Reflecting on 21CB and the “Asian Blog” Identity
I owe readers an apology: I haven’t updated with the regularity, ambition, and focus that I first promised when I resurrected the site earlier this year. With so many of our contributors having entered busier periods in their lives, the site’s daily operation has fallen to me — which, to say the least, has been difficult to balance with a full-time job and various other commitments.
That said, we have achieved much that I’m proud of.
In the past few months, 21CB has…
- Entered talks with a company about a potential partnership.
- Attended the first ever Hong Kong blogger event organized by CNNGo.
- Been linked to on TIME’s Global Spin blog (Stephen’s post on the London riots, to be specific).
So there is a lot of potential stewing beneath the surface, this much I’ve been excited about. I’ve always been open about the fact that 21CB is an experiment in blogging, new media journalism, and cultural exchange: clearly, some things have worked. At the same time, this period has also led me to identify several problems with the blog. I want to be transparent about my editorial process and hope to solicit your feedback and advice.
So, what’s the problem?
We are having trouble sustaining regular blog output.
As I’ve already hinted at this, but demanding serious investment in a project that has little return is extremely difficult. In addition, I sought to make 21st Century Boy a team effort at a particularly inconvenient moment of transition, when many contributors were on the cusp of graduating university, entering university, or changing jobs. It doesn’t help that I’d initially branded my blog on the basis of my personal voice and interests. My teammates will probably speak out about this, but I suspect it’s hard to feel like you truly feel responsible for an initiative that so clearly began as someone else’s vision (never mind the exclusionary nature of the blog title, 21st Century Boy).
As for me, I prefer the team model: it offers dissension and a community of voices, the reason that I established a blog in the first place. But delivering on that model has been a slow and sputtering process. The Internet might ostensibly make working together seem easy, but the truth is that distance and other obligations hinder us from putting in the time and effort to produce high-quality content. It’s a sad reality I will be trying to address as I continue developing this site.
Our coverage is all over the place, in part because Asia is all over the place.
We might have wanted too big a piece of the pie. I sought to cover the hyperlocal and the macroscopic, to report from the field and curate from the web, and to explore a vast range of subjects. That’s an admirable cover-all-the-bases mission that’s more well-suited for a digital publisher that has successfully monetized their site and can pay — for exposure, for resources, for sheer full-time labor.
My inability to decide on a more specific direction has been problematic. Asian pop culture is a vast ocean. While usually timely, our updates do not match the regular updates of a news blog to merit visits on that front. What’s more, the content has no common thread. Simply compare William’s three-part series on environmental awareness to our popular post about a Left 4 Dead 2 mod that lets you play as anime characters. Because I can’t decide on a more specific niche of content, I can’t decide on an audience.
I’d originally thought randomness would be an effective strategy, in the vein of sites like Boing Boing or Brain Pickings: hubs of scattered, but often indirectly connected cultural discussions that are deeply interesting to read and share. In truth, I’ve found that this chaotic approach works only in seriously controlled circumstances, when the content falls into a general niche with strong fannish, Internet-savvy ties. And while this may be true for some of our content (our stories on netizen reactions, for example), it’s not regular enough to take hold with a loyal audience. Additionally, a successful “randomness site” has diverse and numerous updates. 21CB might just be covering a niche unsuitable for the formula.
The root of the problem, I think, lies somewhere in assuming “Asian pop culture” is a specific niche. There’s little sense of an English-language, pan-Asian Internet community (not counting the extremely successful Asian-American sites, which have a unique prerogative). A global phenomenon like K-pop doesn’t so much signify pan-Asianness so much as cross-cultural import. The challenge of bridging such varied regions and their diverse interests becomes readily apparent. Dae Ryun Chang, a professor at Yonsei School of Business, poses the problem this way:
The operational problem of adopting a “Pan-Asian” mindset is that it leads to what I called in an earlier post a “template mentality” within Asia. But, as many readers commented, we need to be circumspect about using the “what works in Japan will also work in Korea” modus operandi when critical cross-national differences exist. Moreover, in some individual Asian countries, internal diversity is still inherently high — India, China, and Indonesia are like continents in terms of how many different ethnic groups, languages, and regional preferences each possesses.
That said, we’ve already begun to limit our focus: because of my own geographic and emotional proximity to China and Hong Kong, my output has naturally drifted toward that specific region. I’ve been particularly proud of my translation work on Chinese commentary (example here), though these stories take time and have often already been reported on. Our call a few months ago for translators went unheeded, and understandably so — good translation is a tough job that deserves good pay. It’s one of the reasons I’ve taken up Chinese language courses again (that and ethnic guilt), in the hope that I can produce such posts with greater speed and uncover new topics before others get there first.
Still, I keep coming back to my discovery of these sub-regional and sub-cultural divides. Surely there must be a way to facilitate conversation across them? I’d like to replicate the same strategy for other East Asian countries: for any Japanese, Korean, Thai, Malaysian, Indonesian, or Filipino writers out there willing to volunteer, please shoot me an e-mail!
On the next page, I discuss audience engagement and how successful Hong Kong bloggers have managed to solve the problem. >>>
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TAGS: 21CB • 21st Century Boy • Asian Identity • Blogging
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