unknown Space before returning to Beijing in November 2003 to work for the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

The company has tried to keep its costs very low, outsourcing programming and customer-service jobs to Beijing and hiring about a dozen people in China with the ad revenue.

The owners refuse to disclose last year's earnings, but say more than 20,000 people have registered for their online-dating service for $14.95 a month.

"The Web site has a very strong mass base because it provides information on many how-to questions Chinese immigrants are eager to learn," says Eric Li, owner of a phone-card Web site called eCallChina.com and one of the site's first advertisers.

Alan Zhou knows exactly what his life would be like without the online bulletin board.

After coming to Iowa State University in 1998 to pursue a Ph.D. in engineering mechanics, Mr. Zhou has spent on average four hours a day on Unknown Space in the past six years.

As of September 25, he has visited the Web site 14,053 times and posted 15,245 articles, which, he says, will put him only in the rank of midlevel fans.

"This Web site is a real community for Chinese" in the U.S., Mr. Zhou said.

"You can actually make friends there." Mr. Zhou and his wife went to Atlanta over Memorial Day weekend to share cooking experiences at the invitation of fellow gourmets who frequented the food forum he used to host.

Mr. Liu, the founder, tries to understand why his fellow Web users are so hungry to communicate with other users about their daily lives.

Most users agree that what makes Unknown Space attractive isn't the opportunity to communicate in Chinese, but the cultural intimacy it provides.

One of the most popular and recurrent topics is how to handle relationships with parents and in-laws.

"I don't think Americans can understand why we have to invite our parents and in-laws to the States while complaining [about] the troubles and inconvenience all the time," said Alan Zhou.

"It's just cultural difference."

October 27, 2004 at 11:01 AM | Permalink


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