- Language Tips
A rare roundtable or meeting of minds took place last week among the "foreign" editors at China Daily to discuss whether or not netizen was a word that should be banned forthwith, or else come to terms with.
Like a flock of vultures pecking at linguistic meat to expose the bare bones of the argument, we wondered why, if netizens are people, we don't refer to them as such? Or, do we live in changed times and netizens represent public opinion, like focus groups or polls?
The proposal was initially tabled by "LH", from China Daily's website, who has been a King Canute type of figure (to my mind) resisting the tide of public opinion and a flood of journalistic copy that gleefully quotes netizens at every opportunity.
For instance, a page one story in our paper last week began like this: "The online clout of netizens has become a vital weapon in fighting abuses of power and ensuring greater transparency, government insiders and experts said."
"This is a classic example where it is not necessary to use it," responded LH, suggesting the alternative. "The online clout of PEOPLE has become a vital weapon in fighting abuses of power and ensuring greater transparency "
Marshaling his forces, LH offered Time Magazine's 2012 list of words to ban, to get the discussion rolling: "This is a term for a citizen of the Web, or less grandly, anyone who spends a lot of time on their computer, probably more than they spend looking at other humans in the flesh. The word has been around for almost three decades Perhaps it's time to give it a rest, a little time to get out and make some word-friends."
Like literati discussions of old, the opposing school of thought immediately went on the offense, in a chain of 60-something e-mails. And since not everyone wanted to be publicly identified (not unlike netizens) I will use initials.
"EB" suggested netizen wasn't really a Western word any more, though it has been around in tech circles since the early 1990s and was first used in 1994 by the News &Observer in Raleigh, North Carolina. EB quoted London's Telegraph, which calls it a "Chinese neologism" - a word that has been given new or fresh usage by the country's media.
In Chinese, netizen is a translation of the characters for wangmin (net citizen) or wangyou (net friend). Here, netizens are often quoted quite freely, as though they were members of an alternative media universe, often regarded as a "fifth estate", balancing the opinion of the government, courts, mainstream media and (elsewhere) religion.
"I think it's fitting that we make another attempt to translate Chinese concepts into English. That is, after all, part of our mission as an English-language Chinese newspaper," responded "JW".
"TC" added: "Words enter the English language because they are used. Netizen is used, and useful, and no one poo-pooing it has so far come up with a pithier phrase."
Though netizens are not identified as real people and may in fact be paid commentators, agitators or even robots, it "seems to me that calling Web users who write anonymously or under pseudonyms is enough to convey an adequate notion of what they are in fact doing", "AS" added.
On a lighter note, but one that nevertheless cuts to the heart of the problem, TC wrote that he was working on a story about rowdy airplane passengers: "Can I call them 'jetizens'?"
"Speaking as a webizen I can't wait for full TV/Net convergence so I can be a tellywebizen netizen," responded "MH". "And surely netizen should be Internetizen on first reference? Or is that too zen?"
Point being, -zen can be added to just about anything to make it an Internet thing, but is this really necessary, because after all, it's people driving the Web?
Which is you.
At the end of the day, it's you who will determine whether we continue to freely use the term. So, please feel free to make your voice heard, as a person or a netizen, by adding to the discussion.
So far, on the China Daily Web forum, 56 percent have found the word netizen confusing or annoying, while it's OK for the rest.
Contact the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org.